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 on the American right, influencing the rightward push of 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.
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.
“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.
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.”
David Letterman, host of “The Late Show,” asked him in 1993,”“Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and just think to yourself, `I am just full of hot gas?’”
Limbaugh replied, “I am a servant of humanity. 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.”
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. 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.
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,” described President 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.
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 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.”
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.
Also 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 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.
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.