Rush Limbaugh (1951-2021): A Giant of Talk Radio and American Conservatism

Twitter/Rush Limbaugh
Twitter/Rush Limbaugh

Rush Limbaugh, the legendary broadcaster who pioneered talk radio as a political medium, and inspired millions of American conservatives, passed away Wednesday at the age of 70 after a battle with lung cancer that lasted over a year.

Limbaugh’s death was announced during the opening of his radio program by his wife, Kathryn. He had been absent for several days, the longest such absence during months of medical treatment;  his last live broadcast was on February 2.

The Rush Limbaugh Show

Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, Limbaugh was largely self-taught, leaving college to pursue his radio ambitions. He cycled through several radio jobs in the 1970s, and was dismissed over and over again before finding a job with the Kansas City Royals of Major League Baseball.

He soon left that job and returned to radio, finding success at KFBK in Sacramento, California, where he began to develop a devoted audience as one of the first conservative commentators.

In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), under President Ronald Reagan, ended the Fairness Doctrine, which required that views on radio stations be balanced. Limbaugh seized the opportunity to build a national audience, moving to WABC in New York and developing a following across the country. His popularity soared during the Clinton administration, when he lampooned Bill and Hillary Clinton and their Democratic colleagues in the post-Reagan era.

Liberals detested Limbaugh, both for the size of his audience and for the precision of his critiques of the left-leaning mainstream media. He inspired millions of Americans, including Democrats, to embrace conservative views.

One was Andrew Breitbart, the founder of this website, who recalled: “I marveled at how he could take a breaking news story and offer an entertaining and clear analysis … [he] the professor I always wanted but never had the privilege to study under.”

The admiration was mutual: when Breitbart died in 2012, Limbaugh devoted a significant portion of his program to a tribute.

The Rush Limbaugh Show

Limbaugh was, in some ways, the voice of the political coalition that elected, and re-elected, Ronald Reagan. “When Reagan left office,” former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recalled on Wednesday on Fox News, “Rush was the one who was standing there … Rush filled the vacuum that Reagan had left. And Rush continued to do that, all through the last 20 years.”

Gingrich noted that Limbaugh had taken up the challenge, in three successive Democratic presidencies, of explaining how leaders who had run as moderate candidates had attempted to govern from the far left once they were safely in office.

It was Limbaugh, Gingrich said, that inspired voters to back the Republican Revolution of 1994 that gave the GOP its first congressional majority in forty years. “He was very much a normal American, with a huge voice, and a brilliant mind.”

Limbaugh faced many challenges, both personal and political. He was divorced three times before marrying Kathryn Rogers in 2010. (Elton John, whose views are notably left of center, stirred controversy by performing at the wedding.)

In 2003, Limbaugh told his listeners that he had become addicted to painkillers, and took a leave of absence from his show to undergo treatment. In 2012, he survived an advertising boycott after criticizing birth control activist Sandra Fluke.

Yet his audience remained loyal, and devoted.

In 2009, as Republicans were struggling to regroup after Barack Obama’s decisive win in the 2008 presidential election, Limbaugh rallied conservatives with a keynote address at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). His speech, which was re-played on Fox News, remains a clear statement of the basic principles of American conservatism: “I want anyone who believes in life, liberty, pursuit of happiness to succeed.”

As a broadcaster, Limbaugh had no equal. His show was estimated to reach tens of millions of listeners weekly. Last year, Limbaugh announced that the show and its network, Excellence in Broadcasting (EIB), reached 43 million listeners. In October 2020, the New York Times informed its readers — with some regret — that “Talk Radio Is Turning Millions of Americans Into Conservatives,” largely due to Limbaugh’s influence, which it said would last for the foreseeable future.

Limbaugh was also a successful author, noted for The Way Things Ought to Be (1992) and See, I Told You So (1993). But in recent years, he launched a series of children’s books, starting with Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans. He had been concerned about the corruption of educational curricula at the elementary level, and wanted to help American children take pride in their history. The books were instant bestsellers.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Limbaugh retained a critical perspective on Donald Trump, but warmed to the political outsider as the candidate took on the media as no Republican had done before.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, Limbaugh defended the administration against years of demonization by the media and the left. Trump awarded Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom, surprising the broadcaster as First Lady Melania Trump decorated him during the State of the Union Address.

Limbaugh was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2020; he later said he had not expected to live to October. He was convinced, like many conservatives, that the election was unfair. But he urged his audience not to give up on the country, or the cause.

After President-elect Joe Biden told Americans that the “darkest days” of the coronavirus pandemic were “ahead of us,” Rush Limbaugh told his audience:

[I]f I were president-elect of the country, it’s the last thing I would say. Even if I believed it, I doubt that I would put it this way. But I don’t believe this anyway. Our darkest days are ahead of us? What a bleak way of looking at things. … We Americans have adapted to our problems. … Our freedom has allowed our adaptability. If disaster is coming our way, we don’t just sit there and endure it. We come up with ways to avoid it, to beat it back, to overcome it, but we don’t just sit there and accept it. And, as such, we don’t just resign ourselves to the fact that they’re living in the darkest days because we, at least to this point, still have the greatest degree of freedom of any people on earth. Now, it’s under assault and under attack and we all know this. But I don’t believe our darkest days are ahead of us. I never have. People have been asking, “You’ve always told us you’d tell us when it’s time to panic. Is it time?” It’s never time to panic, folks. It’s never, ever gonna be time to give up on our country. It will never be time to give up on the United States. It will never be time to give up on yourself. Trust me.

Read Andrew Breitbart’s tribute here.

Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News and the host of Breitbart News Sunday on Sirius XM Patriot on Sunday evenings from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. ET (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. PT). He is the author of the recent e-book, Neither Free nor Fair: The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. His recent book, RED NOVEMBER, tells the story of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary from a conservative perspective. He is a winner of the 2018 Robert Novak Journalism Alumni Fellowship. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.

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