Rush Limbaugh is not known for mincing words.
The radio talk-show host is fond of lambasting liberals and anyone else who fails to share his bedrock beliefs. He had been particularly hard on drug addicts, and an avid supporter of the war on drugs, until he was found in 2003 to have a dependency on prescription medications. Police said he had been buying them illegally.
He most recently has targeted actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, for doing political ads supporting candidates who favor stem cell research, including Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, the Maryland Democrat running against Republican Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele for the U.S. Senate.
Limbaugh contended Monday that Fox was faking the tremors shaking his body as he delivered his pitch in the ads. Limbaugh's remarks caused a furor this week and prompted him to issue a rare apology. He then went on the offensive again and suggested that Fox was being used.
"Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and, in the process, is shilling for a Democratic politician," Limbaugh said.
The controversy raised the question of whether Limbaugh, who had sought sympathy from his listeners for his hearing loss in one ear and his drug addiction, had gone too far in attacking a man with a debilitating disease in order to score a political point.
"I doubt that his core audience thinks he's gone over the line," said Tom Taylor, editor of the trade publication Inside Radio and a former radio host. "Rush Limbaugh has a canny sense of what his listeners think and how they're going to react to things. Limbaugh is brilliant at what he does. He and the other guys like him know how to use the medium. You may not agree with them, but they're interesting to listen to."
And yet many talk-radio hosts have seen their audiences decline in the wake of the 2004 election, when they were at their peak. Last spring, Baltimore's WBAL-AM dropped Limbaugh's nationally syndicated show. The three-hour, daily program was then picked up by WCBM, which has a roster of conservative commentators, including Sean Hannity, Les Kinsolving and Mark Levin.
To some observers, the latest Limbaugh imbroglio is part of a Republican counterattack that follows recent GOP scandals, most notably the case of former Florida Rep. Mark Foley, who resigned after it was revealed that he had sent sexually suggestive messages to former Congressional pages.
Last month, President Bush summoned several conservative talk-show hosts - including Hannity, Michael Medved, Laura Ingraham and Neal Boortz - to the White House for a pep talk designed to elicit their help in rallying the base for the midterm elections. Limbaugh did not attend, but met with Bush in the Oval Office in June, The New York Times reported last week.
"Limbaugh's rant is just a harsher version of the GOP congressmen who engaged in Republican base-boosting when they claimed the Foley follies were a Democratic dirty trick," said Terry Michael, executive director of the Washington Center for Politics and Journalism, a nonpartisan foundation that promotes knowledge of politics among journalists. "With two weeks in a bitter midterm contest, it's the silly season, and there are surely bloggers on the left who are engaging in similar over-the-top diatribes."
Hate speech, Michael said, is a time-honored tradition in American politics.
"But it has a self-correcting rough justice to it," he said. "Even when you appeal to nut cases on your side, you risk turning off the political center and energizing the opposition."
The Limbaugh controversy recalled furor earlier this year over the right-wing pundit Ann Coulter's attacks on several widows of Sept. 11 victims. Coulter described them as "self-obsessed" and "enjoying their husbands' deaths," and did not apologize when criticism arose.
Regardless of the politics involved, said Elaine A. Richman, a Baltimore neuroscientist, Fox "is very brave to give his disease a public face," an act she said is uncommon in those with the disease.
"There are lots of people who experience what Michael Fox is experiencing, but they don't have the confidence or the emotional strength that he's revealing," said Richman, co-author of Parkinson's Disease and the Family (Harvard University Press). "When people get that sick, they don't go out in public."
About Limbaugh's charge that Fox was "acting" in the ads, Richman said, "He's faking his symptoms like I'm faking being short." (She is 5 feet, 1 inch tall.)
But Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center, a conservative media watchdog group, said Fox should have anticipated the criticism.