Although Rush Limbaugh doesn’t actually work from a bunker, he does have a bunker mentality. His studio is on the third floor of a (purposefully) anonymous building 100 yards off the white sands of Palm Beach, Florida, and about a mile from his gated mansion (the one next to Chuck Norris’s). Along with the Gulfstream jet (cost: $54 million), fleet of sports cars and eight-year contract, worth $400 million, this mansion is his reward for being the most listened-to talk-radio host in America, a title he has held for 20 years.
But it is also his compensation. Professional Right-wing controversialists do tend to upset people, and Limbaugh has had his share of death threats. He has also had his quota of criticism from the media, or the liberal media, as he tends to call it. He hates interviews and has rarely given any, though he does have a soft spot for this newspaper, because it was once owned by his sometime friend and neighbour Conrad Black (currently serving a 6½-year jail sentence for fraud; Limbaugh wrote a letter to the judge attesting to Lord Black’s good character).
The ‘drive-by media’, as Limbaugh also calls it, came down to Florida looking for him when he insulted Michael J. Fox a couple of years ago – by saying the actor was hamming up his Parkinson’s disease for political gain after he appeared in an appeal for embryonic stem-cell research. They came back a few months later when Limbaugh was arrested for ‘doctor shopping’ painkiller prescriptions; that is, persuading several doctors to give him overlapping ones. He pleaded not guilty and cut a deal; the charges were dismissed after 18 months on condition that he continue rehabilitation and treatment with a therapist. The press staked out his mansion on both occasions, but never found his studio on this palm-fringed boulevard. You wouldn’t know it was here.
He calls it his ‘Southern Command’, having spent most of his career broadcasting from New York, and describes it on air as ‘heavily fortified’, yet when you travel up in a lift and step into a glass and leather reception area, there isn’t even a receptionist, let alone a security guard, just several white locked doors and a CCTV camera that follows you. One of the doors buzzes. I am expected.
On the walls of the corridor there is evidence of Limbaugh’s considerable power and influence, and his friends in high places. Here a framed picture of him with George Bush. Here one of him with Donald Rumsfeld. Here he is with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan.
There is a humidor – Limbaugh is a connoisseur of cigars – and a bust of Churchill. There is also a bust of Beethoven, which has a plaque reading: ‘A genius who produced masterpieces without hearing.’
Limbaugh became almost completely deaf at the age of 50, but is able to hear callers now thanks to a cochlear implant – an electronic device which stimulates nerves in the inner ear. It explains his way with a monologue, which actually is a dialogue with himself. But even if he could hear, he probably wouldn’t listen. Rush Limbaugh is a talker, not a listener. He keeps it up for three hours at a stretch, five days a week from noon until three. There are commercial breaks and phone-ins, but mostly it is him delivering homilies on politics and current affairs, extemporaneously. His fluency is breathtaking.
Some 20 million Americans tune in to hear it on 600 stations across what he calls ‘this fruited land’. And he says he’s not retiring until everyone agrees with him.
He is on air now – I can hear him over the speakers – ‘Welcome back, this is Rush Limbaugh, your shining light, the doctor of democracy, the all-knowing, all-sensing, all-caring Maha Rushie…’ I get slightly lost as I’m looking for the control booth and end up in his private washroom. There are several big black polo shirts on hangers and, in his medicine cabinet, cold remedies and bottles of Listerine and Drakkar aftershave, but no painkillers. That ship has sailed, it seems.
For the next two hours I sit behind a glass panel and watch him perform. Though it is radio, his is a physical performance. He raises his arms and shakes them in mock frustration. He takes his glasses off and pinches the bridge of his nose. He drums his fingers, as you can sometimes hear on air. Though he doesn’t use notes he does have some papers on his desk which he taps as a form of punctuation, and sometimes he will crumple them up in disgust, another sound effect.
In the corner of his studio he has a standard bearing a silky Stars and Stripes. Behind his desk, there is a neon replica of his signature. At 57, he is looking fitter than he has done for a long time, having shed a hundredweight (he weighed 23 stone at one point).
His hair is slicked back and he is dressed in a black polo shirt and deck shoes without socks. There is a rolling musicality to his voice.
His tone is warm and confidential. He has the rhetorician’s habit of repeating himself three times in three different ways.
