Wednesday all members of conservative media screeched to a momentary halt and immediately revamped their programming schedules – as was appropriate. It was announced Rush Limbaugh had passed away from cancer, aged 70.
It’s got to be an indicator of the impact this talk radio behemoth had on me that I can remember when I first heard his voice: I’m fairly certain it was also a Wednesday on what would normally be a day off for me. I was working for my contractor brother-in-law, circa November 1988, trying to earn a few extra bucks for an upcoming church mission’s trip. A buddy of mine, who also worked the same job, had told me about this guy just days previously. “Rush Limbaugh” he’d said with an amused grin — emphasizing that first name because of its uniqueness. There on that construction site I tuned in his program, and Rush made his sonorous entrance into my world.
He was still largely unknown in those days — at least countrywide. Back then he’d describe himself as someone who’d been told he looked like a cross between TV character “Hoss Cartwright” and newsman Peter Jennings. Not many listeners picked up on it at the time, but his debut on the media scene turned out to be flatly seismic: an unapologetically conservative opinionator launching a national radio show and sparking an industry-wide revolution. Since then? Many, many imitators, not many — if any — duplicators.
Admittedly, previous to “El Rushbo” there had been a scattering of figures from the political and cultural “right” who showed up on the AM dial — but generally we’re talking about local yokels, relatively obscure hosts haunting late-night slots, specialty programming-types (think William F. Buckley, Jr.) or, candidly, kooky or oddball types (over-the-top conspiracy theorists, exhibitionist opportunists, pseudo-conmen.)
The guy from Cape Girardeau, Missouri showed the world something it hadn’t seen before: a defender of a limited-government, free-market, Constitution-cherishing, Ronald Reagan-style political worldview, not merely reaching a city or a region, but broadcasting “across the fruited plain”; and doing it with zest, wit, élan and an ineluctable dose of impishness. For over three decades, three hours every Monday through Friday, Rush had fun — lots of it! — while colorfully skewering Liberal/Leftist pieties, taking down the trendy pabulum of the day, confronting political big-wigs who perhaps had grown accustomed to being given a pass from philosophically sympathetic journos. As Rush himself put it a time or two, he was essentially enunciating what most people “think but don’t have a chance to say themselves” — and, by the way, providing a top-shelf radio product along the way.
On Fox News last evening, pundit Mark Steyn — a regular fill-in when the Big Guy had a much-earned day off — underscored Rush had forged an infectious, previously unseen format for programming from “the Right”. He didn’t only gab about Washington-insider fodder or sterile policy squabbles. A trademark of Limbaugh’s EIB (Excellence in Broadcasting) Network was culling and dissecting what might otherwise be considered items of cultural trivialia to illustrate insightful, big-picture social analysis. It was penetrating stuff, rarely if ever dour or tedious; regularly amusing. “Reflect[ing] on the grand comedy of life,” is the way Steyn phrased it. “Rush understood that the great cavalcade of life, all these things factored [in]. … Everybody does that format now, and nobody did until he invented it.”
Along those lines, moments after news broke of the AM icon’s passing, fellow talker Steve Deace forthrightly avowed today’s conservative hosts wouldn’t have their on-air careers had it not been for Rush’s paving the way. His comments bring to mind a 1981 piece by the New York Time’s Walter Kerr in which he labeled Chico Marx the “unobtrusive, indispensable man” among his comedic brothers. When it comes to Rush Limbaugh vis-a-vis the talk-radio cosmos, you can drop that first descriptor (Rush was, admittedly, anything but “unobstrusive”.) But “indispensable”? No denying.
Deace went on to specifically cite the biting musical parodies Rush helped pioneer; hilariously clever send-ups of popular tunes which unforgettably drove home fundamental conservative ideals and traditionalist values. That regular feature highlights another ground-breaking element of his irresistible shtick, one pointed out, if memory serves, by a Time Magazine article many years ago: Rush didn’t just criticize the Progressive establishment — he laughed at it. Pre-Rush, that had been a nearly unheard of phenomenon. Mocking the D.C.-centric, tax-and-spend, welfare-state, secularist status quo? Who’d dare?!? Well, it develops … Rush did.
That detail goes a long way toward explaining the sputtering, near-sulphurous rage trained on the man by pompous potentates of the Left and scandalized members of the Mainstream Media since his earliest appearances on the nation’s stage.
That said, make no mistake: While Rush Limbaugh had a blast doing his thing, he was anything but unserious. Comparing him to Howard Stern or the late Morton Downey, Jr. as some scorners had been lame-brainedly wont to do? Cheap. Close to obscenely shallow. A baseless evaluation which could only be offered by those who never actually listened to his broadcasts — or who are so warped by their despise-all-things-conservative presuppositions they no longer can reason objectively.
Rush liked to cite author Richard Weaver’s pithy apothegm “Ideas have consequences” — good ideas generate good things; bad ideas do the reverse. The epistemological math is refreshingly uncluttered. His acknowledgment of this truism shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the now-deceased radio legend. Rush was, after all, an undeniable man of ideas — those of the historically rooted, America-founding, country-shaping, political correctness-defying stripe which he conveyed most weekday afternoons since the late-1980s.
And like ideas, Rush produced consequences as well; lots and lots of beneficial ones for his listeners; for America.