Though Rush Limbaugh has been on the radio for three hours, five days a week, for more than 30 years, he hasn’t been in the news much lately—until this week. The 69-year-old conservative commentator announced on the air Monday that he had advanced lung cancer and would miss some shows for tests and treatments. The next day, at the State of the Union address, where Limbaugh was a guest, President Donald Trump awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“In recognition of all that you have done for our nation, the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire, and all of the incredible work that you have done for charity, I am proud to announce tonight that you will be receiving our country’s highest civilian honor,” the president said just before first lady Melania Trump presented him with the medal. Typically, the president gives out the Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony with speeches and guests. But the impromptu way in which Limbaugh received the honor seemed fitting for the radio host who transformed the media landscape with his off-the-cuff, no-holds-barred commentary.
A swarm of Limbaugh critics quickly complained he did not deserve the award. Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running for the Democratic nomination for president, responded by calling Limbaugh “a conservative media personality who has done as much as Trump himself to divide our nation.” Biden’s statement was one of the milder ones. In a video posted on Twitter, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., called Limbaugh a “virulent racist” and said his winning the award was “nauseating.”
Numerous detractors said Limbaugh did not belong in a class of award winners such as Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Accusations of racism, sexism, and hypocrisy have followed the radio host throughout his career. He has apologized for some of his more controversial remarks, such as the time he called a law student who advocated for free birth control a prostitute (and worse) and his mocking of actor Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s disease–related movements. He also struggled with an addiction to prescription painkillers, which opponents said disqualified him from critiquing drug abuse and national drug policy.
While Limbaugh’s fans and detractors may debate whether it was for good or ill, none of them can question how he altered the media landscape of the United States forever. But he didn’t do it alone. His big break came in 1987, when the Federal Communications Commission under President Ronald Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine. The rule required broadcast stations to air contrasting views on controversial matters. Once the Fairness Doctrine went away, Limbaugh, who had been on the radio for a few years in Sacramento, Calif., could express his conservative political views unencumbered.
In July 1988, he caught the attention of ABC Radio President Edward McLaughlin, who gave him a nationally syndicated show based at WABC-AM in New York City. Until then, AM radio had struggled to survive as music shifted to FM for its superior sound quality. But talk shows didn’t require such high-fidelity sound, and Limbaugh proved they still had a place in the media landscape.
“It was not until Rush found an audience on WABC in New York City in 1988 that the AM operators knew what to do with their once-mighty stations,” Jon Sinton, the founding president of the liberal Air America Radio network, wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2008. But Air America failed where Limbaugh succeeded. It shut down in 2010 after six years of trying to unseat conservative radio.
In 1990, Limbaugh met Roger Ailes at a dinner club in New York. They became close friends, and Limbaugh credited Ailes with helping him adjust to fame and public criticism in the early years of his career. Ailes produced a 30-minute TV show for Limbaugh from 1992 to 1996. Limbaugh went back to just radio because he liked the format better, and Ailes went on to start Fox News in October 1996 but resigned in 2016 amid a sexual harassment scandal and died a year later.
The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, the opportunities on AM radio, and his friendship with Ailes all came at just the right time to help Limbaugh build a blockbuster career. Some would call it providential, but would he?
Limbaugh has often mentioned on his show that he believes in God. His brother David is a devout Christian who has written several books about the Bible and apologetics.
In announcing his lung cancer diagnosis, Limbaugh said on the air that he was relying on God to get him through it: “I told the staff today that I have a deeply personal relationship with God that I do not proselytize about, but I do, and I have been working that relationship tremendously.”