What an easy question.
Of course he was. Those who argue otherwise do not appreciate his remarkable influence on the culture, entertainment, and the political landscape. In many cases, they blame him for opening up public discourse and eroding the liberal domination of news commentary and political advocacy. They are the same people who find free speech “problematical,”
I am not a dittohead. Rush Limbaugh’s politics and causes are not mine; I admire his skills, but not always his employment of them. In the Nineties I sometimes listened to Rush in the car before I moved permanently to a home office. I have parallel life in theater, acting, comedy, skit writing and stage directing, and I was impressed with Limbaugh as a performer, which is what he is, and has always maintained that he is. His combination of politics, satire and deft disc jockey patter was unique. It was obvious why he had become, by far, the biggest star in talk radio.
The end of the Fairness Doctrine, which required broadcasters to present all sides of opinion when discussing public issues—(riiiight)—was repealed in 1987, and Limbaugh invented a new format, a conservative talk radio show that was dominated by a quick-thinking , quick-tonged, generally jovial ideologue with a sonorous voice. Rush took phone calls from people on all sides of the political spectrum, and unlike so many talkmeisters that followed him, was never rude or abusive to those who challenged his positions.
Limbaugh was at his best. however, in his extended monologues, usually based on his research into the news, before the internet made that task as easy as it is now. The riffs and rants were articulate, often funny, frequently outrageous, and always conservative in attitude and content. He was the Fox News of radio: when he launched the first national syndicated daytime radio talk show in 1987, there was no other mass media show concentrating on conservative views. He satisfied and excited a huge unserved market, with a resulting massive effect on the political scene and culture wars.
We are told by the Guardians of the Honor that “The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the Nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.” When he gave out one year’s parcel of Medals of Freedom, President Obama said that they stood for idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better.
Rush objectively qualifies on all of these criteria. He certainly checks the “wherever we come” from box. Born in a small Kansas…wait, make that Missouri—town, he attended a state university for two years, but never graduated. All he was interested in was radio. Those who argue that Limbaugh didn’t have the kind of major and lasting cultural impact that the medal is supposed to recognize are either in denial, or the kind of doctrinaire progressives who believe the world would be paradise if every conservative were liquidated.
When the Republican Party won control of Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, the Newt Gingrich-led freshman Republican class awarded Limbaugh an honorary membership in their caucus to recognize of his role in catalyzing the conservative political movement. His stunning popularity (and profitability) also helped convince Rupert Murdoch that the liberal monopoly on TV news could be successfully challenged, leading to the launching of Fox News in 1996.
As for the Presidential Medal of Freedom itself, it may be the “highest civilian honor” (I believe being elected President is the highest civilian honor), but one can’t deny that it is an arbitrary and frequently political one. What qualifies any individual honoree is completely subjective, and Presidents have recently used the award to pander to particular political constituencies, exactly as President Trump did during his State of the Union address, though never quite as crudely.
Peruse the list of honorees (which begins in 1963, when President Kennedy created the award), and two facts hit you right away: the quality of recipients has declined precipitously, and Barack Obama, who gave out more of the medals than any previous President, was substantially responsible for cheapening and politicizing the award. Gloria Estafan? Ellen Degeneres? Marlo Thomas? Patsy Mink? Quick now, who was Edward Roybal? Joe <cough> Biden? Many of Obama’s recipients will be footnotes in our history at best, if that. Some already are. The arbitrariness of the distinction is now glaring. Why Robert De Niro (who now goes to public, often televised ceremonies to scream “Fuck Trump!” at every opportunity) and not, say, Al Pacino, Gene Hackman or Dustin Hoffman? Why Loretta Lynn and not Johnny Cash? Why Stephen Sondheim and not Jerry Herman? Why Chita Rivera and not Rita Moreno? Why Vin Scully and not Ernie Harwell?
The attacks on Rush for his occasional excesses, like his ugly attacks on Georgetown student Sandra Fluke for her advocacy for government funded contraception, and his more than occasional inflammatory criticism of the African American community and its leaders, feminism, same sex marriage and homosexuality have validity; in quite a few cases, but perhaps not enough, he has publicly regretted his choice of words. As a high-wire radio artist who has spoken extemporaneously for three hours a show three days a week for nearly 40 years, some of his gaffes should be dismissed as the inevitable hazards of a risky and difficult craft. Others cannot be so easily excused. However, unlike the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, this honor recognizes positive and significant impact on the culture without requiring an unblemished record. Res ipsa loquitur: Edward Kennedy, Bill Cosby, Harvey Milk, Tiger Woods, James Taylor, Bill Clinton.
President Trump’s selection of Limbaugh is definitely defensible, especially in the relatively neglected category of radio (The only others: Lowell Thomas and Paul Harvey). To a great extent, the viciousness with which Limbaugh has been attacked since the President’s address validates his honor. The Left is still apoplectic that it no longer has unchallenged access to the public’s hearts and minds, and they blame Rush.
They should. And that’s why he deserved his medal.