The death of Rush Limbaugh leaves a gaping hole in the conservative firmament.
Let’s start with the obvious. He had the largest talk radio audience in the world, a following that dwarfed all competitors right, left or center. He saved AM radio, many of his friends and fans suggest, because he found – through his own voice – content that helped sustain it. He created a platform for conservative commentary at a time when conservatives had few channels or vehicles through which to share their views. Even in the late 1980s, the media was ruled by liberals and the left.
Yes, Bill Buckley was still doing Firing Line, but it had even then started its transition from an hour a week show to 30 minutes. Limbaugh did three hours a day, five hours a week – a feat that astounded even the great man in Stamford, who interviewed Limbaugh in 1992 from his home there. It is an interview worth revisiting both in showing how two very different personalities could still admire one another, but also in how prescient it was in foreshadowing the state of our political and cultural debates today. (Buckley also appeared on Limbaugh’s show, if memory serves.)
Limbaugh also was an amazing entertainer. Yes, on occasion he could be crude and even offensive. A college dropout and a struggling young man, he taught himself how to communicate and deliver a political punch. Those who bridle at his harsh phrases – environmental wackos, FemiNazis, rhinos, his mimicking of Clinton (he sounded more like Clinton than Clinton, he channeled his essence so well), and Obama – are partially right when these antics are viewed as isolated comments or skits.
But such criticism (see Rick Perlstein and many others) fails to appreciate that Limbaugh was first and foremost the consummate satirist. His humor could be sharp, but it focused on the hypocrisy of his critics and the liberal establishment. Take the commentary on Obama and Clinton, which was often aimed more at their fawning fans than at the presidents themselves (remember Chris Matthews’ embarrassing comment about the crease in Obama’s paints, or the woman celebrity who publicly proclaimed her desire to perform a sexual act on President Clinton during the height of the Lewinsky scandal?) How could he, a self-respecting conservative humorist, resist making fun of such subservience? If he could sound racially or gender insensitive, he also was right in calling out the patronizing attitudes of the politically correct liberal/left where race and feminism were concerned.
Yes, he was mostly wrong on the environment in my view and tonally off on immigration, but he was not wrong in skewering the ridiculous lengths some ideologues would go to force their views on us or to bend our society and culture to their ideologies. He rightly apologized from time to time for overdoing it, but you cannot view him solely as a political thought leader – he was also a humorist, a satirist, an entertainer. Saying outrageous things, pushing the envelope to make a point, is what comediennes and entertainers do – think Robin Williams, Richard Pryor or Jonathan Stewart. That is how Limbaugh thought of himself. He was less Buckley and more Lenny Bruce in that regard, though from a different political and cultural lens to be sure. (His shtick on Fritz Hollings – “whole lotta corruption going on round here” was one of the funniest things I had ever heard.)
In fact, Limbaugh’s comments, as insensitive and hysterical as they could be on occasion, are hardly as mean-spirited as some uttered by real political leaders who so resented his influence and success. Simply google a few of the comments aimed Republicans by Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Maxine Waters – and decide for yourself who was harsher. Not sure Limbaugh ever called Clinton or Obama Hitler, warmonger, racist, idiot or communist, though, substituting fascist for communist, Republicans routinely endured such commentary.
Sadly, in my view, Limbaugh was guilty in his final years of the very behavior he once found offensive in others, a fawning subservience to President Trump that transformed him from a sharp political and social critic to an apologist. Imagine if Rush, given his standing and influence, had held Trump accountable the way Buckley held Republicans, including Limbaugh, accountable. He might have saved the man and his presidency by warning Trump that there were lines that should not be crossed. Of course, he would not have received the medal of freedom, but integrity has its price.
Many argue Trump is a creature of Limbaugh. Not so. Trump was/is a creature of liberal/left world in whose company he ran for decades. He took the tactics and approaches of the hard left and turned them round on his enemies – personal attacks, false accusations, over the top rhetoric, claims of mass conspiracies. Limbaugh, in my memory, rarely encouraged such irresponsible and incendiary rhetoric, at least not until November of 2020. He began by appreciating Trump’s gumption and outsider status, but he wound up becoming his defender in chief, second in that regard only to Hannity, I suppose.
As one who looked elsewhere for my own political orientation – Buckley, Muggeridge and Chambers were my North Stars, though I also greatly admire Krauthammer, Will, Irving Kristol, Jeffrey Hart and Michael Novak, among others – I still found Limbaugh worth a listen.
I first heard him on a sailboat with my father, as best I recall, in the late 1980s. Dad pulled out the radio to get his daily fix of Rush as we navigated the small lake in North Carolina. As the years passed and Firing Line faded, I often would escape the daily pressures of my jobs by going to the car to tune in to Rush, planned errands to catch a bit of the show and was always annoyed when the Sunday recap included parts of the show I had already heard during the week.
No, he did not influence my thought much, but he could, in his own way, entertain, cajole and provide insights that forced reassessment and deepened my understanding of those in our country who, as Limbaugh himself said, made this country work. With Reagan and Buckley mostly gone, he became their champion regardless of race, politics or gender. It was this loyal group of people, small businesspeople like my dad, police, truck drivers, laborers, professionals, working housewives who Limbaugh tried to represent, not the elite political, academic, or intellectual classes. These everyday people still thought America a wonderful country, still believed our nation worth defending and celebrating despite its flaws, still believed it a place where dreams could come true, which belief was every day confirmed by Limbaugh’s own life story and his belief in them.
They will miss him most of all.