Zev Chafets is the author of Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One. Chafets wrote the book with Limbaugh’s cooperation and it gave him a fascinating window into Limbaugh’s world. So, as someone who has been a Rush fan since college, I was really looking forward to talking to Chafets.
What follows is a slightly edited version of our conversation:
A lot of people tend to assume that successful people like Rush have had everything handed to them on a silver platter. One of the reasons I’ve always found Rush to be inspirational is because he had a long hard road to success. Could you give people a brief rundown of Rush’s career before he really took off and became a big star?
Sure. Rush comes from Cape Girardeau, Missouri which is a small town in southeastern Missouri. He comes from a very good family. His grandfather was a famous lawyer in that part of the country.
He has an uncle and a cousin who were federal judges and his dad was a prominent lawyer – and of course his brother David is also a lawyer. And everybody expected that Rush would, you know, go into the family business or at the very least be a professional man.
And from a young age, from the age of 16 or so all he wanted to do was be a broadcaster. He was a DJ in the local radio station. He went to college for a year under duress.
Much to his father’s dismay he took off and went to Pittsburgh and became a top 40 DJ with a professional name, which was Jeff Christie. He was an iterant DJ for many years. He was in Kansas. He was in Pittsburgh twice.
He was in Kansas City for a while. He also took a break and was in the marketing department of the Kansas City Royals baseball team. But basically he floundered and it wasn’t until he got to Sacramento in the mid 80′s and started doing Rush Limbaugh as we know him today, with political satire and commentary, that he actually started to become successful.
So he was pretty close to 40 before he found himself and started succeeding. You know, one of the big psychodramas in his life is his father’s disapproval. It took his father a long, long time to grasp the fact that Rush could become successful on his own terms, not on his father’s terms. I think that was pretty gratifying to Rush in his father’s final days.
Now, in the book you say you think Rush has a blind spot on race relations in America. Why do you think that’s the case?
Rush and I are about the same age and we grew up, both of us in small Midwestern towns. I think we were raised pretty much the same way by parents who were for that time and place racially liberal. This means that we were taught to see people as all the same, to look past race, not to consider race, to not want people to be hyphenated in any way — just to be Americans. That was the ideal. That was sort of the Martin Luther King ideal circa this speech in Washington.
Of course, that has radically altered and changed in politics over the last many years. But in the years that it was altering and changing, Rush spent most of his time, you know, as a top 40 DJ and he was not engaged in political issues in the 60′s and the 70′s and even into the 80′s. I don’t think his views really ever caught up to the changes, not changes that I especially endorse or don’t endorse, but changes that unquestionably took place in the American political discourse on the subject of race. So, I said to him that he sometimes isn’t aware of some of the implications and ramifications of the things that he says about race on the air.
Could you give me like one example maybe?
Yes. We were talking about the fact that there are many African Americans who are sensitive to the idea that many of the Founding Fathers were slave holders. Of course, Rush venerates the Founding Fathers and I think rightly so.
He said to me, “but that’s all changed. It was amended in the Constitution,” which is true. But I said, “Still you could imagine how a young African American kid going to a high school named for a slaveholder, like Jefferson High School, could you know he’d be upset by that?” Rush was very surprised by that remark.
The next day, I was in James Golden’s office – James is known as (Bo Snerdley) on the show. He’s an African American around my age and Rush’s, very conservative, and has been with Rush for 20 years off and on. Rush knows him extremely well and he walked in and he said, “James, would it ever bother you to go to a high school named for Thomas Jefferson?” James looked at him and he said, “Well, I don’t know if it would bother me, but I’d certainly think about it.”
Rush was astonished. He looked at him and he said, “But, James, you’re an American patriot.” James said to him, “Yes, that’s true; I am, but I don’t celebrate the Fourth of July.” Rush said, “Well, what do you mean by that?”
He said, “Well, that’s not my Independence Day.” Now this is what I meant when I said Rush had a blind spot.
Even someone he knows as well as James, and even African Americans who are as unalienated patriotic as a guy like James, and there are many people like that, are not in a position to be unaffected by American history. I think sometimes that Rush would like for things to be a certain way on that subject and they aren’t quite that way.
