Mike Pence greets Rush Limbauugh in his studio.
Mike Pence greets Rush Limbauugh in his studio.

INDIANAPOLIS – The election year of 1992 brought the first billionaire politician, Ross Perot, to the fore, and a bubba (Bill Clinton) to the Oval Office, but the truly transformational character in America was Rush Limbaugh.

Covering northeastern Indiana politics for the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, it became apparent to me that among the grassroots, two sensational elements, Perot and Limbaugh, were changing the dynamic. Perot faded quickly, but in a mere four years, it soon became obvious that Limbaugh had changed conservative politics much like the orthodoxy’s patron saints, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.

Limbaugh died of lung cancer at age 70 on Wednesday, about a year after President Trump had honored him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His legacy has been in place for four decades. Lunchtime “Rush Rooms” tuned in to WOWO popped up across the region, where folks became “dittoheads” to learned to despise “feminazis” and “wacko environmentalists.”

“He was the most important individual media figure of the last four decades,” Ian Reifowitz, professor of historical studies at the State University of New York and author of “The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump,” told the Associated Press.

Working out of an obscure Sacramento radio studio a year after the Federal Communications Commission repealed the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 during the Reagan administration, Limbaugh was soon picked up by hundreds of radio stations at no cost to the broadcaster, other than four minutes of national advertising time. It set off a corresponding conservative talk radio movement that never had a liberal Democratic bookend to contend with.

Speaking from the floor of Congress in 2001, then U.S. Rep. Mike Pence who had a statewide radio show he described as “Rush Limbaugh on decaf” said, “I am in Congress today because of Rush Limbaugh.”

Pence reacted to Limbaugh’s death, tweeting, “Rush Limbaugh’s legacy will live on for generations in the hearts of the millions of Americans he inspired. His matchless voice will never be forgotten. And during my service as governor and vice president, he was the anchor of conservatism, giving voice to a movement and fighting for the ideals that make America great. May God comfort his family and all those who loved him. God Bless Rush Limbaugh.”

Pence biographer Tom LoBianco recalled a conversation with Jon Quick of WIBC, who said he had “once asked Pence (after he got off air) why he literally sounded like Rush (intonation, delivery) and Pence didn’t seem to know that he’d been reflexively mirroring Rush.”

WIBC talk show host Tony Katz said on Twitter, “I do not have a career without #RushLimbaugh opening up the opportunity for men and women like me.”

Hugh Hewitt, a national conservative voice, added, “When I began on AM 640 on the weekends LA in 1990, Rush was already huge, a phenomenon. He cut promos for me as he did for many broadcasters at the start of the industry. Never stopped being a professional’s professional.”

Limbaugh’s last hurrah came after Trump lost last November and he picked up on the president’s description of a stolen election. Trump, Limbaugh said earlier this month, “Represents an uprising of the people of this country against Washington, against the establishment, and it had been building for a long time ... since Perot in 1992 ... Trump was just the first guy to come along and actually weaponize it.”

It prompted Trump to say about Limbaugh, “I have a very beautiful weakness: I tend to like people who like me.”

Former Fox personality Glenn Beck said, “Thanks Rush for all you taught, gave and were. A hero to many. An icon. A patriot. A revolutionary that saved radio.”

Limbaugh’s staying power bedeviled Democrats. “Whether you loved him or hated him – and there are very few people in between – Rush Limbaugh was indisputably a force of historic proportions,” said Democratic operative David Axelrod. “Over the past three decades, he did as much to polarize our politics as anyone and laid the groundwork for Trump and Trumpism.”

Former Indiana Democratic chairman Kip Tew added, “Limbaugh was one of the most important forces in American politics in my lifetime. And there is a direct line from his show and Trumpism. History should show that the ‘conservative’ movement was hijacked by Rush for entertainment and it spawned a terribly destructive force.”

Indiana Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer added, “Few, if any, have done more to spread the conservative message and attract more people to our conservative movement than #RushLimbaugh. He was a trailblazer and an icon who will be missed. My prayers go to his family, friends, and millions of listeners.”