Op-Ed By Larry Schweikart
Most of us have their “Rush moment” when they first heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio. Mine came around 1989 when I was on vacation in Arizona from my teaching position at the University of Dayton. An old rock and roll friend, a bass player, told me, “You have to listen to this guy. He’s conservative, but all his music is rock and roll and he has these parodies . . . .” So I did.
It was love at first soundbite. I was hooked at “My City Was Gone,” his theme music by the Pretenders.
A Professional’s Professional
First, over the years, people—especially Rush’s critics—have failed to understand what a consummate professional he is. He has a one-in-a-million voice: authoritative, but not haughty like Bill O’Reilly. Engaging, but not common like Paul Harvey. But his voice is only the gateway to his mind. And Rush’s mind is above all one of organization. Early in his career, he developed the “stack of stuff,” wherein he organizes each day’s show. Recently on air, he discussed this process, saying that the night before, he spends a great deal of time printing out stories and news items he wants to discuss, then the following morning, he assembles them into small stacks in the order he hopes to get through them. In years before his illness, he sometimes would have so much material that even without taking more than a couple of callers, he would provide on his website a “Fourth Hour.” Listeners know well that Rush will often search for an item because so many stories cross topical boundaries—a story about the environment may be filed under a certain overreaching governor, or a new item about education might be under culture. But usually, within a few moments, while never losing the audience, Rush produces it.
His timing is impeccable, rarely running into the commercial breaks. He enacted a policy with callers never to put one on without sufficient time to develop the caller’s point. Unlike others, such as Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity, Rush very rarely allowed any of his support staff, including James Golden (“Mr. Snerdly”) who had hosted his own show, to actually speak on air. Rush avoided co-hosts and especially on-air interviews, making rare exceptions for certain authors, including his brother David or now-Trump attorney Sidney Powell. Rather, Rush’s view was always (correctly) that he was the star, that people tuned in to hear him, not someone else. Nevertheless, because of Rush’s powerful platform, guest callers to his show included Charleton Heston, President George H. W. Bush, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jim Caviezel, Sarah Palin, President Donald Trump, and Vice President Mike Pence.
Rush’s policy with callers—aside from some of the celebrities—has been that the “caller’s job is to make me look good,” as he consistently has said. This took a puzzling turn in late 2000 when his speech patterns changed, and he seemed to have trouble understanding callers. It was later revealed he had become almost completely deaf and was doing the show via written transcripts on screen. In 2001 he had a cochlear implant and regained his normal speech patterns, though he still has difficulty hearing callers who speak too fast, and described a situation in a crowd of people as a giant buzz. Although normally withdrawn privately, the hearing issues made his public appearances and group gatherings even less frequent.
It was speculated that another health problem—an ongoing back issue—had led to his addiction to pain medication in 2003. He went to rehab, discussed the experience favorably on his show, and briefly was under arrest for prescription fraud until the charge was dropped and the record expunged.
During the “down” periods when Limbaugh was away, his popularity was such that the show could continue through an assortment of guest hosts. Among these were Roger Hedgecock, the former mayor of San Diego, Mark Steyn, Ken Matthews, actor Nick Searcy, and even leftist Chris Matthews, who later became a leading Trump-hater. Nevertheless, they were all only place holders for El Rushbo, whose obvious superiority overall competition won him a slot in the Radio Broadcasting Hall of Fame.
Second, in addition to being a professional radio announcer extraordinaire of anything, Rush found a talent for understanding the broadcast business. As he often jokes, his program exists to charge “confiscatory advertising rates.” While some snipe that he doesn’t have the largest companies advertising for him—although he did have General Motors for a time—his clients pay top dollar. Moreover, Rush understood the power of being more than one show carried by whomever: it was critical to have a whole network of loyal stations that would sign on to his show. He created this with the “Excellence in Broadcasting (EIB) Network in 1990, which is syndicated by Premiere Radio Networks. As part of the EIB, he engaged in a “Rush to Excellence” series of stand-up appearances around the country in 1990 and 1991. He also hosted a (very) late-night television show from 1992 to 1996, which became the template for later parody and political commentary by people such as Paul Joseph Watson and Tucker Carlson. Above all, Rush realized that if his show did not make money, his ideas would never get out.
Detractors wanted to portray Rush as an “entertainer” (he is), but his entertainment was entirely based on deep, thoughtful political commentary, no less than that of people such as George Carlin or Lenny Bruce. What few failed to realize was that after being fired seven times from different jobs, Rush followed the example of many greats before him, including Henry Ford, Samuel Colt, and even Elvis Presley and used his failures to hone his skills in his field.
Finally, in addition to being a consummate professional and an exceptional businessman, Rush’s success and influence stems from the fact that he is simply put the best political analyst in the nation, bar none. Long-standing dons of political opinion, including George Will or Peggy Noonan, or even younger writers such as Dinesh D’Souza, have either completely failed to understand the essence of the two political parties or have taken their analysis down particular rabbit holes.
