Public Eye

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"I'VE HAD 4,635 STORIES IN WHICH I WAS MENtioned in the past year without giving any interviews," says Rush Limbaugh, who is definitely counting. Over a plate of shrimp, rigatoni and an assuming Bertani Catullo 1990, Limbaugh isn't happy to be doing this one with a "reporterette" who hasn't tuned in enough to know that he's moved off abortion and other social issues and is focusing on fiscal matters. He warned the new Republican Congress in December, "Some female reporter will come up to one of you and start batting her eyes and ask you to go to lunch and you'll think, 'Wow! . . . I've really made it.' Don't fall for this. . . This is not the time to start trying to be liked."

No, it's not the time, as I found out at dinner at Patsy's, one of Rush's favorite Manhattan restaurants, which he enters through a side door. He's here against his better judgment, since the Mainstreamliberalpress insists on misunderstanding him. "I'm not a hater, not one of the angry radio guys. I'm an entertainer with a conservative agenda who wouldn't have 20 million listeners if I spewed venom. Yet you liberals lump me in with all the others," he says, lumping me in with all the others. This is surprising, since I have a history of giving Rush the benefit of the doubt -- which he admits. But instead of finding him more sanguine about his place in the world -- which is on top of it since his team swept the November elections -- he is less so.

Could it be the bear market in liberal shibboleths? Without Joycelyn Elders, midnight basketball and the Hillary Rodham Clinton socialized-medicine task force, are the easy targets gone? Not at all. "Just look at Dick Gephardt trying to run against Clinton for President, saying the way to get rid of welfare is to spend more on it, and coming up with a flatter tax than the Republicans," he says. "I tell people don't kill all the liberals, leave enough around so we can have two on every campus; living fossils, so we will never forget what these people stood for."

But, surely, people aren't going to tune in with the same amount of glee to hear Rush praise Newt, even approving the then $4.5 million book deal as a good example of capitalism. But he insists he's not cozying up to power. "I'm not friends with these people; I want to be free to criticize if need be, if they back off on term limits or a balanced budget." The new Speaker and Rush have spoken, he guesses, only "seven, eight times at the most." Rush has kept less distance from the new members, who have been called the "Dittohead Caucus" and dubbed him the "Majority Maker."

Rush after the revolution is much like Rush before the revolution, an outsider content to stay there because it gives him a clearer shot and because, after all this success, he still thinks he won't find acceptance on the inside. Rather than be part of the Speaker's festivities, he took the week off to golf in Hawaii. Unlike so many rich guys who have used their new fortunes to remake themselves with Fifth Avenue apartments, houses in the Hamptons and charity balls, he lives the kind of small-town life he would have lived had he stayed in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, only with more possibilities for ordering in ethnic food. After dinner, he is dropped off at a nondescript high-rise on the Upper West Side, with two bedrooms and no dining-room table. Having gone on numerous diets, he is now satisfied, he says, to "maintain" his current weight, which is one attitude the President might be sympathetic to. He doesn't go to museums, the theater or the movies. He prefers to buy videos rather than rent them, so he doesn't have to take them back. (His latest purchase was Philadelphia.) For a social life, he has "the Mosbachers -- that's it as far as New York society goes -- and they're friends." The one thing he likes about Manhattan is that everything can be delivered.

Lucky for him, he didn't have to go out to find his third wife, Marta, whom he met on CompuServe. They married last Memorial Day weekend at the home of Supreme Court Judge Clarence Thomas. The only time he gets really irritated is when he is reminded of his comment two years ago about whether, as a family- values kind of guy, he was interested in having a family. He replied he would think about it after he had a wife. "So, yeah, now maybe I'm thinking about it," he snaps, "but what does that have to do with anything?"

Rush admits that some days the routine gets to him: the seven newspapers at 7:30 a.m., the relentlessness of being on. "Some days I don't care if anybody knows what I think. But you gut it up and do it, you're a pro. I defy you to tell me when I'm having one of those days."

He's definitely not having one of those days on Thursday, when he takes time out from celebrating his 44th birthday to broadcast his spin on my interview before it appears, criticizing me for trying to get Rush to criticize Newt, criticizing me for not criticizing the Democrats, criticizing me for being a reporter. "I tell you, folks, it's another glorious reason why you're fortunate to have me as your host because the real story here is how the Democrats are falling apart, and you will not find this in the Mainstreamliberalpress."