Rush Limbaugh, the bombastic radio talk show host is dead at 70 from lung cancer.
I started listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio in 1991. I listened religiously, as I have long been fascinated with radio and its influence in our society. Rush and I parted ways after the election of Barak Obama, as it became evident to me, that Rush’s views were too fringe, extreme, and racist for me to continue to follow. I’m sure that Rush had always been this way, but it was me that was changing, revealing that what Rush was spewing daily on the radio was unacceptable. Without a doubt, Rush saved AM radio, and can be credited for helping to create consumer based news organizations such as Fox News that cater to specific political ideologies. As a professor of communication and debate, I long appreciated the way Rush could attract and hold an audience for three hours in the middle of the day, with only an occasional caller or guest. He was an entertainer who blurred the lines between between serious punditry and shock jock antics.
In those early days, I would listen to him everyday without fail for most or all of the three hours. Growing up in the era of Ronald Reagan and the moral majority, most of my formative years were shaped by conservative politics. I was greatly influenced by Rush when the governor of my home state of Arkansas, sought the Presidency. Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh’s relationship to one another, and how they both leveraged the other as a political and cultural foil, was something to behold up close. I recall being one of the lone dissenters in my family and community, speaking out against the politics of Clinton, largely just repeating lines I heard Rush say on his daily radio show.
I read Rush’s books cover to cover, I stayed up late to watch his failed television show, and watched him fail again on his short lived stint as an NFL pundit on ESPN. In my estimation, the special thing about radio is that it is an intimate medium. Listening to the radio requires a commitment of active listening, and in many respects, it creates a bond between listener and host that convinces the listener that the host is speaking directly, almost exclusively to them. In my loyal days, this certainly describes how I felt about Rush. I remember when Rush revealed that he had become addicted to prescription drugs and had to leave the program for rehab, it felt as if a member of my family was suffering, this was how involved I was with his show.
But I also remember all of the cringe worthy moments, when Rush would engage in racist, homophobic, and other elements of demeaning language. Sadly, I would find ways to justify his words in my mind, excusing them as mere entertainment or sensational moments to galvanize the lunatic fringes of his audience. I’m ashamed I ever showed such loyalty to such language. I loved the medium of radio, and still do, but because all mediums have a way of becoming the message that shapes the listeners, there is not a positive legacy to this man or his story.
On January 6, 2021, insurrectionist stormed our Nation’s Capitol. Police officers were wounded and killed. One insurrectionist lost her life. Rush, like the President he supported, is responsible, in part for this tragedy. Through his vitriolic rhetoric and irresponsible language, Rush contributed to the divide we now see ever expanding in our Country.
Rush, once lamented, that to be successful in talk radio, you had to resign yourself to the fact that half of the people who know about you will hate you. While I think there is some truth to this, imagine if Rush would have committed his talents to uniting the nation, instead of tearing it apart. Imagine, if we would have used the power of his voice and leveraged his influence for a legacy of love instead of hate.
In the mid nineties, I drove a couple hours north of my hometown in Northeast Arkansas, to hear Rush speak in his hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri. He was there to deliver the commencement address to the graduating class of his high school alma mater. Rush never spoke utilizing notes, or even an outline. He famously told the story of this being the reason he flunked out of college, specifically speech class. I do recall that his speech was inspirational, as commencement addresses go, he talked about following dreams and getting around those who are successful in the field you desired. Good advice, I suppose. But in the end, Rush was a successful radio talk show host. That’s it. Those that loved him will praise him, those that despised him will say “good riddance.” Like the show he hosted for three decades, there is no nuance, no transcendence, no moving the needle to something improved, better, or more enlightened. Only more division.
It is a shame and waste that he could not have found a better way to utilize his “talent on loan from God.”