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DEBRA J. SAUNDERS: Limbaugh’s success came in spite of big media


I met Rush Limbaugh before he became a god.

It was the mid-1980s. Our careers had begun but had not taken off. Rush had a radio talk show on Sacramento station KFBK-AM 1530. I worked in the California Legislature.

Later he moved to New York for the syndicated talk show that put him in car radios, as he would say, “across the fruited plain.”

More than once, Rush told me that his show would never fall out of favor, as so many other shows did, and that he expected to broadcast until the end. Turns out, he was right.

You can’t defy gravity, I responded at the time, TV and radio shows rise and fall. Rush believed that he would be different. And he was.

Rush, 70, never lost his audience.

He put a premium on being entertaining, and it paid off. Limbaugh ditched the standard talk show formula of hosts talking to a series of tap-dancing guests. Limbaugh made the show about himself, his shtick, his pet issues and conservative ideas.

We remained friends over the years. After his syndication, we’d get together for an adult beverage or a meal if we happened to be in the same town. Later we’d communicate over the phone or by email.

We disagreed on a number of issues and his language choices, but this is not the time to rake up dead leaves.

Now it’s hard to imagine politics before Limbaugh.

Republicans credited the bombastic host for their victorious take-back of the House in 1994, which had been under Democratic control since 1952. That shift of power was followed by then-President Bill Clinton’s decision to sign a GOP welfare reform bill with a work requirements.

Since those heady days, the left has complained that Limbaugh — one man — had outsize influence in the media. Liberals spoke as if Rush owned all of talk radio, against which TV news networks and newspapers couldn’t possibly compete. It just wasn’t fair, they argued.

Few realized that Rush was able to amass that kind of power precisely because he offered something big media could not provide — balance. No, not in his show, which was unapologetically conservative, but by presenting arguments that were not treated as credible by the media establishment.

“Dittoheads” often thank Rush for giving them the ingredients to make arguments that were missing from their pre-Rush news diet. If big media had been more balanced, Rush Limbaugh would not have become a GOP deity.

Pundits have commented on Limbaugh’s ties to former President Donald Trump, who awarded Limbaugh with the Medal of Freedom during the State of the Union address in 2020.

Trump was not the first Republican president to honor the college dropout. President George H.W. Bush invited Limbaugh for dinner and an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom. Rush was tickled that the patrician president carried his luggage.

Former President George W. Bush, who released a statement Wednesday calling Limbaugh a friend, phoned Rush for his 20th anniversary show in 2008 — and George H.W. Bush called in as well. So it’s a mistake to see Limbaugh as a GOP disrupter.

As Trey Bohn, White House director of radio media under the junior Bush, noted: Limbaugh was buoyed by “an unwavering belief in American Exceptionalism.”

Rush didn’t bristle at disagreement. I took him to task more than once and found that he enjoyed the give-and-take. Of course he did; he was at the center of the action.

Contact Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@reviewjournal.com. Follow @DebraJSaunders on Twitter.

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