One of America’s most distinctive and politically formidable voices fell silent Wednesday when talk radio host Rush Limbaugh died from lung cancer. He was 70 years old.
Mr. Limbaugh virtually created the position of conservative talk radio host, and the medium made him both an architect of the modern right in the U.S. and a very wealthy man. Week after week, from his “golden EIB microphone” and studio in “sunny southern Florida,” Mr. Limbaugh’s often trenchant and humorous — and almost as often controversial — three-hour weekday show delighted conservatives and infuriated liberals.
“He was a legend. There aren’t too many legends around,” former President Donald Trump said during a call-in to Fox News from his home in Florida. “His fight was very, very courageous. “He was fighting till the very end.”
Mr. Limbaugh’s death was announced on his radio show by his wife, Kathryn.
“Rush Limbaugh was an American original — an innovator, a visionary and a true patriot,” said Laura Ingraham, the Fox television host and conservative pundit whose career followed a path blazed by Mr. Limbaugh.
“There are few Americans alive who have had more of a profoundly positive effect on the public discourse — political and cultural — than he had over his decades on radio,” Ms. Ingraham said. “Inspiring and informing millions across the nation with his relentless courage and searing insights, Rush is simply irreplaceable.”
Mr. Limbaugh stunned his audience a year ago when he revealed his diagnosis of advanced lung cancer but continued to do his show. Guest hosts were often featured on days he was undergoing treatment.
At midday from Monday to Friday, he continued skewering Democrats and those he considered jelly-spined conservatives, all while taking occasional phone calls from across the country during which he was usually, though not always, unfailingly polite.
The day after his cancer announcement, Mr. Trump awarded Mr. Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. First lady Melania Trump hung the medal around Mr. Limbaugh’s neck as he stood to a standing ovation in the House gallery for Mr. Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address.
The award drew howls of outrage from Mr. Limbaugh’s myriad critics, who long accused him of trafficking in bigoted, hateful speech. Over the years, Mr. Limbaugh’s most controversial remarks tended to center on race and gender issues, such as when he compared a modern NFL game to a street battle between urban gangs, or when he branded a woman with a law degree a “slut” for testifying that she should be given free birth control.
In what seemed an uncharacteristic moment, Mr. Limbaugh lamented his fate during a personal segment on his Oct. 19 show. The unmistakable mingling of fear at what was coming and desire to keep living struck home with many listeners, who call themselves “dittoheads,” although fellow conservative host Michael Savage harshly criticized Mr. Limbaugh for being mawkish.
“I hate the way I feel every day,” Mr. Limbaugh said. “It’s tough to realize that the days where I do not think I’m under a death sentence are over.”
The grim personal moment came just days after Mr. Trump appeared for a two-hour segment with Mr. Limbaugh in the closing weeks of the 2020 presidential election.
Away from the studio, Mr. Limbaugh lived large. He married four times and reportedly paid Elton John $1 million to sing at his last wedding, to Kathryn Rogers in Palm Beach in 2010. Mr. Limbaugh at times branched out from the radio medium, as when he began marketing and selling his hallucinatory patterned ties or a short stint as a color commentator on ABC’s Monday Night Football.
The latter gig lasted less than a season, not because of his noted gridiron bias — Mr. Limbaugh was a devoted fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers — but because of his comments about Donovan McNabb, a quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, who Mr. Limbaugh said received higher grades for his work because the NFL desperately wanted to promote a Black signal caller.
Mr. Limbaugh also endured some personal scandal when his addiction to painkillers came to light during a 2006 arrest.
Like many other American icons, Mr. Limbaugh started with humble origins and, like many other mavericks, he never found the time or inclination to finish his formal education.
Born in 1951 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to a lawyer who had been a fighter pilot in the Burma theater of World War II, Mr. Limbaugh had a younger brother, David, who survives him and who also forged a career as a conservative pundit and religious writer.
Mr. Limbaugh dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University and began his radio career covering high school football games. Fired from early gigs where he jockeyed under an assumed name, Mr. Limbaugh finally found a job in 1979 as a director of group sales and special events with the Kansas City Royals.
Mr. Limbaugh would speak fondly of his time with the Royals organization, during which he became friends with Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett, but he returned to his love of radio in 1983 and, the following year, began doing a show under his real name.
“I started listening to Rush when he began on the local talk radio station (KFBK) in Sacramento in 1985, and couldn’t believe what I was hearing, he was so good,” said Steven F. Hayward, a writer and scholar at the Claremont Institute and law lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. “I wasn’t at all surprised when he went national in 1988, and I knew he’d become a huge national hit.”
Indeed, by the end of 1988, Mr. Limbaugh’s show was syndicated at close to 60 stations and grew from there.
He collected broadcasting accolades throughout his career. He was five times the National Association of Broadcasters’ network/syndicated performer of the year and was elected to its Hall of Fame in 1998. He entered the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1993.
Mr. Limbaugh’s show became the biggest hit in the history of talk radio, and he stood with Howard Stern as the two biggest performers in American radio in the early 21st century.
Unlike Mr. Stern, who jumped to satellite radio almost at its birth, Mr. Limbaugh stayed on the more conventional wavelengths and, at the time of his death, was estimated to have an audience of some 20 million people who listened on roughly 600 stations coast to coast. The show’s theme music was the epic bass line from The Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone.” Songwriter Chrissie Hynde gave permission for Mr. Limbaugh to use the tune because her father was a huge fan of the show.
Even before his departure, Mr. Limbaugh stood as the personification of conservative talk radio, and the successful careers of Ms. Ingraham, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity and many others flowed out of the model Mr. Limbaugh invented.
“The political history of the last 30 years would have been different without him and his huge audience,” Mr. Hayward said. “There are many other fine conservative radio hosts, but Rush stands apart. He was the Babe Ruth and Tom Brady of talk radio.”