Rush Limbaugh portrayed himself as a man of the people on his bombastic, right-wing radio and TV show, but in real life he lived the life of an indulgent pasha.
Over the course of his career, he amassed a fortune, pioneering conservative “post-truth” politics on the radio. He played fast and loose with the facts to attack liberals, gays, minorities and other conservative bete noirs.
“Feminism,” he once said, “was established so that unattractive ugly broads could have easy access to the mainstream.”
Fully 80 percent of those who said they regularly listened to Limbaugh’s show were self-identified conservatives, compared with 7% who were moderates and 10% who were liberals, according to a Pew Research study.
Of regular listeners, 72 percent were men and 28 percent were women. Only 33 percent were college grads, and half his listeners were over age 50.
About three-quarters were NRA supporters, compared to 40 percent of population in general. Needless to say, his audience was overwhelmingly white.
Limbaugh could be extremely vicious. Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who advocated contraception coverage by health insurers, was savaged on-air.
Limbaugh misrepresented Fluke’s stance, called her a “slut” on national radio, and then suggested that she (and millions of other women) make a sex tape for him.
He bought into the Obama “birther” controversy, made Obama a frequent target while he was in office and minimized the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
He promoted Donald Trump’s “big lie” that he had won a second term and called Joe Biden’s election “illegitimate.”
He mocked Chinese-Americans, implied Michelle Obama was fat, and called Democrats “our domestic enemy“
He disabused science, said COVID-19 was no more deadly than the flu and called climate change a hoax.
In 1995, the media watch organization FAIR summed up Rush’s modus operandi. It published a book titled “The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error : Over 100 Outrageously False and Foolish Statements from America’s Most Powerful Radio and TV.”
“The book documents and corrects over 100 whoppers told by The Lyin’ King, pitting Limbaugh versus Reality in areas ranging from American history to the environment, health care to rock and roll. It also has features such as ‘Limbaugh versus Limbaugh’ with examples of Limbaugh contradicting himself, according to its amazon.com blurb.
Despite his appeal to the right, he was never close to the working class people who adored him, even growing up in Missouri.
He was from a distinguished, upper-middleclass family. His father Rush Hudson Limbaugh II was a lawyer and World War II fighter pilot in the Far East.
His grandfather and brother were also lawyers. His uncle, Stephen N. Limbaugh Sr., was a federal judge in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
His cousin, Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., sill serves as a judge on the same court, appointed by President George W. Bush.
In contrast, Rush was the classic under-achiever. He developed an interest in broadcast radio in high school, where his biggest claim to fame was playing on the football team.
After graduating, his parents’ pressured him to attend college, and he enrolled at Southeast Missouri State University. He lasted two semesters before dropping out.
“He flunked everything […] he just didn’t seem interested in anything except radio,” his mother once said, according to a biography.
In an interview, biographer Zev Chafets said a large part of Limbaugh’s life was dedicated to gaining his stern father’s respect and approval.
After dropping out of college, Limbaugh, then 20, landed a job in 1971 as a DJ at WIXZ, a Top 40 station in McKeesport, Pa.
He made it to the morning drive shift, a top time slot, but was fired after feuding with the station manager.
He landed another gig at KQV in Pittsburgh, succeeding Jim Quinn, a conservative radio talk show host. Limbaugh quickly adopted Quinn’s style.
Bu he was fired again, and appeared to be washed up in radio, at 23. The general manager told him he’d be better off in radio sales.
For a time, he was forced to move back in with his parents, in what had to be a humiliating return home.
In 1975, Limbaugh got his second wind. He landed another gig at Top 40 station KUDL in Kansas City, Missouri. He made his first foray into talk radio as host of a weekend and morning show focused on current affairs.
While there, he develop his style and dove into controversial issues. But Limbaugh was fired again.
He bounced to another radio gig at a Kansas City station, but didn’t last long there either. By then, even Limbaugh considered himself a failure at radio.
He finally landed a job in 1979 as a part-time salesman for the Kansas City Royals baseball team and eventually became director of group sales and special events.
