A Year Without Rush Limbaugh, and Why I Miss Him

By Peter Wolfgang Published on February 17, 2022

True story. In 1992, I was a fierce partisan for Bill Clinton. Ever see that 2008 Onion parody of the cult-like young supporters of Obama, who were still encouraging you to vote for him, after he had already won? That was me in ’92. Clinton was my Obama.

It was in that context, when I was a Gloria Jean latte-sipping, NPR-listening, New York Times-subscribing, early 20-something that I first came across Rush Limbaugh. I had met the enemy. And, darn it, he was funny.

I was immune to his charm, however. My politics were my white blood cells.

My Conversion

During the campaign, when he had that op-ed in my beloved Times warning the first Bush of the dangers ahead in his debate with Clinton (“Watch out when he bites his lower lip!”), I scoffed. During the transition, when an elderly man at Sam’s Club — after hearing me complain about Clinton’s foreign policy team — tapped me on the shoulder and said, with a big smile, “You should listen to Rush Limbaugh,” I scowled.

I remember the first time I heard him. It was 1993. Clinton was now in office. It was going to be a glorious new era. I was visiting a girl I was seeing at the time. Flipping the TV channels, she settled on Rush’s show. After a few minutes, she noticed the pain in my face. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Do you want me to turn it off?”

The early 90s-me was not ready for Rush. There would be a lot of water under the bridge in the next five years. By 1998, I took to him like a dying man in a desert to a fountain of water.

You remember 1998, don’t you? It was the year of L’Affaire Lewinsky. I was married the previous August. Thanks to the Lewinsky scandal, I spent my first year as a married man learning how little respect the country had for married men.

“Everyone cheats.” “Everyone lies about sex.” “Most men commit adultery.” “It’s just sex.” And on and on.

Clinton Lost Me

Clinton had already lost me in 1995, when I learned of how he waged war against Pope St. John Paul II, as he tried to force a universal right to abortion on the world. George Weigel explains that here. My personal dislike for him began later that year, when I read of his reelection campaign’s attempt to manipulate Catholics.

It deepened in 1996 when, at a ceremony vetoing the ban on partial-birth abortion, he surrounded himself with women who had the procedure and pointed out which ones of them were Catholic. I was a “Commonweal Catholic” in those days and Clinton’s cynicism was so outrageous that even the editors of that liberal magazine expressed their disgust for that gesture.

But it was the Lewinsky thing that really broke the dam for me regarding Rush. I needed someone who could voice what I was feeling. And I needed someone who could do it with a laugh.

The Need Rush Filled

From whence came that need? And why was Rush the guy who could fill it? Only 11 years had passed between Gary Hart’s scandal with Donna Rice and Bill Clinton’s with Monica Lewinsky. But the change in the country’s reactions, in our national morality, was huge.

Because the 21st century has been a series of traumatic historic events, beginning with 9/11, people tend to look back fondly on the 1990s. But my sense at the time was that America in the 80s has something good that it lost by the 90s. 

Rush Limbaugh articulated that feeling. But not in a defeatist way, the way so many conservatives spoke. He told us that the America we know and love is still there. That it will still triumph someday, if only we have faith and work toward that end. Rush Limbaugh was the confident, spirited voice of 1980s America, reaching across the decades of my adult life to say that it can still be morning in America.

Like Ronald Reagan, Rush was not a perfect messenger. Reagan had been married twice. Rush was married four times. As the saying go, “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue.” I will happily take someone who upholds principle but doesn’t always live it over those who have no principles. 

Like Reagan, Rush could articulate what many Americans feel better than we could. He  described us in the terms in which we saw ourselves. We are a good people, despite our faults. We are an exceptional nation, blessed by God. Our best days are still ahead of us.

With Humor and Aplomb

And Rush did it all with such humor, such aplomb. He did it better than any of the legion of imitators he inspired.

Liberal commentators thought he insulted people, especially liberals. There is a difference between funny-joyful and funny-cruel. With rare exceptions, Rush was almost always the former. His liberal critics, meanwhile, still think it was funny to have John Goodman play Linda Tripp on SNL. Indeed, what is most of modern comedy today, if not one big liberal sneer to those who are outside the tribe of right-thinking people?

They hate Rush, in large part, because he did comedy better than them. I recall CPAC 2009, right after Obama was elected. The Left despised Rush’s speech. What I recall is how different in tone it was from Glenn Beck, who had gone apocalyptic. Not Rush. For Rush, there was always hope for America. We just had to fight for it.

Thank you Rush, for keeping the hopeful, optimistic spirit of 1980s America alive through the subsequent three decades. May that spirit still triumph someday. RIP.

 

Peter Wolfgang is president of Family Institute of Connecticut. He lives in Waterbury, Connecticut, with his wife and their seven children. The views expressed on The Stream are solely his own. His previous article was Sarah Palin Should Win Because the New York Times Should Lose.

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