Rush Limbaugh, who died Wednesday of complications from cancer at age 70, was one of the most important media figures of the past quarter-century. Setting aside his conservative ideology for a moment, he singlehandedly re-invented how radio was used to discuss politics.
Before Limbaugh, radio personalities were almost entirely disc jockeys known for their banter while spinning tunes. After Limbaugh, the radio star was a political maestro, promulgating his or her views on truth, justice and the American way for millions of devoted listeners.
He discovered that many people didn’t want their politics served nicely on a china platter, with a smattering of ideological courses for edified sampling. They wanted the political equivalent of backyard barbecue, served smoking hot straight from the grill with the chef’s heavy sauces.
The fact that Limbaugh’s opinions were uniformly conservative was also revolutionary. Conservative opinion writers were well-established by the 1970s and 1980s, but virtually no television or radio personality could be said to be firmly on the right.
Television’s most famous personalities were the anchors of the then-dominant nightly news programs whose authority always came from a serious, cautious demeanor rather than colorful opinions.
Nevertheless, Limbaugh’s unabashed conservatism made him the first conservative mass media hero. His radio show went national in mid-1988. By 1990, he was syndicated in hundreds of markets. By 1992, he had authored a best-selling book and was the host of a daily television show.
By 1994, the shocking Republican takeover of the U.S. House—the first time the GOP had won control of that chamber since 1952—made him a political superstar. The Republican freshman class thought him so important to their victory that they made him an honorary member.
His influence changed conservatism too. Along with his pugnacious Republican comrade in arms, the Georgia U.S. representative and later House speaker Newt Gingrich, Limbaugh’s no-holds-barred assault on liberal verities fueled conservatism’s confrontational and often angry modern tone. Tens of millions of ordinary Americans loved their country just the way it was, and Limbaugh told them they were right to think that and right to be angry at the people who wanted it to change.
Limbaugh was not merely reactionary, but he did prioritize conservatism’s innate opposition to change over Ronald Reagan’s focus on building a conservative “shining city on a hill.” Limbaugh may have honored the 40th president, labeling him “Ronaldus Magnus,” but under his tutelage, conservatism became more defined by what it was against than what it was for.
Thirty-five years ago, Republicans in California’s state Senate reportedly tried to recruit the then-local radio personality to run for a competitive Sacramento-area seat. Limbaugh’s decision to decline that request allowed him to influence countless more legislators than he could ever have done in office.
RIP, Rush. Your legacy lives on.