Daily Politics News Magazine

The Legacy of Rush Limbaugh


michael barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is the Daily.

For decades, he broadcast mistrust and grievance into the homes of tens of millions of Americans, helping to create an entire ecosystem of right-wing media and changing the course of conservatism itself. Today, my colleague Jim Rutenberg on the legacy of Rush Limbaugh.

It’s Monday, February 22.

Jim, I wonder if you can tell me about the first time that you met Rush Limbaugh.

jim rutenberg

Wow. It’s a funny story, actually. Because it was early 2000. I think I’d been at The New York Times for about two months. And our media editor at the time assigned me a story, what happened to that guy, Rush Limbaugh? He was like a really big deal back in the early ‘90s. And now we have this thing called the internet. We have cable. There’s Fox News. Does this guy still matter? And I kind of naively maybe just said, well, let me call him. And I call his producer, who was Rush’s right hand man at the time, and I said, I’ve got this assignment, and I’m thinking they’ll probably shut me down. New York Times is one of his targets. Yeah, we’re just try to figure out, does Rush still matter? And it opened up the kingdom of Rush. And I was asked — not only would Rush meet me, but how quickly could I get down to the studio? So I make my way to his studio. It’s in the old WABC building, right above Madison Square Garden, like an incredibly unglamorous, old, kind of decrepit New York City office building. I remember taking the old, clunkety elevator up to his studios, and there was Rush Limbaugh in the middle of a show when I get there.

archived recording

The opinions expressed on “The Rush Limbaugh Program” do not necessarily reflect those of WABC Radio or its management. And now —

jim rutenberg

His voice is booming from behind some glass.

archived recording (rush limbaugh)

By the way, that’s a gutless disclaimer. The views expressed by the host of this show ought to become federal law, and the station and sponsors ought to heartily endorse them.

jim rutenberg

And when the show is over, I remember Rush comes. He shakes my hand. He ribs me for being a Times guy. And then he takes me into his office, and he proceeds for a few hours to just berate me. Because asking if Rush Limbaugh mattered in the year 2000 was like asking the sun if it can cause daylight on Earth. You know —

michael barbaro

[LAUGHTER]

jim rutenberg

Rush reminds me that he’s so big and great that now he’s taken for granted. He’s, quote, unquote, “part of the landscape of America.” He tells me they don’t talk about Pikes Peak every day. They don’t talk about Mt. Rushmore every day, but it’s there. And in fact, at one point, he tells me that his talent is on loan from God.

michael barbaro

Wow.

jim rutenberg

But if you were one of the hundreds of radio stations that subscribed to him, he was on loan from God, because he was your number one radio host. Rush Limbaugh, where The New York Times editor of the moment may not be aware of this, he was still grabbing an audience of 20 million people a week.

michael barbaro

Huge numbers. Huge numbers.

jim rutenberg

Huge. And not only that, if you were a Republican office holder — or aspiring office holder — he was on loan from God, because he was going to deliver you to office. There was no bigger person, not only in radio, but actually still at that moment in Republican politics than Rush Limbaugh.

michael barbaro

So how did Rush Limbaugh come to be this force that you just described?

jim rutenberg

Well, Rush Limbaugh grows up in this small town in Missouri called Cape Girardeau. And he’s from a family of conservative Republicans. And interestingly, one of his family investments is in a radio station, and Rush Limbaugh, even in high school, starts working at that radio station. Because the thing about Rush Limbaugh is, he is a born radio broadcaster. In fact, as a child he had a little toy radio set, and he would do his own radio…



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