Today, as usual, he is riffing about Barack Obama – ‘the Lord Messiah, the merciful, the acting President…’ – whom he dislikes intensely.
When Former Secretary of State Colin Powell announced a few days ago that he would be breaking with his party to vote for Obama, Limbaugh said it was only because he was black. Groan. He was being insulting, of course, on many levels, to both men, but at least he was being consistent with the Limbaugh world view, the view of the fabled ‘angry white man’. Indeed, it would have seemed hypocritical of him to start making compromises on the grounds of sensitivity at this stage in his career.
Besides, he doesn’t go easier on the McCain camp. He described the Republican candidate as a phony conservative and, when Sarah Palin first appeared, dismissed her as ‘some babe McCain met at a convention’. He has come round to Palin since then, saying that she ‘kicked Biden’s butt’ in that vice-presidential debate. His politics are closer to hers than McCain’s. And ultimately he would rather have McCain for all his faults than Obama. ‘McCain’s right,’ he said on air recently. ‘We do have them right where we want them because they think it’s over.’ Note the ‘We’. Limbaugh does not pretend to be impartial.
Inside the control booth there is a staff of three: Jim, a sound engineer wearing headphones; Dawn, a stenographer with long blonde hair (who sends Limbaugh real-time transcripts of on-air phone-ins), and his long-time producer Bo Snerdly, a tall, well-cushioned Afro-American with an affable manner, a flat cap on backwards and spectacles dangling from a cord around his neck.
Limbaugh does not have sidekicks with him on air, but he does keep up a running conversation with Snerdly, who is almost as Right wing as he is. They banter via an internal talk-back circuit. Snerdly has his own twice-weekly spot on air in which he introduces himself as an ‘African-American-in-good-standing-and-certified-black-enough-to-criticise-Obamaguy.’ It is a deliberately insensate but amusing take on the race issue in this election. What Left-wingers, or ‘Rush-deniers’, as he calls them, don’t get about the self-aggrandising Limbaugh is that he is first and foremost a satirist: funny, self-mocking and entertaining. He couldn’t have held his audience for 20 years if he was only nasty, bigoted and extremely Right wing.
The broadcast over, I join Limbaugh in the studio and ask if he ever has off days when he’s not in the mood. Though he can hear, thanks to the acoustics in here, he stares straight at me, lip-reading. ‘I have days where I feel I’ve left half my brain at home and I’m not functioning 100 per cent, but I don’t think the audience would ever know it, and there’s never a day I don’t want to do it. I prep it, but I don’t think about it until it starts. At noon today I had no idea what the first thing was I was going to say until about 20 seconds into the theme music. It’s improv. Stream of consciousness. That little pressure improves my performance. I do my best, most expansive thinking when I am speaking. I get on a roll.’
He surely does. Limbaugh is always a factor in American elections.
When the Republicans won the House of Representatives in 1994 for only the second time in 50 years, they made Limbaugh an honorary member of Congress. If by some fluke the Republicans win this time, in contradiction of the polls, will that be partly down to Limbaugh?
‘That’s so hard to measure,’ he says.
He’s being falsely modest and possibly disingenuous. One of his biggest successes in this election cycle was Operation Chaos, a radio campaign designed to encourage Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton and prolong internecine fighting among Democrats. Karl Rove, ‘the President’s brain’, reckons it helped tilt Texas for Clinton. She herself said as much the day after the vote: ‘Be careful what you wish for, Rush.’ Berkeley is doing a course study on it.
‘I came up with Operation Chaos because we were facing a Republican primary that was over, with most of my audience dissatisfied with the choice. My audience wasn’t up. Excited. Jazzed. I figured we had many more months of the liberal media salivating over the Democratic primaries on the cable networks and that that could be divisive. I don’t want Obama to be President, he would be a disaster, but I do want him to be bloodied up politically, be forced to acquit himself to a political audience that isn’t sycophantic. Someone had to do it.’
But Obama is the Democratic presidential candidate now and I wonder whether the race issue makes Limbaugh nervous. After all, at a White House correspondents’ dinner during the Clinton administration, the President joked that Limbaugh had stood up for Attorney-General Janet Reno, but he ‘only did it because she was attacked by a black guy’.
