Remembering Rush Limbaugh: A Hometown Perspective

You’d think that since Rush Limbaugh had been in poor health for some time, I’d have had a canned piece ready to go in the event of his death. (If only the owner of this web site would pay me more, maybe I would have. Sometimes I get stark reminders that I work for AP and not the A.P.  I’m going to have stern words with my union rep about this.)

Anyway, as the only writer for this publication who actually lives in Rush’s hometown of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, I am obligated to say some words about our town’s most famous native, who died this week at age seventy from lung cancer. I have to be a little careful though. Even though I’m not the only person here who could write a piece about Rush, I am the only one who has to worry about running into his family at the grocery store.

First I’ll just get this part out of the way: I did not know Rush. We never met. But like I always tell my wife (who is not from here)—down here there are no six degrees of separation for natives. If you’re from here, you’re lucky if you have two degrees of separation between yourself and any other random native.

Most Cape natives are either related to/went to school with/otherwise know each other. And if none of those things happens to be true, you are almost certainly related to/went to school with/otherwise know someone who is related to/went to school with/otherwise knows that other native. It sounds confusing when I put it that way, but it’s true.

Although I actually grew up one town over, I was born in Cape, worked here several times, went to college here, got married here, and live here now. I’m about as “from here” as anyone could be. For heaven’s sake, I live three hundred feet (give or take) from Rush’s childhood home. So yes, we knew a lot of the same people, and I’ve had a few happenstance run-ins with the family.

And what a family it is. To say the Limbaughs are big in Cape would be an understatement. The best example—the federal courthouse here is named the Rush Hudson Limbaugh Sr. U.S. Courthouse. And it’s not even named after Rush Limbaugh the radio talk show host. It’s named after his grandfather, a legendary Cape Girardeau attorney, who lived to the ripe old age of 104 and practiced law up to almost the very end. Rush H. Limbaugh, Jr. was also an attorney, who died at the more modest age of seventy-two. The Rush everyone knows from the media is actually Rush H. Limbaugh III.

Rush III’s (hereby referred to simply as “Rush”) brother David still lives and practices law here, and has been a prolific writer and author. (I can’t find any documentation of it, but I could swear that Rush referred to David as his “brain” on air several times.) Rush’s uncle Stephen Sr. was a federal judge for twenty-five years and also still practices law. Rush’s cousin Stephen Jr. is also a federal judge and prior to that served on the Missouri Supreme Court. Another (younger) cousin, Chris Limbaugh, was very recently appointed to a state judgeship. And if you’re toodling around Cape, it’s kind of hard to miss The Limbaugh Firm’s signage on the top floors of a bank building where Broadway meets North Kingshighway.

I swear, shake a tree in Capaha Park and a random Limbaugh falls out. But that’s not a bad thing.

The family has been largely Republican forever. Even back when being Republican here wasn’t cool. Rush Limbaugh Sr. served one term as a Republican Missouri state representative during the Great Depression. You know, when Republicans were being hunted for sport.

Ironically, Rush was the academic slacker of the family. Not only did he not become a judge and/or an attorney, he never even graduated college. He dropped out of my alma mater (hardly a prestigious institution) after just two semesters to focus on a radio career. It would have been hard to imagine this black sheep of the family making it big, but make it big he certainly did. He became the most famous native of Cape Girardeau, and it’s probably not even close.

I remember in the late 1980s when his radio show went took off nationally. Naturally, it was carried on the local AM news station, KZIM. (It wasn’t on in Cape before that, because he actually cut his teeth in Sacramento and other places before going national.) It was an instant sensation. I remember my late stepfather saying, “You gotta listen to this guy. And he’s from Cape!” The family became fans. My younger stepbrother, in particular, took a liking to Rush and emulated some of his styles.

The show format was odd—one guy basically talking to himself for three hours. That’s it. That’s the format. A constant monologue with almost no guests and sometimes not many phone calls either. But it somehow not only worked, it became revolutionary.

One has to be an extraordinarily skilled extemporaneous speaker to pull that shit off once, much less five days a week, much less for thirty-something years. But he did it. (I talk to myself a lot and sometimes the conversations are wonderful, but I doubt anyone would pay me to do it.)

He tapped into something big. When his national show took off, there was really no such thing as conservative media. People were caught off guard by an unapologetic conservative voice, but many found that they were hungry for it. He combined a considerable depth of political knowledge, a big vocabulary, and a rapier wit to both inform and entertain. He almost single-handedly saved the AM radio band (which is crap for music but fine for voice and distance) from going the way of the 8-track tape. He likely helped pave the way for Fox News and other conservative media.

Rush became a political movement unto himself. He wasn’t able to prevent two terms of Bill Clinton or two terms of Barack Obama, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. The fact that a talk show host from Cape could even be in the conversation for swaying presidential elections was kind of mind blowing to those of us from here.

