Rush Limbaugh, ‘voice of American conservatism,’ has died

Matt Sedensky
Associated Press

Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio host who ripped into liberals and laid waste to political correctness with a captivating brand of malice that made him one of the most powerful voices in politics, influencing the rightward push of American conservatism and the rise of Donald Trump, died Wednesday. He was 70.

Limbaugh said a year ago that he had lung cancer. His death was announced on his show by his wife, Kathryn.

Unflinchingly conservative, wildly partisan, bombastically self-promoting and larger than life, Limbaugh galvanized listeners for more than 30 years with his talent for sarcastic, insult-laced commentary.

In this Feb. 3, 2001, file photo, Rush Limbaugh puffs on his Ashton VSG cigar while waiting to tee off from the fifth tee of the Pebble Beach Golf Links during third round play of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in Pebble Beach, Calif.

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He called himself an entertainer, but his gleeful rants during his three-hour weekday radio show broadcast on nearly 600 U.S. stations shaped the national political conversation, swaying ordinary Republicans and the direction of their party.

Blessed with a made-for-broadcasting voice, he delivered his opinions with such certainty that his followers, or “Ditto-heads,” as he dubbed them, took his words as sacred truth.

Rush Limbaugh.

“In my heart and soul, I know I have become the intellectual engine of the conservative movement,” Limbaugh, with typical immodesty, told author Zev Chafets in the 2010 book “Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One.”

Forbes magazine estimated his 2018 income at $84 million, ranking him only behind Howard Stern among radio personalities.

Paul W. Smith, host of WJR-AM's "Paul W. Smith" morning radio show, remembered Limbaugh as a friend who had him guest host on the nationally syndicated radio show.

"It's not overstating it to say that Rush Limbaugh saved AM radio. ... He took a band on the radio, the AM band, when FM was dominating, and he took a time period — noon to 3, which was a dead zone basically ... and he saved radio," Smith told The Detroit News. "He is truly the guy who made talk radio the biggest and the best that there was."

Limbaugh's other legacy was ideological, he said.

"It's nice to have someone on the radio saying exactly what you think. And we have to remember at the time there wasn't any real strong conservative voice in radio or television," Smith said, referring to the late 1980s. "And he was now speaking the way what we used to refer to as the 'silent majority' was thinking but not having an outlet to say. ... People loved that, and really people loved Rush." 

Limbaugh was a gentle individual in person, Smith said.

"The bravado on the radio was totally different from the way he was in person," he said. "That's not to say that he was playing a character or a role. He just added a little zip to his presentation. Where as a person, he was as old-fashioned gentlemanly as you can imagine."

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.”

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, faggots and radicals.

First Lady Melania Trump presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh as his wife Kathryn watches during the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020.

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 flatly: “I hope he fails.”

He was frequently accused of bigotry and blatant racism for such antics as playing the song “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show. The lyrics, set to the tune of “Puff, the Magic Dragon,” describe Obama as someone who “makes guilty whites feel good” and is “black, but not authentically.”

Limbaugh often enunciated the Republican platform better and more entertainingly than any party leader, becoming a GOP kingmaker whose endorsement and friendship were sought. Polls consistently found he was regarded as a voice of the party.

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.

"Rush changed radio forever. He made it not only acceptable, but a positive to be a conservative. He brought a voice of reason to the airwaves on behalf of millions of people," tweeted U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Holland.

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.”

Trump, for his part, heaped praise on Limbaugh, and during last year’s State of the Union speech, awarded the broadcaster the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, calling his friend “a special man beloved by millions.”

Both men ultimately found Florida more comfortable than New York: The former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate is eight miles down the same Palm Beach boulevard as Limbaugh’s $50 million beachfront expanse.

Trump called into Fox News Channel to discuss his friend’s death Wednesday, saying they last spoke three or four days ago, lauding him as “a legend” with impeccable political instincts who “was fighting till the very end.”

Former President George W. Bush said Limbaugh “spoke his mind as a voice for millions of Americans.”

Limbaugh influenced the likes of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and countless other conservative commentators who pushed the boundaries of what passes as acceptable public discourse.

His brand of blunt, no-gray-area debate spread to cable TV, town hall meetings, political rallies and Congress itself, emerging during the battles over health care and the ascent of the tea party movement.

President George Bush talks with conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh at WABC studios in New York City, Sept. 1992.

“What he did was to bring a paranoia and really mean, nasty rhetoric and hyperpartisanship into the mainstream,” said Martin Kaplan, a University of Southern California professor who is an expert on the intersection of politics and entertainment and a frequent critic of Limbaugh. “The kind of antagonism and vituperativeness that characterized him instantly became acceptable everywhere.”

Such criticism echoed again and again in his lifetime, but Limbaugh seemed only to push further, assembling an ever-growing list of those branded enemies, of the issues the public was purportedly being fooled on, and the lies the mainstream media was supposedly feeding.

He offered a litany of it all to his listeners, as he did in a 1991 broadcast he heavily quotes in his first book, “The Way Things Ought to Be.” In that single show, in one breathless segment, he railed against the homeless, AIDS patients, criticism of Christopher Columbus, aid to the Soviet Union, condoms in schools, animal rights advocates, multiculturalism, the social safety net and on and on.

His foes accused him of trafficking in half-truths, bias and outright lies – the very tactics he decried in others. Al Franken, the comedian and one-time senator, came out with a book in 1996 called “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.”

In 2003, Limbaugh admitted an addiction to painkillers and went into rehab. Authorities opened an investigation into alleged “doctor shopping,” saying he received up to 2,000 pills from four doctors over six months.

He ultimately reached a deal with prosecutors in which they agreed to drop the charge if he continued with drug treatment and paid $30,000 toward the cost of the investigation.

He lost his hearing around that time. He said it was from an autoimmune disorder, while his critics said hearing loss is a known side effect of painkiller abuse. He received cochlear implants, which restored his hearing and saved his career.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh is pictured on the set of the public affairs television show "Meet The Press," March 1993.

A portly, cigar-chomping, round-faced figure, 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, the former Kathryn Rogers, in a lavish 2010 ceremony featuring Elton John. He had no children.

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 chubby and shy, with little interest in school but a passion for broadcasting. He would turn down the television 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 Missouri 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.

President Donald Trump and Rush Limbaugh, stand with Lee Greenwood as he sings "I'm Proud To Be An American" during a rally at Show Me Center, Monday, Nov. 5, 2018, in Cape Girardeau, Mo.

“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,” 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.”

Detroit News Metro Editor Richard Burr contributed.