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KEVIN LEININGER: Rush Limbaugh’s illness should put the focus on humanity, not bombast

Rush Limbaugh reacts after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom Tuesday from First Lady Melania Trump, right. His wife, Kathryn, is at left. (AP photo)
WGL-AM owners Connie and Frank Kovas hosted Limbaugh, center, during his 1989 visit to Fort Wayne. (Courtesy photo)
Pat Miller
Kevin Leininger

In Hans Christian Andersen’s short story about “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” two weavers give their leader a new suit they insist is invisible to those who are stupid or incompetent. Utterly convinced of his own brilliance, the emperor proudly parades before his servile subjects, who feign admiration for his wardrobe until a child finally cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

Since 1988, Rush Limbaugh has played a similar role on his nationally syndicated talk-radio show, puncturing bureaucratic pomposity in a way that has been called juvenile or worse by critics and entertainingly provocative and persuasive by fans. Now Limbaugh, 69 and recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, is battling a foe that can’t be vanquished with words alone.

That diagnosis no doubt moved President Trump to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom at Tuesday night’s State of the Union address. And like just about everything else these days, the honor exposed America’s political and cultural fissures, with conservatives applauding the decision by Provocateur-in-Chief Trump and many progressives openly wishing for Limbaugh’s speedy demise. But to many who have met him, Limbaugh belies both extremes.

“We were one of (Limbaugh’s) first stations, and lucky to have him,” said Connie Kovas, who with husband Frank owned WGL-AM when Limbaugh brought his “Rush to Excellence” tour to Fort Wayne in 1989. “He spoke to a packed house at the Embassy, and I had the pleasure of introducing him,” Kovas remembered. “Rush was a Midwestern gentleman (from Missouri), very unassuming, almost shy, not at all pushy or vindictive.

“When we took him to Hall’s on Bluffton Road for breakfast, word spread quickly throughout the restaurant that Rush was there. Many people stopped by to shake his hand. He was a nice guy, and so gracious to each one. Rush was a terrific talk show host and pioneer, but most of all he was my friend. He did his show from WGL that day, and it was only then that he wrapped the cape around himself and became Superman.”

Kovas said WGL — which because of Limbaugh and others should be remembered as the pioneer of talk radio in Fort Wayne — lost his show to larger rival WOWO-AM in 1997, where it has remained ever since. Pat Miller, whose local show follows Limbaugh’s each day, met him only once, at an event in Chicago a decade ago, but concurs with Kovas’ assessment.

“I was already a fan by that point,” Miller said. “That bravado was just his shtick, his persona, and you have to understand that. Talk radio wouldn’t be here if not for him.”

Limbaugh himself often said as much, telling The News-Sentinel in 1989 that he loaded his show with “irreverent humor (because) most conservatives are too serious about the end of the world, wringing their hands and making sure you know commie libs are out there everywhere screwing up your kids’ minds . . . I’m not trying to offend people. I like to illustrate absurdity by being absurd. A lot of people who listen think I have an agenda, and I really don’t. I’m just trying to have fun.”

Not everyone shares his sense of fun, of course, and Limbaugh has gone too far at times (though not nearly as far as those who openly yearn for his death, or Trump’s). The point here is that Limbaugh, like the rest of us, is a human being who differs in significant ways from his public persona. His apparently genuine emotion while receiving the medal Tuesday was one example; Miller said another came when Limbaugh did not announce his illness until the end of his show, leaving no time for his ordeal to become the focus. Limbaugh also held annual “cure-a-thons” in the fight against cancer even before his diagnosis, raising $50 million between 1990 and 2016. And he visited Fort Wayne again in 1999 to play in the Mad Anthonys charity golf tournament.

In other words, there is good to be found in most of us. Maybe we should spend more time looking for it.

And now, also like the rest of us, Limbaugh must face his own mortality. When he broke the news to his audience, there was no bravado; just an acknowledgement that maybe politics isn’t so important after all:

“I have a deeply personal relationship with God that I do not proselytize about, but I do, and I have been working that relationship tremendously,” Limbaugh said. “Over the years, a lot of people have been very nice, telling me how much this program has meant to them, but whatever that is, it pales in comparison to what you all have meant to me.”

If that proves to be an epitaph — and let’s hope it’s not — it’s a good one even if it isn’t the least bit controversial.

You’ll have to excuse me now; I’m going to go enjoy a cigar in Limbaugh’s honor whether the do-gooders like it or not.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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