Rush Limbaugh was a friend of mine.
Those of us who read the news and the commentary journals have seen a lot of articles in the last week that began that way. The beloved and reviled broadcaster, who died last week at age 70, had many friends, and was warm in his admiration of all of them.
In my case, it all started on Oct. 9, 1998.
The impeachment of Bill Clinton had begun the day before with hearings before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee. Chuck Schumer, then a congressman and then as now reprehensible, was among Clinton’s defenders. For weeks Schumer had said that it didn’t matter if Clinton was guilty of perjury because perjury was not grounds for impeachment.
A week earlier I had done an internet search to see if Schumer had said anything about perjury and impeachment before the Clinton case. The search engines we had at the time — my choice was Infoseek — were not comprehensive. But I found the Congressional Record online, did a search there of “Schumer” and “impeachment,” and was rewarded.
In May 1989, Schumer had spoken about the case of Walter Nixon, a federal judge from Mississippi, charged with perjury and bringing his office into disrepute. Schumer spoke in favor of the judge’s impeachment, saying there was no doubt in his mind that perjury was an impeachable offense.
The opinion piece was in the mail to The New York Post within a couple of hours. The editorial page editor, John Podhoretz, liked it. It appeared on Oct. 9, “Schumer’s ‘Perjury’ Flip-Flop.”
I was in my office compiling the latest update of the then-new KDE desktop for Linux. The radio was on, tuned to WABC. A few minutes before noon came Rush Limbaugh with a short promo for his upcoming show. The promo was entirely about my piece in the Post. I scrambled to hook up a tape recorder to the radio and called a couple of friends.
After the news at noon, the Limbaugh program came on. He read just about the entire article, lavishly crediting me. He returned to it repeatedly during the three hours of his show, citing me each time. I’d never encountered anyone so generous, certainly not in radio. (Example: Sean Hannity’s local show began right after Rush’s, and Hannity made much of the story, mentioning my name once; by that evening’s Fox News Channel program with Alan Colmes, Hannity seemed to believe he had discovered the Schumer testimony himself.)
I sent a short email to Rush, thanking him for his generosity (credit is important to a freelance) and mentioning that he and I may have once as children played in the Limbaugh back yard, when my family went to visit friends whose name I didn’t remember in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Rush’s home town. We never nailed it down whether it was him or not — he had been called “Rusty” at home, and the kid I built the fort with was called “Rusty,” so there’s a good chance — but we began a conversation that lasted years.
He’d often read my email notes on air, citing me each time, and it soon came to pass that we’d write back and forth during his shows. One hilarious afternoon he conducted an impromptu debate on some minor point between the legal scholar Mark Levin and me — all of it by reading emails, back and forth, from each of us but never to each other. It was a hoot. I’m still amazed that he could maintain multiple email conversations while also doing a live radio program.
Over the months and years I’d figure in some small way in his commentary on a long string of events, many having to do with aviation, the space program, and of course politics. Each time, he would credit me and thank me on-air for whatever my contribution had been.
We’d communicate via email; Rush was most relaxed, I think, when he conversed through that medium (or, of course, on the radio), a trait we shared (except for the radio part). We’d talk about all sorts of things that had nothing to do with his radio show. We argued computers — I was and am a Linux guy, and he loved Macs and Apple products. (“Linux sux!” he once wrote me.) We discussed little things and big ones, such as the declining health of his mother, Millie, who died in early March 2000. He puzzled at my spending a lot of time chopping firewood — it wasn’t even that cold outside! I remember but will not share the note in which he confided that he was rapidly going deaf, a professional death sentence for anyone in radio who wasn’t Rush.
An entirely unrecognized skill of the great radio people is consistency. You and I can be in a fine mood one day and a terrible mood the next, and it costs us nothing. To find a radio voice, a persona, and stick to it day after day no matter what happens is a hellishly difficult task but a necessary one for a radio star.
His on-air personality was ebullient, even boisterous, even when he didn’t much feel like it and even when he doubted himself. (I think that on this point there’s no ethical breach in printing part of a note I got from him 30 minutes into his show on a Friday in April 2000: “I am in a bad mood because we have lost the American People, dep.” And 32 seconds later: “My 12 years have been worthless and pointless, other than my own personal rewards...”)
People who have no idea aren’t prevented from making the appraisal that Rush was a full-of-himself blowhard, but he was the opposite. The guy was kind, and generous (and even a little shy), always surprised by and grateful for his own success. An example from June 1992: Mobsters had ambushed and repeatedly shot Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the Guardian Angels. Sliwa survived, but he was terribly injured and for a time unable to walk. Rush quietly bought Sliwa a new Jeep station wagon so Sliwa could continue to be visible on the streets of the city. The story didn’t come out for years. There are dozens of similar incidents, some coming to light now while some probably never will.
Here’s a kindness to me: In 1999 and early 2000 there was much speculation that Hillary Clinton would run for senator from New York. I didn’t think she would, and knowledgeable people I talked with didn’t either. Not even Hillary would be that shameless, they and I thought. But she was, and she did. I’d convinced Rush that she wouldn’t run. He went with it. While he never failed to credit me for good stuff, the one time I was dead wrong he took the blame on himself.
He was a great broadcaster, sure, but he was also a really good guy and someone whom countless others and I came to know as a friend.
Requiescat in pace.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell’s column appears every Wednesday in The Athens NEWS. You can reach him at email@example.com.