One moment he claims to be "on the cutting edge of societal evolution," and the next he assures his radio listeners that he is "your epitome of morality and virtue. A man you could totally trust with your wife, your daughter and even your son in a Motel 6 overnight."
Never self-effacing, he repeatedly boasts that he is "recognized as one of the greatest talk-show hosts in America. . . . When I say something on a topic, there's nothing left to say."
What nationally syndicated radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh doesn't say is that he is also a major commercial enterprise.
"He's selling the product 'Rush Limbaugh' and doing it in a lot of different promotional ways," said Howard Neal, general manager of KFI-AM (640), which carries Limbaugh's program weekday mornings. Limbaugh, whose program showcases his passionately conservative viewpoint on world events and features calls from equally passionate listeners, is currently heard on more than 172 stations nationwide. He has a listenership of about 900,000 during any given quarter-hour period, according to Arbitron ratings calculations.
Last week, about 550 people (300 of them from California) paid $1,500 each to accompany and be entertained by Limbaugh on a weeklong cruise through the Caribbean. The radio personality and his corporation got a percentage of each ticket sold. On the cruise, Limbaugh presided at two round-table discussions and one auditorium performance. (Among the other festivities on board: Limbaugh assembled a group to shout insults at Cuban leader Fidel Castro as the ship sailed close to that island nation.)
In addition to his radio program, which originates from New York, Limbaugh hits the stage regularly on his nationwide "Rush to Excellence" tour. He says he makes about $250,000 per year in his speaking engagements, which he holds almost every weekend.
A recent performance brought the 38-year-old Limbaugh to Irvine (home of one of the "biggest collections of rich Republicans in the country," he says), where more than 3,600 people paid as much as $25 apiece to hear Limbaugh expound on such topics as abortion ("the modern-day Holocaust"), gun control ("the liberals would have you believe that the gun actually triggers itself"), liberal politicians in general and, in particular that night, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.).
As the 6-foot, 300-pound Limbaugh stepped on stage at UC Irvine's Bren Center, the audience rose to its feet, some standing on chairs, whistling, hooting, cheering, chanting his name and generally going wild.
"You're sexy," yelled one woman.
"Forever my hero," yelled another.
"A lot of people think it's going to be a lecture," Limbaugh said in an interview after the show. "They think, 'Here comes this right-wing reactionary extremist fanatic who's going to denounce all things that are not conservative.' But it turns out to look to the casual observer like a rock concert."
Many Limbaugh fans--or "dittoheads," as he calls them--are willing to dish out fistfuls of cash for Limbaugh T-shirts, satin jackets, "dittohead" mugs and "Rush to Excellence" videocassettes. Nearly all of the merchandise--$10,000 worth of it--was sold at the Irvine show. Limbaugh says he gets a percentage of the profits from those sales, but won't say how much.
Limbaugh's shows are a lot like his radio programs--full of vitriol against liberals.
"Let's talk a little bit about Barney Frank. . . . He claimed he didn't know a prostitution ring was being run out of his house. Do you dare challenge the honesty and integrity of Barney Frank? Damn right I do!
"Barney said he's been careless in his associations. Do we have blatant hypocrisy going on here? When one of our guys does something like this--like Buzz Lukens (Rep. Donald E. (Buzz) Lukens (R-Ohio) who was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor for having sex with a 15-year-old girl)--the Republicans say 'Buzz, I don't want you here.' There's a major difference in the value structure of the two parties. There are glaring differences between the two parties, and I just like to point it out. By pointing it out, you are accused of being controversial. I love to point it out and I also love to illustrate absurdity by being absurd."
A pregnant pause, then: "Anybody have a condom?"
A pretty blonde in a turquoise dress, who had written to Limbaugh saying she was dying to meet him, pranced up on stage and handed the portly talk-show host a prophylactic.
Then, Limbaugh launched into a routine familiar to his radio fans. He wrapped the condom around the microphone, announcing: "This, my friends, is safe talk." The audience cheered. "You are protected from any evil because of this.
"The idea of these things is not to prevent AIDS," he said of the condom. "The idea of these things is to sell 'em. . . .."
Besides gays and drug users, the homeless are another frequent target. Last spring, Limbaugh was in the national spotlight when he announced plans to take a busload of homeless people into Malibu to see if the city's honorary mayor Martin Sheen ("Martin Sheenski") would make good on his declaration to make the city a haven for the homeless. The plan fell through after Limbaugh was widely accused of being insensitive and exploiting the homeless.
