Rush Limbaugh, the Human Megaphone Who Hijacked the GOP, Dead at 70

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JIM WATSON
JIM WATSON

Rush Limbaugh was a college dropout when he began his combustible radio career, repeatedly losing gigs as a deejay and news-talk host; he spent much of 1974 jobless and living in his parents’ basement in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Almost five decades later, Limbaugh kept a fleet of black luxury sedans in his garage, including a $450,000 Maybach 57S, traveled on his private Gulfstream 550 jet, and owned a fabulous oceanfront Palm Beach estate befitting America’s biggest and most politically influential AM radio star—and surely among the richest—who ever mastered the medium.

Limbaugh—whose wife Kathryn confirmed on Wednesday that he died at 70 after a yearlong and very public battle against lung cancer—struggled through personal adversity, including obesity, four rocky marriages, and an addiction to opioid painkillers that earned him humiliating publicity and a criminal charge (later dropped after the completion of court-ordered therapy) of felony prescription fraud. Yet in his final two decades of life, he managed to dominate conservative talk radio even after near-total deafness—somewhat remediated by a cochlear implant—required him to hire a former court reporter to sit in his Palm Beach control room and instantly transcribe listener phone calls so he could converse in real time on the air.

Born Rush Hudson Limbaugh III into a distinguished and rabidly Republican family of judges and lawyers in the nearly all-white southeast Missouri town on the Illinois border, he ultimately commanded an adoring national audience of as many as 20 million listeners—“dittoheads” in Limbaugh-speak—and became by some accounts (especially from his Democratic detractors) the de facto leader of the GOP and a right-wing media ecosystem built on demonizing its opponents, especially feminists and people of color.

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He either befriended or tormented five U.S. presidents, depending on their party affiliation, and treasured a fan letter from his hero, Ronald Reagan.

“I know the liberals call you ‘the most dangerous man in America,’ but don’t worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me,” the 40th president wrote to Limbaugh in December 1992. “Keep up the good work.”

Bill Clinton, the 42nd president, and Barack Obama, the 44th, regularly grumbled about Limbaugh’s savage, often satirical—and, in Obama’s case, racist—critiques. Cape Girardeau in the ’50s was hardly a bastion of civil rights or racial equality and enlightenment.

In 1952, just two years before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed separate public schools for white and black students in the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the city built its white students a brand new school, Central High, while Black students continued to attend the aging Cobb High School.

As Limbaugh biographer Ze’ev Chafets wrote, “Cape Girardeau took its high school basketball very seriously and sometimes contended for the state title. The 1953 team was expected to be a powerhouse, but word got around that the kids from Cobb were even better. ‘An informal game was arranged between Central and Cobb High,’ says historian Frank Nickell. ‘Cobb won. Shortly thereafter, Cobb mysteriously burned down.’”

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Limbaugh aired a parody of “Puff the Magic Dragon”—sung by a white man doing an Al Sharpton impersonation—titled “Barack the Magic Negro.” In March 2012, Obama exacted revenge of sorts when Limbaugh’s advertisers deserted his syndicated radio show en masse—and he was forced to issue a highly uncharacteristic apology—after he called Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for testifying to a House committee in favor of mandatory birth control services as part of the Affordable Care Act.

“I don’t know what’s in Rush Limbaugh’s heart, so I’m not going to comment on the sincerity of his apology,” Obama acidly told the White House press corps after he phoned Fluke to offer his moral support. “What I can comment on is the fact that all decent folks can agree that the remarks that were made don’t have any place in the public discourse.”

By then, Limbaugh had long been a popular punching bag for Democrats and liberals of every stripe. Saturday Night Live comedian Al Franken, a future U.S. senator from Minnesota, scored a No. 1 bestseller with his satirical 1996 book, Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. Former Clinton White House adviser Paul Begala, meanwhile, delighted in lampooning the radio icon’s fearsome clout in the GOP: “The real leader of the Republican Party in America today is a corpulent drug addict with an AM radio talk show.”

Limbaugh gave as bad as he got. His visceral contempt for fellow baby boomers Bill and Hillary Clinton even extended to their then-12-year-old daughter Chelsea, to whom he referred (on his short-lived television show) as “the White House dog.” President Clinton’s sexual indiscretions were fodder for such Limbaugh parodies as “Mrs. Jones You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter,” a perverse homage to Paula Jones, sung by a Clinton impersonator, and “The Ballad of the Black Beret,” a Monica Lewinsky sendup.

