WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Last week was an eventful one for Rush Limbaugh, the conservative radio kingpin who has dominated airwaves for years.
During his show last Monday, Limbaugh, 69, told listeners he has advanced lung cancer, a grim diagnosis. The next evening, Limbaugh cried on live TV as President Donald Trump used the State of the Union address to award the radio host the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
To Trump and other fans, Limbaugh is a fearless truth teller who stands up to the tyranny of political correctness, the folly of big government and the out-of-touch edicts of an unelected cabal of left-wing academics, bureaucrats and journalists.
To his detractors, Limbaugh is a bigoted blowhard who spreads lies and hate and paved the path toward today’s media landscape of political polarization and “alternative facts.”
Limbaugh hasn’t ended his radio career, but the gravity of last week’s revelation brought no shortage of reflection on his contentious legacy.
“He was very much a trendsetter in the movement of political media toward polarization,” said Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University. “He was providing a voice for people who felt like they didn’t have a voice for their point of view. In a lot of ways, he was a precursor for how media has evolved.”
At the peak of his power in the 1990s, Limbaugh’s radio show drew a weekly audience of 20 million listeners. His acolytes referred to themselves as Dittoheads, and they made Limbaugh wealthy.
The monthly Limbaugh Letter was mailed to nearly half a million subscribers. His books leaped to the top of best-seller lists. Limbaugh even marketed his own line of silk neckties, under the brand name No Boundaries.
It was an apt moniker for a commentator who attacked political correctness with impolite jibes at women, African Americans, immigrants and liberals. Limbaugh labeled feminists “femi-Nazis” and said the NBA should be known as the “Thug Basketball Association.”
He argued that government funding for birth control pills and condoms amounted to paying women to have sex.
In one oft-pilloried line, Limbaugh opined, “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society.”
Other utterances offered more polite distillations of conservative ideology. “No nation ever taxed itself into prosperity,” he quipped.
Rush Limbaugh and Shannen Doherty have advanced cancer:What does that mean? What is stage IV?
Revered by some, a ‘Big Fat Idiot’ to others
A native of small-town Missouri, Limbaugh spent his 20s and early 30s bouncing between radio jobs. He worked for a time for baseball’s Kansas City Royals.
His break came during the Reagan era, when Limbaugh hosted a conservative talk show in Sacramento, California. In 1988, he moved his baritone voice and provocative pronouncements to New York and syndication on AM radio.
Limbaugh’s popularity and influence exploded. Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in 1994, the first time in four decades Democrats had relinquished the majority, and Limbaugh received much of the credit.
“If I characterized him as the person who brought Republicans to power, I don’t think I’d be overstating it,” said Mark Foley, a West Palm Beach, Florida, Republican who was elected to Congress for the first time in 1994. “His voice on the radio had emerged as a galvanizing voice for change in our country.”
Foley recalled the class of newly elected Republicans taking buses from Washington to Baltimore for a welcome speech by Limbaugh. (Foley resigned his House seat in 2006 amid reports he’d sent sexually explicit messages to congressional pages.)
Revered on the right, Limbaugh was so reviled by the left that the book “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” by comedian and future U.S. Sen. Al Franken, became a best seller. Franken’s theme throughout the tome was that Limbaugh’s material was “deliberately misleading” – and that, for all his barbs aimed at the physical appearance of women, Limbaugh himself was an unpleasant sight. (Franken resigned from the Senate in 2017 after several women accused him of unwanted kissing or touching.)
‘Everybody was copying Rush Limbaugh’
In 1996, Limbaugh took his talents and his millions to Palm Beach, Florida. He paid $6.7 million for an oceanfront manse on the town’s north end and began doing his show from the island.
Limbaugh long was coy about precisely where he sat as he delivered his monologues. With its tight municipal rules, the town of Palm Beach frowned on running a national media empire from a residential address. Limbaugh later leased office space on the island and set up a radio studio.
Eyeing Limbaugh’s massive audience and private jet, other media entrepreneurs sought to replicate his success. The Drudge Report began publishing in 1995. Fox News went on the air in 1996. Conservative outlet Newsmax launched from West Palm Beach in 1998.
