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Blubaugh: Limbaugh both the quintessential American success story and partly responsible for the divided mess we’re in today | COMMENTARY

Home from college one summer, I answered an ad to deliver newspapers part-time. I was pretty good at it as I had a great memory for the houses on the route and I became adept at plucking a paper out of the stack on the passenger seat, folding it, bagging it and either sliding it into a tube or tossing it into a driveway without stopping the car.

The man who hired me allowed me to use his car, which was great because my brakes wouldn’t have lasted a month. Unfortunately, his car, long before satellite radio or Bluetooth, had no CD or cassette player. Spending more than 2 hours in the car early in the morning and another two hours after lunch left me desperate for entertainment.

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I turned to talk radio.

Overnight, that meant a then-new all-sports station, WFAN, out of New York, or Larry King’s interview show. In the afternoon, it meant deadly dull news programming — until one day I stumbled across a syndicated political talk show hosted by Rush Limbaugh, who died last week after a long, controversial career.

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I can’t stress how different Limbaugh’s show sounded from anything else on the radio, three decades ago. We were only a few years removed from the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which for years meant broadcast entities had to allow equal time for contrasting viewpoints. The idea was that citizens would be better off if exposed to a diversity of viewpoints — imagine that — but it didn’t necessarily make for compelling listens. The Federal Communications Commission abolished the doctrine in August 1987, giving rise to political talk as we know it today. Limbaugh wasn’t the first to insert himself into the conservative talk radio niche, but he was the most successful.

He was bombastic, pompous and politically incorrect but, make no mistake, he knew he had to be an entertainer. He had a cool Pretenders tune as his theme song. He voiced imitation fanfare to announce breaking news updates. He rustled papers, he yelled and banged on his desk. He did song and commercial parodies.

And he talked conservative politics, pointing out hypocrisy that wasn’t being pointed out elsewhere, and gained a huge following that was utterly devoted, agreeing with him on everything.

I’m sure some of the bigotry and hate he would be called out for later must have existed then. I was probably not astute enough to pick up on all of it and I’m sure I ignored some of it because, as a captive audience, I was starved for entertainment. I also believed Limbaugh was doing it with a wink and a nod. I was never really sure he believed what he said, that he just realized he had caught lightning in a bottle. I never thought he took himself too seriously in those days and his critiques of society didn’t seem as mean-spirited as they became later.

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I listened as he rose to prominence during the Gulf War and was still listening fairly regularly through the 1992 presidential campaign before I had to give up the part-time delivery gig and start working more daytime hours. I mostly lost track of Limbaugh after that as he became immensely rich and powerful, famous and infamous, beloved and hated.

Reading through obituaries, tributes and condemnations the past few days, much of what he said was horrifying. Impossible to defend. Racist and misogynistic. He was incredibly insensitive toward pretty much any group he wasn’t a part of. He was a hypocrite who called for those addicted to drugs to be locked up until he became addicted. He fell in love with power and abandoned some of his core principles to cozy up to powerful party leaders.

But his impact on the medium is impossible to ignore. Just as every professional golfer should thank Tiger Woods on their way to the first tee and the bank, every radio, TV and internet personality who makes a living talking politics — on both sides of the aisle — owes a debt to Limbaugh.

Regardless of one’s political bent, he was a pioneer and an incredibly important figure. When creating radio’s Mount Rushmore, start carving his face and Howard Stern’s face and then figure out who should join them.

The rest of his legacy is more troubling. He figured out early on that making it all about “us vs. them” worked in terms of gaining and keeping an audience. Divisiveness worked. And it still does — for politicians as for political commentators.

In some ways, Limbaugh was the quintessential American success story, failing repeatedly but believing in himself and eventually achieving fame and fortune he could never have imagined. In other ways, he’s everything that’s wrong with America, capitalizing on his followers’ darker tendencies, unleashing their anger. And he bears some responsibility for the mess we find ourselves in today.

So put him on that monument, too, for sure. But he did make those hours on the road pass faster.

Bob Blubaugh is the editor of the Carroll County Times. His column appears Sundays. Email him at bob.blubaugh@carrollcountytimes.com.

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