On the passing of Rush Limbaugh, I thought back to my political coming-of-age in the Reagan era, and of course the first time I heard of this larger-than-life radio personality who was apparently becoming the voice of conservatism. At the time, I would have referred to myself as a conservative and a Republican, two terms which used to be somewhat synonymous but can barely recognize each other anymore. The basics of the conservatism that I knew had to do with the writings of George Will and a the ideas of Russell Kirk, though at that time I didn't yet know Kirk's writings or even his name. The basic idea that old things are generally preferable to new ones and that institutions matter as the foundation of civilized society were fairly basic starting points.
And then along came Rush's first book The Way Things Ought to Be. The book and its soon to be iconic author were presented to me by a somewhat older friend who phrased the man and his book this way: "You know, he just makes sense." That sentiment, which was framed with all sincerity, was meant to imply that Limbaugh's book and his show and his criticisms and suggestions for society were the back-to-basics honest and objective answers to an increasingly complicated and politicized world. This guy simply cut through the nonsense and clarified complex societal challenges. He "just makes sense," and if our government and schools and businesses and towns and families listened to Rush, everything would be fine ... would be as it "ought to be."
Oh, the naivety of youth and the American consumer.
It's a shame that Rush never became the conservative voice America actually needs. He had the microphone and the platform and the voice. Sadly, he lacked the insight, the prudence, the wisdom, and the conscience of a conservative. Rather than be a leader who could promote and sell the character of conservatism and its benefit to society, he chose instead to simply be an info-tainer. And, I guess that's not surprising, for he was really only ever a salesman and huckster who found a product he could peddle on his way to ostentatious wealth. Like Hannity, O'Reilly, Beck, and Carlson after him, it was only ever a way to make a buck.
Conservatism and the legacies of Kirk and Goldwater and Reagan deserved so much better. With the conscience of a conservative, like Jack Kemp for example, Rush Limbaugh could have helped engineer a truly pragmatic and productive conservative movement that might have helped build a stronger, more egalitarian, and more unified country that was committed to growth and opportunity for all. Instead, the profitable divisiveness of the mid-nineties, orchestrated out of the election and re-election of Bill Clinton, played into and off of mistrust and doubt rather than hope and faith in America.