Nov 9, 2003

When Limbaugh returns, can we expect any change?
November 9, 2003 Rush Limbaugh's 30-day self-imposed exile is about to come to an end, and if he returns immediately to the airways, it'll be interesting to see -- hear -- if whatever recovery spa he went to made any difference. Not in his political views, necessarily, but in his overall outlook, his notorious lack of empathy for the benighted, the addicted, the less than self-reliant.

I thought Limbaugh an overweight overachiever. But what was touching about him was his obvious, sweat-producing discomfort in the company of powerful people. It appeared Limbaugh realized he was not much more than hot air and was demonstrably ill at ease around those who were truly accomplished.

Evidently, it was shortly after 1996 that his addiction to pain-killers became a problem. "Back surgery" (though not all the time he spent on the golf links) became the excuse. But as the years went by, I did notice that Rush grew more and more content with his success. He seemed to lose his hick-ish insecurity at not being all that he was cracked up to be. He became more comfortable in his skin -- though now it is clear the comfort was pharmacologically induced.

Given the nature of Limbaugh's rants, his various attacks on elites, one branch of medicine Rush wasn't going to seek out was psychoanalysis. That's the sort of thing the targets of his scorn -- "feminazis," soccer ("sucker") moms, liberals -- would do. "Back surgery" is still a manly hardship, not socially stigmatizing in Rush's world as are psychological problems, feelings of inferiority. So Rush had to self-medicate, recycling his expensive cigar boxes as carriers of cash for parking lot pickups of shocking amounts of prescription pain-killers.

Rush's schtick has always been an act. He was a natural for radio, as are a lot of conceited introverts: He could talk and talk and not have to face anyone, especially himself. Although his former cable TV show's audience was handpicked, he was never at ease in front of a group of strangers. His first appearance in the early '90s as a network TV talk show host was a disaster (the audience rebelled and Rush kicked the crowd out), as was his recent short-lived stint on ESPN. Rush's biases are too visible on TV: He is what you see.

But on the radio, Rush took his basic libertarian bent and coated it with even more conservatism than his native middle Missouri upbringing brought him naturally. His populist style was to become the anti-intellectuals' intellectual. Added to that was his knack of making common sense king. And Rush made the king mean. Americans enjoy making fun of others. Nothing travels faster in this country than a joke, most often one at someone else's expense.

Now Rush has become something of a joke. He joins William Bennett, the master of morality and moderation in all things except gambling -- becoming the latest right-wing blowhard exposed for proclaiming, ''Do as I say, not as I do.''

But people can hope that Rush got some decent therapy during the last 30 days, perhaps helping him to locate his inner feminazi, the personal demons and insecurities that led him to take more mood-altering drugs than many of his most ridiculed targets. But 30 days might not be long enough to change his world view -- especially one that has been so profitable to him for more than a decade. His drug abuse already may have robbed Limbaugh of his hearing, and if its cure requires him to change his mind about a few things -- both social and political -- he might end up losing his audience.
Rush in touch with his inner feminazi? That is something to look forward to.
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