Rush Limbaugh was officially inducted Monday into the Hall of Famous Missourians.
But Democrats are still hopeful his bronze bust will never be on display alongside those of Harry Truman, Mark Twain and Walt Disney.
The conservative radio talk show host was inducted in a state Capitol ceremony. But in a break from tradition, the public and Democratic lawmakers were not allowed into the chambers of the House of Representatives, which were locked and guarded by armed members of the Missouri Highway Patrol while the ceremony took place.
In fact, news of Limbaugh’s induction ceremony was not made public until 20 minutes before it began. The event was invitation-only and attended by a crowd of mostly Republican lawmakers and staff.
“This is something I never, ever thought would happen to me,” Limbaugh, 61, said in a speech from the House floor. The Missouri native later added: “I want to express my deep gratitude. I’m exceptionally proud to accept this honor, and really very humbled.”
Only last week Dred Scott — the African-American slave who unsuccessfully sued for his freedom in 1857 — was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians in a ceremony that was open to the public and streamed live on the Internet. Earlier this year, Negro Leagues baseball great Buck O’Neil joined the hall in a ceremony that was advertised weeks in advance.
But House Speaker Steven Tilley, a Perryville Republican who selected Limbaugh for inclusion in the hall, said the event was closed to the public because of the controversy the choice created.
Democrats weren’t invited because they signed a letter earlier in the year protesting Limbaugh’s induction, Tilley said, and the scheduling was done to ensure Limbaugh could be present.
“We wanted to make sure Mr. Limbaugh and his family could attend and were treated respectfully,” Tilley said.
Controversy swirled around Limbaugh’s induction earlier this year after he called 30-year-old law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and “prostitute” following her support of a requirement that health care companies provide coverage for contraception. The comments cost Limbaugh some corporate sponsors and provoked protests of his inclusion in the hall.
Democrats argued that honoring Limbaugh so soon after his controversial statements would be seen as “a tacit endorsement of his misogynistic attitudes.”
Tilley, however, repeatedly defended his choice, arguing at the time he made it in March that, “it’s not the ‘Hall of Universally Loved Missourians.’”
And he continued his defense of Limbaugh during Monday’s ceremony.
“He may say things that strike a nerve,” Tilley said. “But that doesn’t undo everything he’s accomplished in his career, and it doesn’t provide a reasonable excuse why he shouldn’t be honored by his home state for his many accomplishments.”
Liberals, Tilley added, try to “put forth the illusion that they believe in tolerance and understanding, but they are anything but tolerant and anything but understanding.”
But the restricted nature of the ceremony showed that Republicans “were ashamed of what they were doing and wanted as few people as possible to witness it,” said Rep. Tishaura Jones, a St. Louis Democrat. “When you take great steps to hide what you’re doing, it usually means that you know what you’re doing is wrong.”
House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, a Kansas City Democrat, said he understands why Tilley would be concerned that public involvement would turn the ceremony “into a circus.”
“But at the same time, if you don’t want it to become a circus, don’t induct someone who is as arrogant and ignorant and says things that are completely reprehensible into the Hall of Famous Missourians,” Talboy said.
House Democrats wrote to the state agency that has authority over public areas in the Capitol asking that it refuse to place the Limbaugh bust in the Capitol Rotunda, which is on the third floor.
Talboy said Monday that conversations he’s had with Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s office lead him to be “very confident” that the bust will never be on display in the rotunda.
“I feel they are committed to making sure there are only worthwhile people in the Hall of Famous Missourians,” Talboy said. “The speaker’s office controls the chamber. They can always put (the bust) in the speaker’s office or they can put it in the (House) chamber.”
Nixon’s office released a memo Monday noting that a state board — not the speaker of the House — has the authority to determine what items are displayed in the rotunda.
Scott Holste, Nixon’s spokesman, said in an email that the governor plans to review the purpose and governance of the Hall of Famous Missourians to “develop a comprehensive strategy regarding where all busts, statues and other monuments are displayed in the Capitol.”
But Holste stopped short of saying the governor would stand in its way.
The group of bronze busts depicts prominent Missourians honored for their achievements and contributions to the state.
Inductees are selected solely by the House speaker, and the busts are paid for by the Speaker’s Annual Golf Classic. Limbaugh’s was made by Kansas City sculptor E. Spencer Schubert.
Limbaugh, who’s from Cape Girardeau, praised Tilley for standing up to critics who felt his inclusion in the hall with 40 other members was not appropriate.
“He hung in. He was tough. He laughed at them when they called his office, which is what you have to do because they are deranged. They’re literally deranged,” Limbaugh said. “He stood up to it and in fact enjoyed it and threw it right back at them. I want to thank him for that.”