WASHINGTON -- Rush Limbaugh is back on the air after five weeks of drug rehabilitation, although experts say it could be weeks before El Rushbo recovers his full sense of self-importance.
His return sermon bombarded listeners with fusillades of what sounded a lot like humility, evidence that his rehabilitative treatment had broken down his defenses, cracked through his sense of denial and gotten him in touch with his feelings, as well as his audience.
It took at least a half-hour before his voice could de-mellow enough to take a New Age-sounding shot at "lib-brools": "The attempt to manipulate lib-brools into changing who they are and becoming nice guys and liking us is always going to fail because it's not our job to make them like us," he opined. "It's their job to like themselves. And the problem with lib-brools is, they don't like themselves. ... They're denying who they really are."
Heavy, man. Fans may be reassured that Mr. Limbaugh understands his fan base. Detox has only given him a new vocabulary for his old act, which always has offered therapeutic value to those who yearn to feel good without being forced to think about things too much.
Conservative talk shows dominate radio chatter these days, partly by preaching an attractively oversimplified view of the world. In that world, nice rich guys such as Mr. Limbaugh are not supposed to be drug abusers on the sly. Such awful horrors are supposed to be limited to those "other people," the ones who don't listen to conservative talk shows.
Such were the sentiments of the Old Rush, the Mr. Limbaugh who told listeners in October 1995 that violators of drug laws "ought to be sent up." Statistics that indicate blacks go to prison far more often than whites for the same drug offenses only show that "too many whites are getting away with drug use," the Old Rush said. His remedy? "Go out and find the ones [white people] who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river, too."
A newer Mr. Limbaugh surfaced in March 1998. He advocated legalization and regulation of addictive drugs the way we regulate cigarettes and alcohol. "Make them taxpayers and then sue them," Mr. Limbaugh said of the drug lords. "Sue them left and right and then get control of the price and generate tax revenue from it. Raise the price sky high and fund all sorts of other wonderful social programs."
Then the New Rush went into an odd radio silence on the subject of drugs, according to his critics and drug groups who've monitored him. His shift of views and subsequence silence appeared to coincide with the beginnings of the Old Rush's now-revealed addiction.
On his return show, he offered that long silence as evidence that he was not a hypocrite on the subject of locking up drug abusers. "I was honest with you throughout the whole time," he told his listeners. "I was not as honest with myself."
Fair enough. Pundits reserve the right to avoid taking positions on subjects in which they have a conflict of interest.
But now that he has come out of the closet as a nonviolent drug abuser, I cannot help but imagine how effective Mr. Limbaugh's powerful voice might sound on behalf of other nonviolent drug abusers who could benefit from treatment instead of incarceration.
This issue transcends political parties. He could make a very good conservative argument.
"My friends," he might say, "it's time for us to stop wasting our tax dollars on prison for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders.
"I'm talking about people who haven't robbed anybody or held up any liquor stores or hurt anybody but themselves trying to feed their drug addictions. These people could benefit from drug treatment, my friends. Believe me, I know. Many of you know it, too, my friends.
"And you don't have to be a lib-brool to believe it. In the past few years, states like Texas, Kansas, Arizona, California and Hawaii have passed laws that mandate treatment instead of incarceration for first-time drug offenders. Those aren't all lib-brool states, my friends. They're states with good, hard-working taxpayers who want to keep what they earn, not throw it away on more prisons when rehab can do the job for a lot less money, pain and heartache.
"This is serious, my friends. We need to stop the madness. Write your senators and congressmen and governors, especially if you happen to live in Florida, the state where my own difficulties are still under consideration by some fine, upstanding officers of the law.
"Florida Gov. Jeb Bush opposed efforts to send first-time abusers to rehab instead of jail. Please let Governor Bush know how happy you are that drug treatment worked so well for his daughter, Noelle, last year. Remember, friends, charity begins at home, then spreads to others -- like me!"
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, and appears Thursdays in The Sun.