Zev Chafets' new biography, Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, is a shallow portrait of the nation's conservative-in-chief. Chafets gets only one thing fundamentally right about Rush: Limbaugh is an immensely powerful figure within the Republican Party and American politics. Would Republicans have become “the Party of 'No'” without Limbaugh's daily diatribes against compromise and desire for America to fail? Perhaps to some degree. But without two decades of Limbaugh's relentless militance against liberalism, it is unthinkable that the Republican Party would stand where it does today.
Chafets wrote a glowing profile of Limbaugh in 2008 for the New York Times Magazine. Rush would never allow a New York Times reporter such wide access without being completely assured that the article would be written from a sympathetic, conservative approach. Chafets provided exactly that, since he is a prominent critic of Palestinians (and former director of Israel’s government press office), and had written a column on the right-wing website Townhall.com. Limbaugh even referred to Chafets as a “friend” on his show. Chafets shared that friendship, declaring about Limbaugh, “I'm a little bit defensive because I think that the liberal media takes such an unfair view of him.”
Chafets' 2008 profile lavishly praised Limbaugh, comparing him to “the great black singers of his generation” and calling him “the first white, Goldwater Republican soul shouter.” His new book compares Limbaugh to Muhammad Ali and Oprah Winfrey.
Bob Garfield of “On the Media” observed to Chafets in 2008, “Your piece on Limbaugh was very generous, I would say even flattering. You seem to give him a pass for his excesses.” When Garfield confronted him with the infamous Limbaugh quote, “The NAACP should have a riot rehearsal, they should get a liquor store and practice robberies,” Chafets responded, “Not my sense of humor, but it's not a lie.” Really? It's not a lie to link the NAACP to riots and liquor store robberies?
Chafets is a relentless defender of Rush. According to Chafets, “A lot of Limbaugh's critics dismiss him as a buffoon or a fanatic. These are people who don't listen to his show. Limbaugh is not only a brilliant communicator, he is a smart political strategist.” A Columbia Journalism Review blog noted, “it seems Chafets was distracted by all the bling in Rush’s World, so that the piece reads more like an episode of MTV Cribs...”
Janet Maslin's devastating review of Chafets' book in the New York Times reveals some of the flaws in it. Maslin notes that even the mild criticism of Limbaugh found in Chafets' original New York Times Magazine piece was largely purged from the book.
Limbaugh knew from the beginning that Chafets was a fan and a friend, and even told him, “if you think the editors of the New York Times Magazine are going to do a story on me that isn't a hit job, you are naïve.”(115) Chafets pretends to be shocked when Limbaugh refers to him on the air as a “friend,” but it certainly wouldn't shock anyone who reads this book. Chafets is a relentless defender of Limbaugh, even to the point of insulting his ex-wife Marta Fitzgerald as a golddigger. He writes that Rush's first two wives didn't marry him for his money, but “The third Mrs. Limbaugh is a different matter.”(130)
Chafets dutifully reports what Limbaugh said years ago on his show about his drug use: “Limbaugh concluded by saying that he would like to go into more detail but couldn't, because he was under criminal investigation.”(95) One would imagine that Chafets could have gone into more detail years after the criminal matter was resolved and the statute of limitations applies. But for some reason, Chafets reveals nothing more about Limbaugh's drug addiction. He reports that Limbaugh now thinks drug use should not usually be a crime, although he omits Limbaugh's earlier hypocrisy on the issue or the fact that Limbaugh never expresses this view on the air.(98)
On race, Chafets dares to be slightly critical of Limbaugh. Chafets recounts that he suggests to Limbaugh that he has a “blind spot” on race, that he doesn't understand “why American blacks didn't share his narrative of America as a uniquely virtuous nation.”(173) Chafets admits, “It was cringe inducing to hear Limbaugh defend his lack of bias by mentioning his housekeeper.”(176) But he lets Limbaugh claim, “the Constitution set up a process to gradually end slavery,” even though that's not true.
Chafets mentions the two fake quotes spread about Limbaugh on slavery and James Earl Ray (although he gets their origin wrong, falsely blaming writer Jack Huberman for creating them), but he never discusses the real racist quotes from Limbaugh's mouth, such as calling Obama “Halfrican-American” or “the little black man-child.”(183) Chafets even defends Limbaugh's bizarre claim that the media want black quarterbacks to succeed as “perfectly true,” apparently not caring if there's any evidence to support Limbaugh's claim (there's not).(184) Chafets depicts Limbaugh, a man who regularly occupies luxury boxes and even the sidelines at NFL games, as a victim who “found himself excommunicated”(185) merely because he was dropped from one ownership group's attempts to buy a team.
