Rush Limbaugh, the conservative commentator whose rhetorical persuasiveness and political pugnacity brought him a massive radio following, made him a multimillionaire and won him a Presidential Medal of Freedom, has died. He was 70.
Limbaugh’s wife, Kathryn, announced his death Wednesday on his long-running syndicated radio show, saying he died hours earlier of complications from lung cancer.
“I know that I am most certainly not the Limbaugh you tuned in to listen to today. I, like you, very much wish that Rush was with us behind the microphone right now welcoming you to another exceptional three hours of broadcasting,” she said on the air. “For over 32 years, Rush has cherished you, his loyal audience, and always looked forward to every single show.”
She added, “As so many of you know, losing a loved one is terribly difficult. Even more so when that loved one is larger than life. Rush will forever be the greatest of all time. Rush was an extraordinary man, a gentle giant, brilliant, quick-witted, genuinely kind, extremely generous, passionate, courageous and the hardest-working person I know. Despite being one of the most recognized, most powerful people in the world, Rush never let the success change his core or beliefs. He was polite and respectful to everyone he met.”
The talk show host and author shocked fans and foes alike on Feb. 3, 2020, when he announced on his radio program that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, the latest illness to assail a man who had wrestled with near-total deafness and opioid addiction.
The day after that revelation, President Trump awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor in an unprecedented fashion: during his annual State of the Union address. He did so, he said, “in recognition of all that you have done for our nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity.”
That provoked ecstasy on the right and fury on the left, with New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling Limbaugh a “violent racist” and soon-to-be Trump successor Joe Biden condemning him for being “a conservative media personality who has done as much as Trump himself to divide our nation.”
Many of the 37 million viewers who tuned in for the speech were shocked to see how gaunt the pundit had become as he stood next to his wife while First Lady Melania Trump draped the medal around his neck.
The controversy that moment stoked seemed fitting for a figure whose career was defined by it, who was as revered by those on one side of the political aisle as he was reviled by those on the other. This was a reflection of his outsized influence, which led Vanity Fair in 2009 to dub him “The Man Who Ate the G.O.P.”
“He was Fox News before there was Fox News,” said NPR’s David Folkenflik, “such an important figure that by 1994, Newt Gingrich and his cadre, his wave of Republicans who took over the House of Representatives for the GOP for the first time in decades, appointed him an honorary member of the class of 1995. They gave him an enormous amount of credit of helping them with messaging, helping them get out the vote, helping them incentivize voters to help them sweep back. … He’s been a mainstay ever since.”
In the decades since The Rush Limbaugh Show was first syndicated nationally in 1988, its host held an almost unrivaled sway over the right even as he created outrage on the left, reveling in his incendiary views on minorities, feminism and the environment and being lambasted by representatives of the groups he attacked — not least the women he derided as “feminazis.” They were just some of his favored targets.
“Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream,” he once said. Another time, he noted that “Kurt Cobain was, ladies and gentlemen, a worthless shred of human debris.” And, addressing reports of American-instigated torture at the Abu Ghraib prison, he scoffed: “This is no different than what happens at the [Yale fraternity] Skull and Bones initiation. And we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it … You ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of the need to blow some team off?”
Limbaugh also relished pinging such icons as Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey and was a leading voice in the “birtherism” controversy, claiming (without proof) that Obama was not a U.S. citizen.
He was equally provocative when he argued: “[Obama] wouldn’t have been voted president if he weren’t black. Somebody asked me over the weekend why does somebody earn a lot of money have a lot of money: because she’s black. It was Oprah. No, it can’t be. Yes, it is … If Obama weren’t black, he’d be a tour guide in Honolulu or he’d be teaching Saul Alinsky constitutional law or lecturing on it in Chicago.”
Among his other provocations, he referred to the teenage Chelsea Clinton as a “dog”; accused Michael J. Fox of deliberately exaggerating his Parkinson’s disease; said “the NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons”; asked, “Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?”; claimed COVID-19 was no worse than “the common cold”; and amplified Trump’s lies about election fraud.
The longtime smoker also opined that “There is no conclusive proof that nicotine’s addictive … And the same thing with cigarettes causing emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease.” That was tragically ironic, given his later diagnosis. “I would like a medal for smoking cigars, is what I’m saying,” he added in 2015.
Despite such comments — or perhaps because of them — Limbaugh was lionized by the 15 million-plus people who tuned in to his daily radio show (down from a high of 25 million during the President Clinton years) and helped boost his income to an estimated $84.5 million in 2018 alone, allowing him to buy a Maybach 57S and Gulfstream G550 as well as a Palm Beach estate with five separate houses, the largest of them 24,000 square feet.
Limbaugh fanned the embers of his listeners’ resentment, stirring their righteousness even when others urged moderation.
“Getting along is not the objective when it comes to the war on terror, when it comes to tax policy,” he noted in a 2007 interview. “To me, defeating, politically, people I disagree with is the order of the day, and I don’t think I defeat them by compromising with them.”
Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was born on Jan. 12, 1951, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. His father, a former fighter pilot, was a lawyer, as were several family members, who also included judges and prosecutors.
