In 1995, in a column for a newspaper, I made a serious error in judgment.
Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia had died of a heart attack while in drug rehab and I wrote about it. Specifically, I wrote that lamentations about Garcia’s death were ill-advised because of the way he and his trippy band glorified drugs. Garcia was simply one more “dead doper.”
Hundreds of calls and letters later, I learned a valuable lesson. Don’t speak ill of the dead.
I have not since, but upon the death of Rush Limbaugh, it might be time to again cross that line.
The talk radio titan died Feb. 17 at 70 after fighting lung cancer for a year. I’ve been composing this piece in my head ever since, because I’m determined to do something Limbaugh rarely did in his more than 30-year run on America’s national airwaves: be fair to someone with whom I had many disagreements.
Limbaugh was never much for fairness, nor for qualities I admire in people who dwell in the intersection between media and politics: respect for others, grace, compassion.
I’ve read a slew of Limbaugh appreciations in the past 24 hours. Most described Limbaugh as “fearless” and ever-willing “to say exactly what he was thinking.”
If by that you mean making fun of Michael J. Fox for having Parkinson’s disease or referring to Chelsea Clinton, a teenager, as “the White House dog,” then yes, Limbaugh was willing to speak out.
He was a master of outspokenness, enough to build an audience of 20 million Americans on 600 radio stations coast to coast.
Rush invented modern talk radio, an invention that profited me personally. From 1999 to 2006, I hosted a talk radio program that ran opposite Limbaugh’s on the Valley’s largest news radio station.
While our audience was larger than Limbaugh’s, his audience listened to him for hours on end. That was the secret to Rush’s huge ratings — his “dittoheads” stayed tuned endlessly, never tiring of him affirming their world view.
For them it was like attending church and listening to the preacher’s gospel. “Barack the Magic Negro” must fail as president. “The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.” As for immigrants, “let the unskilled jobs that take absolutely no knowledge whatsoever to do — let stupid and unskilled Mexicans do that work.”
I could go on all day, quoting Rush “owning the libs” or demeaning the “feminazis.”
Instead, let me draw a bombastic parallel Limbaugh himself would appreciate.
The man was incredibly good at what he did, to the point where no one ever did the job better. It’s not easy to talk out loud for three hours a day and be consistently cogent, much less compelling to a huge audience day after day. Limbaugh was a genius of the talk genre, better than anyone who has ever spoken into a hot mike.
But that doesn’t make what he did worth doing. My Limbaughesque comparison: Ted Bundy was the greatest serial killer who ever lived. Florida executed him in 1989, and we’re still watching biopics documenting his murders.
If ever we crowned a Ted Bundy of talk radio, El Rushbo would be the man.
I agreed with Limbaugh on taxation, smaller government and the death penalty. He, too, referred to Jerry Garcia as a “dead doper.”
Where I disagreed vehemently was with Limbaugh’s decades using his platform to gin up hatred, to make America more partisan, and to make Americans believe that anyone who disagreed with them was not wrong but evil.
Rest in peace, Rush — the very same peace you rarely granted to others with whom you disagreed.