A Man. A Legend. A What!?

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The voice is intimate, sonorous, authoritative, urgent. It has stories to ( tell, issues to explore, products to promote. One product above all: itself. Turn on one of 400 radio stations around midday, and listen:

"Greetings, conversationalists across the fruited plain, this is Rush Limbaugh, the most dangerous man in America, with the largest hypothalamus in North America, serving humanity simply by opening my mouth, destined for my own wing in the Museum of Broadcasting, executing everything I do flawlessly with zero mistakes, doing this show with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair because I have talent on loan from . . . God. Rush Limbaugh. A man. A legend. A way of life."

At first listen, the mind spins, the ear reels. It sounds as if Ted Baxter, the preposterously pompous anchorman on the old Mary Tyler Moore sitcom, had escaped into the ether and had been resurrected as a talk-show host. Dial scanners have to wonder: Is this guy kidding? Well, of course. Sometimes. As when he announces the Limbaugh neutron bomb: "It vaporizes liberals but leaves conservatives standing." Or when he bleats a duh-duh-lut duh-duh-lut fanfare, announcing a Pee-wee Herman news update to the tune of Michael Jackson's Beat It. Or when he handicaps N.F.L. games by political correctness: "The Eagles, an endangered species, will of course cover the spread against those pillaging, earth-destroying Cowboys." Or when he (infrequently) admits to a gaffe and as punishment spanks himself and squalls like a colicky baby. Or when he sucks on a bottle of diet iced tea and snorts like a happy hog at the trough.

These days Limbaugh, 40, must be in pig paradise. His daily New York City- based harangue -- three hours of nothing but Limbaugh pontificating on political and social issues with only occasional phone calls from listeners -- is the most popular talk show on radio, reaching 2 million people at any moment and nearly 8 million during the week. It has made Limbaugh a millionaire, a richly satisfied limousine conservative and a star. His personal appearance fee has leaped from $1,200 three years ago, when his show was first syndicated, to $25,000. His "Rush to Excellence" speaking tours sell out and do a brisk business in Rush T shirts and bumper stickers. He has signed with Simon & Schuster to write a book, The Way Things Ought to Be, and is planning with Republican media mastermind Roger Ailes a half-hour nightly Rush to television. And, accolade of accolades, the moon-faced monologuist had his portrait painted by LeRoy Neiman.

In one sense, Limbaugh is only the latest and most extreme in a line of right-wing savants, from William F. Buckley Jr. to William Safire to Patrick Buchanan to P.J. O'Rourke, whose Manichaean world view and scathing wit make them livelier pundits than anyone in the gray liberal establishment. But he is also, and mainly, an old-fashioned radio spellbinder in the seductive Midwestern tradition of Jean Shepherd, Ken Nordine and Garrison Keillor. "Rush utilizes the medium better than any talk-show host I have ever heard," says veteran comedy writer Ken Levine, who with his partner David Isaacs is developing a TV series loosely based on Limbaugh. "He sounds like a good B novel you just can't put down."

Rush gives great spiel. His radio persona, which is nearly identical to his genially blustering off-mike personality, mixes country lawyer with sideshow barker, tent evangelist with Spike Jones rhythm section. In the space of a single sentence, he will rattle newspapers into the microphone, impersonate Benjamin Hooks (Does the N.A.A.C.P. director really sound like Amos 'n' Andy's Kingfish?) and break into an impromptu chorus of Blue Moon. When Limbaugh gets revved up, he comes on like John Madden with a grudge.

Grudges by the vanload: Limbaugh has a hate list bigger than his capacious ego. Of course, those on the list are all liberals, some formidable, some fringe. Feminists -- in Limbaugh's terms "femi-Nazis" -- argue for equal rights on the job because "they can't get a man, and their rage is one long PMS attack." People critical of Los Angeles top cop Daryl Gates "want to abolish the police." The N.A.A.L.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Liberal Colored People) is a "Nazi-like police force" because it wanted to investigate one of its chapters' support for Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Indeed, most black leaders -- complacent slaves on the "liberal plantation" -- are stripping their people of pride and initiative by insisting on welfare programs and affirmative action. Environmentalists -- "extremist wacko-nut cases" -- are "a bunch of socialists who want bigger government and poorer people." Some animal-rights activists "want the extermination of the human race."