One spring night in 2007, Limbaugh and the former president actually met face-to-face, when Clinton approached Limbaugh’s table at Manhattan’s now-defunct Kobe Club (in the spirit of Christian forgiveness, the ex-president claimed to an interviewer) and, according to Limbaugh’s account on his radio show, flirted shamelessly with his date.

With the notable exception of Clinton—and despite Limbaugh’s zealously nurtured image as a champion of hard-right, take-no-prisoners conservatism—he was extremely susceptible to presidential charm and flattery.

During the 1992 Republican primary, Limbaugh eagerly supported rightwing firebrand Pat Buchanan over the incumbent 41st president, tax-raising moderate Republican George H.W. Bush. But Bush conquered Limbaugh’s skepticism by personally carrying his overnight bag upstairs for a sleepover in the Lincoln Bedroom—a rapprochement arranged by their mutual friend Roger Ailes. The 43rd president, Bush’s son George W., honored Limbaugh’s 58th birthday with a White House luncheon.

By early 2009, Republican Party officials and office-holders, up to and including presidents, had every reason to court Limbaugh’s affection and fear his opprobrium. A good word from him to his millions of fans could launch or enhance a political career; the opposite could unleash unholy dittohead hell.

Chafets recounted two typical examples of the latter in his 2010 book Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One. In January 2009, Republican Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia was compelled to abase himself before the altar of “El Rushbo,” Limbaugh’s nickname for himself, after publicly complaining about the radio star’s claim that the GOP’s congressional leadership was being too soft on President Obama’s proposed spending targets.

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“Gingrey said it was easy for talk-show hosts ‘to stand back and throw bricks.’ In American politics, ‘talk-show host’ is a euphemism for ‘Rush Limbaugh,’” Chafets wrote. “Gingrey was deluged by outraged telephone calls and e-mails. The following day he crawled onto Limbaugh’s show and begged El Rushbo to forgive him. He called Limbaugh ‘a conservative giant’ and praised him as a voice of conscience in their movement.”

The following month, the Republican National Committee’s first African-American chairman, former Maryland lieutenant governor Michael Steele, got into serious trouble when he appeared on comedian D.L. Hughley’s CNN show and belittled Limbaugh as a mere “entertainer.”

Chafets recounted that “when Hughley referred to Limbaugh as a ‘clown’ and ‘the head of the Republican Party,’ Steele spoke up. ‘No he’s not,’ said Steele. ‘I’m the de facto head of the Republican Party—’”

Steele continued: “Let’s put it into context here. Rush Limbaugh is an entertainer. Rush Limbaugh, the whole thing is entertainment. Yes, it’s incendiary; yes, it’s ugly.”

The next day on the radio, Limbaugh fired back: “OK, so I am an entertainer, and I have 22 million listeners because of my great song-and-dance routines… Michael Steele, you are head of the RNC. You are not head of the Republican Party. Tens of millions of conservatives and Republicans have nothing to do with the RNC, and right now they want nothing to do with it, and when you call them asking them for money, they hang up on you.”

Chafets wrote: “It took less than one hour for Michael Steele to do what Congressman Phil Gingrey had done: crawl. ‘My intent was not to go after Rush,’ he told Mike Allen of Politico. ‘I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh. I was maybe a bit inarticulate.... There are those out there who want to look at what he’s saying as incendiary and divisive and ugly, that is what I was trying to say. There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership....’”

Years later, Limbaugh cultivated a mutually beneficial alliance, if not a genuine friendship, with Donald J. Trump.

In terms of communication style, “Rush influenced Donald Trump,” Michael Harrison, publisher of the radio industry bible Talkers magazine, told The Daily Beast. “From the standpoint of radio performers, Donald Trump is a hybrid. He is influenced tremendously by Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern. If these guys were ‘shock jocks,’ whatever the hell that means, I consider that the radio influence on Donald Trump made him the first ‘shock president.’”

But possibly not the last.

“I’m suggesting that the presidency and public discourse, for decades to come, will be influenced by these years of Donald Trump, who in turn was influenced by Rush Limbaugh,” Harrison said.

