Rush Limbaugh, the talk titan who made right-wing radio financially viable in American media and himself a Republican kingmaker years before Fox News, died Wednesday, after he revealed in 2020 that his lung cancer was terminal. He was 70.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Kathryn, at the beginning of Limbaugh’s radio show, from which he’s been absent for almost two weeks.
A longtime cigar smoker who stocked the humidors in his homes and studios with the finest, Limbaugh succumbed to cancer after battling drug addiction and loss of hearing earlier in his career (he was deaf by the end and broadcast his daily show in spite of it).
A Republican conservative and die-hard supporter of former President Donald Trump to the end, Limbaugh was among Trump’s most important enablers of his failed effort to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election with baseless claims of voting fraud.
At one point in December, Limbaugh declared he thought the country was “trending toward secession,” then had to walk the comment back the next day. He wasn’t advocating another civil war, he was only repeating what he had heard being said, he told listeners.
After a mob of pro-Trump extremists stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, provoking outraged sputtering from Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike, Limbaugh stood out in dismissing the controvery.
“We’re supposed to be horrified by the protesters,” Limbaugh scoffed on his program on Jan. 7. “There’s a lot of people out there calling for the end of violence…lot of conservatives, social media, who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances…I am glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord, didn’t feel that way.”
Love him or loathe him, few would deny that Limbaugh was one of the most influential commercial broadcasters, if not the most influential, in American history, says Michael Harrison, founder and publisher of Talkers trade magazine, which covers talk radio.
Harrison believes Limbaugh’s legacy – his impact on public policy, on the national culture and on GOP politicians from the presidency on down – remains unmatched.
“Limbaugh’s radio talent an dedication to the medium are unparalleled in the modern talk industry,” he said. “At a time when the very future of radio and its talent pool could very much be on the wane in terms of cultural relevance and prestige, he raised it to a level of importance on a par with the most influential media platforms and players of our time.”
Journalist Ze’ev Chafets, whose 2010 biography of Limbaugh (“Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One”) grew out of a New York Times magazine cover story in 2008, says Limbaugh was one of the top two or three most important figures in Republican politics in the 1990s.
“The reason is his show was heard in every congressional district in the country, and certainly every state, by a huge number of Republicans who almost entirely made up his audience,” Chafets says. “He was able, at a granular level, to affect elections. The year Newt Gingrich became speaker of the House (1994), he gave Limbaugh an honorary membership in (the Republican caucus in) Congress because of his influence.”
“Coastal Americans” who didn’t listen to Limbaugh had no idea of his “gravitational pull” because they underestimated his communication talents and his smarts, at least initially, Chafets said.
“They didn’t understand because they thought he was a carnival barker talking to rubes,” Chafets said. “He talked about issues, not gossip. His show (consisted of) three-hour monologues without notes and included minute details about arcane matters that most talk-show hosts could not do.”
He was original, he was funny and he was adept at assembling key elements of broadcasting to produce entertaining and compelling radio, Harrison says.
“He was a consummate pro and even people who disagreed with him politically, most who are honest will tell you what a great broadcaster he (was),” Harrison said. “Because he used so many elements of great radio: pacing, his voice, satire, sound effects. The flow and feel of his show was very appealing in his use of sound and broadcast principles.”
Limbaugh’s show was the most listened-to talk radio broadcast in the United States, with an estimated cumulative weekly audience of 15.5 million listeners at his peak, according to Talkers’ tracking. “No one beats Rush in the political-news talk-radio format – he’s #1,” Harrison said.
His was a life and career of wild success pockmarked by controversies and health calamities, including years of chronic back pain and unsuccessful surgery, leading to long-term prescription opioid addiction and 30 days in rehab in 2003.
In 2006, he was criminally investigated and arrested for alleged “doctor shopping” to obtain multiple prescriptions in Florida, a charge eventually dropped after a plea agreement and his promise to continue addiction treatment (although Limbaugh continued to maintain his innocence).
Earlier, in 2001, he announced he had gone deaf over three months for unknown reasons, although his doctors said it could have been due to years of drug addiction. Eventually, he had cochlear implants to restore some of his hearing.
Then lung cancer struck. Limbaugh gave his legions of fans plenty of advance notice of the coming end. On Oct. 20, he told listeners that his lung cancer was terminal.
“You measure a happy life against whatever medication it takes. And at some point you decide, you know, this medication may be working, but I hate the way I feel every day,” Limbaugh said on the air. “I’m not there yet. But it is part and parcel of this.
“It’s tough to realize that the days where I do not think I’m under a death sentence are over.”
His listeners were shocked when he first revealed his diagnosis on his show in February 2020, not long after being told on Jan. 20 the grim news by “two medical institutions.”
“This day has been one of the most difficult days in recent memory for me. I’ve known this moment is coming in the program…I’m sure that you all know by now that I really don’t like talking about myself and I don’t like making things about me,” Limbaugh said. “I like this program to be about you and the things that matter to all of us.”
But, he said, he knew he had to explain what was going on in his life because listeners would be curious if he wasn’t at his usual post every day. Even though he had no symptoms at that time, he realized that would not last and he would have to be absent for treatment.
“It’s not that I want to fool anybody, it’s just that I don’t want to burden anybody with it and I haven’t wanted to,” he said. “But it is what it is. “You know me, I’m the mayor of Realville.”
