Rush Limbaugh, the incendiary radio talk show host, dies at age 70

Key Points
  • Rush Limbaugh was the self-proclaimed "Doctor of Democracy" who led the conservative media revolution by bashing "feminazis," "environmentalist wackos," "commie libs" and prominent Black people — especially former President Barack Obama.
  • The conservative radio host announced in February 2020 he had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.
  • A day later, President Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a surprise announcement during the State of the Union speech.
Radio pioneer, talk show host Rush Limbaugh dies at age 70
Radio pioneer, talk show host Rush Limbaugh dies at age 70

Rush Limbaugh, the self-proclaimed "Doctor of Democracy" who led the conservative media revolution by bashing "feminazis," "environmentalist wackos," "commie libs" and prominent Black people — especially former President Barack Obama, died Wednesday. He was 70.

His wife announced his death on his radio show.

"I know that I am most certainly not the Limbaugh that you tuned in to listen to today," Kathryn Limbaugh said. "I, like you, very much wish Rush was behind this golden microphone right now, welcoming you to another exceptional three hours of broadcasting. ... It is with profound sadness I must share with you directly that our beloved Rush, my wonderful husband, passed away this morning due to complications from lung cancer."

Former President Donald Trump told Fox News on Wednesday he had spoken with Limbaugh three or four days earlier. "He was fighting to the very end," Trump said in his first public comments since he left office last month. "He is a legend. He really is."

Another former president, George W. Bush, also lamented Limbaugh's death. "While he was brash, at times controversial, and always opinionated, he spoke his mind as a voice for millions of Americans and approached each day with gusto," Bush said in a statement. "Rush Limbaugh was an indomitable spirit with a big heart, and he will be missed."

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden's "condolences go out to the family and friends."

A day after the deadly January riot by a Trumpist mob in a bid to overturn Democrat Biden's victory in the November election, Limbaugh likened the invaders of the U.S. Capitol to the Revolutionary War patriots.

"There's a lot of people calling for the end of violence," Limbaugh said on his radio program. "There's a lot of conservatives, social media, who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable. Regardless of the circumstances. I'm glad Sam Adams, Thomas Paine, the actual tea party guys, the men at Lexington and Concord didn't feel that way."

The Capitol siege: An hour-by-hour breakdown of how the day unfolded
The Capitol siege: An hour-by-hour breakdown of how the day unfolded

In December, he said conservative states were "trending toward secession."

As his cancer progressed, Limbaugh went off the air on Feb. 2, his mic was manned by substitutes starting one week before Trump's second impeachment trial began.

But there was no mistaking his viewpoint. "You didn't win this thing fair and square, and we are not just going to be docile like we've been in the past and go away and wait 'til the next the election," he told listeners six weeks after Biden won the election.

The acerbic radio host, who used satirical invective to attract and delight millions of fans and offend and enrage millions of others, announced in February 2020 he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. A day later, then-President Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a surprise announcement during the State of the Union speech.

"This is not good news," Trump said at the time, referring to the diagnosis. "But what is good news is that he is the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet. Rush Limbaugh: Thank you for your decades of tireless devotion to our country."

In October, Limbaugh told his listeners his condition was heading in the wrong direction.

"It's tough to realize that the days where I do not think I'm under a death sentence are over," Limbaugh said. "Now, we all are, is the point. We all know that we're going to die at some point, but when you have a terminal disease diagnosis that has a time frame to it, then that puts a different psychological and even physical awareness to it." 

Pres. Trump asks First Lady to present Rush Limbaugh with Presidential Medal of Freedom at State of the Union Address
Pres. Trump asks First Lady to present Rush Limbaugh with Presidential Medal of Freedom at State of the Union Address

Days before Limbaugh's update, he hosted a "radio rally" for Trump, with audio of a crowd chanting, "We love you," and the president speaking for much of the two-hour event during his recovery from Covid-19.

Limbaugh was key to the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress, which swept Rep. Newt Gingrich into the House speakership and ultimately led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

"Rush Limbaugh was the innovator who spoke for the Americans ignored and disrespected by the elites," Trump lawyer Mayor Rudy Giuliani said in a tweet after Limbaugh announced his cancer diagnosis.

Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was born Jan. 12, 1951, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. His father and grandfather were lawyers. The grandfather was given the name Rush to honor a relative, Edna Rush.

Limbaugh began his broadcast career in 1971 as a 20-year-old Top 40 DJ in western Pennsylvania after dropping out of Southeast Missouri State University. Following a series of subsequent jobs, including five years with Major League Baseball's Kansas City Royals, he eventually landed a talk show at KFBK in Sacramento, California, in 1984. He replaced Morton Downey Jr., who resigned after jokingly using a racist term about a city councilman of Chinese descent.

At the time, daytime talk radio was largely local. Four years later, in 1988, Limbaugh sprang to national prominence after he joined WABC-AM in New York, lured by network executive Edward F. McLaughlin. Within two years, more than 5 million people were listening to "The Rush Limbaugh Show" — broadcast three hours a day, five days a week — on nearly 300 stations, media critic Lewis Grossberger wrote in The New York Times Magazine in late 1990.

