Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing talk show host who belligerently dominated the airwaves for decades, died on Feb. 17, 2021, at the age of 70 from lung cancer. Known for his blistering attacks on the political left, Limbaugh set the conservative agenda for a generation of the GOP and made more than a few enemies along the way. His influence and legacy is all dependent on which side of the aisle that you fall.
Ben Shapiro, a leading conservative voice and natural progression of Limbaugh, called the late provocateur an “indispensable and iconic conservative voice” on Twitter at the news of his death. Journalist and Emmy-nominated writer Bess Kalb had a much different take, tweeting: “I know it’s tempting to lash out, but try to treat Rush Limbaugh with the same dignity, respect, and humanity as he showed to rape victims, Michael J. Fox, Sandra Fluke, Iraq War veterans, refugees, and the victims of mosque shootings.”
We don’t have the time or space to compile every one of Rush Limbaugh’s controversial moments — after all, the man built his entire career by becoming the shock jock of political talk radio. Instead, here are the highlights (or lowlights, depending on your view) from the man who once told a Black caller to “take that bone out of your nose and call me back.”
Rush Limbaugh's controversial claims about Michael J. Fox's illness
Beloved actor Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1991, but didn’t go public with his battle until 1998. Nearly a decade later, the Back to the Future actor starred in a campaign video for former democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. That was enough for Rush Limbaugh to do what he did best — share his controversial thoughts on-air.
“In this commercial, he is exaggerating the effects of the disease,” Limbaugh claimed during a 2006 broadcast, while mocking Fox’s tremors. “He is moving all around and shaking, and it’s purely an act. This is the only time I have ever seen Michael J. Fox portray any of the symptoms of the disease he has. He can control himself enough to stay in the frame of the picture, and he can control himself enough to keep his eyes right on the lens, the teleprompter. But his head and shoulders are moving all over the place. This is really shameless, folks … Either he didn’t take his medication or he’s acting.”
For his part, Fox never publicly responded to Limbaugh’s attack. However, the Twittersphere had much to say about it when the clip resurfaced after Limbaugh’s death 15 years later. “The Michael J. Fox video is the first thing I thought about when [Limbaugh] died,” Kevin Fallon wrote for The Daily Beast. “It’s why I have no patience for the measured obits.”
The right-wing talk show host mocked AIDS deaths
During the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis, when tens of thousands were dying of this deadly disease, Rush Limbaugh not only perpetuated the myth that it was a disease specific to gay men, he also openly celebrated it. With a regular segment on his show called “AIDS Updates,” LGBTQ Nation reports that he mockingly listed the names of gay men who had succumbed to the disease while playing Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Love This Way Again.” Limbaugh stated at the time (via the Los Angeles Times), “Gays deserved their fate.”
“He chastised ‘militant homosexuals’ for their disrespectful behavior,” wrote Ze’ev Chafets in his book, Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One, going on to claim that Limbaugh chose the Warwick song for a specific message to the LGBTQ+ community — those who had died would “never love this way again.”
This segment eventually became too grotesque for even Limbaugh, and he apologized in 1990, calling it “the single most regretful thing I’ve ever done” in an interview with The New York Times. He explained, “It ended up making fun of people who were dying long, painful and excruciating deaths, when they were not the target. It was a totally irresponsible thing to do.”
Rush Limbaugh resigned from ESPN over racial comments
ESPN hired Rush Limbaugh to co-host NFL Countdown in 2003, and his tenure at the network lasted less than a month due to racist comments. During an episode that aired on Sept. 28, 2003, Limbaugh and his fellow co-hosts were discussing the early season struggles of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Limbaugh suggested the only reason quarterback Donovan McNabb was receiving any sort of hype was because he was Black.
“I’ve been listening to all of you guys, actually, and I think the sum total of what you’re all saying is that Donovan McNabb is regressing, is going backwards — and my … I’m sorry to say this, I don’t think he’s been that good from the get-go. I think what we’ve had here is a little social concern in the NFL,” Limbaugh said. “The media has been very desirous that a Black quarterback do well … There is a little hope invested in McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he really didn’t deserve. The defense carried this team.”
