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Interview With Rush Limbaugh

Aired November 30, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Limbaugh versus the liberals. He's the leader of the ditto heads, a champion of conservatives, the most popular radio talk show host in America. He's also a polarizing, some say, incendiary figure. He is denounced on the left, bitterly criticized by Tom Daschle. Rush Limbaugh talks about media bias, Bill Clinton, George Bush, CNN, Fox News, why conservatives rule radio, and his own struggle with deafness.
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Some swear by him, others swear at him, but there's no doubt that Rush Limbaugh rules the radio airwaves and that his daily skewering of liberals at what he calls the liberal media is having a major impact on the political scene. We went to New York for a rare sit-down interview with the controversial king of talk radio.

Rush Limbaugh, welcome.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, SYNDICATED RADIO HOST: Thanks, Howard, nice to be with you.

KURTZ: If the mainstream media are as biased and unfair as you say, what were you doing consorting Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert on election night?

LIMBAUGH: Responding to an invitation. You know the question of media bias -- you know it's interesting. You know, Howard, some people don't think there is any and other people are convinced that there is. And it's just one of the arguments that's going on throughout the political culture and the country. And people do believe that it is -- I happen to be one -- I mean for a whole host of reasons. We can go through example after example. You would maybe disagree with some of mine, but if you look at voter registration among reporters who admit it, I mean it's overwhelmingly Democrat.

You see I have this theory about bias, and I'll make this quickly as I can.


LIMBAUGH: I know our time's limited. I don't think it's possible to be unbiased if you're a thinking human being.

KURTZ: Everybody's got an opinion.

LIMBAUGH: Everybody's got an...

KURTZ: The question is whether they do their jobs fairly...

LIMBAUGH: Oh but everyone wants a certain outcome if you really care about this stuff.

KURTZ: Do you think that the average White House correspondent, Pentagon reporter, Supreme Court correspondent is distorting the news and putting out some kind of Democratic agenda?

LIMBAUGH: No, I don't think it happens that way. I don't think that there's a conspiracy or a meeting every day where they get together and say OK, how can we shape events in our favor today. They just are who they are. The difference in them and me -- well it's a little bit more complex than this, but I admit what I am.

I admit my political viewpoint, and I'm proud of it, and I admit that I'm trying to persuade people. Others who have bias hide behind this cloak of objectivity, which I think is very hard to achieve and doesn't really exist and claim they're not this thing or that thing or not -- don't care about the outcome when I think they actually do. I mean the way Bush was covered the first two years. Whatever the Democratic leadership said was parroted by many in the media -- dunce, idiot, frat boy.

KURTZ: That's certainly not how he's been covered lately.

LIMBAUGH: No, but the first two years, first two -- now of course it's change. He skunked them, so now they're -- got to -- OK, he's not who we thought he was, oh he's not who we tried to make him, whatever the case was. I don't know what the agenda was, but...

KURTZ: Do you believe that Howell Raines, for example, is pursuing a left-wing agenda at "The New York Times"?

LIMBAUGH: I personally do, yes.

KURTZ: That he -- that the reporters have their marching orders. They're not independent professionals...

LIMBAUGH: I think...

KURTZ: ... think for themselves.

LIMBAUGH: Well, depends on how you define marching orders, but there is an assignment editor and there are -- you wrote a column the other day on Paul Krugman I noticed in the editorial page, that so much of the "Times" news reporting these days seems to be editorializing even on the front page, to me anyway. I mean I -- the "Times" to me, I -- it's one of the last newspapers I look at now. I just don't believe much of what's in it...

KURTZ: And you think...

LIMBAUGH: ... when it comes to domestic political news. KURTZ: ... and you think it's conscious distorting of the news or subconscious because of the opinions and values the journalists hold.

LIMBAUGH: Well I think the editorial page leads it, and when I read editorials...

KURTZ: Oh the editorial pages are for opinions.

LIMBAUGH: Well, but wait now, when I see editorial pages advising Democrat leaders like Nancy Pelosi or whatever on how to behave, I think that that does get transferred to reporters and what's assigned, and it can show up. I mean you have to know how to spot -- it's not blatant. But I can tell you "The New York Times" doesn't agree with what I think, whether it's on the front page editorial page.

KURTZ: Is CNN a liberal network from Wolf Blitzer on down?

