After I authored a Washington Post article critical of Rush Limbaugh from a conservative perspective, William Kristol of the Project on the Republican Future took me to task, telling a reporter that I had judged the popular talk show host by “extreme standards.” Limbaugh, he said, is “plenty conservative for me.”

Among other things, my article noted that Limbaugh, a staunch Reaganite, didn’t vote for Reagan (he didn’t register to vote until 1986, when he was 35); Limbaugh, a spokesman for family values, has been divorced twice; Limbaugh, who told a Christian magazine “Jesus is the answer,” doesn’t go to church and won’t discuss biblical issues on his programs; Limbaugh, an advocate of a strong military and American interventionism, avoided the Vietnam War draft; Limbaugh has back-pedaled on social issues such as abortion and homosexual rights, though he emphasized them early in his career; Limbaugh refuses to correct his most serious errors, even though he describes himself as the “Epitome of Morality and Virtue”; and Limbaugh, an ardent Republican and multimillionaire, contributed a paltry $1000 to the Republican Party and its candidates during the 1992-94 election cycles.

Limbaugh says about President Clinton, “Character counts.” Should Limbaugh’s character count as well? Or should we simply set aside these obvious questions and contradictions, on the grounds that he is one of us, a “conservative,” and that we have a vested interest in his success?

Conservatism is not just a set of beliefs, to be mouthed when profitable; it is (or should be) a way of life. It is important that our leaders—in Congress and out of government—be authentic, for otherwise we will feel the heat when they crash and burn. Human beings are imperfect. But without some connection between rhetoric and reality, American conservatives will inevitably follow their British counterparts, whose leading spokesmen for “back to basics” initiatives have been discovered fathering illegitimate kids and having homosexual affairs.

Some might argue that it is possible to be a conservative without living or acting like one. In this sense, conservatism has been a major factor in Limbaugh’s success. As one conservative leader explained, “Limbaugh stepped into a vacuum where the American people wanted an alternative voice. He hit a nerve. But his success is not so much Limbaugh as it is the result of the desire for an alternative.” For his part, Limbaugh denies being a “movement conservative.”

At first, Limbaugh was funny and effective on a variety of social issues, such as homosexual rights and abortion. Now he rarely talks about them. Gone are the “AIDS Updates,” poking fun at homosexual promiscuity, the renditions of “My Boy Lollypop” aimed at gay Congressman Barney Frank, and the “caller abortions” dramatizing the pro-life cause. But it gets worse. Not only has he given interviews to Playboy and Penthouse, he has appeared on a Hollywood sitcom (produced by friends of the Clintons, no less) and has even begun broadcasting ads touting the New York Times!

Conservative leaders, aware of his leftward drift, have generally been unwilling to challenge him. Some remain silent because they still hope for a complimentary word from Limbaugh on his radio or TV show, or because they want to get a favorable write-up in his newsletter, “The Limbaugh Letter.” Others simply fear his wealth and power. The perception that he played a role in the Republican takeover of Congress adds to the feeling that he cannot be challenged. Yet Limbaugh has wandered so far afield on public policy issues that one wonders whether his activities will be harmful or helpful.

In response to my critique, Kristol said he was delighted with Limbaugh, describing his radio program as a kind of Wall Street Journal editorial page of the airwaves. Indeed, Limbaugh is known to be very close to the Journal‘s John Fund, who largely wrote Limbaugh’s first book. The Journal was quick to jump to Limbaugh’s defense when liberals in Congress threatened to muzzle him by resurrecting the so-called fairness doctrine, and ran a column by William Bennett defending Limbaugh for a failure to correct inaccuracies. The Journal‘s editorial page has also featured excellent coverage of the Whitewater scandal and congressional corruption, but it supported President Clinton’s flawed NAFTA and GATT trade deals. It has been weak—and seems to be getting weaker—on cultural issues, to such an extent that advocates of traditional values have been forced to content themselves with an occasional op-ed piece. Even worse, the Journal‘s editorial page went out of its way to attack Oliver North, who assembled an antiestablishment coalition of Christian activists, working-class conservatives, independents, and disaffected voters in his ultimately unsuccessful Senate bid. North’s platform included support for fair trade, as opposed to free trade, a crackdown on illegal immigration, and an effort to make English the official language.

Like the Journal editorial page, Limbaugh is very close to William Bennett and House Speaker Newt Gingrich. But Bennett, despite his contributions on cultural issue, namely his outspoken opposition to drug legalization, has backtracked away from the hard-line stands on abortion and homosexuality. He now opposes a constitutional amendment protecting the unborn and complained publicly that conservatives have become “fixated” in their opposition to homosexuality.

Limbaugh confidante Gingrich was an author of the “Contract with America,” a campaign document signed by hundreds of GOP House candidates which deliberately played down cultural issues. Columnist Robert Novak reported that Gingrich had left the issue of school prayer out of the contract because he did not want the Wall Street Journal‘s liberal columnist, Al Hunt, to make fun of it. Hunt, for his part, tried to blackmail Gingrich, saying the congressman would “invite more inquiries into his own past” if he pursued an aggressive course. This signaled an effort by the liberal media to cripple the entire House Republican agenda by focusing on the personal backgrounds of Gingrich and other Republican leaders. Once again, conservatives were reminded of the neccessity of having leaders who are above reproach.

