Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk show host who gleefully stoked division in America, helped polarize our national politics and made a career trafficking in bigotry and cruelty, died Wednesday at the age of 70. The cause of death was lung cancer. His wife, Kathryn, confirmed the host’s death on Facebook.
Over three decades on the national airwaves, Limbaugh promoted profoundly offensive ideas, often referring to feminists as “feminazis”; long calling AIDS “the Rock Hudson disease”; and once observing that the NFL “looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.” Following his cancer diagnosis, he received the presidential medal of freedom from Donald Trump during the 2020 State of the Union, in recognition of what Trump called Limbaugh’s “tireless devotion to our country.”
Born and raised in Missouri in the 1950s, Limbaugh got his first radio gig at age 16, using the name Rusty Sharpe. He began broadcasting under his real name in the early 1980s, becoming a controversial hit on a station in Sacramento, California where he honed the caustic conversational style that became his hallmark. The Reagan-era repeal of the Fairness Doctrine — a federal policy that had required broadcasters on the public airwaves to air balanced views on controversial topics — opened a path for Limbaugh to cultivate, cater to, and further polarize a far-right audience, who came to be known as “dittoheads” for their unthinking devotion to Limbaugh’s ideology. Limbaugh credited William F. Buckley, the founder of the right-wing National Review, for shaping his own views and communication style: “He singlehandedly is responsible for my learning to form and frame my beliefs and express them verbally in a concise and understandable way.”
In 1988, Limbaugh moved to New York City and began broadcasting on WABC which would be his flagship station as he build his broadcast empire. While he was a creature of radio, Limbaugh also crossed over into television. From 1992 to 1996, he partnered with Fox News pioneer Roger Ailes on a right wing television show, once doing a bit where he referred to then-tween first-daughter Chelsea Clinton as the White House dog. Limbaugh later credited Ailes for teaching him “how to take being hated as a measure of success.” (Full disclosure: Limbaugh once denounced me as an “absolute nut” and a “mind-numbed robot” after I wrote an unfavorable profile of Ailes.)
Despite his foul views about women and minorities, Limbaugh was hired as a football analyst for ESPN. The move was a train wreck, and Limbaugh was fired just weeks into the gig after denigrating the play of Eagles starting quarterback Donovan McNabb, saying: “I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well.”
On the radio dial, Limbaugh’s success was astonishing. At its height, The Rush Limbaugh Show grew to be syndicated on more than 600 stations, reaching more than 25 million weekly listeners. In 2008, he signed a $400 million, eight-year contract that made him the highest-paid radio performer on the planet, a title he’d trade only with Howard Stern.
In his later years, Limbaugh became increasingly conspiratorial in his thinking, promoting outlandish falsehoods. In 2006, he falsely accused the actor Michael J. Fox of exaggerating the effects of his Parkinson’s disease to promote stem cell research. In 2007, he called Iraq War veterans speaking out against the conflict “phony soldiers.” In 2010, he alleged that the Deepwater Horizon disaster could have been perpetrated by eco-terrorists. In 2017, he accused Democrats of permitting white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, to spiral out of control for their own political purposes.
“This is what Democrats do,” he claimed, before launching into another conspiracy theory. “This is what Clinton [did], the Oklahoma City bombing, [which] launched the rebirth of his presidency. The Democrats see a crisis and find out how they can benefit from it, while making people think they’re trying to fix it or solve it.” Last February, shortly after receiving his presidential medal, Limbaugh dangerously claimed the “coronavirus is the common cold, folks” — suggesting the virus was being “weaponized” against Trump.
Limbaugh faced considerable health challenges: In the early 2000s, Limbaugh battled near-total hearing loss, but was able to regain function with cochlear implants. Limbaugh also struggled with opioid addiction. In 2006 he settled a criminal charge of “doctor shopping” — after allegedly visiting multiple doctors to obtain an excess supply of OxyContin — by agreeing to 18 months of court-supervised treatment. He was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2020 and announced in October that the prognosis was terminal.
Read Bob Moser’s consideration of Limbaugh’s legacy here: Rush Limbaugh Did His Best to Ruin America