Rush Limbaugh realizes you don’t become America’s most popular radio talk-show host without having the hide of an elephant. And he’s long subscribed to a theory: His 21 million listeners know him and love him, and the other 280 million Americans, well, they don’t pay the bills.
“My objective is to satisfy [my] audience so they come back the next day,” Limbaugh told TODAY national correspondent Jamie Gangel in a wide-ranging, three-hour interview, excerpts of which air on TODAY Monday and Tuesday.
“Most of my critics don’t even listen to me; they are clueless,” Limbaugh said. “They just go to Web sites that report what I say out of context. I’m amazed at the Democrats and the media who do not know what’s going on in my world. I know what’s going on in theirs. I study ’em. I watch ’em every day.”
Follow the leader?
Indeed, while Limbaugh is first and foremost — he says solely — an entertainer who keeps listeners tuned in, his brand of liberal-baiting, on-air politics has made him a lightning rod. Perhaps the coup de grace came earlier this year, when White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel suggested Limbaugh may well now be the standard-bearer for the Republican Party.
The 58-year-old Limbaugh, who’s working through a whopping $400 million contract that will keep him on the airwaves through 2016, first laughed off Emanuel’s christening. Then he considered the source.
“I am not the leader of the Republican Party; don’t wanna be the leader of the Republican Party,” Limbaugh told Gangel. “It’s silly for them to keep talking about how I’m the leader of anything.”
But he was shocked when Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele picked up the ball lofted by Emanuel and lashed out at Limbaugh, calling his conservative rhetoric “incendiary” and “ugly”
“Michael Steele should be out there raising money and planning on ways to get people to vote for Republicans,” Limbaugh said. “Instead, he’s agreeing with false premises put forth by critics of the Republican Party and trying to agree with them.”
Still, when it comes to name-calling between liberals and conservatives, Limbaugh demonstrated on TODAY he’s up for the game. He told Gangel: “There’s a cliché about conservatives: racist, sexist, bigot, homophobic. Now, you announce you’re a conservative, you’re automatically all those things to the critics. Even though you’re not, that’s what they say you are.
“They are the real racist, sexist, bigots and homophobes. They are the ones that look at people and see skin color, gender, sex orientation, victim, group.
“They think they can discredit the Republican Party by making me the head of it. All they’re doing is elevating me.”
- VIDEO: Take a Tour of Bethenny Frankel's Gorgeous Hamptons House - You'll Want an Invite!
- The Very Best Celebrity Food Photos of the Week from Chrissy Teigen, Kim Kardashian, and More
- Gisele Bündchen Shares Sweet Photo of Tom Brady and Vivian After Deflategate Victory: 'My Heart Melts'
- Six Degrees of Kanye West: How He Knows Everyone in Taylor Swift's Squad
- VIDEO: Michael Keaton: I Moved to L.A. with $263 in the Bank
Serious or satirist?
And also leaving Limbaugh laughing all the way to the bank. Having a Democrat in the White House no doubt leaves Limbaugh with at least four years of rich material to draw upon — and ensure his radio ratings remain intact.
Video: Web only: Ideology and business inseparable, Rush says Limbaugh told Gangel his daily, three-hour radio show is equal parts satire and serious commentary, but his detractors confuse the two. He points to the controversy over a parody song about President Obama titled “Barack the Magic Negro” as an example of the media’s hammering him without having their facts straight.
Limbaugh said he’d “never heard of the term” until he read a column by a black Los Angeles Times writer, David Ehrenstein, that called Obama a “magic Negro” for assuaging the guilt of whites. “I love to parody the left,” Limbaugh said. “I love making fun of them. The L.A. Times called him that. I’m just repeating it.” Even so, Limbaugh said he’s spent nearly two years trying to explain himself about the parody.
So how does Limbaugh truly feel about Obama? Limbaugh came under fire earlier this year when in a speech at a Conservative Political Action Conference, he said of Obama, “I hope he fails.”
Limbaugh said his intent at the time was to “tweak the media. I know how to yank their chain. I know how to send them into insanity. I know how to make them spend the next two days talking about me.”
Limbaugh told Gangel of Obama, “He’s my president, too. I want, you know, I want this country to succeed.”
