Rush Limbaugh created modern national talk radio as we now know it—from nothing. For over three decades he kept at rapt attention weekdays—live from noon to three—the largest conservative audience in broadcast history. Over 15 million tuned in each week.
Last week—32 years, and over 23,000 hours of on-air commentary after Rush went national in August 1988—he is gone, at 70 years young.
By the 1990s he had become the voice—literally and iconically—of the conservative movement and its hot/cold liaisons with the Republican Party. Rush was hated by the Left because he was deadly effective in fighting them, and feared at times by the Republican establishment—because he could also be deadly effective in fighting them.
Limbaugh had an uncanny sense of what conservative populism could do—such as abruptly end Barack Obama’s control of Congress after just two years, in the sweeping Tea Party midterm election of 2010. And he also instinctively sensed what it should not do: endorse Ross Perot’s Quixotic third-party surge of 1992 that eventually would split the conservative vote and ensure Bill Clinton the presidency with just 43 percent of the popular vote.
Rush was a master comedian. His pauses, intonations, and mock tones were far funnier than those of our contemporary regulars on late-night television comedy. He was a gifted mimic, an impersonator, with as wide a repertoire and as skilled at impressions as the masters of the past like Vaughn Meader, David Frye, and Rich Little. Yet Rush worked mostly behind the mike, without the aid of an on-stage presence.
During the 2009 Republican depression over the Obama craze, it was a lonely, much caricatured Limbaugh who revived Republicans. He famously announced—to the furor of the Left and chagrin of what within a decade would become the NeverTrump right—that he wanted the newly inaugurated president and his agenda to “fail.”
At the time of such heresy, a deified Obama was gloating over his “elections have consequences” veto-proof Senate, and a 79-seat Democratic majority in the House.
Limbaugh was a natural impromptu public speaker. And he could rev up a crowd in the fashion of a Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump. True, he was also a natural actor, but in part because he read widely, prepped constantly, and outworked his opponents.
The cheap postmortem attacks on Rush Limbaugh were as expected as they were tasteless. In his thousands of hours of live broadcast did he, on rare occasions, say wrong things? He said that he had, regretted it, and often apologized for them.
He certainly never took out progressive insurance—the kind of occasional triangulation with the Left that wins some conservatives exemptions from the cancel culture.
This week many would have preferred to read less about what Rush Limbaugh had apologized for and more about the apologies Joe Biden never offered for his lifelong compendium of racial insensitivity and prejudicial bombast—all to be contextualized in service to his “correct” thinking.
Rush’s canon was never to talk down to or insult the base. It was natural for him because he grew up with, knew intimately, and felt most comfortable with traditional middle America. Deplorables and clingers trusted him to stay Rush. They were assured there would never be a sudden about-face, confessional, or sellout. Rush knew how to golf with the rich, but also knew what it was like to be fired often and unemployed with the deplorables.
He grew increasingly frustrated that the naïve Right never fully understood the mind of the Left. In groundhog day fashion, conservatives, he felt, became shocked on cue that any means were not just necessary for the Left, but ethically justified—given its ends were global justice delivered by supposed moral superiors.
For someone with a reputation for mockery, I never heard Limbaugh in private or in correspondence fixate on his enemies or blast his former friends. Mostly he laughed them off, and instead turned to what he told hundreds of those who knew him, “How can I help you in any way?”
Rush was confused by the NeverTrump Republican virulence. He had dutifully fought for the four Bush election bids. He had supported loyally their three terms. And he tried to empower both the failed and inept McCain and Romney efforts. His theory was that after the primaries were over, winning 50 percent of what you wanted in a general election was at least better than nothing.
The amnesiac NeverTrumpers, he felt, not just never returned the courtesy, but also never worried that they even should have.
Rush’s was a quintessential American success story. It is impossible to imagine any other country producing either him or his career. We are mourning for Rush, but also for ourselves, who are going to miss—and need—him more, not less, each day that he is now silent.