Though the often-deplorable content of Rush Limbaugh's radio show is well-known, his 1990s television show has mostly been forgotten.
Most people are familiar with Limbaugh's ill-fated stint as a football commentator for ESPN in 2003 -- a gig cut short after only a few weeks following Limbaugh's racially charged comments about former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. But Limbaugh's career as a television host and commentator dates back more than twenty years.
Back in the late '80s and early '90s, as his popularity on the radio was growing exponentially, Limbaugh struggled to launch his TV career. In The Rush Limbaugh Story, Paul Colford explains that Limbaugh had several false starts in establishing a television presence, including filming a pilot with Gloria Allred for a show called “Talk Wrestling” (which was mercifully not picked up).
Colford writes that Limbaugh, who wanted to succeed as a solo act, “soured” on TV following a "disastrous appearance as host of 'The Pat Sajak Show' in March of 1990, when the CBS producers seemed to welcome his on-air confrontation with gay activists."
Despite these missteps, Limbaugh eventually launched a syndicated show with the help of executive producer -- and future Fox News honcho -- Roger Ailes. The show, which ran from 1992-1996, would be immediately familiar to anyone that has listened to Limbaugh's radio program over the years; the same elements that drive his radio show were all present on his television program.
On TV, Limbaugh called feminists “femi-Nazis” and often repeated his line about how “feminism was established so as to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream of society.” He casually invoked Nazi Germany to complain about government regulation, labeling people who wanted to regulate secondhand smoke the “Tobacco Gestapo.” And even back then, he was pointing at snowstorms to disprove climate change.
But three particular instances illustrate how Limbaugh has consistently -- even across mediums -- engaged in vicious personal attacks, endorsed bigotry, and promoted outlandish conspiracy theories.
When Limbaugh Compared 12-Year Old Chelsea Clinton To A Dog
Bill Clinton had been president-elect for just a few days when, on November 6, 1992, Limbaugh launched one of the nastiest attacks of his career against an innocent target: 12-year old Chelsea Clinton.
Complete video of that day's program does not appear to be available online, but a portion of Limbaugh's attack was aired in a 1995 documentary about Limbaugh by PBS' Frontline. Also, a transcript of the program is posted in the Nexis database.
Limbaugh began the segment by noting that the New York Daily News' David Hinckley published a list of who's entering and leaving the White House. Limbaugh stated: “He says, In: A cute kid in the White House. Out: Cute dog in the White House.' Could -- could we see the cute kid? Let's take a look at -- see who is the cute kid in the White House.”
The program then put up a picture of Millie, the Bush family's dog. Limbaugh responded, in mock confusion, “No, no, no, no. That's not the kid.” The program then puts up a picture of Chelsea Clinton, with Rush saying, “that's the kid.”
Watch a portion of this exchange from Frontline:
After the audience had finished laughing and applauding, Limbaugh said, according to Nexis' transcript: “No, just kidding.”
Limbaugh then related the story of how he once apologized for calling Amy Carter, the daughter of President Carter, “the most unattractive presidential daughter in the history of the country.” He added: “I apologize again. I -- that's the third time the crew makes a mistake by showing you Millie the dog when I intended to show you Chelsea Clinton, and then I followed with that terrible story.”
Then, according to the transcript, Limbaugh spanked himself. “I'll do it with my left hand. I -- I'm right-handed, so it won't hurt as much.”
From the November 6, 1992, program (transcript via Nexis):
LIMBAUGH: So, my friends, in today's New York Daily News right here, holding it here in my formerly nicotine-stained fingers, it's the obligatory in-out list. Every time there's a massive change somewhere, people are in, people are out. I'm now out. It says about me on here, Rush Limbaugh, loud-mouthed conservative and Bush favorite, trusts no one to the left of Pat Buchanan. He's out.' You know, they wish. In their dreams. The simple fact of the matter is that this show's era...
LIMBAUGH: Thank you. This show's era of dominant influence is just beginning. We are now the sole voice of sanity, the sole voice of reason. We are the sole voice of opposition on all television. This is the only place you can tune to to get the truth of the opposition of the one-party dictatorial government that now will soon run America. Oh, I mean, we are only beginning to enjoy dominance and prosperity. Most of these things on the in-out list are not even funny, but a couple of them--one of them in particular is.
David Hinckley of--of the New York Daily News wrote this, and what he has--he's got--it's very strange. He says, In: A cute kid in the White House. Out: Cute dog in the White House.' Could--could we see the cute kid? Let's take a look at--see who is the cute kid in the White House.
