Rush to cry hypocrisy

Posted: Oct 15, 2003 12:00 AM

Rush Limbaugh should be ashamed of himself. And you know what? He probably is.

Proud and successful people who end up going into rehab under a cloud of scandal pretty much always feel shame. That Rush Limbaugh has condemned drug use over the years and called for the punishment of illegal drug users probably makes Limbaugh feel even worse. Handing your enemies the noose is never a pick-me-up.

And, it's certainly true that Limbaugh's detractors are having a grand time at his expense. Garrison Keillor noted that Limbaugh's addiction explains how the talk show host could manage to listen to himself all these years. Don Imus, a former cocaine addict, declared with characteristic nuance, "Rush is a fat, pill-popping loser." Imus continued: "Suck it up, fatso, and stop taking 100 pills a day or whatever ... and employ some discipline in your life."

Democrats are already wearing out the treads on the joke that not all of us have Rush Limbaugh's maid to give us prescription drug coverage.

Har, har, har. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

I don't think any of this stuff is very funny. But it's certainly revealing that it comes from folks who normally talk about how addiction is a disease. Compassion comes easily when it's for people you like.

But look: Rush Limbaugh never pulled any punches either. I may agree with many of his views and I may even subscribe to his hard-hitting style from time to time, but I can't muster a huge amount of sympathy or surprise when it comes to the beating he's receiving.

Yes, I think the gloating at the man's misfortune is tacky. Yes, I think getting addicted to pain medication after being prescribed it is different from going out and scoring some heroin (or are all of these anti-Limbaugh titterers going to start denouncing JFK as a "junkie" too? After all, he was hopped-up on all sorts of drugs while playing nuclear chicken with Moscow). But Limbaugh is a big boy and getting grief from your enemies comes with the territory.

Where I do have sympathy for Limbaugh is the ordeal he's about to go through. Taking shots from liberal gadflies, he's used to. What lies ahead of him is new and terrifying territory.

He's off to a good start. His statement last Friday was humane, mature, humble and pitch-perfect. He's right: he's not a role model for seeking help and he's not a victim either. He made at least a few terrible mistakes and he's now trying to rectify them.

Having known people who've died from drugs and people who've toiled at recovery, it sounds to me that Limbaugh realizes he's got more to worry about than whether Al Franken is making a jerk out of himself again. And, it should be noted, being a bazillionaire will make recovery easier for Limbaugh than for lots of people.

But what drives me nuts about this story is how universally misguided the coverage has been. When word came out that Limbaugh had admitted to his addiction, the networks, the newspapers and the countless one-man-band outlets on the Web immediately scurried to find examples of Limbaugh condemning drug use. Aha! He's a hypocrite!

So what?

The coverage made it seem as if Limbaugh's crime or mistake was his hypocrisy not his drug addiction. That certainly makes sense in a journalistic culture incapable of condemning most inappropriate behaviors (racism being the only major exception).

But this is batty. Would Limbaugh really be a better person if all along he'd been telling the world, "Go ahead, take lots and lots of drugs. It's your own business"?

Hypocrisy is often a bad thing, but not always. Certainly saying the right thing while privately doing the wrong thing is still better than both saying and doing the wrong thing. Surely we would think less of a thief who tells his children it's OK to steal than one who, wanting a better life for his kids, tells them to follow the straight and narrow. Surely gluttons shouldn't encourage overeating.

So let's get this straight: Rush Limbaugh was right when he told people addiction is bad and so is buying drugs illegally. He was wrong when he got addicted and started buying illegal drugs. His mistake was the drugs, not the hypocrisy.

To argue that every conservative must be perfect before he or she can offer an opinion is to say that conservatives can never offer their opinions. No conservative I know said conservatives are perfect.

But now many proponents of legalization, from the libertarian right to the nanny state left, are trying to take advantage of Limbaugh's plight. They want Limbaugh to come out in favor of legalization - to "strike a signature blow for liberty" in the words of columnist Jim Pinkerton. Again, they believe Limbaugh's error was his hypocrisy not his drug use.

I would have a lot more respect for Limbaugh if he stuck to saying what is unpopular: That he was right all along.