U.S. News

10.19.13

Radio’s Mark Levin Might Be the Most Powerful Conservative You Never Heard Of

Conservative talk show host Mark Levin might be the most politically influential person you’ve never heard of. David Freedlander makes the introductions.

Last weekend, at a dusty race car track in that part of New Jersey where lacrosse fields slowly give way to farmland before the landscape seems to stop altogether, Sarah Palin rallied a couple of thousand partisans on behalf of Steve Lonegan, a longshot, Tea Party-fueled candidate for the U.S. Senate.

“I just told Todd,” she said to the crowd a moment after they stopped chanting her name. “‘Ooh,’ I said. ‘I can die and go to heaven now: I just shook Mark Levin’s hand.’”

Levin had been out earlier, warming them up. He cuts a figure that is the exact opposite of the Grizzly Mama, with her low cut red shirt and stemwinders about a Revolutionary War fightress “swabbin and loadin, swabbin and loadin” a cannon even as the red coats knocked her bonnet off. Hunched over the podium wearing a blue baseball hat, he is more like the uncle you are reminded not to talk politics with at Thanksgiving.

“Mr. President, open our damn memorials! Mr. President, this country doesn’t belong to you—it belongs to us! Mr. President, this government doesn’t belong to you—it belongs to us!”

The crowd, almost entirely white, in ill-fitting jeans and sweatshirts, and in some cases wearing literal hard hats, as if to culled from a central casting call for “blue collar,” chant Levin’s name and wave copies of his book like holy rollers at a tent revival.

“You shoved Obamacare down our throats, now we intend to shove it down yours! This election is about the Constitution! This election is about restoring this republic! This is about the rights of individuals!”

From the back of the rally, Levin becomes nearly obscured by the host of yellow “Don’t Tread On Me” flags, which wave their approval, and which outnumber the Stars and Stripes. Off the corner of the stage, someone dressed as Thomas Jefferson holds a sign that says, “Where’s The Hope N’ Change? More Like Rope N’ Chains.”

“You are the Paul and Paulette Reveres of this country!” Levin continues, his voice rising, his finger jabbing the audience in the chest. “You are the people who are going to save this country and restore the republic! You are the people who are going to breathe life back into the Constitution!”

It is entirely possible that unless you listen to conservative talk radio or regularly attend Tea Party rallies, that you have never heard of Mark Levin, a conservative talk radio host who reaches 7 million listeners nightly. Not that the genre doesn’t have cross-over stars. Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity (both of whom directly proceed Levin on most AM radio stations where his show is carried), Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Bill O’Reilly, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck—their faces are as famous as their names.

But Levin?

Is what Levin does a schtick? Yes, of course, but it is one that he has parlayed into being the voice of a movement that has confounded those outside of it.

In a long New Yorker story over the summer about the efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin told the magazine’s Ryan Lizza why Florida Senator Marco Rubio has been invaluable to the effort: “He’s willing to go on the most conservative talk shows, television and radio, Rush Limbaugh and the rest … He brings up the names of some of these conservative people I’ve never heard of who everybody in their caucus knows.”

One of them, Lizza said was Levin.

“I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup,” Durbin told the magazine. “Who is Mark Levin?”

“Dick Durbin won’t even be a footnote to a footnote in history. Dick Durbin doesn’t matter to me. Whether or not he knows me is inconsequential,” Levin said in a phone interview.

It was a conversation that he submitted to only after weeks of effort, and my enlisting associates of his to intervene on my behalf, and his likewise doing due diligence on me.

“I don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘Gee what can I do to get noticed by Dick Durbin?’ Or, ‘I wonder what Chuck Schumer thinks about me.’ I could care less.’”

But if you want to know about what is happening in Washington, why the Republican Party seems willing to swallow itself whole as it shuts down the government and drives the nation nearly to default, then pay attention to the 56-year-old Mark Levin. His 2009 book Liberty and Tyranny spent 12 weeks as a New York Times best seller. His latest, The Liberty Amendments, debuted at number one. YouTube is full of videos of the lines outside his book signings; they seem to wrap around the entire suburban Long Island town where they are held.

“He is very influential with members of Congress,” said Rep. Michelle Bachmann. “He helps us understand the issues from a different perspective.”