LIMBAUGH: No, there are plenty of people at CNN who are not liberal, but I think overall the impression CNN gives is one of friendship and tolerance to the liberal Democrat views and a little hostility to right-wing views. Look at the way Newt Gingrich was portrayed, for example. I mean, whatever the mainstream press does or whatever -- put it this way, whatever Democrat leadership thinks, whatever their attempt to portray Newt Gingrich was -- is what happens on CNN or a lot of cable networks.

Look at the school lunch cuts. I mean, I can remember specifically there were no school lunch cuts. There was a rate of reduction of growth...

KURTZ: Right.

LIMBAUGH: ... but there wasn't a cut, and I can remember reporters getting into arguments with Newt and other Republicans about how you define a cut in Washington. Even after it was explained to them, they still copied or towed the liberal Democratic line that it was a cut, that this was just a semantic argument. It's not a semantic argument; it's subsidy.

KURTZ: Would you define Fox News as a conservative network?

LIMBAUGH: In comparison to CNN, I can see where some people would think so. But I think Fox has got elements of both and they have dominant hosts and certain programs who are conservative whereas over at CNN, the conservative when present is not dominant, but present...

KURTZ: Bob Novak, Tucker Carlson, these are just tokens in your view?

LIMBAUGH: No, no, no, no, now don't put words in my -- but you balance them with who, James Carville and Paul Begala from the Clinton administration. I mean that's a good -- Bob Novak never worked for a president. Bob Novak doesn't even get invited to state dinners. I don't know the last time he got invited...

KURTZ: No, Novak is a journalist and Pat Buchanan, who used to be on that show, obviously...


LIMBAUGH: So you got conservative journalists at CNN opposed to strategists from the Clinton White House on the left. I'm glad they're there. They're helping the conservative cause with their stridency, mean spiritedness and extremism.

KURTZ: Clearly, there are instances in which the media are unfair, are biased, particularly on social issues, I think. A lot of journalists are to the left of the general population, but this notion that this whole big news business is kind of crawling with closet Democrats, I think is like a big fat straw man that you whack away at. Without that, your three-hour show would be an hour and a half.

LIMBAUGH: I don't know how you can -- I don't know how you can deny it...

KURTZ: I'm not denying it, I'm trying to define it. I'm trying to understand it.

LIMBAUGH: You don't know how I can see rampant liberal Democrat sympathy, if nothing else, in the mainstream press.

KURTZ: In every major news organization, down to the level of reporters and editors.

LIMBAUGH: Well, I mean, look, I've never been in a newsroom that I could tell you X employees this, that and the other thing. I've -- gees, I've been places on election night. I've seen the long faces when Republicans are winning in the war rooms. I -- it -- to me this is not an argument, and here's the thing. Would you agree that news, whatever else it is, is a consumer business. I mean it is a for- profit business. It needs customers.

KURTZ: You got to get people in the tent...


KURTZ: ... doers, listeners, readers.

LIMBAUGH: I have found whenever and this is -- I'm going to go back 10 years or so -- and I don't want to mention any names, but some people at ABC confronted with this always insult the people making the charge. I've never known a guy who runs a grocery store or any of the retail outlet when a customer comes in is unhappy says well you're stupid. You don't know how I run my business. Get out of here. Which is what arrogant reporters and how they respond to the charge of the liberals.

They get very defensive about it and they tell the news consumer, you don't know what you're talking about. You don't know how to watch the news. You don't know how to listen to what we're doing or read what we're writing, and I think that is an example of the bias itself or the arrogance that exists. We're better than you. You don't know anything, and you won't know what's right and what to think about it until we tell you.

KURTZ: How do you explain the fact that even liberal columnists and liberal publications in the last three or four weeks have been bashing the Democrats by having had no message in the midterm elections.

LIMBAUGH: Well, because they wanted to win.

KURTZ: It's out of disappointment.

LIMBAUGH: It's out of disappointment...


LIMBAUGH: ... anger...


LIMBAUGH: You guys are screwing it up for us. Here's what you got to do to fix it. Well, I read Al Hunt's letter to Nancy Pelosi disguised as a newspaper column. Her classic examples, I think, I remember all sorts of columns, "New Republic" and a couple of others did stories and it's so woeful for the Democrat in terms of '04 presidential prospects, they're urging McCain to do it. There's a lot of advice being given out there to the liberal media for the Democrats who, for whatever reason just can't get it right. It's fun to watch all this...

