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12.20.10

Rush Limbaugh's TV Nemesis

Ed Schultz was a right-wing radio talk-show host—until he fell in love with a liberal and hit the big time. Howard Kurtz talks to Schultz about his feud with Rush and why he’s mad at Obama.

After bashing the president's tax-cut compromise on MSNBC for four straight nights, Ed Schultz found himself breaking bread with Barack Obama in the small dining room off the Oval Office.  

“Mr. President, the American people didn't vote for you because of a policy or your stance on health care. They voted for you because you inspired them, you got into their soul,” the high-decibel host said. Insisting that he take on the Republicans, Schultz declared: “I think you're selling yourself short. You can win that fight.”  

Obama stared at him intently and said flatly: “This is where we’re going.”  

A former college quarterback with a beefy frame and booming voice, Schultz has emerged as a fiery populist who doesn't mind singeing his own side, even as he reserves his most inflammatory rhetoric—“ruthless,” “mean,” “rotten to the core”—for Republicans. Five years ago, he was a radio guy in Fargo, North Dakota, borrowing money to stay afloat; now MSNBC is touting him as a surprise star of its liberal lineup.  

Schultz defends the harsh personal rhetoric he employs against conservative politicians and pundits. “Liberals have been vilified, laughed at for years,” he says. “It's good to give it back to them.”  

His fans seem to agree. The Ed Show just enjoyed its best quarter and is up 19 percent this year over last, averaging 637,000 viewers. That is way behind Special Report With Bret Baier on Fox News, which is up 4 percent with 2.1 million viewers, but ahead of Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room on CNN, down 29 percent with 544,000 viewers. His visibility is such that Schultz considered a plea from North Dakota Democrats that he run for the Senate this year.

He savors his skewering of the right, but there was a time when he was one of them—a television sportscaster (after briefly making the roster of the Oakland Raiders) who became a talk-radio conservative, boosting Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. That began to change in 1992 after Schultz had his first date with the woman who ran the homeless shelter in Fargo. She had him grab a tray and wait on line for the Salvation Army lunch served to the downtrodden.  

“Ed was in his suit, dressed to the nines, surrounded by homeless people. He was mortified,” says Wendy Schultz, now his wife and the producer of his three-hour radio show, broadcast down the hall at Manhattan’s 30 Rock. “He had a very tender heart and was very easy to tip over.”  

“There are times I tell him he goes over the top and that TV is different than radio,” Griffin acknowledges. “A couple of times he’s crossed the line. I said, ‘Ed, you ran down the field 100 yards and you spiked the ball. Don’t spike the ball!’”

Schultz soon morphed into a left-wing prairie populist. “Some people believe it’s a made-up story, that it was about money, that he saw an opportunity as a liberal talk-show host,” says Schultz’s friend Don Haney, a reporter at KFGO radio. “But his conversion was genuine.” Haney says Schultz was a great colleague but “to be honest, he’s got a temper. There are some people who have drawn his wrath.”  

In 2004, North Dakota Democratic Sen. Byron Dorgan (whose campaign got a $2,000 donation from Schultz) recommended him to a national radio syndicator. Schultz borrowed $600,000 to keep the show alive (“We were nuts”) and bought a mobile home—festooned with ads for the North Dakota Farmers Union—to go on the road.  

But it wasn’t enough. Hungry to develop a television profile, Schultz borrowed an additional $150,000 for a satellite camera hookup for the occasional invitations from Larry King and other shows. The couple would watch cable news on a big-screen TV in their lakeside Minnesota home and Schultz would critique the hosts. “It just became an obsession with me,” he says.  

Fired up and ready to go after Obama’s election, Schultz and his wife got a place in Washington. When MSNBC President Phil Griffin spotted him at an Obama press conference—White House aides had placed him in the front row—he asked Schultz for a cup of coffee at Washington’s Four Seasons. “I just connected with him,” Griffin says. “I thought, ‘Holy cow, that guy is a live wire!’”

After a tryout, Griffin pressed Schultz to move to New York to start a 6 p.m. show. “You have to understand,” the new employee said, “I moved here to get this job!”    

One morning last week, the 56-year-old broadcaster is sitting in his small office—adorned with photos of him having killed a half-dozen pheasants at his snow-covered North Dakota ranch—as his producers debate whether to discuss the tax cuts with leadoff guest Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator. “He’s a pretty wound-up dude,” says Schultz, peering at the script through reading glasses. “He’ll say we’re making a mistake, we’re digging ourselves a hole.”  

Schultz eases behind the anchor desk in a studio barely larger than a walk-in closet—he switched from the main studio because he thinks the closer confines give him more intensity—and banters about the Minnesota Vikings until the red light goes on. When he opens the show with which stories “are hitting my hot buttons,” he bellows in almost comical fashion.  

After railing against the extension of the Bush tax cuts for 14 minutes—“the deal is with the devil!”—he welcomes Sanders, who gets all of 2 1/2 minutes before being hustled off. Sanders may have just conducted a nine-hour filibuster, but the show is mainly about Ed, who often ignores the prompter and wings it. He unloads on incoming House Speaker John Boehner for tearing up during a 60 Minutes interview: “Do you think he cries for the unemployed in this country, or the people in America who saw their jobs shipped overseas?”  

Schultz has little patience with those calling for greater civility. He savages his targets in a nightly “Psycho Talk” segment, calling Rush Limbaugh “the drugster,” Sarah Palin “Caribou Barbie,” and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a “fat slob.” Rather than merely attack their ideology, Schultz says things like: “C'mon, Rush! Let's get it on!... Get away from your drugs. Go see the doctor and get some hearing. Maybe you could pick up a 19th girlfriend. Maybe you could try marriage again.” He has even said Limbaugh looks like Hitler.

Turns out the Rush grudge is personal. After the Today show did a story on him in 2004, Schultz recalls Limbaugh dismissing him as a $4-an-hour Fargo guy who would never make it. But in constantly carping on Limbaugh’s past addiction to painkillers, Schultz can sound as intolerant as any opponent.  

“There are times I tell him he goes over the top and that TV is different than radio,” Griffin acknowledges. “A couple of times he’s crossed the line. I said, ‘Ed, you ran down the field 100 yards and you spiked the ball. Don’t spike the ball!’” 

These days Schultz has been employing his invective against the White House, a stance he made clear during the presidential luncheon that also included the likes of Rachel Maddow, Arianna Huffington, and Frank Rich. The onetime conservative who lunged left is now frustrated by a president he finds insufficiently liberal.  

“His willingness to compromise has taken a lot of liberals by surprise,” Schultz says over a salmon dinner after strolling in the snow without a coat. “I think you can be in disagreement with a president you support without being disrespectful or nasty or snide.”  

Schultz, who first broke with Obama for dropping the public option from his health-care bill, tells viewers that “the Republicans have hoodwinked the president” on the tax deal and the process has been “un-American.” Such language allows him to avoid a frontal assault by painting Obama as misguided rather than malevolent.  

One thing is certain: The hunter remains loaded for bear. “Not to get too grandiose about it,” he tells me after demolishing dinner, “but I really believe I’m saying things a lot of Americans want someone to say.”

Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.