Still, the bones Limbaugh has to pick with Obama could fill a cemetery. Among other criticisms, Limbaugh calls Obama’s stimulus bill “an absolute disaster,” and said his prediction that Obama’s victory would actually heighten racial discord in this country has proven all too accurate.
“Any criticism of President Obama is going to be said to be oriented in racism,” he told Gangel. “And if you don’t like his health care bill, it’s racist. If you don’t like his cap-and-trade, it’s racist.
Video: Web only: Show is done 'for ratings,' Limbaugh says “There’s a race industry in the country,” he added. “They make money off it. They have fame and fortune off of it. And I predicted exactly what’s happened.”
When Gangel asked Limbaugh if there is any good Obama has done, Limbaugh paused for nearly 20 seconds before saying, “Maybe — I can’t think of it.” Then he proceeded to damn Obama with faint praise: “Got a great voice — great, great voice,” he said. “Reads a teleprompter like no one I’ve ever seen.”
Limbaugh admitted that he was briefly moved seeing America elect its first African-American president, “but I got over it pretty quickly. His skin color doesn’t matter to me. His policies are what matters.”
Politics or show biz?
While Limbaugh insists he is in show business and not in politics, the line became blurred in February 2008 when he announced “Operation Chaos.” On air, Limbaugh urged Republicans to cross party lines and vote in the Democratic primaries for Hillary Clinton, who at the time was being drubbed by Obama. His belief was it would throw the road to the Democratic presidential nomination into disarray.
Video: Web only: Not responsible for hurting McCain, Limbaugh says While some might consider it a serious foray into using his influence to affect a political outcome, Limbaugh dismisses such talk, telling Gangel it was little more than a lark: “It was mostly a bit to keep my audience entertained.” But he admitted he wanted to keep the heat turned on Obama in the Democratic primaries so the media would continue to question his positions. As Obama built an early lead, Limbaugh said the media was “puff-piecing” the future president.
He also denied he cost Republican nominee John McCain votes by persistently deriding him during the election, saying, “I’m too big of a realist — I couldn’t have helped McCain no matter what I did.”
In his TODAY interview, Limbaugh largely followed his radio playbook — lashing out at moderate Republicans as much as liberal Democrats. He acknowledged he preaches to the conservative choir on his broadcasts, and that theirs is a mutual love affair.
“I turn them on — I turn people on,” Limbaugh said. “I educate them. I inform them. Republican moderates bore them silly. Have you ever been to the library and looked for the book ‘Great Moderates in American History’? You won’t find ’em.”
To be sure, Limbaugh made it clear he is having a ball with all of this. Starting professionally at the tender age of 16 at a radio station in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Mo., Limbaugh said he “always knew I was going to be wildly successful. I had no idea how it was going to manifest itself. I just knew I was going to be huge.”
He said he inherited his “performer’s ego and sense of humor” from his mother Mildred, who was a nightclub singer in her salad days. Limbaugh recalls that while he always had a satiric bent, his lawyer father Rush Jr. (the current Rush is the third) had little use for it, especially when it came to the issues of the day. “He saw no humor in politics,” Limbaugh said. “That was dead-serious stuff to him.”
While Limbaugh started out as a disc jockey, the Limbaugh his fans know and love today arrived in 1984 when he started a stint as a radio talk-show host in Sacramento, espousing conservative ideals during the height of the Ronald Reagan era. He moved to New York City in 1988 to begin his nationally syndicated radio program, and he’s largely ruled AM radio ever since.
Public success, personal struggles
But Limbaugh’s success has not come without personal turmoil. Limbaugh suffered through addiction to the prescription drugs oxycodone and hydrocodone due to what he said was pain from a botched back surgery that led to a stint in rehab in 2003, and briefly, charges filed against him for so-called “doctor shopping.”
While Limbaugh detractors had a field day poking fun at a man who called for harsher sentences for drug offenders finding himself in the throes of addiction, Limbaugh told Gangel his travails were a lesson in enlightenment.