(The ‘black guy’ being Representative John Conyers.) Limbaugh was in the audience, and he was livid. He demanded, and received, a White House apology. ‘There is nothing worse than being branded a racist,’ he said afterwards.
On the race issue now, he reckons he has nothing to feel nervous about. ‘Obama’s people are trying to silence any criticism of him by implying it would be perceived as racist. It’s a form of intimidation but I’m not going to be intimidated by them.’
Until 1988, when Limbaugh more or less invented the talk-radio format as a political tool, the liberal media in America had a monopoly, he reckons. ‘The reason my show was successful was that so many people with a conservative viewpoint did not think it was being reflected in the media. I validate what they already think.’ He reckons he is not always preaching to the choir, though. ‘We get Democrats. Calls from people who disagree with me all the time. Last week I had a call from a woman in Dallas who said I was causing her high blood pressure because she couldn’t stop herself listening to my show. The doctor told her to stop and she wouldn’t.’
His audience is now 12 times the circulation of The New York Times, he tells me. ‘And you can add up CNN, MSNBC and Fox, and my audience is 20 times that. They have no pretence of objectivity. They are activists now and they make no bones about it. CNN, MSNBC and Fox all opinionise. Like I do. They acknowledge this, and so it has become a battle between the two medias. The liberal media see this Obama candidacy as historic because race is a big deal to them. They think this country committed Original Sin. I actually believe that most of their support for Obama is that they are creaming in their jeans about the historical nature of the campaign. They want to be a part of it. They want to make it happen. They want a stake in it. They want to be able to say they did it if Obama wins.’
Well, he is going to win, isn’t he? ‘No. I don’t see it, Nigel. I think he’s been dead in the water since the primaries. He is going to need to be up 10 to 12 points to win by three or four. Don’t forget that Hillary winning was a foregone conclusion, too. If the polls had been right it would have been Giuliani versus Hillary. That’s why polls a year out are worthless. Obama is going around as the acting President. It’s off-putting. Unionised blue-collar Democrats didn’t vote for him, they voted for Hillary.’
Wasn’t that to do with race? ‘No… well it might be to a certain degree, but there was never any substance to his speeches, just soaring rhetoric. That guy can say nothing better than anyone I have ever heard say nothing.’ He drums his fingers. ‘My take on this is that we are all Americans and I am sick and tired of hyphenated Americans. Afro-American, Hispanic-Americans.
‘I am truly colour blind and I wish everyone else was. We Balkanise when we say only women can represent women in Congress and only Jews can represent Jews and only blacks can represent blacks. It’s bullshit. We all want the same things. Prosperity and a decent education for our kids. Treating this country like it is stuck 50 years ago is bullshit; we have made more progress than anyone over this. Get over it. If Obama says stupid things I’m not going to say they are not stupid because he’s black. He’s running for President, for God’s sake. It’s the Left who has been racist by agonising about whether he is black enough. Is he authentic enough? Does he have a civil rights record? For me he’s a liberal. That is reason enough to oppose him.’
Limbaugh thinks there is a war going on between people like him who want small, efficient government and people who want a powerful state that decides who gets what. ‘And they use hoaxes like global warming to advance their agenda of higher taxation and bigger government.’
Oh dear. You don’t have to agree with his red-meat views to find them insightful. They represent, after all, the authentic voice of conservative, and neo-conservative, America. But there is one issue about which I think he is dangerously wrong. Global warming. After all, I point out, 98 per cent of the world’s leading scientists in this area don’t think global warming is a hoax.
He stares at me. ‘Nigel, man-made global warming is a 100 per cent, full-fledged, undeniable hoax.’
That’s his opinion. ‘No, it’s not even arguable in terms of science.’
Of course it is, I say, and he’s being deliberately provocative to say it isn’t. ‘We don’t have the power to make cold weather warm. We can’t make warm weather cold. We can’t produce rain clouds. We can’t steer hurricanes, we can’t produce diddly squat and the idea that only advanced democracies are doing this with their automobiles is absurd.
Global warming is a religion. It has what all religions have which is faith, because no one can prove their religion. It has a Garden of Eden element, destruction brought by humanity then redemption for our sins by paying higher taxes and getting rid of our cars and planes.’
