It was back in 1989, I think it was, I was home lying on the couch, recently returned from the hospital and some back surgery, when the phone rang. I recognized the voice right away, an old friend from college days I hadn’t heard from in years, but she was too excited even to give me her name. “I just heard!” she exclaimed, “I just heard the news!” That’s nice, I said in reply, but it’s just silly back surgery. But that’s so nice of you to think of me, I told her. There was a pregnant silence on the other end, and then: “Um, that’s not why I called. I wanted to tell you that I was just listening to the news, and then I heard this guy called Rush, and had to tell you about him.”
That’s how I first came to know Rush Limbaugh.
Some ten years later I was driving through Iowa, on the way to give a speech somewhere, and I stopped for coffee in downtown Middle of Nowhere. It was one of those tiny mid-Western towns, with only a Main Street and parking slots on either side. I pulled into one when the world’s largest RV, about half the size of that town, docked next to me. Actually, it had to park across a half-dozen parking spots. An elderly couple stepped out. They recognized me, we chatted, and eventually went inside to share some Joe. There they told me their story, how they were retired, had put their live savings into this mobile McMansion and were just… driving. Where they were headed was of little importance. It was that in complete luxury they could – and here they both piped in, enthusiastically – “listen to Rush on tape all day!”
That’s when I understood there’s never been a phenomenon quite like Rush Limbaugh.
Rush Limbaugh pioneered modern conservative talk radio 20 years ago and has remained the undisputed champion of this medium, no matter how many talented hosts have followed in his footsteps, the entire time. What is it that makes Rush the force of nature he is? I offer a four-fold explanation.
First, he is unquestionably the keenest political analyst on the American scene. I call them “V-8 Moments” – you’re listening to the show and like the old tomato juice commercial you slap your forehead thinking to yourself, “I should have thought of that!” One example: Five years ago, when the country was four-square in support of the war in Iraq, Rush predicted the left – the political class, the media, Hollywood — would do everything in their collective power to undermine the war effort, not just because they opposed the war, and not just because of their hatred of George Bush. It was, he explained, their only way to regain political power in America. Fast forward to this year’s presidential campaign: It is unfolding exactly as Rush predicted it would. Want another example? Listen to his show tomorrow, and watch him take accepted political wisdom one step further than anyone else. He always does.
Second, his sense of humor is unparalleled. Sure, he may have mellowed since his days poking fun at Feminazis while airing machine-gun bursts over soundtracks of “Born Free” to infuriate the PETA crowd, but the man continues delighting in sending liberals over the edge. I had dinner with him a few months ago at the height of his “Operation Chaos” campaign which had so unnerved the left that Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), Ohio was threatening legal action. When I brought this up he burst out in sustained laughter, chuckling, giggling, finally replying, “I don’t deserve to have so much fun!” He is having a blast with his career.
Which dovetails into the third reason: He loves his craft, and his affection for his audience is sincere and deep. Just as the left relentlessly painted the late Jesse Helms as an ogre when, in fact, he was roundly regarded by his peers as the kindest man on Capitol Hill, so too do they savage Rush as the prototypical right-wing “hater” when in fact he is a consummate professional and always a gentleman with his guests for the simple reason that he respects his audience, regardless of their views. It is contagious, and the relationship naturally has become symbiotic.
Finally, it is Rush’s humility. Sure, there’s the “Talent of Loan from God” and all that. But sit on his balcony, share a cigar, and engage him in private conversation. What emerges is the portrait of a man brimming with confidence but also awe-struck by it all: grateful for his friends, grateful for his career, and grateful for his country. A few years ago at a Media Research Center Gala I sprang him on stage as a surprise guest. The audience, 1,000 guests packed in the room stood but didn’t applaud. They didn’t cheer. They roared. Rush stopped dead in his tracks, turned and looked at me with genuine amazement. He simply hadn’t expected that reaction.
If I’d booked a football stadium I would have filled it, too. Come to think of it, maybe that’s what the conservative movement ought to do, to thank this man for what he’s done for, and meant to his country.