In some sense, they are the same person: broadcast hacks with a taste for trouble-making and politics, both with substantial intelligences colored by grandiosity and militant hostilities. Together they have forged the modern conservative sensibility—bellicose, loquacious, conspiratorial—as well as their own individual conservative-themed media empires.
It should not be a surprise that they are natural adversaries. Both vastly rich and believing they have the power of the word of God (which in some sense, with almost absolute media control, they do), Ailes and Limbaugh are each about as larger-than-life as you can become. The only difference, really, is that Limbaugh’s voice is his own, and Ailes (who stepped back from the camera—the one move in his career he seems to regret) must speak through the proxy heads he controls.
The fight now is over Rush’s biography, Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One
, by Zev Chafets. The most natural topic in the world for Fox News—a positive look at a leading conservative—is peculiarly absent from the network. Radio silence. Not a whisper. Chafets thinks its because Limbaugh, in the book, aimed a choice zinger at Bill O’Reilly. Limbaugh calls the semi-stewed, ever-unfocused O’Reilly, who comes alive only when the camera goes on, “Ted Baxter”—the ultimate slap at an on-air newscaster. Chafets thinks O’Reilly got him banned from Fox.
But, actually, the Ted Baxter joke is one they use at Fox. Ailes and Rupert Murdoch think O’Reilly is thoroughly Ted Baxter-ish. O’Reilly is one of their meal tickets but also their joke.
This is a greater clash of Titans. Ailes, who has been talking about writing his own book for years—with no progress—is genuinely miffed that Limbaugh has gotten himself a book (conservatives, curiously, believe in books—they’re great advertisements as well as money makers). Limbaugh’s vast publicity—his extroverted expressiveness—rankles Ailes. The idea that Limbaugh might end up as the grand and historic conservative of the time—pretty much the only one who is not on Ailes' payroll—is extremely depressing to Ailes.
That Limbaugh seems to have overcome his personal difficulties—his deafness, his drug addiction, and, not least of all, his weight problems—and become ever more public, hurts. Ailes, on the other hand, is more and more phobic about being in public, ever more self-conscious about his weight, and increasingly obsessed with his own personal safety (the Arabs are after him).
Still, this is exactly what keeps these guys going: rancor, ego, paranoia, and the chess moves of self-promotion.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.
The two great pillars of the conservative establishment are Roger Ailes and Rush Limbaugh.