If there was a Mount Rushmore for talk-show radio hosts, there’s little question that the first figure chiseled into that mountain would be Rush Limbaugh. Few connected with audiences like the conservative radio host who died Wednesday at the age of 70 after a battle against lung cancer.
For more than three decades, Limbaugh’s nationally syndicated radio show that aired on more than 650 stations from coast to coast drew millions of devoted listeners and helped set the conservative political agenda in this country. And, yet, that very same show — because of Limbaugh’s bigotry, gaslighting and crass hatefulness — helped to split a nation and lay the groundwork for the political discourse that currently defines our country.
So as we look back at Limbaugh’s legacy today, there is no simple description.
He was both brilliant and bitter, masterful and malicious, alluring yet repulsive, superbly talented and yet supremely contemptible.
He was the good, bad and ugly of American media and American politics.
The New York Times’ Robert D. McFadden and Michael M. Grynbaum described him this way: “He became a singular figure in the American media, fomenting mistrust, grievances and even hatred on the right for Americans who did not share their views, and he pushed baseless claims and toxic rumors long before Twitter and Reddit became havens for such disinformation. In politics, he was not only an ally of Mr. Trump but also a precursor, combining media fame, right-wing scare tactics and over-the-top showmanship to build an enormous fan base and mount attacks on truth and facts.”
The Washington Post’s Marc Fisher wrote, “He saw himself as a teacher, polemicist, media critic and GOP strategist, but above all as an entertainer and salesman. Mr. Limbaugh mocked Democrats and liberals, touted a traditional Midwestern, moralistic patriotism and presented himself on the air as a biting but jovial know-it-all who pontificated ‘with half my brain tied behind my back just to make it fair,’ as he often said.”
His influence on both radio and politics cannot be overstated.
During a phone interview on Fox News following Limbaugh’s death, Fox News primetime host Sean Hannity said, “There is no talk radio as we know it without Rush Limbaugh. It just doesn’t exist. I would even make the argument in many ways there is no Fox News or even some of these other opinionated cable networks.”
Former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly tweeted, “The legacy of Rush Limbaugh is clear: the most successful radio broadcaster in history. Mr. Limbaugh provided a conservative balance against the dangerous left wing corporate media machine.”
Yet, to be frank, not everyone was saddened by Limbaugh’s passing — as a quick glance on social media would show you.
HuffPost’s headline called Limbaugh the “bigoted king of talk radio.” HuffPost writers Nick Robins-Early and Christopher Mathias called Limbaugh “a talk radio pioneer who saturated America’s airwaves with cruel bigotries, lies and conspiracy theories.”
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, tweeted, “Rush Limbaugh helped create today’s polarized America by normalizing racism, bigotry, misogyny and mockery. He was a demagogue who got rich off of hate speech, division, lies and toxicity. That is his legacy.”
Limbaugh was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, on Jan. 12, 1951. After dropping out of Southeast Missouri State University, Limbaugh tried to make it in radio and worked as a disc jockey before getting his own show in 1984 at an AM station in Sacramento, California. In 1988, Limbaugh’s show was syndicated, he moved to New York and thus set the stage for, arguably, the most successful and influential talk show in radio history.
Not only did his show connect with regular listeners, but it attracted the leading figures in the Republican party — such as Ronald Reagan.
Rush Limbaugh suddenly was the king of talk radio, masterfully hosting a three-hour show entirely by himself, except for phone calls and occasional interviews. In terms of hosting a radio show, regardless of content, Limbaugh might have been the best to ever do it.
However, Limbaugh did have a number of personal issues. CNN’s Oliver Darcy notes, “In 2001, Limbaugh suffered hearing loss due to an autoimmune inner ear disease. He later received a cochlear implant. In 2003, Limbaugh announced that he was addicted to pain medication and would seek treatment. Limbaugh said he had become addicted after back surgery. In 2006, he was charged with ‘doctorshopping.’ His attorney said he pleaded not guilty and that the charge would be dropped once he completed 18 months of drug treatment.”