When Congress was debating Obamacare back in 2009, it was Levin, she said, who led the GOP charge against it, posting articles detailing the dangers of “socialized medicine” on his website and urging his listeners to contact their representative. In the end, not a single Republican voted for the bill.

“He is not a civil disobedience person. He is not crazy,” Bachmann said. “He is not telling people do something that would be negative, but he is very much the motivator and people trust him … Mark understood that once this Obamacare was implemented, dependency is a crack cocaine addiction. Once people get on a form of dependency, is it possible to get off? Yes, but it is very difficult, and it would change the country forever.”

“He is fighting for his country. He believes we are in a very bad spot,” Hannity told me. “He has not moved. He has not changed. He believes the principles that were applied back when worked then, and if applied now to today’s problems would be just as effective. He has an insatiable appetite for learning. He is constantly recommending to me this book or that book. Deep down inside he is a professor. I consider him one of my best friends in the world.”

It was Hannity who helped give Levin his start in radio. Levin had to come to Washington from Philadelphia, where he graduated from Temple University at 19, and Temple Law School a few years later. His parents ran a day camp and a nursery school outside of Philadelphia, in the town of Cheltenham Township, a diverse middle class enclave that serves as the first outpost for families looking to escape Philadelphia. They were conservative, Levin says, if not political. But he caught the bug early, working the precincts in local races, ultimately winning a seat on the Cheltenham school board while still in law school. He started a group called the Committee for Tax Limitation, which, like an early version of the Club for Growth, would bestow its endorsement on candidates who pledged to keep rates low. “It was more conservative than the Republican Party,” he says. “The tax issue really came at birth for me.”

He was involved in Reagan’s ill-fated 1976 effort against Gerald Ford, and signed on again in 1980. When Reagan won, Levin went to the White House, working first for a now defunct agency called ACTION that oversaw VISTA, the Peace Corps, and the like, and later worked for the Department of Education, the Interior Department, the Office of Presidential Personnel, and eventually ended up at the Justice Department as Chief of Staff to Edwin Meese.

“Unlike the other talkers, he had an actual Washington career,” said one top Republican operative. “The others, they don’t have the faintest idea how things get done in Washington.”

After Reagan left office, Levin went on to head the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative legal advocacy group that once nominated Rush Limbaugh for the Nobel Prize and that has targeted the National Education Association, the Democratic National Committee, and other left-wing outfits and that is mostly known for supporting Paula Jones’ lawsuit against Bill Clinton in the 90’s. He was a regular talk radio listener, and would write in to Limbaugh when legal matters would come up on the show. “Eventually he appointed me to the fictitious position of ‘legal adviser,’” Levin said.

Limbaugh would invite Levin on occasionally, and as the Lewinsky saga heated up, he would often be called into the then relatively new medium of cable chatter to talk about the legal issues surrounding the case (a debate with Alan Dershowitz is still talked about reverently in conservative circles for the way Levin dismantled his fellow constitutional law professor.) Hannity discovered him then, too, and stuck him with the nickname “The Great One,” which is now used by Palin and nearly everyone who talks about him. He filled in on occasion when Hannity was away, until Phil Boyce, Hannity’s producer, offered him a chance to have his own show on WABC in New York  on Sundays. There was only one catch: there was no money in the budget to pay him.

“I figured he would slam the phone down,” Boyce says. He wanted, he added a “fire-breather” to go against Michael Savage. Levin worked for free for 14 months, routinely beating Savage, when Boyce figured, “it was time for him to go national.”

It was Boyce who came up with the idea for the intro to the Mark Levin Show. It begins with a voice that sounds like something out of a monster truck rally: “He’s here. He’s here. Now broadcasting from the underground command post deep in the bowels of a hidden bunker somewhere under the brick and steel of a nondescript building we have once again made contact with our leader—Maaarkkk Luuuhhhhhvvvvinnn!”

“He does the show in suburban Washington, and so we wanted to create this sense of intrigue. ‘Somewhere under the brick and steel of a nondescript building,’” Boyce says, doing his best radio announcer voice. “It’s a sense of intrigue—like he is the underground leader speaking to his followers and you can only pick him up on a short wave radio.”

On the radio, Levin is less the uncle you want to avoid talking politics with after the second bottle of wine and more like John Belushi on the old “Weekend Update” on “Saturday Night Live,” working himself up to such a lather that his blood vessels practically splatter across the radio dial.