Does part of him go after a subject like that just to wind people up?
‘No, I believe it. I hate people who feel rather than think. Most people feel they don’t matter. When they are told they can save the planet, well, that gives their lives meaning. These stupid ribbons – breast cancer, Aids awareness, they say – “I care more than you.” ‘ He drums his fingers on the table again.
Limbaugh doesn’t give the impression of having doubts, but does he?
Does he have long nights of the soul? ‘I’d only have those if I had lied, made something up that I don’t really believe, for an illicit motive. I won’t be deliberately provocative just to get people to listen.’
Was there a point at which he decided he would have to thicken his skin if he was going to last in talk radio – not take insults personally, I mean? ‘Insults are badges of honour. There is nothing anyone can say that would offend me. Prior to doing this show no one hated me. No one thought I was a racist, sexist or homophobic bigot.
No one thought I was a hate-monger. I was not raised to be hated. I was raised to be loved. Within six months I was getting death threats.’
For all his claimed equanimity, there is a residual paranoia, vulnerability and vanity that floats around Rush Limbaugh like a toxic cloud. He hates being photographed, for example, because: ‘They are going to try to get the most embarrassing or unflattering shot of you they can.’ They. Always they. These dark forces out to get him. I ask about the insecurities that lay behind his dependency on painkillers.
There was pain to kill, after all, and it wasn’t physical. ‘That’s all in the past,’ he says. ‘Done. The rehab was in Arizona. A spartan place called The Meadows. Not one of these half-assed places for celebrities. It was five weeks and I really got into it. Very educational for me to learn about myself. It was inspiring. I can’t imagine taking a pain pill now. It holds no attraction. I haven’t had a relapse or craving since then. I had to talk to a therapist for 18 months afterwards. Never done that before. Thought it bunk. Actually that helped.’
Born into a family of lawyers, Limbaugh obtained his radio licence at the age of 15 and began Dj-ing on a local radio station. One insecurity that dates back to that time is that he was wounded by his father’s disapproval of his chosen profession. He was also miserable when his father insisted he attend college. Under protest, he enrolled at Southeast Missouri State University, where he lasted a year before dropping out. After that he was fired six times by radio stations and other employers. It was a wobbly start and, as a defence mechanism, he seems to have acquired an ultra-confident alter ego.
Nevertheless, he tells me that when he’s at home, when he can drop his public guard, he can feel flat. ‘Mentally, I’m zapped after this show every day. I don’t do anything for three hours. I go read a novel or play golf. I won’t speak a word because I don’t use the phone. Sure I can get melancholy.’
I never had him figured as an emotional man. Isn’t his whole shtick that you have to think not feel? ‘Don’t cry easily. Get close to crying then I stop it. A movie or a book will get me misty-eyed. It’s always happy ending good stuff that gets me crying, not bad stuff.’
‘Last time?’ Long pause. ‘Last time was when my little cat died. Five years old. Had a stroke. I had two cats and this one had the personality and almost humanlike behaviour. Pets are like sports: you think you can invest a lot in them without consequences.’
And like wives. He has been married three times, though he hasn’t had any children. He met his current girlfriend, a West Palm Beach events planner, last year. When I ask about the ups and downs in his personal relationships he hesitates again. ‘I would find myself very difficult to live with because I am totally self-contained and resent having to do things I don’t want to do. Now I can choose. When I’m put in a position where I don’t want to be there, I make sure everyone else is miserable.’
That’s some confession, even for a thick-skinned man. He seems to know himself well, knows he can be selfish and that he cuts quite a lonely figure – just him and his remaining cat rattling around in that big house. He also knows he is easily bored. ‘I don’t have guests on my show because I don’t care what other people think,’ he tells me. ‘Most guests are boring.’ But it’s not only others he is bored with, it is also, perhaps, himself. This may be what explains his recklessness, his bravado, his determination to say the unsayable. And perhaps it also explains why he never misses a beat, until you draw him out about himself – how he is difficult to live with, how he cried when his cat died, how, to his surprise, he found it helpful talking to a therapist. Only then does he hesitate. As we part he bets me a cigar from Desmond Sautter’s of Mayfair that Obama won’t win. I’d better go and choose one.