The Rush Limbaugh story should be covered by psychiatrists, not reporters.
This is not an insult. To the contrary; it is an acknowledgement of what seems to me the story’s fundamental truth: that the motives of a rich and famous and seemingly contented man who becomes a drug addict are better understood by people who have been trained in the workings of the mind, rather than in the workings of politicians and police officials and random occurrence.
There is no way for a journalist to comprehend Limbaugh’s urges, the desperation that drove him to swap cigar boxes full of money for sandwich bags full of prescription pain-killers in the parking lot of a Denny’s Restaurant in West Palm Beach, Fla. And, in most cases, there is no incentive for a journalist even to try to understand.
The journalist of conservative leanings wants simply to forgive. He wants Limbaugh to be thought of as a victim, not a perpetrator. He cannot wait to sprint into print or dash onto the air and ask where the indignation was when Bill Clinton committed deeds even more destructive to the American social fabric. He cannot wait to demonstrate how compassionate his conservatism can truly be, at least when it comes to a fellow conservative.
The journalist of liberal leanings can barely restrain himself. Rush Limbaugh a druggie? It is a gift from the gods of the journalistic empyrean, as if the president of the United States had been revealed as a fishing buddy of Saddam’s. Or Bill Bennett as an inveterate gambler. Such is his glee that he dares not sprint into print or dash onto the air; he must first calm himself, wipe the grin off his face, so that he seems more thoughtful than giddily vindictive.
But the journalist who wants to write about Limbaugh without taking into account either extreme of the political spectrum faces a more difficult task. His first impulses might be sympathetic; after all, Limbaugh would not have become addicted to drugs had he not been trying to escape from something, whether physical pain or pain of some other kind, and he must have been haunted by the way that something pursued him. Or, even worse, by that something’s having finally captured him.
Then again, there is the matter of Limbaugh’s own diatribes against drug addiction, the vehemence with which he railed against it on his radio show. At the very least, the man is a hypocrite, is he not? And the hypocrisy of so public a man is a story in itself, is it not? Cannot journalists of both right and left agree on this?
Yes. Sort of. But.
Last week, The National Enquirer published a list of Limbaugh’s on-air quotes about drug abuse, including his recommendation that “people who want to do drugs [be sent] to London and Zurich and let’s be rid of them.” But all of the quotes, except for one about Ted Kennedy’s thirst for scotch, are from 1993---and no one has yet suggested that Limbaugh’s dependency goes that far back. Perhaps, as he became an abuser himself, he modified his outrage, and thus, at least in some small manner, protected himself against charges of hypocrisy.
But even if he is a hypocrite, even if he continued to vilify druggies as he was descending into the same abyss that they so ignobly occupy, one is advised to take into account the words of the French essayist La Rochefoucauld, who said, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” In other words, the hypocrite is not as duplicitous as he seems; he is, rather, one who bemoans his own shortcomings, albeit in a most indirect manner.
In Limbaugh’s case, by practicing hypocrisy himself, which is to say, by blasting drug addicts either on or off the air while simultaneously swallowing a virtual drug store every few days, he might have been blasting himself. He might have been punishing himself. He might have been trying to save himself.
Hypocrisy might have been Rush Limbaugh’s cry for a virtue that, for reasons so far known only to him, he could not attain.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT. He is the author of several books, including The Spirits of America: A Social History of Alcohol (Temple University Press, 2003).