Taking his medicine: Rush needs more than treatment
Because he's a man with firm and simple opinions about almost everything, America's most successful radio personality told his listeners years ago what society should do about unfortunate people like Rush Limbaugh: Send them to prison.
Back in 1995, arguing against liberal leniency toward dope fiends, Limbaugh endorsed the boilerplate ideology and draconian methods of the drug war with baritone bombast. "Drug use destroys societies. Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country," he intoned. "And so, if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused, and they ought to be convicted, and they ought to be sent up."
Displaying characteristic conservative empathy, he dismissed data showing that blacks are punished more predictably and more severely than whites for similar narcotics offenses. Such statistics are meaningless, he said; all those studies prove is that "too many whites are getting away with drug use." According to him, the proper solution is not to treat addiction among all ethnic groups as a disease rather than a crime, but to arrest more white offenders and, of course, to "convict them and send them up the river, too."
Eight years later, Limbaugh's "talent on loan from God" has suddenly collided with instant karma.
If the story that his former housekeeper told (or sold) to the National Enquirer is true, then by his own standards El Rushbo himself should be headed "up the river" for a spell. His admitted abuse of Oxycontin, a federally controlled opiate used by millions of patients for the relief of disabling pain, was plainly illegal, as were his alleged purchases of thousands of the little "blue babies."
Luckily for him, however, criminal prosecution is unlikely, despite the e-mails, voice messages, and other evidence his dealer reportedly kept. To be indicted and convicted of drug offenses, he would have to be caught in red-handed possession of his stash. And the credibility of his accusers in court would be nil– not only because they sold their tale to the tabloid, but also because of their own obvious criminal liability.
Legal experts in Florida agree that Limbaugh's high-priced Miami attorney, Roy Black (best known for defending William Kennedy Smith and Marv Albert), has little reason to worry that his celebrity client will do time.
So whatever punishment Limbaugh must endure will be handed down in the court of public opinion. He enjoys the support of millions of character witnesses, including prominent fellow hypocrites such as his close friends William Bennett and Newt Gingrich. But they would all be hard-pressed to describe the mighty radio mouth as someone who has earned great sympathy. This is, after all, a man who earned millions by lampooning the plight of AIDS victims, spreading rumors that implicated Hillary Clinton in murder and Bill Clinton in cocaine abuse, and mocking the physical appearance of their young child. His brilliant career was founded on daily "entertainment" of this quality.
Limbaugh specialized in legitimizing the denigration of the least fortunate. "The poor in this country are the biggest piglets at the mother pig and her nipples," he complained. "And I'm sick and tired of playing the one phony game I've had to play, and that is this so-called compassion for the poor. I don't have compassion for the poor." Not even a hungry child or an unemployed father or an ill elderly woman was deemed by the great conservative guru to be deserving of his sympathy.
With that grim record, Limbaugh now presents a real challenge to liberal compassion. Rather than the cruel "joking" he might well have inflicted on an opponent in his situation, that challenge should be met with sincere wishes for his recovery and rehabilitation.
But what would rehabilitation mean?
In the statement he released last week, Limbaugh said his addiction had grown from a prescription of pain medication. By proffering that explanation, he only demonized effective medicines that rarely cause problems for the millions who badly need effective opiates to relieve disabling agony.
Both he and the nation would be better off if he resolved instead to deal with the real problems that afflict him.
According to his biographers, Limbaugh has always been a terribly insecure and often lonely man. His chronic projection of rage against women, gays, blacks, liberals, Democrats, and others is a symptom. Addiction is a psychiatric diagnosis, which most often occurs in people who medicate themselves to relieve psychic pain. His repeated failures to conquer his drug dependency suggest that he has yet to obtain the kind of therapy he needs.
While he examines his issues in seclusion over the next month or so, he might also ponder the social injustices of the drug war. Wealthy and well-connected junkies like Limbaugh get treatment and prayers; poor and obscure junkies get prison and scorn. Even a dittohead should be able to understand why that's wrong.
Joe Conason writes a weekly column on politics for The New York Observer where this essay first appeared. His most recent book is "The Hunting of the President: The Ten-Year Campaign to Destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.