Unlike Howard Stern, Don Imus and other big names in shock radio, Mr. Limbaugh had no on-the-air sidekicks, though he had conversations with the unheard voice of someone he called “Bo Snerdly.” Nor did he have writers, scripts or outlines, just notes and clippings from newspapers he perused daily.
Alone with his multitudes in his studio, he joked, ranted, twitted and burst into song, mimicry or boo-hoos as “The Rush Limbaugh Show” beamed out over 650 stations of the Premiere Radio Networks, a subsidiary of iHeartMedia (formerly Clear Channel Communications). In his alternate-universe-on-the-air, he was “El Rushbo” and “America’s Anchorman” in the “Southern Command” bunker of an “Excellence in Broadcasting” network.
To faithful “Dittoheads,” his defiantly self-mocking followers, he was an indomitable patriot, an icon of wit and wisdom. His political clout, they said, lay in the reactions he provoked — avalanches of calls, emails and website rage, headlines aplenty and the occasional praise or wrath from the White House and Capitol Hill.
To detractors he was a sanctimonious charlatan, the most dangerous man in America, a label he co-opted. And some critics insisted that he had no real political power, only an intimidating, self-aggrandizing presence that swayed an aging, ultraright fringe whose numbers, while impressive, were not considered great enough to affect the outcome of national elections.
In any case, he was a commercial phenomenon, taking in $85 million a year. Married four times and divorced three times with no children, he lived in his Palm Beach estate surrounded by Oriental carpets, chandeliers and a two-story mahogany-paneled library with leather-bound collections. He had a half-dozen cars, one costing $450,000, and a $54 million Gulfstream G550 jet. He was known to drop $5,000 tips in restaurants.
Mr. Limbaugh was himself easily caricatured: overweight all his life, sometimes topping 300 pounds, a cigar smoker with an impish grin and sly eyes. He moved with surprising grace when showing how an environmentalist skips daintily in a woodland. But his voice was his brass ring — a jaunty, rapid staccato, breaking into squeaky dolphin-talk or falsetto sobbing to expose the do-gooders with his inventive, bruising vocabulary.