Rush Limbaugh, conservative talk radio pioneer, dead at 70
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh died Wednesday at the age of 70 after a battle with lung cancer, his family announced. Limbaugh's wife, Kathryn, made the announcement on his radio show.
Limbaugh is considered an influential media figure and has played a consequential role in conservative politics since "The Rush Limbaugh Show" began in 1988.
The program began on national syndication with only 56 radio stations, and grew to be the most-listened-to radio show in the United States, airing on more than 600 stations, according to the show’s website. Up to 27 million people tuned in on a weekly basis and Limbaugh referred to his passionate fan base as "Dittoheads," as they would often say "ditto" when agreeing with him.
Pushing the limits of political correctness, Limbaugh spent his career as arguably one of the most popular and most polarizing persons in American media.
Limbaugh took as a badge of honor the title "most dangerous man in America." He said he was the "truth detector," the "doctor of democracy," a "lover of mankind," a "harmless, lovable little fuzz ball" and an "all-around good guy." He claimed he had "talent on loan from God."
His idol, Ronald Reagan, wrote a letter of praise that Limbaugh proudly read on the air in 1992: "You’ve become the number one voice for conservatism." In 1994, Limbaugh was so widely credited with the first Republican takeover of Congress in 40 years that the GOP made him an honorary member of the new class.
Then later in his career, he foretold the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency. During the 2016 presidential primaries, Limbaugh said he realized early on that Trump would be the nominee, and he likened the candidate’s deep connection with his supporters to his own. In a 2018 interview, he conceded Trump is rude but said that is because he is "fearless and willing to fight against the things that no Republican has been willing to fight against."
But Limbaugh’s storied career was not without controversy.
Long before Trump’s rise in politics, Limbaugh was pinning insulting names on his enemies and raging against the mainstream media, accusing it of feeding the public lies. He called Democrats and others on the left communists, wackos, feminazis, liberal extremists and radicals.
When actor Michael J. Fox, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, appeared in a Democratic campaign commercial, Limbaugh mocked his tremors. When a Washington advocate for the homeless killed himself, he cracked jokes. As the AIDS epidemic raged in the 1980s, he made the dying a punchline. He called 12-year-old Chelsea Clinton a dog.
He suggested that the Democrats’ stand on reproductive rights would have led to the abortion of Jesus Christ. When a woman accused Duke University lacrosse players of rape, he derided her as a "ho," and when a Georgetown University law student supported expanded contraceptive coverage, he dismissed her as a "slut." When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, Limbaugh said: "I hope he fails."
Trump, for his part, heaped praise on Limbaugh, and they golfed together. In 2020, President Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Just days earlier, Limbaugh had shared he’d been diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.
First Lady Melania Trump presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to gallery guest Rush Limbaugh during President Donald J. Trump’s State of the Union address Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Offi
In a rare media appearance since leaving office, Trump spoke to FOX News Wednesday in the hours after Limbaugh’s death was announced. "There aren’t too many legends around, but he is a legend," Trump told Harris Faulkner and Bill Hemmer.
Trump continued to say that Limbaugh was hopeful to remain on air until after the 2020 presidential election.
"His ambition was to hold out until after the election," Trump said. "And he worked so hard and he missed very few shows … he worked so hard to get through the election, and he was just great. He made it."
Limbaugh’s last radio broadcast was in December 2020. During it, he thanked his listeners and supporters, revealing at the time that he had outlived his prognosis.
"I wasn't expected to be alive today," he said. "I wasn't expected to make it to October, and then to November, and then to December. And yet, here I am, and today, got some problems, but I'm feeling pretty good today."
Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was born Jan. 12, 1951, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. His mother was the former Mildred Armstrong, and his father, Rush Limbaugh Jr., was a lawyer.
Rusty, as the younger Limbaugh was known, was shy, with little interest in school but a passion for broadcasting. He would turn down the radio during St. Louis Cardinals baseball games, offering play-by-play, and gave running commentary during the evening news. By high school, he had snagged a radio job.
Limbaugh dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University for a string of DJ gigs, from his hometown, to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh and then Kansas City. Known as Rusty Sharpe and then Jeff Christie on the air, he mostly spun Top 40 hits and sprinkled in glimpses of his wit and conservatism.
"One of the early reasons radio interested me was that I thought it would make me popular," he once wrote.
But he didn’t gain the following he craved and gave up on radio for several years, beginning in 1979, becoming promotions director for baseball’s Kansas City Royals. He ultimately returned to broadcasting, again in Kansas City and then Sacramento, California.
It was there in the early 1980s that Limbaugh really garnered an audience, broadcasting shows dripping with sarcasm and bravado. The stage name was gone.
Limbaugh began broadcasting nationally in 1988 from WABC in New York. While his know-it-all commentary quickly gained traction, he was dismayed by his reception in the big city. He thought he would be welcomed by Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.
"I came to New York," he wrote, "and I immediately became a nothing, a zero."
Ultimately, Limbaugh moved his radio show to Palm Beach and bought his massive estate. Talkers Magazine, which covers the industry, said Limbaugh had the nation’s largest audience in 2019, with 15 million unique listeners each week.
"When Rush wants to talk to America, all he has to do is grab his microphone. He attracts more listeners with just his voice than the rest of us could ever imagine," Glenn Beck wrote in Time magazine in 2009. "He is simply on another level."
Limbaugh expounded on his world view in the best-selling books "The Way Things Ought to Be" and "See, I Told You So."
He had a late-night TV show in the 1990s that got decent ratings but lackluster advertising because of his divisive message. When he guest-hosted "The Pat Sajak Show" in 1990, audience members called him a Nazi and repeatedly shouted at him.
He was fired from a short-lived job as an NFL commentator on ESPN in 2003 after he said the media had made a star out of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because it was "very desirous that a black quarterback do well." His racial remarks also derailed a 2009 bid to become one of the owners of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.
"Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and just think to yourself, `I am just full of hot gas?’" David Letterman asked him in 1993 on "The Late Show."
"I am a servant of humanity," Limbaugh replied. "I am in the relentless pursuit of the truth. I actually sit back and think that I’m just so fortunate to have this opportunity to tell people what’s really going on."
Limbaugh was divorced three times, after marrying Roxy Maxine McNeely in 1977, Michelle Sixta in 1983 and Marta Fitzgerald in 1994. He married his fourth wife, Kathryn Rogers, in a lavish 2010 ceremony featuring Elton John. He had no children.
The Associated Press and FOX News contributed to this report.