Rush Limbaugh in his radio studio in 1995.
Mark Peterson | Corbis | Getty Images

By the 20th anniversary of the show, he signed an eight-year, $400 million contract renewal with iHeartMedia's Premiere Radio Networks. At the time, the show was aired on nearly 600 local stations. In 2016, he signed a new contract for an undisclosed amount for "four more years," he announced on the air.

"His subject is politics. His stance: conservative. His persona: comic blowhard. His style: a schizoid spritz, bouncing between earnest lecturer and political vaudevillian," Grossberg wrote in the 1990 Times magazine piece.

Limbaugh's shtick on what he termed his EIB (Excellence in Broadcasting) Network may have been satire to millions, but countless others considered him to be a misogynistic, racist hatemonger who helped fuel the nation's polarization into overdrive that paved the way for Trump's 2016 election victory.

Just before starting on WABC, he came up with "Rush's First 35 Undeniable Truths of Life." Topping the list was "The greatest threat to humanity lies in the nuclear arsenal of the USSR." At the bottom was "You should thank God for making you an American; and instead of feeling guilty about it, help spread our ideas worldwide." In between included: (#7) "There is only one way to get rid of nuclear weapons — use them"; (#21) "Abortion is wrong"; (#25) "Evolution cannot explain Creation"; and (#31) "To more and more people, a victorious U.S. is a sinful U.S."

Here's a sampling of some other verbal cudgels Limbaugh wielded in his warfare against political correctness.

Undeniable Truth of Life #24, which he repeated numerous times over the years, bashed what he called "feminazis": "Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society."

— While working as an ESPN commentator in 2003, he called Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb overrated and went on to say: "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well. 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." Limbaugh resigned from ESPN in the ensuing uproar.

— In 2007 while discussing the antics of National Football League players' dancing in the end zone after a touchdown, Limbaugh referred to Los Angeles' notorious street gangs: "Let me put it to you this way. The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it."

— In March 2018, he discussed a scientific study that warned about environmental dangers from Easter chocolates: "Now from an environmentalist wacko group at the University of Manchester in England warning everybody: Beware the chocolate Easter bunny, and those foil-wrapped chocolate eggs. Both could be 'bad for the environment,' warns a new study, which says that such confections can damage the environment."

— Four days before Obama's first inauguration on Jan. 20, 2009, Limbaugh spoke about being asked to write 400 words on his hope for the Obama presidency. "I disagree fervently with the people on our side of the aisle who have caved and who say, 'Well, I hope he succeeds.' ... OK, I'll send you a response, but I don't need 400 words, I need four: 'I hope he fails.'"

— During the 2016 election campaign, Limbaugh took a swat at a proposal by Hillary Clinton to make public colleges free for children whose families earned less than $125,000 a year: "The first rule of adulthood is that there is no 'free' stuff. Somebody has to pay your commie-lib professors to spew all this anti-capitalist, anti-American BS that passes for education these days."

— In the midst of the coronavirus crisis in March 2020, he likened the outbreak to the common cold and blamed the media for fanning a panic. "This coronavirus? All of this panic is just not warranted," he said on the air. "They're not uncommon. Coronaviruses are respiratory cold and flu viruses. There is nothing about this except where it came from and the itinerant media panic. ... This is on the way to wiping out the U.S. economy, and it's going to be more than just Donald Trump and his reelection chances that get hurt if that's what happens here. ... Nothing like wiping out the entire U.S. economy with a biothreat from China, is there?"

Years before his cancer diagnosis, Limbaugh had other health issues. He had developed hearing problems and underwent Cochlear implant surgery in 2001. Two years later, he developed an addiction to prescription painkillers that he said he started using after botched surgery on his back. Limbaugh eventually was charged with shopping for doctors to prescribe medication for his addiction. He pleaded innocent and later entered a deal in which prosecutors dropped the charges in return for Limbaugh paying $30,000 to cover the cost of the investigation and undergoing therapy.

Limbaugh was married four times, most recently to Kathryn Rogers on June 5, 2010, with Elton John providing entertainment. The ceremony for Limbaugh's third marriage, to Marta Fitzgerald, a former aerobics instructor whom he met online, was performed on May 27, 1994, by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas at Thomas' home in northern Virginia. They divorced 10 years later. His previous marriages also ended in divorce.

Limbaugh was actively involved in charitable works. His EIB Cure-a-thon raised about $50 million for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society over 26 years until the annual event ended in 2016, according to Andrea Greif, a spokeswoman for the organization. He also raised money for and served on the board of the Marine Corps–Law Enforcement Foundation.

A cigar smoker, Limbaugh appeared on the cover of the magazine Cigar Aficionado in 1994. Five years before he announced he had lung cancer, he denied a connection between secondhand smoke and cancer.

"That is a myth. That has been disproven at the World Health Organization and the report was suppressed. There is no fatality whatsoever. There's no[t] even major sickness component associated with secondhand smoke. It may irritate you, and you may not like it, but it will not make you sick, and it will not kill you," he said on his show. "Firsthand smoke takes 50 years to kill people, if it does. Not everybody that smokes gets cancer. Now, it's true that everybody who smokes dies, but so does everyone who eats carrots."

In his October 2020 update of his condition, he told listeners: "From the moment you get the diagnosis, there's a part of you every day, OK, that's it, life's over, you just don't know when. ... So, during the period of time after the diagnosis, you do what you can to prolong life, do what you can to prolong a happy life."