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Rush's Judgment

Media phenomenon Rush Limbaugh is winning bigger and bigger audiences with his no-holds-barred brand of commentary.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

For Rush Limbaugh, a militant feminist is a "feminazi," but a good cigar is a smoke.

"I think cigars are just a tremendous addition to the enjoyment of life,'' the wildly popular, conservative, radio-and-television talk-show host says between contented puffs on the Ramon Allones Gigante Double Corona he has recently removed from the humidor in his television-studio office on West 57th Street in Manhattan.

It is 7:15 p.m., early evening of a typical, overwhelmingly busy day for the founder of "the most-talked-about radio show in the world,'' the self-described "poster boy for the American way of life,'' "America's vital interest,'' the "lover of mankind, protector of motherhood, supporter of fatherhood (in most cases) and general all-around good guy'' who daily declares that he is "serving humanity with talent--oh so much talent, more than I'll ever need--on loan from God.''

Limbaugh has been described by liberals as "the most dangerous man in America''; he calls himself a harmless, lovable little fuzzball. The truth, of course, is that he is neither; he is an immensely talented entertainer with a definite and often highly controversial point of view, one which he is a master at expressing. So much so that he has become a kind of conservative media Superman, fighting for truth, justice and what he sees as the American way. Even if you hate what he says, you have to admire the ability--and the sincerity--with which he says it.

The day had begun about 12 hours earlier as Limbaugh lifted his 43-year-old, 270-pound body (one caller to his show, jokingly trying to be politically correct, will refer to him that day as "horizontally gifted'') out of the bed in his modest, two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The apartment is not in keeping with the image of someone whose 1993 income has been estimated at between $15 million and $20 million, but the chauffeured Lincoln Town Car he will take to work is.

Work is first his radio show, noon to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday, presented live at what he calls "the patriotic center of the universe,'' a studio at WABC-AM, several floors above Madison Square Garden, "where the views expressed by the host are sweeping the nation.'' And indeed they are. The figures for the program are nothing short of incredible. When Limbaugh began his nationally syndicated show in 1988, only 56 stations subscribed to his Excellence in Broadcasting Network, and he had a mere 250,000 listeners; now there are 636 stations in the United States alone, plus the recently added Armed Forces Radio Network. More than 21 million people a week listen to Limbaugh, up to 5 million of them at any one time.

After radio comes television, a nationally syndicated half-hour show that grows each month. At the end of the television program, he autographs for his studio audience copies of his two books, The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So, both No. 1 best sellers. Counting hardcover, paperback and audiotape, there are more than 7.5 million copies of the books in print. And then there is the "Limbaugh Letter," perhaps the most widely read political newsletter in the United States, with more than 430,000 subscribers.

So it is not surprising that near the end of the day, he welcomes the opportunity to relax and to do so with a recently discovered interest--a cigar. "I've only been smoking them for about a year,'' Limbaugh says. "But I've gotten into them like I haven't gotten into anything in a long time.''

It all began, he says, at a dinner in Ozone Park, Queens, in New York, with a friend and the friend's family. "He had his three sons with him,'' Limbaugh says, "and after dinner he passed around some cigars. They smelled just superb. He offered me one, and at first I rejected it. But I finally relented and took it, because it was a celebratory evening. They were pre-Castro Montecristos. And they were absolutely stupendous.''

He was intrigued. The next thing he did--and he insists he is not saying this because of this interview--was to buy a copy of Cigar Aficionado. "I got all the back issues--I think there were two at that point--and I began to go to cigar stores and look at the different brands and cross-check what the stores had with what the ratings had been. I tried different brands. And I guess, like a lot of people, I settled on Macanudos for a while. And then I really got into Ashtons. I thought they were very good. And occasionally I would try a Fonseca. Always a standard shape. I didn't much get into the robustos or the torpedos or the pyramids.''

