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A Radio Man and His Presidents

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A Radio Man and His Presidents

For more than 30 years, the White House occupant could not ignore Rush Limbaugh. February 18, 2021
Politics and law

Rush Limbaugh’s conservative radio talk show debuted on August 1, 1988, at the tail end of Ronald Reagan’s years in the White House. Limbaugh was little noticed initially and arrived too late to have much impact on the Reagan presidency. Still, the broadcaster and the president did have a post-presidential mutual admiration society. Limbaugh called Reagan on air “Ronaldus Magnus”: Ronald the Great. And by 1992, Reagan had already dubbed Limbaugh “the voice of conservatism.” Limbaugh would have a more tangible and direct impact on every subsequent presidency of his life, which ended yesterday at 70.

George H. W. Bush, Reagan’s successor, was less in tune with the conservative movement than Reagan, and it showed. Bush won over conservatives with his famous pledge at the 1988 Republican National Convention, “Read my lips: no new taxes.” Unfortunately for Bush, he broke that pledge with the 1990 budget deal that he made with Democrats at Andrews Air Force Base, infuriating conservatives and causing himself political problems. Roger Ailes, an informal adviser, urged Bush to cultivate the radio host. As White House Chief of Staff Sam Skinner recalled, Ailes, who would later produce Rush’s TV show, got Bush “on to meet Rush Limbaugh and do a show with Rush Limbaugh.” Later, Bush would have Limbaugh as an overnight guest in the White House’s Lincoln Bedroom; the president even carried Limbaugh’s bag for him. Bush ended up losing the presidency in a three-person race to Bill Clinton, but Limbaugh’s sway over the conservative base had been established.

When Clinton won the White House in 1992, conservatives were at a loss. According to Bush adviser Mary Matalin, “all we had to hold us together was Rush Limbaugh.” It would prove to be a lot. Limbaugh was a relentless Clinton critic and used his powers of mimicry to imitate Clinton to great effect. He also helped galvanize opposition to Clinton’s health-care plan. According to Brian Anderson’s South Park Conservatives, 46 percent of congressional staffers reported that Limbaugh was their most influential media source on the health care issue, as compared with 15 percent who looked to the New York Times and 9 percent to TV.

The Clinton administration was unprepared for this new media phenomenon. After the health-care bill was defeated, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore met with Democratic congressional leaders in the White House. Texas Congressman William Sarpalius, who would lose his seat in the 1994 Republican revolution, told Clinton, “If you made a mistake, it was underestimating Rush.” Hillary Clinton and her team took notice as well. Chief of Staff Melanne Verveer said that “What happens in ‘94 is you begin to have [Hillary] stained with all of the Whitewater stuff and as Rush Limbaugh says, ‘Health care is Whitewater; Whitewater is health care.’ There was a real effort to strip the messenger of legitimacy and credibility.”

Clinton was willing to push back on Limbaugh. In June of 1994, he complained to St. Louis’s KMOX radio: “After I get off the radio today with you, Rush Limbaugh will have three hours to say whatever he wants. And I won’t have any opportunity to respond.” Clinton appeared to lay some of the blame for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing on Limbaugh—without naming him. “I’m sure you are now seeing the reports of some things that are regularly said over the airwaves in America today,” Clinton said in a speech to the American Association of Community Colleges. “Well, people like that who want to share our freedoms must know that their bitter words can have consequences.” The referring to, but not mentioning, Limbaugh by name in the Community College speech appeared to be a conscious White House strategy. Earlier in Clinton’s term, he had mentioned Limbaugh at the National Prayer Breakfast, prompting White House Chief of Staff Mack McClarty to respond sarcastically, “Congratulations, his ratings just went up about ten points.” Whether they mentioned him or not, they were thinking about him.

By the end of the 1990s, Limbaugh had become a crucial influence in determining the Republican presidential nomination. George W. Bush was seeking the White House and wanted to make sure that he did not have the same problems with the Right that his father had had. He actively courted Limbaugh, even going to visit his mother’s house in southeastern Missouri.

Limbaugh did take issue with Bush’s mantra of “compassionate conservatism.” As Bush aide Pete Wehner recalled, Rush’s attitude was that “Conservatism is compassionate.” Still, he preferred Bush to Bush’s chief competitor John McCain, and it showed. Unsurprisingly, Bush won the nomination, and eventually the presidency.

Bush continued to cultivate Limbaugh as president. Communications aide Kevin Sullivan recalled that reaching out to conservative radio hosts, especially Limbaugh, was a key part of the Bush media strategy. The effort worked, in that Limbaugh was supportive of Bush in both the 2000 and 2004 elections. But his support was not uncritical. When Bush pushed his bipartisan immigration proposal in 2007, Limbaugh came out against it. Republican advocates for the bill, including GOP Senator Trent Lott and Bush aide Margaret Spellings, attributed the bill’s defeat to Limbaugh’s opposition.

Limbaugh was adamantly opposed to Bush’s successor Barack Obama, but he nevertheless remained part of the White House conversation. In January 2009, before Obama’s inauguration, Limbaugh gave directionless conservatives marching orders: “I’ve been listening to Barack Obama for a year and a half. I know what his politics are. I know what his plans are, as he has stated them. I don’t want them to succeed.” Conservative opposition to Obama became the universal approach.

Rush believed that Obama was paying attention to him. “[Obama] is fixated on me,” Limbaugh said in May 2013. “He simply cannot get me off his mind. I live rent free in his head. And he is using me as his convenient excuse for not being able to get anything done.” The Huffington Post dismissed it as an “audacious claim.” Yet a few months later, Obama claimed that some Republicans agreed with him but told him privately that they could not support his policies because they were “worried about what Rush Limbaugh is going to say about me on the radio.”

Limbaugh was initially wary of Donald Trump and acknowledged that Trump was not a conservative. But he backed Trump over Hillary Clinton, and eventually became a staunch supporter. As had other Republican presidents, Trump worked Limbaugh personally to get his support. Trump played golf with Limbaugh, tweeted out Limbaugh radio segments, and even bestowed the Presidential Medal of Honor on him during the State of the Union address last year—an unprecedented act. In paying keen attention to the radio host, Trump was typical of other American presidents since 1989. Presidents could love Rush Limbaugh or hate him, but they could not ignore him.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

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