It’s impossible to please everyone when writing about talk radio king Rush Limbaugh—the media establishment will respect nothing less than a full-blown hit job on the man who’s been a thorn in their side for two decades, while trashing El Rushbo is sure to make enemies out of millions of Dittoheads. Fortunately, Zev Chafets’s new Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One appears afraid of neither reaction, content to offer a comprehensive portrait of conservatism’s most enduring spokesman and let the chips fall where they may.
From his humble beginnings in Missouri to his Palm Beach ocean-front estate, Limbaugh’s personal story is all here, introducing readers to the son and grandson of accomplished, demanding patriots who stood in stark contrast to young Rusty’s impatience with school and initially frowned upon his love for AM radio. Many of the details will surprise fans and detractors alike—who would have guessed that a man who makes his living opining about politics didn’t register to vote until age 35?—but the broad strokes are about what you’d expect: Rush’s views are very much the product of an upbringing by self-reliant men well-versed in American history and active in Republican politics (few will be shocked to learn what his father thought of Dan Rather).
Limbaugh’s most infamous political battles are represented, too, including his relentless attacks on the Clinton and Obama presidencies, and the spurious race-baiting charges that arose through his dealings with the NFL. Chafets writes that Limbaugh is “not an original thinker,” though this isn’t meant as a dig—Rush doesn’t presume to reinvent fire; just to bring its light to those still in the dark:
He belongs to a profession that toils somewhere between Plato’s cave and Santa’s workshop, hammering perceived Truths into interesting new shapes, wrapping them in shiny paper, and delivering them to the public. He calls himself an “instrument of mass instruction,” holder of the “prestigious Attila the Hun Chair” at the (entirely fictitious) Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies.
It’s tongue-in-cheek hyperbole like this which, along with his disdain for political centrism and willingness to go for the jugular, fuels the meme that Rush Limbaugh is little more than an entertainer, or worse, a demagogue raking in the dough as the nation burns. Chafets doesn’t deny that Rush is out to entertain and make a buck, but maintains that the top talker’s full motives are better than that—ideas can’t change minds if they’re never noticed, after all, and besides, Chafets reveals that Limbaugh’s policy-wonk chops are too strong to dismiss him as a simple showman:
Once I spent a bemused half hour in his studio as he debated the nuances of ethanol subsidies and their effects on the agricultural economy with an expert from Iowa. Not even National Public Radio subjects its audience to this kind of wonkery. No other commercial talk-show host would even attempt it.
There’s a good-faith political judgment behind Limbaugh’s war on moderates, as well:
“Why be Democrat lite? Let them handle that. Let’s go after the big tent that is the country, and let’s go get every person in this country—I don’t care what their race is, what their gender is, what their sexual orientation is. If they are told that there is somebody…who is actually going to strengthen them, give them the tools, get out of their way and let them make this country work, the Republican Party can attract a majority like they haven’t had since the 1980s.”
If An Army of One sounds like an admiring appraisal from a sympathetic pundit, that’s because it is. But despite what some reviewers claim, it’s no whitewash. Chafets shows us Limbaugh at his worst, including his failed marriages and painkiller abuse. The Rush Limbaugh you’ll meet here is hardly a saint—he craves stardom, holds grudges, and could never be accused of humility. Some of Rush’s edgiest humor strikes Chafets as “cringe inducing,” and while the talker is no hatemonger, neither is he “quite as innocent as he sounds” in provoking his foes’ outrage.
My complaints with the book are minor—I expected Limbaugh’s feud with John McCain and the Fairness Doctrine to receive a bit more attention, it’s debatable just how consistent his opposition to “RINOs” is, and I think Chafets overstates Limbaugh’s deviation from the “Religious Right.”
Its real crime in the eyes of most critics will be its refusal to concede that Limbaugh is evil, unserious, or irrelevant. Ultimately, Rush comes across here as a man driven by firm ideas, a deep love of country, and genuine concern for his fellow man; while his satirical sensibilities and rhetorical prowess make his impact and staying power undeniable. The McCain nomination, Chafets admits, proved the limits of Limbaugh’s reach, but as Michael Steele learned, Republicans dismiss the EIB Network at their own peril. None of this will satisfy the Left, of course, to whom the only good Rush book reaffirms their own prejudices, but maybe some of the Limbaugh Effect’s naysayers on the Right will finally come to recognize his value to the conservative movement.
There’s nothing earth-shattering in Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, nothing that will either destroy Limbaugh’s career or elevate him to new heights. Dittoheads will enjoy it, and leftists will scoff at it (though simply debunking common Rush urban legends may be enough to win a few converts among the misinformed). It won’t radically transform your worldview, but it effectively tells the fascinating story of an impressive man—and along the way, it will force some to reconsider what they thought they knew about the Left and winning elections. For that, it earns my wholehearted recommendation.