But lurking in the back of his mind was Cuba. "I have always been interested in getting the best that I could afford, whatever it is. So I was just dying to taste some of these Cubans. I was reading all about the Cohibas and the Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas. And then I went to London last September with the same friend who had the pre-Castro Montecristos.''

Limbaugh stayed at the Connaught Hotel, "and I got up on a Friday morning and walked across the street to Desmond Sautter's. And I was in heaven.'' The store didn't have any Hoyos, he says, "but they had some Punch Double Coronas and Partagas Lusitanias and Montecristo No. 2's. And I tried them. And I don't care what anybody says. I know it's a matter of taste, but as far as I'm concerned, this is something that not even the Communists have been able to screw up. It's the best tobacco in the world. There's no comparison. This is not to put anybody else's down. I've looked into it. I've studied it. It's like Bordeaux grapes. You can try growing them in California, but they're not the same. They've taken Cuban seed to Jamaica and Honduras, but it just isn't the same.''

Limbaugh loves sitting back and relaxing with a cigar. "Of course you have to save the Cuban cigars for special occasions. I like keeping things special in my life. So I do smoke some Honduran Punches now and then. And I still have a box of Ashtons and Partagas No. 10's. But this is a special occasion. Being interviewed by Cigar Aficionado is a special occasion. And this Ramon Allones Gigante is a hit. This is like five Cohiba Robustos rolled into one.''

Limbaugh's face is wide and open, with penetrating and superbly intelligent eyes that contain more than a glint of humor. Yes, he is serious, but he is also having fun. Lots of fun. The aroma of Cuban cigars, he says, even pleases women, many of whom have been known to object to the odor of other cigars (just as many have been known to object to his penchant for referring to them as girls and to his less-than-favorable reviews of what he considers the "radical'' feminist agenda). "Often you just bring out a cigar, and it's an immediate hysterical reaction, even before you light up. But when I light up a Romeo y Julieta Churchill, it seems to be the cigar that women like. They don't object to it at all.''

As he has gone all out on cigars, so has he on their essential companion, humidors. "I've got 12 humidors at home in various sizes,'' he says. "There's one here and one in the radio office. I have some Zinos and some Davidoffs and a couple of French ones I bought at Desmond Sautter's and at Arnold's Tobacco Shop in Manhattan. They're big and beautiful. Each holds 200 cigars. When I finally indulge myself in a new place to live I'm going to build a walk-in humidor and keep the cigars in the boxes they come in.''

What is it he likes so much about cigars? "First of all,'' he says, "it's the flavor. The next thing is that they are a reward. I look at them as an indulgence that is special. I like the feel of them in my hand. I'm very expressive with my hands, and when I speak I enjoy having one in my hand. I love the smell of them. In fact, one of the disappointing things about smoking cigars is that when you smoke one, you can't smell it the way it smells when someone else is smoking one. Sometimes I'll just usher people into my office and say, 'Light this,' and ask them to sit there and smoke just so I can smell it. Cigars relax me. They help me to think. I only recently began smoking them while doing the radio show, and just having one in my hand seems to lower whatever inhibitions I have just a bit and bring out the expressiveness of my personality.''

* * *

It is six minutes after noon, and the expressiveness of that personality, presented via his "daily excursion into broadcast excellence'' along "the turnpike of truth,'' has just begun to be conveyed to his eager audience of millions. There are even restaurants all across the "Fruited Plain," as Limbaugh calls the United States, that have set up Rush Rooms where patrons can arrive at noon, order lunch and (as Limbaugh calls them) adult beverages, and sit and listen.

