Rush Limbaugh, ‘voice of American conservatism,’ dies at 70

Rush Limbaugh, who deployed comic bombast and relentless bashing of liberals, feminists and environmentalists to become the nation’s most popular radio talk-show host and lead the Republican Party into a politics of anger and obstruction, died Wednesday at 70.

The cause was complications from lung cancer, his wife, Kathryn Limbaugh, said at the start of his Wednesday radio show.

In February 2020, Limbaugh, a cigar aficionado who long defended tobacco use, told his audience that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. One night later, President Donald Trump broke with tradition and bestowed on him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, during the State of the Union address.

“He is the greatest fighter that you will ever meet,” Trump said.

For more than two decades, starting in the late 1980s, Limbaugh dominated the airwaves, inspiring a generation of conservative talk show hosts and politicians. He parlayed his popularity on the radio into stints as a TV commentator, football analyst on ESPN and best-selling author of incendiary political books.

He saw himself as a teacher, polemicist, media critic and GOP strategist, but above all as an entertainer and salesman. Limbaugh mocked Democrats and liberals, touted a traditional Midwestern, moralistic patriotism and presented himself on the air as a biting but jovial know-it-all who pontificated “with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair,” as he often said.

Especially during the Democratic presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Limbaugh played a leading role in demonizing liberals and pushing conservative elected officials to hard lines on issues such as immigration, government spending and denial of climate change.

During Republican presidencies, Limbaugh became a leading defender of the faith, even when that meant veering away from long-standing principles. A lifelong deficit hawk who supported Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, in the 2016 Republican presidential primaries, Limbaugh often criticized businessman Donald Trump, saying, “Trump is not a conservative.”

But in the general election, Limbaugh embraced Trump. The radio host and the new president became dinner and golf friends, and Limbaugh emerged as a staunch supporter of Trump’s battles against the news media and the Republican establishment. He railed against Trump’s impeachments in 2019 and 2021 and allied himself with Trump during the coronavirus pandemic, insisting that the disease was no worse than the common cold.

After Trump lost the 2020 election, Limbaugh echoed the president’s baseless allegations of voting fraud and suggested that pro-Trump states consider seceding from the union.

Trump, Limbaugh said on his show this month, “represents an uprising of the people of this country against Washington, against the establishment, and it had been building for a long time . . . since Perot in 1992. . . . Trump was just the first guy to come along and actually weaponize it.”

Like Trump, Limbaugh mastered the art of portraying himself as a man of the people who fought the elites even as he relished a luxe life in which he collected $5,000 bottles of wine, owned a $54 million private jet, outfitted the vast salon of his Florida manse in the manner of Versailles, and socialized with top corporate and political leaders. Limbaugh often praised Trump for succeeding despite never having won over the kind of people who ran large media organizations, Wall Street firms and political parties.

And like Trump, Limbaugh craved the respect of those he criticized most vociferously. His commentaries about Trump became notably more favorable as he became a frequent golf partner with the president, just as his on-air attitude toward President George W. Bush became more supportive after the chief executive invited the radio host to dinner, a show and an overnight in the Lincoln Bedroom.

For decades, Limbaugh had been a powerful voice in Republican politics. In 1994, he reached beyond his radio show and lectures in large arenas to join Republican candidates at fundraisers – helping the party regain the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives with its signature Contract With America, a populist agenda that would define GOP aims for many years to come. Limbaugh dubbed himself “the most dangerous man in America.”

“His effect as an enforcer, keeping Republican politicians in line, was greater than that of a president or the party’s national organization,” said Zev Chafets, author of the biography “Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One” (2010), in a 2017 interview with The Washington Post.

Or, as Limbaugh once put it, “Things only take off when I mention them.”

At the peak of his popularity, restaurants across the nation re-christened their empty overflow space “Rush Rooms” and piped in the show, filling seats at lunchtime with fans who called one another “Dittoheads” because they agreed with every pearl of Limbaughian wisdom.

“He was the Elvis of broadcast radio,” Chafets said. “He knew politics very well and he was extremely successful as a businessman, but the thing he’ll be remembered for is he was a genius at broadcasting, at performing on the radio.”

Although critics of the show spent decades decrying it as offensive, even cruel, his fans defended Limbaugh’s insults as more funny than slashing. He won attention from far beyond his radio audience with barbs aimed at gays; Blacks; liberals; feminists, whom he sometimes called “feminazis”; and environmentalists, whom he derided as “tree-huggers.”

