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Rush Limbaugh, ‘voice of American conservatism,’ dies

In this Feb. 4, 2020 file photo, Rush Limbaugh reacts as first Lady Melania Trump, and his wife Kathryn, applaud, as President Donald Trump delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington. Limbaugh, the talk radio host who became the voice of American conservatism, died Wednesday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Rush Limbaugh, the talk radio host who ripped into liberals and laid waste to political correctness with a gleeful malice that made him one of the most powerful voices in politics, influencing the rightward push of American conservatism and the rise of Donald Trump, died Wednesday. He was 70.

Limbaugh said a year ago that he had lung cancer.

Unflinchingly conservative, wildly partisan, bombastically self-promoting and larger than life, Limbaugh galvanized listeners for more than 30 years with his talent for sarcastic, insult-laced commentary.

He called himself an entertainer, but his statements during his three-hour weekday radio show broadcast on nearly 600 U.S. stations shaped the national political conversation, swaying ordinary Republicans and the direction of their party.

Blessed with a made-for-broadcasting voice, he delivered his opinions with such certainty that his followers, or “Ditto-heads,” as he dubbed them, took his words as sacred truth.

Forbes magazine estimated his 2018 income at $84 million, ranking him only behind Howard Stern among radio personalities.

Limbaugh took as a badge of honor the title “most dangerous man in America.” He said he was the “truth detector,” the “doctor of democracy,” a “lover of mankind,” a “harmless, lovable little fuzz ball” and an “all-around good guy.” He claimed he had “talent on loan from God.”

Long before Trump’s rise in politics, Limbaugh was pinning insulting names on his enemies and raging against the mainstream media, accusing it of feeding the public lies. He called Democrats and others on the left communists, wackos, feminazis, liberal extremists.

Limbaugh often enunciated the Republican platform better and more entertainingly than any party leader, becoming a GOP kingmaker whose endorsement and friendship were sought. Polls consistently found he was regarded as a voice of the party.

His idol, Ronald Reagan, wrote a letter of praise that Limbaugh proudly read on the air in 1992: “You’ve become the number one voice for conservatism.” In 1994, Limbaugh was so widely credited with the first Republican takeover of Congress in 40 years that the GOP made him an honorary member of the new class.

During the 2016 presidential primaries, Limbaugh said he realized early on that Trump would be the nominee, and he likened the candidate’s deep connection with his supporters to his own. In a 2018 interview, he conceded Trump is rude but said that is because he is “fearless and willing to fight against the things that no Republican has been willing to fight against.”

Trump, for his part, heaped praise on Limbaugh and, during last year’s State of the Union speech, awarded the broadcaster the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.

Both men ultimately found Florida more comfortable than New York: The former president’s Mar-a-Lago estate is 8 miles down the same Palm Beach boulevard as Limbaugh’s $50 million beachfront expanse.

Trump called into Fox News Channel to discuss his friend’s death Wednesday, saying they last spoke three or four days ago, lauding him as “a legend” with impeccable political instincts who “was fighting till the very end.”

Former President George W. Bush said Limbaugh “spoke his mind as a voice for millions of Americans.”

Limbaugh influenced the likes of Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and countless other conservative commentators who pushed the boundaries of acceptable public discourse.

His brand of blunt, no-gray-area debate spread to cable TV, town hall meetings, political rallies and Congress itself, emerging during the battles over health care and the ascent of the tea party movement.

His foes accused him of trafficking in half-truths, bias and outright lies — the very tactics he decried in others.

Earlier this year, Limbaugh took a dismissive tone to those calling for an end to violence after the ugly scenes of a mob insurrection at the Capitol, comparing the rioters to the colonists who sparked the American Revolution.

“We’re supposed to be horrified by the protesters,” Limbaugh told his listeners the day after the Jan. 6 attack. “There’s a lot of people out there calling for the end of violence … who say that any violence or aggression at all is unacceptable regardless of the circumstances.”

A cigar-chomping, round-faced figure, Limbaugh was divorced three times, after marrying Roxy Maxine McNeely in 1977, Michelle Sixta in 1983 and Marta Fitzgerald in 1994. He married his fourth wife, the former Kathryn Rogers, in a lavish 2010 ceremony. He had no children.

Rush Hudson Limbaugh III was born Jan. 12, 1951, in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to the former Mildred Armstrong, and Rush Limbaugh Jr., who flew fighter planes in World War II and practiced law at home.

By high school, he had snagged a radio job. Limbaugh dropped out of Southeast Missouri State University for a string of DJ gigs, from his Missouri hometown, to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, to Pittsburgh and then Kansas City. Known as Rusty Sharpe and then Jeff Christie on the air, he mostly spun Top 40 hits and sprinkled in glimpses of his wit and conservatism.

But he didn’t gain the following he craved and gave up on radio for several years, beginning in 1979, becoming promotions director for baseball’s Kansas City Royals. He ultimately returned to broadcasting, again in Kansas City and then Sacramento, California.

It was there in the early 1980s that Limbaugh really garnered an audience, broadcasting shows dripping with sarcasm and bravado.

While Limbaugh began broadcasting nationally in 1988 from WABC in New York, he would move his radio show to Palm Beach and buy his massive estate. Talkers Magazine, which covers the industry, said Limbaugh had the nation’s largest audience in 2019, with 15 million listeners each week.

Limbaugh expounded on his world view in the best-selling books “The Way Things Ought to Be” and “See, I Told You So.”

He had a late-night TV show in the 1990s that got decent ratings but lackluster advertising. He was fired from a short-lived job as an NFL commentator on ESPN in 2003 after he said the media had made a star out of Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because it was “very desirous that a Black quarterback do well.” His racial remarks also derailed a 2009 bid to become one of the owners of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams.

“Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night and just think to yourself, I am just full of hot gas?'” David Letterman asked him in 1993 on “The Late Show.”

“I am a servant of humanity,” Limbaugh replied. “I am in the relentless pursuit of the truth. I actually sit back and think that I’m just so fortunate to have this opportunity to tell people what’s really going on.”

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Associated Press writer Terry Spencer contributed to this report.

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