(A picture is shown of Millie the dog)
LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) No, no, no. That's not the kid.
(Picture shown of Chelsea Clinton)
LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) That's--that's the kid. We're trying to...
LIMBAUGH: No, just kidding. I'm just getting. Oh. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. Hold it. That was a terrible thing. That -- that was an absolutely terrible -- I am -- I am sorry. You know, I just -- the end of the week, the pressure's on -- actually the pressure's off, and I relaxed a little bit too much. You know, when my radio show started in August of 1988, a presidential campaign then, and Amy Carter was protesting everything American while at Brown University. And I didn't, of course, like that. I didn't like her protesting everything American, and I made a remark on my show that I've now since apologized for and I've taken it back; I didn't mean it. I said, You know, she may be the most unattractive presidential daughter in the history of the country.'
LIMBAUGH: Well, there was outrage. No, there was. I mean, there was just plenty -- my -- my mom called me at home that night. She said, Son, you know, you -- if you're going to be serious about this, you can't make fun of the way people look. You're not supposed to -- you're not -- you can talk about how you disagree with Amy Carter. You can talk about how you disagree with her politics and you think she's doing some bad things, but she can't help the way she looks, and you can't -- you shouldn't make fun of that. And, besides, you forgot Margaret Truman.'
LIMBAUGH: But I -- I apologize...
LIMBAUGH: There I go. My friends, I apologize again. I -- that's the third time the crew makes a mistake by showing you Millie the dog when I intended to show you Chelsea Clinton, and then I followed with that terrible story. I'm -- I hope you'll forgive me. I'm fatigued. I'm tired. I really don't -- in fact, you know what I'll do? Let's pretend this is a daytime talk show and that I'm a guest on, say, Sally, Phil or whatever. How can I make amends to you for what I just did? I can spank myself. People who spank themselves, next RUSH. Watch this. (Rush stands)
I'll do it with my left hand. I -- I'm right-handed, so it won't hurt as much. Do it with my left hand.
(Rush spanks himself, screaming and crying; written on screen, Ouch!!!')
LIMBAUGH: We'll be back with the rest of our show in a moment.
The following Tuesday, November 10, 1992, Limbaugh returned to the subject (transcript via Nexis):
LIMBAUGH: Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry. Let me tell you very quickly what happened last Friday night. There was a new in list and new out list that was published in the newspaper. The writer said in, cute kid in the White House; out, cute dog in the White House. Could we show the cute dog in the White House who's out, and they put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton back in the crew. And many of you people think that we did it on purpose to make a cheap comment on her appearance. And I'm terribly sorry. I don't -- look, that takes no talent whatsoever and I have a lot of talent. I don't need to get laughs by commenting on people's looks, especially a young child who's done nothing wrong. I mean, she can't control the way she looks. And we really -- we do not -- we do not do that on this kind of show. So put a picture up of her now and so we can square this.
(Photo shown of Bill and Chelsea Clinton, who is making a sour face)
(Laughter and applause)
LIMBAUGH: All right. We're sorry. We didn't intend to hurt her feelings. We'll be back with our final segment right after this. Don't go away.
“If You Want To Know What America Used To Be -- And A Lot Of People Wish It Still Were -- Then You Listen To Strom Thurmond”
On May 11, 1993, Limbaugh devoted a segment of his television program to lauding former senator Strom Thurmond's (R-SC) hostile treatment of a gay man testifying at a Senate hearing on gays serving in the military.
Introducing the segment, Limbaugh explained that Thurmond is “from the World War II generation” and thus “is not encumbered by trying to be politically correct” and not held back by “the so-called new niceties and proprieties.”
As Limbaugh saw it, Thurmond “just says it, and if you want to know what America used to be -- and a lot of people wish it still were -- then you listen to Strom Thurmond.”
Though he is often credited with later softening his views, Thurmond, who served in the Senate for several decades, was perhaps most famous for being an ardent foe of racial integration. During his run for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948, Thurmond infamously remarked that "all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, into our schools, our churches and our places of recreation and amusement.''
During the exchange that Limbaugh found praiseworthy, Thurmond had asked a gay man whether he had sought psychiatric help. Thurmond also told the man that “your lifestyle is not normal,” prompting an ovation from the audience at the hearing.
Limbaugh posited that though Thurmond was often dismissed as “just an old coot,” his views were “what most people think. They just don't have the guts to say it.”
