Arguably one of the most popular and influential figures in the history of talk radio, Rush Limbaugh was a commentator whose unwavering support for conservative causes generated adulation among his followers and condemnation from the liberal media and supporters. Limbaugh built a massive audience - the largest ever for a radio talk show - on the strength of fiery statements about politicians, policies on the left, and just about anyone else who strayed into his field of fire. Unlike previous right-minded talk hosts, Limbaugh's delivery was smooth, well spoken, and often bitingly humorous, which delivered a stronger blow to his opponents than the rantings and ravings of the past. Listeners believed Limbaugh because he appeared to understand their feelings and translate them into powerful words, but his opponents frequently challenged his facts, which appeared to deviate from proven research. He lost some of his grandeur in the face of scandals in the mid-2000s, from prescription drug addictions to hateful statements about President Barack Obama and other figures in the news. The animosity took some of the wind out of his sales, but did little to sway his faithful, who helped to enshrine him as the voice of conservatism for millions of Americans for over two decades.
Born Rush Hudson Limbaugh III in Cape Girardeau, MO, he was the scion of a prominent Southern family with ties to the White House and conservative politics that dated back a half century. His grandfather, Rush Hudson Limbaugh, whose surname came from the maiden name of a family member, served in the Missouri State House of Representatives, as well as America's ambassador to India during the Eisenhower administration. His son, Rush Limbaugh, Jr., was an attorney, while President George W. Bush appointed an uncle, Stephen Limbaugh, to the U.S. District Court. Naturally, Limbaugh's childhood was steeped in conservative politics, though he passed on the family business in favor of a career in radio. Billed as "Rusty Sharpe," he began working as a disc jockey at a local station while still in high school. He managed to avoid the Vietnam War draft due to his birth date and a Pilonidal cyst; instead attending Southeast Missouri State University. Limbaugh left after two semesters to work as a Top 40 music DJ in Pennsylvania. For most of the 1970s, he bounced between stations in Pennsylvania and Missouri, finding little success, before settling in Kansas City, where he worked as director of promotions for the Kansas City Royals baseball team.
Limbaugh returned to radio in 1984 under the mentorship of Norm Woodruff, a radio executive who groomed him for a position at KFBK in Sacramento. There, Limbaugh delivered substantially better ratings in his time slot, which had been previously occupied by Morton Downey, Jr. His big break came in 1987 with Ronald Reagan's repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which required stations to provide free airtime for opposing responses to any opinions that were broadcast as part of their programming. Limbaugh's on-air personality was tailor-made for the Doctrine: a devoted conservative, he pilloried any liberal (or liberal-seeming) cause without question, delivering his viewpoint with a withering mix of sarcasm, authoritative delivery and, on occasion, unquestionably vicious language. If his evidence was sometimes faulty - Limbaugh famously claimed that 75 percent of Americans earning minimum wage were teenagers at their first paying job, when studies showed that the majority of employees paid at minimum wage were over the age of 20, and stated that no indictments had been generated by the Iran-Contra investigations, when in fact 14 people received indictments, including then-Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger - he certainly sounded like he knew what he was talking about, which appeared to be sufficient for many of his white, lower-to-middle-class listeners. By 1988, "The Rush Limbaugh Show" was syndicated to a national audience through the ABC Radio Network.
Limbaugh's popularity skyrocketed in the early 1990s. The launch of the Persian Gulf War and the improprieties of the Clinton administration gave him a vast and multi-layered canvas on which to espouse his views. Protests against the war were mercilessly ridiculed, and the Clintons were spared no quarter in his assailment against their politics, their personal lives, and even their daughter, whom Limbaugh once referred to as the "White House Dog." Environmentalism, climate science, feminism, gay rights and abortion all received equal levels of disdain and even savage mocking; Limbaugh frequently played Dionne Warwick's "I Know I'll Never Love This Way Again" before reports about the AIDS crisis, while his term "femi-Nazis" entered the public consciousness. By 1992, his popularity had earned him not only a syndicated television series (1992-96), but also the unofficial title of media representative for the Republican Party and conservative movement. When Republicans won control of Congress in 1994, he was awarded an honorary membership in their caucus, effectively minting him as a political figure as important as actual lawmakers. Despite his obvious party connections and a yearly salary that eventually rose to $45 million per year, Limbaugh always depicted himself as a solidly middle-class figure, concerned with the rights of the "working man" in the face of wealthy liberals in industry and entertainment who were collaborating to place a yoke around the necks of blue-collar types. So convincing was his rhetoric that many actual "working men" came to view Limbaugh as their spokesperson, even in the face of statements supporting corporate layoffs as something the employees brought upon themselves.
