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Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One
By Zev Chafets
HC, 240 pgs., US$25.95
ISBN: 1-5952-3063-7

Leader of the pack

By Steven Martinovich
web posted July 5, 2010

Rush Limbaugh: An Army of OneFor every decade that Rush Limbaugh has been broadcasting there have been two things we can count on: That he will have the largest listening audience and that critics will gleefully predict that this will be the year when the EIB juggernaut finally collapses. While the later prediction has yet to show any signs of coming to pass, Limbaugh continues to own and define talk radio in the United States. With commercial success also comes the crown of being the de facto leader of the American conservative movement.

Outside of the occasional news item, however, the private Rush Limbaugh remains a bit of a mystery to both fans and foes. The marriages and divorces, the pain killer addiction, the enormous contracts and the controversies are all well-known but the man behind the Golden Microphone – the real man – is still largely unknown. Hoping to remedy that is Zev Chafets' Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, a largely sympathetic enquiry into the Limbaugh mythos.

Chafets begins his account as many of us do when talking about Limbaugh, which is the first time he ever heard the radio program. Driving around Detroit one day in the late 1980s, Chafets was shocked and amused by Limbaugh's proactive antics and commentary, firmly believing that the self-described "harmless little fuzzball" wouldn't survive. Two decades later he finally met Limbaugh and penned a well-regarded profile for The New York Times Magazine. Surprisingly, Limbaugh ultimately agreed to a book and the pair traded more than one hundred emails on every topic conceivable, resulting in An Amy of One.

Rather than an exhaustive portrait of Limbaugh, Chafets instead focuses on the major events and milestones of the broadcaster's life. He begins with Limbaugh's childhood where he chronicles a demanding father who expected nothing but the best from his children and was greatly disappointed by Limbaugh's decision to pursue radio over something as respectable as the law. From there he moves into his early days in radio – complete with frequent job losses – and gig with the Kansas City Royals before that happy accident which saw him offered a spot to offer commentary.

Though Limbaugh has the reputation as a private individual away from the microphone, Chafets apparently had enough access to glean quite a few insights. Few would know, for example, of his opinion of fellow pundit Bill O'Reilly or the fact that he proposed a round of golf with President Barack Obama (and was rebuffed). Though he put on a brave face when his attempt to buy an NFL team was ended by racial politics, for Limbaugh it was the latest example of being rejected by the establishment elite despite his massive success. Other notable surprises include some interesting stands on social issues.

An Army of One does pose one question concerning Limbaugh's critics that surprisingly exists more than two decades after he broke out on the national scene: Why does he continue to be successful and influential despite the fact that he's clearly style over substance? The answer, at least according to Chafets, is that with Limbaugh there is no dichotomy, it is both style and substance. Limbaugh may employ satire and humour with a good dose of extemporaneous rant, but it is clearly thought out with a point and principle to back it up – such as his infamous "caller abortion" bit in the late 1980s. His critics have managed the feat of failing to understand what Limbaugh is doing and how he's doing it since Sacramento.

Though Chafets did pen an enjoyable effort, it's not quite a perfect one. Though Limbaugh is considered the head of the American conservative movement he has had some recent dust-ups with the GOP. Chafets seems to have spoken to relatively few prominent members of the Republican Party about their thoughts given their near silence in An Army of One. Critics too are mostly absent except for when their sound bites are launching off points for defences of Limbaugh. It's a pity because Chafets clearly has enough skill as a writer to frankly discuss both whatever he thinks the positive and negative aspects of Limbaugh's career have been without the book turning into an exercise in obsequiousness or a predictable anti-conservative rant.

That criticism aside An Army of One is a hugely entertaining and insightful look at a man everyone thinks they know. Although much of Chafets' communications with Limbaugh appear to have taken place through email, his subject was clearly forthcoming about himself, translating into a marvellous portrait of one of America's most fascinating people. His critics may deride him as an entertainer and his fans as thoughtless "dittoheads" but Chafets' exposes that as lazy denigration. It is fairly clear that Limbaugh has become leader of the pack – both of talk radio and American conservatism – because he offers something far more than slogans. ESR

Steven Martinovich is the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.

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