On a typical show, he will begin quietly in his flat, Philadelphia Jewish twang (he is, he says, “a person of deep faith,” but stopped going to temple because “I got tired of the lectures. ‘I am here, Rabbi, to talk about what is in the Torah and so forth, and that is your area of expertise, not politics.’”)

“It’s amazing how sick the media are in this country,” Levin said at the top of a recent show, his voice as dulcet as a pediatrician’s.

It was the start of the government shutdown, and news of kids kept out of cancer trials was dominating the headlines, and for the day at least, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was public enemy number one.

“Two hundred kids who are scheduled for trials at the NIH, when his party won’t fund the NIH, and his president could have made certain that those kids could have participated in those trials and ladies and gentlemen, there are many more trials than trials for cancers out there,” he says, his voice slowly growing louder. “There are trials for heart disease, for diabetes, for all sorts of life threatening diseases going on there.”

By this point, Levin is shouting. As a listener, you are either hooked, and ready to storm the barricade too, or you feel like you are about to watch a fight in a mall parking lot. You know you should intervene, or at the very least look away, but you cannot.

“Obama has no problem evading the Constitution! He has no problem rewriting statues. He no problem issuing waivers, executive fiats, when it helps him politically with illegal aliens, with union bosses, with the environmental movement! But when it comes to 200 kids with cancer, where is Obama?!”

The dials in the control booth push past red.

“WHERE IS HE? HE IS NOWHERE! AND HIS PARTY SEEKS TO EXPLOIT IT WHEN IT IS HIS PARTY THAT WON’T FUND IT. THIS WHY WE CANNOT ALLOW THE FEDERAL LEVIATHAN TO GET BIGGER AND BIGGER AND CONTROL MORE AND MORE OF OUR LIVES. WE RESIST IT, IT SEEKS TO PUNISH US! IT SEEKS TO HURT US! IT SEEKS TO TORMENT US!”

He breaks for a bit, hawks his own books, a project from the right-wing media watchdog group Media Resource Center—a website, called StopTellingMeLies.Com—and adds a plug for an online course on the Constitution he teaches at the Christian school Hillsdale College when he picks up the show again, in high dudgeon mode, this time about the demonstration in front of the World War II memorial planned for the next day.

“I want to say this loud and clear to the people on Capitol Hill who are listening to this, to the administration: You lay one damn hand on one of those World War II vets at that memorial, and I will bring half a million people to that damn memorial. You got that! I am sitting here stewing just thinking about this! Playing these damn games! You will ignite a movement like none you have seen before! We will come out of every town and city in this nation! You have been warned! You! Have! Been! Warned!”

Democrats in Levin’s telling are “Statists.”  “Mark really made popular that term,” David Limbaugh, brother of Rush, said. “Now everybody uses it.” GOP congressmen who don’t toe the Tea Party line are “French Republicans.”

Interviewees get it no easier.

Senator Ron Johnson, a Tea Party lawmaker from Wisconsin, recently went on Levin’s show earlier this month to defend his notion that the Defund Obamacare movement was ill-fated. You can hear the panic in his voice as he is accused by Levin of voting for Walter Mondale. “We are all pretty big fans, Mark,” he says after defending himself from accusations that he is part of the “surrender caucus.” “I certainly wasn’t coming on here expecting an inquisition.”

“Levin says out loud exactly what people yell at the TV,” says Erick Erickson, the blogger behind Red State, and who says that he records Levin’s show every night and listens to it on the ride home from his own radio show, which is broadcast at the same time. “He takes complex subjects and makes them simple and engaging for people to understand, and that is a rare gift.”

“He has a marvelous ability to keep up my level of moral indignation against the left,” agrees Morton Blackwell, the president of the Leadership Institute and a longtime conservative luminary.

Asked to explain his worldview in a nutshell, Levin described a fallen world, one that had gotten worse and worse since 1776 until it was practically beyond repair.

“I think that what is threatening society is the lack of appreciation for man’s nature. I don’t why when individuals get elected to office or become part of the civil service they become superior to understanding how the world works and go about remaking it. I am not into all of this social engineering. I think it is very problematic, and where do we draw the line? If we are unmoored from the Constitution, then what are we onto? What is the blueprint of the left? I want to read it, see if I like it. It doesn’t exist. Otherwise, we are just like the hamster on the wheel.”