He has entered the studio in a neat, white, pinstriped shirt, dark pants and wide, floral, gray-and-black tie. He sits in his "prestigious Attila the Hun Chair,'' established by the "Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies.'' Behind him is a neon sign with a red EIB for "Excellence in Broadcasting'' and a blue "Rush Limbaugh.'' His familiar theme music, a repeated bass phrase from the Pretenders' rock song "My City Was Gone,'' has opened the show. From the beginning, his conservative views, expressed in words both serious and satiric, take no hostages. It is, in fact, he declares, a case of America held hostage: Day 351--the days of the Raw Deal, otherwise known as the Clinton administration--with 1,109 days left. A mock commercial will discuss bungee condoms, poking fun at school programs that provide free latex condoms to students, an idea with which Limbaugh has long been less than enamored. Another will feature Bill Clinton starring in the "movie" Taxula: "He sleeps in the daytime and has been known to prowl at night.'' The parodic announcements are, as Limbaugh has often said, his way of "demonstrating absurdity by being absurd.''

Limbaugh will discuss the Clinton health plan (he's against it); harvesting eggs from aborted fetuses for implanting in infertile women (a pro-lifer, he's vehemently against that, too); women having children after menopause (against); cutting taxes to provide opportunities for the success of big businesses and individual entrepreneurs who provide jobs to others in the essential capitalistic expedition that is the American way of life (he's emphatically for all that), and abstinence and responsibility in all matters involving sexual activity (he's for that, too). On this day, he will not take on some of his other bêtes noires: animal rights, multiculturalism, the "media elite,'' "socialist utopians'' and "liberal compassion fascists.''

He will hold court for three hours, just Limbaugh, no guests, only telephone callers. He is the essence of politeness; no caller is ever hung up on, and if the caller clearly expresses disagreement he or she is moved to the front of the long waiting line of listeners to whom Limbaugh will talk on the air. But other than that, what the show is about is Rush Limbaugh: his ideas, his opinions, his view of the news, of the liberal-oriented media. At 1:10 p.m., not quite halfway through his impressively virtuosic, instinctive, seat-of-the-pants performance, he will light up a Partagas Lusitania Double Corona. The cigar in his hand seems as natural as his work, as if it simply belongs there, just as he simply belongs on the air.

"I don't know until that day what I'm going to talk about,'' he will say six hours later. "It's all spontaneous. It's not structured. The show is event driven, not topic driven. I don't decide tonight that I'm going to talk about abortion on Friday. I don't know what Friday's going to bring until the news is made during the day Thursday, Thursday night and Friday morning.''

It is a spontaneity that has been developed over years in radio, many of them, especially in the early part of his career, unsuccessful. (He was, in fact, among the frequently fired.) In the last few years, the Rush Limbaugh story has been much written about in the media: how he was born Rush Hudson Limbaugh III in January 1951 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri to a family whose men had for generations been lawyers. How, at age 16, he worked on air for a radio station in his hometown. How as a college dropout (from Southeast Missouri State University) he became a disk jockey in McKeesport, Pennsylvania, working under the name of Jeff Christie because it was simpler to remember than Rush Limbaugh. How he deejayed in Pittsburgh and Kansas City, left the air to work as director of group sales and special events for the Kansas City Royals baseball team and returned to radio in 1983 as a political commentator for KMBZ in Kansas City. How he moved the following year to KFBK in Sacramento, California, and in the next four years nearly tripled his ratings. How, in 1988, Ed McLaughlin, the former head of the ABC Radio Network, came to him with the idea of going national. And how he has achieved unbelievable success, a success that led to his receiving the 1993 Radio Hall of Fame award as top contemporary network/syndicated radio personality in America.

"What I have done is successfully identified a [niche] and then filled it,'' Limbaugh says in the television-studio office. "I am first of all in the media. But specifically I'm in radio and television, and both of those are show biz. So if you're going to succeed there you have to be able to entertain. In those fields, there's a lot of competition. I call competition 'noise,' and there's a lot of noise out there. You have to cut through that noise. Anybody can go on radio and television and be conservative. Anybody can go on radio and television and be liberal. Most are liberal. You have to have something other than that to attract people. You have to have something that's charismatic. You have to have something that's almost magnetic. You have to have a quality that addicts people. And that could be anything from confidence to voice timbre and quality to demeanor and attitude. Who knows?''

