House Speaker Steven Tilley’s decision that Rush Limbaugh, often praised as the savior of AM radio and the father of contemporary political talk radio, should be part of the Hall of Famous Missourians has raised hackles, eyebrows, and questions nationwide. Some of the comments go beyond Limbaugh himself. Some are not complimentary about Missouri. It’s one thing to attack Tilley’s choice of Limbaugh because of what Limbaugh does to polarize public opinion about himself and others, but when critics look at Limbaugh as a symbol of our entire state, the concern level rises for many people.
There is no doubt Limbaugh is a success. There is no doubt he is famous. For some people he is INfamous. The timing of Tilley’s announcement could not be worse. Limbaugh, being one of those who thinks name-calling should be part of political discourse, has chosen an unfortunate time (for Tilley) to expand his reputation in that field. The fact that Tilley is a Republican and Limbaugh is such a bomb-thrower when it comes to Democrats lends a level of partisanship to the Hall of Famous Missourians that has not existed before—not even when Speaker Rod Jetton inducted his hero, John Ashcroft. But shorn of the partisan stuff and ignoring the tendency Limbaugh has to stir the pot of incivility, the man does have some credentials for the hall. Missouri native. Moderate beginnings, building to major success and national if not international notoriety. A dominant figure in his field for many years. A groundbreaker in his business who has inspired others to succeed in his image. And he’s done all of this as a relatively young man. He’s still only 61. He has a lot of years to go—which can be something of a liability if he takes a big tumble, and he has stumbled in the past. But shorn of his overwhelming political image, the elements of the Limbaugh story are comparable to the elements of the stories of several folks in the hall.
The problem is that Rush Limbaugh cannot be shorn of his political image and that’s why many people, even some from his side of the conservative/liberal spectrum are uncomfortable about Tilley’s decision. Not everybody can be universally beloved people like Stan Musial and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
He would join the few people enshrined in the hall while they were still alive. But the enshrinements of Walter Cronkite, Bob Barker, , and John Ashcroft happened after their body of work was completed. Cronkite was long gone from the CBS Evening News. Ashcroft’s political campaign and office-holding days were past. Barker would leave “The Price is Right” within weeks after his bust was unveiled. Limbaugh, we assume, has years ahead of him in his chosen field. His work record is not yet complete.
Some critics have asked, “Who’s next, Jesse James?” Others have noted that James is not in the hall because of his infamy; Limbaugh shouldn’t be in there either. Thomas Hart Benton, who IS in the hall, caused a big stir in 1936 when he painted his mural in the House Lounge and showed slaves being beaten, Jesse James holding up a bank and a train, and Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. When critics argued such disreputable figures should not be part of the capitol artwork, Benton argued that people of that ilk do belong if Missouri is going to be honest about its history. Political bosses, outlaws, and shameful events are part of our history and we cannot whitewash it. Someday Jesse James might be in the hall.. Few Missourians are as famous around the world—or were, in his day—as Jesse James.
Just for the heckuvit, let’s try kind of an exercise in fame and distinction, fame and greatness, fame and legacy, fame and character. We’re going to compare Limbaugh with the other 39 people in the Hall of Famous Missourians who as a group represent the diversity of Missouri and its contributions to American history. If you want to be a scorekeeper, give one point in each of the categories above (decimal points are allowed) for each of the 39 and compare their scores to your score for Limbaugh. Imagine the Rush Limbaugh bust next to the bronze busts of others and see if he belongs in their company.
Here’s a point to consider: Fifty years from now, whose contribution to Missouri or to the nation (or both) will be more important.
Joyce Clyde Hall. Joyce Hall founded Hallmark Cards. He and his company led the creation of the Crowne Plaza area that turned a blighted part of Kansas City into a beautiful part of the city. His company cared enough to be the very best. Fifty years from now, what will be more important: the things Joyce Hall did or something Rush Limbaugh said?
James S. McDonnell. Aerospace Industrialist whose company built some of the nation’s most important fighting planes and the first two series of capsules that carried Americans into space. His company employed tens of thousands of Missourians directly and thousands more who built accessories for his St. Louis plant. His company merged with Douglas and produced airliners that took people to all parts of the world. McDonnell or Limbaugh in recognition of a life of lasting value? .
Tom Bass. Horseman from Mexico, arguably the greatest horse trainer of his era.. Former slave who became one of the foundations of Missouri’s trotting horse heritage, consulted by Presidents, Kings, and Queens among others about horses, breeding, and riding. Credited with helping create the American Royal.
Champ Clark. Congressman. Long-time speaker of the U. S. House. When the Federal Reserve Act was being debated, he objected to the concentration of power in the hands of eastern bankers and got two federal reserve banks for Missouri. Defeated in presidential bid at Democratic Convention of 1912 after more than 40 ballots.
Emmett Kelly. He was one of the nation’s greatest clowns. For years his character “Weary Willie” was a sad-sack figure whose gentle efforts to deal optimistically with life’s misfortunes amused and lifted the spirits of thousands, maybe millions, in his long career. He did it all without speaking a word.
Marlin Perkins. For generations he was the man who brought the world’s wildness to our living rooms, who showed us the beauty of parts of the world beyond our experience–and the dangers that sometimes lurked about. His message was that we’re all on this world together and taking time to understand and appreciate differences among the world’s creatures is important.
Betty Grable. Singer, dancer, and actress, the start of one of the greatest photographs in American history. Her movies entertained and lifted the spirits of audiences. Her photograph in a bathing suit was an iconic image for service men and civilians alike in WWII. Married and divorced twice, one fewer time than Limbaugh. Fifty years from now people are still likely to be enjoying her movies.