A day later, he was visibly moved when his longtime friend and Florida neighbor, President Trump, awarded him the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, during the State of the Union address in the House of Representatives.
Attending as one of Trump’s “special guests,” the white-bearded and ruddy-faced Limbaugh sat in the House gallery next to first lady Melania Trump, who fastened the medal on a blue ribbon around his neck.
“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 do for charity, I’m proud to announce tonight that you will receive our nation’s highest civilian honor,” Trump said to applause in the chamber.
In May, Limbaugh updated his listeners on the state of his health with a candid assessment.
“I vowed not to be a cancer patient on the radio. I vowed to shield as much of that from the daily program as I can,” Limbaugh said before talking about his third wave of treatment. “I have to tell you, it’s kicking my ass.”
He said the previous week of treatments had left him “virtually worthless” and “virtually useless.” He hasn’t left the house or done much of anything, as doctors warned him would happen.
“It’s the price that you pay if you make the decision to go ahead and do treatment to try to prolong your life,” he said, adding that he is doing “extremely well, all things considered.”
Then came his grim assessment in October. He tried to be upbeat but the progression of the cancer or the treatment or both had not been easy.
“Some days are harder than others,” he said. “I do get fatigued now. I do get very, very tired now. I’m not gonna mislead you about that. But I am extremely grateful to be able to come here to the studio and to maintain as much normalcy as possible – and it’s still true.”
The day before Christmas 2020, on his final show of the year, he updated listeners on his health again, saying he hadn’t expected to make it past October let alone into December. “And yet, here I am and today, got some problems, but I’m feeling pretty good today… God knows how important this program is for me today,” he said, thanking listeners.
Limbaugh is survived by his fourth wife, Kathryn Rogers, whom he married in 2010. Three previous marriages ended in divorce. He did not have children.
Born on January 12, 1951, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Rush Hudson Limbaugh III came from a line of conservative Republicans that included lawyers, judges and ambassadors. His was a family that looked askance at his early yen – while still in grammar school – to become a radio star.
“I said, ‘Pop, I love this. I know I’m great at it. I’m gonna get even better,'” Limbaugh told interviewers later.
When he was 9, he got a toy radio as a gift and began “broadcasting” on AM frequencies in his home, entertaining his family playing DJ with his records. In high school he worked as a DJ at a local station co-owned by his father. He lasted only one year at Southeast Missouri State University before leaving to pursue a career in radio.
It did not go well at first. He was fired from stations in Missouri and Pennsylvania for being too controversial as a news commentator. In the mid-1980s, he landed at KFBK in Sacramento as an on-air host. Within a year, he was Sacramento’s top radio host.
The 1987 repeal of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine gave Limbaugh his head to broadcast his controversial opinions without having to present opposing views. In July 1988, he launched his own show on a talk station in New York City, and he was off to the races: His star was rising, and people noticed.
“A large new noise echoes across the invisible cacophony that is talk radio,” reported Louis Grossberger in The New York Times in December 1990. “His subject is politics. His stance: conservative. His persona: comic blowhard. His style: a schizoid spritz, bouncing between earnest lecturer and political vaudevillian.”
It helped that the first Gulf War was under way and Limbaugh demonstrated his fervent support by ridiculing anyone who sought peace. His show was moved to stations with larger audiences; eventually Limbaugh was broadcasting on more than 650 stations nationwide. The election of President Bill Clinton in 1992 only fueled the possibilities of lacerating satire aimed at Democrats.
Ever since, Limbaugh maintained his position as the king of talk radio while fending off multiple flaps over controversial things he said on the air, about racial and ethnic minorities, feminism and the notion of sexual consent, environmentalism and climate change, his admiration for Trump and his disdain for former President Barack Obama; Limbaugh was an on-air super-spreader of the “birtherism” lie that Obama was not born in the United States.
Most of these controversies rolled off him, except for Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who testified in Congress in 2012 in support of mandating insurance coverage for contraceptives. Limbaugh mocked her, suggesting this view made her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”
“That was the most damaging thing he ever did,” Harrison says. The outcry that followed kicked off boycotts by major sponsors of talk-radio, even though Limbaugh issued a rare apology for “insulting word choices.”
“It had a terrible economic impact on the talk-radio business in general,” Harrison says. “It’s the one major blemish on his history that hurt his fellow broadcasters. Now he’s been forgiven because of what he’s done for the industry that outweighs that.”
In between doing his show and advising Republican presidents and candidates, Limbaugh wrote best-selling books (“The Way Things Ought to Be” in 1992, followed in 1993 by “See, I Told You So”), including a series of children’s books.
He supported several charities, including a telethon for leukemia and lymphoma, the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, and the Tunnel to Towers Foundation, which honors a firefighter who died saving others in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the twin towers in New York.
Chafets, who grew up in Michigan, remembers when he first heard Limbaugh on the radio as he was driving one day near Detroit.
“Before Rush Limbaugh, you could not hear conservative thought on the radio in the USA – Rush is the first guy to provide that, the rock-and-roll DJ with the news. And that shocked people,” Chafets said. “I could not believe it myself. I actually pulled over to listen to what he was saying. I couldn’t believe it.”