Now here’s something I think a lot of people have probably wondered about someone as popular as Rush: He’s really famous, but sort of in the political sphere; so can he still walk around in public and stand around in an airport without being harassed or swarmed by admirers? Can he go to a restaurant without worrying about someone putting something in his food? How does his level of celebrity impact his day to day life?
I was very interested by that. I first met him down in Palm Beach. I went to his studio and then I went into his house. He and Kathryn, now his wife and his girlfriend in 2008 — we all went out to dinner. I was with him a few other times down there as well. What I noticed is that it’s hard to get to Rush because his life is circumscript. First of all he’s deaf. He has a cochlear implant. So he doesn’t go out a lot because it’s hard for him to hear in crowds.
But, he works in the studio. There are three people in the studio with him. At home, he’s got this gigantic house. He’s got people there. Now of course, Katherine is there. He drives himself back and forth from the studio to the house and I noticed that once I got to meet him, there was nobody around. Celebrities of that magnitude usually have entourages, they have security, they have a spokesman, they have, you know, an assistant to the spokesman, they have all sorts of people. Rush didn’t have anybody.
When we went out to dinner, we got in one of his cars and he drove. We went to a restaurant in a mall in Palm Beach, a restaurant that he goes to from time to time. We sat down in the corner and we ate. A few people came over to the table and they, you know, said nice things to him. A couple of times he looked at me afterwards and said, “I didn’t hear a thing they said.” One or two people came up to him and asked him for an autograph, which he signed. That was it. He’s very matter of fact about it.
You’re not likely to run into him in an airport because he’s got his own plane. You’re not likely to run into him in New York because of a tax. They want to charge him for every day he spends in New York, which is the system here.
He spends a lot of time on golf courses in very exclusive country clubs and his circle of friends tends to be sports people or people in his political orbit. He’s very close to George Brett. He’s very close to Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots or, you know, people in his political orbit. He’s close friends with Clarence Thomas. He’s close friends with Roger Ailes. You’re not apt to find him at the local Wal-Mart, so his exposure to the public is not great. But I would imagine if you took a stroll through, you know, Harvard Yard, he would get quite a lot of negative attention. If he takes a stroll through, you know, through downtown Phoenix, he’d probably get a lot of autograph seekers.
Now if I were asked to pick the five most important people in the conservative movement over the last 50 years, they’d be Barry Goldwater, William S. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh.
Yes, I agree with that.
If Rush were asked that same question what do you think he’d say? And along the same lines who did Rush admire?
Rush see’s himself very much as a Reaganite. He would number two, I’m sure, say William F. Buckley whom he considers to be his second father. He calls him his second father. Rush never actually met Reagan, although Reagan sent him a couple of notes. But, Buckley was Rush’s mentor especially after Rush got to New York and Buckley took him under his wing.
You know Limbaugh had only been in New York one time for three days before he got here and started a show. Of course, Buckley was the king of the city and he really was a role model for Limbaugh, both intellectually and also I think socially. Those are the two.
He rarely talks about Barry Goldwater. Goldwater in a way, was before his time. Rush didn’t really even register to vote until he was 35. So he wasn’t political when Goldwater was and by the time Rush came along, Goldwater was already a lot less of a conservative and much more or a libertarian.
I think that he would say that his main influence, even more than Reagan, even more than Buckley, was his father who was a very outspoken, pugnacious conservative who once according to the family, got into a barroom brawl with some FDR supporters. He was a very patriotic orator and a huge critic of all things liberal. Rush imbibed this world view from his dad. So I would say those are the three. He also told me that Antonin Scalia has been a great influence on him from the judicial side and I don’t know, but I’m going to guess and say that he would probably mention Milton Friedman also.
Rush has been friendly with Gingrich for many years. They were collaborators on the 1994 sweep of the off year election. I’m not so sure that he is always in accord with Gingrich these days. I think he sees Gingrich as off the reservation on a number of issues, including the environment.
Now I read Rush’s first two books and honestly thought The Way Things Ought to Be was one of the best conservative books I’ve ever read. It had a lot of influence on me when I was younger. Why has Rush not written any more books?
I asked him that and he said that there was no interest from publishers, which I found to be amazing because both of those books were gigantic best sellers.