Ginger Rogers. Another actress, singer and dancer. Oscar-winner. Her dance movies with Fred Astaire revolutionized the musical motion picture. She’s 14th on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest starts in the first century of movies. She was married five times and divorced ll five of her husbands. Perhaps you might want to compare the timelessness of the Rogers-Astaire movies and whether there’s something very dated about Rush Limbaugh. Or maybe not.
Sacajawea. In all candor there is some doubt she belongs in the HOFM. She wasn’t from here. She didn’t live here. She didn’t die here. Her role as a guide for Lewis and Clark is often overstated. Her bust, however, is a powerful Native American image. And fifty years from now, who will still be in the history textbooks?
Dale Carnegie. He wrote “How to Win Friends and Influence People” Shouting at them, calling them names, and asserting that you are always right are not things in his book, which remains influential today and will remain influential fifty years from now. More influential than Rush’s books or programs?
Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain. Some think he is America’s greatest author and that he wrote THE great American Novel. He, like Limbaugh, had a lot of pointed things to say about the human condition. Do you think Rush Limbaugh’s autobiography, published a century after his death, be the best seller that Twain’s autobiography was?
Reinhold Niebuhr. One of the greatest philosophers and religious leaders of the 20th century. You might be most familiar with his serenity prayer, the earliest known version of which is “Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” A towering figure in social, political, philosophical, practical thinking.
Scott Joplin. The King of Ragtime, still the nation’s premier ragtime composer. His music won an Oscar in 1974, fifty-seven years after his death.
Ewing Kauffman. Best known to sports fans as the owner of the Kansas City Royals. Pharmaceutical entrepreneur (Marion Laboratories), philanthropist (his Kauffman foundation encourages quality education and supports other causes).
John J. Pershing. Missouri farm boy who became one of the greatest military officers in American history, commanded U. S. Forces in World War I. Pulitzer Prize winning writer.
Buck O’Neil. Negro Leagues baseball start. First African American major league coach. Founder and spirit behind the Negro Leagues Museum.
Edwin Hubble was one of he world’s foremost astronomers and one of the early researchers into the expanding universe. He was so well-known that the Hubble Space Telescope was named for him.
Thomas Hart Benton was Missouri’s greatest 20th century painter, an intellectual who never tolerated snooty critics who knew less about art than he did. His works continue to spark controversy but remain among America’s greatest murals and easel painting.
St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, a nun who toiled in abject poverty in the early 19th century to found an academy that still operates in St. Charles and to minister to Indians in the Kansas City area.
David Rice Atchison was a United States Senator, perhaps the President for a day. But he also was a leader in the unsuccessful effort to make Kansas a slave state.
Charlie “Yardbird” Parker was a great jazz saxophonist who was a pioneer in be-bop music. He also was troubled by drugs and alcohol.
James Cash Penney, department store chain founder whose company is still selling clothes and other items decades after his death.
Walter Elisas Disney. Do we need to describe what Walt Disney did and what his parks, film company, and other enterprises are doing today?
George Caleb Bingham was one of America’s greatest painters, Missouri’s most famous painter from the 19th century, a Civil War state treasurer, and creator of one of Missouri’s most dramatic images–Order Number Eleven.
Josephine Baker, a St. Louis entertainer denied the opportunity to express her talents early in t he 20th century because of her race. She went to Paris where she became famous as the “Dark Star of the Folies Bergere. She was with the French undergrounds in WWII, and was one of the first mjor entertainers to stand with Martin Luther King during the civil rights struggles of the 60s.
Jack Buck was a great sportscaster whose love of baseball came from our radio speakers night after night. A versatile broadcaster whose intellect elevated his programs far beyond play by play.
Harry S Truman, our only native-born President.
Warren E. Hearnes, who brought reforms to state government in the 60s and early 70s as the state’s first governor to serve consecutive four-year terms.
John Ashcroft who served in four statewide offices–auditor, attorney general, governor, and U. S. Senator, before become Attorney General of the United States.
George Washington Carver, born a slave. He became one of the nation’s greatest scientists and a researcher whose works benefitted agriculture in more ways than we can count.
Lamar Hunt was a Texas native who brought the Kansas City Chiefs to Missouri from Dallas and who created amusement parks and other businesses that are integral parts of Kansas City.
John G. Neihardt was one of the great epic poets in literary history, a professor at the University of Missouri, the author ot “Black Elk Speaks,” one of the great books about the Native American culture, and the author of “The River and I,” one of the great books about the Missouri River.
Alexander Doniphan led one of the great marches in American military history when he led his troops from Fort Leavenworth to Santa Fe, which was captured without a shot, and into cenral during the Mexican War. Doniphan defended Mormons when Governor Boggs issued his infamous extermination order.
Omar Bradley, who rose from Moberly railroad workers to commander of the largest American army in national history during WW II.
Susan Elizabeth Blow, the founder of the kindergarten movement in America.
So how would you stack Rush Limbaugh against each of these people? Who do you think would enjoy his company over drinks? Who do you thinik would tear him to shreds in a one-on-one discussion. Who do you think would find him irrelevant? Who do you think would have absolutely nothing to do with him? Who in this group would defend his placement among them?
Remember, only one is a saint and the thumbnails we have given about each of them is hardly their complete story. Do some research and learn more about them. Not that any of this is likely to make much difference, of course. But the exercise might be a more useful one than just jerking a knee.