Limbaugh's main contribution to social discourse was to give rise to conservative media as a dominant force in broadcasting. Prior to his arrival, talk radio was at best a secondary consideration for most stations, while conservative viewpoints on television were always countered by a left-leaning response. With the removal of the Fairness Doctrine and Limbaugh's rise to power, radio and TV outlets scrambled to find their own firebrand conservative hosts. Personalities like Sean Hannity and Michael Medved were soon enjoying their own audiences, and even deeply polarizing figures like Michael Savage were granted air time. The rise of these figures, as well as Fox News' ascension to the top of the television news game were due in no small part to Limbaugh's groundbreaking efforts. By the new millennium, chinks had begun to appear in Limbaugh's armor. He suffered a personal setback in 2001 when he announced that he had experienced almost total hearing loss, but eventually regained some hearing through cochlear implants. Critics were quick to connect his impairment when reports surfaced in 2003 that he was under investigation for illegally obtaining prescriptions for painkillers Oxycodone and Hydrocodone, both of which caused hearing loss when taken in large doses. Limbaugh was forced to admit on-air his addiction to prescription painkillers due to a botched back operation, and voluntarily entered a 30-day in-treatment program that same year.
This show of weakness gave Limbaugh's critics the impetus to wage the same sort of no-holds-barred warfare against him that he had levied against liberal causes. Both the progressive group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and comedian-turned-politician Al Franken cited numerous inaccuracies in his commentary and books, and he was forced to resign as a commentator at ESPN in 2003 after alleging that NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb was receiving the support of his team and the league, despite his lack of ability, due to the fact that he was African-American. Though some sportswriters leapt to Limbaugh's defense, citing McNabb's shaky record, others noted that the radio personality had frequently made derogatory comments about black celebrities, politicians and even listeners on his program.
The year 2006 proved to be a particularly galling one for Limbaugh. Not only was he arrested twice on drug-related charges, which resulted in an 18-month therapy regimen and $30,000 in court fees, but he also drew fire for comments about a political ad supporting stem cell research in which Michael J. Fox showed visible signs of his Parkinson's disease. Limbaugh alleged that Fox's tremors were a ruse, which appalled the media and many fans of the actor. The following year, he aired a parody song called "Barack, the Magic Negro" which generated further changes of racial bias. He also generated negative publicity for comments that dismissed the torture of political prisoners at the Abu Gharib prison, demeaned the suicide death of Kurt Cobain, and for airing the name of an underage page involved in an affair with Republican Congressman Mark Foley. Despite these and countless other issues, Limbaugh remained the most popular radio personality in America, with the highest-rated talk radio program on the air. He received four Marconi Awards for Syndicated Radio Personality of the Year from the National Association of Broadcasters, and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1993. He was also widely credited by the media for providing the impetus behind the Republican comeback in 2008 following the election of Barack Obama by vocally supporting the efforts of the Tea Party and directing his listeners' attention to and from various candidates.
Limbaugh returned to the headlines in 2011-12 for comments that went above and beyond even his more incendiary statements of the past in terms of their offensive nature. In 2011, he spoke against U.S. efforts to unseat African despot Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, on grounds that his troops were fighting Muslims. The statements flew against even the most general information about Kony, who enslaved children to serve as his soldiers and committed heinous atrocities in the name of religious mania. The following year, he received the sharpest rebukes of his career for calling Georgetown University student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and "prostitute" for her testimony before the House Democratic Steering and Policy Committee in support of mandatory health coverage for contraceptives. The social media erupted in calls for boycotts of Limbaugh's media, and condemnations from both President Obama and Republican House Speaker John Boehner. Numerous Limbaugh sponsors pulled ads from the show, but not before he offered and then repudiated an apology to Fluke.
By Paul Gaita