The Indispensable Man

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For this penultimate entry, the year 2021 began with the deaths of two of the sharpest thinkers in our wretched world, Kathy Shaidle and Rush Limbaugh. It is not yet two years since Rush left us, yet the medium he made – talk radio – seems ever more shrunken and shallow without him, as do American conservative media more generally. We felt his absence very keenly in the run-up to this month’s “election”. In Mrs Thatcher’s words, first you win the argument, then you win the election. But under the US system, where candidates spend two years fundraising and fine-tuning soft-focus personal-bio ads and there is no cross-chamber parliamentary jousting, when is any argument made? Rush made one for three hours every day, and I miss it.

The audio posted above is drawn from my last two hosting stints on The Rush Limbaugh Show, in the days immediately after he left us – one show flying solo, the other in the company of Rush’s widow Kathryn.

Below is my announcement of Rush’s death here at SteynOnline on Wednesday February 17th 2021. It’s followed by my appearance that night on Fox with Tucker:

It is with profound sadness that we announce the death of Rush Limbaugh, a giant of American broadcasting, a uniquely talented performer, and a hugely generous man to whom I owe almost everything.

Rush died this morning, after a year-long struggle with lung cancer. I was scheduled to guest-host today’s show. Instead, as you can hear, his beloved Kathryn will be introducing a special program put together by the EIB team to celebrate a great man’s life and legacy. It’s a hard thing to do – compressing a glorious third-of-a-century into three hours – but Snerdley, Kraig, Mike, Allie and everyone else I’ve worked with there for so many years will do their best.

Usually, in this line of work, if you’re lucky, you get a moment – a year or two when you’re the in-thing – and you hope to hold enough of that moment as it slowly fades away to keep you going till retirement. Rush did something unprecedented in the history of TV and radio. Commercial broadcasting began in the United States in 1920: The Rush Limbaugh Show came along two-thirds of a century later, became the Number One program very quickly, and has stayed at the top all the way to today – for a third of the entire history of the medium. And throughout all those decades Rush and his show stayed exactly the same: a forensic breakdown of the day’s news, punctuated by musical parodies, satirical sketches, and Rush’s own optimism and good humor, even through this last terrible year.

The comedy is what his many enemies and half his own side missed: Rush took politics seriously but not solemnly. In the early years of the war on terror, he introduced an Afghan version of himself “with talent on loan from Allah” and sold Club Gitmo merchandise for those seeking a tropical retreat from jihad. When Brokeback Mountain was in the news, the show ran trailers for Return to Saddle-Sore Canyon: “It’s John McCain and Lindsey Graham as you’ve always wanted to see them!” Which, in my case at least, is true.

I know precisely when I first heard Rush. It was not long after he started the show and not long after I bought my pad in New Hampshire. I was driving some visitors from London through the North Maine Woods toward New Brunswick in that dead zone where the only thing that comes in is the soft-and-easy station on 94.9 FM from the top of Mount Washington. And then that died, and there was nothing, and I forgot to switch it off so it was automatically scanning up and around the dial as we chit-chatted in the car. And then suddenly it found some guy, and there he was talking about “the arts-and-croissants crowd” moving into your town, and reading out press releases from NOW (the National Association of Women), whom he called the NAGS (National Association of Gals), and playing Andy Williams’ version of “Born Free” punctuated by gunfire to accompany any environmental story.

And, in my car, conversation ceased. My friends were what you might call slightly skeptical lefties, so they disagreed with what Rush said on the issues but they were rapt by the way he said it. Because they had never heard anybody say it like that before. It was a unique combination – absolute piercing philosophical clarity, and a grand rollicking presentational style honed through all the lean years of minor-market disc-jockeying. First, he perfected the style, and then he applied it to the content. When Clinton was elected, Rush opened his shows, for years, with “America Held Hostage, Day Thirty-Nine… Day Seventy-Three… Day Hundred-and-Twenty Four…”, and when Newt’s Republicans won the 1994 mid-terms he started with James Brown singing “I Feel Good”.

One man doing what he wanted to do saved an entire medium – AM radio – and turned all its old rules upside down: Traditionally, morning drive is your big audience, and everything tapers off from there. Rush figured that everyone needs a local guy at that time, with traffic and weather updates, and that the opportunity to build a national show lay in the hitherto somnolent slot of noon-to-three Eastern/nine-to-twelve Pacific. And within a couple of years hundreds of stations were building the entire schedule around the midday guy. In the scheme of things, I am not sure how many of those stations will be able to keep that going without him.

