On Saturday, March 10, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum traveled to Cape Girardeau, Missouri, for a campaign event. According to the Southeast Missourian, Santorum warmed the small crowd up by telling them: “It's good to be in the hometown of Rush Limbaugh, which some people see as a trip to Mecca.”
While advertisers have fled Limbaugh's program en masse after his misogynistic rant about law student Sandra Fluke, he still has a devoted fan base of “Dittoheads” whose quasi-religious devotion to Limbaugh is reflected in Santorum's “Mecca” quip. But Santorum's remarks are also indicative of the outsized influence Rush has had and continues to have over national Republican politics.
For the last two decades, Republican politicians -- from presidents to long-shot congressional candidates -- have sought and received enthusiastic support from Rush Limbaugh. And Limbaugh, in his role as kingmaker, has essentially become a one-man wing of the Republican establishment.
George H.W. Bush: “Bush Personally Carried Limbaugh's Bag”
In his 2010 biography of Limbaugh, An Army Of One, Zev Chafets wrote that about Limbaugh's efforts campaigning on behalf of President George H.W. Bush during the 1992 presidential campaign. To win Limbaugh's support, Chafets noted, the president lavished VIP treatment upon Rush:
There was never a doubt that Limbaugh would support the reelection of George H. W. Bush in 1992 -- he was the Republican candidate -- but Rush wasn't enthusiastic. Bush struck him as a preppy, country club moderate, an Ivy League snob who, as a candidate in the Republican primaries of 1980, had dismissed Ronald Reagan's supply-side ideology as voodoo economics. Not only that, Bush had raised taxes.
Early in the summer of 1992, Roger Ailes, who was working for President Bush, made the connection. The president invited Limbaugh to accompany him to the Kennedy Center and spend a night at the White House. Bush personally carried Limbaugh's bag from the elevator of the White House residence to his room, a gesture Rush never forgot. That night he called his mother and brother from the Lincoln bedroom. “Guess where I'm sleeping tonight,” he said. Bush might not be Reagan, but he was the president of the United States. [page 81]
Chafets also noted that Limbaugh attended the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston. “He sat in the presidential box when he felt like it and bonded with Bush over sports and politics. The connection was cemented, the deal struck. The president would do his best to sound like Reagan, and Limbaugh would campaign hard for him.”
PBS' Frontline said that Limbaugh “went all out for Bush.” Bush appeared on Limbaugh's program in September 1992, and Limbaugh introduced Bush at a late-stage campaign rally on November 2.
Following Rush's introduction, Bush took the stage and said:
BUSH: Thank you very much. Thank you so much. Here we go for the last day. Thank you all. Thank you so very much. Thank you. May I start by thanking Rush Limbaugh. And last night, Governor Clinton was at the Meadowlands with Richard Gere and other Hollywood liberals.
BUSH: Well, here's a good deal for you. Let Governor Clinton have Richard Gere. I'll take Rush Limbaugh any day.
Ronald Reagan: “You've Become The Number One Voice For Conservatism In Our Country”
After Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, despite Limbaugh's vigorous campaigning, Limbaugh emerged as the country's “number one voice for conservatism.” That, at least, was the judgment of Ronald Reagan, who wrote a personal letter to Limbaugh shortly after the election informing him of this new role.
Limbaugh proudly read the letter to his audience on the December 21, 1992, edition of his television show [via Nexis]
LIMBAUGH: “Ronald Reagan, December 11th, 1992. Dear Rush, thanks for all you're doing to promote Republican and conservative principles. Now that I've re” -- and lis --and listen to this, folks. Listen to this. “Now that I've retired from active politics, I don't mind that you've become the number one voice for conservatism in our country.”
I -- I mean -- you know, that's -- that's -- that's not just a, “Hey, Rush, nice to know you. Hope you enjoyed my letter,” kind of sentence. There's a -- there's something very serious in that, and I was - I -- I was so proud.
It goes on, “I know the liberals call you the most dangerous man in America, but don't worry about it. They used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work. America needs to hear the way things ought to be. Sincerely, Ron.”
Is that not something?
1994 Midterms: “This Is The Limbaugh Congress”
Just prior to the midterm elections in 1994, which saw the GOP take control of the House and Senate for the first time in 40 years, the New York Times took stock of the role Limbaugh had played in “a campaign season tailor-made for” talk radio: “angry, anti-Washington, anti-incumbent, with some of the most renowned liberals -- and favorite targets on conservative talk radio shows -- fighting for their lives.”
Mr. Limbaugh, who declined a New York Times request for an interview, both revels in his political role on the air and, from time to time, backs away from it. “I don't have any power in the Republican Party at all, don't want any,” he said last week after a long discussion of divisions within the party as it heads toward 1996. “But I have just been suggesting as a commentator and an analyst and a public figure and a concerned citizen that you guys had better come up with a list of things you believe in, your principles, your vision for America, and stick to it.”
