February 20, 2021
Rush Limbaugh passed away at the age of 70 on Wednesday, February 17, after a year-long battle with lung cancer. His wife Kathryn* announced the news at the beginning of his radio show just after 12:00 noon. I wasn't listening that day and didn't find out until about 3:00, after the show was over. According to his website (rushlimbaugh.com), his last broadcast was on February 2nd -- Groundhog Day.
Limbaugh was born in Cape Girardeu, Missouri to a prominent Republican family, but he thoroughly disliked college and dropped out after one year, to take up his true passion, radio broadcasting. He worked as a disk jockey in Pennsylvania and later got a radio job in Kansas City, which didn't go so well, so he began working for the Kansas City Royals. In 1984 he began a radio show in Sacramento, California, replacing the loud-mouth Morton Downey, Jr. When the FCC repealed the "fairness doctrine" in 1987, Limbaugh was free to spout his own views without his station being obliged to offer equal time to opposing views. This was the genesis of right-wing talk radio as we know it today. Limbaugh quickly gained fame and/or notoriety, and accepted an offer to do a show out of WABC in New York City. Soon he was a nationally-syndicated celebrity, leading the conservative counter-charge against the Clinton administration. (I remember his daily tag line was "America held hostage" during those years.) In 2000, he lost his hearing, and I remember how strange his voice sounded before he was treated with cochlear implants, restoring most of his hearing. During the early years of the new century, other right-wing radio hosts rose to prominence (Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck being the biggest names), but none of them could match Limbaugh's combination of smooth style, wit, and bombast. As the conservative movement he helped build went in an extreme direction after 2008 or so (when Barack Obama was elected president), Limbaugh's negative attributes became more noticeable than his positive attributes. (Some of this material is from wikipedia.org, but I knew most of it already.)
* Kathryn was Limbaugh's fourth wife. They married in 2010, about six years after he divorced his third wife, Marta. I was a fairly regular listener during that marriage, and remember him mentioning her quite often, but I must not have been paying attention when he married Kathryn.
As a regular listener for many years, I have a fairly good handle on Limbaugh's good and bad sides. For the last ten or so years, I listened to him less and less. [It is hard to disentangle him from the Trump phenomenon, signifying an extremist, authoritarian approach to governing, and the reliance upon dubious conspiracy theories to motivate the conservative "base."] This is what I wrote on Facebook the day after he passed away, citing a Washington Post op-ed piece on his legacy:
As with many things these days, I have mixed feelings about the passing of Rush Limbaugh yesterday. I remember being totally outraged the first time I heard him, in 1991 or so, but eventually I caught on to his biting style of satire -- taking "tongue-in-cheek" humor to an extreme. For many years I considered him to be a positive force in American politics, poking fun at silly liberal pretensions. Some say he was a hate-monger, but I would compare him to Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, or Richard Pryor -- entertainers who used vulgar, blunt speech to amuse and sometimes enlighten their audiences.
But over time, the right-wing movement got derailed by conspiracy-minded pseudoconservativism, exploited by Donald Trump. For business reasons, Limbaugh got on board the "Trump Train," and the opportunity to restore common sense in the conservative movement was lost. Charles Sykes understands the two aspects of Rush Limbaugh's career, and I hope his supporters and detractors alike make the effort to do likewise. Rest in peace, "El Rushbo."
What will happen now? No one could ever replace Rush Limbaugh, but I suppose that in due course either Hannity or Beck will take over the prime 12:00 - 3:00 (eastern) time slot. Mark Steyn, Todd Herman, or Ken Matthews have been filling in as guest hosts over the past year, but I can't see any of them getting the job full time. Love him or hate him, Limbaugh's name will go down in history books along with such radio/TV commentators as Walter Winchell, Eric Severeid, Edward R. Murrow, Paul Harvey, and David Brinkley.