William F. Buckley was one of the great conservatives of the 20th century — a voice that articulated, remarkably well, the values of conservatism. As he declared about the magazine he founded, National Review, "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no other is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."
But what Rush Limbaugh did was bring that message to millions. And not just the message — he brought both comedy and empathy to the message. He brought joy to it. He showed millions of Americans not only that conservatism is fine, it's fantastic, and that it's not just smart, it's brilliant. He all but embodied the idea that conservatism wasn't just about freedom, it is freeing. (Limbaugh, notably, received the Buckley Prize for Leadership in Political Thought from the National Review Institute in 2019.)
As our culture shifted and moved more loudly to the left, Rush gave people who felt culturally left out in the cold a place to get warm, a place they didn't have to be ashamed of themselves.
But what liberals perhaps most fundamentally misunderstood — and still misunderstand — about Rush Limbaugh was that he was having a good time.
Limbaugh embodied Wordsworth's concept of the "Happy Warrior," which conservatives have come to embrace as their own.
What conservatives heard, when they listened to him, was someone speaking well about being conservative, about loving our country, about the importance of personal responsibility, about our fundamental values. They heard someone sharing thoughts and ideas about the news of the day. They heard someone poking fun at liberals' sacred cows and leftists' foolhardy ideologies. His shows about former President Bill Clinton were Rush at his most joyous best. (I've often wondered how hard he laughed at the people who defended the president's philandering but then called Rush a misogynist.)
Liberals, though, hated everything they heard from him. They found him angry and mean-spirited; they said he hated women, feared gay people and was prejudiced against everyone he made fun of. But, as many on the right have noted before me, many on the left will make those same critiques about anyone with whom they disagree politically.
Rush learned early on — or perhaps it was innate — that a point of view will only be valued if you are willing to stand by it. And Rush did, endearing himself to millions of fans across the nation who did not have a galvanizing force until he came along.
Back in the day, his show inspired "Rush Rooms," places across America where people gathered to share a meal and listened to the show together; they must have been a sight. In the town I grew up in, Middletown, New Jersey, the Rush Room was at the Howard Johnson's on Route 35. I was a kid at the time, so I never went. But the sign was there, and people showed up — out of the cold, and into the warm embrace of friends.
Limbaugh showed millions of Americans not only that conservatism is fine, it's fantastic, and that it's not just smart, it's brilliant.
That is how listeners saw Rush Limbaugh: a friend, a funny, happy, unafraid, unapologetic, pro-America, whip-smart friend.
Limbaugh made his audience laugh out loud. And he used the news of the day to share his view of conservatism — that people should come before government, because the people are the government; that free minds and free thought are essential; and that America was, and is, exceptional — using the arguments of the left against them, smiling as he did it.
The humor in his take was rare, and in many ways it still is. (Just ask former President Donald Trump what he thinks of the "dour" Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.; you get the idea.)
And why did it connect so effectively? Because no one was doing it when he started. It was new and it was really revolutionary. People thought, You mean, I can laugh at politics? You mean, it's OK to have a sense of humor about this culture war stuff? I don't need to be "dour?" And the answers, according to Rush, were: Yes. And Yes. And No!
Limbaugh, then, embodied Wordsworth's concept of the "Happy Warrior," which conservatives have come to embrace as their own. Those types are few and far between and, outside of Rush, the only other major conservative figure who comes to mind is the late Andrew Breitbart.
Rush learned early on that a point of view will only be valued if you are willing to stand by it.
America needs more Happy Warriors, and Rush Limbaugh created an opportunity for many of them — including me — to exist.
People wanted that kind of connection and that kind of conversation ... and they still do. Rush showed that there was nothing to fear by speaking up and out, and millions of Americans listened. For hosts like me, his singular style and the following it engendered created the ability for people like me to also become radio hosts. While there will only be one Rush, he showed everyone that Americans across the nation wants to take part in a great conversation, rather than to be spoon-fed pablum about what to think, and to be among friends where they can hear different ideas, laugh at the absurdities of the news and newsmakers and feel welcome even when they disagree.
Rush both created and filled a need in American radio, and he created a career for me and many, many others. Conservatives — and Americans — will miss Rush Limbaugh and his powerful voice. But his legacy will remain.