In November 1983, he found his way back into radio at KMBZ (AM) in Kansas City. He dropped his on-air name and broadcast for the first time under his real name.
He was fired, again, for an on-air screed against his former employer at the same time the station was trying to land an advertising contract with the team. But by then, his conservative credentials were established, and he landed a job at KFBK in Sacramento, Calif. He replaced Morton Downey Jr., another bombastic, conservative radio host.
Limbaugh would later say he was liberated when the Reagan administration in 1987 repealed the federal Fairness Doctrine. It required broadcast outlets to present balanced, factual views on controversial topics.
His Sacramento show caught the attention of ABC Radio President Edward McLaughlin, who invited Limbaugh to join WABC (AM) in New York City.
Rival WNBC had shock jock Howard Stern. “The Howard Stern Show” was hugely popular. McLaughlin was looking for a conservative alternative to go up against him. Limbaugh began his national broadcasting career in Manhattan in 1988.
As it turned out, WABC was a 50,000-watt, non-directional, clear channel mega-station. Its signal can be heard at night throughout much of the eastern United States and Canada, giving Limbaugh virtually a national audience.
WABC (AM) remained his flagship station, even after he moved to West Palm Beach, Fla., and set up his own studio and switched to the more popular FM format.
For once in his life, his timing was fortuitous. In 1992, Democrat Bill Clinton was elected president. Limbaugh turned satirizing his policies and First Lady Hillary Clinton into national acclaim in conservative circles.
By 1992, he was earning $3.5 million a year and rocketing to success. In 2008, he reportedly signed a $400 million, eight-year deal, and his show went into national syndication.
One of his first indulgences was a 10-room condo at 1049 Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park.
The 23-floor luxury condominium apartment building, located in the tony Upper East Side, near the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was a converted luxury hotel that had been built in 1928.
When the apartments were first offered for sale in 1991, they were the highest-priced residential units ever to hit the market in New York City.
In 1994, Limbaugh paid $5 million for the 4,661-square-foot unit, which is considered palatial in size by New York City standards.
He was equally indulgent when it came to women. He was attracted by a tight figure and pretty smile, but stuck to dating secretaries and sales executives, who could never boast to be his intellectual superior.
Roxy Maxine McNeely would become the first of his four wives. He was 26 and she was about the same age when they met. McNeely was a secretary at a radio station in Kansas City, where Limbaugh also worked.
They married in 1977 and split in 1980. McNeely filed for divorce, citing “incompatibility.” By all accounts, Limbaugh was an inattentive husband. He was obsessed with his career.
“We just sat down one day and decided our marriage was over. It was mutual, nothing ugly,” she told gossip columnist Niki Swift.
Limbaugh trended toward younger and younger women after his divorce.
Michelle Sixta, his second wife, was a college student, an usherette in the Kansas City Royals Stadium Club and 10 years his junior. They met while he worked for the club.
“I thought Rush was arrogant when I introduced myself to him,” she told The Seattle Times. “He heard I thought that and later came over to apologize… He’d clown around in the press box. You knew who he was.”
The couple wed in 1983 but it didn’t last. They divorced in 1990. She apparently wanted out. She married again a year later.
Limbaugh, by now a nationally known commentator, was consumed by his work and dated infrequently.
He met his third wife, Marta Fitzgerald, a Jacksonville, Fla., fitness instructor, who was also 10 years his junior in 1990, when she emailed him out of the blue over the online service, CompuServe, according to the Palm Beach Daily News.
They began an affair while she was married. She divorced in 1992 and married Limbaugh two years later.
This time he did the wedding up bigtime in keeping with his national celebrity. They married at the house of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who officiated.
The couple separated on June 11, 2004, eight months after The National Enquirer published a front-page story on Limbaugh’s addiction to prescription pain pills.
Limbaugh was no stranger to hypocrisy, and his drug abuse was a case in point.
In 1995 broadcast, he sounded off on the subject. “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,” he pronounced.
