Talk Show Host Rush Limbaugh, A Conservative Lodestar, Dies At 70

Feb 17, 2021
Originally published on February 17, 2021 1:33 pm

Conservative broadcaster Rush Limbaugh, who entertained millions and propelled waves of Republican politicians, has died at age 70. He had announced to listeners last year that he had stage four lung cancer.

Limbaugh's death Wednesday morning was confirmed by his wife, Kathryn, at the start of his radio program.

Before right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, before Fox News, there was Limbaugh. His voice entertained millions of listeners, cheered conservatives hungry to see their beliefs reflected on the airwaves, and elevated long-shot Republicans to national prominence.

"I always say my real purpose is to attract the largest audience I can, and hold it for as long as I can, so I can charge confiscatory advertising rates," Limbaugh told NPR in a 2007 interview. "Every time I've said that, it's, 'Oh, he's just saying that! He doesn't care what he says! He's just trying to generate a big audience!' And that's not true. The benefit here is, I have the freedom to be entirely honest about my passions."

Limbaugh's clout in conservative circles was so great that he was wooed by three very different Republican presidents: George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, the latter a kindred spirit in many ways who awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the State of the Union address in February 2020.

Limbaugh was an influencer before the age of social media, a hot-take machine before people stopped pausing to think about what they were saying ahead of sending those words out into the world. And he embodied a counterpunch to what many on the right contended was a liberal media establishment — even as he offended millions with his racist, sexist and homophobic routines and diatribes.

Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was born in 1951 in Cape Girardeau, Mo., where there is now an official Rush Limbaugh hometown tour. His family maintained Republican ties: His grandfather had been an ambassador under President Dwight D. Eisenhower; his uncle was named a federal judge by President Ronald Reagan. His father was an attorney locally, while his mother was active in local Republican politics. He got his start at a station partly owned by his father, and his early years in radio were marked by clashes with bosses.

But after the Reagan administration set aside the Fairness Doctrine, which instructed broadcasters to present opposing views on controversial issues, Limbaugh unleashed his buoyant conservatism to great effect in Sacramento, Calif., and then New York City. And in his emergence on the national scene in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the man perfectly met the moment. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his allies would give Limbaugh a huge amount of credit for the GOP's rise in 1994, when the party took over the U.S. House and Senate for the first time in four decades.

"Talk radio, with you in the lead, is what turned the tide, Rush, and we know that," U.S. Rep. Barbara Cubin of Wyoming, part of the wave of Republicans who swept to office that year, said in honoring Limbaugh at an event staged by the conservative Heritage Foundation. "You were the voice that everyone else could follow."

She gave him a plaque that read: "Rush was right."

No one believed that more than Limbaugh himself.

"There's a whole psychology of doing the program the way that I do it," Limbaugh told NPR. "And there is a lot of schtick and a lot of humor to it. But the one thing that I don't do is make things up or say things I don't believe, just to cause a reaction. Because that takes no talent."

In the early-to-mid 1990s, Limbaugh hosted a TV show run by Roger Ailes, who went on to help Rupert Murdoch create and run the Fox News Channel. But radio proved to be Limbaugh's perfect medium.

The show ran for three hours every weekday. Limbaugh riffed on the news, largely without guests to interview. Instead, he read and responded to news articles with opinions and voices, pumping the program with satire and parody, puffing himself up while mocking himself thoroughly. He promoted conservative priorities such as deregulation, lower taxes for the wealthy, and muscular military intervention in the Middle East. He also cast doubt on established facts, including global warming, and propelled conspiracy theories, such as the baseless claim that Joe Biden's address to the 2020 Democratic National Convention had to be stitched together from numerous takes.

And Limbaugh staked his claim for a vision of the United States that resurrected a more seemingly traditional, more conservative and whiter past. In so doing, he trampled the boundaries of acceptable political discourse. He often traded on decades-old stereotypes to offend women, Blacks, Latinos, gays and liberals.

As a local host in Pittsburgh in the mid 1970s, Limbaugh later conceded to an interviewer for Newsday, he told a Black woman who called into his show that she should "take the bone" out of her nose and he would call her back. He told the reporter he regretted that. Broadcasting under his own name in New York City, Limbaugh claimed that all newspaper composites of wanted criminals resembled the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Over the years, he routinely questioned President Barack Obama's heritage and patriotism and mocked Michelle Obama's physique.

He could be especially cruel and offensive when his targets were women.

Limbaugh called Hillary Clinton a "FemiNazi" — a term he coined for feminists. He called a graduate student a slut for her advocacy for medical insurance to cover birth control.

"I wonder when she loses next, if she'll go back to the kitchen," Limbaugh mused on air when Nancy Pelosi became the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Then he adopted the tone of a Pelosi fan: "Look at Ms. Pelosi. Why, she can multitask. She can breastfeed, she can clip her toenails, she can direct the House, all while kids are sitting on her lap at the same time."

Most of the time, Limbaugh relished the ensuing outcries.

"The fewest number of words you can use to convey a point, the more power a point has," Limbaugh said in the NPR interview. "Now, I understand people are going to be offended. But I've had a policy all my life not to worry about offending people, because it's going to happen. It's a daily part of life."

And yet that could come with a cost. As ABC experimented with Monday Night Football, Limbaugh auditioned for a nonsports specialist slot. It went to the comedian Dennis Miller. He was hired in 2003 to be a commentator for a football program that aired Sundays on ESPN (ABC's sister channel). After four weeks, he was fired after disparaging then-Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who is Black.

