Posted: Jan 29, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Really, it is not very amazing that a government vendetta has been launched against Rush Limbaugh, the very successful and gifted talk show host. Governments have attempted to suppress criticism for centuries. The Founding Fathers were acutely aware of that, and provided strong protections in our system of government for dissent and for free speech. But would Thomas Jefferson, for instance, have anticipated that a journalist's fellow communicators would remain silent while one of their own was being threatened with jail?

Right now, extreme measures are being taken against Limbaugh, and what impresses me more than a government's repressive measures against him is the meekness of his colleagues. First, there is the quietude of the press in general. I suppose that was to be expected. Many years ago, when the great dissenter, H.L. Mencken, was being harassed on a petty and very much trumped-up obscenity charge, the national press averted its gaze. At the time, Mencken was no small fish. He was then considered a champion of their great cause, freedom of speech. Mencken attributed the press's cowardliness to "smugness."

Yet the American press is today highly politicized, and its politics are antithetical to Limbaugh's. The press is liberal. Limbaugh is a dissident in the best sense of the word. He is conservative. That the press in general ignores the attempts to suppress him is another example of its stupendous hypocrisy, but this is not surprising.

What is surprising is the quietude of the conservative press. Why is it not hollering from its syndicated columns, its intellectual reviews, its handful of newspapers and Fox News? I assume this is another example of what Mencken diagnosed as "smugness." Still, it is dismaying.

Limbaugh has admitted to becoming hooked on prescription drugs while trying to mollify the pain he has suffered from back and ear maladies. No one disputes he suffered this pain. No one I have encountered claims he was taking the prescription medication OxyContin for kicks. If he were, I am told that there are superior drugs pursuant to kicks. Anyway, the misuse of medications and reliance on OxyContin all end in the same hell on earth. Limbaugh has involuntarily been there, and he has now sought treatment. He wants out. Every authority I have consulted tells me that given his admission and given his voluntary rehab, he would normally be let off. The Hollywood coke snorters get this sort of judgment. Why not Limbaugh? Should he have been snorting coke?

But Palm Beach County prosecutors, having apparently leaked information about the case as well as some of the negotiating documents between them and Limbaugh's lawyers, now want Limbaugh to plead guilty to a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Limbaugh's lawyer, the respected civil libertarian Roy Black, considers this "preposterous." It is worse than that, which is presumably why the American Civil Liberties Union has filed a legal brief on behalf of Limbaugh. Another brief on his behalf has been filed by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, which wants to scotch the prosecutors' release of his medical records.

The harassment of Limbaugh provides another unlovely glimpse into the workings of the liberal elites. From the days of FDR, they have used the law to persecute political opponents. FDR used the IRS and FBI against such an array of opponents from former Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, to publishers Moses Annenberg and Col. Robert R. McCormick, to labor leader John L. Lewis. All were innocent. Limbaugh is in good company.

Still, it is repulsive to see the rest of the press sitting quietly by. That Limbaugh, a first offender and recovering addict to pain killers rather than street drugs, is being unfairly harassed is clear to anyone but a political zealot. Conceivably, his harassment will end in court appearances and even a jail term. Will that please his opponents? "We got Limbaugh on an OxyContin charge." It might be a first.