Nov. 17, 2003 More than five weeks after he entered a residential treatment center for what he described as an addiction to prescription pain medication, Rush Limbaugh is to return to the airwaves today.
While his voice will be beamed into an atmosphere swirling with questions — not the least of which center on whether he acquired some of those drugs illegally — one point seems assured: Mr. Limbaugh, by far the biggest star in talk radio, is poised to draw one of the biggest audiences in his 15-year career in syndication.
The "feminazis" and other liberals Mr. Limbaugh says he loves to hate — wonder how he might reconcile his own behavior with his past statements recommending jail time for drug users.
"I would expect that Limbaugh's listenership will be three to four times its normal size when he comes on the air," said Michael Harrison, the editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, a trade journal, which estimates Mr. Limbaugh's weekly audience at more than 14.5 million. "Personally, he might be in the worst trench he's ever been in. But people are curious to hear what Rush's going to say, which puts him, professionally, at the peak of his career."
Mr. Limbaugh, who is heard on WABC-AM in New York and counts his audience as closer to 20 million, has done nothing to dampen that anticipation. A spokesman, Allan Mayer, said on Friday that Mr. Limbaugh was giving no interviews and would not even say whether he was planning to broadcast from his studios in Manhattan or those in West Palm Beach, Fla., near where he has a home.
Before he went silent, Mr. Limbaugh was the subject of news reports in The National Enquirer and other publications that he had bought drugs like OxyContin, a powerful painkiller, without a prescription. Other reports suggested that law enforcement officials were investigating the matter, and Mr. Limbaugh told his listeners that he would not discuss any details "until this investigation is complete."
Asked what Mr. Limbaugh might say today, Mr. Mayer said: "The only people he's going to be speaking to publicly are his own listeners, through his own microphone. They are going to get it from the horse's mouth, as it were, the first comments he has to make about his own situation and his view of the world."
In many ways, how people view Mr. Limbaugh's prospects for recovery — personally, as well as professionally — depends on their political affiliations. Mr. Limbaugh had been a hero of the right, particularly after he helped galvanize those who seized Congress for the Republicans in 1994.
William J. Bennett, a conservative who served as the so-called drug czar during the first Bush administration, said in an interview that Mr. Limbaugh was at the center of "a human drama about a guy who's having huge success, takes a huge step down, and is now trying to get himself in shape."
That Mr. Limbaugh, with his advocacy of stiff punishment for drug offenders, would himself admit to a long-term addiction was evocative of the situation that Mr. Bennett was in earlier this year. One of the nation's pre-eminent moral crusaders, Mr. Bennett acknowledged that he had set a poor example by "too much gambling."
Nonetheless, Mr. Bennett sought in the interview to distinguish his own shortcomings from the conduct of Mr. Limbaugh, a close friend who has dined at his home, once with Justice Clarence Thomas. "Not an addiction," Mr. Bennett said of his own actions, as if ticking off a list of talking points, "not a problem, no therapy, gambling too much, stopped it."