David Kupelian shares highly revealing dialogue with the king of talk radio.
Editor’s note: During the summer of 1992, David Kupelian, then a magazine journalist, conducted what turned out to be a very personal and revealing interview with Rush Limbaugh, during which the undisputed king of talk radio, who passed away Wednesday, opened up about the personal motivations, experiences, values and influences that shaped him. Here is the interview in full:
Question: You have broken all the rules of radio. Your show is not guest-driven, it’s not topic-driven. You don’t do interviews. Your show is basically you-driven. What drives you? Where does your tremendous energy come from?
Rush Limbaugh: Well, I think it comes primarily from the fact that I quit college. I did so naively, thinking that since I had chosen a career in radio, I could do what I wanted without having a formal education. But a year later, when I was 20, I realized what a mistake that it had been in terms of achieving long-term objectives, competing with my peers, making money, and so forth. So I decided, “Well, pal, you’re going to have to demonstrate what you know in order to convince people you’re educated.” College-educated people really don’t have to demonstrate much, other than that they have work experience. People automatically assume that a college graduate is an educated person. I don’t have that, so I am driven to learn. I’m also driven to demonstrate what I know and to talk about the things that I consider myself to be well-versed on. That still drives me today.
Q: There is something about you that seems to drive people crazy. You are obviously a fun-loving, self-confident conservative, very different from the one-dimensional stereotype of the stodgy, selfish, grey-business-suit conservative. Many people look at you as something of a role model, proving to the world that people who believe in the free market and who are moral and who oppose abortion and love their country can also be fun-loving and dynamic people.
Rush: Well, there are two groups of conservatives that hear me, and they react in different ways. The first group, and the one I’m interested in, consists of the rank-and-file conservative members of our population, the middle class, those great people who make the country work. I think they’re enthused, and are positively impacted by the show. I think that was the great thing about Reagan – although I by no means equate myself with Reagan here. But I do believe that one of the great things Reagan did was to make people feel good about themselves. With the dominant liberal media culture being what it is, the fact that here comes a conservative who is getting away with being conservative and having fun at the same time shows others that it’s OK, that you don’t need to feel guilty about it. Remember, all liberalism and political correctness do is force guilt on you for having a good time amidst so much suffering. I think the better example is when you are amid suffering, show people there’s a way out. A positive example doesn’t hurt anybody.
The other group of conservatives is the entrenched conservative intelligentsia, the conservative intellectual movement. I think they are still scratching their heads about me, although many of them have become, I believe, very good friends with me. But there are some who say, “Gee, I hope this guy doesn’t embarrass us someday down the line because he’s so off-the-wall.” I am not the staid, country-club type, so although they like me and appreciate what I have done, there are a number of them who think that I will not have the entrenched long legs that the intellectual conservative intelligentsia has. I intend to prove them wrong. You know, the intellectual crowd is a very elite group, be they liberal or conservative, and I’ll never crack that group. But I don’t think they are the majority.
Q: You mentioned the dominant liberal media culture. That brings up a very interesting point. What we call “conservative” solutions are, in fact, historically the ones that work. By any objective measure, they are more logical and scientific than most “liberal” solutions. They are even more compassionate, in that they actually work, and make people’s lives better instead of worse. Affirmative action is a proven disaster; welfare state, a proven disaster; the high capital gains tax has been disastrous for the economy; gun control is proven to actually benefit criminals and disarm law-abiding citizens. Yet despite all the evidence, in today’s dominant culture, liberalism somehow manages to hang on to the moral high ground. How do you explain this total in version of values?
Rush: Gosh, there are a lot of answers to this, and many of them are maddening and frustrating. First, let’s look at college campuses, home of the political correctness movement. You’ve got liberals there who came out of the ‘60s, who have become tenured, and who are now in charge of curricula and departments. Then again, which kids go to journalism school? The liberal idealists. Go to a journalism school, walk down the hall, and ask the first student you see why he’s there, and he’ll say, “I am here to make the world a better place.” These kids have an activist’s view of the media. Conservative kids, on the other hand, go to business school and get masters degrees. In other words, they’re out there working. You see this in the protest march. The left has owned the protest march for all these years because conservatives and Republicans are out working. They don’t have time to march during the day.
Q: Why don’t conservative youths who recognize the power of the media go to journalism school?
Rush: How much money do most journalists make? Not much. There’s far more opportunity to be successful in the business world then as a reporter, unless you get lucky and happen to become a television reporter and become a star on the Sunday shows, but most don’t.
Let’s look at Hollywood. Hollywood used to try to uncover communists behind every projector in the country. Today, it’s just the opposite. If you want to work in Hollywood, you’ve got to be a leftist. Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, while they were married, actually had a hilltop academy in Santa Monica where they brought the Emilio Estevezes and the Ally Sheedys and the Demi Moores when they were young kids. They educated these future stars on what they were supposed to think issue-wise, how they were supposed to feel, the right things to say. This really happened, it was in the newspapers.
The things that you and I believe in, such things as God and the Ten Commandments and the Judeo-Christian definition of morality, all those things are made fun of in movies and television shows now, and that of course drives conservatives underground. Who wants to be made fun of? So people just go about living their lives and generally show up on Election Day.
Q: The Rush Limbaugh Show certainly helps relieve that feeling conservatives have of being mocked and belittled by the dominant culture.
Rush: Yes, I think people have just been waiting for somebody to come along who says what they think. It is my good fortune that I happened to come along at a time when, just by being myself, I am saying what a lot of people happen to think.
