Conservative radio icon Rush Limbaugh died Wednesday at the age of 70 after being diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer last year, his family announced.
Limbaugh’s wife, Kathryn, made the announcement on his radio show.
“For over 32 years, Rush has cherished you, his loyal audience, and always looked forward to every single show,” Kathryn Limbaugh said. “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.”
The radio legend received Stage IV lung cancer diagnosis in January 2020. President Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom days later at the State of the Union address.
“This is not good news,” Trump said then of Limbaugh’s 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.”
After launching The Rush Limbaugh Show in 1988, Limbaugh grew to become one of the most influential media figures in America, eventually hosting the most listened-to radio show in the U.S., airing on more than 600 stations.
Limbaugh spoke to some 27 million people who tuned into his show on a weekly basis from behind his Golden EIB (Excellence in Broadcasting) Microphone. He dubbed his fans “Dittoheads,” as they would say “ditto” when they agreed with him.
In December, Limbaugh revealed on his show that he had already outlived his prognosis.
“I wasn’t expected to be alive today,” he said. “I wasn’t expected to make it to October, and then to November, and then to December. And yet, here I am, and today, got some problems, but I’m feeling pretty good today.”
Over his decades-long career, Limbaugh received a number of honors, including entry into the Radio Hall of Fame and the National Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame.
He was a five-time winner of the National Association of Broadcasters Marconi Award for “Excellence in Syndicated and Network Broadcasting” and a No. 1 New York Times bestselling author. In 2008, he was named one of Barbara Walters’ 10 Most Fascinating People. One year later he was included in TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.
Limbaugh was forced to go off the air beginning February 2 as his health worsened, though he continued his penchant for controversy in his final days of broadcasting.
Weeks after President Joe Biden won the election, Limbaugh questioned the validity of the results saying: “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 election.”
I rarely listened to Limbaugh because I was usually working while he was on. I rarely listen to talk radio, though I was an occasional contributor (radio and TV) for Charlie Sykes, as you know:
We recall how bracing the Rush Limbaugh Show was in its early days. For decades the airwaves had been governed by the Fairness Doctrine, a federal regulation requiring stations to balance “controversial” claims with “contrasting viewpoints.” The rule gave incumbent candidates and mainstream news outlets a near-monopoly on public discourse. Ronald Reagan scrapped the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. By the 1992 presidential campaign, the radio star’s first name was known across the U.S.
Limbaugh, whose show ran on weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. East Coast time, was invaluable to the conservative movement in the 1990s. He would spend an hour explaining supply-side tax policy or making the case for deregulation. Millions of Americans had never heard a coherent argument against the welfare state or Roe v. Wade until they tuned in to Limbaugh’s show. He played an enormous role in popularizing conservative ideas and policies.
His critics called him a racist and about everything else, which was always unfair. His real offense was to gain millions of weekly listeners by mocking the left’s pieties. He dissected environmental scare campaigns, and he ridiculed the news media for finding epidemics of homelessness only during Republican administrations. In 1994 Bill Clinton called the show from Air Force One to complain about the host’s criticisms—not for the last time blaming scrappy radio hosts for his own political woes.
In recent years, with the rise of more acerbic competitors and a general souring of public discourse, Limbaugh took on a more exasperated tone. He also moved to the Trumpian right on issues such as trade, immigration and foreign policy.
But unlike others on the talk-radio right, he kept his sense of humor and rarely let anger drown his fundamental optimism about the United States. His great strength was never to take himself too seriously. Limbaugh knew he was an entertainer, not an intellectual or politician, and he said so many times. He was popular because he was superb at his craft and represented traditional American values that the dominant culture too often demeans.
About Trump, Limbaugh correctly observed something most Democrats and some Republicans don’t or won’t grasp:
“Donald Trump represents an uprising of the people of this country against Washington, against the establishment, and it had been brewing for a long time. It had been building since [Ross] Perot in 1992.”
Limbaugh is not the father of conservative talk radio, but he lasted longer than anyone in conservative talk radio, even in markets you would never think of, including Madison. During his midday show in his first years on WTDY in Madison, there were “Rush Rooms” where people could listen. Limbaugh then moved to WIBA, preceding current afternoon host Vicki McKenna.