The party certainly takes Mr. Limbaugh and his conferees seriously. The talk radio constituency tends to be attentive to politics and very likely to vote: the most recent Times Mirror poll found that 64 percent of those who regularly listen to talk radio said they had thought about the coming elections; just 35 percent of the nonlisteners had.
Republican strategists also credit Mr. Limbaugh and other conservative talk show hosts with maintaining a barrage of criticism of President Clinton, particularly on the Whitewater affair, and balancing what they contend is a liberal bias in much of the mainstream press.
The Washington Post describes Limbaugh's influence as reaching “a crescendo” in 1994: “His ability to bypass the traditional media and reach the conservative base was credited with helping boost Republican turnout.”
Following the election, the Republican Party paid its respects to Limbaugh and recognized the key role he had played in the Republican Revolution.
On December 10, 1994, the Heritage Foundation hosted an orientation for freshmen Republican members of the incoming Congress. Limbaugh was a featured speaker at the event, and prior to his speech the freshmen Republicans bestowed two honors upon him.
The first came from Barbara Cubin, newly elected as Wyoming's at-large representative, on behalf of all the Republican women elected in 1994:
REP. BARBARA CUBIN (R-WY): We just wanted you to get a look at a group of women who are active in government and politics, and there's not a femi-Nazi amongst us. We're not going to get in your face, we'd rather be in the room with you. On behalf of the freshman class, all of us women of the 104th Congress want to present this plaque to you tonight. It reads “Rush Was Right.” And Rush is right in the center of the target and all of the big media outlets are -- they just missed the target. And Rush was right.
I have also to present to you a copy of the Contract With America. This happens to be Jon Fox's contract. Jon Fox ran against Marjorie Mezvinsky, and he credits you for winning the race for him. He couldn't afford media, and you kept it alive for a year, and we're all thrilled that you did that. Way to go, Rush! Seventy-four percent of all the daily newspapers in the media gave endorsements to our Republican-- er, our Democrat opponents. Talk radio, with you in the lead, is what turned the tide, Rush, and we know that.
The second honor was presented by Dick Chrysler of Michigan, who announced that Limbaugh was to be an “honorary member” of the 1994 freshmen Republican class:
REP. DICK CHRYSLER (R-MI): We as the freshman class would like to nominate and make Rush Limbaugh an honorary member of our freshman class and present to him today a pin that all the freshmen got called “The Majority Maker,” because surely he helped us become the majority!
Following Limbaugh's honorary induction into the Republican congress, former Rep. Vin Weber (R-MN) offered his thoughts on Limbaugh's impact on the 1994 election:
FORMER REP. VIN WEBER: And in terms of this class of freshmen congresspeople, this historic Congress that's going to be sworn in in just a few weeks, it's important to understand that Rush Limbaugh really probably is as responsible for what's happened here as any other person.
But the people that listened to 10 hours of talk radio a week or more voted Republican by a three-to-one margin. Those are the people that elected the new Congress, that's why this is the Limbaugh Congress. The only problem is that as we approach 1996 and the opportunity to take control of the whole government, Rush, these people may well insist that you go on the air 24 hours a day, and how you pull that off is really up to you.
George W. Bush: A Little Chocolate Microphone
Eight years after Limbaugh signed on to George H. W. Bush's failed reelection bid, Limbaugh devoted his radio empire to enthusiastically stumping for George W. Bush. Between 2000 and 2010, Bush appeared on The Rush Limbaugh Show six times -- five times as a candidate or president, and often at the height of campaign season.
October 18, 2000: According to contemporaneous media reports, Bush called into Limbaugh's program on October 18, 2000, the day after Bush's third and final presidential debate with Al Gore. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that Limbaugh hyped Bush's debate performance, saying: “Most of you watching the debate last night had to come away with the conclusion that this was a Bush win; that no matter what Gore did good, it was canceled out by the overwhelming dislikability he exhibited.” [via Nexis]
August 31, 2004: Bush called in to Limbaugh's program the day after the start of the 2004 Republican National Convention and gave a preview of his nomination acceptance speech. During the interview, Bush called Limbaugh a “good friend,” and Limbaugh told the president: “I can't speak for everybody, but I can speak for quite a few. They love you out there, Mr. President, and they only wish you the best.”
November 1, 2006: Bush appeared on Limbaugh's program shortly before the 2006 midterm elections as the Democrats were poised to seize back control of the House and Senate. During the interview, Bush said he was “optimistic” going into the election: “I know that we're right on the issues -- and the issues, the two main issues, are low taxes and winning the war on terror and protecting the American people. So I believe if our candidates continue to talk about the strong economy, based upon low taxes, and an administration in a Congress that was willing to give professionals the tools necessary to protect them, we'll win this election.”
Limbaugh, for his part, described Bush's foreign policy as “extremely visionary,” and told the president: “When I announced yesterday when the schedule was firmed up that I'd be talking to you today, I got tremendous -- I would say inundated -- with e-mails from people asking me to tell you that they're praying for you.”
