By Greg Markley
For the Opelika
Rush Limbaugh, groundbreaking and polarizing broadcaster and conservative commentator, died Feb. 17 at age 70. He was one of the most loved and hated public figures. I was never a “dittohead,” or devoted follower of Rush. I hated his lies, half-truths and intolerance. But in assessing his legacy I find George Orwell’s novel 1984 helpful.
In his 1949 dystopian novel, Orwell created a totalitarian state with Thought Police, who squash free and independent expression. Orwell said this “was designed to diminish the range of thought.” In the real world after 1988, Limbaugh offered a corrective to Orwell’s “newspeak;” he welcomed listeners who were not liberal into the conversation. Good news for First Amendment purists!
In 2018, Forbes listed his earnings at $84.5 million. In 2019, Talkers Magazine said Limbaugh’s show drew a weekly audience of 15.5 million listeners. It was the most listened-to radio show in the U.S. This was made possible in 1987 by repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s fairness doctrine.
The doctrine, introduced in 1949, required the holders of broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was truthful, fair and balanced. With the discarding of the doctrine, radio and TV shows became more negative and one-sided.
Limbaugh’s was among the first successful radio shows that featured a bombastic star whose comments about liberal leaders and ideas were demeaning and unrebutted. Rush was so powerful within conservative circles by 1994 that when Republicans regained control of Congress that November after a 40-year hiatus, Limbaugh was presented with an honorary membership in their caucus.
With his wide success, Limbaugh became ever more controversial. He opposed Sen. Barack Obama’s candidacy in the 2008 presidential election. He even made the false claim that Obama was not born in the U.S., as a way to disqualify him for president. Limbaugh said about the incoming Obama presidency: “I hope he fails.” This, wanting a new president to fail even before being inaugurated, struck most Americans as impolite.
Politifact rated 84% of select statements by Limbaugh as ranging from “Mostly False” to “Pants On Fire.” Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal-leaning media critique organization, alleged 50 different inaccuracies and distortions from Rush’s 1994 radio shows. (I have not vetted FAIR’s claims, but study based on previous reports by ideology-based groups makes me think that about one-fourth of the claims are not clearly lies.)
There was also a very good side to Rush Limbaugh. For 30 years, he held a fundraising telethon, The EIB Cure-a-Thon, for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society; it annually raised multiple millions of dollars. The Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation benefitted from donations that paid for scholarships for children of Marines and law enforcers who died in the line of duty. Limbaugh’s charitable contributions earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2020.
His first two books were non-fiction NYT Best Sellers: The Way Things Ought to Be (1982) and See, I Told You So (1983). In 2013, with his wife Kathryn, Limbaugh wrote his first children’s book, titled Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel with Exceptional Americans. He received the Author of the Year Award from the Children’s Book Council for this interesting, patriotic work. His four other Rush Revere books were also popular and heralded.
Limbaugh in life infuriated many people due to his heavy-handed approach and issue stances. But hectored in death, too? A UAB archaeology professor with a record of insulting ideological opponents made national news again after Limbaugh’s death. “When a terrible piece of scum who caused immeasurable harm to millions dies, there is no sympathy,” Sarah Parcak tweeted. “…Only a desire that (he) suffered until the last breath.”
Alabama GOP Chairman Terry Lathan tweeted: “So @UABnews how many times will you be ‘disgusted’ over her antics? You should be making national news for your good things. Other than another ‘we are appalled’ statement what are you going to do?” UAB President Ray Watts replied: “Parcak’s poor judgment is completely counter to our shared values as an institution that include integrity and respect. We are reviewing the matter.”
In Florida, after Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered flags to be flown half-staff to honor the late broadcaster, a state official told her staff not to do so. “Lowering to half-staff the flag of the United States of America is a sacred honor that pays respect to fallen heroes and patriots,” Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, said Monday. “Our state must not celebrate hate speech.”
From academia to government to media, Rush Limbaugh was criticized for his sexist, racist and homophobic comments. Like the embattled UAB archaeology professor, he was condemned for dumb things he said. But he broadened the Republican Party, advanced the cause of U.S. conservatism, and built a wider marketplace of ideas. Like most high-profile political figures, his legacy is mixed. Perhaps that’s the way things ought to be.
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has master’s degrees in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 8 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.