KURTZ: I want to come back to it, but first I want to ask you this. As you well know, some of your critics say that you can be inflammatory, that you can be mean spirited and Exhibit A lately is what you had to say about Tom Daschle about his criticism of the war on terrorism. I just want to read it.

What more do you want to do to destroy this country than you've already tried? Do you want your nickname to be Hanoi Tom, Tokyo Tom? Pretty rough stuff.

LIMBAUGH: To the arena of ideas, and he threw the brick, Howard. One of the things I think people who don't listen to me regularly and therefore can't listen in context, need to understand is I don't attack anybody. I defend.

KURTZ: That's not an attack?

LIMBAUGH: No, it's a defense. He attacked my president. He attacked our effort in the war on terrorism. He said he sees no evidence of any victory because we haven't gotten bin Laden. He's out there broadcasting this to the world. This is getting such coverage who knows what kind of aid and comfort it might be providing the people that we're attempting to bring to justice here, either legally or militarily. And to say we're not having success is just not sure. Sixteen members of al Qaeda are dead or in jail of the 37 that are wanted at large. We're making all kinds of success...

KURTZ: Did Daschle's criticism help you or hurt you?

LIMBAUGH: Help -- my criticism help...

KURTZ: In other words, he came back at you and said that you were somehow inciting people. He was receiving a lot of threats. Maybe it was your fault. Did that kind of boomerang on him?

LIMBAUGH: I think it did, and I think a lot of people think it did. Whether or not it helps me, who knows? I mean it's -- you know I don't do what I do to get buzz, and I don't do what I do to get publicity...

KURTZ: As a radio talk show host, wasn't it more fun for you to beat up on Bill Clinton day after day than to defend President Bush?

LIMBAUGH: No, because I don't defend Bush. If you go back and not routinely, I was one of Bush's biggest critics the first two years because he was siding with the Democrats on every important domestic issue. Campaign finance reform, I flipped a wig. There's no reason -- that's an assault on the First Amendment. They're relying on a Supreme Court to overturn the 30 day or 60 day prior to election ban. There were no -- he let Ted Kennedy write the Education Bill. The most we've spent on education, and I can remember in a long time, and it didn't get him any good. He's practicing the new tone.

They still say critical things about him. They're not trying to help him or cooperate with him. And I was -- I was very critical of Bush, but here's the real answer of the question is actually liberals are more fun when they're out of power because that's when they get wackier and nuttier. When they're in power, they're more dangerous. They can actually implement what they're talking about. I was never happier to see Clinton go, and I wish he'd stay away.

KURTZ: He was good for your career. You had fun.


KURTZ: The whole media had fun...

LIMBAUGH: No, here's the thing. I started in '88 with 56 stations. After four years of George Bush I had 500 stations and about 18 or 15 million audience. I added 120 stations with Clinton and four million audience. My career was made long before Clinton. My success doesn't depend on who wins elections. Liberals are everywhere, whether they're in the White House or not, and my focus is being critical of them and pointing out what I think are their fallacies and (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KURTZ: When Bush's father was president, you slept over at the White House one night. If George W. gave you such an invitation, would you be accepted?

LIMBAUGH: Probably so. It's a great honor...


LIMBAUGH: I didn't pay to go there.

KURTZ: Of course not, but doesn't that, then, put you in a position of being on the team?

LIMBAUGH: No, I'm already on the team in my mind. He's my president. I've supported him. He won. I'm happy. I want to do what I can to make sure that he has my objectives in mind and so if he's successful, then I think the country is successful. So I mean I'm on the team, actually of any president who's trying to do the right thing as I see it. I supported Clinton in NAFTA to great consternation among some in my audience.

KURTZ: But Republicans now control the White House, both Houses of Congress. It seems to me you're not going to have too many people to kick around any more Rush.

LIMBAUGH: Yes, the liberals are going to be -- look, when they're out, look at what they're doing. They think they've got to go further left. Dianne Feinstein said the other day we've got to get even more shrilled. She didn't use that word, but we've got to define ourselves greater. We've got to make ourselves -- no, they're going to be the most fun to watch in the next two years because they think they've got to go almost off the cliff left -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) camera left in order to get their message out, which in fact, did get out. So -- and I -- look, I don't think Bush is going to do everything in the world I'm going to agree with. So...