April 18, 2008: On April 16, 2008, Rush devoted a lengthy segment to the reception President Bush had given that morning for Pope Benedict XVI at the White House. Limbaugh said the event “genuinely moved me” because it brought about “a discussion I have been so desirous that happen at the highest levels of our elected leadership, a discussion of American exceptionalism.”
Two days later, President Bush called in to Limbaugh's program to discuss the event and Limbaugh's reaction to it. Bush said to Limbaugh: “I wish you were there, because the spirit on the South Lawn was alive, and it was a fantastic moment. You know, it was great.” The short conversation ended with Bush thanking Limbaugh:
BUSH: Well, you're a good man, and I can't thank you enough for your kind words, and look forward to seeing you up here in Washington again. I'll buy you another meal when you're up here.
RUSH: All right, I'll take you up on that.
BUSH: Thank you, Rush.
RUSH: Have a good weekend. President Bush.
August 1, 2008: During his 20th anniversary show on August 1, 2008, Limbaugh received a surprise phone call from President Bush, Jeb Bush, and George H.W. Bush -- “people who consider you friends and really appreciate the contribution you've made,” as the president put it. George H.W. Bush told Rush he was “proud of you, always,” and asked how “our man” Roger Ailes was doing. Jeb Bush told Limbaugh: “One of the great things about your show is it's broadcast in the Sunshine State, for which a whole lot of Floridians are very grateful, including me.”
November 9, 2010: Bush's most recent appearance (to date) was on November 9, 2010, as he was promoting his recently released memoir, Decision Points.
In the final days of the Bush presidency, Limbaugh traveled to Washington for what one of his guest hosts called a “secret meeting.” Limbaugh later revealed that the “meeting” was a private “farewell luncheon” at the White House with President Bush. As Limbaugh described it, the lunch was actually a surprise birthday party for Limbaugh, complete with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” sung by Bush and his aides, and “a little chocolate microphone.”
“My intent was not to go after Rush”
Limbaugh's influence can also be seen in those (rare) moments when a high-profile Republican ventures a criticism or otherwise runs afoul of the talk radio giant and -- almost like clockwork -- issues a follow-up statement making clear they did not really intend to insult Limbaugh.
Michael Steele: On the March 1, 2009, edition of CNN's D.L. Hughley Breaks The News, then-Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele attacked Limbaugh's rhetoric, saying: “Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, his whole thing is entertainment. Yes it's incendiary. Yes, it's ugly.”
The next day, Limbaugh unloaded on Steele: “Why are you running the Republican Party? Why do you claim you are leading the Republican Party when you are obsessed with seeing to it that President Obama succeeds?”
“My intent was not to go after Rush -- I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh,” Steele said in a telephone interview. “I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. ... There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.”
Phil Gingrey: On January 27, 2009, Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-GA) told Politico that people like Rush Limbaugh “don't have to try to do what's best for your people and your party. You know you're just on these talk shows and you're living well and plus you stir up a bit of controversy and gin the base and that sort of that thing.”
Limbaugh responded to Gingrey's comments in an email to Politico, writing: “I'm sure he is doing his best but it does not appear to be good enough. He may not have noticed that the number of Republican colleagues he has in the House has dwindled. And they will dwindle more if he and his friends don't show more leadership and effectiveness in battling the most left-wing agenda in modern history.”
The next day, Gingrey apologized to his “fellow conservatives” for criticizing Limbaugh, and called in to Limbaugh's show to express his “very sincere regret for those comments I made yesterday to Politico.”
GINGREY: I clearly ended up putting my foot in my mouth on some of those comments (laughs) and I just wanted to tell you, Rush, and -- and all our conservative giants who help us so much to maintain our base and grow it and get back this majority that I regret those stupid comments.
Todd Tiahrt: In April 2009, Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-KS) was asked by the Kansas City Star editorial board if he considered Limbaugh the “de facto leader of the GOP.” Tiahrt responded: “No, no, he's just an entertainer.”
Less than a week later, on April 19, 2009, a Tiahrt spokesman clarified the congressman's remarks:
“The congressman believes Rush is a great leader of the conservative movement in America -- not a party leader responsible for election losses,” Sackett told The Eagle editorial board. “Nothing the congressman said diminished the role Rush has played and continues to play in the conservative movement.”
Darrell Issa: During an October 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) said: “It's pretty clear the American people expect us to use the existing gridlock to create compromise and advance their agenda. ... They want us to come together [with the administration] after we agree to disagree.”
Limbaugh was not impressed, saying on his October 19, 2010, program: “There is no more compromising with Democrats than you can compromise with the Taliban! Who in the hell thinks that this can be done? Mr. Issa, what are you thinking?”
Later that same day, Issa called in to Limbaugh's program to “clarify what a half hour of an interview turns into when it turns into one bullet line by an author.” Issa assured Rush: "There's going to be no compromise on moving to Republican principles. There's certainly going to be no compromise on how the House is run.