In the Rush demonology, Senator Edward Kennedy is both Satan and satyr -- a perfect target. Last year, when an opponent of Judge David Souter hypothesized that the Supreme Court nominee was "in the closet," Limbaugh said, "I think any of us would be safer in a closet with Judge Souter than we would be in an automobile with Ted Kennedy." Any member of the Kennedy family is vulnerable to Limbaugh's scorn, and in the unlikeliest contexts. Last week Rush noted that accused murderer-cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer would plead innocent by reason of insanity. "That's like finding William Kennedy Smith guilty of rape," he opined, "and then having a trial to see if he was horny."

Limbaugh picks his spots. He praises Ronald Reagan ("Ronaldus Magnus") for everything he likes about the '80s and blames the Democratic Congress for everything he hates. Snail darters get more play on his show than the recession. The chief miscreants in the B.C.C.I. scandal are not the Justice Department honchos who quashed any investigation for two years but Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Clark Clifford. Big Government is bad, except when it provides plenty of guns and bombs; big corporations are good, except when they knuckle under to liberal consumer groups. "You simply cannot have the public at large telling corporations how to run their business," he avers. He also believes in America, the family, capitalism and the inalienable right of fat guys in phosphorescent jackets to lumber through the woods with an Uzi and blast Bambi to bits. One of Limbaugh's favorite callers, "Mick from the high mountains of New Mexico," says he dines frequently at the Roadkill Cafe on "tacos made outta dead puppies."

Ever the salesman, Limbaugh has created brand names for political groups. Do-gooder liberals are "compassion fascists," and "commie libs" are pretty much anyone to the left of David Duke. San Francisco is "the West Coast branch of the Kremlin." Limbaugh, a rock-ribbed skeptic, believes that reports of the death of Soviet communism have been greatly exaggerated. A "Gorbasm" is the sound people make when hailing Mikhail Gorbachev -- "and of course every Gorbasm is fake." Listeners who agree with Rush shout "Mega-dittos" as a greeting. Those who don't agree, he says, endanger his concept of "safe talk" (to guarantee which Limbaugh once placed a condom over his microphone) and may get a "caller abortion." They are cut off, with vacuum-cleaner noises and a woman's scream in the background.

Is anyone offended yet? Does anyone out there feel like stringing up the self-described "epitome of morality and virtue"? (If you do, bring a crane; the man weighs 317 lbs.) Rush would be shocked if you did. "I try to make my points with humor," he says mildly. "I attack the absurd by being absurd." Flattered as he is by the praise of those who despise his opinions, Limbaugh thinks he is popular because most Americans -- disenfranchised by the liberal media -- agree with what he says. "The majority of people just don't want to hear their country ridiculed or accused of being wrong. Let's not flog ourselves. I happen to believe in love of country, and that's what people want to hear."

Limbaugh has every reason to believe in America's reward for hard work; he is reaping it now. Born into a family of lawyers in Cape Girardeau, Mo., Rush sat behind his first radio mike at 16. He spun records and made with the cute chatter under a couple of pseudonyms until he decided the medium would never give him a sense of self-respect. In 1979 he joined the Kansas City Royals as promotion director, where he made many friends (George Brett wears a DITTO T shirt at batting practice) but was still restless. "In 1982," he recalls, "I was looking at a $35,000-a-year job selling potato chips in Liberty, Mo., as Nirvana. But I didn't get the job." Nothing to do but go back to radio, this time in the burgeoning field of talk. He spent four years in Sacramento before moving to New York's WABC in 1988 and becoming the Clown Prince of Conservatism.

Would he be king? Not just now, thank you; he's having too much fun rubbing noses with Bill Buckley (who admires Limbaugh's "preternatural fluency"), chairing seminars with Robert Bork and General Thomas Kelly and sitting in a tiny booth redefining radio entertainment 15 hours a week. "I am having an adult Christmas every day," he says. "If I'd wanted to affect policy, I'd have tried to join the White House or a Senator's staff. That's not for me. I am honest and passionate and sincere about my politics, but mostly I love being on the radio." He says it luuuuuuuv. And if some liberal listeners -- "and you know who you are" -- loooooooathe him, that is their constitutional privilege. Rush will laugh all the way to his own wing in the Museum of Broadcasting. The right wing, of course.