The Republican establishment embraced him in full. Both President Bushes and President Trump appeared on the show. He won many awards (each infuriating all the right people on the left), including a bust in the Hall of Famous Missourians at the Missouri state capitol and ultimately a Presidential Medal of Honor shortly after announcing his lung cancer diagnosis.

His success spawned many copycats. Glenn Beck, Ben Shapiro, St. Louis’ own Dana Loesch, and Brian Kilmeade (among others) have somewhat thoughtful conservative talk shows. If you prefer angry, screaming wingnuts, there’s Mark Levin. If you just want to be spoon-fed Republican talking points (and maybe taste what Donald Trump had for dinner last night), I guess Sean Hannity is always an option.

There are some libertarian options, too. Neal Boortz (now retired) was my favorite back in the day. Also in the mix are Gary Nolan and Larry Elder, along with (obviously) Austin Petersen.

One thing that’s never really taken off is liberal talk radio. Alan Colmes had a mildly amusing talk radio show in the early to middle 1990s that was on the air in Cape Girardeau. Air America and its stable of screeching harpies crashed and burned in the 2000s. (I don’t know if root canals make a sound, but if they do, I bet they sound like Janeane Garofalo or Randi Rhodes droning on about Dubya.)

I’ve seen several people comparing Rush’s career to Howard Stern’s. Even though their shows were radically different, there is some validity to that comparison. Both men worked in radio and got fired from several different stations. But they kept hammering away, stubbornly doing things their way until finally hitting the big time. (One big difference is that Rush didn’t write large parts of two books gloating about how he destroyed Don Imus.)

Rush was not without controversy over the years. He stepped in it a number of times. One hazard of being an edgelord is that you sometimes you fall off the edge. The most odious example is probably the “AIDS Updates” (which he did later apologize for.)

On a personal level, he also burned through wives at an alarming pace, suffered from an opioid addiction (that may have contributed to his loss of hearing), and his habit of smoking expensive cigars obviously came back to haunt him.

The NFL thing was puzzling from the start, and anybody could’ve predicted that it would end badly—which of course it did. What always gave me the redass about that situation was the obviously orchestrated timing of it all. Rush said his unwise things about Donovan McNabb on September 28, 2003. The news about his opioid addiction hit just over a week later on October 10. It seems obvious that the opioid thing was already known by certain persons, but it was being held back until the time in which it could do maximum damage. He survived that crisis just like he survived the rest.

But again I think back to being on the air three hours per day, five days a week, for thirty-plus years and think— how did he not get into more trouble? I certainly would have.

Though I became more libertarian over the years, I still enjoyed listening to Rush when I had the chance. I used to drive a lot for work, and he was often my companion when I was in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t agree with him on a lot of stuff, but I could never deny that he was entertaining. He used humor and sarcasm masterfully, delightfully skewering liberals when liberals deserved being skewered the most.

I got the sense that just beneath the surface, he had an exceptionally dirty sense of humor and was barely holding it in sometimes. In that sense, he was probably more similar to Howard Stern than some people realize. A twist here and a turn there in life and I can imagine Rush becoming a shock jock, dishing out dick and fart jokes and being good at it. He had the instincts of a stand-up comedian and this made him infinitely easier for me to listen to than many other radio personalities. His braggadocio, I sensed, was largely overplayed for comic effect.

One thing I’ve never understood is why Cape Girardeau, as a city, hasn’t embraced the Rush Limbaugh thing more aggressively. Driving through here, you would never know it’s the home of Rush Limbaugh. It’s not like Cape isn’t Republican enough. Donald Trump won 71.51% of the vote in Cape County in 2020 and even a bit more than that in 2016. (Also, consider that these vote totals include many of the commies up at the college.) Why would Cape so firmly embrace a controversial Trump but then slow play its connection to its controversial native son? It is puzzling.

I wonder if some of the local bluebloods are uncomfortable with his success because it came in an unusual way. Food for thought. A SEMO dropout wiping the floor with all these doctors, lawyers, and bankers does have to rub some of them the wrong way.

In the end, I only had three major beefs with Rush. The first is that he didn’t return to Cape Girardeau after becoming big; he chose instead to live and work from home in south Florida. (Though after this week’s weather in Cape, I kind of get it.) The second is that he became a full blown Trumphumper, which is disappointing. Lastly, I wish he’d have been more of a libertarian. He’d have been really good at it. Some of his peccadillos wouldn’t have even raised an eyebrow in our circles, and he could have been as crude as he wanted to be.

On Wednesday, The Libertarian Republic’s founder and fearless leader had this to say about Rush:

“Without him there would be no Austin Petersen. Rush was on KWOS when it was founded. He helped me realize that the media was entirely slanted against conservatives and he was successful in part because people were tired of it and looking for an alternative. Now, with what’s happening in social media today, it makes me think that he was right to stay in talk radio for as long as he did. This is the medium where people who are right of center can thrive and be heard.”

Whatever talk radio becomes now, one thing is certain: it will be less entertaining. And less Cape Girardeau-ish.

 

Image: TLR composite, Facebook

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