He was the first national radio host to focus almost exclusively on politics while entertaining his mostly White and male audience with song parodies, wacky imitations (his Bill Clinton was uncanny), and phony commercials, such as one for “Feminazi Trading Cards” – all antics he had practiced for years as a Top 40 radio DJ.

He won gleeful “dittos” from listeners who believed that American culture had become too politically correct. He spawned a mini-industry of anti-Limbaugh books and radio hosts who pronounced themselves appalled by his comedy bits, such as an “AIDS Update” that presented nasty nuggets about gays to the strains of Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” For a time, he dispatched hostile callers on his show with “caller abortions,” in which he played the sound of a vacuum pump before hanging up on the listener.

Although his Democratic critics derided Limbaugh listeners as uneducated and easily led, a study by the Pew Research Center found that Dittoheads were on average better informed than listeners of NPR and were more likely than public radio or C-SPAN audiences to have a college degree.

His first book, “The Way Things Ought to Be” (1992), sat atop The New York Times bestseller list for six months; it spelled out his political philosophy, a blend of nostalgic yearnings for a more united and homogeneous America and energetic embrace of individual rights. “I believe in the individual, in less government,” he wrote, “that God placed man in a position of having dominion over nature . . . [and] that racial relations will not be enhanced or prejudice eliminated by governmental edict.”

He worked for a time as a football commentator on ESPN but lost that gig in 2003 after saying on “Sunday NFL Countdown” that Donovan McNabb, a Black quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, got more credit than he deserved because “the media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback can do well.”

Limbaugh’s fame and influence survived his hearing loss in 2001 (he suffered from an autoimmune disease but was able to restore some hearing through cochlear implants), his admission in 2003 that he was addicted to prescription painkillers, and an arrest in 2006 for doctor-shopping in his quest for more oxycodone pills. The charges were dropped when he agreed to go into rehab. His addiction resulted from “immaturity and my childhood desire for acceptance,” he said after taking six weeks off for treatment.

His career began to wane as the populist nationalism that Trump espoused shouldered out more-traditional Reagan conservatism and as podcasts and satellite radio eroded broadcast radio’s hold on Americans’ attention.

By the time Trump took office as president in 2017, the talk host who called himself “America’s Anchorman” had been nudged off center stage. In the end, he was overshadowed by Fox News Channel and more-extreme right-wing outlets such as Breitbart News and Infowars, which owed their existence to Limbaugh’s pioneering of conservative talk as an alternative to the “drive-by media” – his derisive term for what he saw as a scandal-hungry, liberal-dominated national press corps.

Limbaugh’s influence could be heard in Trump’s denunciations of “fake news.” Decades before Trump entered politics, Limbaugh gave the news media prominent billing in his catalogue of villains, casting doubt on verified accounts.

Even as his audience declined, Limbaugh made about $40 million a year for spending three hours a day broadcasting from a studio near his Palm Beach estate, reaching more than 13 million weekly listeners on about 600 stations – down from a peak audience of more than 20 million listeners in the 1990s. A month before announcing his cancer diagnosis, Limbaugh had signed a four-year extension of his radio show.

He lost some advertisers after an incident in 2012 in which he called a Georgetown University law school student, Sandra Fluke, a “slut” because she had testified in Congress on behalf of mandating coverage for contraception in health insurance policies. A boycott launched by his liberal critics to protest Limbaugh’s comments about women and minorities resulted in the loss of several prominent sponsors.

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31 thoughts on “Rush Limbaugh, ‘voice of American conservatism,’ dies at 70

    1. Anyone who cheers for a person’s death is a pathetic troll. I personally did not care too much for Rush but respected some of his opinions which I certainly see as more truthful than what typically comes from the other side and I definitely respect the fact that he is a human being. RIP to him.

    2. Ditto John M. and Michael Q, Randy S. How many people will celebrate your death when you die? If you can think of even one, you ought to spend time looking in a mirror as to why….and if you can’t think of any, your post about Rush Limbaugh’s passing indicates not many people know you very well.

    1. What John M. said, Tom…but at least you have the decency to not celebrate Rush’s death, as will many. I’ll give you that.

  1. “…echoed the president’s baseless allegations of voter fraud”? Why don’t you keep th the facts and quit trying to insert your bias in your articles. There is all kinds of evidence of voter fraud, you just care to ignore it.

    1. You would expect anything less from The Washington Post, John M? (Wasn’t it Rush who coined the phrase “The Washington COMPost” to describe the newspaper? So true…)

      Tom W: kindly supply some documentation linking Rush to Q-anon…but don’t worry, I’ll not hold my breath!

