The Power of Rush

Originally published when Rush announced his cancer diagnosis in February, 2020

You never wanted Grandpa’s bed. All the cousins knew that. Even when I was five years old, I knew that. When nap time came, you bolted for Grandma’s bed because you never wanted to be stuck with Grandpa’s.

Grandma and Grandpa babysat my brother and me a couple of days a week and after “Mr. Rogers,” it was naptime. They were a traditional Italian-American couple and, like many couples from their era, slept in separate beds their entire lives. And like many men from his era, Grandpa loved listening to the radio. Even after TV took over the world in the 1950s, Grandpa still listened to his radio—so much so that he slept with a giant radio underneath his pillow.

You never wanted Grandpa’s bed at nap time because if you forgot about that radio and lay down too fast, you fell asleep with a massive headache. Even if you remembered that it was there, it was impossible to get comfortable with your head on a radio.

Grandpa loved it, though, and he listened all the time—so much so that his nickname was “Live” because of how lively he wasn’t. All he wanted to do was play his accordion and listen to his radio.

One of my mom’s favorite pictures of Grandpa and me was of us lying down in his uncomfortable bed, listening to the radio under his pillow.

I don’t remember what it was we listened to that afternoon, but years later—after Grandpa had passed away—Mom told me that his favorite radio host was a young guy named Rush Limbaugh.

Grandpa was about as blue collar as it got. When the Great Depression hit, he had to drop out of school in eighth grade to help support his family. He worked for decades in a factory and dreamed of a better life for his three children.

“I’m a lunch bucket,” Mom remembers him telling them often. “Get an education so you don’t have to be a lunch bucket, too.”

It wasn’t a condemnation of blue collar work, but an understanding that education offered choice in life. Grandpa never had much of a formal education, so he got one from his radio.

And no one was a better teacher than Rush Limbaugh.

When the Fairness Doctrine was repealed in the mid-1980s and television and radio stations no longer had to present both sides of an issue—giving equal time to both—Rush burst onto the scene as the first broadcaster in history to present unabashed, unashamed, intelligent conservative views in a fast-paced, entertaining way.

If Bill Buckley was conservatism’s classical music, Rush Limbaugh was its rock-and-roll. He avoided the staid panel discussions and lengthy guest interviews that other news and opinion broadcasters favored and instead presented…himself. He was the show, and his style was all his own—simultaneously intelligent and irreverent, insightful and irrepressibly hilarious.

But his real gift was connection. For the first time ever, millions of people felt like someone in broadcasting understood their concerns, their ideas; understood them.

The myth of the Fairness Doctrine was that both sides were ever presented equally on television or radio. If they were, Rush wouldn’t have been such an immediate phenomenal success.

“I am equal time,” he was fond of saying.

And his impact was equally felt across conservatism. Lifelong political junkies were just as glued to their radios as those who had never even voted before. Rich and poor alike; CEOs and lunch buckets. If the Reagan Revolution birthed modern conservatism, then Rush Limbaugh raised it to adulthood.

And he almost subliminally influenced the adulthood of six year-old me.

I didn’t know what I was listening to at nap time, but I sure did in the wake of 9/11, when 20 year-old me was glued to my radio as closely as Grandpa was for decades.

Rush Limbaugh was giving me a daily education, just as he did for my Grandpa when he first signed on. I soaked up everything, learning not just how to think, but how to broadcast—to express myself persuasively and entertainingly. To be both teacher and entertainer. To be a radio host.

Listening to, laughing with, and learning from Rush quite literally made me the man I am today. I don’t just owe my career to him; I owe my ability to think to him.

The day before Thanksgiving, my 12 year-old son Nick and I were driving around running errands and, of course, listening to Rush. We pulled into a parking lot just as Rush started his annual tradition of recounting the real story of the first Thanksgiving.

“Hold on,” Nick said as I moved to turn off the car.

He sat, transfixed, in that parking lot for the next 15 minutes listening to Rush educate him just as he educated his Great-Grandfather, his Grandfather, and his father before him.

“Whoa, that was awesome,” Nick said when Rush went to commercial break. “I never knew that.”

Now he did, and he knew in that moment of the power of radio, of the spoken word, of learning things about the world that he might never otherwise learn about.

That is the power of Rush Limbaugh; the power to connect with people across time and to link generations. It is a power that is unique, brilliant, and utterly timeless.