TIME – November 1, 1993
Populist and popular, radio’s right-wing pundit and gross-out wild man have new mega-best sellers
IF THE MILLIONS of Americans fanatically devoted to Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern have one major common hypothesis about the way the world works, it is & that a rich and powerful elite, congregated in Manhattan, sits in posh salons sipping cocktails and smugly denigrating them and their unorthodox heroes.
And they’re right. One evening last week at the grand Manhattan home of former Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher and his wife Georgette, chat among the guests, who included eminence grise Pete Peterson and Sally Jessy Raphael, variously covered Somalia and Bosnia — and, eventually, Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. Another guest, the woman who edits both Limbaugh and Stern (as well as Mrs. Mosbacher and Beavis and Butt-head) for Pocket Books, came under attack for publishing Stern’s unseemliness. His book, Private Parts, in addition to autobiographical particulars and his not-exactly-progressive views on social issues, flaunts his low-down obsession with sexuality. “You should be ashamed,” said a very powerful entertainment executive who has made millions of dollars producing smutty, antisocial television and movies. “Howard Stern is a pornographer!” another prominent diner screeched. Still another predicted Stern’s book would be a flop, since nobody but semiliterate white trash listens to him.
If Limbaugh’s fans had been in Hartford, Connecticut, just three days earlier, they could have had their own dark, resentful suspicions confirmed. It was a symposium on infotainment featuring a quorum of the national media elite — Sam Donaldson, Bernard Kalb, Phil Donahue. When Donaldson, who says he often listens to Limbaugh, slammed him for calling certain feminists “feminazis” and for “his ad hominem attacks and ghoulish humor,” the audience of 2,000 erupted in approving hoots and applause. Mary Matalin, who managed George Bush’s campaign last year, was also on the panel, and she asked how many in the audience had ever watched or listened to Limbaugh. “Silence,” Matalin says. “Absolute silence. Nothing. Nobody.” Of course, after she herself dismisses Stern as a cretin, she admits she has never really listened to him.
America can pretty much be divided in two: on one side are Rush’s people and Howard’s people, and on the other the decorous and civilized who tend to be uncomfortable with strong broadcast opinion unless it comes from Bill Moyers, Bill Buckley or, if pressed, Andy Rooney. The Rush and Howard people — who, like their avatars, have more in common than they know — seem to be winning, or certainly proliferating.
The array of forces can be reckoned roughly. Limbaugh now claims 20 million listeners on radio, of whom, his TV producer Roger Ailes figures, two-thirds largely agree with his ideological conservatism — the “dittoheads,” as Limbaugh calls his fans. More than 3 million dittoheads bought his first book during the past year, and his new hard cover, See, I Told You So, which appears in bookstores next week, has a first printing of 2 million, the largest in American history. On his syndicated TV show, which is broadcast mainly late at night, he draws a bigger audience than Conan O’Brien or Arsenio Hall.
As for Stern, somewhere between 4 million (according to the radio-rating company Arbitron, which may underestimate listeners to controversial shows such as Stern’s) and 16 million (according to Stern’s camp) listen to him on the radio, where, like Limbaugh, he broadcasts live for several hours every weekday. Stern’s book came out two weeks ago, and there are 1 million copies after eight printings. It is, until Limbaugh’s book supplants it, No. 1 on the hardcover best-seller lists. His TV interview show on cable’s E! is often the highest-rated program on that (smallish) entertainment-news channel.
Very roughly speaking (and judging by a TIME/CNN poll), Limbaugh is about 2 1/2 times as big as Stern. “Howard Stern says what’s on his mind,” according to his book editor, Judith Regan. “Rush Limbaugh says what’s on his mind,” according to his book editor, Judith Regan. In terms of their relative media presences, says Regan, “Rush is the heavyweight champion of the world. Howard is a contender. He’s in the ring.”