Video: Web only: Limbaugh on how he got into radio “I actually thank God for my addiction,” he said, “because I learned more about myself in rehab than I would have ever learned otherwise. It was so empowering. Not from a New Age sort of way, but it helped me really understand, become much more self-aware about my emotions. What the root of them was. And how not to be governed by things you have no control over.”
Limbaugh has faced other challenges: an inner-ear disease that led him to declare that he was “for all practical purposes, deaf.” The problem was partially corrected through cochlear implant surgery in 2001. He’s also had three failed marriages as well as weight problems, but Limbaugh made it clear he walks on the sunny side of the street when it comes to his personal life. “I’ve never been happier than I am right now. Never been more fulfilled. I pinch myself at the things I’ve been able to do, the people I’ve been able to meet.”
‘Tiptoeing into the mainstream’
Still, Limbaugh’s professional forays outside his comfort zone, AM radio — which is no small zone, since he is often credited with saving the medium when it seemed it on its way out due to FM radio’s ascendance — have been spotty. Limbaugh had a four-year run on television with a half-hour topical show that ended in 1996. Another TV stint, as a football commentator for ESPN in 2003, ended after two short months: Limbaugh resigned over outcry that his commentary that black Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated because the “media wants black quarterbacks to do well” was blatantly racist.
Video: Web only: Limbaugh on Letterman and fame Discussing the event with Gangel, Limbaugh characterized the episode as much ado about nothing — and said his employers ESPN were licking their chops over the controversy. “I got a call after that [saying] ‘Oh, man, is this not great? Can you imagine our ratings on Sunday?’ ” Limbaugh says “nobody was unhappy at all” until the Philadelphia media began hammering at him, and 17-year ESPN veteran Tom Jackson, who is African-American and an ex-NFL pro, issued an ultimatum: “It’s either me or Limbaugh.”
But lately, Limbaugh has been dipping his toe back into mainstream waters. The Miss America Pageant sent an invite to Limbaugh to be a judge for its annual pageant in January at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, and surprisingly, Limbaugh accepted. Gangel noted it seemed like a strange marriage between a man who famously referred to feminists as “feminazis” and a group of upwardly striving young women.
“People said, ‘This is going to be hilarious — you judging the evening gown competition?’ ” Limbaugh acknowledged. “But it sounds to me like it’s gonna be fun.
“The ideology of these [contestants], I don’t know; I’ve never done this,” he added. “I mean, they’re all going to say they want world peace. I’m not going to penalize somebody who does not agree with me. This is not the Miss America Conservative Pageant.”
Limbaugh also has indicated he wants to put his bulging bank account to work in the field of sports. A lifelong sports fan — he even quit radio briefly in the 1970s to take a job with baseball’s Kansas City Royals — Limbaugh has been reported to be part of a consortium working to purchase the St. Louis Rams football team.
Limbaugh said the media hoopla surrounding his interest in buying into the Rams demonstrates the animosity of detractors who want to keep him boxed into his far-right corner. “They’re just gonna go nuts,” he said of his detractors. “This is the kind of stuff they’ve been trying to make sure doesn’t happen with me. All this stuff is the mainstreaming of Rush Limbaugh from off this far-right fringe they’ve tried to put me. I just keep tiptoeing into the mainstream. And it just irritates them.”
Limbaugh added jokingly to Gangel that he hopes his epitaph reads, “His last check to the IRS bounced.” But he says he fully realizes his legacy will be about divisiveness. He talked about a recent golf outing with celebrity friends at the Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles when, as they crossed a bridge, one player commented, “Hey, if this bridge fails and we all die, who gets top billing?”
“One guy in the group said, ‘Oh, there’s no question — Limbaugh,’ ” he said. “The L.A. Times would be happy he died. Sad all the rest of us died. And the L.A. Times would give Bel-Air a medal for building a faulty bridge.
Video: Full interview (on this page) “I don’t expect to be praised by people I have been criticizing for 21 years,” he added. “That would be insane. I don’t expect to get their respect. The obituaries, I guarantee they’ve got them written — and they’re hoping they can pull them out tomorrow.”
But in a more reflective moment, Limbaugh said that his loved ones have always known what he is about. “The people I care about know me: Sweetheart of a guy. Give anybody anything he had.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints