Author Zev Chafets realized the obvious after interviewing radio’s Rush Limbaugh for a 2008 New York Times Magazine portrait: Limbaugh deserved the biographical treatment.
It’s doubly fortunate Chafets proved to be the right person for such an assignment.
Chafets’ Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One is a rarity: a book that acknowledges the professional greatness of “El Rushbo” while putting his career in context.
The author respects the Limbaugh legacy without the equivocations a progressive scribe would bring to the project. That doesn’t mean the author is a tea party devotee, or even a card-carrying conservative. He is genuinely curious as to what makes the talk show titan tick, which makes An Army of One a necessary read for media-philes and Dittoheads alike. (Click here to listen to Ed Driscoll’s recent interview with Chafets, taken from PJM Political on Sirius-XM’s POTUS channel.)
The portrait is exasperatingly thin at times, expending too much energy detailing Limbaugh’s radio monologues and not enough on the man behind the microphone. But the book eventually catches fire.
Chafets starts in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Limbaugh’s bucolic home town. The Limbaugh name first took hold there thanks to the radio host‘s grandfather, a local legend who practiced law up until the age of 102.
That’s sobering news for liberals praying for the day the man’s grandson steps away from the golden EIB microphone.
We get a peek at the town’s historic roots and some sterile quotes from Limbaugh’s high school pals. Perhaps there’s precious little dirt from Rush Limbaugh, the early years. But Chafets does a better job describing the host’s old stomping grounds than its most famous resident — for a while.
Limbaugh took to the radio in his teen years as “Rusty Sharpe,” much to the dismay of his father. “Big Rush” wanted his son to be a lawyer, or a similarly acceptable career. Spinning records hardly befit the Limbaugh name.
“Rusty” was a natural on air, even if he eschewed politics in favor of the day’s chart toppers. It’s understandable that a young man would prefer to focus on rock ‘n’ roll rather than breaking news, but it took an awful long time for Limbaugh to embrace the conservative chatter that would make him a star.
It’s also one area An Army of One doesn’t fully explore.
Limbaugh flitted from one small radio market to the next, and even spent time in the Kansas City Royals’ organization before finding his true calling: no-holds-barred conservative talk.
An Army of One casts Limbaugh as an insecure titan, someone who holds grudges against his peers — like Larry King — and never felt the embrace of his media peers. He’s easily wounded by those who mock his appearance, even though he can be brutally honest about the flaws of his enemies. Just ask Congressman Barney Frank.
The roots of said insecurity aren’t fully developed. Yes, Limbaugh’s fluffy frame didn’t help, and by defying his father’s advice, he lost some early support. But a more thorough biography might have peeled back additional layers of an intensely private man.
Those who scoff at Limbaugh’s lavish lifestyle ignore the man’s generous nature. He’s an obscenely big tipper, we learn, and early in his career he quietly gave $5,000 to a struggling colleague.
A more liberal biographer would spend too much time taking apart Limbaugh’s arguments. But Chafets only challenges the Limbaugh method on a few occasions, specifically regarding the talker’s clash with Michael J. Fox on stem cell research and his AIDS commentaries.
The book also reveals just how transparent the media critics are who keep proclaiming the end of the Limbaugh era. The comments reveal more about the critics than Limbaugh, who retains an unerring sense of what his audience demands to keep him at the top of his profession.
An Army of One illustrates why Limbaugh has reigned over the political landscape for so long. Blame a combination of hard work, a cheery sense of humor, and a blue-collar sensibility despite his current bank account.
He’s a cutting edge satirist ignored by the comedy community, a man whose words can affect the political tides even if media experts continually predict his imminent ratings collapse.
It’s a shame the book expends far too much energy recapping The Rush Limbaugh Show, detailing running themes from the past dozen or so years rather than giving us valuable behind-the-scenes information.
Chafets does grill Limbaugh on his allegiance to a colorblind society, with the author gently chiding him for not better understanding black frustration at years of prejudicial treatment. Still, there’s little here that shows any malice — or racism — behind Limbaugh’s positions.
Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One gets close to the man who simultaneously rallies the conservative base and drives Democratic presidents to distraction. But hardcore Dittoheads will likely crave even more insight into the radio king, as will most political junkies.