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Rush Limbaugh, radio pioneer who shaped American conservatism, dies

This Nov. 5, 2018, file photo shows radio personality Rush Limbaugh introducing President Donald Trump at the start of a campaign rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)


PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP/RNS) – Rush Limbaugh, the bombastic and popular radio host who shaped conservative politics for decades, has died.

He was 70.

Evangelist Franklin Graham urged his followers to pray for the radio host, after he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer in 2020.

“My heartfelt condolences and prayers for the family of Rush Limbaugh, who passed away today after a battle with lung cancer,” Graham posted on Twitter Wednesday (Feb. 17.) “He was a conservative voice of reason for so many years and will be greatly missed.”

The radio show host — along with other media voices — appealed to conservatives, including many Christian conservatives. He was self-described as “the intellectual engine of the conservative movement.” Forbes Magazine estimated his 2018 income at $84 million, ranking behind only Howard Stern among radio personalities.

Limbaugh was a fierce critic of Democrats and political progressives, labeling them “feminazis” and “commie libs.” He took as a badge of honor the title “most dangerous man in America.” He said he was the “truth detector,” the “doctor of democracy,” a “lover of mankind,” a “harmless, lovable little fuzz ball” and an “all-around good guy.” He claimed he had “talent on loan from God.”

Even as he championed the reelection bid of former President Donald Trump – who had earlier given Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, during a State of the Union speech – Limbaugh turned more reflective following his diagnosis. He told Fox News last fall that his faith sustained him during his illness.

“I woke up this morning and I thanked God that I did,” he said. “I am just thrilled to be here.”

He also thanked his family for their care during his illness and said it was a blessing to be able to work with Trump to help restore the country. He also talked about how every day was a “do-over.”

“Life is the most precious thing we have and probably the thing that most people take for granted,” he said. “I really appreciate mine.”

He also spoke about his personal faith in Jesus during the Fox appearance, a matter he often kept private because he did not want to proselytize.

“God is a profound factor; Jesus Christ a profound factor. I have a personal relationship. I’ve not talked about it much publicly because I don’t proselytize these things,” he said.

“I’m just trying to give thanks every day for all of the blessings,” Limbaugh continued. “I have had a blessed life. I have had so many great friends … and still do … there’s nothing negative for me. There’s nothing I have deep regrets about because I’ve been so blessed.”

Limbaugh often enunciated the Republican platform better and more entertainingly than any party leader, becoming a GOP kingmaker whose endorsement and friendship were sought. Polls consistently found he was regarded as the voice of the party.

His idol, Ronald Reagan, wrote a letter of praise that Limbaugh proudly read on the air in 1992: “You’ve become the number one voice for conservatism.” In 1994, Limbaugh was so widely credited with the first Republican takeover of Congress in 40 years that the GOP made him an honorary member of the new class.

During the 2016 presidential primaries, Limbaugh said he realized early on that Trump would be the nominee, and he likened the candidate’s deep connection with his supporters to his own. In a 2018 interview, he conceded Trump is rude but said that is because he is “fearless and willing to fight against the things that no Republican has been willing to fight against.”

Trump, for his part, heaped praise on Limbaugh, and they golfed together. (The president’s Mar-a-Lago estate is eight miles down the same Palm Beach boulevard as Limbaugh’s $40 million beachfront expanse.) In honoring Limbaugh at the State of the Union, Trump called his friend “a special man beloved by millions.”

Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was born Jan. 12, 1951, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His mother was the former Mildred Armstrong, and his father, Rush Limbaugh Jr., was a lawyer.

Rusty, as the younger Limbaugh was known, was chubby and shy, with little interest in school but a passion for broadcasting. He would turn down the radio during St. Louis Cardinals baseball games, offering play-by-play, and gave running commentary during the evening news. By high school, he had snagged a radio job.

Limbaugh dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University for a string of DJ gigs, from his hometown, to McKeesport, Pa., to Pittsburgh and then Kansas City. Known as Rusty Sharpe and then Jeff Christie on the air, he mostly spun Top 40 hits and sprinkled in glimpses of his wit and conservatism.

“One of the early reasons radio interested me was that I thought it would make me popular,” he once wrote.

But he didn’t gain the following he craved and gave up on radio for several years, beginning in 1979, becoming promotions director for baseball’s Kansas City Royals. He ultimately returned to broadcasting, again in Kansas City and then Sacramento, Calif.

It was there in the early 1980s that Limbaugh really garnered an audience, broadcasting shows dripping with sarcasm and bravado. The stage name was gone.

Limbaugh began broadcasting nationally in 1988 from WABC in New York. While his know-it-all commentary quickly gained traction, he was dismayed by his reception in the big city. He thought he would be welcomed by Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather.

“I came to New York,” he wrote, “and I immediately became a nothing, a zero.”

Ultimately, Limbaugh moved his radio show to Palm Beach and bought his massive estate. Talkers Magazine, which covers the industry, said Limbaugh had the nation’s largest audience in 2019, with 15 million unique listeners each week.


From Religion News Service via The Associated Press. May not be republished. AP contributed to this article.

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  • Bob Smietana
    Bob Smietana is a veteran religion reporter who serves as editor-in-chief of Religion News Service.Read All by Bob Smietana ›