Ed Schultz comes from Bush country and looks like it. At 6 feet 2 and 250 pounds, his idea of the good life is eating wings, fishing for walleye and watching football on TV. He passionately defends his right to own a gun, eat a steak and drive a Suburban. He loves his nation, his wife and his son, who plays golf for Texas Christian. He's the kind of guy the president might grab in a rope line, give a fake jab to the gut and call by his nickname, "Big Eddie," just like a friend.
But Schultz doesn't want to be George W. Bush's buddy. For three hours every day he rails against Bush on his nationally syndicated radio show from Fargo, N.D., calling the administration "government by the rich, for the rich" and Bush's policies an "axis of bankruptcy." The White House is listening. When Bush came to Fargo this month, Schultz's producer was barred from attending the event (the White House blamed local officials). "Is this what the president thinks of us folks in the heartland?" Schultz asked his listeners. "He's afraid!"
To hear some Democrats tell it, the GOP should be afraid. Schultz is coming after them and doing it on their own turf, smack dead in the middle of Red State America. Al Franken and Air America shattered the myth that liberals won't listen to talk radio. But Schultz isn't interested in just preaching to the converted. He wants to do something even more ambitious: save souls behind conservative lines. So far, he's had tremendous success. He's been sitting behind a mike in Fargo for 20 years, but during the past 12 months he's gone national in a big way. Schultz has the fastest growing radio show since Rush Limbaugh's--81 markets and counting. He can be heard inside Republican fortresses like Waco, Texas, and Phoenix, Ariz. His syndicator, Jones Radio Networks, says he'll be on the air in 150 to 200 markets by the end of this year. (Jones also carries "NEWSWEEK On Air.")
Schultz's secret is to borrow liberally from the Limbaugh playbook of exaggeration and simplification. When Democrats fretted that Bush was secretly plotting against Iran, Schultz pounded away at the White House, breathlessly telling listeners, "This is the kind of stuff that happened back in the 1930s in Germany."
Ideologically, Schultz is all Democrat--he likes universal health care and labor unions, hates Wal-Mart and corporate crooks--but he also delights in hacking away at his party's more sensitive side. When a gay listener recently called to complain about homophobia, Schultz cut him off. He believes Democrats shouldn't talk up gay rights, just like they shouldn't bash God and guns. Schultz says liberals had better get used to his brand of tough love if they want to win in the heartland. "The party thinks there aren't any Democrats between Texas and North Dakota," Schultz told NEWSWEEK, "so why bother talking to people out here?"
Democrats desperate to connect with Middle America are tuning in. Top Democrats like Joe Biden are flocking to his mike. Ted Kennedy wished Schultz a happy 51st birthday on the air. Hillary Clinton, who sounds increasingly Schultzian herself (she recently toughened her tone on abortion), is a frequent guest. "We've gotten to be pretty good friends in the last couple years," Schultz says with great satisfaction.
Schultz has become such a hit with Democratic insiders that he now spends half of every month in Washington and has an apartment on Capitol Hill. He and his wife recently dined at Cafe Milano, the city's see-and-be-seen restaurant. They craned their necks in search of celebrities and swooned when they spotted two--conservative talking heads Tucker Carlson and Ann Coulter. Schultz loathes their politics but covets their fame. He may not want to get too comfortable in the capital. He has a good thing going playing the ultimate outsider, and that means keeping his show, and eating his steaks, back in Fargo, far, far away.