With apologies to Shakespeare, I come to bury Rush Limbaugh, not to praise him.
I remember the first time I heard someone mention Rush Limbaugh. My first response was “who?” My second response was “what did you say his name was again?” After I learned he was a radio talk show host, I assumed Rush was some sort of stage name (mic name?). Turns out it was his birth name.
Eventually I found his daily radio show. I usually went out to lunch about 11:30. His show started at noon so I’d listen to him in the car on the way back.
This was somewhere around 1990 – my politics were much more conservative than they are today. I liked to describe myself as “socially liberal, fiscally conservative.” What that really meant was that I was young and I hadn’t seen much of the world yet. I believed that while the world wasn’t exactly fair, at least in America everyone had a chance. Work hard, play by the rules, and you could make a good life for yourself.
Oh, to be young and naïve…
Limbaugh was an entertainer
I found Rush Limbaugh entertaining.
I didn’t always agree with him, especially on social issues. His infamous quote that “feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream society” struck me as blatantly false and deliberately cruel.
But I liked his cheerleading for America as a land of opportunity.
I’ve never liked talk radio because I can’t stand silliness and I can’t stand hosts talking over each other – I stopped listening to FM “morning drive” a very long time ago. And I can’t stand listening to the vast majority of people who call into talk radio shows. Limbaugh started every program with a monologue that would last at least one segment and sometime two. When he took callers he insisted that they get to the point and then shut up and let him talk. Limbaugh was a professional talker – the callers weren’t.
When he was at his best he was a very good entertainer. And good entertainers will always find an audience.
His impact on American politics
It is impossible to overstate the impact Rush Limbaugh had on American politics. There were a few well-known national hosts before Rush, but mainly talk radio was a cheap way for local stations to fill air time.
At his peak he was reaching 20 million listeners per week in national syndication. You can draw a straight line from his success in radio to the founding of Fox News on cable TV in 1996.
On several occasions Limbaugh said “I’m successful because I say what other people think to themselves but are afraid to say out loud.” You can draw another straight line from Rush Limbaugh to Donald Trump, and that’s before you get into Limbaugh’s worship of Trump in the final years of his show.
A blueprint for success or the privilege of wealth?
I think my biggest attraction to Rush Limbaugh was his myth of success through persistence. Before starting on this post, I did a quick search through my personal journals from the 1990s. Limbaugh came up several times. Never in reference to any political position he took – always as an example of someone who was “successful.”
I was still trying to find success and meaning in my paying job. Or in a new paying job. Or in any job that would allow me to get rich. I was years away from my epiphany and ultimate realization that my calling in life is as a Druid and a priest, not as a corporate executive.
Limbaugh often talked about how he had been fired from four jobs before he got the position that led to his success. He also talked about how his father was a lawyer and his grandfather was a judge. He never made the connection that his family’s wealth allowed him to fail over and over again without worrying about living in poverty for the rest of his life.
I didn’t make that connection either until well after I stopped listening to him.
I was considerably more aware of the way the world works when Limbaugh was arrested for prescription drug abuse in 2006. He was immediately released on $3000 bail. Ultimately he agreed to a deal with prosecutors that resulted in the charges being dropped. Limbaugh had long called for people who violate drug laws to be sent to jail.
Of course, he was talking about people who are poor and black, not rich and white.
I stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh in the late 90s. My job situation changed and I was rarely able to listen to him at lunch. By the time I was able to catch his show with any regularity, my political views had shifted considerably left. In large part that was because I had to deal with three job losses requiring cross country moves, and while I came out of that OK, I had friends at each stop who didn’t. So I really wasn’t interested in listening to conservative talk anymore.
During the Obama years I would occasionally tune in to hear what he had to say about this issue or that. He sounded different. The common sense conservative analysis I used to like was replaced by rightwing ideological rants. The humor that was mostly funny even if it occasionally crossed the line was decidedly not funny and very meanspirited. I wasn’t the only person who wondered if the pain killers had damaged his brain.
In 1993 I bought Limbaugh’s new book See I Told You So. I still have it – I never get rid of books. I don’t remember what I thought of it at the time – it wasn’t important enough to journal about.
And so when I heard he had died, I pulled it off the shelf to help me refresh my thoughts on how he changed over the years.
There was no common sense conservatism. There was no sharp humor. The far right ideology was there all along. His humor was always about punching down. There was a complete lack of awareness of the privileges his birth, his wealth, and his skin color brought him – everybody should just do what he did and they’d be fine.
Rush Limbaugh didn’t change.