McNabb responded to Limbaugh’s comments, saying (via ESPN), “It’s sad that you’ve got to go to skin color. I thought we were through with that whole deal.” Less than a week later, Limbaugh resigned, and released in a statement: “My comments this past Sunday were directed at the media and were not racially motivated. I offered an opinion. This opinion has caused discomfort to the crew, which I regret.”
The controversial radio personality slut-shamed a college student
In 2012, Georgetown student Sandra Fluke testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to discuss women’s health and to praise the ACA provision that required employers to provide contraception coverage. Rush Limbaugh, the man who coined the term “feminazi,” took issue with that.
“What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke [sic] who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex — what does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute,” he alleged on his show (via HuffPost). Limbaugh went on to claim, “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.” Wow.
Limbaugh’s rant was so bad that then-President Barack Obama personally called Fluke to “express his disappointment that she has been the subject of inappropriate personal attacks” (via ABC News). Per Politico, 45 companies immediately pulled their ads from Limbaugh’s show — then, after seeing the free market at work, the controversial talk show host saw the error of his ways. “My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices,” Limbaugh said, per ABC News.
Rush Limbaugh suggested the Christchurch mass shooting was a false flag
On March 15, 2019, white nationalist Brenton Tarrant entered two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and when he left, 51 people were dead in one of the largest mass shootings in the country’s history. According to BBC News, the gunman wanted to “inflict as many fatalities as possible.” In his more than 70-page manifesto entitled “The Great Replacement,” Tarrant lauded then-President Donald Trump “as a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” (via The Washington Post).
However, despite Tarrant having Nazi symbols on his gun and his open admiration for white nationalists, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh floated around a baseless idea about the other side of the political aisle. “There’s an ongoing theory that the shooter himself may in fact be a leftist who writes the manifesto and then goes out and performs the deed purposely to smear his political enemies, knowing he’s going to get shot in the process,” Limbaugh claimed on his show (via Rush Limbaugh). “You know you just can’t — you can’t immediately discount this. The left is this insane, they are this crazy. And then if that’s exactly what the guy is trying to do then he’s hit a home run, because right there on Fox News: ‘Shooter is an admitted white nationalist who hates immigrants.'” Limbaugh then accused democrats of “politicizing” the shooting.
Rush Limbaugh vs. the NFL and the NBA
Rush Limbaugh had a track record of expressing particular disdain for Black professional athletes who did anything other than play. So when the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons got into a the infamous 2004 brawl dubbed “Malice at the Palace,” Limbaugh wasted no time throwing the “thug” word around.
“You just gotta be who you are, and I think it’s time to get rid of this whole National Basketball Association. Call it the TBA, the Thug Basketball Association, and stop calling them teams. Call ’em gangs,” he said of the incident (via Media Matters). “Instead of selling concessions, sell CDs out there at the concession stand.” Limbaugh added that fans were “going in to watch the Crips and the Bloods out there wherever the neighborhood is where the arena happens to be.”
In 2007, Limbaugh shared similarly controversial thoughts on the NFL. Please note, the following comments were made in response to football players performing flamboyant touchdown celebrations. “Look it, let me put it to you this way. The NFL all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons. There, I said it,” he said (via Rush Limbaugh). During a 2009 episode, Limbaugh claimed that his comments were due to a player reacting negatively to a penalty flag and that it was only news because his critics wanted “to continue the narrative here that I am some subhuman species.”
Inside Rush Limbaugh's drug bust
“We have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. And the laws are good because we know what happens to people in societies and neighborhoods, which become consumed by them. And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up,” Rush Limbaugh once said in 1995 (via The New York Times).
