The life of Rush Limbaugh: How a loud-mouthed conservative Sacramento disk jockey transformed politics and the media

Rush Limbaugh in His Studio During His Radio Show.

  • Rush Limbaugh has been one of the most popular conservative radio hosts in America for decades.
  • In the 1990s, he became a political force, helping Republicans take the majority in the House of Representatives in 1994.
  • He's also despised by many people for mocking and attacking women, liberals, and people of other races.
  • In February, Limbaugh announced he had lung cancer. Shortly afterward, President Donald Trump awarded him the Medal of Freedom during his State of the Union address.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Rush Limbaugh may be the most incendiary radio host in America.

Born into a line of conservative lawyers, Limbaugh hated school and saw radio as his future.

At first, his radio career was tumultuous. He was fired more than once as he discovered what could and couldn't be said on air.

He first commanded a national audience at 37. In the 1990s, he became a political force. Every week, he spoke to millions of Americans. In 1994, he was credited for Republicans taking the majority in the House of Representatives, after campaigning vigorously on air.

According to Vanity Fair, Limbaugh's position with conservatives is comparable to Oprah's position with women - they both wield "concentrated and extraordinary power."

But while Republicans have backed him and listened to him, he's despised by many liberals for mocking and attacking minorities.

In February, Limbaugh announced he had advanced lung cancer. In the same month, President Donald Trump awarded Limbaugh the Medal of Freedom, during his State of the Union address.

Here's his life so far.

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Rush "Rusty" Limbaugh III was born on January 12, 1951, in Missouri. He came from an established conservative family.

Rush "Rusty" Limbaugh III was born on January 12, 1951, in Missouri. He came from an established conservative family.

His father and grandfather were both lawyers. His grandfather was one of the oldest attorneys in America, serving until he died at 104. His mother was the clown of the family. Limbaugh was a mixture of his parents.

Sources: Politico, Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Biography.com

He loved radio from an early age.

He loved radio from an early age.

He'd listen in while preparing for school. He told The New York Times, "My mother would be fixing me breakfast, and I'd be listening to the guy on the radio. He'd be having fun, and I was preparing to go to prison."

Sources: Politico, The New York Times

His first job, at 13, was as a shoe shiner at a barbershop. At 16, his father got him an internship at the local radio station, because he had been a former part-owner.

His first job, at 13, was as a shoe shiner at a barbershop. At 16, his father got him an internship at the local radio station, because he had been a former part-owner.

Limbaugh started out at the bottom of the ladder. He later became a DJ, working outside of school hours. He idolized and mimicked a Chicago DJ named Larry Lujack.

Sources: Politico, The New York Times, Fox News, Biography.com

He went to Southeast Missouri State University for a year but dropped out to pursue radio.

He went to Southeast Missouri State University for a year but dropped out to pursue radio.

According to the Washington Post, he "did not meet with early intellectual grandeur." He later graduated from the Elkins Institute of Radio and Technology, in Dallas.

Source: Washington Post

In the following years, he learned what he could and couldn't get away with on the radio.

In the following years, he learned what he could and couldn't get away with on the radio.

On air, he used different names like "Rusty Sharpe" and "Jeff Christie." He worked in radio in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. He was fired twice from radio stations in Kansas City, and in between spent five years working for the city's baseball team.

Source: The New York Times

He also had two failed marriages.

He also had two failed marriages.

In 1977, he married Roxy McNeely. They divorced after 18 months. In 1983, he married Michelle Sixta, and they divorced five years later. According to the Palm Beach Post, he said he struggled with love because "I'm too much in love with myself."

Sources: The New York Times, Palm Beach Post

In 1985, he moved to Sacramento and started his own show titled "The Rush Limbaugh" show on KFBK.

In 1985, he moved to Sacramento and started his own show titled "The Rush Limbaugh" show on KFBK.

His audience doubled within a year. A year after that, he was discovered by the former head of ABC Radio, Ed McLaughlin, who hated him on the first listen, but enjoyed him the second time while driving. He found that Limbaugh wasn't easy to ignore.

Sources: The New York Times, CBS News

In August 1988, at the age of 37, his radio show went national. It was broadcasted through 56 stations.

In August 1988, at the age of 37, his radio show went national. It was broadcasted through 56 stations.