Limbaugh, too, has played down his stands on critical social issues in an effort to emphasize the “inclusive” bread-and-butter economic themes that some Republicans think are their key to electoral success. On one level, such as generating opposition to the Clinton health care scheme, this was somewhat effective. But it also resulted in a controversial alliance with the Clinton administration in seeking passage of NAFTA and GATT. Limbaugh joined Gingrich and Kristol in supporting these agreements, despite strong evidence that they will contribute to the erosion of American sovereignty and the country’s manufacturing base, eliminating good, high-paying jobs.

Some contend that Limbaugh’s shift on the issues stems from his celebrity status, from his having “gone Hollywood.” Indeed, he took time off from his show during a critical debate over last year’s crime bill to participate in the opening of a “Planet Hollywood” restaurant, where he posed for photographs with Roseanne Barr. It may be that rubbing elbows with the liberal elites at cocktail parties in Manhattan, where his broadcast originates, has affected him. It may also stem from the tendency of some conservatives to take their base for granted once they acquire power and influence. In any case, the change in Limbaugh’s tone and demeanor is obvious over the air. Newsweek, in an article published just before last November’s elections, noted that “intramural feuds” involving Republican New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Jack Kemp, and William Bennett had “left the GOP’s chief spokesman—Rush Limbaugh—nearly speechless” on his show.

It is important to sort out these feuds and the role “GOP spokesman” Limbaugh played in them, because they shed light on whether the Republican Party will have a future that is in any sense conservative. Limbaugh endorsed Pat Buchanan early in the 1992 presidential campaign, only to embrace President Bush and denounce both Bill Clinton and Ross Perot later in the race. It is doubtful whether a candidate of Buchanan’s views or stature would ever win Limbaugh’s endorsement again in a presidential contest. Limbaugh drifted so far to the left last year that he became a cheerleader for New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, whose conservative credentials were always questionable at best. Giuliani, after all, won the mayoral election and then proceeded to march in a “gay rights” parade and order his police to protect an illegal pro-pedophile demonstration. Yet Limbaugh praised Giuliani’s performance during his first several months in office, mainly on economic and law enforcement grounds, and even touted a dinner party he had attended with him. Then, Giuliani endorsed the liberal ideologue and faux Catholic Mario Cuomo for governor, and Limbaugh, with egg all over his face, told his audience that the whole thing had to do with the fact that Giuliani had always wanted to be a Democrat—a fact that apparently had not been evident to Limbaugh before.

On immigration, Limbaugh was also caught flat-footed. He claimed that he understood why Californians planned to vote for Proposition 187, the initiative to terminate welfare benefits for illegal aliens, but expressed sympathy for Bennett and Kemp and their “vision” for the GOP when they came out against it. “Jack and Bill,” he said, “are my friends, and I’m not going to condemn them.” Kristol went even further, saying Kemp and Bennett showed “real political courage” in opposing a measure that won 59 percent of the vote.

Even more maddening was Limbaugh’s cheerleading for COP “moderates” before the elections, one of them being Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. At first, Romney’s Mormon and business background convinced some conservatives to support him in his race against the decadent incumbent, Senator Ted Kennedy. But Romney’s strategy was to run as liberal as Kennedy on the issues, in the hope that the race would be decided on character alone. The problem was that running as a liberal proved Romney had no character at all. Not content to promote gay rights and abortion, despite his own views on these subjects, he went so far, during one debate with Kennedy, as to endorse homosexuals in the Boy Scouts, on whose board he sat!

The case of multimillionaire “moderate Republican” Michael Huffington was even more pathetic. He was a backer of abortion, gay rights, gays in the military, and gun control, including the “assault weapons” ban sponsored by his “opponent,” Senator Diane Feinstein. Nevertheless, some conservatives supported him, partly because his engaging wife, Arianna, had emerged as a conservative figure at National Review Institute conferences and had a television program on the conservative National Empowerment Television network.

The dirty little secret that Limbaugh has yet to confide to his audience is that “moderate” Republicanism is a cruel fraud. That was evident when “moderate” Republican Senator John Warner helped sabotage Oliver North’s Senate bid by urging Republican Marshall Coleman to run as an independent, thus dividing the Republican vote and letting incumbent liberal Charles Robb squeak through. It is doubtful whether Warner will pay a price for his disloyalty to the party. Indeed, the GOP establishment will give him official support when he runs for reelection in 1996.

