Jim Geraghty notes the tendency, common in the media in the 1990s, to lump Rush Limbaugh in with Howard Stern as “shock jocks” despite their significant differences. One major distinction: For Rush, shock value was the sizzle, not the steak. If you listened to Stern, you were likely to be bombarded with crass and shocking things more or less continuously. By contrast, in a typical three-hour Limbaugh broadcast, the stuff that might give you a chuckle or cringe of “whoa, Rush is pushing it here” might be two minutes worth of the show. That difference, of course, was driven by the fact that Limbaugh had something to say; Stern was just shocking for its own sake.
Rush’s occasional outrageousness masked the fact that he was serious. He reached a lot of listeners who never read serious conservative writers, but Rush read them and knew how to summarize their ideas for a mass radio audience. He was not the antonym of the sorts of conservatives who consume books of theory, philosophy, or policy; he was a force multiplier for them. Ben Domenech has an excellent Rush tribute in the New York Post, but I would quibble a little with this line: “Limbaugh understood that what drew people to conservatism has less to do with words in musty old books and more to do with the intrinsic beliefs that reside in the hearts of all patriotic Americans. He understood that because he believed it himself.” That’s true — but then, those “musty old books” and the ideas in them still matter precisely because the intrinsic appeal of conservatism is enduring and meant just as much to the people who wrote those books as it does today. The inheritance of old ideas is part of our informed patriotism, it’s why we protect old statues and historical truths, and why successful Republican leaders have always appealed to the Founders and the nation’s history. Knowing the history of your ideas and your movement is vital to giving a language to the things you feel and believe. And Rush Limbaugh was nothing if not an evangelist for the language of conservatism.