According to The New York Times, Limbaugh broke the radio rule that personalities never look like they sound. Lewis Grossberger wrote, "Limbaugh sounds like a huge man who would wear bankers' suits and ties and have short, neat Republican hair. And he is."

Sources: Vanity Fair, Fox News, Cigar Aficionado

Rush was helped by the repeal of the 1987 Fairness Doctrine, which required radio stations to provide opposing opinions.

Rush was helped by the repeal of the 1987 Fairness Doctrine, which required radio stations to provide opposing opinions.

Once it was gone, Rush could air whatever conservative opinions he liked, within reason.

Sources: Wall Street Journal

Bucking a national trend of putting hosts on at night, Limbaugh spoke for three hours in the middle of the day.

Bucking a national trend of putting hosts on at night, Limbaugh spoke for three hours in the middle of the day.

He also didn't invite guests onto the show, so he was the main attraction. He told The New York Times, "I wanted to be the reason people listened. That's how you pad your pocket. That's how you establish yourself."

By 1990, he had about 5 million listeners — the most out of any American talk show host.

By 1990, he had about 5 million listeners — the most out of any American talk show host.

Brian Rosenwald, who wrote a book on American talk radio, told WBUR he was popular because he did something new. He took the "high jinks" from his years as a local DJ "and infused it into a topical talk show" where he applied the values he'd gotten from his conservative father, Rosenwald said.

Source: The New York Times

His style was unique. He sang, did parodies, ranted, and pretended to cry.

His style was unique. He sang, did parodies, ranted, and pretended to cry.

According to The New York Times, "His vocabulary is extensive; his diction tends to the grandiosely formal, though overblown to the point of self-parody."

He made it clear his targets, along with liberals, were minorities — African Americans, women, activists, or environmentalists.

He made it clear his targets, along with liberals, were minorities — African Americans, women, activists, or environmentalists.

Source: The New York Times

As his reputation grew, he toured the country on the weekends. In 1990, he made 45 appearances, bringing in about $360,000.

As his reputation grew, he toured the country on the weekends. In 1990, he made 45 appearances, bringing in about $360,000.

He made jokes like putting a condom on the microphone as a way to prevent profanity. He was making a point about how condoms weren't the best way to stop sexually transmitted diseases.

Source: The New York Times

Between 1992 and 1996, he also had a television talk show.

Between 1992 and 1996, he also had a television talk show.

One of the more infamous and crass moments in his show is when he showed a picture of the White House cat, then compared then-13-year-old Chelsea Clinton to the White House dog.

Sources: CBS News, Mother Jones

In 1992, former president Ronald Reagan wrote him a letter after the election, declaring him "the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country."

In 1992, former president Ronald Reagan wrote him a letter after the election, declaring him "the Number One voice for conservatism in our Country."

He also wrote, "I know the liberals call you the most dangerous man in America, but don't worry about it, they used to say the same thing about me. Keep up the good work."

In 1992, he published the book "The Way Things Ought to Be."

In 1992, he published the book "The Way Things Ought to Be."

According to the Los Angeles Times, the point he was trying to make was to bring back the ideas from Reagan's presidential era. He didn't want people to attack capitalism, and he wanted to bring back self-reliance.

In 1993, he married his third wife, Marta Fitzgerald.

In 1993, he married his third wife, Marta Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald was also divorced twice. They met online when Fitzgerald, whose name was "Jacksonville Jaguar," asked for advice on how to argue with a professor who didn't like Reagan.

He didn't respond, and she wrote a furious letter to him calling him "pompous." That time, he responded.

Sources: The New York Times, Palm Beach Post

As Limbaugh's reach grew, he called himself "just a harmless little fuzzball." According to the Washington Post, he knew otherwise.

As Limbaugh's reach grew, he called himself "just a harmless little fuzzball." According to the Washington Post, he knew otherwise.

Limbaugh rallied behind Republicans and attacked Democrats. He knew how much power he had.

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times, Washington Post

He attacked former Democratic President Bill Clinton.

He attacked former Democratic President Bill Clinton.

Limbaugh attacked Clinton for not fighting in the Vietnam War.

Limbaugh also hadn't fought. He avoided being drafted after he found he had a cyst in his backside. But that didn't stop him criticizing Clinton. He also attacked Hillary Clinton, saying she kept a "testicle lockbox" and castrated men.