He also complained on his TV show that “too many whites are getting away with drug use” and illegal drug trafficking.
Limbaugh insisted drug abuse was “a choice, not a disease,” and that it should be combatted with strict legal consequences.
It’s possible the radio host was already doing drugs when he made that statement. He’d illegally purchased hundreds of prescription Oxycontin pills per month over a period of several years.
He engaged in a practice known as “doctor shopping,” a patently illegal scheme to obtain multiple prescriptions for drugs by going to different doctors.
In April 2006, the law finally caught up with him. The Palm Beach County state attorney’s office issued a warrant for his arrest. Limbaugh turned himself in and reported his addiction on his show.
Ironically, his attorney said Limbaugh had been singled out for prosecution because of his celebrity.
A two-year legal battle followed in which Limbaugh successfully prevented prosecutors from questioning his doctors about his medical condition.
Nonetheless, prosecutors said they discovered he’d received about 2,000 painkillers, prescribed by four doctors in six months at a pharmacy near his Palm Beach mansion.
Still he only faced “a single charge of prescription fraud.” Limbaugh pleaded not guilty and insisted his addiction to painkillers was a result of serious back pain.
Doctor shopping is punishable by up to five years in prison under Florida law. But Limbaugh would never face a day in jail.
His lawyers entered into protracted settlement discussions. Finally in 2009, they reached an agreement.
Prosecutors agreed to drop the charge if Limbaugh paid $30,000 to defray the cost of the investigation, completed an 18-month therapy regimen with his doctor, submitted to random drug testing and surrendered his firearms for 18 months.
In exchange, his arrest record was expunged.
By then, it hardly mattered. He was a huge celebrity, and his tastes had become as extravagant as his income. He began collecting cars, including a $350,000 Mercedes Maybach 57S sedan (just like Jay-Z’s) and flew back and forth to Florida in a Gulfstream G550 private jet.
The Fitzgerald divorce provided a rare glimpse into Limbaugh’s private life. The 22-page divorce agreement was sealed, but court filings revealed Limbaugh owned a $24 million oceanfront compound on Key West in Florida.
Limbaugh frequently broadcast his show from another extravagant property he called his “southern command,” in Palm Beach.
Limbaugh moved to Palm Beach in 1996. A friend recalls he “fell in love” with wealthy enclave, but particularly admired the fact that Florida does not have a state income tax.
He bought an oceanfront vacation home there in 1998 for $3.98 million. Then, he extensively renovated and expanded it into a sprawling compound, worth an estimated $51 million at the time of his death.
The 34,000-square-foot compound’s main house has seven bedrooms, 12 baths and a private elevator, as well as a two-story library. A pool, a putting green and a private beach are contained on two acres of grounds. There are four guest houses and a 24-hour guard station.
He could easily afford it. More than 600 stations were carrying his nationally syndicated show and it drew nearly 20 million listeners daily.
He was reportedly earning in excess of $30 million a year from the show, various public appearances, merchandise and books.
In the year before he died, his reported, pretax earnings of $85 million made him the 11th highest paid entertainer in show business, according to Forbes magazine.
Still, years of drug abuse took its toll. In December 2009, not long after he got rid of the drug charge, he was admitted to Queen’s Medical Center while on vacation in Hawaii for intense chest pains.
He was 58 and overweight, tipping the scales at close to 300 pounds. He was diagnosed with angina pectoris, an insufficient blood flow to the heart typically caused by coronary artery disease.
In March that year, the hard-drinking, meat-eater went on a crash diet and claimed to have lost 90 pounds in less than six months. But he never stopped smoking.
He had been a heavy cigarette smoker until he was in his 30s. He’d switched to cigars in the 1980s and was often featured in cigar magazines. Eventually, cigars became part of his persona.
In another irony, he often scoffed on his show about the link between tobacco and cancer.
“I would like a medal for smoking cigars, is what I’m saying,” he once said, denying that first or second hand smoke could lead to lung cancer.