“Everybody was copying Rush Limbaugh,” Foley said. “Everybody wanted to be Rush Limbaugh.”
The Limbaugh-inspired spread of partisan platforms was the dawn of a new age of “media bubbles,” which finds Americans relentlessly narrowing the breadth of political ideas they consume.
“I don’t think people understood we were heading away from a big-audience, general news format to a much more tailored news,” Wagner said.
Foley became friendly enough with Limbaugh that he occasionally socialized with the radio host. Foley said he once took his same-sex partner to dinner at Limbaugh’s mansion. In contrast to his on-air personality, Limbaugh proved a gracious host to his gay guests, Foley said.
“He was very quiet,” Foley said. “People hear this very boisterous, argumentative, pushy voice on the radio. The Rush Limbaugh you hear on the radio is not the Rush Limbaugh you see at home.”
Foley said he and Limbaugh watched “The Sopranos” and dipped into Limbaugh’s collection of expensive cigars and fine wine. Foley pushed back against what he considered Limbaugh’s mischaracterization of details of health policy.
“I said, ‘Rush, you go on the radio and say this stuff and it’s not all correct, and then I have people calling and yelling at me,’” Foley recalled. “He said, ‘Mark, you’re the policy person. I’m the entertainer.’”
McNabb controversy, struggles in personal life led to more polarization
In the fall of 2003, Limbaugh faced strong pushback over his racially tinged views, followed closely by a scandal in his personal life.
First, Limbaugh resigned as an ESPN sports analyst after his comments about NFL star Donovan McNabb drew fire. The Philadelphia Eagles quarterback was overrated, Limbaugh argued, because sports reporters wanted an African American signal-caller to succeed.
“The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,” Limbaugh said, commingling the stilted syntax and conspiracy theorizing familiar to his army of Dittoheads.
McNabb had made the three previous Pro Bowls, and he would be selected again after the 2003, 2004 and 2009 seasons. To Limbaugh, the accolades were the result of racial preference, not objective performance.
“There’s a little hope invested in McNabb,” Limbaugh said on ESPN. “And he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he didn’t deserve.”
Athletes, political figures and sports commentators lashed back. They argued that Limbaugh was off base and that the race-baiting remarks that were red meat to his radio audience were out of bounds on a national sports show. Under pressure, Limbaugh left ESPN.
Days later, Limbaugh told listeners that he was addicted to painkillers and would take a break from broadcasting while he sought treatment.
Like everything about Limbaugh, the episode proved polarizing. His fans forgave him, reasoning that he, like many others, had fallen victim to the scourge of addiction.
His detractors were stunned by the hypocrisy. For all his tough talk about personal responsibility, despite his on-air embrace of law and order, Limbaugh eagerly broke the rules when it suited him.
Limbaugh returned to the air and remained in Palm Beach, and the money continued to flow. In 2008, he signed an eight-year contract with Clear Channel Communications worth $400 million.
Limbaugh’s audience has declined in recent years as other conservative voices have emerged. Even so, he occasionally has golfed with Trump.
After Trump honored Limbaugh during his State of the Union speech, the move brought a predictable response from Democrats.
“Rush Limbaugh spent his entire time on the air dividing people, belittling people,” presidential candidate Joe Biden said after Trump’s address.
On social media, Limbaugh haters engaged in the sort of vitriol that the host often directed at them. One meme showed a red-robed Klansman receiving the medal.
Foley, an admirer of the talk show host, acknowledged the divergent opinions about Limbaugh.
“I don’t think everybody shared the sentiment that he deserved it,” Foley said.
As for Limbaugh’s role in the coarsening of political discourse, Foley argued that, for all his influence, one bombastic talking head can take only so much blame.
“There’s no question there’s been a degradation of the conversation,” Foley said. “I don’t pin that on him.”
Follow reporter Jeff Ostrowski on Twitter: @bio561
Happy tears, hugs and Champagne:Every emotional moment we witnessed behind the scenes at the 2020 Oscars