He did say he is going to write another book. He’s calling it The Front Nine, which I think he wants to write about the lessons that he’s learned in his life about friendship and so on. That was what he told me was on his mind. He’s not really a writer. He talks better than he writes.
One of the things that was interesting to me going back and reading those two books that you mentioned that were written in the early 90′s, is how little anything has changed in Rush’s world. He’s still going after the same targets. He still believes the same things. We exchanged about 100 or so e-mails over the course of two years. In one of them, I asked him what important thing have you changed your mind about since you started?
That was my closing question (laughing)…
Well there you go — and his answer was nothing. So he’s been enormously consistent and if he were to write a third version of his famous 35 undeniable truths, it would probably read very much like the last version. I don’t think that he would have much to add or much to take out; so that’s why I think he may have been hesitating a little bit on a book because I don’t know what more he had to add.
I do think now he will add those things which he’s picked up on a personal level both through his drug rehab, his therapy, the experience of falling in love again, getting married again, turning 60, and so on.
Last question for you. Whenever you meet someone there are always things that surprise you about them. If you had to pick one thing that you didn’t expect the most from Rush Limbaugh, what would it be?
I was surprised by how little you have to dig with Rush to get to Cape Girardeau. He’s lived in California. He’s lived in New York. He’s lived in Palm Beach. He’s enormously rich and even more successful than he is rich. He does something that nobody really has ever done. He goes on the radio for three hours all by himself, just talks, and holds 20 million people a week as an audience. You would expect somebody like that to be in some way very unusual in their affect. The truth is that he doesn’t seem very much different than somebody that you would meet from Cape Girardeau.
I’m certainly not saying that he’s your average person. But, I am saying that he communicates in a very direct way. Rush can be pretty literal. Having spent a lot of my time as a journalist, you know, around very successful political people and cultural figures, I was very surprised at how straight forward he is and how direct and how willing he is to answer questions and at the same time he’s very guarded. But…
Those sound like contradictions.
Well, there’s a lot of contradictions in Rush. The whole rock and roll side of Rush does not usually go with conservatism or at least it didn’t until he came along. There’s also a Hugh Hefner quality to Rush’s life style which doesn’t usually go with the conservative movement and the show business aspect which collides with the serious part of his intellect.
In that sense, he is full of contradictions, but then again, a lot of uniquely successful people are full of contradictions. So, that maybe surprised me slightly less. But I was very much taken by how much he remains the son of his father and the son of Cape Girardeau.
I know I said it was the last question but…
Sure, keep asking. It’s OK.
What’s something he’s guarded about?
Well, he’s guarded about his third marriage, for example, which is off limits I think, legally.
Bad marriages are not exactly a shocking topic to be guarded about.
Well, exactly and I’m not a gossip writer. Some of the left wingers were disappointed that I didn’t reveal the darkest secrets of Rush’s personal life and…
If you have a dark secret of his personal life that you’d like to drop right now, it’s OK. I mean we could get the lefties linking in here. Then they’d be happy with you in retrospect.
If I had one. Well, I don’t have one.
I got you.
He’s guarded in terms of it taking a long, long time to trust me. I mean, I wouldn’t say that he totally trusts me now. When I showed up there the first time to interview him for a piece I was doing for the New York Times magazine, he was very skeptical. He finally agreed to see me, which was in itself very rare. He asked if I was there to do a hit job on him and I said, “No. I’m just going to do what I do.” When the article came out, he said it was a good article. He seemed surprised. The bar is low with Rush because if you write anything about him that doesn’t have the words “big fat idiot in it,” it’s like a pro-Limbaugh article. Even so, even after all this time it took him a very long time to accept the fact that I wasn’t out to do something malicious. I think that’s because he’s had a lot of bad experiences with the press over the years.
Once he stopped being guarded, he became very direct and I’ll give you an example. One of his old roommates told me that he was in the house, in the apartment when Rush lost his virginity. So I said to Rush, “Tell me about losing your virginity.” He wrote me back with the answer, which I won’t tell you about. You have to read the book.
Now that is a great way to close out an interview and get people to pick up the book. Zev, I really appreciate your time.
Well, thank you; I appreciate it.
Once again, Zev Chafets book is called, Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One.