“As a teenager he was unhappy, an adult personality locked in a kid’s body,” his biographer, Ze’ev Chafets (author of Rush Limbaugh: Army of One), said in a 2010 interview. “He was out of step with the values of the sixties, and he was sensitive about being overweight. By the end of high school, he couldn’t wait to get out of Cape Girardeau. But I think he always knew he would be a great broadcaster, and of course he was right.”
A college dropout (he spent two semesters at Southeast Missouri State), Limbaugh fell in love with radio when his father paid for his teenage son to take a summer course in engineering for the medium and when he started working for a local station, KGMO-AM. At age 20, he was hired by WIXZ-AM in McKeesport, Pennsylvania.
A year and a half later, he was fired because of a personality conflict with his boss and was cut loose from his next job, working nights at Pittsburgh’s KQV-AM.
After a series of short-lived positions, Limbaugh bounced back in 1973 with shows at stations in Kansas City, Missouri, and Sacramento, California, where he began to develop his conservative brand. But he did not come into his own until more than a decade later, following the 1987 repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, a law that had obliged broadcasters to give equal time to both sides of an argument when controversial views were aired. Its much-debated abolition in many ways paved the way for the current media polarization — and therefore the nation’s.
In 1988, Limbaugh segued to New York’s WABC-AM, which remained his base for the rest of his career as he went from being a local celebrity to a national star and even after he moved from New York to Palm Beach, Florida, where he lived for most of his adult life.
During his years at WABC, Limbaugh became the most popular conservative radio talk show host and the highest-paid. In 2001, U.S. News & World Report wrote that he was making more than $31 million a year; in 2008, he signed a contract worth $400 million, leaving him second only to Howard Stern among radio’s high earners.
“His ascendance coincided with the presumed nadir of radio itself,” noted The National Review. “It was supposedly a has-been, one-dimensional medium, long overshadowed by television. Even in the late 1980s, radio was about to be sentenced as obsolete in the ascendant cyber age of what would become Internet blogs, podcasts, streaming and smartphone television. Stranger still, Limbaugh has prospered through two generations and picked up millions of listeners who were not born when he first went national and who had no idea of why or how he had become a national presence.”
The left-leaning Daily Kos website was less positive. “Over the years, the ‘harmless’ rhetoric of Rush Limbaugh became hotter as his audience grew,” noted one commentator, Susan Grigsby. “Millions of people have been exposed to his version of alternate facts, as exaggerations became distortions and then outright lies. He racked up a huge audience while expounding on the evil of Democrats, liberals and the well-educated elite. He provided his audience with the addictive adrenaline rush of anger, fear and hate, every day — for three solid hours. And then we elected Barack Obama as president. Taking that as either a personal affront or a chance to increase his influence, Rush Limbaugh put his enmity into high gear and prepped the country for Donald Trump.”
Limbaugh’s radio success was not matched in television. He was repeatedly heckled when he substituted for the eponymous host of CBS’ short-lived The Pat Sajak Show in 1990, and he resigned from ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown in 2003 after he made disparaging remarks about quarterback Donovan McNabb and African American coaches.
After the cancellation of his own syndicated TV show, which ran from 1992-96, he said he did not enjoy that medium as much as radio.
He did, however, tackle other media including books, with two 1990s best-sellers (The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So) and even three children’s books, the last one co-written with his fourth wife, Kathryn Rogers, a party planner whom he married in 2010. (Kirkus Reviews deemed one of them “God-awful. I mean really, breathtakingly, laughably terrible.”)
Before Rogers, Limbaugh was married to Roxy McNeely (a secretary at his radio station), Michelle Sixta (a college student and Kansas City Royals usher) and Marta Fitzgerald (an aerobics teacher whose wedding to Limbaugh was officiated by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas). He did not have children.
In 2003, Limbaugh became the subject of unusual media scrutiny when the National Enquirer reported that he was being investigated for the illegal use of opiates and he admitted to his listeners that he had become addicted to the substances following back surgery. Although he was arrested in 2006, the charges were dropped in 2009 when he agreed to pay $30,000 to cover the cost of the investigation and have therapy for a year and a half. He was also found to have Viagra that he had obtained in the Dominican Republic. Rather than apologize, he made light of the matter, joking that he’d got the pills at the Clinton Library and quipping: “I had a great time in the Dominican Republic. Wish I could tell you about it.”
There was speculation that his addiction to opiates (he had received prescriptions for 2,000 tablets during a six-month period) contributed to his hearing problems. Astonishingly, for an icon of radio, he claimed in 2001 that “I cannot hear television. I cannot hear music. I am, for all practical purposes, deaf — and it’s happened in three months.” A cochlear implant restored some of his hearing (though that led to a twitching eye, requiring a further operation), and he was given a second implant in 2014.
Limbaugh survived the opiate scandal, hearing loss, three divorces and even a 2012 advertiser boycott, triggered when he called activist Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute,” which prompted him to issue a rare apology.
But in the end, he could not survive lung cancer. And yet, Limbaugh said, he had no bitterness. “You all just continue to stop me dead in my tracks,” he told listeners the week after revealing his illness. “I continue to get emails and flowers and cards. I mean, it’s voluminous. And it is so touching. I mean, people recounting experiences they had 30 years ago, 25 years ago, and this is why I said last Friday, last week, how lucky I am, and people have trouble understanding that. But, believe me, everything that’s happened to me is a blessing.”
Alex Weprin contributed to this report.