It seems unnecessary to concede that Limbaugh and Stern are profoundly different creatures. At first glance — and to hear both the Limbaugh camp and Stern tell it — they are utterly dissimilar. “He hates to be compared to Stern,” says Ailes. “Stern is a pure entertainer. Rush was invited to have dinner with Anthony Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher last month.” Says Stern: “My biggest fear is being lumped in ((with Limbaugh)).” It is easy to look no further than their obvious dissimilarities.
One is a fat, baldish, old-fashioned middle American guy with a delivery like Robert Preston in The Music Man, a conservative ideologue who has never owned a pair of jeans, gorges on $250 meals of caviar and steak, revels in drinking “adult beverages” and gets embarrassed when a friend makes a bawdy crack about a female reporter interviewing him. The other is a skinny, 6-ft. 5-in. longhair who wears jeans, dark glasses and five earrings, a teetotaler who eats no red meat and whose radio shows and book inevitably include stretches of Butt-head, uncensored sex raps. One is a cracker-barrel commentator descended from the Great Gildersleeve, Paul Harvey and Ronald Reagan, whose often arch, sometimes tiresome rants about “commie libs” have the propulsive fluency of parliamentary debate; the other, a radio verite comedian who is an odd fin-de-siecle hybrid of Joe Pyne, Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce and who rambles on maniacally about himself, show business and the world in general, variously appalling and exhilarating. They seem antithetical generational caricatures — even though Limbaugh, 42, is a baby boomer only three years older than Stern.
Limbaugh is a more or less conventional pundit whose agenda is the standard public agenda — government programs vs. free-market solutions, self-reliance vs. entitlements. He has real influence — “the power,” says Clinton White House consultant Paul Begala, “to put something like Zoe Baird on the radar screen.” (He is a free-trader, and TIME has learned that President Clinton has dispatched Lee Iacocca to enlist Limbaugh in the Administration’s campaign on behalf of NAFTA.)
Stern doesn’t seek power or influence, and doesn’t have any. He is smart and often sensible but intellectually lazy. He lurches from a convincing take on the New York City mayoral race (he’s for Republican Rudolph Giuliani) to leering consideration of Marla Maples’ body to an acute inside-baseball dissection of the Fox network’s cancellation of Chevy Chase and back to some babe talk. But he is nevertheless a social commentator with a large constituency that regards him as an across-the-board truth teller. Stern will never appear on a Washington round-table program, but his wildly, unwholesomely eclectic agenda is actually very much like that of an average Joe who doesn’t tidily segregate his thoughts on sex and pop effluvia from his thoughts on health-care reform, and who doesn’t see politics as the primary vehicle for his hopes and fears.
Sure, one’s a prurient, free-associating rocker manque and one’s a tub- thumping right-wing former bowler, but how much more illuminating to see Limbaugh and Stern as flip sides of a single brassy, very American coin. They are not just analogous but kindred phenomena, each man rising on adjacent zeitgeist updrafts. “They’re both ambassadors in the culture of resentment,” says Newsday media critic Paul Colford, who recently published The Rush < Limbaugh Story (St. Martin’s Press; $19.95). In basic demographic terms their core radio audiences look similar: white men (a majority for Limbaugh, 75% for Stern) who are on the young side (“the Letterman demographic,” says Ailes of Rush’s viewers), people from the broad American middle class — small- businessmen, taxi drivers, working stiffs who unapologetically enjoy action movies, who feel besieged by (and may secretly enjoy feeling besieged by) the nuttier extremes of political correctness.
Limbaugh and Stern are popular because their audiences consider them uniquely honest, commonsensical, funny and a bit reckless (more than a bit in Stern’s case) at a time when most people on radio and TV seem phony, impersonal, dull, dissembling, hedging. Both are irreverent, acute, bombastic, iconoclastic, outlandishly populist rabble-rousers who make millions of dollars a year. They are national ids, gleeful and unfettered. Howard is Rush’s evil twin, Goofus to his Gallant.
