By David Frum
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; C01
An Army of One
By Zev Chafets
Sentinel. 229 pp. $25.95
"Every great man has his disciples," quipped Oscar Wilde. "And it is always Judas who writes the biography."
Not so for Rush Limbaugh. Biographer Zev Chafets received unprecedented access to the broadcaster, and he has more than kept faith with his subject: "I relished his bravado, laughed at his outrageous satire, and admired his willingness to go against the intellectual grain."
There are no scandalous disclosures here, no unearthing of long-concealed secrets. The book originated as a New York Times Magazine profile, and even plussed-up to more than 200 pages, a profile it remains. It was embargoed to protect one mild-to-medium anecdote: When invited to play golf with Limbaugh, President Obama supposedly answered, "Limbaugh can play with himself."
Otherwise, the story is the familiar one: origins in the gentry of Cape Girardeau, Mo.; the early struggles for radio success; the switch to political monologue in Sacramento in the 1980s; the move to New York City in 1988; the explosive success of the now-national program; three marriages with a fourth on the way; the struggle with drug addiction and subsequent hearing loss; the amazing recovery and his starring role in the opposition to Obama.
So what, if anything, is new and interesting in Chafets's long-form treatment?
For one, Chafets exposes some disconnects between Limbaugh's private life and public presence. Chafets has seen more of the pundit's personal world than any other journalist, and reveals some distinctly grandiose tastes in this self-imagined tribune of Middle America.
"Largely decorated by Limbaugh himself, [his Palm Beach house] reflects the things and places he has seen and admired. A massive chandelier in the dining room, for example, is a replica of the one that hung in the lobby of New York's Plaza Hotel. The vast salon is meant to suggest Versailles. The main guest suite, which I didn't visit, is an exact replica of the Presidential Suite at the Hotel George V in Paris. There is a full suit of armor on display, as well as a life-size oil painting of El Rushbo. Fragrant candles burned throughout the house, a daily home-from-the-wars ritual."
There is a great deal more in this vein, and not a syllable of it is meant mockingly. Yet Chafets also writes the following, with equal non-irony: "Rush wasn't enthusiastic [about the reelection bid of George H.W. Bush]. Bush struck him as a preppy, country club moderate, an Ivy League snob."
And this: "[Limbaugh's] far enemy in 2010 would be the Democrats, but the near enemy was 'blue-blood, country-club Rockefeller Republicans' embarrassed by the party's unsophisticated 'Billy Bobs' and consumed with the need to be popular in Washington and the northeast corridor."
And finally this: "Limbaugh had, for many years, traveled in social reverse, haunted by his father's admonition that a dropout would never have any real status."
Chafets quotes Limbaugh telling Maureen Dowd in a 1993 interview, "You have no earthly idea how detested and hated I am. I'm not even a good circus act for the liberals in this town. . . . You can look at my calendar for the past two years and see all of the invitations. You'll find two, both by Robert and Georgette Mosbacher." (Robert Mosbacher was secretary of commerce under President George H.W. Bush.) Not two pages later, we hear of Limbaugh's New York evenings with investment banker Lewis Lehrman, William F. Buckley and Henry Kissinger. And yet the aggrieved subject and biographer are fully sincere in both instances.
Limbaugh has skillfully conjured for his listeners a world in which they are disdained and despised by mysterious elites -- a world in which Limbaugh's $4,000 bottles of wine do not exclude him from the life of the common man.
Chafets also reveals Limbaugh's expanding vision of his own central place and role within the conservative world. "Whatever feelings of inferiority Limbaugh may have had," Chafets writes, "disappeared as he became better acquainted with the work of his fellow commentators. . . . While Limbaugh appreciated some conservative thinkers -- including Justice Antonin Scalia, columnist Charles Krauthammer, and economist Thomas Sowell -- he now clearly saw himself as the thought leader of the movement. . . . 'I know I have become the intellectual engine of the conservative movement.' "
Chafets acknowledges that Limbaugh has no conception of fairness or objectivity, that he is not an original thinker, and that he is prone to "hyperbole, sarcasm, and ridicule, none of which is meant to be taken literally." He's unnerved by Limbaugh's "Magic Negro" racial insensitivities and his indifference to real politics. " 'There are no books written about great moderates,' he sometimes says. 'Great people take stands on principle, not moderation.' That's not true of course -- the founding fathers Limbaugh venerates compromised their way into a Constitution, and even Ronaldus Maximus [Reagan] knew when to bend. Politics is the art of compromise. But, of course, Limbaugh is not a politician or even a political strategist. He is a polemicist."
It might seem ominous for an intellectual movement to be led by a man who does not think creatively, who does not respect the other side of the argument and who frequently says things that are not intended as truth. But neither Limbaugh nor Chafets is troubled: "Over the years, [Limbaugh] has endeavored to carry forward the banner of Ronaldus Maximus, which he always credits as 'Reaganism.' But as time moves on the memory of Reagan fades. It is Limbaugh's voice conservatives now identify with. For millions, conservatism is now Limbaughism."
That is Limbaugh's achievement. It is Chafets's story line. And it is American conservatism's problem.
Frum, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, is editor of FrumForum.com.