What he does, he says, is "combine two very different forms in my presentation that nobody else does: an irreverent sense of humor--not just laughs, but irreverence--and serious discussion of issues.'' The irreverence, he says, extends to the self-aggrandizement that is a constant feature of the programs. "I love to tweak liberals,'' he says. "My sense of humor is to be braggadocious, to talk about how good I am, how important I am. Because I know it rubs liberals the wrong way. And it is also one of the ways to cut through the noise.''

But, he says, he is not fully comfortable working in an entertainment medium. "I take what I do very seriously,'' he says. "I take myself and my devotion to it very seriously. I think that, in the sense that 50 people depend on me, that what I'm doing is supporting 50 other people with jobs, I have to consider what I do to be important. But in terms of am I crucial to the survivability of the republic?--that's not me. Most journalists in their hearts think that they are the sole guarantors of the First Amendment, that without them the nation would crumble. I don't have that attitude. But I am very insistent that I be understood precisely when I am making serious points.''

He acknowledges that he influences many people. "That is one of the primary reasons that I am obsessed about being responsible about the earth-shattering, serious things I believe in,'' he says. "I will never say something I don't believe to shock or outrage people. I will be satirical or do parody, but the point is always in mind. I do not moisten my finger and stick it in the wind and say, 'What do people want to hear me say today?'-- and then say it. My program is totally about what I think. It's not about learning what other people think. It's not about saying what other people might want to hear.''

Nonetheless, it is clear from the response he has received that many people want to hear what he is saying. "It's one of the main reasons I've been successful,'' he says. "People say to me it's so good to finally have someone saying what they believe. Rather than being an agent of influence, I think I am someone who validates what millions of Americans think and just don't hear expressed in the media. In fact, they are treated to television shows and movies that make fun of what they believe.''

One television show that does not do that is his own. And a look at the audience that attends the daily, late-afternoon taping makes it apparent that there are legions of loyal followers. Most talk-show audiences look as if they have been dragged in off the street; not Rush Limbaugh's. The men arrive in ties and jackets, the women in dresses or suits. They have been encouraged to conform to a dress code, and they will be greeted by one of Limbaugh's assistants as "the best-dressed audience in television.'' They are a reflection of middle America, of honest, homespun family values; five of them are wearing wine-colored baseball caps that declare Rush '96.

Most of the audience arrives bearing copies of his books because they have been informed that at the end of the show he will autograph them. Some have brought cameras, and the aide tells them that when Limbaugh comes out to meet them, a few minutes before the taping is to begin, they will be permitted to take photos. He is not in the least camera-shy, the aide says, and if he spots them ready to click the shutter, he will often freeze in place and smile: "If there is a camera out there, he will find it.''

Limbaugh enters to a standing ovation. As on the radio, he is the essence of courtesy, grace and charm. He is also the epitome of professionalism. As the audience sits, he glances at a woman in the second row on the aisle and notices a glistening in the corner of her eyes.

"Are you crying?'' he asks.

Yes, the woman responds, she is. "I am so happy to get to see you,'' she says. "I've come from Augusta, Georgia, with my husband. This is my fortieth birthday, and I chose to come to see you.''

Unhesitatingly, Limbaugh seizes the moment. He invites the woman onto the set; she gives him a hug and a kiss as her husband takes their picture. "Why is it whenever I meet a beautiful woman, she's always with her husband?'' Limbaugh jokes. "Just another exciting example of what it's like to be me.'' He invites the couple to stay on the set and watch the show from two plush chairs on the side. And when the taping begins, he will introduce them, tell the viewers at home what has happened and give the couple a moment they will always remember.