On the other hand, reduced to their essential messages, both Limbaugh and Stern are closer to the rough center, and closer to each other, than almost anyone customarily imagines. You’re dubious? Consider the following diatribe: “You want the secret of life? Here it is . . . ((G))o to school if you’re that age. If the teacher tells you to sit in the chair, you sit in the chair. If you don’t feel like it, you force yourself, anyway. You get older, the routine doesn’t change. You eat breakfast, you go to work, you come home . . . If you have kids, you live with the kids. You don’t move out on your wife . . . And if you can’t go along with these rules, you’re a misfit.” That’s Stern, and it’s typical. Rush may be the ultimate Reaganite, but Howard is a classic Reagan Democrat. (He voted for McGovern, Carter, Reagan, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.)
But Stern’s infamous specialty is mean-spirited, horrendously tasteless, occasionally racist lampoons. It’s he, not Limbaugh, who uses outrageous put- downs and salty language, right? Such as calling a former U.S. Senator “Alan (‘the Cadaver’) Cranston” and Perot “a hand grenade with a bad haircut.” It’s Stern, surely, who used to do an on-air stunt with vacuum- cleaner sound effects dubbed “caller abortions,” who chatted with a female caller about giving him “a throat massage” with her tongue, whose current newsletter article on health-care reform is headlined BEND OVER, AMERICA, and who just last week on the radio delivered a parody ad for mail- order bricks from L.A. to be used as rioters’ weapons, talked about a “drunk penis” and the “scumbags” who get newspaper coverage, and said, “Damn! Damn! Hell! Hell!” Pure Stern . . . ?
In fact, of course, all those were Limbaugh. Such antics constitute a rather small part of his shtick (rather than a majority, as with Stern, who goes much further than Limbaugh would ever dream of, playing “Butt Bongo” and regularly sending out a stuttering hanger-on to ask celebrities rude questions). But it is a good part of what makes Limbaugh so much more successful than more ordinary conservative radio personalities — indeed, what makes him the most popular broadcast commentator of the age, maybe ever. “I look at this,” Limbaugh has said repeatedly, “as entertainment.”
Aside from Hollywood producer Don Simpson (Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun), who says that “Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh are the only two voices of truth in the media,” the same individuals who like and admire Limbaugh are probably very seldom the same individuals who like and admire Stern. But just who are they? And why is each audience so fetched by its man? “All those 20 million people are not some kind of Nazis,” Mary Matalin says of her fellow dittoheads. “What’s really homogeneous about them is not their party affiliation but their mistrust of those they elect to lead them, mistrust of institutional media, inaccessibility to the system.” Sounds not unlike Stern’s fans, who, according to Robin Quivers, his radio sidekick of 12 years, “feel he’s speaking for them. They’re voices unheard. They’re the hardworking people who pay all the taxes, and they’ve seen their life-style eroded.”
They are temperamentally and often literally Perot voters. Limbaugh says when he started calling Perot a fraud and worse during last year’s campaign, “the hate mail I was getting was the most I’d ever received. And it was scary — ‘You represent to us exactly what Perot represents.’ “
“He says things a lot of people my age group think,” explains Doug Tyler, 33, a New Orleans salesman, “but don’t have the nerve to express.” He’s talking about Stern. Tyler, for instance, approves of Stern’s Limbaughian screeds against overconcern for criminal defendants. And while Camille Belchere, an artist in Santa Monica, California, regularly finds Stern’s breaches of taste over the top — “There are some times when it gets to be too much for me” — always, she says, “the next morning I’ll turn it on again.” ABC News analyst Jeff Greenfield is more a dittohead than a Howard fan, but he appreciates the appeal of Stern’s relentless sex talk. “He is the bubbling up from the subconscious,” says Greenfield. “If you’re a guy and you look at a beautiful woman, the first thing you think of is the most elemental gamey horndog level of response. That’s Howard.”
