Rush Limbaugh tugged at the heartstrings of his listeners many times in the year since he revealed his cancer diagnosis, but his last show of 2020 proved especially poignant.
The entire three hours were melancholy, with Limbaugh striking a plaintive and reflective tone as he revealed that his doctors had not expected him to live to Christmas. He spoke of memories extending to his boyhood in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, when his hatred for school spurred his love for radio. He looked back on a career so long that I can truthfully say, along with many others whose parents were conservative baby boomers, that his distinctive baritone coming on the air after that signature riff from The Pretenders is one of the first sounds I remember.
Before his rise to fame in his late 30s, Limbaugh struggled profoundly. After his unpleasant grade school experience, he dropped out of college at 20, much to the chagrin of his father, a World War II combat pilot who loomed large in his son’s life. Radio gigs fell through repeatedly. When he returned home to live with his parents after a stint in Pittsburgh fizzled, he grew depressed and frustrated.
“I always had a sense I would succeed but nothing was coming through,” he told biographer Zev Chafets. “I can remember taking a baseball bat out to the backyard and just beating a tree, over and over.”
“My father sat me down,” Limbaugh told Barbara Walters in 1993. “He said this is what’s going to happen, Rush. You’re not going to make a decent salary. You’re not going to maintain the social standing that you’ve become accustomed to. You won’t find a decent girl to marry. What woman wants to marry a man who can’t support her?”
“All that he ever did was insist that I get a college degree,” Limbaugh added.
Walters read something Limbaugh had written about his failure: “I read something that you said then. You said, ‘I have never been lower. I was empty, directionless, futureless.'”
“I said, ‘I’m 32 years old and I’ve blown it,'” Limbaugh remembered. “I’ve got nothing to show for what I have done. I have failed at everything I’ve done. I’ve been fired from every job or been forced to quit every job.”
“I was always the guy with a lot of potential, and a friend of mine said, ‘What do you do best?’ And I said, ‘Well, obviously what I do best is say things on the radio.'”
Limbaugh fought through his failures. After finally achieving some success in Sacramento, he drew the attention of ABC News president Edward McLaughlin. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 coincided perfectly with the rollout of his nationally syndicated show on WABC in New York on Aug. 1, 1988. Limbaugh was 37 years old.
Limbaugh skyrocketed to prominence quickly. His thick skin, developed over years of setbacks and naysayers, rendered him impervious to the sneering condescension of the Manhattan broadcasting elite. His talents, honed in smaller markets, offered him the ability to communicate common-sense conservatism to the average American.
Within a decade, Fox News had also launched, providing another alternative to those tired of the liberal bias entrenched in the media. Thirty years on, conservative sources of news abound to an extent no one could have predicted.
Nevertheless, Limbaugh confessed during his last show of 2020 that he largely sees himself as a political failure. Conceding that his career has been enormously successful by most standards, Limbaugh said, “There’s a large part of me that feels like I have failed in such a major way, in a political sense.”
“I’ve had 30 years here to try to convince people, to try to persuade people, to try to encourage people to critically think on their own; to realize the difference between conservatism and liberalism, the difference between the Republican Party and Democrat Party as it relates to conservative versus liberal,” he continued.
Acknowledging his undeniable impact, Limbaugh said, “Even with all of that, there’s still far more people than should be voting for Democrats, voting for the Left. And I chalk it up in part to having failed to convince people, persuade people of the truth.”
Limbaugh had earlier taken a caller he dubbed “Debbie Downer,” who did little to assuage his despondency. Maintaining that the Democratic Party is so corrupt and its opposition so weak, she despaired at stopping the Left’s seemingly inexorable march through American institutions. Limbaugh, for his part, was relatively muted in his response.
Limbaugh’s fans likely have similar feelings in the wake of his death. His passing is an undoubted blow to conservatives, many of whom already feel on the back foot amid election disappointment and the Left’s apparent stranglehold on the culture, which appears only to be tightening with the growing power of Big Tech.
After Debbie, Limbaugh took a caller named Aaron, who explained to him the effect he had on him personally. He told Limbaugh that as he listened to him with his father-in-law, his monologues opened his eyes “to what was really happening” regarding the dangers leftism poses.
If the Left seeks to change political systems, conservatives seek to change individual minds. As Limbaugh said of conservatives during his 2009 CPAC speech, “We see human beings. We don’t see groups.”
In this regard, Limbaugh was a resounding success. Reflecting on his legacy in response to Aaron’s phone call, he said, “I’ve had my opportunities to get into people’s minds. I’ve had the opportunity to influence the way people think about these things. What reminded me of it was this guy.”
“I got through to him.”
And it wasn’t just him. It was millions and millions, just like Aaron, whom Limbaugh helped awaken to fight for the hope offered by America and the principles that have given even self-described “failures” a chance to succeed.
Rest In Peace.