With the tragic passing of Rush Limbaugh, I’ve been thinking a lot about his legacy. I’ve been thinking a lot about his legacy for the past year as his cancer has flared and surged multiple times. I keep wondering what he’ll be remembered for. I wonder if he’ll be remembered at all.
That’s part of the problem of radio. It’s a transient medium. Rush’s job was to cover daily news and offer LOUD commentary. There aren’t going to be a lot of recordings available online for people to go back and listen to “the best of Rush Limbaugh” because the experience of listening to his show was tied to daily discourse.
That realization made me want to go back and read his old books. When Rush Limbaugh took off in the 1990s, one of his experiments in expanding his media empire was to dictate a series of books to a ghost writer who helped offer a fuller perspective on his opinions on contentious issues. He would write two books in this style: The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So! Much later in his career, he would author a trilogy of children’s books about himself time traveling back to the founding of America to teach a class of students called Rush Revere.
The older books are not well remembered now. They’re comprised of very kich, LOUD commentary as is his rugged populist style. That said, they’re among the only things he’s produced that will likely survive into the future. I wanted to revisit them to see what they could offer. I’d previously read The Way Things Ought to Be in high school and very much enjoyed it at the time. Since then, I haven’t listened to Rush as much as I used to.
The version I listened to this time around was the abridged audiobook version that my library made available to borrow. This version came with the advantage of being read by the author himself. The disadvantage was that most of the books content was cut out. Only chapters 1, 3, 6, 7, 10, 11, 15, 17, 21, 25 and the Last Word made it into the recording. That was enough though to brush up on the book’s content.
The book is less transient than one would expect. It’s dated but not AS dated as one would expect. There are chapters about the Anita Hill hearings and Ronald Reagan for instance that are interesting in hindsight. There are also somewhat outdated arguments in favor of Young Earth creationism I don’t subscribe to anymore. Outside of these topics, the chapters make somewhat focused arguments dealing with major issues that are still debated today: abortion, animal rights, feminism, the role of religion in public life, etc.
His transience is something he actually addresses at the very beginning of the book. This helps because it sets up why he’s doing the book to begin with: “I encountered a recurring problem: most of the issues [I discuss] involve current events. What seemed catastrophically important one week may have been diminished in importance the following week by other events. In writing this book, I experienced the frustration of feeling that my observations were often obsolete within a week of completing a chapter.”
His solution is to use the current events of the first Bush administration as a jumping off point for his ideas in the hopes of making something more timeless.
Jumping into it, I was actually impressed by how conciliatory some of the arguments were. The great open secret about Rush Limbaugh is that, for the most part, his infamous “radicalism” was all bark and no bite. He wasn’t the most substantive guy in political commentary but he was more conciliatory than most people gave him credit for.
He would scream every day for three hours about how THE DEMOCRATS ARE RUINING AMERICA but in between the margins he was trying to actually address the issues of the day. He was a partisan commentator and he obviously had a bias. That said, he’s changed plenty of minds just by people actually putting aside their differences and giving the show a listen for a time.
Take his opening paragraph in the chapter about abortion: “I’ll touch on the arguments against abortion, but all I really want to do in this chapter is explain why I’m pro-life and proud of it. I’m not opposed to the to abortion because I want to force people to do things my way, or because I believe I possess the ultimate truth. I recognize that other people have wrestled with this issue and have sincere convictions that differ from mine. I just wish that more of the people who support abortion would see their way to recognizing that my views are sincere as well.”
If anybody other than Rush Limbaugh spoke these words they would be considered completely rational and conciliatory by any fair judge of character. Far from calling for abortion doctors to be tried for murder, Rush merely ends up stating that he agrees with the bi-partisan consensus that Roe v. Wade is bad judicial precedent and that the issue should be handled democratically by the will of the people.
Rush doesn’t shy away from some of the negative parts of his personality in the book. The prose is VERY egocentric and he constantly talks about his own importance and the depths of his responsibility as the voice of Red America. A lot of this is tongue and cheek as he brags about himself but anyone who knows about Rush’s lifestyle knows it’s not much of an act.
Rush was an egocentric multi-millionaire playboy with several ex-wives and a strained religious faith (at least in comparison with his openly pious brother David Limbaugh who has written several books of biblical commentary). A lot of his Christian Schtick was more of a cultural identity than something he lived out publicly.
Still, I can’t complain too much. This book really emulates Rush’s voice as a radio host.
P.J. O’Rourke famously dismissed right wing radio hosts in his book Don’t Vote: It Just Encourages the Bastards as “shouters” who made a living yelling at their audiences about why they should be mad in the tenor of a drunken man screaming at CNN at the bar. I can’t help but disagree with him. Rush was an angry, loudmouth and crude speaker who often channeled in populist, low brow rhetoric. He made plenty of ideological and personal mistakes in his career from his OxyContin addiction to completely investing his brand in Trumpism and anti-leftism.
That said, to paraphrase Andrew Klavan, he never talked down to people. He was the genuine article. He talked to people about complex subjects in a language they could understand and often used that power for good.
If anything permeates The Way Things Ought to Be, it’s an air of lost optimism that the conservatism movement has really lost in the years since 1992. His final chapter, titled “We are Winning”, asks the reader to put aside their frustrations with the problems discussed in the book to realize that things are moving in the right direction:
“…be confident; not just in yourself but in the country and your fellow citizens. Many of you may find that curious, having just completed a book which seeks to identify a host of problems facing us today. But I believe we conservatives are winning these battles, even though it may not appear that way at first glance. Remember that it is much easier to feel despair over what might seem life the successful attack on the institutions and progress which make the country great than it is to see the progress we are making in defending them… Many times I get calls on my show from people who rail against one liberal outrage after another and complain that the country is going down the tubes. “The liberals are winning, Rush,” they mournfully conclude. “America is never going to be as great as it once was.” I have one word for such defeatism: NONSENSE. The truth is, as I tell people on my progress, the liberal extremists are probably on their last legs… They survive only by inventing crises or fabricating some threat to an aggrieved minority group. That’s why they appear to be more active and visible than before. If you have noticed, they are becoming more hysterical each day…I contend that such threats are made out of desperation and panic… If someone had told you [in 1988] that the Berlin Wall would soon fall, and that the Soviet Union itself would vanish from the face of the earth, would you have believed them? Of course not. The communists were able to conceal their weakness behind a barrage of propaganda and threats. That’s what the left in this country is doing as well… I laugh at their outrageous statements and I ridicule their latest lunacies. So should you. Laugh and move on. They are the past. We conservatives are the future.”
Maybe that’s a nostalgic way to look at things in light of recent events and the directions of both parties but there is something to the optimism I can’t help but appreciate right now. Maybe that’s what made Rush gratifying to listen to. Sometimes it’s nice to laugh with something in the midst of chaos and realize things will work out in the end.