Asked how something like Obamacare would make him more dependent on government, or threaten his own freedom, Levin said, “Do you know how much time I spend with my income taxes? Do you know how much work it takes to straighten that out? This is not productive. Where do you draw the line? Where do you slow this down? This is why we have liberty.

“Not only is the nation established for no other purpose than to promote the individual and free will and self interest and, yes, community, but through the civil society. We have seen societies, we have seen them in Europe and other places where it does not necessarily lead to better lives or the creation of more wealth for more people but to its opposite … The question for me now is, are we on the brink or aren’t we, and I think we are pretty close.”

The difference between Republicans and Democrats, he adds, is that “The Democratic Party has become a very radical institution. The Republican Party has become a status quo institution, and so the Democratic Party drives the agenda and the Republican Party is reactionary, if it reacts at all.”

Unlike other right-wing talkers, Levin doesn’t veer too far from politics. His Facebook page features his dining room table covered with books, and when people are asked what they like about his show, they invariably mention the Constitution, and that Levin brings a level of erudition to his work. His books are full of long passages of Locke or Burke or de Tocqueville, and he was introduced on stage at the Value Voters Summit earlier this month as “one of the top Constitutional lawyers in the nation.”

Needless to say, there is some disagreement about this.

Dahlia Lithwick, the legal correspondent for Slate, wrote of his first book, Men in Black  that it “never gets past the a.m.-radio bile to arrive at cogent analysis. Each of the first three chapters ends with the word ‘tyranny.’ Absent any structure or argument, this book could just have been titled Legal Decisions I Really, Really Hate. Levin follows the lead of lazy pundits everywhere who excoriate ‘activist judges’ without precisely defining what constitutes one.”

The book, she determines, “is silly.”

In the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, a constitutional law scholar from Case Western said the book was incoherent. A critic for The Chronicle of Higher Education called his book Ameritopia  
“disastrously bad from beginning to end” and Levin “a benighted, philosophically illiterate ideologue.” A right-leaning critic for The Atlantic meanwhile said that the best-selling Liberty and Tyranny doesn’t “even present a reasoned argument for a specific point of view, other than that of willful ignorance.”

Is what Levin does a schtick? Yes, of course, as all radio is a schtick. But it is one that Levin has parlayed into being the voice of a movement that has confounded those outside of it. How influential is Levin? Consider that just after Congress ended the budget standoff and the entire nation was calling for his head, Ted Cruz muscled through a gaggle of reporters to call in to Levin’s show.

Levin said to Cruz, “I have heard it said that we should not have fought over Obamacare, and spend all this time on this. And I am thinking to myself, most of the people saying this didn’t fight Obamacare. They were fighting you fighting Obamacare! Number two—Obamacare is a hot knife to the heart of this country! If we are not going to fight over this what are we going to fight over?”

“Mark, you are exactly right,” Cruz responded.

“I am not an entertainer,” Levin told me. “An entertainer dances and sings and puts on a rubber nose and does whatever they do. I am extremely concerned about the times we live in. I consider them very perilous, and I don’t hold much back.”

Cruz, he said, was getting crucified, because “he was not part of the Republican mush machine. Of he course he is not popular among the people he is battling. Neither am I.”

Political operatives in Texas says it is difficult to imagine Cruz now being in the U.S. Senate without Levin’s early and loud support, having him on the air back when Cruz seemed like a longshot against an establishment pick, and urging his listeners to give money.

“Levin is willing to put his reputation on the line for conservative candidates he believes in,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based political consultant. “He is really a rarity in ‘the vast right wing conspiracy.’ He has enough knowledge to know how government works, enough courage to say what he thinks and not care what anybody says, and he has a microphone that is powerful enough that it can make an enormous difference in leading conservatives in a direction he wants to lead them.”

In an email, Cruz agreed, calling Levin “a friend and true patriot” who “speaks fearlessly for the people. I’ll always be grateful for his early support for my campaign, which was immeasurably helpful for building support with conservative voters and grassroots activists.”

When Bachmann was running for re-election for her congressional seat, Levin came to believe that the Republican National Committee was insufficiently supportive. Soon, phone lines at RNC headquarters in Washington lit up with complaints.

“He has a direct line into the base,” said a top aide to one Tea Party aligned lawmaker. “It’s as if every Republican office on Capitol Hill has to have a copy of his book.”