KURTZ: So you reserve the right to criticize the president?

LIMBAUGH: I already have. And this Iraq thing is a looming problem I think. If December 8 comes and Saddam's allowed a material breach and we don't do anything or go back to the U.N. for a supposed new resolution, there are going to be a lot of people saying what was all this buildup for.

KURTZ: We have to take a break. We'll be back in just a moment with more on the life and times of Rush Limbaugh from New York.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Rush Limbaugh, it was a little over a year ago when you lost your hearing. You went through a period of a couple of months of being completely deaf. How hard was it for you to continue doing your radio show during that time?

LIMBAUGH: You know, that experience was sort of -- you know people have midlife crises when they turn 50 and they go out and buy a red Corvette and drive around college campuses to see if they can still attract babes. This was that midlife crisis because I wasn't ready to retire, nowhere near it, and I was faced with not being able to do this anymore. You can't do it if you can't hear. And it rejuvenated me, and I was bound and determined to find a way to do it even if -- and I knew a cochlea implant was possible down the road, but what if that doesn't work or work well enough. So we came up with a court stenographer system. I got more energized than I had been and I'm energized every day, but it was like 16 all over again, couldn't keep me out of the radio station. And the thing that enabled me to do it was just a huge amount of desire and the support of my wife because if she hadn't reacted to this the way she did, nobody panicked. My broadcast partners -- nobody panicked. We just found ways to make it possible and do it.

It was awkward because transcription is a sentence or two behind what say a caller is saying...

KURTZ: Sure.

LIMBAUGH: There is a silence and a lag and I don't hear their tone, I don't hear their emotion, so it made it tough. But the staff and everybody made my desire their number one priority. And if it hadn't happened, I wouldn't have been able to do it as I did.

KURTZ: Even now your hearing is not 100 percent. I've heard you say that you have sometimes difficulty understanding on TV. Doesn't that make everything you do that much harder?

LIMBAUGH: Yes, it just takes more concentration. But it's just something to deal with. I mean it's a medical miracle to be able to hear. I mean to have this audio immune attack -- I had both ears go deaf in six months, and now to be able to -- I can communicate with you normally here if everybody in the room here, and there are about 50 people here folks watching this. If they were all talking at once, it would be tough because every voice is the same level as every other voice no matter how far away it is.

It's just part of the technology of the software. So I'd have to concentrate on your lips and really bare down. But, it's like anything else. It's just something in front of that you have to deal with and you deal with it the best you can.

KURTZ: We appreciate the concentration. You had a television show that went off the air a few years ago. Would you like to have another shot at TV?

LIMBAUGH: Sometimes. You know I go back and forth on this. You know what I love about radio -- is that radio presents the picture. If you've got a host that knows how to use radio, you can -- it's compelling. People are drawn to it like a magnet because their sense of sight is being provided by their own brain. They're not just a sponge absorbing whatever they're shown.

You never hear of people vegging before the radio. They're actively listening, especially if it's a talk format, something other than music or elevator music, and television -- and coming from years and years and years of that where I never had a meeting to do a radio show, don't tell anybody in advance what I'm going to do.

KURTZ: No focus groups?

(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: No phones? No surveys?

LIMBAUGH: No, none of that. No consultants, zip, zero, nada. And television had to have two meetings, hour and a half of meetings a day for a 22-minute show, just to organize everything. And it was not the way I'm used to working, and it wasn't spontaneous. So I take those four years and if I ever did decide to go back, I'd try to incorporate what I've learned and do it again, but it's not by any means a daily desire to do it.

KURTZ: It's a collaborative enterprise. Speaking of radio, why is there no liberal Limbaugh? Why is it (UNINTELLIGIBLE) arena, a medium that conservatives just seem to dominate?

LIMBAUGH: Well, there are a lot of -- do you mean why are none of them prospering because...


KURTZ: Successful on a national level anywhere near what you've done.

LIMBAUGH: Well, look, and you boil it down to the essence, I think mine is a good show regardless what's on it. The content, political, it's a good show. It's fun. It's entertaining, and I'm a broadcast professional. There have been plenty of conservatives in the media who haven't achieved audience size like this, and one of the things I think you have to understand is that -- and I know I'm going to get in trouble for this because it'll be taken out of context and misunderstood -- but it is a performance. People giving public speeches are performing. You don't just get on the radio and say OK, I'm conservative and here's what I think or OK I'm liberal, here's what I think. If you get specific beyond that, I think the liberal message is something people hear enough on TV.

