I only spoke to Rush Limbaugh once. He interviewed me for his magazine. He was—as anyone who knew him will tell you—quiet, intelligent, self-effacing. I think back now on our long phone conversation, and I’m glad I got to tell him this story.
My father was a famous disc jockey in New York. He was good, very good, as good as any broadcaster I’ve ever heard. He was a liberal—of the old style, back when liberals were liberal, not like now. But oh, he hated Rush. Hated everything Rush stood for. To him, Rush was Father Coughlin reborn. A demagogue. One step away from Hitler. All conservatives were one step away from Hitler as far as my father was concerned.
One day, as we were chatting about the radio business, he unleashed on Limbaugh big time. Rush was not just evil himself, he was the cause of evil in others, an omen of American fascism, a harbinger of the collapse of everything true and beautiful.
I listened to him all the way through. Then I said quietly, “Maybe. But he’s the best man with a microphone since you.”
My father’s shoulders sagged. “I know,” he said.
That’s how good Rush Limbaugh was. So good even my father who hated him had to admit he was the best in the business.
On that we agreed. On the rest, not so much.
I was out of the country during Rush’s rise to fame, an expatriate in England for most of the nineties. Distant from day-to-day American politics, I was not even aware that my position on the ideological spectrum had changed.
There were clues along the way, though. One day, for instance, I read a comment in a London paper by a famous New York literary agent, a friend of mine. She said that she would never agree to handle a book by this new radio personality Rush Limbaugh because of the no-good, very-bad conservative things he stood for. I wrote her a note telling her I thought she was in the wrong. It was voices like Limbaugh’s that were being unfairly silenced and excluded. He and others like him should be allowed to have their say. This seemed to me the proper liberal point of view. Little did I realize.
When I moved back home at the turn of the century, that version of liberalism was gone and the current version—with all its meanness, hate, and shut-uppery—was on the rise. After the Islamist terror attacks of September 11, 2001, I was appalled to hear elite entertainers and journalists look to blame Americans. “Why do they hate us?” comedian David Letterman asked. Because they’re theocratic fascists, I shouted at the television. They’re supposed to hate us. But it had now become bigotry to say so.
As appalling as that was, here was something more appalling still. I liked Rush Limbaugh. I only turned on his show out of curiosity, so help me. But to my surprise, I did not find him evil in the least. He was just talking sense, really. Freedom. Constitutional limits on government. What was wrong with that?
Plus he was funny too, really funny. How could I not be delighted at the fear and loathing he inspired in the great and good? During my long absence from America, the great and good had become such smug, small-minded, and provincial little people, it was a guilty pleasure to watch them writhe on the flame he lit beneath them. For decades, feminists had called men “pigs.” Now Rush called them “feminazis,” and they threw their aprons over their faces and sobbed about his lack of civility. For decades, race-mongers had blamed an innocent generation of whites for a history that they hadn’t made, and now Rush mocked the mongers with wicked impressions, and declared it was time for black Americans to get on board the freedom train with their white fellow citizens.
It was beautiful. Courageous. The kind of radio magic I’d grown up with. And it changed me, or at least helped me change. Rush gave a joyful voice to the new thoughts I didn’t even know I’d had.
I do not cry for dead celebrities. I have just enough tears for the people I know and love. But I choked up when I heard that Rush had left the studio. He was silenced just at the moment when the elite and powerful would silence us all. Our politicians seek to demonize half the nation—Rush’s half. Our news media calls for censorship. Tech billionaires sit on their mountains of gold and gesture like foppish princes to tell us who shall speak and who shall not.
Let us defy them, then. Let us all speak, and fearlessly. Let that be Rush’s monument. In a way, he built it himself.
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images