From the May 11, 1993, program (transcript via Nexis):
LIMBAUGH: All right. Gays in the military. Wha -- I want to show you Strom Thurmond. And I'll tell you why I wa -- have you -- have you people by -- have any of you in the audience seen Strom Thurmond's comments on this? All right.
Now Strom Thurmond is 90 years old and, of course, he's -- he's from the World War II generation. He has a different view of the world than people of, say, my generation or my parents' genera -- well, I wouldn't say he's different from my parents' generation. Probably the same view of the world -- same thoughts. Strom Thurmond just fire -- he doesn't care. He is not encumbered by trying to be politically correct. He's not encumbered by all of the -- the so-called new niceties and proprieties. He just says it, and if you want to know what America used to be -- and a lot of people wish it still were -- then you listen to Strom Thurmond. Here he is conducting hearings yesterday on gays in the military and he's actually talking -- you won't see him, but you're -- he's talking to a homosexual. He -- and what you also won't hear -- he has just asked the homosexual if he has ever sought psychiatric help.
LIMBAUGH: Now, my friends, let's not chuckle. Be compassionate. He will ask the homosexual if he's ever had any psychiatric help and ha -- the homosexual answers and then Strom continues. Here's what he says.
(Footage from Senate hearing)
Senator STROM THURMOND: Your lifestyle is not normal. It is not normal for a man to want to be with a man or a woman with a woman.
LIMBAUGH: He got a standing ovation. Now people -- people applauded that. People applaud -- because -- you know, Strom Thurmond can say it because he's 90 years old and people say, Ah, he's just an old coot. He's from the old days,' and so forth. But that's what most people think. They just don't have the guts to say it. That's why they applaud when somebody does say it that directly and that simply.
Limbaugh had kind words for Thurmond on other episodes as well. In 1996, when Thurmond won his primary battle for re-election at age 93, Limbaugh told his audience that you've “got to love him.” Limbaugh touted Thurmond's record for the longest filibuster in Senate history “without even going to the bathroom.”
Not mentioned by Limbaugh? The bill that Thurmond saw fit to spend 24 hours filibustering was The Civil Rights Act of 1957.
From the June 13, 1996, program (transcript via Nexis):
LIMBAUGH: Want to wrap up something here that I -- I just really find heartwarming. Ninety-three-year-old Strom Thurmond won his primary battle for the Republican nomination to be re-elected as senator in South Carolina this past week. And he was asked on TV, after the election was over, why the voters voted for him. Here's what he said.
Senator STROM THURMOND (Republican, South Carolina): Those who would believe that my age is a handicap or even a reason not to vote for me have been silenced. The voters have sent the message that it is my experience and ability to represent and serve the people of South Carolina that truly counts.
LIMBAUGH: He holds the record. He's got the longest filibuster in Senate history: 20 -- 24 hours and 18 minutes, without even going to the bathroom, folks. Strom Thurmond, you got to love him.
The affection between Thurmond and Limbaugh was apparently mutual. On an earlier episode of Limbaugh's TV show, Limbaugh sent a producer to interview attendees at Thurmond's 90th birthday party. Thurmond was shown saying of Limbaugh: “He's a fine man, puts on a great show; and I consider him a great American.”
“We're Going To Get Into The Death Of Vince Foster Tonight. And Note That I Did Not Say The Suicide Of Vince Foster”
You can learn a lot about Rush Limbaugh from the way he reacted to the death of deputy White House counsel Vince Foster. After his body was found in Northern Virginia's Fort Marcy Park in July of 1993 and his death quickly ruled a suicide, Limbaugh and other conservatives quickly cast doubt on the circumstances surrounding Foster's death.
On his television program, Limbaugh obsessively covered Vince Foster's suicide, repeatedly suggesting -- often under the guise of asking the hard questions the mainstream media was afraid of -- that Foster may have been killed in order to protect the Clintons from some supposed scandal (the scandal varied depending on the episode). As Limbaugh once described it, "[I]f you want to get to the bottom of whatever went on in Fornigate, Whitewatergate, you've got to find out what happened to Vince Foster."
On the February 3, 1994, edition of his TV show, Limbaugh teased a segment with Foster-obsessed journalist Christopher Ruddy -- then with the NY Post, now CEO of NewsMax -- by saying, “We're going to get into the death of Vince Foster tonight. And note that I did not say the suicide of Vince Foster.”
