By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Provocative and polarizing U.S. talk radio luminary Rush Limbaugh, a leading voice on the American political right since the 1980s who boosted, and was honored by, former President Donald Trump, has died at age 70 after suffering from lung cancer, his wife said on Wednesday.
Limbaugh, who pioneered the American media phenomenon of conservative talk radio and became an enthusiastic combatant in the U.S. culture wars, disclosed in February 2020 that he had been diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. In a statement announcing his death, his wife Kathryn Adams Limbaugh said, "Rush's love for our country, and for all of you, will live on eternally."
Limbaugh's appeal and the success of his top-rated daily radio show arose from his brash and colorful style, his delight in baiting liberals and Democrats and his promotion of conservative and Republican causes and politicians. His show became nationally syndicated in 1988 and quickly built a large and committed following, making him wealthy in the process.
He was loathed by liberals. Detractors such as Democratic former Senator Al Franken - a former comedian who wrote a book titled "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations" - criticized him as a divisive figure who distorted facts.
Trump, a former reality TV personality with a showman's instincts who pursued right-wing populism during four years in the White House, awarded Limbaugh the highest U.S. civilian honor - the Presidential Medal of Freedom - during his 2020 State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.
First lady Melania Trump placed the medal around Limbaugh's neck after her husband lauded him as "a special man beloved by millions of Americans" and "the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet." Underscoring Limbaugh's divisiveness, some Democratic lawmakers were heard groaning "oh no" while House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, one of his favorite punching bags, sat in stony silence.
Trump, a Republican, honored Limbaugh a day after the radio star announced his cancer diagnosis. Limbaugh at the time said he planned to continue doing his program "as normally and as competently" as he could while undergoing treatment.
His show was heard on more than 600 U.S. stations by, according to Limbaugh's website, up to 27 million people weekly. According to Forbes, Limbaugh was paid $85 million in 2020.
'A GUIDING LIGHT'
In a statement on Wednesday, Trump said: "Rush was a friend to myself and millions of Americans - a guiding light with the ability to see the truth and paint vivid pictures over the airwaves."
Republican former President George W. Bush said in a statement, "While he was brash, at times controversial, and always opinionated, he spoke his mind as a voice for millions of Americans and approached each day with gusto."
Limbaugh experienced a variety of medical problems over the years as well as an addiction to prescription painkillers that landed him in rehab in 2003. He espoused an unflinchingly populist brand of conservatism, railing against left-wing causes from global warming to healthcare reform as he helped shape the Republican Party's agenda in the media and mobilize its grass-roots supporters.
He promoted Trump's false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen through widespread fraud and irregularities. After Democrat Joe Biden was inaugurated as Trump's successor last month, Limbaugh told listeners the new president had not legitimately won.
Limbaugh also compared the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol in a Jan. 6 rampage that left five people dead and interrupted certification of Biden's victory to the American colonists who rose up against British rule in the 18th century.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden's "condolences go out to the family and the friends" of Limbaugh but she did not expect a formal statement from the president.
Limbaugh ridiculed mainstream news outlets and relished the controversies arising from his on-air commentary. His success helped spawn a new class of right-wing pundits on radio, television and the internet, among them Sean Hannity, Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck and Alex Jones.
He called his followers "ditto heads." He coined the term "femi-Nazis" to disparage women's rights activists. Limbaugh in 2012 called a law student who spoke to a congressional hearing about birth control a "slut," causing some sponsors to pull advertising from his show.
Limbaugh's career, and talk radio in general, received a boost in 1987, when the U.S. Federal Communications Commission repealed rules requiring broadcasters to provide equal time to both sides of political debates.
In the 1990s, Democrat Bill Clinton's presidency gave Limbaugh a fresh target, and he claimed to have helped engineer a 1994 Republican takeover of Congress. Limbaugh similarly took aim at Democrat Barack Obama, elected president in 2008. When Obama won the Nobel Peace prize, Limbaugh called it an award given to "liberal sellouts."
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert, Helen Coster and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Howard Goller)