In the early 1970s, if you were a resident of McKeesport, Pa., who turned your radio to WIXZ-FM in the morning, you might hear a voice belonging to a DJ named "Bachelor Jeff" Christie giving you the weather report in between Top 40 tunes. Nearly 30 years later, "Bachelor Jeff" goes by a different name, and he hosts the most popular radio show in America.
Rush Limbaugh is much more famous than he was back in his McKeesport days. He's much loved -- and much hated -- and there's no denying that he is tremendously influential. And almost no one has gotten a closer look at the man than journalist and author Zev Chafets.
In 2008, during the presidential primaries, Chafets wrote about Limbaugh for The New York Times Magazine and interviewed the conservative talk show host at his studio in Florida. Now Chafets has written a new book called Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One.
Limbaugh is both powerful and polarizing enough to send the author reaching for grand parallels.
"Martin Luther King once said -- and I hate to be one of these guys who quotes Martin Luther King -- that 11 o'clock in the morning on Sunday is the most segregated hour in America," Chafets tells NPR's David Greene. "I would say that between noon and 3 on Monday through Friday -- when the Limbaugh show is on -- is the most politically segregated hours in America. The country is really divided into people who listen to Limbaugh or who don't listen to Limbaugh."
So, who makes up Limbaugh's devoted audience?
"It's as male as Oprah's audience is female," Chafets says. "It's at least as well educated as any mainstream publication or show, and older, conservative, Republican people, mostly in the heartland, although Limbaugh is the most popular show in most of the coastal cities -- including New York."
Limbaugh, who often casts himself in stark opposition to the mainstream media -- the "drive-by" media, as he's sometimes called them -- has consented to few interviews (NPR's David Folkenflik spoke with Limbaugh in 2007). But he gave Chafets access to his personal life in addition to sharing his views on politics. One thing about Limbaugh that may come as a surprise to some readers: Though he's heard by millions of listeners every day, Limbaugh's own hearing is severely impaired.
"He's stone deaf. He can't hear a thing," Chafets says. "He went deaf on the radio. It was a process of some time, but he gradually went deaf, and the last few months of his deafness he was broadcasting every day." Limbaugh now has cochlear implants that allow him to hear some sounds. "If you sit with him in a quiet room face to face, you can talk with him easily. He almost never talks on the phone. I went out with him one night ... and we sat at a quiet table, but he couldn't hear a thing."
To those who are put off by Limbaugh's politics, it can be difficult to understand the man's appeal. Chafets says that away from the microphone, Limbaugh's persona is dialed down a few notches.
"He's much less bombastic, he's much less outspoken," Chafets says. "In the book I compare him to Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali was, in public, a very bombastic guy. And in private people say he was very soft-spoken and that his public persona was just a ramping up of his real personality, and that he did the public persona to gather a crowd. And I think that's very true of Limbaugh also."
Chafets adds that like Ali, Limbaugh likes to go after big targets. "Limbaugh's favorite fights have been with presidents of the United States or heads of the Democratic party. These are his Joe Fraziers and George Foremans."
Since the arrival of a new opponent in the White House in President Obama's administration, Limbaugh has again emerged as a leading conservative voice, "both a political figure and an intellectual figure" who has "educated many millions of Americans," Chafets says. Limbaugh's viewpoint is familiar, he says.
"The easiest way to put it is to say that it's Reaganism," he says. "Limbaugh believes in smaller government. He believes in less government. He believes in the Republican party as the instrument of that. He's a spokesman for corporate America. He's a hawk abroad. He believes in American exceptionalism. He's less of a social conservative; he's certainly not a member of the Christian right. But I think that it's very important for a democracy to have very clear enunciations on both ends of the spectrum of these kinds of policy opinions."
In a recent piece in The New York Times, Chafets wrote, "Republican success in 2010 can be boiled down to two words: Rush Limbaugh." But Limbaugh never has to see his name on a ballot, and Chafets says the Republicans who "stand for election on Limbaugh's principles" will put to the test a belief long held by the talk-radio luminary.
"Now, Limbaugh has a mantra: 'Real conservatism wins every time it's tried,' " Chafets says. "By 'real conservative,' he means Reaganite conservatism. Whether that's true or not remains to be seen. But it looks to me like it's going to be tested in 2010. And if the Republican Party, having moved to the Limbaugh-Reagan right, scores a big victory, I think that's going to be interpreted in the Republican party as vindication of Limbaugh's belief."