Throughout his entire time on air, there were genius GOP consultants who, in reaction to any electoral setbacks, would insist that what the GOP needed to do was come up with a way to ditch Limbaugh. As I said on air many years ago: Really? For almost a third of a century, Rush’s audience was over half the total Republican vote. How many do all you genius “Republican reformers” bring to the table? I’ve recounted previously the first time I was asked to guest-host, back in 2006, when I happened to be down in Australia and the Prime Minister, John Howard, asked me to some or other event a day or two hence. And I politely declined, saying I had to get back to America to host The Rush Limbaugh Show. “I hear that’s a pretty big show,” said the PM.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Twenty-five, thirty million listeners.”

“‘Strewth,” said Mr Howard. “Rush has more listeners than we have Australians.”

Indeed. And all these GOP clever-clogs never explain, once you throw Rush and his millions overboard, what’s going to replace them.

Powerful politicians and longtime fans were often surprised, upon meeting him, to find a man who was quite private and indeed shy – because, like many radio guys, he had no desire to have a public persona other than at the microphone. Unlike so many others in this business, Rush was hugely generous and totally secure. Unlike other shows of left and right, where the staff come and go every six weeks, everyone at the EIB Network has been there fifteen, twenty, thirty years. That includes, in a very peripheral way, yours truly. When I first started guest-hosting, I found it odd that, on the rare occasions Rush mentioned the subs, it would be to put them down. Because, I mean, who would do that? But Rush is the least insecure star on the planet, and I came to see that he was actually teaching the neophytes a very important lesson: You guys need to be completely secure too – because it’s the only way to survive in this wretched media. I came to appreciate that being put down by Rush was actually a far greater compliment than him doing some boilerplate hey-he’s-a-great-guy shtick. And one of the saddest days of my fifteen years with EIB was when I heard Rush a few months back expressing genuine, sincere gratitude for something I’d said about him a few days earlier. As I pleaded on air, I just wanted the old Rush back scoffing at his guest-hosts – so we’d know all was well in the world.

So I owe Rush the biggest break of my career in America, and I owe him even more for sticking with me after the CRTV breach of contract when certain extremely prominent figures on the American right were bombarding him with multiple texts and emails to fire me from the guest-host’s slot. It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to have gone along with that. But he didn’t. And that’s the only reason I’m still around today.

I have come to admire him even more this last year. When he announced his diagnosis, we all knew this story only has one ending, and it’s just a question of how many chapters there are leading up to it. Rush loved what he did more than anything in life except his family. He had no interest in going to Tahiti to watch the sunset. He wanted to be behind the Golden EIB Microphone every day that he could. So initially he took a couple of days off every three weeks for treatment, and then the two days became four, and the treatment weeks took their toll and spilled into the following week. But, through it all, he remained determined to do every single show he could – because, aside from anything else, he wanted to make sure he, his listeners, his brand, his stations did everything they could to put President Trump across the finish line on November 3rd.

Events didn’t quite turn out the way he wanted – although they might have if more people had worked as hard as a man ravaged by Stage IV cancer did, in defiance of his doctors’ prognostications. The last three months, when he and Kathryn had surely earned those Tahitian sunsets, took a terrible toll. But he stayed on the air until just a fortnight ago – because above all he wanted to keep faith with tens of millions of listeners, many of whom had been listening to him their entire lives and could not imagine a world without him.

We are about to find out.

I am well aware of the ironies of the headline. My father liked to caution me with the old saw that the graveyard is full of indispensable men. But, as the conventional bias of the legacy media yielded to something far more severe from the woke billionaires of Social Media, Rush remained the Big Voice on the Right, the largest obstacle to the complete marginalization of conservative ideas in our culture. All of us who labored in his shadows owe it to him to continue the fight.

To modify Rush’s tag line: Talent returned to God.

~from Ave atque vale, February 17th 2021

Later that night I joined Tucker to share a few thoughts on the end of an era. Rush was beloved by his listeners:

“Radio is a very intimate medium,” he said. “You are driving around in your truck and it’s like the guy is in your head for three hours. But Rush had a connection beyond that.

“I had a couple of guys working at my house for months, as is the New Hampshire way. Every day at 11:59 [a.m.], they would hang the transistor radio on the chimney and blast it, [and] sit up on the roof, listening to Rush. Nobody wanted to miss that. Incredible. Nothing like it.”

He was also beloved by his staff:

“He was a fantastic employer and a brilliant friend to many, many people. That is why people came and joined the EIB Network. We know there are big-name celebrities who can’t keep a secretary for six weeks,” he told Carlson. “People came to the EIB Network and they never left.”

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