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Topics In U.S. Cultural History Since 1990: Rush Limbaugh

July 3, 2008

About a year and a half ago, I finished my last entry for the forthcoming Encyclopedia of the Culture Wars. This was another M.E. Sharpe project. I wrote several entries covering: Paul Harvey, Fulton Sheen, Bob Jones University, Great Books, Mortimer Adler, and Rush Limbaugh. These were tough assignments (excepting the two on Adler and the Great Books), in no small part because finding unbiased secondary sources was difficult. For a project like this one often has to resort to reasonably solid primary materials: newspaper and magazine articles, TV and/or radio transcripts, interviews with associates, etc.

I found vetting sources on Limbaugh [right, circa 1970s] to be exceedingly difficult. Nearly all the primary and secondary materials were heavily tainted with bluster—both from the right (praise) and left (denunciations). In the end I discovered a few scholarly articles in political science journals, some solid newspaper and magazine articles, and one expose-type biography. I correlated it all with Limbaugh’s own autobiographical materials. In the end, I did the best I could, but it was a struggle.

That struggle caused to appreciate the effort that went into this New York Times Magazine piece by Zev Chafets. I so admire Chafet’s essay that I’m afraid to read it against my own work. Of course I didn’t have the benefit of a large budget and access to Limbaugh. C’est la vie. All of this is to say: Read Chafets piece. It’ll both inform and infuriate you.

As I read the article I was struck by Limbaugh’s similarity to the central figure in Citizen Kane: media-related wealth, loneliness, extravagance, bluster, an estate in Florida. And that iconography no doubt informed Chafet while writing. Despite the barely concealed outline, I couldn’t find a reason to disagree with the allusions.

The only things missing were Limbaugh referring to his castle as Xanadu, and the indelible image of a burning Rosebud. I think his highpoint in politics has thankfully past, so I feel I can safely say this: By the end of the piece I felt sorry for Limbaugh the man. For someone who just earned a fresh $100,000,000, he seems sad and lonely.

What will we historians be saying about him in 20 years? 50? Will political or cultural historians expend the most effort in understanding his place in America since 1990? – TL

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One Comment
  1. Tim, I think he'll be considered a bit like Charles Caughlin of the 1930s, although with a more malign edge. The one caveat I would have on that is to watch what happens with his “Operation Chaos,” assuming he extends it into the general election. During the primary he seemed to have an impact by encouraging his listeners to vote for Clinton. Some have suggested a significant enough impact (although perhaps not decisive) in Ohio and Texas. You may think it hyperbole, but I would say as he continues into this organizing he gets closer and closer to outright fascism. I say that less as an attack on him than a wake up call to the rest of us, including me, who tend to dismiss him as a blow hard.

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