Janet Maslin at NYT:
In July 2008 The New York Times Magazine published Zev Chafets’s appreciative profile of a surprisingly candid Rush Limbaugh. There was spontaneity to the piece, perhaps because it had come about only by accident, after Mr. Chafets’s original assignment to write about John McCain (and interview Mr. Limbaugh in the process) fell through. And there was an overriding idea that still holds true: The only way to form a fair opinion about Mr. Limbaugh is to listen to him directly. His pronouncements are distorted and yanked out of context by acolytes and enemies alike.
The article traced Mr. Limbaugh’s background, visited his lair in Palm Beach, Fla., described the impact of his weekday AM radio show on the 2008 presidential campaign and generally captured the heat of the moment. Asked whether any of his thunder had been stolen by Sean Hannity, his fellow talk-radio apoplectic, who was exceptionally aggressive in harping on Barack’s Obama’s connections with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Mr. Limbaugh at first loftily dismissed the idea that he had any competitors. “Things only take off when I mention them,” he told Mr. Chafets. “That is the point.” When Mr. Chafets continued to press the idea of a rivalry, Mr. Limbaugh lost patience. “Write what you want,” he snappishly replied.
A funny thing happened to Mr. Chafets’s reporting on its way to the bookshelf: It got declawed. The ticklish parts (like that touchiness about Mr. Hannity) vanished. It appears that the price of access to Mr. Limbaugh for “Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One” has been the purging of any details that might pique him. Quotations are truncated in ways that make them softer, and the boosterism has been boosted. (How much of a cheerleader is Mr. Chafets? “Republican success in 2010 can be boiled down to two words: Rush Limbaugh,” he wrote in an Op-Ed article in the Times on Thursday.)
In his short, skimpy book Mr. Chafets seems also to have lost his enthusiasm for asking tough questions, digging for facts (his sales and listenership numbers for Mr. Limbaugh’s books and programs come from Cigar Aficionado magazine) and having opinions that fall short of gushing enthusiasm. Anyone wanting to ascribe these qualities to adroit editing should know that even the name of one of Mr. Limbaugh’s wives is misspelled here, as are Hugh Hefner’s and Phyllis Schlafly’s, and that Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America” was not his “Contract for America,” as it is called here. As for Mr. Chafets’s willing playbacks of even the loopiest Limbaugh reasoning, Mr. Chafets speaks for both of them when he says, “Sometimes you don’t want to let logic stand in the way of a good line.”
David Frum at The Washington Post:
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.
Heather Horn at The Atlantic
Tim Graham at Newsbusters:
he Washington Post knows how to thrust two middle fingers in Rush Limbaugh’s face. They decided to put a book review of the new Zev Chavets book on Limbaugh on the front page of Tuesday’s Style section, reviewed by….David Frum, the Republican establishment’s leading Rush-hater.
This is a little like assigning a Bill Clinton book review to Jim Clyburn, so he can call him a racist again for 1,000 words. There’s more hate than light. Frum gnashes his teeth hardest late in the review, jealous that he, the wise and humble Frum, is not acknowledged by all as the country’s leading conservative intellectual
Frum cannot seem to distinguish between intellectual leaders and political leaders. Most people think of Ronald Reagan as a political leader, not as an intellectual leader, and the same is true of Limbaugh. Conservatives in the 1980s weren’t going to elect William F. Buckley or Irving Kristol, but that didn’t mean they weren’t intellectual leaders.
Limbaugh is a great popularizer of conservatism, a very accessible professor of “advanced conservative studies.” He mints new conservatives, and moralizes the troops, old warriors and new recrutis alike, when they get demoralized. Why can’t Frum appreciate him for what he is?
Instead, he relayed how Chafets reports without irony on Limbaugh’s ornate tastes in home decorating and mocks Rush as a faux populist.
Frum responds at FrumForum:
1) Hate, jealousy, etc. are strong words. They are visibly not substantiated by the extract Graham quotes, most of which in turn is quoted by Chafets. My advice to Tim: stick to the facts, omit the mind-reading.
2) It is not I who “cannot seem to distinguish between intellectual leaders and political leaders.” The claim that Limbaugh has displaced Reagan is made by Limbaugh’s enthusiastic biographer, by Zev Chafets, right up there in black and white.
