Conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, one of the most powerful voices on the American right who influenced 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 vituperation and sarcasm.
He called himself an entertainer, but his 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 behind only 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.”
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, homosexual slurs and radicals.
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 the 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.”
Trump lauded Limbaugh as “a legend” with impeccable political instincts. Former President George W. Bush said Wednesday that he “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.
His foes accused him of trafficking in half-truths, bias and outright lies — the very tactics he decried in others.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
Associated Press writer Terry Spencer contributed to this report.