In April 2015, as the Republican primary campaign was getting underway, Limbaugh initially made positive noises about Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, but by the following January he was telling his dittoheads that even though Trump was by no means a conservative—far from it—Limbaugh was warming to the self-avowed real estate billionaire and potty-mouthed reality television star from the outer borough of Queens, New York.

Writing in The Atlantic, libertarian-leaning essayist Conor Friedersdorf ascribed Limbaugh’s strange attraction to the Celebrity Apprentice host not only to Trump’s populist magnetism, but also to their mutual dislike of—and rejection by—the elite political establishment.

“Without admitting it to himself, more fully than ever before in his long political-talk career, Limbaugh has abandoned conservatism as his lodestar,” Friedersdorf argued. “All else being equal, he still prefers the ideology. But it’s now negotiable. He’d rather have a non-conservative nominee who attacks and is loathed by the Republican establishment than a conservative who is conciliatory and appealing to moderates. And Trump was uniquely suited to bring him to this point.”

Limbaugh shared with Trump a deeply wounded sense of injury when prominent establishment figures—whether in the media, politics, or business—cut and shunned them.

In the late 1980s, when he moved to Manhattan to launch his syndicated radio show, “the left was really nasty to him,” said Limbaugh’s close friend Ann Coulter, who along with right-leaning internet phenom Matt Drudge, were frequent dinner guests at Limbaugh’s Palm Beach palace, especially huge family Thanksgiving celebrations where friends including Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas downed $800 bottles of wine and some guests indulged in pricey Cuban cigars.

“Rush thought that it was like being an athlete or a singer—‘I’ve achieved this level of success. Isn’t there a fraternity of success where top people are friendly to one another and say hello when they see each other in restaurants?’ And he was right. People did do that,” Coulter told The Daily Beast. “But not Rush. Oh my God. The New York liberal elite were extremely rude to him.”

Coulter added: “The shutting out of Rush Limbaugh—that was pretty intense. Drudge and I used to remark that we couldn’t care less what liberals thought of us, but I think it always kind of hurt Rush’s feelings.”

The exception was conservative icon William F. Buckley Jr.—who was elite if not liberal. He took Limbaugh under his wing, inviting him to the Buckley manse on East 73rd Street where Bill and his hilariously wicked-tongued wife Pat presided over convivial dinner parties, often with the leading lights of Buckley’s magazine National Review.

“For Limbaugh, entering the Buckley orbit was like walking through the looking glass and finding himself in a magical kingdom,” Chafets wrote.

Buckley, who died in 2008, could hardly have envisioned—much less, endorsed—the election of Donald Trump.

Yet during Trump’s presidency, Limbaugh was among Trump’s most vigorous supporters in right-wing media, employing an eloquence that eluded the blunt-spoken former hotel and golf club builder.

After Trump lost the 2020 election to Obama’s former vice president Joe Biden—aka “Plugs” in Limbaugh-speak, a mocking reference to Biden’s suspected hair transplants—Limbaugh was an enthusiastic superspreader of Trump’s desperate lie that the Democrats somehow stole it.

On Feb. 4, 2020, the day after Limbaugh announced his fatal cancer diagnosis, the 45th president enlisted first lady Melania Trump to place the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, around Limbaugh’s neck during the State of the Union address, prompting a notably partisan standing ovation in the House of Representatives chamber.

Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, conspicuously not clapping and looking positively revolted, stayed seated and then, after Trump finished his speech, theatrically tore up her copy.

Growing up in an extended family of Cape Girardeau grandees—prominent attorneys, federal and state supreme court judges, Republican Party VIPs—young “Rusty” Limbaugh had a great deal to live up to.

As recounted by Limbaugh’s unauthorized biographer Paul D. Colford, his grandfather and namesake, Rush Sr., was still practicing law at age 101. His father, Rush Jr., a charismatic presence who weighed in at 300 pounds, had been a World War II fighter pilot in the China-Burma-India theater, and, during the childhood of Rusty and his younger brother David (these days a lawyer and radio commentator as well), ran the Cape Girardeau County Republican organization.

Rush Jr. “beamed with satisfaction when he led vice presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon and his wife, Pat, in a campaign swing along Main Street in 1952,” Colford wrote in his 1993 book The Rush Limbaugh Story—an honor eventually exceeded many times over by his rich and famous son.

