The complicated legacy of Rush Limbaugh – OCRegister

I hate beets. I think they taste awful. There’s nothing you pro-beet people can say that will change my mind. That beets are versatile, a natural sweetener and nutritious, means nothing to me.

For millions of you, Rush Limbaugh was like beets. You hated him. Even if you never listened to him.

I am conflicted about Rush.

Having spent a quarter century on the radio myself, ad-libbing commentary in real time, often on highly-charged and controversial subject matter, it’s impossible for me not to be awed by Limbaugh’s command of the medium while also being fully aware of his downside.

Shortly before I retired from KABC, professional curiosity prompted me to check in with Rush. I caught him in mid-monologue, the content of which is forgotten, but I remember it being compelling. I kept waiting to hear what book or magazine he was reading from. Then it hit me, he wasn’t reading! I had been listening to a seamless improvisation; sentence upon sentence forming beautifully crafted paragraphs without a single “um” or “uh” or fumbled syllable. It was a virtuoso performance of extemporaneous speaking. And he did this hour after hour, day after day for decades. He was a true maestro of the airwaves.

Of course, style isn’t everything.

Limbaugh’s astonishing success as a broadcaster was achieved by grafting the showmanship of a Top 40 disk jockey (which Limbaugh was using the name “Jeff Christie”) to boilerplate conservative talking points: law and order, anti-communism, pro-business, anti-abortion, and especially mainstream media-bashing, all leavened with wit and outrageousness.

Rush’s humor, like beets, is a matter of taste. We like people who make us laugh and Rush could be funny. But it was his certitude that made him powerful. In a rapidly changing world, multi-cultural and revisionist, where even Abe Lincoln isn’t safe, Limbaugh was the Rock of Gibraltar. He rarely apologized for anything, even when he said something awful, which he did frequently. Rush was always right. Who said so? He said so.

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Limbaugh’s over-the-top bombast – “With talent on loan from God,” “With half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair” — was a deliberate parody of the self-important blowhard, and endearing. That he became what he had once mocked is a show business cliché. After decades of adulation, acquiring vast riches, rubbing elbows with the top 1% of the top 1%, capped by a Presidential Medal of Freedom, whose head wouldn’t swell?

Former KFI and KABC news anchor, Terri-Rae Elmer (T-Rae to her fans) worked at KFBK in Sacramento when a large man with a strange name arrived from Kansas City.

“Rush was a big marshmallow,” remembered T-Rae in a phone call the day Rush died. “He was shy, an introvert, but once he got behind the microphone, he had a different persona,” said Elmer. T-Rae and Rush remained friends despite their political differences.

Creatively, Rush was a risk-taker. “Management was ready to throttle him,” said T-Rae. “No guests? For three hours? Who does that?”

Rush did that. Rush understood the congregation comes to hear the preacher. And 20 million of us couldn’t get enough.

Soon, Limbaugh was broadcasting on more than 600 radio stations. Restaurants opened “Rush Rooms” so “Dittoheads” could listen on their lunch break. Limbaugh’s success added thirty-years of viability to AM radio while totally revolutionizing the news business: no Rush, no FOX News, no MSNBC. Democrats spent the next 30-years trying to find their own Rush Limbaugh. They’re still looking.

An entire radio network, Air America, was launched to counter Limbaugh. It folded.

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“Why don’t liberals work on radio?” was the industry-wide question. The answer was obvious: the market was already saturated.

NPR and Pacifica carried the progressive banner on the AM/FM bands, while every television show not on the FOX News Channel leaned to the left. And that’s before we get to MSNBC, CNN, NBC, CBS or ABC. Which is how it should be. The marketplace determined who and what Americans can hear, not the government.

In the post-fairness doctrine world, more voices are heard today than ever, multiplied exponentially by podcasting. And it’s important to keep in mind, even with Limbaugh’s massive audience, Bill Clinton won twice despite Rush’s best efforts to defeat him. So too, Barack Obama.

Last November, Joe Biden trumped Donald Trump. So, exactly how powerful was Rush in reality?

For all his outrageousness, Limbaugh was a Republican stalwart, as entrenched in the party as any Beltway lifer. He was a Reaganite who lived by Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment, “Thou shalt not speak ill of thy fellow Republicans.”


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