“I appreciate there’s an alternative voice,” says surgeon Robert Allen, who lives south of San Francisco. “He carries a different message than what we’re usually bombarded with in the press.” He’s talking about Limbaugh. “At times I find him a bit blustery.” Anne-Louise Shaffer is a 40ish housewife in Dixon, Illinois, who says that “at first I found him extremely abrasive. But there was nothing more interesting on, so I listened. Does he present both sides? Absolutely not. But it’s good to have someone like this.”
Limbaugh is ubiquitous at the grass roots in a way that Stern isn’t and can never be. Here their careers really are apples and oranges — although unquestionably a great big apple and a smaller orange. Limbaugh’s radio show is carried on 628 stations, all but a few AM, scattered everywhere across America. Stern is on during morning drive time on 15 stations, almost all major FM outlets in the big cities of the West and Northeast. In New York, Stern has the top-rated show on any station at any time of day, with 1.2 million listeners. In Chicago, where Stern is no longer on the air, Limbaugh’s is the second-ranked show in town; in Dallas he’s No. 1; and in L.A., where both he and Stern are popular, he is pulling in 38% more listeners.
Limbaugh biographer Paul Colford estimates that Limbaugh makes $4 million from radio annually, Stern $9 million. Limbaugh’s first book may earn him around $8 million, and his 12-page monthly newsletter, with 370,000 subscribers, grosses $11 million, pushing Limbaugh’s annual in come to the $20 million range. Stern could make $12 million this year between radio, television and book money. (His income is the single subject he is loath to discuss publicly.) Up or down, first or third, a dozen FM or 600, the outsiders Limbaugh and Stern are suddenly both very rich men.
Limbaugh and Stern were both born on Jan. 12, Limbaugh in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Stern on Long Island, New York. Limbaugh’s father owned a piece of a local radio station where Rush III got his start, and Stern’s father was a Manhattan radio engineer. Limbaugh tried strenuously to please his father, | and, according to his brother David, “echoes of my dad reverberate through everything my brother says.” Stern says his father continually screamed that he was a “moron.” Neither dated much in high school. Both work very conscientiously and don’t like vacations or pursue hobbies or very active social lives. (Limbaugh is friendly with baseball’s George Brett, as well as the Mosbachers and Matalin; Stern says he pals around with literally no one, ever.) Both are shy and charming in real life. On the air (both work in midtown Manhattan), Limbaugh half-jokingly boasts he is “the epitome of morality and virtue” with “talent on loan from God,” and Stern half- jokingly calls himself “King of all Media.” Both are Snapple spokesmen.
Both complain about being misrepresented. And Limbaugh does not officially consider all feminists “feminazis,” only those who are enthusiastic about abortion. Both sometimes make ugly cracks about blacks, and both could be considered pigs, happily unenlightened. “I love the women’s movement,” Limbaugh has written, “especially when I’m walking behind it.” Both interlard their radio talk with bits of hard rock. Each believes, with some justice, that he is being made a special target by the Federal Government. Limbaugh says he feels persecuted by Democratic Congressmen who want to re- establish broadcasting’s Fairness Doctrine in order to pressure TV and radio stations to cancel his shows. And the FCC is going after Stern vigorously, during the past year fining Stern’s employer $1.1 million for using words no dirtier than “rump” and “wiener” and “love lava.”
Stern is at heart a deeply perverse jester, and looks and sounds like one. When he chased Phil Donahue in order to kiss him (to Phil’s extreme displeasure) on Donahue’s show two weeks ago, he was being the pedal-to-the- metal performance artist one expects. And his unedited riffing can often be, as charged, disgusting: his jokes 11 years ago about his wife’s miscarriage were inexcusable, his now defunct TV show’s low-rent T&A spectacle a depressing glimpse into a New Jersey heart of darkness.
