By Wesley J. Smith
I deeply admire Rush Limbaugh. Not because of his conservative viewpoints. Not because he is a uniquely talented broadcaster who can make dropping a pencil interesting radio. No. I have been most impressed over the years by Limbaugh’s strength of character, a crucial leadership attribute in woefully short supply at a time of failing institutions and callow public personalities.
Strength of character? Limbaugh?
Yes, Limbaugh. For those who may be unaware, last January Limbaugh was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. After nearly a year of pursuing experimental treatments, he recently told his audience that his illness has entered a terminal stage. Yet, Limbaugh continues on with his show—if anything, with greater gusto than before he fell ill—only taking time off periodically during “treatment week.”
Limbaugh has also not yielded to the emotional toll a terminal illness surely takes. He never complains publicly. He never feels sorry for himself. To the contrary, his persona—a mixture of faux hubris combined with a passion for conservative politics mediated by a great sense of humor—remains unchanged. Indeed, if he hadn’t announced publicly that he is ill, I doubt the audience would be able to tell the difference.
The only change I have noticed after listening to Limbaugh regularly since the early 90s—and really, the only allusion he makes to the severe difficulties he is surely experiencing—has been a greater willingness to reveal his personal faith, something he rarely discussed previously.
Limbaugh says he believes in Jesus Christ and regularly tells his audience that upon awakening every morning he thanks God that he is still breathing. Healthy or ill, such thankfulness is a practice we would all be wise to emulate because you never know what each day will bring.
In his great public aplomb, Limbaugh reminds me of the late actor Michael Landon’s valor in the face of his 1991 terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Landon was a hugely popular television star, having played “Little Joe” on Bonanza, “Pa,” on Little House on the Prairie, and an angel on Highway to Heaven.
When he became ill, rather than stay behind closed doors as was usually done back in the day, he publicly announced his diagnosis on the Tonight Show—unprecedented back then—and in so doing, helped shatter the cruel stigma often faced in those days by terminal cancer patients.
For months, Landon uplifted the nation by tackling cancer head-on. As his illness progressed, he gave several interviews announcing his determination to hang on until the end, telling Life magazine, “If I’m gonna die, death’s gonna have to do a lot of fighting to get me.” In his People obituary, Mark Goodman wrote, “Landon closed his own book with a stolid grace that refused to succumb to tragedy.”
In his dying, Landon modeled what it means to face death with poise and composure. In that, he served humanity and undoubtedly helped others face their own impermanence.
Limbaugh is doing that too, which may even be more important now than it was in Landon’s time. By keeping on keeping on, the great broadcaster presents a vivid rebuttal to the usual nihilistic advice these days that committing assisted suicide is the best means to grapple with the suffering caused by terminal illness.
Indeed, in an age in which euthanasia activists, media, and the popular culture enthusiastically push so-called “death with dignity”—remember the fawning media coverage given brain cancer patient Brittany Maynard because she moved from California to Oregon for a lethal prescription? —Limbaugh’s poise and resilience in the face of his catastrophic diagnosis demonstrates that even the immediate prospect of death cannot defeat the human heart unless we let it.
This isn’t the first time Limbaugh has stood strong against adversity in the harsh Klieg lights of public fame. When he became addicted to prescription opioids after a back injury, he not only faced down a politically motivated criminal investigation but overcame the habit—no easy task.
Then there was the time he went stone cold deaf over a few months. I remember noticing that Limbaugh’s rich baritone had lost some of its timbre and that he slurred some words. I worried that he might have had a stroke. But he refused to yield to what would have been a career-ending affliction for most talk radio hosts by having listeners’ calls transcribed in real time. Eventually, he received a cochlear implant and carried on as if nothing untoward had happened.
Yes, I know that Limbaugh is a polarizing personality whose indifference to contemporary cultural sensibilities makes some people grind their teeth. I understand that people not on the starboard side of political belief may loathe him, or at the very least, cannot comprehend his why he has millions of devoted fans.
But Limbaugh’s appeal strikes a deeper chord than explained by political affinity or representing one side in our ongoing kulturkampf. His audience understand that he believes in them, and that he thinks he owes a duty to be an example of standing tall against personal misfortunes, now including the prospect of looming death.
In so doing, he is leading—demonstrating both the importance of character and communicating that when we each come face to face with our own mortality—as we all must—that dying isn’t dead, it is a stage of living worth embracing despite the physical and emotional toll it takes.
In that public service, regardless of our political beliefs, we owe Limbaugh a profound debt of gratitude. Here is praying that “El Rushbo” holds cancer at bay and continues with “excellence in broadcasting,” for many years to come.
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