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Thursday, December 2, 2021

RUSH LIMBAUGH: A GLIMPSE AT THE POLARIZING BROADCAST FIGURE

Joe Rosner
Joe Rosner is a freelance writer, pilot, martial artist and dog lover. He has either an unusually large number of eclectic interests or attention deficit disorder. He is the author of “Keep Calm & Carry Pepper Spray: Strategies, Tactics & Techniques for Personal Safety & Self-Defense,” and other books.

Southeast Missouri is famous for two earthquakes, the 1811 New Madrid trembler that changed the course of the Mississippi, and Rush Limbaugh, a seismic force that changed the course of the nation.

PHOTO CREDIT: Insiderradio.com

Rush “Rusty” Limbaugh grew up in 1960s Cape Girardeau Missouri, eating 15¢ burgers at Wimpy’s Drive-In, browsing magazines at Tenkhoff’s Drug Store on Broadway, and shining shoes at a local barbershop for pocket money. For Rusty, the famously oppressive summer heat of Southern Missouri may not made him sweat as much as being a son of “The Cape’s First Family.” His sect of overachieving lawyers, judges and his fighter pilot father, would have made measuring up a major challenge.  According to Zev Chafets, Author of “Rush Limbaugh: Army of One,” he sought his father’s approval as a youngster and throughout his life, and his first and only career interest was radio. Nowadays the Convention and Visitors Bureau hawks Rush Limbaugh souvenirs and offers a self-guided, 12-station, path for pious pilgrims and the whole town is proud as can be.

In a virtual group for Cape High School alumnus, Jane Neumeyer, shared “My father sold Rush Limbaugh his first two way radio.”  “That is when he learned if he held down the button, he could turn it into a monologue device,” added Robert Adcox. The broadcasting bug had bitten him and it had bit hard.

Limbaugh started in broadcasting on local station KGMO  as “Rusty Sharpe” while still in high school. Top 40 Radio was in its heyday, as exemplified by “The Big 89 WLS, the Chicago and Superjock Larry Lujack, whom Limbaugh admitted was the only broadcaster he ever copied.

“I’d get up in the morning, get ready to go to school, and I would dread it. I hated it. My mother would have the radio on. And the guy on the radio sounded like he was having so much fun. And I knew, when his program was over, he wasn’t going to go to school.” – Rush said in a widely reported quote.  Various sources cite him writing “One of the early reasons radio interested me was that I thought it would make me popular.”

After a couple of years of college he dropped out to accept a gig spinning platters and making patter at WIXZ, a McKessport, PA radio station. “Wick-zee 1360”, was a Top 40 rocker with studios in a local shopping center.

Why he chose the moniker “Bachelor Jeff” Christie as his early radio name, isn’t known.  There was a Jeff Christie fronting a British band who charted two hits about that time.  Sporting long hair and a mustache, perhaps he saw some resemblance. Why the preface “bachelor”?  Was he advertising his availability to the ladies, or proclaiming an intent to remain free of matrimony? An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from November 1972 did mention he was single, living “with a mynah bird, a basset hound and a beagle.”

The itinerant disc jockey, jumping from station to station, town to town, is a common cliché among songwriters and screenwriters alike. He was fired in Pittsburgh, being told he’d never succeed as broadcaster and quit the business in 1979. Moving back in with your parents, as is synonymous with failure. Yes, there he was. Worse, his true love, radio, had spurned him. Or maybe was just playing hard to get?

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Yet true love would not be denied. By fall of 1983 he was back on the air as Rush Limbaugh in Kansas City, then on to KFBK, a Sacramento news-talk station. Possible he would have enjoyed a respectable career as a radio talk show host and never gain national prominence. But, when former President Ronald Reagan’s FCC ended the Fairness Doctrine that required radio to be fair and balanced, he was ready to give a “rush” of oxygen to the dying embers of AM radio.

Music had mostly migrated to the FM band, leaving AM broadcasting circling the drain towards a future of swap shop shows, farm reports and late night trucker programs. Then radio entrepreneur Edward McLaughlin discovered Rush and launched him on a trajectory that saved AM radio, and killed polite political conversation. Local stations ran the program for free in exchange for four minutes per hour of national ads.  A deal with the devil?  Maybe, who turns down free money.

The Rush Limbaugh Show made weaponized words, vicious sarcasm, conspiracy theories and a knack for knocking liberal norms into political entertainment. For an audience who felt out marginalized by affirmative action policies, the loss of American prestige and a perceived decline in family values. Rush’s rhetoric resonated with Reagan Democrats, the religious right and nostalgia-philes.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mark Peterson / Corbis / Getty Images

Republican politicians feared getting on Limbaugh’s bad side with many courting his approval. He could deliver earth-scorching attacks or lead legions of listeners to the voting booth.  Consider his impact on the Bush Political Dynasty; he likely sunk a second term for George H.W. Bush, elected George W. Bush twice and torpedoed Jeb Bush’s campaign to be the 45th president.  Few in the GOP would or could stand up to his bullying bluster. John McCain and Mitt Romney were notable exceptions and even they treaded lightly.

He made it cool to be a bully and embarrassing to be a liberal. He armed those incapable of making persuasive arguments with insults and toxic taunts. In the process ruining family Thanksgivings for a generation.

Rush Limbaugh openly boasted his loyalty was to growing his audience and to grow his wealth and income. If that meant truth, decency and fairness had to go, well okay.  Civil discourse as a democratic process was labeled weakness.  Those who disagreed with him were demonized, even driven from office.

Hemmingway once said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. American writing comes from that. There was nothing before.”  Sure, there was right wing media with national reach before Rush Limbaugh, but did anyone really care?

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