or, that fat radio blowhard The Simpsons parodied
Rush Limbaugh was born into a prominent Missouri family, and raised in a town about thirty miles from the Kentucky border. His grandfather, the first Rush Hudson Limbaugh, was America's Ambassador to India in the Eisenhower administration. His uncle, Stephen Limbaugh, was appointed federal judge by Ronald Reagan, and his cousin, Stephen Limbaugh Jr, was appointed to the U.S. District Court by George W. Bush. His father was a prominent local attorney, who imbued his children with conservative ideology. His brother, David Limbaugh, is a lawyer and conservative writer.
He started in radio as a disc jockey on his home town's KGMO (part-owned by Limbaugh's father) while he was still in high school, using the on-air name "Rusty Sharpe." He dropped out of college, and eventually landed a job as a morning disc jockey at a small top-40 radio station in McKeesport, PA, near Pittsburgh. He quickly moved to a bigger station in Pittsburgh, where he worked as "Jeff Christie", and then to Kansas City, where he used his real name. Several times over several years he was fired for making too many, too rude political comments. Frustrated at his lack of success, he left radio, and took a job selling tickets for the Kansas City Royals baseball team.
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Limbaugh's radio career was revived by Norm Woodruff, a San Francisco radio executive who urged friends at Sacramento's KFBK to hire him at a time when he was essentially unknown in the radio business. Woodruff even took Limbaugh shopping for clothes, improving his appearance to make a better impression on KFBK brass. The station decided to take a chance, putting Limbaugh on in what had been Morton Downey, Jr.'s time slot. His ratings were better than Downey's, putting Limbaugh's career back on track. In telling the story of his success, Limbaugh occasionally mentions Woodruff's help, but he never mentions that Woodruff was openly gay, and died of AIDS in the 1980s.
Limbaugh's biggest break came in 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission repealed its Fairness Doctrine, a rule that had required radio and television stations to provide equal time to both sides of political debates. Freed from any requirement to air rebuttals to provocative opinions, Limbaugh's radio style suddenly looked much more profitable, and within months he left Sacramento and signed with the ABC Radio Network, which syndicated his show from New York. Limbaugh is now syndicated by Premiere Radio Networks, which is owned by Clear Channel Communications. He is heard on about 600 stations nationwide, with little room for further growth -- there is no major market area where his program cannot be heard.
When substituting for Pat Sajak in a 1990 episode of Sajak's ill-fated late night talk show, he was heckled and booed by the studio audience after he made anti-gay comments, until the auditorium was emptied, leaving Limbaugh to finish the show in front of hundreds of empty seats. He had his own half-hour syndicated TV show from 1992-96, produced by Republican operative and later CEO of Fox News Roger Ailes and filmed in front of studio audiences pre-screened to be friendly to his conservative perspectives.
Limbaugh backs conservative causes without any exceptions -- he supports capital punishment, opposes abortion, claims that global warming is a lie, etc. Callers are pre-screened; few who disagree with the host are allowed on the air. There are rare guests -- occasionally Vice President Dick Cheney or other Republican officials drop in for a interview. For three hours daily, five days a week, Limbaugh weaves his opinion with a sense of humor, sarcasm, and a confident voice that sounds accurate and authoritative, even if the facts he recites are often far from correct.
He has claimed, for example, that no-one was indicted in the Iran-Contra scandal (14 were), that America has more forest land now than in 1492 (according to US Forest Service estimates, about 250,000,000 acres have been cut), that 75% of Americans who earn minimum wage are teenagers on their first job (in reality, the vast majority of minimum wage workers are over the age of 20), on and on. He has also given occasional credence to fringe conspiracy theories, claiming, for example, that Vince Foster was murdered instead of committing suicide, and that the crime took place in an apartment leased to Hillary Clinton. Limbaugh has also accused German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of being a member of Germany's Red Army Faction, a communist guerilla group blamed for more than 30 murders.
Limbaugh came to manhood in an era when the nation had a military draft for the Vietnam war. He avoided service by having his physician certify his medical unfitness due to an "inoperable pilonidal cyst" and "a football knee from high school." He played one year of varsity football in high school, and his coach, Ryland Meyr, said later he remembered no injuries to Limbaugh. Those who loathe Limbaugh sometimes describe his pilonidal cyst as "a boil on his butt", but that is an oversimplification. A pilonidal cyst is a chronic collection of pus or an abnormal draining passage leading to an abscess, located in the opening between the buttocks muscles. It is susceptible to infection, which can be dangerous on a war front, so severe pilonidal cysts have long been (and still are) legitimate grounds for exemption from military service. The peculiar thing is that Limbaugh denies he ever had a pilonidal cyst, dismissing it as "internet bull", though the record is plain.
But Limbaugh reaches ordinary Americans, because he sounds like an ordinary American. Sometimes he sounds like an ordinary working stiff, as he complains about the wealthy elite who control America: "All of these rich guys -- like the Kennedy family and Perot -- pretending to live just like we do and pretending to understand our trials and tribulations and pretending to represent us." Limbaugh's current contract pays him $45-million per year, and he has spoken of friends who make $180,000 per year and "don't consider themselves rich". He has said of the official poverty line, "$14,400 for a family of four? That's not so bad." Commenting on corporate outsourcing and layoffs, Limbaugh once wondered, "Why is it that whenever a corporation fires workers, it's never speculated that the workers might have deserved it?"
