Editor’s Note: NAS Member of the Board of Directors Wight Martindale Jr.'s essay consists of two parts. In the first half of this essay, he elaborates on his February 7th Letter to the Editor to The Wall Street Journal, which discusses the New Left’s hypocrisy, particularly concerning the nexus of higher education, wealth, and class. Mr. Martindale then discusses the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the award of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh at the 2019 State of the Union. This essay addresses a topic relevant to the NAS—the politico-cultural background to higher education reform. We welcome a conversation on this topic.
We owe Rush Limbaugh more than we may ever understand. His show went national in 1988, the year that America finally tired of a liberal cultural revolution clearly out of control. He single-handedly saved AM radio and fathered an industry that is now mature and secure, although still far from perfect. What was his special gift? Good cheer. Rush was having fun.
He created popular conservatism with humor, simple values, plain talk, and no guests. Just Rush, his listeners and his callers. What could be more grass-roots democratic? Three hours a day, five days a week, “with talent on loan from God.”
The election of John F. Kennedy in 1960 enabled the Democratic Party to display the power of government to aid the needy, overlooked, or misused. “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Do you remember those words? The civil rights demonstrations? The Peace Corps? Kennedy knew that the personal leadership of the president could be used to make better people—the ultimate goal of great political leadership.
Lyndon Johnson continued that tradition but for other reasons found himself reviled by much of the Party. Of leading black intellectuals, I recall only Ralph Ellison standing by him.
After Johnson, the idealism of the Kennedy years quickly unraveled—in public manners, drugs, Haight-Ashbury, empire-building politicians, activist law schools and courts, and academia. Being hip became an absorption with self. It was the “me-first” movement.
The new Left is about power and personal wealth. In the same year Rush came on the air, Stanford University dropped the required Western Civilization course required of all students. Western Civilization itself, they concluded, was a figment of an imperialist imagination. The timing of that faculty meeting is not an accident. The year before Steve Balch founded the National Association of Scholars.
Today’s Democratic Party dominates the big cities and the richest counties in the country. It is the Hollywood Party. And ultimately the Party of the elite and wealthy coasts—America’s prime real estate. In 2016 Hillary won almost all of America’s 450 richest counties. Trump won the other 2500. That is today’s political demographics.
A recent Zogby Poll concluded that Rush was the most trusted man in America. Not surprising for a man who’s been on the air for 30 years, each month gathering 25 million listeners. In the early days, his callers were in such enthusiastic agreement with him that he began to call them “ditto heads,” because they all said the same thing. The regulars loved it, and they are still selling ditto-head tee-shirts. For many of these years he was alone—mainstream conservatives avoided mentioning him. In 2008, President-Elect Obama was a guest at the home of George Will and a select group of elite, right-leaning pundits, including David Brooks of The New York Times. The president-elect used the occasion to charm the journalists, to urge that they gave him a chance, and to show that they had much in common. Not invited to this elite club, Rush instead attended a birthday luncheon at the White House with George W. Bush.
In 2001 Rush lost almost all of his hearing but he continued, nonetheless. He has written five children’s books and he gives substantial amounts of money away each year.
Of course, the liberal media hates him, and millions of dollars have been raised to scare advertisers from his program. What Rush calls the dominant “drive-by” media frequently misrepresents what he says because it seldom listens to his show. Thankfully, fighting good humor with pure venom is a losing strategy. Rush continues undaunted. He has made America safer for the expression of traditional thought and behavior. His political insight is brilliant, and his Rolodex impressive.
In a fitting, quickly improvised tribute, President Trump used his State of the Union as an occasion to award Rush the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Melania Trump placed the medal around his neck. Rush, who entered the House chamber in a wheelchair was obviously moved by the honor.
On the Friday after his receiving his award Rush returned to his show. He spent the first hour recounting the exhilarating story of President Trump’s unexpected call Tuesday morning, inviting him to be his guest for the State of the Union Speech. Rush was told that one day he would receive the Presidential medal, but he assumed the ceremony was scheduled for weeks in the future. That was 10 am and Rush was away from home at the hospital preparing for his first medical procedure. He had not packed any of his formal clothes, had nothing to wear, and of course the doctors were ready to proceed.
Rush was flattered but didn’t not immediately accept—getting to Washington in such short time seemed impossible. Rush had loaned his own private jet (EIB-One) to his niece. With no plane and no clothes, Rush was unsure how he could make it to the State of the Union. But Trump kept urging him; never demanding, never pressuring, just encouraging Rush to come—the President could take care of things when he got to Washington. “Rush old buddy,” the President said, “What are you doing later today?... Can’t they do just half of what they’re going to do and send you down here? Believe me, it’s gonna be great. You don’t want to miss this.” Rush was uncertain but his wife, Kathryn, told him, “You’ve got to do this. You cannot not do this.” Rush had no shirt, no jacket, no tie, no socks, and no dress shoes.
“How are we going to do it?” he asked.
“Leave it to me,” she said.
Kathryn quickly called a number of local men’s clothing stores with Rush’s sizes, asking them to send whatever they had to their hotel room. An hour and a half later Rush called the President to back out. “Remember,” Rush explained, “’I don’t know what’s gonna happen.’ For people who don’t know Donald Trump, this will explain him, his attitude toward life. There is simply nothing you can’t do. There is nothing that can’t be done. But the fact is this is what he wanted. Not for him, but for me, and he wasn’t going to let me talk myself out of it.” About President Trump, he continued, “Not everything in his life has been what we would characterize as exemplary, but that’s the point. He’s lived. ... He’s gotten everything life has to offer and he’s not finished. ...This past Tuesday there was simply no way he was not going to let this thing not happen. He never made a demand. There was nothing offensive. It’s a unique person that is able to persuade people to do what they want and make them happy they’re doing it even when they don’t think they can. In Donald Trump’s world, there is simply no ‘can’t.’”
At 4:30 pm Rush called the president back and said he would do it. He explained, “One of the reasons I was reluctant was that I didn’t feel I deserved this.” On his Friday show, he was devoid of self-pity: “Millions of you have been through this. It’s nothing that millions of Americans aren’t experiencing or haven’t experienced ... and I’m not interested in being in the news all the time.” Rush then recalled Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium in 1933 when he learned he had ALS, a disease for which there was no cure and he said, “’Today I consider myself the luckiest man on earth.’... There was nothing forced or phony or public relations related about it because I feel the same way,” Rush concluded.
Rush has provided cover for the rest of us. He has built a constituency for what we believe. Perhaps best of all, he has made us smile. His legacy grows daily, and his final days will be watched carefully. His story isn’t over.