Through it all, one thing remained constant: Limbaugh’s dominance of the talk-radio world, as well as his position at the top voice of American conservatism. It also should be noted and respected that Limbaugh continued to have a powerful voice in a medium (terrestrial radio) that has lost popularity and reach over the past decade.
MSNBC’s Chris Hayes tweeted that Limbaugh is among the “five most important and influential conservative figures in American life over the past three decades” along with Donald Trump, Newt Gingrich and Fox News’ Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes. Hayes added, “The conservatism we have is the conservatism they have forged.”
Limbaugh was so big that, in 2003, ESPN invited him to be an NFL commentator on its “NFL Sunday Countdown” pregame show even though Limbaugh had no experience as a football commentator. But that risky experiment blew up in ESPN’s face and lasted only a month. Limbaugh resigned under pressure after he said Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb “got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn’t deserve.” Limbaugh went on to claim that was because the media wanted a Black quarterback — like McNabb — to succeed. That comment merely confirmed what Limbaugh’s critics already believe — that Limbaugh was a bigot and a race-baiter.
But his crash at ESPN didn’t slow down his syndicated radio program, which continued to be as popular as ever. What also continued was Limbaugh’s hateful rhetoric on the radio.
Such as 2006, when he accused actor Michael J. Fox of either acting or purposefully not taking his medication in order to exaggerate his Parkinson’s symptoms while appearing in a Democratic election commercial.
Such as 2009, when, just before Barack Obama was sworn in for this first term, Limbaugh said, “I hope he fails.”
Such as all the times he pushed “birther” conspiracy theories about Obama.
Such as 2012, when he called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” after she pushed for universal contraception coverage.
His defiance against Democrats lasted right up until the end as he continued to push against the results of the 2020 presidential election and even seemed to support those who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Those are just a few of many examples over the years of Limbaugh’s abhorrent behavior.
Many of Limbaugh’s fans dismissed his insults as simply being entertainment — part of Limbaugh’s schtick. Or, they accused those on the receiving end of Limbaugh’s attacks as being “snowflakes” or part of the “P.C. police” whenever they pushed back or felt offended.
Fox News’ Chris Wallace said there was a big difference between how Limbaugh was on the air compared to off the air.
“He was actually kind of quiet and even shy,” Wallace said. “And, you know, his views were his views. But there was, he was not as forceful a presence in person, in private, as if he was on the air.”
While that might have been true, one cannot dismiss the things he said on the air — things that often landed him in trouble. Limbaugh often was forced to apologize to placate sponsors who threatened to pull their advertising. Yet his popularity among listeners never waned.
Limbaugh announced on his show a year ago that he had advanced lung cancer. Just one day later, then-President Trump awarded him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom during Trump’s State of the Union address.
Many conservatives applauded Trump honoring Limbaugh, while others bristled at the thought. Right after all this, Media Matters’ Matt Gertz wrote, “What strikes me the most as an observer of Limbaugh’s career over the past 12 years is his frequent jaw-dropping cruelty. He mocks the suffering of others and trains his audience not to sympathize with people different from themselves.”
Reaction continued to be mixed following Limbaugh’s death on Wednesday. Conservatives mourned Limbaugh’s passing. Fox News essentially turned all of its programming over to Limbaugh’s death and even did a telephone interview with former President Trump — his first TV interview since leaving office.
“He is a legend,” Trump said. “He really is. There aren’t too many legends around. But he is a legend. And those people who listen to him every day, it was like a religious experience for a lot of people.”
Former Vice President Mike Pence told Fox News, “There will never be another Rush Limbaugh.”
Limbaugh will be missed by millions, and truthfully, not missed by millions more.
As Michael Harrison — publisher of Talkers trade magazine, which covers talk radio — told USA Today’s Maria Puente:
Love him or loathe him, few would deny that Limbaugh was one of the most influential commercial broadcasters, if not the most influential, in American history.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.