One of the nice things about my college semester ending is the opportunity to listen to Rush Limbaugh again. It wasn’t impossible for me to listen to his show during the school year, but it was inconvenient, and I fell out of the habit of listening to Rush. (It didn’t help that Limbaugh is the only talk radio host I enjoy, as the rest of talk radio combines paranoia with echo chamber repetitiveness). But since classes have ended, I’ve had the opportunity to experience Rush Limbaugh again.
I mostly stopped listening to Rush in August, when his influence was at its lowest ebb. The Republican party was more or less clearly doomed to defeat, and it had picked the nominee he had most detested and one he could barely bring himself to support. None of the possible Republican candidates had met with his seal of approval, and the national media had last paid him attention during his ambitious and daring, but rather pathetic, Operation Chaos stunt.
When I started listening again, over the last few weeks, Rush had somehow become the de facto leader of the Republican party, and the most powerful media figure in America. This change in status was partly due to the lack of any other viable Republican figure, but also in large part due to Rush Limbaugh’s amazing capacity for self-promotion.
This talent explains how Rush has managed to stay both relevant and wildly popular for twenty years. Staying relevant that long is incredibly rare. Limbaugh started national syndication in 1988. A lot has changed since then.
In 1988, CNN was the only cable news channel. Now, it is one of three, and is in a weak second place to Fox News.
Mikhail Gorbachev, as leader of the Soviet Union, was probably the second most powerful man in the world, and was Time magazine’s Man of the Decade. Now, he’s a bit less powerful—his statement on the 2008 Russia-Georgia war was ignored, and he was last seen touring Eureka College, Ronald Reagan’s alma mater.
Cher won the 1988 Oscar for Best Actress for the movie Moonstruck. Now, she performs at the Colosseum casino in Las Vegas.
Michael Douglas won the Best Actor Award that year for Wall Street. His big movie of 2009 was Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which scored a poor 31% on Rotten Tomatoes. He hopes to reprise his famous Gordon Gecko character in Wall Street 2, currently in pre-production.
The Grammy for Best Record was taken by Paul Simon (of Simon and Garfunkel), for Graceland. He released his last album in 2006. It got good but not great reviews, but limited commercial success. Now, he spends most of his time touring.
The Emmy winner for Best Drama Series was thirtysomethings. Now, that show isn’t even shown on reruns. The leading actor of that show, Ken Olin, now occasionally stars in a show called Brothers & Sisters, which airs on Sunday nights on ABC.
The Tony Award for Best Musical was given to The Phantom of the Opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now, that musical is still loved, and Webber is still quite popular.
Very few of those people or institutions most powerful and influential twenty years ago have retained their popular weight. (Granted, the examples I picked were from the year Rush was ascending, while these people were in the prime of their careers, but looking at the same things from, say, 1992 doesn’t change things much). Rush Limbaugh has. His show was a hit from the beginning, but he came into his own in 1993, when National Review called him the “Leader of the Opposition.” Now, sixteen years later, he is the leader of the opposition again. To retain that much influence over that period of time is staggering.