Chafets projects his own moderate conservative views onto Limbaugh: “Rush and I were both raised at a time of racial optimism and naivete, when the goal of decent white people was an integrated society. We were taught that skin color shouldn't matter, that we were all basically the same, that we should judge others not by their color but the content of their character.”(172) However, Chafets revealed that when Limbaugh was growing up, his public school responded to Brown v. Board of Education with de facto segregation of black students in low-level classes. Did Chafets ever ask Limbaugh about his segregated school, or growing up in a former slave state during the midst of the Civil Rights Movement? Did he ever ask Limbaugh if his notoriously foul-mouthed father or other friends and family used the N-word? Chafets had a tremendous opportunity, as the only journalist who has ever had the opportunity for in-depth conversation with Limbaugh.
When giving his own opinion, Chafets has many disturbing racial views. Chafets writes that GOP head Michael Steele was “intimidated” by comedian D.L. Hughley, a “former gang banger,” into criticizing Limbaugh.(147) Chafets claims that after 9/11, “total war was justified until the Arabs cried uncle.”(101) It's not clear if Chafets or Limbaugh or both believe this, but it's certainly a disturbing viewpoint to call for “total war” against a group of people that includes some of America's strongest allies.
Chafets got attention for his book by trying to arrange a golf outing between Obama and Limbaugh: “I spoke to a very senior Democratic activist with whom I'm very friendly, and he said he would convey the message. A day or two later he got back to me with the answer: 'Limbaugh can play with himself.'”(192) It's a funny line. The problem is that we don't know who said it, if anyone. Was this Obama's personal response to Limbaugh, as some in the media reported (and Chafets did not seek to correct)? Was it the response of some aide? Or was it Chafets' source simply commenting on the failure to get any response from the White House? We don't know, and Chafets seems more interested in using it to generate publicity for his book rather than clarifying what was actually said. It's noteworthy that when Chafets wrote a pointless op-ed for the Los Angeles Times about his dream Limbaugh-Obama golf outing, the “play with himself” quote was nowhere to be found. Perhaps that's because Chafets' lightly-sourced claim didn't meet a newspaper's standards for facts. Fortunately, Sentinel Books has no such standards.
In fact, Chafets' book has no endnotes or sources. After all, his primary audience is Dittoheads, and they certainly don't expect evidence after years of listening to Limbaugh. There's very little new information uncovered by Chafets, and much of the biographical parts of the books closely follow Paul Colford's 1995 book, The Rush Limbaugh Story.
From a literary point of view, Chafets' book is a mess. The final chapter is followed by an epilogue summarizing some events in 2010. The final line, a product placement urging people turn in weekdays at noon, is almost embarrassingly bad. That's followed by the acknowledgments where Chafets whines about the difficulty of finding a “New York publisher” for a pro-Limbaugh book and praises Limbaugh for being “cooperative and candid,” which if true means that Chafets simply failed to ask any important questions in what Limbaugh claims were 16 hours of interviews. That's followed by an appendix where Chafets denounces “the liberal consensus” in the media and academia, and claims that Limbaugh listeners are smart because they know basic information such as the majority party in Congress.
The book is also piled high with filler. He reprints Limbaugh's list of “35 Undeniable Truths of Life” with his own “unofficial and personal commentary” that reveals Chafets' agreement with nearly everything Rush says (“except for maybe the one about the Steelers”).(74) Whole pages of his book are devoted to the lyrics of the lame parody songs by Paul Shanklin that Limbaugh plays on his show.
There's not one word in the book about Limbaugh's inept misunderstandings about the Constitution (such as quoting, with the wrong words, the Declaration of Independence and and claiming it was in the Constitution). Instead, Chafets writes: “Big Rush would have been proud to hear his son expounding with such passion on issues of constitutional law.”(168) This is the kind of fluff that Chafets uses, words that would humiliate a real journalist to write.
Chafets' book has shoddy editing, too. There are several typos, including “the a great” (130) and “Limbaugh had set his sites on Congress....”(77) As Janey Maslin noted in her New York Times review, “Even the name of one of Mr. Limbaugh’s wives is misspelled here, as are Hugh Hefner’s and Phyllis Schlafly’s.” I found even more misspellings, including Senator “Clair” McCaskill (103) and even John Forbes “Kennedy” rather than Kerry.(159)
The book is poorly researched, and misses many important facts. According to Chafets, “There was never a doubt that Limbaugh would support the reelection of George H.W. Bush in 1992...”(81) Chafets somehow never realized that Limbaugh supported Pat Buchanan's primary campaign against Bush in 1992. Rush wrote that Buchanan accomplished “great things” by moving Bush to the right.
According to Chafets, “After Obama accidentally read the speech of his guest, the Irish prime minister, instead of his own, Limbaugh developed the conceit that the teleprompter, not Obama, was in charge.”(163) Obama never accidentally read the speech of the Irish prime minister; it was the opposite.
Chafets refers to the Sullivan Group as a “fictitious entity.”(44) In reality, the Sullivan Group was founded in 1980, long before Tom Sullivan became a talk show host and met Rush Limbaugh, and it continues to exist. What's fictitious is the idea that the Sullivan Group “audits” the accuracy of Limbaugh's opinions, which Rush often cites as proof of his truth-telling, and many of his listeners actually believe it.