    2. It is a fact. Republicans have been yelling about voter fraud for decades and can’t ever come up with anything substantial to support it. Sorry your guy lost in GOP states that have some of the strictest voter ID and registration laws in the country.

  2. March 4, the early traditional date for Presidential Inauguration. As for voter fraud, let’s see the evidence. More than 60 cases were filed with no attempt to present evidence of fraud, because to have attempted to do so would not only have resulted in dismissal of the suit, but suspension and possible revocation of licenses to practice law for attempting to commit fraud on the court. In fact, appears the best case of fraud may be against the Georgia lawyer who had already decamped to South Carolina before voting in Georgia.
    As for Rush Limbaugh being the voice of American Conservatism, that would actually be George Will, or Michael Novak. Limbaugh would be the voice of Nativism, or Confederate wannabes. or others of the far right traitor groups. But of Conservatism? No. The actual philosophy of Conservatism would have been too intellectually rigorous for him or his followers.

    1. Spend two hours watching Mike Lindell’s documentary on the election before throwing those darts, Tim…assuming you’d like to see evidence you asked for. I doubt it. People believe what they want to believe, don’t they? It’s so much easier to trust “the government” in all things than to consider the reality that everyone in “government” is as fallible as you and me (well, at least me).

    2. That’s possibly the dumbest thing I’ve heard since the last time Todd Rokita opened his mouth.

      Trump’s lawyers had plenty of opportunity in their numerous cases to back up their claims on the record in a court of law with their evidence. But they also know that their law licenses would be in jeopardy if they presented courts with what they had, which was nonsense.

      There’s a reason they lost all those cases … there was no fraud. Here’s the thing – if there was evidence to support what you are saying, journalists would be fighting over it so they could be the next Woodward and Bernstein and be set for life. You don’t think Fox News wants the prestige of having that story? Cmon.

  3. Rush Limbaugh profited off propaganda that has torn this country in half, and then in half again on the Republican side. The world is a little brighter moving forward.

  4. In general, The Washington Post’s snide-enhanced report of Rush’s demise is about what one would expect from a media outlet so heavily invested in maintaining the DC swamp’s warmth.

    1. Reality has a well-known liberal bias. And if they were just out to slander him, why include this line?

      “Although his Democratic critics derided Limbaugh listeners as uneducated and easily led, a study by the Pew Research Center found that Dittoheads were on average better informed than listeners of NPR and were more likely than public radio or C-SPAN audiences to have a college degree.”

      I listened to Limbaugh every day in high school and read his first two books. I eventually realized it was an act – he wanted to be loved per his own admission, found that people loved him if he told them what they wanted to hear, and was well compensated for it. He definitely inspired a host of clones and variations on the theme (Mike Pence among them) but he was unrivaled in the 90’s.

    2. Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every so often, Joe B.

      You are aghast that Rush Limbaugh was not perfect and had a large ego? How different is that from Barack Obama’s ego…or most other would-be luminaries, for that matter?

    3. Aghast is a little melodramatic. I’d put it more as not worthy of any special regard and the whole thing was the first thing he did in his life that a) was successful and b) made people like him.

      And, recall, I was in high school. So when you discover the guy who spent all his time railing against the failings of Bill Clinton (and boy, would that fill three hours) has his own failings … kind of helps kick the legs out of thinking Republicans are the party of personal responsibility and higher morals than Democrats. And, IMO, he told his audience what they wanted to hear more so than having an innate sense of morals or conservative compass. He didn’t go from saying “Trump is not a conservative” to becoming his biggest cheerleader just because he saw the light, he did it because that’s where the money was, on the Trump Train.

      And I have no idea how anyone listened after he blew his hearing out with his drug problems. His voice was a sliver of what it was before, even after he got the implants.

    4. Rush was….’not worthy of any special regard,” Joe B? I beg to differ. For all his imperfections, he was the first to give meaningful voice to the unheard in television and radio. Period.

    5. He wasn’t Jesus or Gandhi or MLK or Walter Cronkite.

      Limbaugh was in the right place at the right time as the Fairness Doctrine went away. He found an audience and figured out how to monetize it on radio (even he didn’t like his TV show) but his influence waned as Roger Ailes built Fox News speaking to the same audience.

      As far as speaking to an unheard audience, I suspect they were unheard because folks like William F Buckley had told them they weren’t welcome in the Republican Party in the 1960’s and banished them to the shadows. Some ideas and people are unheard for a reason and society has not benefited from them having a “voice”.

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