The segment that followed featured Limbaugh and Ruddy running through the supposed mysteries surrounding Foster's death. (Note: This segment ran for several minutes -- the sample below is representative of the tone of the discussion.)
From the February 3, 1994, program (transcript via Nexis):
LIMBAUGH: Last week Christopher Ruddy, on the 27th of January, began what has become a series of reports on the Vince Foster suicide.
(Visual; New York Post headline reads, “Doubts Raised Over Foster's Suicide'” )
LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) There you see that first story. Doubts raised over Foster's suicide.'
And a number of discoveries were unearthed by Mr. Ruddy that nobody had reported previous to his story. For example, the -- the position of his body. It was -- it was as though he was laid out perfectly in a coffin with his hands at his side. The gun -- and this is an exact replica of the gun -- was found in his hand just like this at this side, laying down just like this. This after he shot himself in the mouth.
(Visual; New York Post sketch describes position of Foster's body)
LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) And there was barely a trickle of blood coming from his mouth. There were no forensics tests done on the gun, the bullet wasn't found. None of this.
All of it unearthed by Chris Ruddy who we have on the phone. Chris, welcome to the program. What got you started with all this? How -- how did it come to be that you decided to investigate this?
(Photo of Christopher Ruddy)
Mr. CHRISTOPHER RUDDY (Investigative Reporter, The New York Post): Well, about a month ago a friend of mine down in Washington said, You know, you should take a look at the -- at the Vince Foster case, because he -- this person in Washington was concerned that he was still holding the gun.' And there were some small press reports that mentioned he still had the gun in hand -- in his hand which is unusual. It's rare that a suicide victim would have the gun.
LIMBAUGH: Unusual. Isn't it impossible? I mean, I've got the gun -- I mean, I -- I don't want to actually act out what happened here but if I were to take this gun and put it in my mouth and pull the trigger, I doubt that it would stay in my hand and that I would still be conscious enough to lay down perfectly and put the gun at my side and then lay down and die so that I could be discovered having committed suicide. That's -- that seems impossible.
Mr. RUDDY: Well, no, there is rare instances where it would occur. But it's highly unusual and would lead one to believe that foul play did take place. The -- the way the park police described it happening, it would be -- it would have been impossible. So you're correct in -- in stating that, if you were to put it in that way -- that -- the way the park police said the suicide took place.
(Footage of the road leading to Fort Marcy; site of Foster death)
Mr. RUDDY: (Voiceover) And the way they claim is that Vince Foster was standing on a hillside -- a steep incline. So he's standing on it and he took a revolver and he put it in his mouth -- a .38-caliber revolver -- and he put his thumb in the trigger, they claimed, and he fired the gun; that he fell back in a perfectly repose. The gun then came out of his mouth, with no blood on it, by the way. Usually the barrel of the gun is loaded with blood and you would have seen evidence of it across the shirt. Everyone noted -- noticed how clean his shirt was.
That he then was able to turn the gun around in his hands so that it fit correctly so that his fingers went around the hand grip because remember they claim that he shot himself with his thumb and that he then put it at his side in a natural repose as one would be ready to fire a gun. And that could not be -- could not happen. Pathologist I spoke to -- the leading pathologist in the country...
(Limbaugh mimics events as described by Ruddy)
Mr. RUDDY: ...said it is impossible to have taken place.
A month later, Limbaugh again went over the “key questions” surrounding Foster's death prior to a special prosecutor re-opening the case.
From the March 11, 1994, edition of his TV program (transcript via Nexis):
LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) The place he died -- Foster had no known history of having visited Fort Marcy Park -- the Arlington, Virginia, site where his body was found. In fact, next time you need -- meet somebody from Washington, DC, who's lived there a long time, ask them: Hey, ever been to Fort Marcy Park?' I guarantee you hardly anybody'll even know where it is -- been there -- living there all their lives. Vince Foster lived there six months and knew where to go? Don't buy it.
Next thing, the time.
(Graphic on screen)
Foster Death: Key Questions
Police have been unable to account for Foster's movements in the last three hours of his life.
LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) Police have been unable to account his these movements in the last three hours of his life.
(Graphic on screen)
Foster Death: Key Questions
Foster's body was found lying face-up and straight. His head was at the top of an incline and his feet at the bottom, an unusual position for someone who had shot himself while standing on an incline.
LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) His body was found lying face-up and straight. His head was at the top of an incline; his feet at the bottom, an unusual position for someone who had shot himself while standing on an incline. Looked like he was ready for the coffin, in other words.