"The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well,'' Limbaugh said. "There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

Two days later, McNabb commented to the Philadelphia Daily News, "It's sad that you've got to go to skin color. I thought we were through with that whole deal." ESPN soon announced that Limbaugh resigned. On his radio show, however, he was unrepentant.

Over the years, Limbaugh allowed listeners into a more human dimension of his persona. There was his loss of hearing — at the core of a radio performer's abilities — that led to cochlear implants. He also acknowledged his addiction to opioids, as that became public knowledge elsewhere. And in early 2020, the frequent cigar smoker revealed his diagnosis of lung cancer. Trump bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him shortly afterward, calling him a fighter.

Limbaugh repaid the favor a few weeks before the 2020 election, turning hours of his broadcast over to the embattled president for a virtual rally just weeks ahead of Election Day, after Trump had contracted COVID-19.

Later that month, Limbaugh announced that his cancer was terminal. "It's tough to realize that the days where I do not think that I'm under a death sentence are over," he told his listeners. Limbaugh said the challenges he had faced were no bigger, and no more important, than theirs.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Before online influencers, before Fox News, there was Rush Limbaugh. The conservative radio talk show host drew an estimated 20 million listeners each week at his peak. He sparked a wave of imitators on radio and on TV. He influenced Republican politics for more than a generation, and he equally offended millions with his slashing rhetoric. Limbaugh died today at the age of 70. He had lung cancer. His wife, Kathryn, shared the news on his show.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

KATHRYN ADAMS LIMBAUGH: Losing a loved one is terribly difficult, even more so when that loved one is larger than life.

CHANG: NPR's David Folkenflik tells us of his life.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Rush Limbaugh often called himself an entertainer but cast himself as a conservative alternative to the mainstream media, attacking taxes and regulation, calling for strong military intervention in the Middle East. He was courted and hailed as a political force by Republicans, including former President Donald Trump.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving our country's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

(CHEERING)

FOLKENFLIK: Limbaugh repaid the favor a few weeks before the 2020 election, turning hours of his broadcast over to the embattled president for a virtual rally after Trump had contracted COVID-19.

Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was born in 1951 in Missouri. His father was an attorney, his mother active in local Republican politics. He started out in local radio almost five decades ago as a music DJ, was fired after a bit for infusing his broadcast with his conservative take on the day's news. That hardly slowed him down. He had stops in Sacramento and New York City before becoming a national sensation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RUSH LIMBAUGH: But there's a whole psychology of doing the program the way that I do it.

FOLKENFLIK: Limbaugh spoke to me in 2007 about his show.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LIMBAUGH: And there is a lot of shtick and a lot of humor to it. But the one thing that I don't do is make things up, say things I don't believe just to cause a reaction because that takes no talent.

FOLKENFLIK: In 1992, Limbaugh's clout was felt for the first time on the national scene as he backed a conservative firebrand, Patrick Buchanan, in a primary challenge to President George H.W. Bush. Two years later, during the Clinton era, Limbaugh served as a megaphone for conservative Republicans who took over the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. At a Heritage Foundation event, new Congresswoman Barbara Cubin handed Limbaugh a plaque with the legend, Rush was right.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA CUBIN: Talk radio with you in the lead is what turned the tide, Rush. And we know that. In fact...

(APPLAUSE)

CUBIN: ...You were the voice that everyone else could follow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LIMBAUGH: I always say my real purpose is to attract the largest audience I can and hold it for as long as I can so I can charge confiscatory advertising rates.

FOLKENFLIK: Again, this is Limbaugh from 2007. Limbaugh could be buoyant and playful. He could also be crude, cruel and offensive towards his targets, especially women.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

LIMBAUGH: I wonder when she loses next if she'll go back to the kitchen.

FOLKENFLIK: Here was his take on Nancy Pelosi as she became the first female speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

LIMBAUGH: Look at Miss Pelosi. Why, she can multitask. She can breastfeed. She can clip her toenails. She can direct the House, all while a kid is sitting on her lap at the same time.

FOLKENFLIK: And he called a graduate student a slut after she urged Congress to ensure medical insurance covers birth control. He traded on racist stereotypes as well. Over the years, he routinely questioned Barack Obama's patriotism and mocked Michelle Obama's physique. Limbaugh compared feminists to Nazis, Hillary Clinton to Nazis, Democrats to Nazis, anti-smoking activists to Nazis. There were a lot of Nazi comparisons, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LIMBAUGH: The fewest number of words you can use to convey a point, the more power the point has.

FOLKENFLIK: Limbaugh told me he believes people take offense to try to silence his beliefs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LIMBAUGH: Now, I understand people are going to be offended, but I've had a policy all my life not to worry about offending people because it's going to happen. It's a daily part of life.

FOLKENFLIK: In recent years, he allowed his listeners into a more human dimension of his persona, his loss of hearing, which is at the core of a radio performer's abilities. It led to cochlear implants. He also acknowledged his addiction to opioids. Early in 2020, the frequent cigar smoker revealed his diagnosis with lung cancer. In October 2020, Limbaugh announced it was terminal.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW")

LIMBAUGH: It's tough to realize that the days where I do not think I'm under a death sentence are over.

FOLKENFLIK: Limbaugh told his listeners his struggles were no bigger and no worse than any of theirs.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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