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Rush Limbaugh joins the likes of Mother Teresa and Rosa Parks as recipient of highest civilian honor

Radio-show host Rush Limbaugh was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom during President Trump’s State of the Union address on Feb. 4. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

There was Mother Teresa, “a heroine of our times,” and Rosa Parks, “a living icon for freedom in America.” Elie Wiesel kept “watch against the forces of hatred,” while Jackie Robinson “struck a mighty blow for equality, freedom, and the American way of life.”

Now, joining them and other recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest award bestowed by the government on a civilian, is Rush Limbaugh, “the greatest fighter and winner that you will ever meet.”

Limbaugh, the combative and often-profane talk-radio giant who helped mold a form of loud and brash conservatism for decades, appeared surprised when President Trump announced the honor in the middle of his State of the Union address Tuesday.

The unusual moment came days after Limbaugh, 69, announced he had been diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer.

Rush Limbaugh awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom at State of the Union

“Rush Limbaugh, thank you for your decades of tireless devotion to our country,” Trump said.

Rush Limbaugh says he has advanced lung cancer, will continue radio program while he undergoes treatment

Liberals were outraged, much to the glee of Limbaugh’s many admirers on the right. “Forcing a room full of Democrats to have to watch Rush Limbaugh receive the medal of honor is the greatest own the libs moment in American history and I loved every second of it,” Andrew Surabian, a GOP strategist, said in a tweet that has since been removed.

But before first lady Melania Trump could finish draping the medal around Limbaugh’s neck, critics of the talk-show host began to recirculate online some of the most derogatory and inflammatory remarks he’s made over the course of his career against women (whom he has regularly labeled “feminazis”), black people, Native Americans, immigrants and the disabled community, among others.

From awarding a Medal of Freedom to reuniting a soldier with his family, President Trump had some dramatic additions to his Feb. 4 State of the Union speech. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

They pointed to the time Limbaugh — a divisive media figure who has been accused of racist and sexist remarks — called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” because of her support of women’s access to birth control. Or when he promoted the debunked birther claim that former president Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Or when he questioned why Native Americans would be upset about their forced removal and ethnic cleansing since “they all have casinos.” Or when he compared asylum seekers coming to the U.S. border to the invasion of Normandy. Or when he said that actor Michael J. Fox was faking the symptoms of his Parkinson’s disease.

Krystal Ball, a Hill TV personality whom Limbaugh falsely accused of posing nude when she was a young teenager, noted Tuesday how weird it was to watch the conservative media titan accept the prestigious honor.

As The Post’s Aaron Blake reported, Limbaugh’s dissenters have attempted to balance their distaste for his politics and rhetoric with regard for his humanity this week. But the discussion surrounding both Limbaugh and the Presidential Medal of Freedom made them trending topics on Twitter into early Wednesday.

4 takeaways from Trump’s State of the Union address

The meaning behind Limbaugh’s honor was evident to presidential historian Jon Meacham. On MSNBC, Meacham said that Limbaugh being honored for courage and excellence represented “the absolute apotheosis of reflexive partisanship.”

“You have the Medal of Freedom, an emblem of the new frontier, being given to the central architect of a reflexively partisan culture in the midst of a State of the Union that had nothing to do with union,” Meacham said.

Another point of contention for detractors was how Limbaugh received the honor when a potential candidate was seated in the same row. Moments before Trump honored Limbaugh, the president acknowledged 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman and retired Air Force Col. Charles E. McGee.

Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel even pointed out the irony behind Limbaugh receiving the medal on Rosa Parks Day.

“For Democrats, and a lot of people, independents and African Americans, [Limbaugh] is just seen as someone who is the face of racism, frankly,” Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent for “PBS NewsHour,” said on MSNBC.

Limbaugh’s fans and supporters, on the other hand, said it was fitting that such a role model would get public recognition. Trump campaign spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany thanked the host for having “inspired a generation.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) agreed, calling the honor “well-deserved.” Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, ripped Democrats for not rising to their feet in the House chamber for Limbaugh.

“I’ve known Rush for 30 years and no one deserves the Medal of Freedom more than Rush Limbaugh,” he tweeted.

Most recipients have not faced such immediate blowback over their selection, but there was a push in recent years to revoke a recipient’s Presidential Medal of Freedom. When President George W. Bush honored Bill Cosby as a recipient in 2002, there was no debate over the comedian’s selection. That would change when sexual assault allegations mounted against Cosby years later. (He was eventually convicted on three counts of sexual assault.) Obama, Bush’s successor, later acknowledged that “there’s no precedent for revoking a medal.”

The theatrics behind the ceremony only emphasized “how pointedly political Trump’s State of the Union was,” The Post’s Amber Phillips noted. It also displayed the balance shown by critics in disavowing Limbaugh’s body of work while expressing concern for his health.

“I pray for Rush Limbaugh as he faces stage four lung cancer,” said the Rev. William J. Barber II, “but it’s also a lie to say he is America’s greatest fighter for our ideals and that a man who has spewed racism & division deserves the Medal of Freedom.”