Sources: Washington Post, Media Matters

According to The New York Times, he "commanded the air war." One poll found that people who listened to Rush for at least 10 hours every week were three times more likely to vote Republican.

According to The New York Times, he "commanded the air war." One poll found that people who listened to Rush for at least 10 hours every week were three times more likely to vote Republican.

Sources: The New York Times, The New York Times,

In 1994, he was made an honorary Republican and given a "Majority Makers" pin. Many Republicans said he was responsible for the party's success taking over the House of Representatives.

In 1994, he was made an honorary Republican and given a "Majority Makers" pin. Many Republicans said he was responsible for the party's success taking over the House of Representatives.

It was the first time Republicans had the majority in 40 years.

Sources: The New York Times, Washington Post

Despite his close ties with the GOP, radio was a business for him.

Despite his close ties with the GOP, radio was a business for him.

He told his biographer, "First and foremost, I'm a businessman. My first goal is to attract the largest possible audience so I can charge confiscatory ad rates. I happen to have great entertainment skills... that enables me to sell airtime."

Source: Politico

Limbaugh's radio show continued to grow. In 2001, it was syndicated to almost 600 stations by Premiere Radio Networks, in a nine-year deal that earned him about $200 million.

Limbaugh's radio show continued to grow. In 2001, it was syndicated to almost 600 stations by Premiere Radio Networks, in a nine-year deal that earned him about $200 million.

Source: CNN

That same year, he went deaf from an autoimmune ear disease. He lost almost all of his hearing.

That same year, he went deaf from an autoimmune ear disease. He lost almost all of his hearing.

For about four months, he did his radio program by relying on his staff and his teleprompter. In early 2002, he received a cochlear implant, which enabled him to hear again.

Source: CNN

In October 2003, he resigned from ESPN, where he was working as a commentator, over controversial comments he made about then Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

In October 2003, he resigned from ESPN, where he was working as a commentator, over controversial comments he made about then Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.

Sources The New York Times, CNN

He said McNabb was overrated, and that the media gave him too much credit because he was African-American. He never apologized for his comments, which were widely criticized as racist.

He said McNabb was overrated, and that the media gave him too much credit because he was African-American. He never apologized for his comments, which were widely criticized as racist.

Sources The New York Times, CNN

About a week later, he checked himself into rehab to deal with an addiction to prescription pain medication.

About a week later, he checked himself into rehab to deal with an addiction to prescription pain medication.

He made his announcement before The National Enquirer could run its front-page spread with the headline, "Rush Limbaugh Caught in Drug Ring."

Sources: CNN, NY Daily News, Palm Beach Post

The story came from his housekeeper, who alleged he was taking up to 30 Oxycontin pills a day.

The story came from his housekeeper, who alleged he was taking up to 30 Oxycontin pills a day.

Limbaugh took five weeks off work. Despite his addiction, he had spoken on-air about drug users needing to be punished, especially white drug users.

Sources: CBS News, ABC News

In 2004, he divorced from his wife Marta while he was being investigated for "doctor shopping," which is when a person goes to different doctors to get the same subscription multiple times.

In 2004, he divorced from his wife Marta while he was being investigated for "doctor shopping," which is when a person goes to different doctors to get the same subscription multiple times.

Source: Palm Beach Post

In 2005, his political views started to get more stark.

In 2005, his political views started to get more stark.

After some Republicans voted against oil drilling in the Arctic, he said on-air, "There's no such thing as a moderate. A moderate is just a liberal disguise, and they are doing everything they can to derail the conservative agenda."

Source: The Atlantic

In 2006, he was arrested on a charge of fraud to conceal information to obtain prescriptions.

In 2006, he was arrested on a charge of fraud to conceal information to obtain prescriptions.

The investigation found he had managed to get around 2,000 pain killers from multiple doctors in about six months.

Limbaugh pleaded not guilty, and the charge was dropped as long as Limbaugh continued with his drug treatment.

Sources: CBS News, NBC News

In 2006, Limbaugh said Michael J. Fox was exaggerating his Parkinson's disease symptoms.

In 2006, Limbaugh said Michael J. Fox was exaggerating his Parkinson's disease symptoms.

Fox had been in a few ads for politicians who supported stem cell research. Limbaugh said on-air, "He's 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."

Sources: The New York Times, Washington Post

In 2008, he launched "Operation Chaos," where he called for Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton to try and stop Obama from winning the Democratic presidential nomination. It didn't work.