3) Tim Graham describes Limbaugh as a “great popularizer” and asks why I “can’t appreciate him for what he is”? The answer to that question comes from Limbaugh himself, in words quoted in my review but not in Graham’s blogpost. Limbaugh no longer sees himself as a popularizer. He sees himself – in his own words!” as the “intellectual engine” of the conservative movement. Limbaugh sees himself as the successor and replacement to William Buckley and Irving Kristol. If Graham does not agree – and he indicates that he does not – then his problem is with Limbaugh, not me.
4) Why did my review focus on Limbaugh’s ornate tastes in home decoration? For this reason: because that’s what Chafets’ book focused on! The question any reviewer would ask of a newly published biography is: what does it tell us that we did not know before? In the case of An Army of One, it is precisely these personal details that are the news, really the only news. Limbaugh liked Chafets and gave him access to his house and life. Chafets described what he saw in awe-struck detail. At the same time, Chafets captured in multiple quotations Limbaugh’s intense resentments and his avidity for social status. These are not mind-readings, like Graham’s attempt to analyze me above. They are Limbaugh’s own words. And they make for a jarring juxtaposition – and the most arresting thing in a book that otherwise repackages very familiar material.
The disconnect is on Frum’s part, who apparently does not often listen to Limbaugh’s show. Limbaugh frequently boasts about his wealth, even calling his commecial breaks “obscene profit” breaks. There is no secret here. It’s one of the endearing qualities Limbaugh’s listeners love that unlike Barack Obama, Al Gore and Thomas Friedman, Limbaugh leads his wealthy life without demanding that others don’t aspire to the same thing.If I didn’t know this was a book review about Limbaugh, there is someone else much more historic about whom this sentence from the review would have applied:
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.
Scott Lemieux at Lawyers Guns and Money
I’ve seen this sort of statement a lot and I think it’s weird:
Limbaugh is a great popularizer of conservatism, a very accessible professor of “advanced conservative studies.” He mints new conservatives, and moralizes the troops, old warriors and new recrutis alike, when they get demoralized.Warriors! Troops! Professor! How Rush do so many things at once? And don’t conservatives hate professors anyway?
I’ve tried very hard, but I just can’t wrap my head around the way that some conservatives think of Rush Limbaugh.
Joe Strupp at Media Matters:
I was supposed to interview the author of a new book on Rush Limbaugh. But he backed out, without explanation.
Zev Chafets, whose past writings on Limbaugh have been seen as, well, glowing at best, has a new book: “Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One” (Sentinel 2010).
About two weeks ago, Chafets’ publicist sent me an e-mail offering his time for an interview about the book and saying he could even meet in person if needed.
“Though this isn’t an authorized biography, Limbaugh gave Chafets extensive interviews and access to his inner circle, including Limbaugh’s family and close friends,” the e-mail claimed. “The result is a uniquely personal look at what Limbaugh is really like when the microphone is turned off. Chafets also makes a compelling case for why Limbaugh is the most important and influential conservative in America.”
The most important and influential conservative in America? I had to hear this argument.
We set the interview for 2 p.m. last Thursday by phone.
I should have known early on that it would be a problem.
First, they did not want the interview published until the date the book was to come out, May 25. They also would not give me a copy of it until that day.
Okay, so I am supposed to interview this author about a book that I can’t even read? That’ll work.
They eventually agreed to send me an early copy, but only if I signed a non-disclosure agreement promising not to reveal anything until the publication date. I did not sign the agreement or receive a copy of the book, but Media Matters obtained one elsewhere.
Even so, we agreed and plans were in place for the one-on-one chat today. But last Monday, another e-mail arrived from the publicist.
“I just wanted to follow-up with you quickly to let you know that I need to cancel the phone interview slated for Thursday, May 20 @ 2PM EASTERN with Zev Chafets. Please remove the interview from your calendar and thanks!”
Surprise? Yes. When I e-mailed to ask for a rescheduled time or a reason, all I received was this response: “I wanted to let you know that I received the message to cancel from Sentinel without explanation.”
Sentinel is the publisher of the book, describing itself as the “dedicated conservative imprint” of Penguin Books.
Too bad they canceled because given Chafets’ past work on Limbaugh, this book will likely require some scrutiny.
Dave Zirin at Huffington Post:
This morning on National Public Radio, Rush Limbaugh’s authorized biographer Zev Chafets equated the object of his affection to boxing’s own Muhammad Ali. This is not a joke
As Chafets said, “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.”