Limbaugh's impact on America has been huge. Talk radio was a very minor niche when his program was first syndicated, and stations that aired a conservative-tilted program almost invariably balanced that with a liberal-tilted program. Now, talk radio is almost exclusively conservative, and Limbaugh has spawned many imitators, including Sean Hannity, Michael Medved, and Tony Snow -- all of whom got early exposure guest-hosting on Limbaugh's program. In 1994, Limbaugh was widely credited as Republicans were elected to control of Congress, with several newly-elected Congressman openly calling themselves "the Dittohead caucus."
In his book The Way Things Ought To Be, Limbaugh wrote, "I believe that strong, wholesome family values are at the very core of a productive, prosperous, and peaceful society." So what are Limbaugh's family values? His first wife, Roxy Maxine McNeely, was a sales secretary at a Kansas City radio station. She was granted divorce under grounds of incompatibility after almost three years of marriage. His second wife, Michelle Sixta, was an usher at the Royals' ball park. They divorced after about five years. He met his third wife, aerobics instructor Marta Fitzgerald, through CompuServe's dating service, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas performed their wedding ceremony. According to the Palm Beach Post, Limbaugh and Fitzgerald maintained separate houses during their marriage. She divorced Limbaugh at his request after ten years of marriage, at about the time Limbaugh began dating then-CNN anchor Daryn Kagan.
In 2003, Limbaugh was forced to resign as a football commentator at ESPN amid allegations of racism, after he said in a telecast that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was overrated, and given extra attention because the league and the media wanted a black quarterback to be successful. So is Limbaugh a racist? On his show, he routinely pronounces "ask" and "asked" as "axe" and "axed", he routinely calls light-skinned African-Americans like Halle Berry and Barack Obama "Halfrican-Americans", and he has frequently described President Obama as "an immature childish manchild" and "essentially a primitive, indigenous guy." He once told a black caller to "take that bone out of your nose and call me back", and asked, "Have you ever noticed how all newspaper composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?"
When his comments are taken as offensive, Limbaugh seems to enjoy the added attention. Among his more famous lines, he described the abuse at Abu Ghraib, where prisoners were stacked naked, sexually taunted and beaten while blindfolded, as the equivalent of "hazing, a fraternity prank". He called 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton "the White House dog", and eulogized Kurt Cobain as "a worthless shred of human debris." In 2006, when it was revealed that Republican Congressman Mark Foley had sent sexually explicit emails to an underage Congressional page, Limbaugh was the first and one of the few media voices to announce the teenager's name. He also blamed the boy for leading the Congressman on, wondering on the air if "maybe the page is out there engaged in some kind of chicanery."
In 2001, Limbaugh announced on his radio program that he had been losing his hearing, and was "almost completely deaf." He then had a cochlear implant installed in his left ear, and said that his hearing was mostly restored. In 2003, responding to published reports that he was under investigation for purchasing illegal drugs, he announced that he had become addicted to prescription opiates such as oxycodone as a result of long-term back pain. Oxycodone is marketed under such familiar brand names as Percodan, Percocet, and OxyContin, and hearing loss is a well-established side effect of oxycodone addiction.
Limbaugh, of course, has always called for harsh penalties for drug abusers, arguing that "if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up." After admitting his own addiction, he took a month off his radio show to undergo rapid rehab. He then spent the next several years battling Florida investigators who sought his medical records to investigate him for "doctor shopping" -- the crime of obtaining the same prescription from more than one doctor, since Limbaugh's use of oxycodone had been far in excess of the amount any doctor would plausibly prescribe. Claiming a right to privacy, he was assisted in his courtroom appeals by the American Civil Liberties Union, a group he has often criticized before and after accepting their help. In a 2006 plea bargain, charges were dropped in exchange for Limbaugh's payment of $30,000, agreement to undergo 18 months of drug abatement therapy, and his agreement to submit to random drug testing.
In June 2006, Limbaugh had further drug problems when a bottle of Viagra was found in his luggage at the Palm Beach Airport. The prescription was not in Limbaugh's name, but no charges were filed against Limbaugh, who was returning from a vacation in the Dominican Republic with four male companions.
In October 2006, responding to television ads showing a shaky Parkinson's-afflicted Michael J. Fox pleading for voters to support candidates who would fund embryonic stem cell research over Republicans who oppose such research, Limbaugh said Fox was simply faking his symptoms. "He is exaggerating the effects of the disease," Limbaugh said. "He is moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act... This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting."
Since Limbaugh's Sacramento days, his show's theme song has been an endless bass-beating loop snipped from a 1984 song by The Pretenders, "My City Was Gone." The song, though, has potent and openly liberal lyrics, written by Chrissie Hynde to protest over-development: "I went back to Ohio / but my pretty countryside / had been paved down the middle / by a government that had no pride." Limbaugh never sought permission to use the music, never paid royalties, and Hynde, living in England, heard only occasionally about her song's hijacking. She had no comment until 1997, when Limbaugh answered a reporter's question about the song by explaining that it was "icing on the cake that it was [written by] an environmentalist, animal rights wacko and was an anti-conservative song. It is anti-development, anti-capitalist, and here I am going to take a liberal song and make fun of [liberals] at the same time." Upon reading that, Hynde had her representatives contact Limbaugh and demand payment. At Hynde's request, Limbaugh's royalty checks for using her song are now made payable to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
A longtime smoker who frequently denied the ill health effects of cigarettes, Limbaugh died at his home in Palm Springs, Florida from lung cancer in 2021.
 "Limbaugh's Comments Touch Off Controversy", ESPN News Services, 1 October 2003.
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