The man who picked me up at an airport too many years ago to recall the date asked if I had ever heard of a guy named Rush Limbaugh. When I said I had not, he turned on the car radio and said, “listen.” After 15 minutes I was hooked.
Limbaugh, who died of lung cancer on Wednesday at age 70, spoke my values. He didn’t tell people what or how to think, as his detractors often charged, but reflected what many conservative Americans already believed. He often used humor and satire to drive home his points and he was so good at it that he attracted a huge audience. More than 600 radio stations carried his three-hour program.
He was loved by millions who had never met him. When I finally met him, I was surprised at his humility. Don’t laugh. He was an entertainer, as well as a commentator, and he understood that to hold the attention of an audience one must do both. In person he was not who you heard on the radio.
Several years ago, Rush invited me to dine at his Florida home. He sheepishly asked if I drank wine, perhaps thinking because I am perceived as “religious” I might not. I responded, “I know someone who turned water into wine so, yes, I’ll have a glass.” He laughed and we were off and running as friends.
I once introduced Rush at a function in Washington. I said, “Larry King is credited with saving AM radio, but Rush Limbaugh made it worth listening to again.
As his wife Kathryn noted in her on-air announcement of his passing, Rush was a generous man. He raised millions of dollars for wounded soldiers, their widows and police officers who died while doing their duty. He often held radio-thons for leukemia research and donated unknown amounts of money to other causes.
At his wedding to Kathryn in 2010, he built up suspense by hinting, but never saying, who the special entertainment would be. After the ceremony, the invited guests walked to the hotel theater. A curtain emblazoned with question marks surrounded the stage. Rush announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Elton John.”
In the middle of a 45-minute set of his greatest hits, John stopped and said his liberal friends asked him why he would play for Limbaugh, whom many of them hated (though probably few listened to him, as was usually the case). He said something about the importance of friendships and invited Rush and Kathryn to London to visit him and his partner. I don’t think that happened, but it was a kind gesture.
Until the end he expressed a positive and optimistic spirit. In recent weeks he did something I had not heard him do before. He spoke about his faith and mentioned that it was in Jesus Christ. Not only did it thrill fellow believers like me, but it brought a torrent of calls and messages to his show from people he had never met who said they were praying for him. On air he was clearly touched.
I never heard him complain about his illness. He always spoke of being blessed beyond any dream of success he might have foreseen.
Life — and his radio slot — will go on. Such things always do. But no one has the talent Rush had — no one.
His loss is a loss to the conservative movement and to the country, but his ideas will continue, because as he liked to joke about himself, he was always “99.9 percent right.”
On his website is posted a tribute that includes these words: “The Greatest of All Time.” With apologies to Muhammad Ali, that is an accurate epitaph. Rest in peace, dear friend.
• Cal Thomas, a nationally syndicated columnist, is the author of “America’s Expiration Date: The Fall of Empires, Superpowers and the United States” (HarperCollins/Zondervan, January 2020).