I wanted to talk about something else this week, but my thoughts keep returning to Rush Limbaugh. His obituaries in the mainstream press were largely judgment, not mercy. It’s not nice when malice gets one last unanswered shot. On the conservative side, the television commentaries were so iconic. There is a sense of horror to seeing people who are essentially cold exert warmth of feeling.
Here I am giving Rush without tears, and I think the subtext has to do with the words “the base” both broadly and narrowly.
He was a remarkable figure, a phenomenon. In his day, he was the most powerful radio personality since Walter Winchell, who rose from the start of radio in the 1930s. Limbaugh helped save the radio and surely saved the AM band by introducing a new form, the national conservative call-in-show. This spawned an entire industry. Most importantly, he created a community – an actual community of tens of millions of people who thought with him every day and made them feel less lonely, less like outsiders in their views. By the time Limbaugh came on the scene, Conservatives had gotten good at electing presidents, but were largely excluded from the national conversation over the radio waves.
It was an amazing achievement to create a community of tens of millions in a broken, incoherent America. It was just as amazing to keep it going for over 30 years.
It may be ironic, but probably inevitable, that this community was created by a man whom one of his closest friends called “an isolate” this week. I’ve known him a little for a few decades and think that the most important thing for him was his job, his show – three hours a day, five days a week, without a script, with sound elements and callers. The preparation was time-consuming. He had to be constantly connected, kept up to date, monitoring opinions, and choosing the ones he suggested. Three hours of live performance require all you have.