Rush Limbaugh, provocative US radio host, dies aged 70on February 17, 2021 at 6:56 pm

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The radio personality was one of the most famous and controversial conservative icons in the US.

Rush Limbaugh, the controversial US radio personality and political commentator, has died aged 70.

His wife Kathryn Adams announced his death on his radio show on Wednesday. He had been suffering from lung cancer.

Best known as the host of the long-running talk radio programme The Rush Limbaugh Show, he was a towering figure in the conservative movement for years.

Three presidents appeared on his show, and he received the US Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2020.

But he was as controversial as he was influential, accused of voicing racist, sexist and homophobic views throughout his career.

The climate change denier peddled numerous conspiracy theories on the air, staunchly opposed immigration, and was a hard-line advocate for US exceptionalism.

He was also a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump, who in 2020 bestowed on Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom – the highest US civilian honour.

Speaking on Fox News after Limbaugh’s death, Mr Trump called the radio host “irreplaceable”.

Born in Missouri on 12 January 1951, Limbaugh first began working in radio at his local station when he was in high school. After graduating in 1969, he started at Southeast Missouri State University but dropped out after two semesters and took his first job at a music radio station in Pennsylvania.

Limbaugh initially struggled to succeed in broadcasting. He was fired from his first two jobs and moved back in with his parents in Missouri. He became the host of a public affairs talk show in Kansas City, but again lost his position.

Rush Limbaugh presenting his radio show in 1995

image copyrightGetty Images

In 1979, he began working for the Kansas City Royals baseball team. During this time he took trips to Europe and Asia, experiences Limbaugh later said reinforced his belief in US exceptionalism.

“I go to Europe and say, ‘Wait a minute. Why is this bedroom so damned old-fashion and doesn’t work? What the hell is this? They call this a toilet?’ So I started asking myself: ‘How is it that we, who have only been around 200 years, are light-years ahead of people that have been alive a thousand?'” he told his listeners in 2013.

Limbaugh returned to radio in 1983, launching The Rush Limbaugh Show the following year at California’s KFBK radio station.

But the outspoken conservative only began to find widespread success after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed its fairness doctrine in 1987 – a regulation requiring US broadcasters to present both sides of a controversial opinion. As the Wall Street Journal put it in 2005, this decision led to “hyper-articulate conservative hosts opening their microphones to millions of hyper-angry conservative voters”.

In 1988 the show became nationally syndicated, broadcast live on hundreds of radio stations around the country. By 2020, it attracted around 27 million listeners each week.

The programme and its host developed huge influence in the Republican Party and the US conservative movement.

President George HW Bush appeared on the programme during his re-election campaign in 1992, while his son George W Bush appeared six times – before, during and after his time in office. President Donald Trump also came on the show in January 2020, when Limbaugh – an ardent advocate of US interventions abroad – praised him for ordering a US drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani.

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Analysis box by Anthony Zurcher, North America reporter

There are few people more responsible for the current shape of US conservative politics than Rush Limbaugh. Before social media allowed the masses an avenue to speak outside the filters of mainstream media, Limbaugh did so by building a powerful talk radio megaphone essentially from scratch. And if he didn’t invent the genre of right-wing populist radio punditry, he re-invented it for the modern era.

His daily radio programme, which expanded into a television and print empire, set the agenda for the Republican Party. He could make or break conservative political careers with a well-timed diatribe or words of praise. He turned back-burner issues into pressing topics of debate. He seemed to welcome controversy and fan the flames of political grievance, knowing they only helped his ratings.

He had listeners who tuned in because they loved his politics and listeners who did so because they hated him. He was seldom boring.

His critics – and there are many – will say he brought a level of toxicity and vitriol to American politics that has sharpened the nation’s partisan divisions. His supporters will say his anger was righteous and he spoke to those the political elite ignored.

Either way, there’s no understating the mark he left on American life.

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Rush Limbaugh with President Donald Trump

image copyrightGetty Images

Limbaugh’s controversial views frequently caused outrage.

He drew strong criticism for his use of racial stereotypes on his show, including once claiming that all newspaper composite images of wanted criminals looked like civil rights activist Rev Jesse Jackson.

He declared his opposition to LGBT rights, and made derogatory remarks about victims of the HIV/Aids epidemic.

He dismissed sexual consent and disparaged advocates of women’s rights. “Feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women access to the mainstream of society,” he once wrote, frequently dismissing women as “femi-Nazis”.

And he voiced a number of lies and fringe theories to his listeners, claiming that President Barack Obama was not born in the US, denying the existence of man-made climate change, accusing environmentalists of deliberately causing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010, and arguing that the dangers of smoking had been exaggerated while the benefits dismissed. “I would like a medal for smoking cigars, is what I’m saying,” he told listeners in 2015.

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Limbaugh’s rhetoric made him one of the most divisive figures in American media.

  • “Women still live longer than men because their lives are easier.”
  • “If any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians. The white race has probably had fewer slaves and for a briefer period of time than any other in the history of the world.”
  • “Everything in Africa’s called Aids. The reason is they get aid money for it.”
  • In February 2020 he claimed the coronavirus was “the common cold” and said it was being “weaponised as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump”.
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Rush Limbaugh at a rally in 2018

image copyrightGetty Images

When Mr Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2020, the president said it was to recognise Limbaugh’s “decades of tireless devotion to our country” and his millions of daily listeners “that you speak to and inspire”.

It came just the day after Limbaugh announced that he had advanced lung cancer.

In October he told his audience that the illness had progressed in “the wrong direction”.

“I never thought I would see 1 October,” he said.

On Limbaugh’s show on Wednesday, Limbaugh’s wife, Kathryn, announced his death saying he died “due to complications from lung cancer”.

“It is with profound sadness, I must share with you directly that our beloved Rush, my wonderful husband, passed away this morning,” she said.

Limbaugh married four times and divorced three times but never had any children.

The radio host’s controversial positions made him a hero of the political right. News of his death was met with a flood of tributes from many of the Republican party’s most famous members.

On Wednesday, Mr Trump called in to Fox News to pay his respects, describing Limbaugh as a “great gentleman, a great man” with “tremendous insight”.

“He loved the country, he loved his wife and his family, and he loved his fans,” Mr Trump said, adding that he shared a “very good friendship” with Limbaugh.

House of Representatives Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said Limbaugh “guided the conservative movement for millions every day”.

“My heart is broken for the Limbaugh family and our country,” said former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

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Limbaugh was “a hero to many”, tweeted Glenn Beck, another hero of the US political right. “An icon. A patriot. A revolutionary that saved radio.”

Some Democrats noted a more divisive legacy.

David Axelrod, former advisor to President Barack Obama, described Limbaugh as a “force of historic proportions”.

“Over the past three decades, he did as much to polarize our politics as anyone and laid the groundwork for Trump and Trumpism,” he wrote on Twitter.

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