The long, rewarding day is ending. Limbaugh is smoking his glorious Ramon Allones and talking about what else it is he likes to do in those infrequent moments when he can relax. One is to drink wine. "Port is my favorite to drink with a cigar,'' he says and laughs. "Port and Diet Coke. But I'm less educated about wine. I've only recently been treated to what people consider the fine wines. I've always been a huge fan of Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon, and the years that I like best are 1985, '86 and '87. I generally like any Cabernet from Napa or Sonoma. I haven't found too many that I don't like.

And from France, there's the 1961 Château Haut-Brion. And the 1982. I have learned that any time you find a bottle of Bordeaux from 1961, no matter what the label says, buy it.''

He has lived in New York for more than five years, and he loves it for its culture and restaurants. He has many favorite dining places, "depending on the mood I'm in and what I want to accomplish. If I want to be 100 percent relaxed, with a loose tie or no tie, or take the jacket off, I go to Patsy's Italian Restaurant on West 56th Street. The people there have become like family. If I'm attempting romance, there's Cafe Des Artistes or sometimes the Sign of the Dove. For a business dinner combined with pleasure, there's '21.' When I want a steak or a huge slab of prime rib, which is frequently, I go to Ben Benson's Steak House on West 52nd. I like Le Cirque. I enjoy it very much. And Bravo Gianni on East 63rd is an Italian restaurant that allows cigar smoking.''

Outside of New York, he says, "I love Brennan's in New Orleans. I've got a familial relationship with the Brennans. I went there over the Labor Day weekend, and, after breakfast we had three different Cognacs and a couple of bottles of Port and some Montecristos, those big nine-inch jobs. We sat there for a couple of hours tasting all these things.''

He pauses. "Tastefully, of course,'' he says and laughs. "With good moderation.'' (Though it is doubtful that Limbaugh does anything with moderation.)

In Kansas City, he loves the renowned Stroud's. "It's not fancy. Pan-fried chicken, gravy and mashed potatoes. It's a small place. There's a two-hour wait and no reservations. But it's unique. Whenever I'm in Kansas City, I cannot leave town without going there.''

When he leaves town--New York town--to get away from it all and rest, he often prefers "the tropical climes. I love Hawaii, Waikiki and Maui. I don't have to get totally deserted and away from things. And then I love to go to London for three or four days and stay at the Connaught. I like three- to five-day jaunts and getaways. I love San Francisco. I think it's the most beautiful city in the world. People are surprised when I say that because I'm such a conservative, and San Francisco is such a liberal mecca. But I love it. And I'm going to Paris for my birthday, for three days. I've never been to Paris, but I'm staying at the Bristol Hotel, and I just know I'm going to enjoy it.''

Over Christmas, he spent eight days on a yacht with his "lady" (he is twice divorced, no children) and several other friends traveling around the Caribbean. On New Year's Eve in St. Maarten, he found, with a little help from his friends, a cigar shop. "There were two boxes of Hoyo Double Coronas,'' he says. "And you can't get those. They are nonexistent. So I bought a box and took them back to the yacht. I knew I couldn't bring them back into the States. There were 25 in the box and eight of us on the yacht, so we spread them around and went through them on the last couple of days.''

Limbaugh smiles and takes a final puff from his Ramon Allones. "Getting a box of Havanas,'' he says, "is like Christmas when I was a kid. And I love nothing better than giving them away to friends who know how to appreciate them.''

To some, it might seem as if this mighty conservative force is talking a bit like a hated liberal taking pride in a welfare scheme: giving away something for nothing to the less fortunate. But on reflection, it is apparent that what he is espousing is merely an example of established conservative theory: trickle-down economics, whereby the increased largess of the rich eventually benefits the less-privileged classes.

So Limbaugh triumphs again. On the air, as another way of tweaking the Left, he often declares that his views have been documented to be correct 97.9 percent of the time. And as he puts down his Havana, rises to leave the studio and enters his limousine for a journey to whatever is next on his agenda, it is clear that even though everything Rush Limbaugh says may not be right, it is most definitely Right.

 

Mervyn Rothstein is a reporter for The New York Times.

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