None of this endears him much to the Republican leadership, of whom Levin holds a special kind of contempt. He has regularly called for the ouster of House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and thinks that anyone who doesn’t agree has been corrupted.

“It’s the grassroots establishment” laments one GOP operative close to the leadership. “There is in our party a growing group of people who frame themselves as outsiders but are rally just leaders of their own movement, and among them, Levin carrried a lot of weight. When he goes on a rant everybody hears about it.”

What makes Levin remarkable is that his audience is a fraction of that of his better-known colleagues like Hannity and Limbaugh. He speaks, one former Bush administration official said, “To the door-knockers and the envelope stuffers.” In other words, if you wonder how come little known fringe right-wingers are able to knock off establishment Republicans again and again, it has a lot to do with the fact that Levin sends them there. To this crowd, Hannity touts the GOP line too religiously, and Limbaugh is too much of a global celebrity whose radio show is as likely to veer into pop culture and news of the weird as it is to talk about the political situation. Levin is single-minded and relentless.

Asked about the famous 11th commandment as articulated by his old boss and current hero, Ronald Reagan, that “Thou shall not criticize a fellow Republican,” Levin counters, “I believe in the Ten Commandments. They were good enough for God, they are good enough for me.”

“The Democrats aren’t surrendering. They have victory after victory and the Republicans—well, have you ever heard of a party attacking its base. I have never of such a thing. Does the Democratic Party attack its base? They don’t always agree, but they try to accommodate them. We have a Republican Party whose consultants and donors despise the grassroots, and they are not going to win elections if they keep this up. Of course, they don’t win elections any way. We were told McCain was the only one who could win and he lost. We were told Romney was the only one who could win and he lost. George Bush did not win the popular vote. So the guy that ran that campaign is all over television telling us how to win elections. Meanwhile the candidate who won two massive electoral college victories is essentially disregarded, and we are told that the era of Reagan is over.”

“He has the pulse of grassroots, conservative activists,” Erickson says. “He expresses their anger and enthusiasm in way few people out there do. He uses their language. He calls out Republican leaders by name. He is one of the who is really driven by the cause.”

“There are very few institutions of the federal government less responsive to its members than the Republican Party,” Levin says. “I personally have had it with the leadership of the Republican Party, and I have made it abundantly clear. They lack knowledge, confidence, the ability to articulate a principle, and for the life of me I don’t know why they are there. I can’t tell you what the Republican Party today stands for. I know what they say, but what do they do?”

He is also, friends say, incredibly shy, and doesn’t like to travel much. Levin said that he stopped doing much TV after his first burst on the air in the 90s, and that he doesn’t like it all that much.

“When you are on TV more than radio there is a price.You give up privacy.You go to a restaurant and there are five people staring at you. I don’t think he wanted to give that up,” said Hannity, dropping into a raspy Levin impression: “How! Do! You! Put! Up? With! That!?!”

When asked why he wasn’t as well known as his counterparts, Levin cackled. “How do I know? I could care less. Did you see the [Lonegan] rally. Did you see the book signing? Those are the people I want to be with. I can’t control or influence Dick …” He cut himself off. “Well, hell, I do want to actually. But the Dick Durbins of the world and the Chuck Schumers of the world, whether they know me or not doesn’t matter to me. I want my ideas to get out there. I want more and more people to wake up to the fact that where we are headed in this country. And to say that my views are gloomy and bleak is to ignore reality.”

At the race car track, after the rally, most of the crowd stuck around by the stage. Many were there for Palin, but a lot were there for Levin, too, clutching multiple copies of his book.

“He’s honest. He says it the way it is. And he knows a lot about American history. That is what we need to get back to. We need to get back to the Constitution,” said one man, who said he was working two jobs since his wife was laid off, and was in the military reserves, and he tuned into Levin every day when he knocked off work.

“He has informed me about constitutional issues, things like that. He is a roots-based guy. He understand why our country was founded, and where our strength comes from,” said Jim Bukowiec, a graphic designer who drove an hour and a half with his grandson for the rally.

Levin, he said, “is a little deeper. Hannity is like the cherry on top of the ice cream, and Rush is all over the place.”

Palin stayed for nearly an hour afterwards, signing books, taking pictures with Todd and fans. Afterwards, she went to a private reception behind the bus. Levin’s fans never left though. They stayed behind the rope line, waiting for him to come out, but he stayed on the bus, and never did.