Limbaugh’s death was predictably celebrated by liberals in social media Wednesday, because some people believe the words “criticism” and “hate” are synonyms. That obviously didn’t bother Limbaugh, nor, apparently, did it bother his advertisers enough for very many of them to pull out of his show. As is often the case Limbaugh was prone to bombast (he called himself “talent on loan from God”), but controversy attracts listeners to a point.
Limbaugh gave himself credit for saving AM radio in the 1980s after music formats switched to FM radio, leaving people wondering what the point of AM radio now was. And then came Limbaugh and other radio talkers (including, later last century, sports talk). Those conversations about AM’s future are still taking place, because conversations are taking place about the future of radio. Some might blame Limbaugh for the increasing drought in live and local radio broadcasting, but Limbaugh didn’t make decisions for radio station owners or general managers or program directors.
Limbaugh’s success helps demonstrate how liberals hate markets. Sykes isn’t on Milwaukee radio anymore, but Mark Belling, who preceded Sykes on the air, still is. Sykes’ old station, WTMJ, still carries Jeff Wagner, who followed Sykes, as well as Steve Scaffidi, who ended up with Sykes’ time slot. McKenna has shows in both Milwaukee and Madison. If you get listeners, you get advertisers, and if you get and keep advertisers, your employment is assured.
The answer to Limbaugh and other conservative talkers was supposed to be the Air America network, which lasted less than six years. Liberal talk stations come and go, most recently WRRD in Milwaukee, because they can’t generate enough advertising. Sly is still on WBGR in Monroe and WIBA-FM in Madison, but as a DJ of, respectively, oldies and classic rock, not liberal talk. There is one liberal talk station in Madison at 92.7 FM. For now.
A lot of people in talk radio owe their careers to Limbaugh because Limbaugh showed that conservative talk is something people would listen to and advertisers would buy. Like Paul Harvey, Limbaugh’s advertisers sold high-end products and services, which was one reason he stayed on the air as long as he did.
In 1992, I still had dreams of being a political consultant. I had just left grad school a little earlier than planned (graduate school, where you gradually learn you don’t really want to be there).
As luck would have it, I found my first political race where I could do more than just lick envelopes. (I’ll let the older readers explain that to the younger readers.) It was managing a congressional race in a hopelessly Democratic district. There were primaries on both sides as it was an open seat. I got the solidly pro-life Republican in a five-way primary.
If you remember the 1992 election, it was a horrible year for Republicans. So much hope generated by the popularity of the 1st Gulf War vanished in a recession economy. Republicans were divided and Pat Buchanan challenged an incumbent GOP President George H. W. Bush in the primaries. Bush lost to Bill Clinton, a draft-dodging womanizer.
Managing that congressional campaign was not a happy experience for me. I learned then that my patience for dumb people is about zero. I mentally checked out. We won the primary but we lost the general election – badly. The only good thing I can say about the experience is that I didn’t become an alcoholic.
The day after the election, I was down. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. My girlfriend was about to dump me (she did on my birthday – true story). I had burned a bridge with my last college job. It was bad.
That afternoon, Rush came on the radio. Instead of forecasting doom for the country and allowing conservatives to feel sorry for themselves, Rush told us that the best revenge, the best thing we could do at that point, was just live our lives as best as we could in the way that we believed.
That advice from Rush has always stuck with me, and I’ve tried to pass that advice along after every election. I will always be grateful for those words from Rush.
I know he changed over the years, and there will be others that will write complete obituaries with the good and the bad of Rush Limbaugh and his effect on politics.
But today I’m going to remember how that golden microphone sending out advice to a mourning Republican audience somehow spoke directly to me. That’s the Rush Limbaugh I want to remember. Maybe some of you will read this and Rush’s advice from 1992 will stay with you, too.
Limbaugh turned himself into a franchise, selling cigars and ties. I own a couple of the ties, which were very colorful and bold. He doesn’t appear to sell ties anymore at RushLimbaugh.com (written in the present tense since like dead actors and musicians he is still making money), so apparently I have collector items.