What Rush Limbaugh meant to conservatives
Some years ago I was reading a magazine profile of a radio talk show host who was popular but not a household name. His politics were conservative but idiosyncratic, not as reliably Republican as his peers. Nevertheless, his description of the first time he heard Rush Limbaugh reminded me of interviews in which punk rock musicians spoke with uncharacteristic reverence about the first time they listened to The Beatles.
Limbaugh's death at the age of 70 after a long battle with lung cancer will be another reminder, as if more were needed, of the stark red-blue divide in America. Suffice it to say a cursory glance at social media, which I don't recommend, will reveal strikingly polarized reactions to his passing, unlike the deaths of any ex-Beatle.
Rush was an eager combatant in these culture wars and wouldn't have expected anything less. From the moment Bill Clinton took office in 1993, Limbaugh, then barely five years into national syndication, kicked off each show with a countdown of "America held hostage." He also used this shtick in his shorter-lived television program. "This show, taking its cue from Nightline, will be here for every night of this crisis," he deadpanned.
It's easy to forget how much he reshaped the talk radio landscape. Limbaugh was on the air for three hours a day. He was a national rather than local figure. He rarely had guests, and many he did have were high-ranking Republicans who called in themselves. His show was news- and event-driven, as opposed to editorializing on a specific subject for each segment.
Broadcast to millions, Limbaugh was more overtly partisan than Paul Harvey, who preferred brief homespun monologues. His show was more populist and unabashedly lowbrow than William F. Buckley Jr.'s Firing Line, though he obviously admired the National Review founder very much and sought to popularize more sophisticated conservative arguments. One of his frequent guest hosts was Walter Williams, a libertarian-leaning economics professor whose academic credentials were deeper and politics more radical. (Williams also died earlier this year.) This is part of how Limbaugh retained the admiration of even some who came to view his approach to politics as too simplistic, like that Sex Pistols fan who still enjoys Rubber Soul.
Yes, Limbaugh was a conservative movement true believer who "fangirled" over Buckley and Ronald Reagan as much as his average listener would have. But unlike a lot of his imitators, he never forgot he was an entertainer first. His skits and songs were often more memorable than his hot takes on the ephemeral controversies of the day.
There was the presentation of Al Gore as a Forrest Gump-like figure: "I'm Forrest, Forrest Gore." The Bill Clinton impersonator singing a parody of The Beatles' "All My Loving": "All your money, I will tax from you/All your money, I need revenue." The show featured a send-up of Clinton's controversial surgeon general, Jocelyn Elders, to the tune of the Cars' "My Best Friend's Girl": "She wants to ban cigarettes/And legalize cocaine." And of course a Ted Kennedy impressionist singing about drinking and womanizing to the tune of Dion's "The Wanderer," complete with a reference to tearing open his shirt to reveal his mother "Rosie" on his chest.
Sophomoric, perhaps, but no more than Saturday Night Live sketches or Daily Show bits that pick apart different partisan objects of ridicule and like those sometimes quite clever. Like all mockery, it could degenerate into meanness or worse. Many compendia of Limbaugh's most offensive utterances will be published in the coming days and the list won't necessarily be short.
Nor is Limbaugh without conservative critics. Some felt he got too cozy with the Republican establishment, especially during Pat Buchanan's 1992 primary challenge against President George H.W. Bush. Bush invited Limbaugh to stay overnight at the White House. But Limbaugh's steadfast support for President Donald Trump, who awarded the conservative talker the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was shared by most of his audience.
Whatever your thoughts about his political opinions or presentation of them, Limbaugh's perseverance in the radio business after losing his hearing was admirable. So was his fight against a pain pill addiction, even as it raised questions about his past support for the federal war on drugs, which has contributed to mass incarceration in the black community.
That is another area where Limbaugh's legacy is complicated. He was a cheerleader for Jack Kemp-style minority outreach, a booster of prominent black conservatives like Walter Williams and his longtime pseudonymous producer Bo Snerdley. But his reflexive political incorrectness also reflected conservatism's inability to reach beyond a relatively narrow demographic base.
There are nevertheless millions of Americans who heard in Limbaugh a rare spokesman. And now rarer still.