In the latest issue of the magazine Commentary, there is an excellent article by Wilfred McClay titled “How to Understand Rush Limbaugh.”
Those who listen to Rush’s show may question the need for such an explanation, but, although in his piece McClay points out the many ways in which the political left misunderestimates Limbaugh and continually gets played by him as a result, the real value of his article, especially in a forum like Commentary, is as a primer for those conservatives who still fail to get the El Rushbo phenomenon. Despite Limbaugh’s gargantuan ratings, there are still millions of conservatively-inclined Americans who lack either the opportunity or inclination to listen to Rush Limbaugh or talk radio generally. There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, but many of them form decided opinions about Limbaugh nonetheless, based largely on how he is characterized in the larger, mainstream media. So, they absorb and regurgitate keywords such as blowhard, buffoon and bomb-thrower, and imagine that Limbaugh makes his living by riling people up into frenzies of incoherent outrage. This — the impermeable conventional wisdom on Rush Limbaugh — could hardly be further from the truth.
McClay is exactly right when he says:
Without Limbaugh’s influence, talk radio might well have become a dreary medium of loud voices, relentless anger, and seething resentment, the sort of thing that the New York screamer Joe Pyne had pioneered in the 50s and 60s—“go gargle with razor blades,” he liked to tell his callers as he hung up on them—and that one can still see pop up in some of Limbaugh’s lesser epigones. Or it might have descended to the sometimes amusing but corrosive nonstop vulgarity of a Howard Stern. Limbaugh himself can be edgy, though almost always within PG-rated boundaries. But what he gave talk radio was a sense of sheer fun, of lightness, humor, and wit, whether indulging in his self-parodying Muhammad Ali–like braggadocio, drawing on his vast array of American pop-cultural reference points, or, in moving impromptu mini-sermons, reminding his listeners of the need to stay hopeful, work hard, and count their blessings as Americans. In such moments, and in many other moments besides, he reminds one of the affirmative spirit of Ronald Reagan and, like Reagan, reminds his listeners of the better angels of their nature. He transmutes the anger and frustration of millions of Americans into something more constructive.
McClay does a great job in his article of placing Limbaugh in the context of the history of not just talk radio, but radio generally. Rush is a radio guy, in his soul, to at least the same degree as he is a conservative.
Rush worked to get where he is, but he is also self-evidently a natural, born for the medium. Like a great performer in any other creative field, I think that Limbaugh works his magic through a mastery of timing and dynamics. One only has to listen to others who do what Rush does — i.e. political talk — to appreciate how difficult it is to pull it off well for hours at a time, day after day. Although there are some other good hosts, there are none nearly as good, and there are quite a few who simply become tedious after about half an hour. Any performance that remains on one level, with one tone, in one key, for an extended period is going to lead to the listener losing his or her interest. Limbaugh mixes analysis with humor with passion with inspiration, varying his approach in an endlessly undulating manner that keeps his show fresh hour after hour and day after day. Yet, I think that Rush needs to plan his variations in tone very little if at all. This is where his natural talent asserts itself: in keeping his show interesting and enjoyable for himself, by following his instincts, he succeeds in keeping it likewise for his listeners.
Another measure of just how astounding is the Rush Limbaugh phenomenon, in my view, is the way in which he has overcome potentially crippling adversities and come to be more popular and prosperous than ever. In 2001, he lost his hearing, first in one ear, then in both — a pretty sharp blow for someone in the medium of radio, one would think. He conducted his show for an extended period with no hearing whatsoever, initially not informing his listeners, who wondered why his voice was beginning to sound so strange (it was because he could no longer hear himself). He went on to take calls by having his staff type what the callers were saying on a screen. Eventually, he received a successful cochlear implant in one ear. Nowadays, although his hearing must be far from what we consider normal, no one listening to his show would have an inkling of any problem. It was and remains an amazing feat in the history of radio and indeed of public life, but the glowing tributes have yet to appear in the glossy magazines (for some reason). The second problem, which, like the first, would likely have destroyed most other people in his line of work, was his addiction to prescription drugs, in relation to which he faced criminal charges in his state of Florida. That was a moment of unabashed glee for most on the political left in America; again, not understanding Limbaugh, they believed that his personal weakness would cause listeners and then advertisers to abandon him. They didn’t appreciate the bond he had developed with his audience, nor, indeed, the nature of the conservative message he espoused. It was not a sternly moralizing, finger-pointing, negative and hateful philosophy (although many on the left see all conservatives this way) but at rock bottom a hopeful, cheerful and life-affirming creed. Limbaugh was not seen as a hypocrite by his listeners for succumbing to an addiction to pain-killers. Instead, there was an outpouring of prayers and wishes for his recovery, and the episode only deepened the loyalty of his long-term audience.
One can’t help wonder, as a conservative, where we would be without Rush Limbaugh on the radio every day, and one can’t help hoping that he stays alive and on the radio as long as possible, despite his avowed aversion to exercise and his obvious fondness for food. In the 1980s, he appeared on the cusp of a new-found freedom of expression in the media (with the elimination of the “Fairness Doctrine” in radio) and gave a national audience an opportunity to hear someone articulate many of the things they were thinking in a way that was both entertaining and galvanizing. Since then, political talk radio has exploded, and the internet (and to a more limited extent cable TV) has robbed the CBS/ABC/NBC/New York Times/Washington Post multi-headed behemoth of its ability to control national discussions. Still, Limbaugh has been undiminished, and seems to continue to fill an irreplaceable role, both as lightning rod for the left (he always correctly predicts how they will react to everything he says) and as a vital point-of-reference for the conservative movement generally. In truth, his disappearance would be unlikely to please his enemies as much as they think it would, and perhaps it would hurt American conservatism less than some of his listeners might fear. Still, count me as praying that the day we find out those things for sure stays far in the foggy reaches of the future.