The historical and ethical problems with Chafets’s comparison abound. Yes, both Limbaugh and Ali belong in a Talkers Hall of Fame and both used a larger-than-life public persona to “gather a crowd.” But Limbaugh used this skill to become richer than Croesus by exploiting fears based upon race, religion, gender, and sexuality. He’s the great exemplar for all conservative media celebrity: revel in bigotry; become unbelievably wealthy; blame liberal media as your quotes are circulated; rinse, repeat.
Ali in contrast sacrificed. He sacrificed millions of dollars, national heroism, and in the end, his very motor functions, because he was a militant opponent of racism and the war in Vietnam. The only thing Ali and Limbaugh have in common is that they both did what they had to do to avoid military service in Nam. The slight difference of course, being that Ali risked five years in Leavenworth while Limbaugh claimed he couldn’t wear the uniform because “pilonidal cysts” (anal abscesses rfrom ingrown hairs”) prevented him from service. To say that they have a lot in common because they are both “big personalities’ is like saying I have a lot in common with Lebron James because we both play hoops.
Here are some other people with “outsized personalities” who Chafets could also have used to compare to Limbaugh; Hulk Hogan, Harvey Fierstein, Benito Mussolini… the choices are really endless. So why choose Ali? I fear that Chafets chose Ali for the same reason that Tom Horne, Superintendent of Arizona schools, said he was moved to abolish the Tucson ethnic studies program: because “Martin Luther King gave his famous speech in which he said we should be judged by the quality of our character, rather than the color of our skin.”
This is one of the right’s favorite strategies: defend the indefensible by cloaking arguments with the martyrs of the black freedom struggle. This might be effective rhetorically, but it requires debasing history for political expediency. I wouldn’t expect much more from Horne or the Texas School Board or any of the know-nothings who wear their ignorance like badges of honor in the culture wars. But I’d expect more from Chafets who wrote a terrific expose of the Baseball Hall of Fame last year called Cooperstown Confidential.
Andy Alexander, The WaPo ombudsman:
The Post wasn’t looking for someone neutral when it chose David Frum to review a new book on conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh. And that has raised the question of whether Frum was too biased to be fair.
Frum, himself a well-known conservative commentator and speechwriter for President George W. Bush, wrote a controversial Newsweek cover story last year arguing that Limbaugh’s strident rhetoric was hurting the Republican Party.
“Rush Limbaugh is a seriously unpopular figure among the voters that conservatives and Republicans need to reach,” Frum wrote. “From a political point of view, Limbaugh is kryptonite, weakening the GOP nationally.”
That assertion sparked a nasty quarrel among conservatives that pitted Limbaugh and his followers against Frum.
Post Book World Editor Rachel Shea said she was unaware that Frum had written last year’s critical Newsweek piece, which was headlined: “Why Rush is Wrong.” But she said she was aware of debate Frum had stirred over how the GOP could best position itself with voters. And she said The Post chose Frum precisely because “it’s no surprise where he was coming from.”
“There was no way we could find someone who didn’t have an opinion” about Limbaugh, she said. “In the absence of finding someone who is completely dispassionate, we decided to go with somebody who people know.”
But should Frum’s review have noted his past pointed criticism of Limbaugh, for those readers who were unaware? “I suppose we should have,” Shea said. “
I agree. Limbaugh is a fascinating figure to many readers, regardless of their ideological orientation. Not everyone is aware of the feuds within the conservative movement. In this case, transparency is important for those coming to the review without prior knowledge of the Frum-Limbaugh clash.
Frum’s Style section review said the book adds little to what already is known about Limbaugh. But while it is not an authorized biography, he noted that Chafets had been given extraordinary access to Limbaugh.
Max Fisher at The Atlantic:
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has become such a controversial figure that everything from his health to his investments to his favorite music can draw furious criticism. So it will be interesting to see if this surprising detail of Rush’s life inspires a similar firestorm: He loves scented candles. That detail is revealed in a new biography by New York Times Magazine writer Zev Chafets, as reproduced in David Frum’s Washington Post review of the book:
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.
Balloon Juice blogger DougJ, who pulled out the strange detail, quips, “Colbert is going to have a great time with this.”
Frumforum has Limbaugh’s response to Frum
UPDATE: Matt Lewis at Politics Daily