"I made a real blunder there," Limbaugh says now. "I don't exploit the homeless. I wanted to discredit Sheen."
Still, he continues to make the homeless an object of his mockery.
"One of the things I want to do before I die is conduct the homeless Olympics," he told his audience. Events would include "the 10-meter Shopping Cart Relay, the Dumpster Dig and the Hop, Skip and Trip," he said as the audience erupted into laughter and applause.
Limbaugh also has come under some fire for conducting on-air "caller abortions." When he doesn't like what someone has to say, he runs a vacuum sound into the microphone and announces that the caller has been "aborted."
"I made the point with it and it's not my intent to offend people," he said. "I'm trying to attract an audience, not drive them away and a lot of people thought it was a very tasteless thing to do."
Much of his shtick these days involves defending conservative politicians and skewering such liberals as "Sleazer of the House" Jim Wright and "U.S. Cadaver" Alan Cranston.
"John Tower's crime was that he liked women," Limbaugh told his Irvine audience.
Then he took a familiar dig at Ted Kennedy: "But when John Tower had a date, at least he got her home alive!" The audience cheered.
Off the platform, Limbaugh claims not to take his role as spokesman very seriously and cautioned a reporter not to.
"I'm a harmless conservative," Limbaugh said. "I'm not out to poison the world. . . . I'm a lovable little fuzz ball."
Indeed, he recalled an article in the Detroit Free Press that described him as being "like the embarrassing uncle that shows up at family reunions and you hope he's not going to say too much."
"I like the way he articulates the conservative viewpoint," said Ted Hanson, a graphic designer and self-proclaimed "rich Republican" from Carlsbad who attended Limbaugh's Irvine show. "The man is a very succinct spokesman. He doesn't take himself so seriously and the humor injection softens it a bit."
Added Hanson's wife Trayce: "And there are very few conservatives on the radio."
"It's very seldom I get to hear the position I support on the radio," said Barbara Cross, 46, who traveled from her home in Northridge for Limbaugh's Irvine appearance. "He's a conservative man willing to take to the public airwaves and espouse traditional values, he's not afraid to say God is the creator, he's not afraid to say abortion is not right."
Only a few detractors were on hand at Limbaugh's show.
"He's funny but we disagree with everything he says," said Marrya Small.
"He's making a whole career out of gay-bashing," said Ed Uehling, 49. "He says some funny things, even funny things about gay people, but to me it was hypocritical. He sets himself out to be the epitome of decency. . . . He thinks he has to pick on gay people."
"People either love or hate him," said KFI's Neal. "There's no middle ground."
It wasn't always that way. Limbaugh languished in radio anonymity for almost two decades before getting the kind of attention he is receiving now.
He started his radio career 22 years ago at 16, working at his father's radio station in Cape Girardeau, Mo. After that, he became a Top 40 deejay.
"I was always a moderate failure," the twice-divorced Limbaugh said. "As a deejay, I didn't amount to a hill of beans."
He got his first radio talk show in Sacramento in 1984 and everything changed. He had found his calling.
Limbaugh tells his radio audience: "The American people are more and more turning to what is called traditional family values and rejecting what is abnormal or perverted."
He attributes his success to a blend of conservative ideology and an 'Everyman' persona.
"I don't want to sound hokey, but I really think that one of the reasons I'm enjoying this success is because I'm just a regular guy," he says after the show. "Pompous and arrogance is the shtick, but I don't play big time with them at all."
In addition to his stage performances, which started on a regular basis last January, Limbaugh is branching out. He has set his sights on conquering the television world. He recently auditioned for a call-in talk show on Cable News Network and for a remake of "To Tell the Truth."
"To Tell the Truth" producer Mimi O'Brien said she asked Limbaugh to try out for the show "because he's bright, articulate, intelligent and he has one of the highest-rated radio shows at the moment." He is one of about 20 people being considered as a panelist, she said.
CNN confirmed that Limbaugh had auditioned but Paul Amos, executive vice president of programming, refused to comment further.
Limbaugh said he would like to have a television talk show that would tackle serious topical issues but also inject humor, a sort of "Tonight Show" combined with "The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour."
"I'd like to be a comedian and I don't mind being a serious talk-show host," Limbaugh said. "I want to do both. And I think it can be done. I think there's a market for it."