I was a first-time caller and, as it turned out, a last-time caller, because my debut on national radio did not go well.
I had called into the “Rush Limbaugh Show” because he was making fun of Hillary Clinton, in particular, her assertion that day care in the U.S. was a “silent crisis.” And I, a newly minted stay-at-home mom, knew much more about the subject than he did.
It was 1997. America was five years into the Bill Clinton administration, nine years into the nationally syndicated “Rush Limbaugh Show.” Already, he was a fixture of American life, albeit a polarizing one. He was, he said cheekily, “the most dangerous man in America,” and yet, there he was on my 80-something grandmother’s radio five days a week.
In fact, she’d introduced me to his show.
It was fitting, then, that I was at my grandmother’s house the day I embarrassed myself on national radio. Rush always said it was the caller’s job to make the host look good, and I did my part. A week later, I wrote an essay about the experience, vaguely thinking of making some money, but mostly to lick my post-traumatic-radio wounds.
The essay wasn’t published, though, until five years later, on the occasion of the 15th anniversary of the Limbaugh show, when Kathryn Jean Lopez at National Review Online picked it up. “The Silent Crisis of a First-Time Caller” described my panic at being thrust on the air with no preparation and — worse — being kept on through a commercial break.
At the end of the conversation, in which Limbaugh looked very good indeed, he said to me, “You’ve been a good sport,” which I later described as a “cryptic adieu, notifying me that, sometime in the past five minutes, I apparently was cruelly insulted.”
Limbaugh has frequently been described as cruel by his critics, many of whom identify as liberals. Yet in the hours after Limbaugh died of lung cancer at age 70 on Wednesday, Twitter curdled with bile, as haters recounted every offensive thing he had said in the past 33 years. To be fair, there were more than a few things to mention.
But what the critics never understood about Rush Limbaugh was what he meant to people like my grandmother, someone who herself would never make fun of a child (Chelsea Clinton) or a college student (Sandra Fluke), but could look the other way when Limbaugh did. She wasn’t bothered by the passing controversies that so enraged Limbaugh’s enemies and critics; she heard, instead, the day-in, day-out affirmations of the conservative values she espoused, in a voice once described as a “deep, chesty baritone matched by an oratorical style one might sooner expect to hear on the Shakespearean stage.” She saw a kind heart, in pursuit of a common good, under the bombastic front.
My sympathies go out to #RushLimbaugh's family for the loss of a loved one. My energies, however, go to passing the For the People Act so that everyone has an equal voice in our democracy including the many communities he tried to silence. -Sandra Fluke, President pic.twitter.com/S8IbJks107— Sandra Fluke (@SandraFluke) February 17, 2021
Limbaugh talked on the radio, but he was more than that; for millions of Americans, he was also background music, a comforting soundtrack that promised absolutes in a shifting sea of relatives, that boldly defined “the way things ought to be,” which was the title of his first book. As Christopher Bedford, a senior editor at The Federalist, wrote on Twitter today, “If (William F.) Buckley drew the maps, Rush built the roads.”
Also forgotten in the vitriol is how unerringly pleasant Limbaugh was, how old-school polite, whether cheerfully skewering philandering presidents or stay-at-home moms who had nothing of value to say on a national radio show. He wrote to me after that essay was published, thanking me for writing it and saying, “I’m certain you were more cogent than you let on.” (For the record, I was not.)
Limbaugh understood his primary job was to entertain, and he crossed lines and didn’t apologize. If he savaged a few liberals on the path he saw as the one that would save America, that was collateral damage in pursuit of his version of the conservative cause.
What drove him was not money or fame; he kept going long after those were acquired. Even a public humiliation — the 2003 National Enquirer revelation of a painkiller addiction that sent him to rehab — showed Limbaugh’s popularity among a wide swath of Americans to be scandal-proof. It was because he was always, as they say in politics, “on message.”
After five weeks in rehab, Limbaugh returned to the airwaves, with a pitch-perfect beginning to the show.
“As I was saying,” he said, signaling to both his fans and critics that his comic gifts were still intact.
Rush brought conservative media into our trucks, shops & homes. To the American working man. If Buckley drew the maps, Rush built the roads & populism owes him its existence. And more than just how he lived, he showed us how to die, with grace & courage. God bless Rush Limbaugh.— Christopher Bedford (@CBedfordDC) February 17, 2021
Limbaugh talked through five presidential administrations and through personal hardships to include severe hearing loss that, for a while, left him practically deaf. Cochlear implants restored some of his hearing, although he couldn’t hear music normally again.
He was, in many ways, like the child’s toy, sometimes called a Wobbly Man, that you can’t push over, that pops back to an upright position. You could not push him down, nor change his direction, which is one reason that Heritage Foundation president Kay C. James once said, “I have used Rush Limbaugh as my True North for decades.”
Critics of Limbaugh have plenty to choose from when they look for words to demonize the man. It takes a lot of words to fill 15 hours of airtime for 33 years, and most of us would not want to be judged by the worst things we said in one month, let alone three decades.
But in gleefully speculating on Limbaugh’s prospects for the afterlife, the haters say as much about themselves as they do about him.
In my essay, I quoted from the D.H. Lawrence poem “Snake,” in which the narrator describes a clumsy encounter, later regretted, with a garden snake.
“And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords of life,” the narrator says.
The haters will see Limbaugh as a snake, an author of division and a teller of lies, but in living rooms and kitchens across middle America there will be a palpable void in the coming days and years.
Limbaugh’s fans can take heart in knowing that the ideals he expressed, those collected loosely under a banner called conservatism, are built around the idea that there is an eternal moral order, one not dependent on personalities or politics, but on right and wrong.
You might call it “the way things ought to be.”
As he was saying.