Q: How did you become a conservative?
Rush: My father. He has had the most profound influence on me of anybody I have known. My whole family was staunchly Republican, but my father was one of the first thinkers that I was really exposed to. He was an independent, maverick sort of man, not afraid to tell anybody what he thought, no matter how extreme it might have sounded to people. On Friday nights in high school when I was 15 or 16, my friends, instead of going out and drinking beer, would come over to my house, and we’d sit there and watch television with my dad. All it took was somebody on TV making a statement about something, and he’d just start making a speech about things: “You boys, let me tell you about your future.” It was just mesmerizing to listen to. He was brilliant, a biblical scholar, an extremely educated person. I never did waiver from conservatism when I was growing up. I never rebelled and became a liberal or any of that.
Q: You were fired at least five times from radio jobs before you became the mega-superstar with “half his brain tied behind his back.” One of your managers even told you to get out of the talent side of radio and to try to make it in sales because you didn’t have what it took. Rush, everybody is fascinated with success, so tell me: What was different the last time? What was different about you? What was different about the job opportunity offered to you?
Rush: Here’s the big difference. For 17 years I was the same guy, I had the same beliefs, I had the same philosophy about radio programming. The only thing that changed in those 17 years is that I grew older and, hopefully, matured and learned a little bit more. But my personality and beliefs have always been what they are today. So I’ll tell you what made the difference: It was freedom.
The first time in my career that I was allowed to be myself on the radio was 1984 in Sacramento, California, and it was an accident. I was hired in October of ‘84. In January of ‘85 the radio station stole the morning team from a competing station, and then devoted all their attention to developing that morning show, and therefore left me alone. For the first three months before that, they tried to force guests on me, they tried to force topics on me, they tried to force local issues on me, they tried to force all the formula things on me. But when they hired the morning team, they forgot about me. That was the first time that I was given the freedom to be myself. From that, everything else has sprung, and I am convinced that if more people in this country were given the freedom to be themselves, it would be a great thing.
Q: Describe the effect that being given total freedom had on you.
Rush: The responsibility inherent in that freedom slaps you in the face. It’s the greatest maturing thing that happens. When you know that you’re being yourself – and if you take it seriously, and take life seriously as I do – then you will be your best. You’re not trying to please somebody else, not trying to follow a list of guidelines or behavior memos from corporate. You have the freedom to be yourself, which is especially important when you’re in a talent business. I don’t know how applicable this is to somebody in middle-management on a corporate ladder, but when you are writing or speaking and are responsible for getting people to listen to you, then when you are yourself is when you are your best. If that works, and you get ratings, then they leave you alone. And that’s what happened to me. It took from 1967 to 1984 for that to happen.
Q: How do you deal with the pressure of being at the top?
Rush: Well, I have never been busier, and I have never felt more pressure. But it’s not a burdening kind of pressure; it’s a motivating kind of pressure. When you’re on the ladder going up and you maybe slip a rung or two, people say, “Hey, that’s OK. That’s a learning experience. Get back up there and keep going.” But when you get to where people perceive the top of the ladder and you slip a rung, then they start saying, “Oh, it may be over for the Rush guy.” The pressure is to avoid that.
A couple of days after the “60 Minutes” profile aired, a guy who works down the hall, asked: “Rush, I’ve got to know, how do you keep your head on straight? You are not a prima donna, you are not an egomaniac. How have you avoided that happening to you?” I said, “Because I don’t have time to think about it. I have to be great on the air tomorrow.” The pressure and the demands of the job are enough to keep me focused on the future rather than watch happened in the past.
Q: How do you explain all the liberals who love your show?
Rush: Liberals who love the show say, “I don’t agree with anything you say, but I know you’re just teasing about that stuff anyway. You’re an entertainer. Hell, I’ve got to hand it to you, pal, you’re good.” Now, what are they saying? They’re saying they love the show, they listen to it, but to justify listening to it, they have to tell themselves that I’m not sincere, that I’m just a great entertainer hoodwinking a lot of people. But if there is any hoodwinking going on, it’s me hoodwinking them. Because if they think that I’m insincere about my positions, that’s fine. That disarms them, so the more they think that I’m just an enjoyable, lovable clown that they like, the more I’ve disarmed them.
Q: Do you see yourself primarily as an entertainer, or as a serious commentator?
Rush: I’m on the radio for two reasons: First, to attract the largest audience I can and hold that audience as long as I can. If I don’t do that first, then nothing else matters. I don’t look at this first as an opportunity to change America or to represent the conservative point of view. I look at it first as a job where I have specific requirements in order to be successful. A very close second reason is my passion, my beliefs. But I think that if I re-ordered those and said, “OK, the purpose of this show is for me to make sure America knows what’s going on,” I think the show wouldn’t be as popular because it wouldn’t have the spontaneous, loosey-goosey fun factor that it has.
Q: It may surprise people to know that your radio persona is, I would say, only 5% different from your off-the-air manner. And yet, when you remove that 5% – the on-air theatrics, antics and bluster – you come across in person as disarmingly down-to-earth and sincere.
Rush: Thank you. Well, I care about this. It is my career, and I’m not in this to get rich quick and get out. People say, “You’ve got to get it while you’re hot.” I don’t subscribe to that. If that’s the way people want to look at it, fine. But I do this because I love it, first. I did this for a lot of years when I didn’t make any money, and because I love it, I want to be able to do it for as long as I can.
Q: Thank you, Rush.