To his supporters, people like Sean Hannity, Glen Beck, Mark Levin and Newt Gingrich, he was an idol, a demigod of talk radio. For 30 some years he hosted a nationally syndicated talk radio show, The Rush Limbaugh Show. In addition, from 1992 to 1996 he hosted a tv talk show. In 2019 Talkers Magazine reported that his radio program was the most popular show in the country, reaching an audience of approximately 15.5 million persons.
Many of his supporters listened to his show religiously to ascertain his opinion on political events. They considered him to be the bellwether of conservatism and conservative views. Whenever serious or controversial issues arose their initial reaction was “what does Rush think?” To them, his opinions were “gospel.” On the other hand, to his detractors he was a bombastic, acerbic, derisive, sarcastic, sardonic, opinionated bigot, public enemy number one, if you will. He was a lightning rod for criticism, which bothered him not in the least. In his opinion, it was a badge of honor. It came with the territory. It was a consequence of being the primary conservative voice in a field dominated by liberals.
You could love him; you could hate him. But, one thing you could NOT do was ignore him. As I said, for over 30 years he was the number one voice on political talk radio. Heck, he virtually invented the genre. In 1988 when his show began there were only 200 or so talk radio programs in the entire country; now there are in excess of 4,000. That development was not entirely due to Limbaugh, but there is no denying he was a major factor.
Rush Hudson Limbaugh, III was born on January 12, 1951 in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. His father was a lawyer who had served as a fighter pilot in the South Pacific during WWII. The Limbaughs were a distinguished family in Missouri. Several of Limbaugh’s relatives were also lawyers, including a few federal judges. Limbaugh’s unusual first name was originally bestowed upon his grandfather to honor the maiden name of a relative, and it was passed down to his father and him.
In high school Rush was a decent, though not outstanding, student. He played football, but his primary interest was working in radio. Upon graduation he briefly attended Southeast Missouri State University mainly to placate his parents, but he dropped out after just two semesters to pursue his true love. According to his mother Rush “flunked everything…. he just didn’t seem interested in anything except radio.”
Based on my research I would characterize Rush’s early career as aimless and a study in failure to accept authority. He bounced from job to job in radio. In every case, he left after a short time due to a “personality conflict” or a “difference of opinion” with his supervisor. For example:
- His first job after dropping out of college was as a DJ at a station in McKeesport, PA. He used an “airname” of “Bachelor Jeff Christie.” He was fired after 18 months due to a “personality conflict” with the program director. Perhaps, a clue as to the nature of the conflict could be explained by the station manager’s characterization of his style as “early Imus.” Those of you who are familiar with Don Imus’ early career and shenanigans will understand.
- Rush landed a job as host of a morning weekend public affairs talk program. That, also, was short-lived.
- He took a job hosting an evening talk show in Kansas City. That lasted but a few weeks due to “disagreements with management.”
- Next, he decided to abandon radio and transition into sales. He landed a job in group sales with the Kansas City Royals Baseball Team. This job had two significant occurrences. He became friends with future Hall of Fame third baseman George Brett, and his extensive business trips to other countries honed his conservative values and views.
- Shortly thereafter he returned to radio, still in KC. Again, he was fired in short order.
- He moved to Sacramento for another talk radio gig. Finally, he met with some success.
- The turning point in Rush’s career came in July 1988 when he moved to NY and started his talk radio show on WABC. In 2014 he moved his show to WOR, also in NY. Thus, began his meteoric rise and the development of the Rush Limbaugh style with which we are all familiar.
In short order his show was being carried by over 650 radio stations. In 1990 NY Times journalist Lewis Grossberger wrote that Rush has “more listeners than any other talk show host.” Rush’s show aired for three hours each and every day nationally on both AM and FM radio as well as worldwide on the Armed Forces radio. Think of the amount of influence he would have wielded with that extensive an audience. Furthermore, imagine the challenge of talking for three hours a day, day after day and still managing to hold the interest of a national audience. Any host will tell you it is not easy. Rush succeeded beyond all expectations. Furthermore, his success paved the way for generations of conservative talk show hosts to follow, such as Bill O’Reilly and the aforementioned Messrs. Beck, Hannity and Levin as they freely admit. In 2007 Talkers Magazine recognized Rush’s success by including him in its “Heavy Hundred” list of most significant talk show hosts. In 2018 Rush was recognized as the second highest paid talk show host. Can you guess who was #1? See answer below.
Rush was not afraid of expressing his opinions freely. He said what he meant, and he meant what he said. He seemed to relish the controversy he regularly created. Some highlights (or perhaps rather lowlights):
- He was an ardent supporter of the Gulf War. He criticized peace advocates relentlessly.
- He was sharply critical of President Bill Clinton’s policies and First Lady, Hillary.
- He attacked Dem policies relentlessly, and many credit him with helping the GOP regain control of Congress in 1994.
- He once quipped that “all newspaper composite pictures of wanted criminals resembled Jesse Jackson.”
- He compared NFL football games to a “contest between the Crips and the Bloods (two LA street gangs) without weapons.”
- He sharply and frequently criticized liberal politicians’ positions on immigration.
- He was an ardent critic of President Obama’s policies and resented that those who criticized him or his policies were accused of racism. He was one of those who advanced the “birther” issue.
- He was an early and ardent supporter of Donald Trump.
- He was a severe critic of lenient treatment of drug dealers and users (which was ironic due to his later issues with oxy).
- He was a strong critic of the Green New Deal and its advocates.
- He mocked the actor Michael J. Fox’s struggles with Parkinson’s disease, accusing him of exaggerating its effects while recording a political commercial.
- He was slow to recognize the existential danger of the coronavirus, likening it to the “common cold” (although, in fairness, he was not the only one to underestimate the disease early on).
Rush’s personal life was not without controversy.
- He was married four times and thrice divorced.
- As I mentioned above he became addicted to oxycodone and hydrocodone, which he admitted on air and for which he sought treatment.
- When returning from a trip to the Dominican Republic he was caught at the airport with copious amounts of Viagra (and no valid prescription).
- He became, in his words, “100%, totally deaf,” which necessitated cochlear implant surgery.
Rush was the recipient of numerous awards, too many to list them all here. I have already mentioned some of them. Perhaps, the highlight was the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was presented to him by First Lady, Melania Trump at the 2020 State of the Union address. The PMF is the highest civilian award. In addition, he appeared in the 1995 movie, Forget Paris, with Billy Crystal, was a frequent guest on tv shows, such as the Late Show with David Letterman, and the author of several books.
In short, Rush was a complicated and controversial man. However, in my view, his status as the premier conservative voice of his time cannot be denied. Moreover, many consider him to have been the father of talk radio as we know it today.
In the last year or so of his life Rush’s public battle with lung cancer was heart-wrenching to follow. He fought bravely and continued to work, but he finally succumbed on February 17. His fourth wife, Kathryn, was at his side at the end.
Rest in peace Rush. You had your faults (like all of us) and you had your detractors, (like most of us) but the significance of your contributions to society cannot be denied. Your name will live on, and you will be sorely missed.
Quiz answer: Howard Stern