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El Rushbo and Me

A boy from Cape Girardeau, Missouri became a conservative kingmaker.
by Jim Swift
February 5, 2020
El Rushbo and Me

I was sad to hear Rush Limbaugh announce that he’s battling an advanced form of lung cancer, and might not be able to fulfill his daily duties as he has for decades. I’m not a listener of his anymore, but he was part of what inspired me to go into politics. And without Rush Limbaugh, you likely wouldn’t be reading this article.

I wish Limbaugh nothing but the best in battling this disease. Some of his close friends, as close friends should, are saying things like “if there’s anyone who can beat this, it’s Rush.” After all, he is a fighter, and quips that he does so with half his brain tied around his back. Limbaugh also lost his hearing, and thanks to a cochlear implant, was able continue to work for years.  

I owe Limbaugh a debt, and I’m not sure I can ever repay it. Instead, I’d like to chat about his influence on me for a bit. Longtime readers know a little bit about my career trajectory. But I’ve never written much about Limbaugh, who played a role for me—and hundreds of thousands of other conservatives—over the years. 

His show typically airs on weekdays from 12-3 in the Eastern time zone, so I didn’t get to catch it much in high school, except in the summer. This was long before YouTube, podcasts, and digital streaming. Some radio stations would re-air it at late hours, particularly the 50,000 megawatt AM stations. You could record it if you had a fancy VCR-esque tape recorder. (I didn’t have one.) 

After graduating from high school, I took a job before going off to college at a colorants factory called ColorMatrix, working as an injection molder making plastic test chips. I got the job through my family, a sort of “this is what the real world looks like” experience my dad set up for me. (My dad paid for his high school and college by working at a slaughterhouse, so I had it pretty darn good.)

I was the youngest guy on the shop floor by probably 15 years, and I didn’t deserve the job. It was total patronage. Not only that, I was the only non-African American in the shop except for a Pakistani immigrant named Gul Khan, who was part of a famous dynasty of squash players. He, too, was a patronage hire, working hours when he wasn’t teaching squash to rich Clevelanders—like the company’s owner. He was one of the best squash players on the planet. Seriously. 

Anyway, every day my coworkers and I would argue over what to listen to on the radio and if there wasn’t a baseball day game, I’d always make the case we should listen to Rush. I rarely got my way. It was easier to listen to Rush that fall, when I went off to college in Missouri, his native state. Rush grew up in Cape Girardeau—my grandmother was from Sainte Genevieve, not far down I-55.

Rush was a steady part of my media diet throughout college, as a college Republican who dropped out of college for a semester to work on the Bush campaign. I stopped listening when I made my way to Washington in the mid 2000s, because I had a day job.

In 2007, one of my father’s law partners died. He was a former congressman from Michigan named Guy Vander Jagt. After the memorial service for him in the Longworth building’s Ways & Means committee room—where I’d later work—we went out to dinner at a Washington steakhouse with others who had worked with the man. As we were waiting to be seated, who did I see sitting at the bar? El Rushbo himself. I excused myself from the gathering and walked over to rudely introduce myself and be a total fanboy, not even able to understand the weirdness of how he had played a part in me winding up in that room with him.

Rush was gracious and listened to my Missouri connections and abridged life story, and then asked what brought me to Washington. I told him I worked in the U.S. Senate.

In true Limbaugh style, he quipped “You don’t work for Lindsey Grahamnesty, do you?” I told him that, from his perspective, it was probably even worse. I worked for Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, who was the author of the later-doomed immigration reform bill. “Jon’s a great guy” Limbaugh told me. “I disagree with him on this amnesty stuff, but he’s a good man, and I respect him.”

I used to like to take pictures with famous people, before I realized it was tacky and that you should act like you’ve been there. In the pre smartphone era, I had a digital camera on me. I asked for a picture and Limbaugh agreed.

The break over my old boss’s sensible immigration reform bill was the first of many I’d have with Rush over the years. Nearly 13 years later, here we are, with him getting the nation’s highest civilian honor, live on national TV during the State of the Union. And to be honest, I agree with Noah Rothman: the made-for-TV presentation by Melania in the House gallery diminished the award for show. Limbaugh deserved better.

Rush Limbaugh helped inspire my love of politics, and he also inspired my skepticism of the conservative media echo chamber. Like so many in the movement who have parted ways on matters of policy and the importance of morality, I don’t listen to him much anymore, and if I did, I suspect I’d rarely agree.

But despite going separate ways I’ll always be grateful for him, both for helping bring me into the world of politics and for his personal kindness to a starstruck nobody. I wish El Rushbo the best of health, and would like to thank him for his kindness and inspiration.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.