Media Matters for America points out several errors in Chafets' book, including his propensity to give Fox News Channel credit for breaking stories that other mainstream media outlets actually reported first. Media Matters, which has become Limbaugh's chief nemesis by writing daily about his errors and distortions, merits only a couple of mentions in Chafets' book, although Limbaugh often refers to them on his show in a clearly irritated manner. Chafets notes that Media Matters “reported that Rush had referred to military personnel who objected to the war as 'phony soldiers,”(108) which is exactly what Limbaugh had declared. Chafets denies this reality, and then compounds his mistake in defending Limbaugh by falsely claiming that “Media Matters tried to correct its initial mistake” on the phony soldiers issue.(108) As Media Matters noted, Limbaugh referred to John Murtha as a “phony soldier,” providing all the evidence anyone could have needed to prove that Limbaugh's use of term “phony soldiers” applied to real soldiers who criticized the war in Iraq, not fake stories. If a man who served for 38 years in the Marines and the Marine Corps Reserves, winning the Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts, and the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, is a “phony soldier,” then Limbaugh's use of the term has nothing to do with fake soldiers.
I should note that Chafets quotes me at length, accurately, writing about the impact of Limbaugh's Operation Chaos in Mississippi, where Limbaugh fans helped Hillary Clinton pick up some delegates. According to Chafets, “the media reacted with alarm,” and then he quotes my words.(117) It's a strange world we live in, where my little blog makes me a member of the “media,” but the vast media empires of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the New York Freaking Times Magazine don't count as part of the “media” in Chafets' estimation.
The book is full of odd claims about the press, such as saying that “the media” “reflexively squawk at any politically incorrect use of racial language.”(157) That's a favorite term of Chafets', who claims that in 1988 when Limbaugh began nationally, Time and Newsweek were “politically correct” and PBS was “unmistakably liberal,” which may surprise those of us who were watching Firing Line, the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, Wall Street Week, and the McLaughlin Group.(138)
Chafets complains that Limbaugh didn't get the same approval in New York City received by other “outsiders” like Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings. According to Chafets, “the price of admission is accepting and, in some small way propagating, the group ethos.”(50) It's nothing short of bizarre for Chafets to join in with Limbaugh's pathetic crying about how he wasn't embraced as one of the leading journalists in the country because he had a syndicated talk show.
Is Rush Limbaugh a serious political force, or just a hammy jokester? Chafets denounces media critic Todd Gitlin: “He also doesn't listen to Limbaugh. Rush, like any satirist, engages in hyperbole, sarcasm, and ridicule, none of which is meant to be taken literally.”(139) Whenever Chafets wants to excuse or ignore some offensive, ignorant, or downright stupid remark by Limbaugh, Rush transforms from the leader of the conservative movement into a silly DJ having a laugh to tweak the liberals.
And while he refuses to take Limbaugh's own words seriously, Chafets condemns others for things they've never believed: "Some, like Professor Todd Gitlin of the Columbia School of Journalism, think the government should take Rush off the air."(139) I emailed Gitlin and he wrote back to me, “I do not think the government should take RL off the air. I never have thought that.”
On occasion, almost by accident, Chafets offers us an insight about Limbaugh: “This lack of partisan engagement is a recurring theme in the recollections of Limbaugh's old friends and colleagues in his early radio career. He was in his midthirties before he began giving strong, consistent voice to his conservative beliefs.”(17) The day after the White House Correspondents Dinner, where Wanda Sykes insulted him, Limbaugh was silent on the air but sent an email to Chafets: “I know I am a target and I know I will be destroyed eventually.”(166) Limbaugh normally has enough sense to keep his self-indulgent paranoid ravings off the air. But Chafets treats this absurd statement as if it were a justified response to unfair attacks, rather than evidence of Limbaugh's unbalanced mind. (Notably, Townhall.com is offering free copies of Chafets' book in exchange for a subscription to their magazine, under the headline, “Obama's master plan: Take out Rush Limbaugh.”)
On his show, Limbaugh admitted that he hadn't read Chafets' book: “If they get it right, I already know it, if they get it wrong, it's par for the course.”(May 26, 2010) Nevertheless, Limbaugh gave it his endorsement and prominently promoted it: “everybody who's read it has said it was pretty good.”
Chafets' book, and its admiring attention to Limbaugh's massive estate full of tacky decor, his $54 million jet, his fleet of $450,000 black Maybachs, shows that the author learned one essential lesson from studying Limbaugh: you can make a big pile of money by giving a conservative audience exactly what it wants to hear, as long as you're willing to sell out your integrity in the process.
John K. Wilson is the author of seven books, including the forthcoming “The Most Dangerous Man in America: Rush Limbaugh's Assault on Reason” (January 2011, Thomas Dunne Books), www.limbaughbook.com. Crossposted at Daily Kos.