They don't want to hear the institutions and traditions that have made the country great constantly under attack. They don't want to hear doom and gloom. I mean liberalism is this most recent Democrat campaign and who wanted to listen to that. I mean it's not fun. Liberals don't seem to be smiling. They've got nothing -- they can't even admit that they're liberal for the most part. They come up with terms like centrist or progressive.

KURTZ: Well, you certainly seem to be having fun. But as I sit here, I see you behind a big desk and you've got the pictures with presidents on the walls. You were once the outsider from Missouri and now you're worth many millions of dollars. You play celebrity golf. Everywhere you go you're treated like a VIP. I wonder because of your success, have you become part of the establishment?

LIMBAUGH: No. I mean, I'm -- in fact, I do not participate in any of the so-called social give and take of the establishment. I'm really no different in terms of my outlook on life and the way I deal with people than I ever have been.

KURTZ: But you're a big shot. The vice president comes on your show. I mean is it hard to maintain your connection with the little guy when you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) achieve this kind...

LIMBAUGH: No, I -- no, no, no, no. It -- look it was early -- I will be honest with you. When this all was new to me, and I'm being invited to all these dinner parties in Manhattan, I thought it was because they really liked me. And it was because I was a conservative circus act ,and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) say well look at the new monkey in town. You know, let's have him over for dinner and get him really worked up so we can have some fun. And I realized that that's phony baloney plastic, but not a good time rock and roll. If you're conservative like I am, you're going to be the enemy no matter how -- in fact, the more successful you are, the bigger threat or enemy you become and the less these people become friends and you learn that very quickly.

You've got -- Amy Carter was right about one thing. What's it like living in the White House she said -- or she was asked -- and she said you trust the people you knew before you got there. And it's the same with, I think with anybody who comes from nothing and reaches certain status.

KURTZ: It's a good note to end on. Rush Limbaugh, thanks very much...

LIMBAUGH: Thank you Howard. Great to be with all of you.

KURTZ: Our interview with Rush Limbaugh.

When we come back, celebrating the First Amendment on this Thanksgiving weekend. Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (on camera): It's Thanksgiving weekend. People around the country are celebrating and there could be no better time than Thanksgiving to celebrate one of the great moments in the life of the First Amendment. That great moment happened 31 years ago and it comes to mind this holiday weekend with a publication of a new book, "Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers" -- the author, Daniel Ellsberg; it's his story.

(voice-over): Anyone who ever had anything to do with Vietnam knows his name, otherwise a brief introduction. This ex-Marine, ex- Pentagon hawk, who went from being a Cold War warrior to becoming the most famous anti-war whistle blower of his time, specifically for his famous leak in 1971 to "The New York Times" of what has become known as the Pentagon papers, 7,000 pages of top secrets about the official lies we were being told about Vietnam between 1946 and 1968.

DANIEL ELLSBERG, FMR. PENTAGON OFFICIAL: They had supported lies that have lied many thousands of Americans to death and millions of Vietnamese. KALB: Their publication while the U.S. was still at war created a sensation. The Nixon administration then succeeded in winning the court ruling to temporarily halt the continuing publication of the series. When that happened, the focus shifted from the substance of the Pentagon papers to the question of censorship and freedom of the press. Fifteen days later the Supreme Court lifted the ban, the vote six to three.

The Pentagon papers again began rolling off the presses. In his recent appearances, Ellsberg has been doing parallels between Vietnam and Iraq with a message aimed at those inside the government who may feel the administration is not deceiving the public in a buildup to a possible war.

ELLSBERG: They should consider going to Congress and the press and telling the truth with documents. They shouldn't do what I did, wait until the bombs are falling.

KALB (on camera): Looking back at it all, Ellsberg himself has noted that his famous leak did not end the war. The U.S. didn't get out until early '73. But when you add up what happened back then, it comes out this way. The U.S. lost in Vietnam, but the First Amendment triumphed in the U.S.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Well that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at our new Sunday time, 11:30 Eastern, 8:30 Pacific.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


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