Rush’s greatness stems from two major characteristics or world views. The first is that Rush loves America, loves American exceptionalism, and, by extension, believes that traditional and classical ways of doing things—whether sports, business, entertainment, culture, or personal interactions—are superior. And not just superior a little. Massively, overwhelmingly superior to any other alternatives.
Rush was the only major national voice to insist there was something called “American exceptionalism.” The notion was in its infancy in the period 2004-2005 when Rush began employing the term heavily. Although he never had a single stock definition, Rush explained American exceptionalism as essentially a nation where for the first time in history the people were in charge of the government.
Except that wasn’t actually true. There were times in the Italian republics where, more or less, the state was beholden to the citizens, and certainly the small Dutch Republic of the 1500s would have claimed as much. The difference between Rush and everyone else was that even when he couldn’t specifically define it, Rush knew it existed. Others such as Niall Ferguson were also making stabs during this period at defining “American Exceptionalism.” By that time, A Patriot’s History of the United States, which I wrote with Michael Allen (2004), had come out. We had three rough characteristics that seemed to apply to America, but they were hardly defining. Rush interviewed me for an edition of his newsletter, The Limbaugh Letter, and we discussed in broad terms American greatness.
Then, in 2012, while working on A Patriot’s History of the Modern World with a new co-author, Dave Doughetry, it dawned on us that still, no one had clearly defined the traits of American Exceptionalism and it had to be done. We created the “Four Pillars” of American Exceptionalism—common law, a Christian mostly Protestant religious tradition, private property with written titles and deeds, and a free market economy. This, we found, applied to the U.S. and to no other nation from its birth.
But Rush had brought the term into the general discourse. From his perspective, America was great because she adhered to a set of general principles that anyone could follow. He would argue (at the time) that the Islamic nations with whom we were fighting really wanted freedom. It is something, he would repeatedly say, that the human spirit yearned for.
Well, perhaps not all. It seemed to become apparent to Rush over the course of the Iraq war that in fact, freedom was low on some peoples’ lists, and that others defined freedom in far different ways than political independence or the right to go where you want. While gradually dampening down the notion that American-style liberty appealed to all peoples, Rush nevertheless elevated the more important premise that America was God’s gift to the world and that American greatness was good for the world. Whereas leftists would claim (Rush said) that The United States was the source of the world’s problems, it was just the opposite. We were the solution. Repeatedly Rush argued that poorer nations in the world languished in poverty because of insufficient capitalism. (Academic research has largely supported this, although the impediments to “more capitalism” occasionally are far deeper than populations just wanting it).
Rush became the national cheerleader for American greatness. By 2010, this had shaped almost every discussion he had, although he did more than tip the hat to the idea that America was great because she was good. Not only did American greatness benefit the United States directly, but indirectly it protected other free nations from petty tyrants, land-grabbing neighbors, and dangerous ideologies. And there were dangerous ideologies, none of which involved American liberty or republicanism.
To Rush, the fundamental reality of America’s exceptional nature meant that traditions were worth upholding and supporting; heroes and holidays worth cherishing; and freedom of the individual worth protecting. That meant by nature he opposed any group-ism, from Black Lives Matter to “Feminism” to any claimants to special victim status.
The flip side of Rush’s adherence to American exceptionalism was probably even more important when it came to his political analysis. Because he knew what America was, he also knew what America’s enemies needed to destroy. From the early 1990s on, he was living inside the skin of leftists, usually predicting their moves before they even thought of them. In essence, Rush would ask himself, “If I wanted to harm America, how would I react with such and such issue?” He was almost always right. Eerily right.
Yes, he made a few poor predictions. For example, he argued that Hillary Clinton would never run for the New York Senate Seat because she couldn’t afford for her image to take a loss. Except Hillary had no intentions of losing, and didn’t. In 2016, he prophesied that outgoing president Barack Obama would stay in Washington, D.C. to become a running shadow president to Donald Trump. In fact, he was right, but not as he predicted: Obama did the undermining of Trump by stealth and through surrogates, not himself out in public so much. And most recently, he claimed Joe Biden could not come out of his basement to campaign, let alone debate. In fairness, at the time few thought the Democrats would (so far) pull off the heist of the century and stuff the ballot boxes with up to 20 million fake votes.
As misses, these are few and far between. On a daily tactical level, he has the uncanny ability to predict what Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will do, or what Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will say. Above all, however, Rush’s most important talent is not only understanding why the left hates him but why it hates his listeners—and then puts that into words they can clearly grasp. Thus Rush not only knows what leftists are thinking, but he also has perfect communion with his army of listeners. After all, at one time he was one of them.
Whether it’s sports, culture, religion, or social attitudes, Rush is the barometer for what average Americans want, aspire to, and fear. He can sew the fabric of these various garments together in three hours to make a resplendent audio robe that anyone can wear. It is the robe of freedom and American greatness—not just from the past, but for the future.