Limbaugh the humorist, on the other hand, is a curious new species. “The political turf of parody and satirists has almost always been left,” Jeff Greenfield says. “It’s one thing to attack liberals. But to be laughing at them — that’s when some people get crazy.” Limbaugh calls the grandly elegant Secretary of the Treasury “Lord Bentsen.” He calls the presidential counselor David Rodham Gergen.
Stern graduated with good grades from prestigious Boston University, and has assembled an unbroken onward-and-upward resume of better and better radio jobs ever since. Limbaugh dropped out of Southeast Missouri State after a year and had a nondescript disk-jockey and p.r. career, getting fired from five jobs during his 20s and 30s. Howard met his wife in college 19 years ago, married her four years later and proudly says he has been faithful to her. Alison Stern, the very picture of the cheerful, wholesome middle-American housewife, raises their three daughters, ages 9 months to 10 years, at the family home in a conservative well-to-do Long Island suburb. “I look around at the creeps and mutants out there,” the fretful dad writes in Private Parts, “and the idea that these idiots are going to invade my life and marry my daughters at some point really frightens me.” Limbaugh has been married twice, the first time for 18 months, the second time to a Kansas City Royals usherette; he is childless and lives alone in a small apartment on Manhattan’s ultra-liberal Upper West Side.
Which is not to suggest that Limbaugh’s ideological sincerity and coherence are anything less than total. He plainly believes what he says and mostly argues his cases lucidly, particularly by radio standards. Nor, in this post- Reagan age, can he be called an extremist.He harps on liberal straw men in a way that seems more properly circa-1973 (“long-haired, maggot-infested, dope-smoking peace pansies”), and his logic can be unforgivably specious (against the pro-choice argument for abortion:”Can a woman choose to steal, using her own body?”). But in fact his views on abortion are relatively nuanced. Nor is it kooky or even wrong to assert, as Limbaugh has, that the risk of heterosexual AIDS and estimates of the homeless population have been exaggerated for political reasons, that increased school expenditures don’t necessarily produce better education, that means testing for Social Security would be a fine idea, that taking responsibility for one’s own life is all-important.
Limbaugh and Stern exist in parallel universes, but in symbiosis. Stern was successfully raising the threshold of provocative radio performance for years before Limbaugh came along. And certainly Limbaugh’s unbudging commitment to free speech and the free market help make Stern possible. Despite the conventional wisdom, both endure and grow in popularity, Limbaugh remarkably so: his radio audience has increased 50% in each of the past two years. Will they be hectoring and outraging all over the airwaves a decade from now? Stern is smart enough to think he won’t be. Limbaugh probably will be unless he really triumphs and a Reaganite Republican such as Bill Bennett is elected President, which could moot a lot of the national appetite for his political evangelizing.
For now, both Limbaugh and Stern make the circus-cum-marketplace of ideas quirkier, livelier, more bracing, more free, more American. Limbaugh, Greenfield rightly says, “highlights how overwhelmingly banal the normal public discourse is. You get ingots of predigested mush that pass for political debate, and here’s Rush with some sparkle to him.” One could argue that the Rialto is already plenty gross and strange enough without any help from Stern, but he does manage sometimes to turn the vulgar sublime. One could also argue that the ascendance of such meretricious infotainers suggests something less than flattering about America in the late 20th century.
“Stern and Limbaugh make it a more interactive, more personal experience,” says Everette Dennis of Columbia University.”They make it a better, more vibrant medium. It’s the triumph of the individual.” Limbaugh regularly calls himself “the most dangerous man in America.” Stern uses the very phrase to describe himself. The truth is, neither is very dangerous. Rather, the fact that either is seriously considered a threat, that 34% of Americans (and 48% of Democrats) think the government should not allow Rush to make fun of the Clintons on the air, according to the TIME/CNN poll, is more worrisome than Stern or Limbaugh will ever be.
With reporting by Margaret Carlson/Washington, Georgia Harbison and Andrea Sachs/New York and Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles