Before you get to whether you loved or hated Rush Limbaugh, which is the first place pretty much everyone goes, it’s worth remembering that this pitched battle wouldn’t even be taking place if it weren’t for an indisputable truth:
Rush Limbaugh was really, really good at what he did.
Limbaugh, who died Wednesday of lung cancer at the age of 70, was a radio host. For all the other things he also became and was credited with becoming, like a Republican political kingmaker or a symbol of the modern conservative movement, his core skill was presenting a compelling talk radio program.
He understood pacing, he understood inflection. He knew how to integrate callers. He knew how to play the hits, a lesson carried over from his early days as a top-40 jock.
Mostly, he recognized that his show was equal parts message and entertainment. He was reluctant to phrase it that way, but it was evident in every broadcast. Even as he escalated into righteous fury over Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, he would leaven the monologue with humor.
Among the many ways he built a bond with his audience was a shared sense that they were quietly chuckling while the liberals, the socialists, the Democrats, the deep state and the mainstream media were sputtering with outrage.
Ideological as he sounded over 32 years on national radio, he knew that if he simply delivered a lecture every day, his audience would soon be looking out the window. It was fine to say the same thing every day, it simply had to be said with a fresh twist or two.
Limbaugh famously told the New York Times in 2008 that he was singular, that there was no one like him. In fact, all the great radio hosts in every format, from Dan Ingram to Jean Shepherd to Walter Winchell to Howard Stern, Don Imus, Wolfman Jack, Frankie Crocker and Alistair Cooke, followed the same principle: Keep it moving, keep it lively, always make the listener want to hear what you’re going to say next.
Sounds simple. It’s not.
Limbaugh knew his skill and was not modest about it. He was also well-rewarded for it. In 2008 he signed an eight-year syndication contract that paid him $400 million, and his radio base anchored media cluster that included a newsletter, books and personal appearances.
He was by all accounts generous with this money. Whether fame and fortune made him personally happy, that’s hard to know. He was married four times, couldn’t get a TV show to click, fought off an opioid addiction and often found himself a target of harsh criticism. When he described a birth control advocate as a “slut” in 2012, multiple sponsors abandoned him and he was forced into a sort-of apology. His audience declined in his later years, concurrent with the rise of social media as a new megaphone.
He gave little public indication that any of this bothered him or that he regretted anything, preferring to focus on the considerable praise and admiration he also received — up to and including the Medal of Freedom he was presented last year by President Donald Trump.
If Limbaugh wasn’t the ideological engine of modern conservatism, he was one of its most effective evangelists. Perhaps more than any other public figure, including Ronald Reagan, Limbaugh set the tone and attitude for the movement’s core army: Never apologize, never admit a mistake, never concede an inch. Do not fall into the trap of thinking there are grey areas and common ground. Give your opponents nothing, because that’s what they are: opponents. They are wrong and you are right.
It’s an approach that sometimes delivers mixed results in politics and real life. It worked beautifully on the radio.
Needless to say, it also provided his critics with a cornucopia of comments over 32 years that they found arrogant and demeaning.
”Feminism was established as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.”
“It’s time for all this white guilt to end. If any race should not feel guilty about slavery, it’s Caucasians.”
“The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.”
“There are more American Indians alive today than there were when Columbus arrived. Does this sound like a record of genocide?”
“All of this panic is just not warranted. This virus is the common cold.”
“Women live longer because their lives are easier.”
During the debate on the Affordable Care Act, which Limbaugh opposed as unnecessary, he noted that when he had extensive back surgery, he just wrote a check. So what was the problem with the American health care system?
Limbaugh’s fans, on the other hand, the ones sometimes self-identified as “dittoheads,” focused more on other things he said.
“Too many Americans can’t laugh at themselves anymore.”
“There’s a simple way to solve the crime problem: obey the law; punish those who do not.”
“Liberals measure compassion by how many people are given welfare. Conservatives measure compassion by how many people no longer need it.”
“They say he lied to Congress. I can think of no better bunch of people to lie to than Congress.”
“Liberals should not be allowed to buy guns, nor should they be allowed to use computer keyboards or typewriters, word processors or e-mails, and they should have their speech controlled. If we did those three or four things, I can’t tell you what a sane, calm, civil, fun-loving society we would have.”
To his admirers, he left society better than he found it. To his critics, he left it more indifferent.
Still, they all agreed he commanded attention, through his skill at conjuring visions of an America some considered warmly reassuring and others saw as deeply disturbing.
“The culture war is between the winners and those who think they’re losers who want to become winners,” he said. “The losers think the only way they can become winners is by banding together all the losers and then empowering a leader of the losers to make things right for them.”
Was he talking about liberals in the Clinton era or was he talking about Donald Trump’s followers in 2021?
Okay, we know the answer. But like him or hate him, it’s easy to see how “Rush” became a one-name household word in an old-school medium that remains a powerful platform for those who know how to use it.