Waiting for Rush Limbaugh to get back to his usual, outspoken self

November 18, 2003

EARLY LAST month, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh praised me on the air as a "noted feminist writer," and told his radio audience that I had written the best analysis of now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's candidacy that he had read anywhere.

He then took time out of his three-hour broadcast to read the column out loud to something like 20 million listeners. Some of those listeners were friends, who called to congratulate me. (Some other people who are also friends caught wind of this and called to castigate me.)

The next day, WBAL-AM talk show host Chip Franklin asked me to appear on his show and congratulated me for bringing Limbaugh's attention to Baltimore in such a positive way.

"How does it feel to have Rush praise you like that?" Franklin asked me, without a hint of irony in his voice.

That was Wednesday. By Friday, Rush Limbaugh was in drug rehab.

Five weeks later, Rush is out of rehab. He returned to the air yesterday, but I am still not sure how I am supposed to feel about the fact that Rush Limbaugh agreed with me.

And I can't help but continue to wonder whether his high opinion of my liberal, feminist point of view might have been, indeed, a high opinion.

I feel much like I felt when my parents finally agreed with me that President Nixon had to go. It is a weird, Alice-through-the-looking-glass kind of feeling, like waking up in a parallel universe where you are wrong about everything and everybody knows it but you.

When I read that Limbaugh had admitted to being addicted to the powerful painkiller OxyContin and would check into a rehab center for a while, I yawned.

Everybody is in rehab, I thought. It is the secular equivalent of the confessional. Enter, admit you are wrong, exit, begin again.

Everybody who leaves the confessional knows he will be back, sooner or later, and I have come to think of rehab the same way. Rehab is no more of a permanent fix for human weakness than priestly absolution is.

And, just like the rest of the church sanctuary, rehab has become the haven for those facing the harsher judgments of law or society. Rush may not avoid prosecution for allegedly pressuring his maid to score drugs for him, but a stay in rehab will look good on the pre-sentencing report.

More important for Rush, I think, rehab gives the righteous conservatives, who should have bailed on him, solid ground for issuing their own forgiveness.

"I don't think any less of him for having ordinary frailties," said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, demonstrating the kind of generosity of spirit that failed so many of Limbaugh's dittoheads when President Clinton admitted his human frailties a few years ago.

Other Limbaugh defenders made the distinction between his overuse of drugs to kill pain and the abuse of drugs to get high. The suggestion is, of course, that a herniated disc is a legitimate kind of pain while things like poverty and hopelessness are not.

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman confessed to just the kind of soft-headed, soft-hearted sympathy for Rush that he would have ridiculed as "liberal wimpishness." She said he hoped he would learn something from walking the halls of a rehab center in someone else's slippers, that he would have a kind of St. Paul moment.

I'm not so hopeful.

Rush Limbaugh signed a $285 million contract to be the caricature he has become: the righteous, unforgiving, judgmental conservative who, among other things, has said he thinks drug users should be thrown in jail.

When Rush returned to the air yesterday, it was with a show of humility and gratitude that I'd like to think was genuine.

"I came to realize a number of things while I was away, and at the top of this list is how much I love all of you, how much I appreciated all of you, and how much this and other aspects of my life mean to me," he said.

"I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for all that you have done for me over the course of my life."

But, alas, he also assured his listeners that there had been no personality transplant in that Arizona rehab center, that the doctors had not turned him into a "linguini-spined liberal."

I think we can expect that, after this initial display of good feelings, Rush Limbaugh will return to his old bombastic, uncompromising, polarizing self.

I hope he does. It's the only way I know for sure when I'm right.

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