He’s a menace, right? To all those of you who have never listened to him.
Rush Limbaugh is now in his 28th year in broadcasting. Still the top radio talk show host in America.
We’ve agreed and disagreed with him over the years. He’s a blustering, egotistical know-it-all who lives large, consumes conspicuously, and might qualify in some people’s minds for the label narcissist. Sound familiar? We’ve also had fun with his carefully crafted persona. For example, we congratulated him on his 20th anniversary back in 2007.
What he is, most of all, is the most gifted radio host in the history of the medium. Five days a week, three hours a day, he can analyze the events of the day from a conservative perspective, bitingly, humorously, optimistically, and insightfully. He has an accounting firm hired specifically to track the accuracy of his political predictions. He comes in at 99 point something dead on. He takes calls but he doesn’t depend on them. Doesn’t need them at all. The quasi lefty Imus a few years ago said he’d just listened to a Limbaugh broadcast and proclaimed that he was the greatest radio talent in the business. Imus has sidekicks, props, guests, and schticks. Limbaugh does what he does without any of these. Imus understood the difference.
Limbaugh got lots of national media attention when he became addicted to painkillers. He got no media attention when he went through an ordeal most of us could not imagine.
But we can try. Imagine you’re an NFL quarterback and your throwing arm is amputated at the shoulder. You’re a World Cup soccer star and your leg is amputated at the hip. You’re an Oscar winning director and you go completely blind. You’re a gold medal swimmer and you wake up in a wheelchair. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?
Rush Limbaugh began losing his hearing in 2001. In bits and pieces over the years he has described the sequence of events that led to him having surgically implanted cochlear devices which simulate hearing, sufficient to enable him to hear most of the words people say, though not music or other sounds we take for granted. But his revelations were mostly to explain his occasional medical absences from the show. He never asked us to spend much time thinking about it and never asked us to feel sorry for him. I do remember one vicious doctor caller who told Limbaugh his implant was already failing and he deserved it. Whereupon the vindictive beast that is Rush Limbaugh thanked him for his contribution and went to a commercial break.
But yesterday was Friday, and the guy who doesn’t really need callers always deems that day Open Line Friday. People can call in and talk about what they want to talk about, not just the topics Rush is talking about on any other given day.
Yesterday, an old black man with a wise voice called in to say he was a long time listener and said he had a serious question. Rush told him to go ahead and ask. The man wanted to know what it was really like to go through the experience of losing his hearing, emotionally, deep down, and what was that like, because Rush had never really shared it with the audience.
Rush replied that he had to go to a break but would answer the question afterwards.
And he did.
As you might expect, the perception of the loss was gradual. Three events stick out. First, he thought the fan in his cigar room was faulty, running at maybe half speed. The technicians checked the fan and told him there was no problem. An interval in which odd things occurred. The TV was never loud enough, people around him were mumbling. Then came 9/11. He was in a cab as the story was breaking on the radio. He couldn’t understand what the announcer was saying and had to ask the cab driver to tell him what the radio was saying. Trouble. He knew he was in trouble, but at that point doctors were still trying to tell him he was getting to be “of an age” and loss of hearing to a degree was in his family’s history.
This phase he readily ascribes to denial. Then came the day, and this back when he did the show all by himself, that he had to make the pre-show call to the syndicator to let them know when to begin broadcast that he realized he couldn’t understand a word at the other end of the line. That day, he couldn’t take any calls at all. Did the show anyhow.
Shortly after that, he was on the air and a doctor called in to say, “End the show. Go directly to the hospital.” So he finished the show and went to the hospital. The final diagnosis was that his own immune system was destroying his inner ears. His hearing declined by ten percent a month. Meanwhile he was taking an intravenous cocktail of prescribed anti-immune drugs, administered by himself with a syringe.
Then he went totally deaf. By then he had hired assistance. A court reporter to transcribe caller questions, and others to help cover his inability to hear network cues, etc.
Rush said he never panicked. He’d been told about cochlear implant technology. He believed he would beat the problem. Once, a doctor told him, “You’re terrified. You don’t want to show it, but you are.” Rush told him, “No, I’m not. I’ll get through this.”
He did his show for two whole months stone deaf. Couldn’t hear anything, not even his own voice. Prior to the surgery, he asked the doctors if he could just go on doing what he’d been doing. They said no. Over time, he would lose his enunciation. Callers would hear that he had a profound disability.
Happy ending? He had a cochlear implant in one ear. Which gradually failed until it became unusable late last year. So he had the second ear drilled and implanted. Right now, he’s only at 50 percent hearing, with no promises about how long he will be able to do his show.
He told his audience all of this without a hint of self pity. It’s just what’s happened.
But there was a revealing segment or two. He confided that even his closest friends cannot comprehend the nature of utter deafness. “You can’t simulate it,” he said. Because he can mostly make out what they’re saying — 15 out of 20 words, with lots of mind racing fill-ins to get it right — they think of him as hearing impaired, like your octogenarian grandfather. Not like that, Rush assures us. His hearing is a prosthetic, not a fix or a booster shot.
He will never again hear a mourning dove or an operatic soprano.
And he did that show for TWO MONTHS without a single bleat or excuse. (When, mind, he was already richer than Croesus.) While he was spending almost all of his off-air time in medical facilities and under treatment.
I listened to him multiple times during that period and I did not detect the problem. And I have really really good ears.
Courage. It doesn’t always have a chiseled profile.
MORAL. Bluster is bluster. Character is character. A wise man knows not to confuse the two.