Rush Limbaugh Talks to TIME

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Gary He / AP

Radio personality Rush Limbaugh

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What is it that the mainstream media don't understand about your role and the role of conservative talk radio in general?
I don't think they understand why I do it, No. 1. I treat it as a business. My definitions for success have nothing to do with who wins elections, but rather, Is the program growing audience-wise? Are we attracting new sponsors? Are those sponsors paying confiscatory rates? Are we able to charge confiscatory rates? Which we are. Are they getting results for their advertising? Yes they are. We're sold out constantly, we've got a waiting list for people to get on. That's how I define it.

Now, in terms of the content, I just come here and I try to have fun every day. And I'm honest. I don't say outrageous things I don't believe just to get people in a tizzy. I have the benefit here of not having anybody tell me what I can or can't say. It's totally up to me. But I'm very serious about a lot of things. And so I get very passionate about those things, and I do so with honesty. But I also — it's showbiz too. There's a lot of radio out there. There's a lot of TV. There's a lot of competition. And you have to do certain things to cut through the noise. And that's where the showbiz characteristics will surface, such as "Talent On Loan from God." You know people think I'm saying I'm Christ, which I'm not. But it's just these little signature things that sometimes rub people the wrong way or make them think that I'm an arrogant and pompous person. Those are just the showbiz things.

The second thing that the media don't understand — and I think it's because talk radio is outside the Beltway — it's a phenomenon that attracts what I call the people who make the country work. I don't think politicians and elected officials and bureaucrats and even the media are responsible for the greatness of the country. I think it's individual Americans laboring in anonymity, not seeking fame, just trying to get by, play by the rules, work hard, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And those are the people who listen to talk radio. And the media think that they're all hayseeds and hicks without minds of their own. When in fact they are totally independent thinkers. And most of my audience is there not because I have Pied Pipered them to where they believe. They already believed what they believe — I just came along and validated it. When I started, in '88, there was CNN, the three networks, your magazine and Newsweek and U.S. News [& World Report] and the newspapers. That was it. I was the first so-called national voice espousing conservatism, and people glommed onto it because finally, "Somebody who agrees with me!"

So the assumption is that people who listen to talk radio are idiots or mindless robots or victims of slick marketing and packaging. So there's sort of a condescending view of the audience of talk radio; people are sometimes held in contempt by some people. It's just totally wrong. It's 180 degrees out of place.

It seems that it's a positive thing to have people listening to radio and the issues, talking about politics and policy — having an informed public. That is what's annoying about the condescension — anybody who is tuning in to talk radio or watching cable is more engaged than people who are watching game shows.
You are absolutely right. I've been doing radio for 20 years, and there are still these gross and great misunderstandings of what I do, why I do it and how I do it, and I'll get calls from people who are new listeners, and some of them will be critical: "Why are you trying to just continually make people mad? Why can't you help people come together?" And I say, Look, what you do with your life and your thoughts is fine. All I'm interested in here is a more informed, educated, engaged, participatory public in matters of state. The more people who show up to vote informed, the more people who participate and get involved in these kinds of things who are informed and passionately engaged is better off for the country. So you nailed it. You're exactly right.

Why didn't talk radio's rallying for Mitt Romney pull it off for him?
You see, candidates win or lose elections. Nobody who does what I do, nor can I, influence mass numbers of votes. We might be able to influence or inform people about things they didn't know. But it's up to candidates to get elected. It's not my job to get them elected. And when they lose, I don't take it personally. And Romney was like every other candidate in our field. The reason that we're in this mess is because not one of our candidates, from top to bottom, fully met or meets the three-legged stool of conservatism. You've got this foreign policy crowd, you've got the fiscal conservative–small government crowd and you've got the social and cultural crowd. We didn't have one candidate who wrapped them all up. As such, the conservative voter decided, O.K., this issue is more important to me — I'm going there. [And] this issue is more important to me — I'm going there. You've also got the Mormon thing; the media played that up. You have some people on the social side of the Republican Party [who are] just not going to vote for a Mormon, no matter what. Also, he had his flip-flop problems on abortion that he had to talk about. I think he did a better job of convincing people he had genuinely changed his mind than other people did on certain things.

But I don't think it would have made a difference. You know what turned ... You know, Romney was up 10 points in Florida until two things happened: McCain started with this bulls___ about Romney being in favor of a timeline for withdrawal — he did that on a Saturday. And then [Florida Governor Charlie] Crist endorsed [McCain]. Those are political realities on the ground, and nobody in talk radio could do anything about that. Even if I had decided six months ago that Romney's my guy and [I] had been pumping Romney ... that stuff happens a couple days before the election and I guarantee you it's going to have real effects with voters on the ground in Florida beyond what I do.

This thing about McCain and Romney — I know it's politics. It is what it is, and I don't whine and complain about it. But I found it very interesting. It was a Saturday he made that claim. So it's three days before the election. And Romney, because of McCain-Feingold, his groups could not go out and run ads countering what McCain had said. And I said, Maybe we need to add to McCain-Feingold and make sure that candidates can't say anything that's not true about their opponents 30 days before an election. So while McCain-Feingold prevented Romney, or Romney's groups, from responding to it [with] TV ads, McCain was free to mouth off. A little irony.

What will it be like, because you're a conservative and speak to an audience that tends to be conservative, if McCain wins the presidency? How will it be different for you having an incumbent President of the party that you tend to support whom you don't see eye to eye with? How will that be different from when Bush Senior was President or George W.? Will there be a difference?

Well, who can predict the future? I don't plan these things. And I don't. My show is event-driven. I'm sitting here today and I happen to know I'm going to lead today with the Democrats last night, I think. But most days, when this show starts at noon and I've got my stuff in front [of me], I really don't know what I'm going to start with. It's almost all spontaneous.

You see, your question comes from, again, what I think is a mistaken template. You're [asking], What is talk radio going to do if McCain wins and he's sort of one of our guys but isn't? Ah, we've had that with President [George W.] Bush. I mean, go talk to Bush about my attitude on illegal immigration. The thing about Bush that kept his people unified for the most part was the war, and what the Democrats were savaging him with, and trying to secure defeat, wrap it around his throat. That served to unify people who had disagreements with Bush on other things. Plus, Bush is a likable guy. Now we're still going to have a war and we're still going to have terrorist threats and so forth. But this is what I fear. I have looked in the future. And you're going to have probably a Congress with even larger Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. I mean, Pelosi's out there saying that she thinks Obama can bring 75 new seats. Let's say they have sizable increases in their voting majorities. You and I know that Presidents like to get things done, and they define getting things done in terms of legislation and other things. Here we're going have a guy, if he's elected, who has made a practice of getting things done, not by reaching across the aisle, but rather walking across the aisle and sitting down with the Democrats. He is who he is. And so it looks like we're going to get a Democratic agenda regardless of who wins the presidency. And so arguing against liberalism and a Democratic agenda is always going to be on my plate; it's always going to be the first thing out there regardless of who the President is. I mean, I don't view myself as having to defend my President if he's in my party. That's not my job; that's not how I go about it.

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