On the eve of his 20th anniversary, Rush Limbaugh has re-upped his contract - 400 million dollars over the next eight years. With at least 14 million listeners a week, and a political muscle flexed as recently as this spring’s primary season, Rushbo is at the top of his game. New York Times Magazine contributor Zev Chafets explains Rush’s reach.
BOB GARFIELD: In less than a month, Rush Limbaugh will celebrate his 20th year hosting The Rush Limbaugh Show. Rush is easily the most successful radio broadcaster, with an audience of at least 14 million people a week. He just signed a [LAUGHS] 400-million-dollar, eight-year re-up of his contract, making as much as all of the nightly news anchors combined.
His political clout remains strong, fresh off of Operation Chaos, in which he convinced Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton in order to prolong the bruising Democratic nomination fight. And, he hangs out with Supreme Court justices.
But 14 years after Limbaugh was credited with ushering in the Republican Revolution and the Contract with America, is he still capable of swaying a presidential election? Zev Chafets has written about Limbaugh for this weekend's New York Times Magazine and he joins us now. Zev, welcome to OTM. ZEV CHAFETS: Thank you, nice to be with you. BOB GARFIELD: Okay, first question. You are, [LAUGHS] you are representing The New York Times, the apotheosis of the Eastern liberal media elite. How the hell did you get in to see Rush Limbaugh?
ZEV CHAFETS: [LAUGHING] I asked nicely and persistently. BOB GARFIELD: Limbaugh did get his back up with you when you persistently questioned him about his clout. Is it your belief that, in fact, he has begun to lose impact maybe to the likes of Sean Hannity or Michael Savage or any of the right-wing screamers? ZEV CHAFETS: I talked to Michael Harrison, who's the publisher of Talkers Magazine, which is the industry magazine, and he told me that Limbaugh retains his position. He described him as something like a combination of Elvis and the Beatles, as far as AM talk radio is concerned.
Jay Nordlinger, who was the managing editor of The National Review, told me that when he was hiring guys out of college for The National Review, they would come in and say that they become conservatives by listening to Rush Limbaugh.
So I think that maybe his impact is less across the spectrum than it is across generations, that there -- he's been on for 20 years. There are already people who see him as sort of the inspiration for their conservative views and their children's conservative views. BOB GARFIELD: Now, I want to come to the McCain issue, because in order to support McCain in the upcoming election he will have to go after Obama. ZEV CHAFETS: Right. BOB GARFIELD: And he has already complained on the air of how difficult it is to go after Obama lest he be tarred with the R word.
ZEV CHAFETS: Right. BOB GARFIELD: And he's clearly concerned about this, but he's also forged a strategy. Can you tell me what that is? ZEV CHAFETS: He appointed his call screener, a guy whose name is James Golden and he calls "Bo" Snerdley, who's an African-American, to be the official Obama criticizer. And, of course, this is done as a way of, of - BOB GARFIELD: Laundering? ZEV CHAFETS: No, no, no, no, no. He's laughing at the media's sensitivities. You know, I asked him specifically, I said, are you going to have a problem with an African-American candidate? And he said, no. You know, Obama's a liberal, and I'll criticize him as a liberal, which is what he does. BOB GARFIELD: Your piece on Limbaugh was very generous, I would say even flattering. You seem to give him a pass for his excesses. And when I'm talking about excesses, I'm talking about ad hominem attacks, truly mean-spirited stuff that goes way beyond satire and into the politics of vilification, and also playing fast and loose with the truth, seizing on some news item and grossly misrepresenting it and creating a lot of hubbub, using as the kernel of his satire something that is just fundamentally untrue. ZEV CHAFETS: Well, do you have an example of that? I'm not an apologist for Rush Limbaugh, but I'm a little bit defensive because I think that the liberal media takes such an unfair view of him.
I hear people being vilified on the radio, on all sorts of radio stations by all sorts of people all day long. And Limbaugh is not worse than many of the ones I hear, even on NPR. He just has a different point of view. BOB GARFIELD: The NAACP should have a riot rehearsal, they should get a liquor store and practice robberies? ZEV CHAFETS: Not my sense of humor, but it's not a lie. BOB GARFIELD: Did Limbaugh not say that Abu Ghraib was no worse than a Skull and Bones initiation? ZEV CHAFETS: Yeah, he did. It's his opinion. BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. Did he not deny that genocide was committed against the American Indian and state that the population is higher now than it was before Christopher Columbus -- of Native Americans? ZEV CHAFETS: Mm, I don't know. I didn't ask him that either. I don't know what the population was before Christopher Columbus. BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, it was about 15 million and, you know, by the 19th century it was 250,000. I mean, that's what – that’s the numbers.
Okay, now I know [LAUGHS] you don't want to be an apologist for Rush Limbaugh or his spokesmen. ZEV CHAFETS: Right. BOB GARFIELD: But do you not think that he is answerable for things that are, at minimum, offensive and obnoxious and mean spirited that he has said on the air? ZEV CHAFETS: Yeah, you know, I do think that, and I think he's answerable to the public. And I think that for people who find him more obnoxious and more mean spirited than other people that they prefer to listen to, then they should answer him by turning him off.
I wouldn't say that I see Limbaugh as an unmixed, you know, blessing, but I do think that it's good for the American media climate to have at least one very strong conservative Republican voice that is heard, you know, across the country. Now, there's more than one today, but they're all there only because Limbaugh was the first. BOB GARFIELD: Well Zev, I appreciate your time. ZEV CHAFETS: Hey, you're very welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Zev Chafets wrote about the 20th Limbaugh-versary for The New York Times Magazine.