Briefly a middling high school football player, “Rusty was not an outcast, but he was introverted and shy. He lacked confidence,” Colford wrote, adding that Rusty was devastated by a teenage game of spin-the-bottle when “one of the prettiest girls in high school” refused to kiss him. “[S]he looked at him and gasped. Couldn’t do it. Not with him, that is,” Colford wrote. “And everyone in the room witnessed his humiliation. It was a wound he would nurse forever after.”

Ann Coulter theorized that Limbaugh’s problematic dating and married life—he had four wives but no children—was an occupational hazard. “My guess is that probably like a lot of people in his field, when you’re starting off and you don’t have a college degree and you’re going from job to job, you’re kind of a loser, at least on paper, and you’re not gonna attract the ladies,” she said. “Which is not to say he wasn’t charming and funny. We’ve all met charming and funny people who don’t seem to have much of a future. You date them. You don’t marry them.”

When Limbaugh became massively wealthy and successful, “that’s not a good way to meet people. You get the hangers-on. You get the star-struck. You get the gold diggers,” Coulter added. “That’s not a situation, in the abstract, that’s set up for being a chick magnet.”

Limbaugh—who as a kid was obsessed with the sardonic and comical radio stylings of Chicago deejay Larry Lujack—defied his dad’s wish that he go to law school and follow family tradition into the legal profession. Instead, despite Rush Jr.’s continual and vociferous naysaying, he quit Southeast Missouri State University after two semesters and embarked on a line of work with no job security and scant chance of success.

At age 20, he started spinning records at a Top 40 station in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania—broadcasting under the nom de guerre “Jeff Christie”—and was fired after 18 months; over the next 17 years, he developed his shtick and style at various radio gigs, including hosting a public affairs show, while bouncing from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, Mo.—where he worked part time in the sales department of the Royals and befriended baseball star George Brett—to Sacramento, California, where he was discovered by syndication czar Edward McLaughlin, the former president of ABC radio, who brought him to New York City in 1988.

In due course, talking for three hours daily on over 600 stations across the country—the “Excellence in Broadcasting” Network, Limbaugh dubbed it—he was minting money for his business partners and himself. “ It is hard to describe how transgressively original Rush Limbaugh sounded in this media environment,” Chafets wrote. “Listening to him on the radio reminded me of the first time I saw Elvis on TV with my father sitting in the next room—a feeling that I was witnessing something completely different and possibly even dangerous.”

A half-hour syndicated television show, produced by Roger Ailes from 1992 through 1996, was far less successful; Ailes went on to launch Fox News and Limbaugh eventually acknowledged that the small screen wasn’t for him.

“Rush was successful for many reasons—one of which was that his music radio background was applied to his talk radio performance,” Talkers magazine’s Michael Harrison said. “He knew the medium. He knew how to do radio. He had a style that had many different roots to it, drawing upon many influences, and what came out was extremely original. He wasn’t just spouting cookie-cutter conservative politics. He was, to the day he died, original at all times.”

As Limbaugh himself doubtless appreciated, it was a far cry from the thoughtfully articulated conservative philosophy favored by Bill Buckley and thousands of loyal readers of his National Review to the atavistic rage against established norms and values—an anger embraced by millions of loyal viewers of The Apprentice and exploited by Donald Trump.

“You cannot overstate the influence of Rush Limbaugh in what has happened to American conservatism,” said Charlie Sykes, a former Milwaukee talk radio host who is editor at large for The Bulwark, a Never-Trump conservative news and opinion site. “You can track the trajectory of the rise and the derangement of the conservative movement by tracking Limbaugh. And what really was extraordinary is that the early Rush Limbaugh popularized relatively arcane conservative ideas and he practically created the entire genre of alternative conservative media.

“But, fast-forward, he explicitly acknowledged ultimately that conservatism had lost, and he was no longer running what he liked to call ‘the university of conservative thought,’” Sykes continued. “And he was now just focusing on being anti-left wing. That also tracked with the transformation of a Republican party that became more strident, more relentlessly negative, more demagogic. There was a time when Rush had the possibility of being a thought leader on the right—and he basically squandered it.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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