Last week was about all the ways politics terrified me as a boy. This week is about the moment it all changed.
My family was caravanning to Michigan for a reunion. At a gas station outside Wichita, I hopped out to stretch my legs in the dense July air. My grandparents offered to let me ride in their mini van, and I jumped on the chance to escape my brothers. Ten minutes later, I had the entire back seat to myself, chugging a soda with legs extended.
I was admiring a hawk circling the dusty fields when my grandpa switched on the radio. A shudder passed through my neck–Rush.
My mom played Rush Limbaugh’s radio show while making dinner, and my grandparents watched his tv show.1 So for years, avoiding him had been a constant battle. But that day, barrelling down the highway past windmills and cow ponds, there was no escape.
I braced myself for the fear, but something else happened instead.
Rush won me over.
Al Gore had just announced Joe Lieberman as his running mate for the 2000 election. Rush, in his bullying baritone, voiced his theory about the pick: because Lieberman was a man of high character, he was Gore’s way of distancing himself from Clinton. Rush then began a diatribe against Clinton’s moral failings, and my grandparents nodded soberly. Rush predicted that Clinton shared his theory, and that word would soon leak that Clinton was privately furious about Gore’s selection.
Five minutes later, Rush cut to breaking news: Clinton had called a news conference to heap effusive praise on Lieberman. Rush listeners nationwide–now me included–gasped. Had Rush tipped off Clinton, allowing him to outflank Republicans?
But when the broadcast returned to Rush, he was cackling with glee. This is exactly what he wanted, he explained. Gore was obviously trying to distance himself from Clinton’s moral turpitude. Now, Clinton had tied himself to Lieberman, dragging them all down together..
My eyes widened. Of course. It was brilliant–a master’s stroke.
And I was hooked.
Even though I disagree with most of what Rush says now, a part of me can’t help but like him. He’s that kooky great uncle who spends every reunion explaining how the CIA faked the moon landing, and how escalators don’t have as much character as they used to. I just smile and nod, thinking there he goes again.
More objectively, Rush led the way for much of conservative media, both for better and for worse. For example, there was:
- His brand. I would summarize Rush’s brand as “revelling in earned success.” He was never shy or demure about his abilities. He often talked about his “talent on loan from God,” and about how he smoked the finest cigars and literally spoke into a golden EIB microphone. All these trappings served his core message: I deserve the best in life because I’m really good at what I do. It was Ayn Rand meets Deion Sanders.
- His hosting style. Rush made fun of liberals in such a cool way. In one sense, it felt like the CEO bursting into a room of terrified associates. In another sense, it felt like a kid poking a bear with a stick. The overall impression was that he was running rings around the liberals, and doing it with only with his manliness and common sense.
- Empowering “normal Americans.” Each show, everyone from soldiers to Joe the Plumber called into Rush to share their opinions on how liberals were ruining America. Rush led the vanguard against the coastal elites, taking their influence and sharing it with us commoners. A Robin Hood of the airwaves.
And yes, this looks suspiciously like another famous political figure. But I’ll get to that later. For now, I’ll just hint about next time, when my love for Rush started a new and embarrassing chapter in my life: Matt the Right-Wing Firebrand….
1 Yes, Rush used to have a television show. Some clips are still online. I don’t know about you, but those clips make me miss the 90’s. Such a simpler time…
Photo by Renee Johnson