The Legend of Limbaugh
President Donald Trump awarded Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom during his 2020 State of the Union Address. This is the highest award the president can give an American civilian. It’s a unilateral power the president wields. Presidents have bestowed it upon actors, directors, philanthropists, and other leaders over the years. President Barack Obama holds the record for awarding the highest number of Presidential Medals of Freedom, handing out 114 of them during his 8-year presidency.
Medals of Freedom usually signal some principle or purpose the president awarding it wishes to convey. The Medal is both an award and a message. In bestowing it on Rush Limbaugh, President Trump thanked Rush for his role in the 2016 election, as Rush made it acceptable for many skeptical conservatives to support Trump’s presidential campaign. Trump was also honoring Rush’s unparalleled career in media, and also honoring free speech itself.
To understand that third point, we have to go back a few decades to look at what the American media landscape was like before Rush. Before there was social media, before your mom forwarded you political chain emails, before blogs and viral videos, there was Rush. Maha Rushie. The purveyor of politics from behind the Golden EIB Microphone. Many demanded Rush give equal time to liberals on his national radio show, but as Rush always pointed out, "I am equal time."
Rush Limbaugh wasn’t always the titan of talk radio and his success was never inevitable. He was by his own account a poor student throughout his grade school years and he never finished college. He was bored by the routine of it all and from a young age, he wanted to work in radio. His parents bought him a little gizmo that let him “broadcast” a show to radios within a small area, and they would listen to him play DJ. Radio was one thing Rush took to enthusiastically.
Fast forward through the years and one or two firings, including once getting fired for saying “therefore” on the air, and Rush Limbaugh gets an opportunity in radio just as everything is about to change. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission repealed the long-standing Fairness Doctrine. The Fairness Doctrine, adopted in 1949, was one of our more Orwellian regulations. It prevented much political free speech from being broadcast on our airwaves nationwide by requiring that any political broadcast must present “both sides” to a given issue. That’s a recipe for some staid, boring broadcasting. The FCC held much more power over broadcast licensing in those years than it does now, thanks in no small part to the Fairness Doctrine. Its power to grant and revoke licenses was nearly unchallengeable. Opponents of the doctrine long argued that it chilled free speech. It was certainly not enforced on the major TV newscasts of the day, of which there were only three, and all three had a liberal bent to one degree or another. The nightly news plus the major newspapers held nearly unchallenged power to shape narratives nationwide. The “fairness” was always less than met the eye.
Relentless Rush Limbaugh landed a gig at KFBK AM radio in Sacramento, Calif., in 1987. AM radio was nearly dead in those days. FM — with its clearer sound quality — became the preferred spectrum space for music-based radio, and it became radio’s dominant force. Satellite radio and audio streaming were more than a decade in the future. There was no such thing as talk radio the way we understand it today, due to the Fairness Doctrine. No Rush. No Sean. No Savage. No Laura. No Tammy. So AM radio stations were struggling to stay in business and they could offer no content model that suited its spectrum better than music suited FM.
The FCC repeals the Fairness Doctrine just as Rush is getting his start, in 1987, on the one station in Sacramento. Rush can do what he was born to do -- create a show based solely on the spoken word, addressing the political and cultural issues that interested him.
And the rest, as they say, is history. When you pair a master to his medium, you get magic.
In 1988 Rush signed with EFM Media Management, which syndicated him nationally from his first flagship station, WABC in New York. There literally was nothing like Rush on the air then. Though Ronald Reagan had won two presidential terms, and his vice president succeeded him for one term, conservatives had no single voice broadcasting nationally every day. I remember well the very first time I ever saw or heard Rush. It was on ABC’s "Nightline" with Ted Koppell. Rush was a guest, and I was stunned to see a conservative going toe to toe with Koppell on national TV. It was a revelation. Here was someone with a national platform who was not in any political office, but who articulated so well the things I believed. And he was young. And funny! Koppell clearly respected him for his knowledge and his wit, while disagreeing with Rush’s point of view. Rush’s moment to become a movement had arrived.
I’ve since worked at a radio station that aired Rush’s show, and produced Laura Ingraham’s radio show in Washington. I owe him a debt, and the fact is, all of us in any form of conservative media owe him a debt. He was the first, the trailblazer, the one who was in the right place at the right time with the right skillset and ambition to bring conservative ideas and principles to a national audience. He took the risks and he succeeded. He owned a craft and perfected it. As an entertainer and political thinker, whether you love him or despise him, Rush Limbaugh is a genius. In succeeding, Rush single-handedly created a new industry -- talk radio -- and saved an existing industry -- AM radio. Every single person who works in AM news, talk, and sports radio today owes Rush Limbaugh. Beyond radio, every business in America that advertises on a thriving AM talk radio station owes Rush because he saved AM from obscurity and probably even extinction. Conservatives across the fruited plain owe Rush, too. He has often been our gladiator, taking on presidents and UN secretaries general and left-wing actors turned political dilettantes on our behalf and taking the blame when was politically convenient, such as when President Clinton shamelessly blamed Rush for the Oklahoma City bombing. Especially when the Republicans were out of power, Rush has been the leader of conservative energy and opinion. He has been indispensable and irreplaceable.
But there is more to Rush’s success than business and revenues and even politics, and it’s fundamentally American. More than anything else, Rush Limbaugh is a champion of free speech for its own sake. His show is not everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s fine. Millions agree with him, and millions don’t. That’s also fine. That’s what the First Amendment was put in place to protect: the right to speak our minds without fearing government sanction. America is, as we often say and sometimes mean, a free country. Rush saw his moment and his opportunity in creating talk radio as we know it and made freedom of speech his lifelong passion and his calling. He seized his day. He worked incredibly hard. He has been handsomely rewarded, and he deserves every penny of it. In granting Rush Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, President Trump honored the fundamental right of every American to freely express his or her opinions. That’s no small thing in the age of cancel culture. It’s almost as revolutionary now as it was when the Founders wrote the First Amendment.
The moment we have come to now, with Rush’s announcement that he has advanced-stage lung cancer, was inevitable. Not the illness, but the fact that someday Rush would leave the airwaves for good. Partially losing his hearing several years ago didn’t stop him. Hopefully, he will defeat cancer too. Hopefully, he will remain on the air for many years to come.
I’ve never met Rush, but if I ever get the opportunity to, I’ll make sure to say one thing to him:
Bryan Preston is the author of Hubble's Revelations: The Amazing Time Machine and Its Most Important Discoveries. He's a writer, producer, author, Texan, veteran, and conservative strategist.