In 2008, he launched "Operation Chaos," where he called for Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton to try and stop Obama from winning the Democratic presidential nomination. It didn't work.

Source: CBS News

Four days into Obama's first term, he said the president's failure was all he wanted.

Four days into Obama's first term, he said the president's failure was all he wanted.

At that point, the Republicans were looking like a "headless horseman," according to The New York Times. Limbaugh knew it, and he urged the party to not concede to the Democrats. He was against any bipartisanship.

Sources: The Telegraph, The New York Times, The New York Times

He was also pushed to a more prominent position in the Republican party when Obama famously said, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done."

He was also pushed to a more prominent position in the Republican party when Obama famously said, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done."

Source: The New York Times

In 2008, his show was extended until 2016, with a pay raise that saw him earn $50 million a year.

In 2008, his show was extended until 2016, with a pay raise that saw him earn $50 million a year.

On-air, he said, "I'm not retiring until every American agrees with me."

Source: The New York Times

In 2009, Limbaugh turned on Republicans who had voted for a new carbon capping system.

In 2009, Limbaugh turned on Republicans who had voted for a  new carbon capping system.

By 2010, according to The New York Times, Limbaugh had become the "brains and the spirit" behind the resurgence of the Republican party. He was pushing the party to the right.

Sources: The Telegraph, The Atlantic, WBUR

In 2010, he married his fourth wife, Kathryn Rogers. Elton John sang at the wedding.

In 2010, he married his fourth wife, Kathryn Rogers. Elton John sang at the wedding.

Source: NBC Chicago

He went a step too far in 2012. On-air, he called Sandra Fluke, a contraception advocate, a "slut," and said that she and other women should make a sex tape for him.

He went a step too far in 2012. On-air, he called Sandra Fluke, a contraception advocate, a "slut," and said that she and other women should make a sex tape for him.

It was a turning point in his controversial career.

Source: The New Republic

Obama publicly said he supported Fluke, which meant that it was suddenly in the national news cycle.

Obama publicly said he supported Fluke, which meant that it was suddenly in the national news cycle.

Source: Politico

Liberal media group Media Matters campaigned for advertisers to drop Limbaugh, and the slogan "Flush Rush" made its rounds on social media.

Liberal media group Media Matters campaigned for advertisers to drop Limbaugh, and the slogan "Flush Rush" made its rounds on social media.

Source: Politico

His comments had long-lasting effects.

His comments had long-lasting effects.

In 2016, advertisers still avoided him, and he had been dropped from key radio stations in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. Some companies stopped advertising on the radio altogether to avoid being linked to controversies.

In 2015, Limbaugh said on-air that second-hand smoke was not dangerous. He said it was a "myth."

In 2015, Limbaugh said on-air that second-hand smoke was not dangerous. He said it was a "myth."

He also said, "Not everybody that smokes gets cancer. Now, it's true that everybody who smokes dies, but so does everyone who eats carrots."

Second-hand smoking does, in fact, cause cancer.

Sources: NY Daily News, RushLimbaugh.com

In 2016, Limbaugh didn't attack Donald Trump as he ran for president. He didn't support him either.

In 2016, Limbaugh didn't attack Donald Trump as he ran for president. He didn't support him either.

At that point he had an audience of about 13 million weekly listeners, and by not criticizing him some said he had helped Trump enter the White House. As Politico wrote, he was "agnostic."

Source: Politico

But the move might have backfired. In 2018, he was replaced by Sean Hannity on a list of the most important radio hosts in America.

But the move might have backfired. In 2018, he was replaced by Sean Hannity on a list of the most important radio hosts in America.

Hannity had usurped him, due to his close relationship with Trump. It didn't help that Trump watches television and doesn't listen to the radio.

In February 2020, he announced he had advanced lung cancer. He told his listeners he wouldn't be able to be on air every day due to the treatment he needed.

In February 2020, he announced he had advanced lung cancer. He told his listeners he wouldn't be able to be on air every day due to the treatment he needed.

Source: NBC News

Later, in February, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom. It's America's highest honor for a civilian. Former winners include Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa.

Later, in February, he was awarded the Medal of Freedom. It's America's highest honor for a civilian. Former winners include Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa.

It was the first time one had ever been awarded during a State of the Union address. It was widely criticized because of Limbaugh's comments.

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