Rush Limbaugh realizes you don’t become America’s most popular radio talk-show host without having the hide of an elephant. And he’s long subscribed to a theory: His 21 million listeners know him and love him, and the other 280 million Americans, well, they don’t pay the bills.
“My objective is to satisfy [my] audience so they come back the next day,” Limbaugh told TODAY national correspondent Jamie Gangel in a wide-ranging, three-hour interview, excerpts of which air on TODAY Monday and Tuesday.
“Most of my critics don’t even listen to me; they are clueless,” Limbaugh said. “They just go to Web sites that report what I say out of context. I’m amazed at the Democrats and the media who do not know what’s going on in my world. I know what’s going on in theirs. I study ’em. I watch ’em every day.”
Indeed, while Limbaugh is first and foremost — he says solely — an entertainer who keeps listeners tuned in, his brand of liberal-baiting, on-air politics has made him a lightning rod. Perhaps the coup de grace came earlier this year, when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested Limbaugh may well now be the standard-bearer for the Republican Party.
The 58-year-old Limbaugh, who’s working through a whopping $400 million contract that will keep him on the airwaves through 2016, first laughed off Emanuel’s christening. Then he considered the source.
“I am not the leader of the Republican Party; don’t wanna be the leader of the Republican Party,” Limbaugh told Gangel. “It’s silly for them to keep talking about how I’m the leader of anything.”
But he was shocked when Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele picked up the ball lofted by Emanuel and lashed out at Limbaugh, calling his conservative rhetoric “incendiary” and “ugly”
“Michael Steele should be out there raising money and planning on ways to get people to vote for Republicans,” Limbaugh said. “Instead, he’s agreeing with false premises put forth by critics of the Republican Party and trying to agree with them.”
Still, when it comes to name-calling between liberals and conservatives, Limbaugh demonstrated on TODAY he’s up for the game. He told Gangel: “There’s a cliché about conservatives: racist, sexist, bigot, homophobic. Now, you announce you’re a conservative, you’re automatically all those things to the critics. Even though you’re not, that’s what they say you are.
“They are the real racist, sexist, bigots and homophobes. They are the ones that look at people and see skin color, gender, sex orientation, victim, group.
“They think they can discredit the Republican Party by making me the head of it. All they’re doing is elevating me.”
Serious or satirist?
And also leaving Limbaugh laughing all the way to the bank. Having a Democrat in the White House no doubt leaves Limbaugh with at least four years of rich material to draw upon — and ensure his radio ratings remain intact.
Limbaugh told Gangel his daily, three-hour radio show is equal parts satire and serious commentary, but his detractors confuse the two. He points to the controversy over a parody song about President Obama titled “Barack the Magic Negro” as an example of the media’s hammering him without having their facts straight.
Limbaugh said he’d “never heard of the term” until he read a column by a black Los Angeles Times writer, David Ehrenstein, that called Obama a “magic Negro” for assuaging the guilt of whites. “I love to parody the left,” Limbaugh said. “I love making fun of them. The L.A. Times called him that. I’m just repeating it.” Even so, Limbaugh said he’s spent nearly two years trying to explain himself about the parody.
So how does Limbaugh truly feel about Obama? Limbaugh came under fire earlier this year when in a speech at a Conservative Political Action Conference, he said of Obama, “I hope he fails.”
Limbaugh said his intent at the time was to “tweak the media. I know how to yank their chain. I know how to send them into insanity. I know how to make them spend the next two days talking about me.”
Limbaugh told Gangel of Obama, “He’s my president, too. I want, you know, I want this country to succeed.”
Still, the bones Limbaugh has to pick with Obama could fill a cemetery. Among other criticisms, Limbaugh calls Obama’s stimulus bill “an absolute disaster,” and said his prediction that Obama’s victory would actually heighten racial discord in this country has proven all too accurate.
“Any criticism of President Obama is going to be said to be oriented in racism,” he told Gangel. “And if you don’t like his health care bill, it’s racist. If you don’t like his cap-and-trade, it’s racist.
“There’s a race industry in the country,” he added. “They make money off it. They have fame and fortune off of it. And I predicted exactly what’s happened.”
When Gangel asked Limbaugh if there is any good Obama has done, Limbaugh paused for nearly 20 seconds before saying, “Maybe — I can’t think of it.” Then he proceeded to damn Obama with faint praise: “Got a great voice — great, great voice,” he said. “Reads a teleprompter like no one I’ve ever seen.”
Limbaugh admitted that he was briefly moved seeing America elect its first African-American president, “but I got over it pretty quickly. His skin color doesn’t matter to me. His policies are what matters.”
Politics or show biz?
While Limbaugh insists he is in show business and not in politics, the line became blurred in February 2008 when he announced “Operation Chaos.” On air, Limbaugh urged Republicans to cross party lines and vote in the Democratic primaries for Hillary Clinton, who at the time was being drubbed by Obama. His belief was it would throw the road to the Democratic presidential nomination into disarray.
While some might consider it a serious foray into using his influence to affect a political outcome, Limbaugh dismisses such talk, telling Gangel it was little more than a lark: “It was mostly a bit to keep my audience entertained.” But he admitted he wanted to keep the heat turned on Obama in the Democratic primaries so the media would continue to question his positions. As Obama built an early lead, Limbaugh said the media was “puff-piecing” the future president.
He also denied he cost Republican nominee John McCain votes by persistently deriding him during the election, saying, “I’m too big of a realist — I couldn’t have helped McCain no matter what I did.”
In his TODAY interview, Limbaugh largely followed his radio playbook — lashing out at moderate Republicans as much as liberal Democrats. He acknowledged he preaches to the conservative choir on his broadcasts, and that theirs is a mutual love affair
“I turn them on — I turn people on,” Limbaugh said. “I educate them. I inform them. Republican moderates bore them silly. Have you ever been to the library and looked for the book ‘Great Moderates in American History’? You won’t find ’em.”