Wilfred M. McClay has a good article in Commentary assessing Rush Limbaugh’s talent and importance and putting his role in the national political debate into the appropriate perspective.
Like it or not, Rush Limbaugh is unarguably one of the most important figures in the political and cultural life of the United States in the past three decades. His national radio show has been on the air steadily for nearly 23 years and continues to command a huge following, upward of 20 million listeners a week on 600 stations. The only reason it is not even bigger is that his success has spawned so many imitators, a small army of talkers such as Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, Laura Ingraham, and so on, who inevitably siphon off some of his market share. He has been doing this show for three hours a day, five days a week, without guests (except on rare occasions), using only the dramatic ebb and flow of his monologues, his always inventive patter with callers, his â€œupdates,â€ song parodies, mimicry, and various other elements in his DJâ€™s bag of tricks.
He is equipped with a resonant and instantly recognizable baritone voice and an unusually quick and creative mind, a keen and independent grasp of political issues and political personalities, andâ€”what is perhaps his greatest talentâ€”an astonishing ability to reformulate complex ideas in direct, vivid, and often eloquent ways, always delivering his thoughts live and unscripted, out there on the high wire. He conducts his show in an air of high-spiritedness and relaxed good humor, clearly enjoying himself, always willing to be spontaneous and unpredictable, even though he is aware that every word he utters on the air is being recorded and tracked by his political enemies in the hope that he will slip up and say something career-destroying. Limbaugh the judo master is delighted to make note of this surveillance, with the same delight he expresses when one of his â€œoutrageousâ€ sound bites makes the rounds of the mainstream media, and he can then play back all the sputtering but eerily uniform reactions from the mainstream commentators, turning it back on them with a well-placed witticism. …
Without Limbaughâ€™s influence, talk radio might well have become a dreary medium of loud voices, relentless anger, and seething resentment, the sort of thing that the New York screamer Joe Pyne had pioneered in the 50s and 60sâ€”â€œgo gargle with razor blades,â€ he liked to tell his callers as he hung up on themâ€”and that one can still see pop up in some of Limbaughâ€™s lesser epigones. Or it might have descended to the sometimes amusing but corrosive nonstop vulgarity of a Howard Stern. Limbaugh himself can be edgy, though almost always within PG-rated boundaries. But what he gave talk radio was a sense of sheer fun, of lightness, humor, and wit, whether indulging in his self-parodying Muhammad Aliâ€“like braggadocio, drawing on his vast array of American pop-cultural reference points, or, in moving impromptu mini-sermons, reminding his listeners of the need to stay hopeful, work hard, and count their blessings as Americans. In such moments, and in many other moments besides, he reminds one of the affirmative spirit of Ronald Reagan and, like Reagan, reminds his listeners of the better angels of their nature. He transmutes the anger and frustration of millions of Americans into something more constructive.
The critics may be correct that the flourishing of talk radio is a sign of something wrong in our culture. But they mistake the effect for the cause. Talk radio is not the cause, but the corrective. In our own time, and in the person of Rush Limbaugh, along with others of his talk-radio brethren, a problem of long-standing in our culture has reached a critical stage: the growing loss of confidence in our elite cultural institutions, including the media, universities, and the agencies of government. The posture and policies of the Obama presidency, using temporary majorities and legislative trickery to shove through massive unread bills that will likely damage the nation and may subvert the Constitution, have brought this distrust to a higher level. The medium of talk radio has played a critical role in giving articulate shape and force to the resistance. If it is at times a crude and bumptious medium, it sometimes has to be, to disarm the false pieties and self-righteous gravitas in which our current elites too often clothe themselves. Genuinely democratic speech tends to be just that way, in case we have forgotten.