Latitude for Limbaugh

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(Host) Commentator Ron Powers shares his thoughts on the latest controversy involving conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.

(Powers) You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel, as former President Clinton might have put it, Rush Limbaugh’s pain. Rush Limbaugh has confessed to a drug addiction. Drug addiction is a hellish curse. So here’s a liberal dose of good wishes, Rush.

But there’s another kind of hell that Rush Limbaugh must now confront. He’s finding out what it is like to be the kind of poor, suffering, hard-luck loser who gets singled out for humiliation and abuse… by Rush Limbaugh.

The civic voice of America has turned mean over the last decade and a half. Discussion of public affairs on the radio and TV has taken on all the nuance and complexity of a one-sided barroom fight. The idea now is to avoid the sucker’s game of actually putting opinions to any kind of dialectic test – but instead to smother your opponent with an onslaught of ridicule, name-calling, categorical bias, and extremes of guilt by association, the vileness of which is limited only by your imagination and your decibel pitch.

The godfather of this era is of course Rush Limbaugh. Granted, he entered a pop-culture neighborhood already ruled by shock jocks and abuse comics and a few dark radio demagogues scattered around the airwaves; but you’ve got to give credit to the man for the sheer scope of his visionary genius: he became our Starbuck’s of sarcasm, our Wal Mart of withering scorn. The two young Boston jocks who recently compared black public-school students at bus stops to gorillas were probably paying homage to this visionary genius.

And what was the core of that genius? I don’t think it was ideological. I think it was his sheer mesmerizing will to keep rubbing it in; to make it hurt; to live on the far side of that border that separates the superego from the Id. Cruelty, let’s face it, is fascinating. No matter what side it’s on. I’ll admit it: I’ve taken a few illicit chuckles myself from Limbaugh’s tirades, especially in the Clinton years. He scored some nasty good points, but I kind of tuned out during his hijinx over the Vincent Foster suicide.

And now, like so many public moralists, Rush Limbaugh has been obliged to confess that his aura of righteousness is fake. What do you know: the figure that has stumbled out from behind the curtain into the searchlight glare is almost shockingly ordinary: a rather small, reclusive, socially uncertain man whose public ferocity was in some ways the artifice of the puppeteer.

His fans are already calling for understanding; for compassion; for forgiveness. After all, they point out, he is only human. And of course they’re right. Rush Limbaugh is entitled to compassion and forgiveness. That’s the point, isn’t it? That’s the only point.

This is Ron Powers.

Ron Powers is an Emmy-winning journalist, critic and novelist.

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