Imagine giving a speech to a 1,000 people, while you are blind AND deaf.
In 2007, the Media Research Center invited Rush Limbaugh to Washington, D.C. to accept the first ever William F. Buckley Excellence in Journalism Award. MRC wanted Rush's acceptance to be a surprise to the in-person audience, and I was tapped to handle the logistical arrangements of getting him through the bowels of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, undetected, to the green room behind the stage.
I worked on the plan with Rush's handler, who Rush affectionately referred to as, "Stalin." Stalin and I had the route mapped out to a tee. We carefully selected which back entrance we would use. We knew which freight elevators we would use to stay out of sight of the lobby to get us from the back entrance, up to the suite where Rush could freshen up, and back down again to the back of the ballroom.
Rush was flying up from Florida after his show that day, so it was agreed that rather attending the whole event, Rush would be the surprise closer.
In 2007, Rush was just coming back from his bout with pain-killer addiction. We were pretty sure this event at MRC was his first public appearance since his comeback. It was a big deal.
Stalin and I even had this new fangled invention called a cell phone -- then commonly referred to as a "flip-phone" -- to keep in touch in case anything went sideways. "Stalin" was going to call me while I was downstairs in the ballroom attending the event. Once I got the call, I was going to the rear of the hotel to execute the plan. I was confident. No one suspected a thing.
One thing I learned the hard way about mid-2000s era cell phones? They didn't get any reception in the basement bowels of a hotel ballroom.
Stalin was suppose to call me at an exact time of their arrival. The exact time came and went with no Stalin call, and for a painful half-hour or so I was staring at this stupid phone, helpless.
I left the ballroom and went upstairs to the main floor and called Stalin. He immediately picked up. "We're here," he said calmly.
"Where," I asked, panically?
"In the hotel," Stalin replied.
This was not the plan at all.
"WHERE IN THE HOTEL," I whispered-shouted?
"I'm not sure," Stalin replied. Stalin slowly releases more details: "We're in a beige hallway....The carpet has flowers on it....There's a fake Monet painting on the wall."
This information was immediately not helpful. If you've been in any big hotel, they are all beige, they all have flowery carpet, and they all have fake Monet paintings on the wall. Like I said, not helpful.
I sprinted for the lobby. He's not in the lobby. This is good and bad news. Good because had Rush been seen in the lobby, he would've been mobbed. Bad because...that means he's hiding...somewhere.
I've lost Rush Limbaugh, I thought. Great job.
There were two long hallways, and I figured Rush had to be at the end of one of them. I sprint down one hallway, keeping Stalin on the line with me. Of course I've chosen the wrong hallway. No Rush.
I sprint down the opposite hallway. I can hear Stalin's voice getting stronger and closer. I know he's here. I turn the corner, expecting to see Rush, but only seeing Stalin.
"Where is he," I asked?!
"Right here," answers Rush Limbaugh, stepping out from behind a fake lemon tree inside the hallway next to an elevator. Rush was literally hiding behind a dusty fake hotel tree.
Any other VIP might've been ticked off having to wait that long, but I'll never forget the look Rush gave me, stepping out from that tree. He was quite tickled with himself that he pulled off his personal game of hide-n-seek with no one spotting him.
If it bothered him that I was late, he never let on.
I took Rush upstairs to the suite we had for him to get freshened up, and I had about 20 minutes alone with him. I suppose I could've pepper him with questions about politics, broadcasting, and other secrets of the universe.
We talked about football. Nothing but football. It was PERFECT. I'll never forget it.
I took Rush down the freight elevator to the green room behind the stage to execute the closing ceremonies. There were about a dozen or so people there. Everybody lined up to pay their respects to Rush. He was gracious to spend a few moments with everyone there.
Rush and I reach the steps to come up from behind the stage. It was "go" time.
He turned and whispered into my ear, "Okay, what am I doing?"
"We're going to pretend to end the show," I answered, "but then the MC is to play your theme music, quietly, at first, and then raise the volume up to a crescendo. You go on from there."
"What am I going to do when I get up there," Rush asked?
I was nervous about how to answer this, but I got the sinking feeling Rush may have been looking for an out, at the last minute, so I said, "Rush, you can go up there, light a cigar, wave, and leave. That would be funny. If that's all you want to do, that'll be just fine."
"Are there stage lights," Rush asked?
"Of course," I answered. I was regrettably dismissive of the question because, at the time, I didn't appreciate the importance of the question.
"What if the crowd doesn't applaud," Rush asked?
I was getting a tad frustrated, but tried to remember that Rush hadn't made many public appearances since his issues with pain-killer, so I tried to encourage him:
"Rush, there are 1,000 people here," I said. "They are your biggest fans. Many people in the room owe their careers to you. They aren't just going to applaud. They're going to give you a massive standing-ovation."
Rush processed my answer without saying a word. I thought he looked unsure of himself, but the moment was at hand.
His theme song by The Pretenders came over the loud-speaker. It built to a crescendo on cue. Rush went on stage and proceeded to give one of the best 30 minute talks I've ever heard.
It only dawned on me later: Due to his autoimmune inner-ear disease, Rush couldn't hear the applause from the audience. Due to the stage lights in his face, Rush couldn't see the crowd. He had given a speech both deaf AND blind.
I look back at that speech in awe. You can check it out here.
Most men would crumble at the challenge, but Rush...well...what can I say? He was simply the best. I'll always treasure those private moments with him that night. RIP.