Editorial staffs at larger conservative media outlets have probably been preparing for this day for a year, since the announcement just about this time in 2020 that Rush Limbaugh had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer – in most cases a certain death sentence.
Perhaps one of the most characteristic things about the quintessential talk radio host, whom we all thought of as “Rush,” is what he did with the next 11-odd months. He had to continue cancer treatment, which is debilitating under any circumstances, and very much so when fighting cancer in an advanced state of progression. But he also labored to keep doing his weekday broadcast for all the days he possibly could, sounding at all times alert, in charge, and happy to be there.
I never listened to Rush as assiduously as many of his fans did. But I did listen more in 2020, partly because he was a cheerful, trenchant presence at a difficult time. Looking back on it, I would even say that’s the main thing I remember about him. He was never ugly-spoken, spiteful, discouraging. His brand was good cheer.
It was other things too, of course. If I had to characterize it, I would say he was a great synthesizer of ideas. He didn’t have to “reduce” them to simplistic propositions; rather, he had the ability to convey them intelligibly, often through relational references, and without bogging down in a morass of caveats and side excursions.
If he hadn’t had this facility he would never have been so successful. There was a period when he was especially well known for the parody songs done by comedian Paul Shanklin, and for things like his (Rush’s) operation to zoom the vote in open-primary states, where voters can vote across party lines. But those shticks came and went, and would not have been enough to hold and enlarge an audience of tens of millions year after year (for more than 32 years, as it now closes out).
Many of his listeners would say, with John Hayward, that one of the most important things Rush did was inform them they were not alone in their conservative perspective.
We all lost a great friend in Rush Limbaugh today, but he showed us how many friends we really have, across this nation and many others. We are one less, but because of him, we will never again fear we are alone. One voice is stilled, but there will never again be silence. /end
— John Hayward (@Doc_0) February 17, 2021
The media have been trying to depict conservatives as marginalized and outside the mainstream for much longer than younger generations may realize. Rush’s extraordinary popularity and success have remained evidence that what we call conservatism (much of which is “classical liberalism,” with its emphasis on small government and ordered liberty) is still widespread and compelling for a vast chunk of America.
But there’s yet another feature of his industry profile that merits mention in even the briefest memoir. Rush brought the goods, news-wise. One of the best reasons to tune in to his broadcast was to hear news you didn’t get anywhere else. His famous “stack of stuff” was always worth the listen. Rush worked mostly from mainstream news sources, even in the most recent years of dementedly slanted coverage by the MSM. But he would dig out nuggets from local news affiliates that were being ignored at the network level. He’d feature stories the major newsrooms were trying to bury. He had an unerring eye for the misleading nature of what he called “drive-by reporting,” and called it out relentlessly.
In the latter regard, he didn’t spare the sloppy on the right. He was no more ill-tempered about poor reporting from the right than from the left, but he didn’t give it a pass either. He’d remind his listeners that getting it right, cleaning up after yourself, was essential to retaining credibility and trust.
He attracted very informative callers as well, who would provide first-hand insight about events that you couldn’t get anywhere else.
There’ve been many excellent commemorations since his death Wednesday morning, and there will no doubt be more. He had a remarkable life. There is much more to say, and it can’t all be said now.
I’d be remiss vis-à-vis a shipmate, however, if I didn’t conclude with this anecdote. It’s about Fleet Week in New York in 1996. Rush was still recording a TV show there at the time, and a fellow officer on the carrier strike group staff I was assigned to (embarked in USS John F Kennedy, CV-67) was a big-league Rush Limbaugh fan. There was a restaurant in Manhattan Rush recommended on his radio show, not far from the recording studio. My friend on staff, George (a lieutenant commander in the operations department, or “N3”), arranged for admission for a group of us to a recording session of the TV show, and followed it up with reservations for dinner at the restaurant.
All told, there were about two dozen of us in the live audience at the recording session. Rush was obviously over the moon to have us there in our summer whites. The camera panned over us frequently, and Rush had a natural performer’s rapport going with his Navy contingent in no time. There were a few Marines there as well; an amphibious “big deck” command ship with Marines embarked was also in port for Fleet Week. It was the ship and the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) we would deploy with the next year, so we already knew some of the people, and George had extended the offer to them.
Recording the TV show was followed by an excellent meal at the restaurant (whose name now escapes me). After the dinner we broke up into groups to finish our evenings. Having shipboard duty the next day, I headed back to the John F Kennedy with a couple of other lame-os.
Late that night, I became aware of an apparent emergency situation in a passageway on the JFK, just where the ladders up from the quarterdeck dropped us carrier group (CARGRU) staffers off near our working and berthing spaces on the “O-3 level” under the flight deck. And checking into it – in case our staff duty officer needed to know about it – I quickly discovered that the emergency was George, seemingly having a stroke.
He was only 39 (as the Navy savvy will guess, he was prior-enlisted), but to our great sorrow, although New York’s finest were there in a flash on the pier, and the staff and ship’s company had him off in their hands in a trice, George didn’t survive the night.
The CARGRU chief of staff asked me the next morning to be George’s escort officer for his flight back to Norfolk. But it wouldn’t leave until the following day, and so I had the rest of that working day to complete one special task in New York. My good friend from the ship’s intelligence division went with me: to Rush Limbaugh’s EIB offices to see if they could possibly provide me a tape of the recorded broadcast to give to George’s family.
Long story short: the EIB staffers were wonderful. A couple of them remembered seeing me the night before. (Sometimes it comes in handy being the rare female in a situation.) They were able to verify with George’s name that he had arranged for our admission to the recording session. They not only agreed to provide a tape, they accelerated their own work on it in order to provide it properly edited and polished. In less than an hour, my shipmate and I walked out with two taped copies of the show.
They even apologized that Rush wasn’t there to meet us. They knew, they said, that if Rush had been there, it’s what he would have wanted to do.
George’s lovely wife and his mostly teenage children (four in all), as well as his two sisters, were grateful to get the tapes and have them to remember his final day on earth, doing something that was very special to him. It was a great privilege for me to be able to visit with them and attend the memorial service and funeral as our staff representative. The teenagers’ comments about their dad’s love for Rush were something Rush should have heard for himself.
If Rush Limbaugh had been about snark or bad-tempered complaining, he wouldn’t have attracted an audience that so prized his place in their lives, or could produce such interactions. It’s because he was a happy warrior, someone who just loved his country and his audience, that his fans had such affection for him and such stories to tell.
In his last weeks, in December and January, I heard him allude several times to being grateful to Jesus Christ for his hope and blessings. I believe Rush went at peace with his Maker.
Meanwhile, I recall back when Ariel Sharon, the great Israeli general and political leader, died, and I thought that, like American Admiral Arleigh Burke, hero of World War II, Sharon might want just one word on his tombstone.
Burke wanted his to say, simply, “Sailor.” Sharon, I suggested, might want his to say “Warrior.”
I believe Rush Limbaugh might want not one word on his tombstone, but two.
Deepest condolences to Rush’s beloved wife Kathryn, and all his family and friends. As, indeed, to an audience of millions that will miss him for years to come.
Requiescat in Pace.