In Virginia, cultural conservatives and Christian activists will be reluctant to support Warner because of what he did to North. But the Christian Coalition has boasted about supporting other Republicans who disagree with them, even on critical issues such as abortion. These activists—the foot soldiers of the modern Republican Party—are supposed to be content with the thought that, in the distant future, the cultural breakdown will be reversed and it will become acceptable to be pro-life. In the meantime, they are supposed to keep quiet about federal tax dollars spent on fetal tissue transplantation and human embryo research. After all, unborn babies and human embryos—dead or alive—do not vote. But illegal aliens, on the other hand, are potential Republicans!

The conservative embrace of “moderate” Republicans has encouraged those plotting to eliminate the Republican Party’s support for constitutional protections for the unborn by 1996. Yet the pro-life case can be made more effectively now than ever before. The scientific and medical evidence increasingly points to (1) the fetus being a human being and (2) the harmful effects of abortion, including its link to breast cancer. Limbaugh is in the perfect position to make this case. Unfortunately, he has already backed away from his pro-life position, that life begins at conception, by embracing the “states’ rights” approach, which dictates life and death for the unborn on the basis of where they might live. Even this, however, might be too extreme for the GOP’s “moderate” wing. Eventually, the same people pushing for the weakening of the GOP’s pro-life stand will also be promoting a weakening of the party’s opposition to “homosexual rights.” Limbaugh, the “good Republican,” will probably go along. After all, the argument will go, “gay conservatives” should not be drummed out of the party either. This means that Wisconsin Republican Congressman Steve Gunderson, once described by Representative Bob Dornan as having a “revolving door” in his closet because of his reluctance to admit he was a practicing homosexual, will be welcomed as a full-fledged member of the GOP.

Limbaugh’s emergence as a “GOP spokesman” ultimately means that he has become a shill for a reincarnation of the old Rockefeller wing of the GOP, without Rockefeller. However, this stance puts him at odds with grassroots conservatives. He is taking heat for supporting NAFTA and GATT, for waffling on immigration, and increasingly takes shots at “moralists” in his audience. The problem, again, is that his writings on the subject seem to have no relationship to his own life. He has written, for instance, that marriage “socializes and normalizes” people and that the “magic of marriage” is beneficial. He has written critically of America’s divorce rate, which has quadrupled, and claims that he “instinctively” understands the value of marriage in society. Yet he just married for the third time, and announced it to the world as proof of his family values.

But the most vulnerable aspect of Limbaugh may very well be his performance as a pseudointellectual, the “Doctor of Democracy” whose “Institute of Advanced Conservative Studies” gives phony educational degrees to those who buy them. His “Limbaugh Letter” went so far as to complain about a federal training program for a certain class of “underachievers,” defined as “people who didn’t go to college.” Limbaugh, who briefly attended college when the draft was threatening him, denounced this as “subsidizing underachievement.”

Since his personal life has been anything but exemplary, Limbaugh’s claim to be an achiever must stem solely from the fact that he makes a lot of money, mainly by selling ads and trinkets, such as his “Limbaugh Commemorative Stein” for $79.95. Yet he makes the profiteering sound uplifting, boasting that “it is here in this land that the universal human yearning to improve one’s lot is most blessed, and in the sweet air of freedom effort and achievement are most rewarded. This is America’s greatest promise, and she fulfills it still.”

In fact, the evidence shows that, for the first time in American history, the largest percentage of people who are emigrating from the United States are native-born Americans. Figures indicate that as many as 250,000 a year are leaving, largely because the economy is stagnant, crime is rampant, and America’s heritage is under vicious assault. Yet Limbaugh, taking his cue from the Journal’s editorial page, continues to try to sell his audience on the notion that America is still number one because of its “competitive edge” over the rest of the world. On the contrary, statistics reveal that the United States ranks last among the seven leading industrialized countries in terms of long-term real growth in standard of living, and we have the lowest net national savings rate as a percentage of gross domestic product. Limbaugh even touts foreign investment in America, which has become a dangerous substitute for much-needed domestic savings and investment.

Ignoring the evidence of America’s economic decline, Limbaugh carries on about the virtues of pocketbook conservatism. For a while, such talk can be exciting. I wrote several articles over the years touting Limbaugh’s success and message. But it was my investigation of Limbaugh’s own lucrative and increasingly tacky commercial activities that opened my eyes to his shortcomings, particularly his disservice to the cause many of us were involved in for years before he even registered to vote. In November 1993, after a caller to his radio program mentioned my name on the air, Limbaugh went into a tirade, accusing me of writing that he had refused to make free speeches for “the cause”—conservative groups. In fact, I had written in Human Events that he had waived his fees in some cases. In the course of making this charge, he launched a vicious personal attack on me, saying that I had “abandoned any pretense to accuracy” and was “incapable of the truth.”

Limbaugh has adamantly refused to correct the record, either on me or on his “conservative” credentials, leading me to believe that initial suspicions about his commitment to “the cause” were wellgrounded. In short, the cause appears to be himself, with conservatism as a means to an end. But if Limbaugh’s desire is to go down in history as a Republican mouthpiece, rather than as a conservative, the least he could do is to send the GOP a significant cash contribution. Then we could safely assume he was finally putting his money where his mouth is, and that he has a financial stake in the outcome.