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Rush Limbaugh, radio host once billed as ‘most dangerous man in America,’ dead at 70

Provocative and polarizing U.S. talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, a leading voice on the American political right since the 1980s who boosted and was honoured by former U.S. president Donald Trump, has died, his family said Wednesday.

The veteran radio host died after suffering from lung cancer, his wife, Kathryn, announced on a radio show. His death was also later announced on his website.

Limbaugh first announced his diagnosis in February 2020, saying he would take time off for medical tests and to determine treatment after noticing shortness of breath during his birthday weekend in January. 

He said he intended to continue to work as much as possible, as well as focus on what he called his “deeply personal relationship” with God.

A day after he announced his diagnosis, Trump awarded Limbaugh the Presidential Medal of Freedom in an unprecedented move during the State of the Union address.

WATCH | Provocative radio host Rush Limbaugh dies at 70:

Rush Limbaugh has died at 70. The polarizing and provocative conservative radio host had been a leading voice for the political right since the 1980s. 2:05

Limbaugh had not been publicly announced as a White House guest until the night before. When the honour was announced, he appeared genuinely surprised, giving a nearly tearful reaction. 

Unflinchingly conservative, wildly partisan, bombastically self-promoting and larger than life, Limbaugh galvanized listeners for more than 30 years with his talent for vituperation and sarcasm.

Shaping political conversations

He called himself an entertainer, but his rants during his three-hour weekday radio show, broadcast on nearly 600 U.S. stations, shaped the national political conversation — swaying ordinary Republicans and the direction of their party.

Blessed with a made-for-broadcasting voice, he delivered his opinions with such certainty that his followers, or “Ditto-heads,” as he dubbed them, took his words as sacred truth.

“In my heart and soul, I know I have become the intellectual engine of the conservative movement,” Limbaugh, with typical immodesty, told author Zev Chafets in the 2010 book Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to Limbaugh at a Make America Great Again rally on Nov. 5, 2018. (Jim Watson/Getty Images)

Limbaugh took as a badge of honour 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.”

His idol, former president 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 party made him an honorary member of the new class.

Following his death, former president George W. Bush said he “spoke his mind as a voice for millions of Americans.” Trump — whom Limbaugh supported from early on in his race for the presidency — called into Fox News Channel to describe the late radio host as “a legend” with impeccable political instincts. 

Long before Trump’s rise in politics, Limbaugh was pinning insulting names on his enemies and raging against the mainstream media, accusing it of feeding the public lies.

He called Democrats and others on the left communists, wackos, liberal extremists, radicals and “femi-nazis,” a term he coined.

Forbes magazine estimated his 2018 income at $84 million US, ranking him behind only Howard Stern among radio personalities.

A career of controversies

He began broadcasting nationally in 1988 from WABC in New York, before moving his show to Palm Beach, Fla.

He had a late-night TV show in the 1990s that got decent ratings but lacklustre advertising because of his divisive message. When he guest-hosted The Pat Sajak Show in 1990, audience members called him a Nazi and repeatedly shouted at him.

WATCH | Trump surprises Rush Limbaugh with honour:

U.S. President Donald Trump awards Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during the state of the union address. 2:10

He was frequently accused of bigotry and blatant racism for such antics as playing the song Barack the Magic Negro on his show. The lyrics, set to the tune of Puff, the Magic Dragon, described then-presidential candidate Barack Obama as someone who “makes guilty whites feel good” and is “Black, but not authentically.” 

He was fired from a short-lived job as an NFL commentator on ESPN in 2003 after he said the media had made a star out of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because it was “very desirous that a Black quarterback do well.” His racial remarks also derailed a 2009 bid to become one of the owners of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.

A fan holds a sign in support of Limbaugh after he was dropped from his bid to buy the NFL’s St. Louis Rams, on Oct. 18, 2009, in Minneapolis. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Also in 2003, Limbaugh admitted he was addicted to painkillers and went into rehab. He was arrested on prescription drug charges in 2006 but eventually reached a deal with prosecutors. They agreed to drop the case if he continued with treatment and paid $30,000 toward the cost of the investigation. 

He lost his hearing around the same time, which he said was due to an autoimmune disease, though his critics argued it could have been a side effect of opioid use. Limbaugh was fitted with cochlear implants soon after, which restored his hearing and saved his career.

In 2008, he signed an eight-year contract renewal for The Rush Limbaugh Show, a deal valued at roughly $400 million. The show was renewed again in 2016 for four more years, cementing his place in American conservative radio. 

“Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and just think to yourself, ‘I am just full of hot gas?'” David Letterman asked him in 1993 on The Late Show.

“I am a servant of humanity,” Limbaugh replied. “I am in the relentless pursuit of the truth. I actually sit back and think that I’m just so fortunate to have this opportunity to tell people what’s really going on.”