Rich Galen

This will be a test. A civility test. I want to talk about this Rush Limbaugh v Bill Maher business of using really bad words to describe people they don't agree with.

This is not a discussion about contraception or Obama-care or Women's reproductive rights or free speech.

It will be a discussion about civility. Of which we are in dreadfully short supply these days.

Those of us who are professional political hacks - Republican and Democrat - have been taught since kindergarten that the way to win is to draw the starkest possible distinction between your candidate and your opponent.

If your opponent says it's dawn, you claim the man was probably up partying until all hours and can't tell day from night. If your opponent says it's a nice day, you turn it into a full-blown attack on his belief that global warming is killing baby seals.

If your opponent says … well, you get the picture. Make the differences between your candidate and the opposition candidate as glaring - and as unpleasant - as possible.

That's what we do. That's what I've done.

We've done it so well, the level of political discourse has tripped across the grass strip, fallen off the curb, and is lying in the gutter.

Congratulations, Rich. A life well lived.

I didn't invent political hyperbole and it is certainly not new. Nothing in recent memory has come close to the infamous caning of Sen. Charles Sumner by U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks on May 22, 1856 after Sumner insulted Brooks' cousin Sen. Andrew Butler on the Senate floor over the latter's support of slavery.

The current battle involves two men who are well schooled in linguistic weaponry - Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher. I know them both, though neither well enough to claim friendship.

Not only that, but I like them both. They don't sing. They don't dance. They don't spin plates on the Ed Sullivan show. They are both immensely popular because of their skill with words.

Without recounting the entire episode, you know what Limbaugh said about that Georgetown University Law School student. He called her a "slut" and a "prostitute."

Conservatives immediately took up the "double standard" cry as they pointed out that there were zero objections from the media or women's groups when Bill Maher called Sarah Palin what CNN's Wolf Blitzer has gently termed "the C word."

I was on Situation Room with my friend Paul Begala who said that the difference was the law school student was defenseless. Sarah Palin is a major political figure and can defend herself.

I wasn't quick enough on my feet to ask Paul, "So, you're saying if Limbaugh had called Rep. Nancy Pelosi a 'slut' and a 'prostitute' you would have shrugged it off as a fair fight?"

But, I didn't, so a potential moment of great TV theater was lost.

What I did say was that both Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh make their healthy livings by continually pushing the verbal envelope. Maher is, at base, a stand-up comedian. Dropping the "F-bomb" on his HBO program happens every couple of minutes (at least it did the night I was on).

I wasn't offended, I'm a big boy. It's cable, so the FCC has nothing to say about it. But the audience giggled and chortled at every occurrence because it still sounded naughty, if not forbidden fruit (not the "F-bomb" I'm talking about), on a TV show.

Rush's audience is well-defined and well-served by him. They know why they listen, and so does Limbaugh. He feeds them three hours a day of red meat and it is not surprising to me that once in a great while he serves some meat that has gone off.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau there are about 311.6 million people living in America of whom 85% are over 18 years old. That means almost a quarter of a billion people living here are adults.

We are not a nation of Holden Caulfields upset that our sisters will see dirty words scrawled on the sides of buildings. In fact, if we didn't react to "C" words and "F" bombs they would lose their power over us.

I'm not suggesting we completely throw up our intellectual hands over the descent of language and discourse in America. Holding it to higher standards is a worthy endeavor.

But, it's, like, hard. Ya' know?


Rich Galen

Rich Galen has been a press secretary to Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. Rich Galen currently works as a journalist and writes at Mullings.com.