However, Limbaugh himself was arrested in 2006 after a three-year investigation found that the talk show host was “doctor shopping” — overlapping prescriptions — to obtain painkillers. Per the investigation, Limbaugh “had received about 2,000 painkillers, prescribed by four doctors in six months” from the same pharmacy in Palm Beach, Fla. In a shocking turn from his stance on other drug users, Limbaugh avoided jail time by paying a $30,000 fine and serving 18 months’ probation. Limbaugh also maintained his innocence.
“He feels that a great burden has been lifted from his shoulders,” his attorney, Roy Black, said at the time (via NBC News). “What he told me is that this is the first day of the rest of his life.” According to The New York Times, Limbaugh once said that “too many whites are getting away with drug use.” Thanks, Rush. Much to consider.
The radio provocateur really, really hated the Obamas
Rush Limbaugh obviously wasn’t the first or only person to criticize former President Barack Obama, but the controversial talk show host couldn’t help his stifle his unbridled, well, Limbaugh when it came to all things Obamas. In 2007, according to The Seattle Times, he even began airing a parody song called “Barack, the Magic Negro” (to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon”) with lyrics that included, “Vote for him and not for me / ‘Cause he’s not from da hood.” Yikes. In response, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, “It’s not the first dumb thing said during the course of this campaign and it likely won’t be the last.”
During a 2016 speech in support of her Let Girls Learn initiative, Michelle Obama spoke at length about gender equality and sexism. “As I got older, I found that men would whistle at me as I walked down the street, as if my body were their property, as if I were an object to be commented on instead of a full human being with thoughts and feelings of my own,” she said (via Yahoo! News).
Spoiler: Limbaugh took issue with that. Claiming that the former first lady had “childish grievances,” he said, “I’m sorry, Mrs. Obama, but God made me a man.” Limbaugh continued, “I can’t help noticing a woman who I think’s attractive. I’ll be d**ned if I’m gonna shut up and not tell her so. Who wants to be victimized by this kind of stuff?”
Rush Limbaugh's controversial hot takes on slavery and Native Americans
During a 2013 episode of his show, Rush Limbaugh railed against the phenomenon of “white guilt,” and then offered up this take that could melt the Sun (via Media Matters): “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.” Um… okay.
He then brought up how other cultures had slavery, as well. “But despite all that, no other race has ever fought a war for the purpose of ending slavery, which we did,” Limbaugh continued, adding, “It’s preposterous that Caucasians are blamed for slavery when they’ve done more to end it than any other race, and within the bounds of the Constitution to boot.”
Apparently not to be outdone by this hot take, Limbaugh was also very upset that many indigenous people refused to celebrate Columbus Day and chose to have a national day of mourning instead. “How many Native Americans, how many Indians were killed by the arrival of the white man through disease and war, and how many people have died since the white man arrived here due to lung cancer thanks to the Indian-invented custom of smoking tobacco?” he said. No comment.
Rush Limbaugh pushed COVID-19 conspiracy theories
Rush Limbaugh spent the last year of his life spreading conspiracy theories and downplaying COVID-19. “Folks, this coronavirus thing, I want to try to put this in perspective for you. It looks like the coronavirus is being weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump,” Limbaugh claimed during a February 2020 episode of his show (via Media Matters). “Now, I want to tell you the truth about the coronavirus. You think I’m wrong about this? You think I’m missing it by saying that’s — Yeah, I’m dead right on this. The coronavirus is the common cold, folks.” Quick fact check, folks: COVID-19 is not the common cold.
Limbaugh later compared the pandemic to the Russian investigation, alleging, “Donald Trump has survived every coup attempt, every assault on him, that has been made up and now the coronavirus, they’re trying to lay it at his feet and make him responsible for it.” The following month, the controversial radio host baselessly claimed that the media and democrats were letting COVID-19 spread in a concerted effort to tank the economy (via Media Matters).
At the time of Limbaugh’s death in February 2021, over 490,000 people in the United States had died from the coronavirus, per The New York Times. According to Rolling Stone, “More aggressively than anyone with a large audience, even the president, Limbaugh turned [COVID-19] into a culture war, a partisan litmus test — and one that would have particularly deadly consequences in red-state America.”
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