The Five Dimensions of Rush Limbaugh
Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh’s familiar quip of being “your host for life” has a sobering new meaning as he battles -- and seems to be losing -- his ten-month struggle against lung cancer.
I began listening to Rush within days or so of the launching of his national program in August of 1988. Three decades of listening prompts me to view him from five dimensions: as a pioneering radio guy, a brilliant social commentator, a maligned conservative, a sterling professional, and a major figure in American history.
Those of us who spent some time working in radio can appreciate the Limbaugh road to success. After a mediocre to failed broadcasting career, Rush in the mid-80s was enjoying his first major win in Sacramento. A station’s management finally allowed him to do radio the way he knew it should be done and lightning struck. A major national broadcast executive heard him and brought him out of Sacramento to New York to launch his national program. It occurred at just the right time. The Reagan administration had recently revoked the so-called Fairness Doctrine, allowing Rush to voice his opinions without having to present opposing views. Also, FM caused AM radio’s music formats to collapse and AM operators needed an alternative.
So Rush Limbaugh came to the national scene, mixing humor with conservative social and political commentary, applying radio music programming techniques to keep the show moving with the right balance of caller comments, playing rock tunes to segue in and out of commercial breaks, and while tackling serious topics, “having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have.”
He brought a revolution. His success soon launched imitative radio networks and talk show hosts and he was credited with immediately saving hundreds of AM radio stations from permanently signing off.
As the Rush Limbaugh Show spread across America, conservatives began to learn that they were not alone -- Rush was brilliantly articulating their very thoughts. I found him to be an insightful commentator: wading through complex, murky, controversial topics, and deftly grasping the real heart of an issue. “So that’s what this is really about,” I frequently would think to myself following an analysis by Rush.
Despite reaching the mega-big time, Rush has confessed that he was a bit taken aback when media peers did not accept his success. For instance, he once was publicly insulted at a broadcasting awards ceremony. But that comes with being firmly on the right. Where conservative pioneer William F. Buckley’s wealth, cultural refinement, and Yale connection could grant him the establishment’s grudging respect and acceptance, Rush Limbaugh, college dropout from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, received none. A caricature developed of Rush as a rude, loudmouthed shock jock (a newsmagazine once pictured him with flames coming out of his mouth on a cover he shared with ever-vulgar Howard Stern). The familiar criticisms of all conservatives (racist, bigot, etc., etc., etc.) are laser focused on Rush, presumably by people who have never really listened to him. Yet, longtime listeners know how he cares for people, that he is about entertainment and information instead of shock, that he treats callers with respect, and that his opinions are carefully reasoned and compelling.
And there is the professional dimension, much of it related to his health. Catastrophic for a radio broadcaster, in 2001 Rush went completely deaf. He didn’t whine, but explained matter-of-factly to his listeners what happened and they were delighted when cochlear implants saved his career. Same thing when he went into rehab for prescription drug addiction stemming from severe back pain aggravated by his refusal to undergo surgery that could jeopardize his vocal cords. Again, a simple, unemotional, but detailed explanation to listeners. Finally, the diagnosis earlier this year of lung cancer. There were no lamentations or self-pity, but, in response to listener concern, he recently outlined his lack of progress and acknowledged the terminal aspect of his disease. Despite the energy drain even a young healthy individual would experience doing a three-hour daily talk show, ailing 69-year-old Rush (except on days when he’s in treatment) chugs right along, always sounding informed, enthusiastic, cheerful, and on top of his game.
A great radio guy, a brilliant social commentator, a maligned conservative, a consummate professional; there’s even more to Rush Limbaugh. He is a major figure in the history of the America he loves. In a week he reaches more Americans than George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln or even media-savvy Franklin D. Roosevelt. His commentaries have had major influences on the nation and he probably is one of the factors to get people to stop yelling at their television sets, to get up off their couches, and to get involved in the social and political heavy lifting required to check the liberal shifts of their country.
His impact has been generational. Where he was receiving calls from “Rush Babies” who were introduced to him by their parents, now there’s now a third generation: self-described Rush Grandbabies who caught the enthusiasm of their grandparents.
In January, President Trump recognized him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The medal’s citation notes “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Very early in his national radio show, listeners stopped using up valuable broadcast time to praise him and his program, developing a shorthand greeting that has remained through the decades: “Dittos, Rush.”
In recent months, there’s been a slight change in that little salute that reflects the deep feelings of his audience. And I’ll express it here, joined, I’m sure, by many others:
“Dittos, Rush. And prayers.”
A retired marketing professor, and former journalist and radio broadcaster, Mike Landry is a freelance writer in Northwest Arkansas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Image: Gage Skidmore