“I think cigars are just a tremendous addition to the enjoyment of life,” he said, rationalizing away the dangers.
“Firsthand smoke takes 50 years to kill people. Not everybody that smokes gets cancer. Now, it’s true that everybody who smokes dies, but so does everyone who eats carrots.”
Limbaugh also denied that nicotine, a principal ingredient in tobacco, was addictive.
“There is no conclusive proof that nicotine’s addictive… And the same thing with cigarettes causing emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease,” he said on one of his shows.
By the following year, he was ready to call it quits on New York City. He put his condo on the market in 2010 for an eye-popping $13.9 million.
In typical fashion, he worked the sale into his show. He lambasted New York City for its “stupid, punitive, and massive tax increases.” At the time, he was paying $13,360 a month in maintenance and taxes on the property.
But the listing was significant for another reason. When it went public, it provided a shocking glimpse into his extravagant private life. (See Photos)
The apartment was decorated in an ornate Louis XVI style with lots of hand-painted gold leaf moldings, a hand-cut patterned marble floor in the entrance hall and herringbone mahogany floors in the public rooms.
Walls and recessed ceilings were adorned with hand-painted murals by artist Richard Smith.
Hollywood trade magazine Variety, which has seen its share of celebrity excess, reported that “mortifying murals” were “painted on far too many of the walls and ceilings of this apartment.”
The unit had a private elevator entrance opening onto a double-wide living room with a fireplace and windows on three sides, providing stunning views of Central Park.
In another touch of questionable taste, the master bathroom had a huge brass chandelier and his and her toilets. A wood paneled library/den and a media room flank the living area.
“The most ornate and visually complex mural was saved for the master bedroom, which is all did up and done over in an elaborately feminine day-core,” Variety reported.
“It’s all just so depressingly mawkish that we can barely stand to look at it and yet we can’t seem to keep from looking at it, feeling stricken with a terror that cleaves deep into our decorative heart,” wrote the magazine’s critic.
The place eventually sold for $11.5 million.
Rush’s love of trophies extended beyond real estate. He found love for the fourth and final time in 2004 while he was still married to his third wife.
Kathryn Adams was working as an events planner when she met Limbaugh. She’d organized a charity golf tournament, and the talk show host was one of the celebrity golfers.
They married in 2010, even though she was 26-years his junior. Limbaugh was 59 and she was 33, a fetching blonde with model looks.
The wedding was an elaborate affair at the Breakers resort in Palm Beach. Rush reportedly shelled out $1 million to hire Elton John to perform, which he later denied.
The nature of his relationship with Adams was subject to wild tabloid reports. In 2017, gossip site RadarOnline, claimed she was regularly cheating on him.
“Despite Kathryn’s outrageous behavior, Limbaugh has turned a blind eye to her indiscretions because he’s terrified of losing her,” the site reported, citing a “family insider.”
“Rush realizes Kathryn is a beautiful woman, and he’s old enough to be her father,” the source dished.
Insiders described Kathryn as Limbaugh’s “trophy wife,” who basically acts as the radio host’s “arm candy.”
“Whatever Kathryn says goes. Rush dotes on her and gives her anything she wants,” according to the source.
Their sex life was reportedly non-existent, but the couple never failed to put on loving displays in public. As for the rumors, Limbaugh brushed them off.
The were still together and by outward appearances, at least, were happily married when Limbaugh announced his cancer diagnosis last year.
She was by his side the entire time, and on Wednesday, Feb 17, Kathryn announced on his show that her husband of 11 years had died.
“Rush will forever be the greatest of all time. Rush was an extraordinary man. A gentle giant. Brilliant, quick-witted, genuinely kind,” she said.
“Extremely generous. Passionate. Courageous. And the hardest working person I know.”
In one of his many contradictions, Limbaugh never had any children, even though he said “Marriage is about raising children. That’s the purpose of the institution.”
That means Kathryn, at 43, is in line to inherit his estate, estimated to be worth $600 million. They had no prenup.