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Rush to Darkness

It was a bad week for America's most popular talk-show host. And it could get worse.



Rush Limbaugh is the host of The Rush Limbaugh Show, which is syndicated in more than 650 markets. The show is the most-listened-to radio talk program in America. This past summer Limbaugh was hired by ESPN to provide controversial opinions and boost the ratings for its Sunday NFL Countdown pre-game show. On Thursday, October 2nd, Limbaugh resigned over controversial, racially charged remarks he made on the Sunday, September 28th, program. But his resignation may not end Limbaugh's troubles. He may soon be tackling a much larger controversy involving charges that he's been involved in illegally obtaining thousands of prescription drugs without the requisite prescriptions.

A lot of heads were turned but no organized protest developed when ESPN added Limbaugh to its Sunday pre-game roster. It was, however, a head-scratcher because while no one disputed Limbaugh's interest in football, he had no special knowledge of the game, he never played the game at any serious level, and he didn't have a reputation for having spent hours breaking down game tape.

Clearly, ESPN hired Limbaugh for his opinions. Despite a reputation for being a multiple offender when it comes to racial issues, ESPN management expected Limbaugh to be controversial but within the orbit of nuts and bolts football; weave in some contentious opinions but keep them within the sports realm -- doing for ESPN what he's done for radio stations across the country; boost audiences and revenues.

While ESPN veteran Chris Berman, the host of the program, and former National Football League stars Steve Young, former San Francisco 49er quarterback, Michael Irvin, former Dallas Cowboy wide receiver, and Tom Jackson, former Denver Bronco linebacker, are capable of providing basic insights on football, Limbaugh was supposed to take it up a notch: Some compared Limbaugh's hiring to when ABC hired Howard Cosell for its initial Monday Night Football broadcasts.

However, on Sunday, September 28th, Limbaugh went for it when he probably should have punted. He said: "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. The media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well," Limbaugh said on Sunday's show. "There is a little hope invested in [Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan] McNabb, and he got a lot of credit for the performance of this team that he didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

Limbaugh's remarks brought down the house and not in a good way. On its merits, his comments showed what skeptics had charged all along: that he really knows little about football. He wrongly criticized the skills of McNabb, an all-pro quarterback who has helped carry his team to playoff games over the past few seasons. And Limbaugh's larger point that the so-called liberal media was trying to shine an uncritical light on black quarterbacks was also patently ridiculous: All you have to do is check out the negative coverage African-American quarterbacks Tony Banks and Kordell Stewart have received over the past few years.

On Thursday, October 2nd, Limbaugh was forced to resign from ESPN. The network quickly accepted his resignation. As Jim Rome, popular sports-radio talk-show host and the host of Rome Is Burning on ESPN television, pointed out on his radio program on Thursday: "He [Limbaugh] crossed the line when he brought race" into the conversation.

"Anyone in football, in all of sports, should be offended [by Limbaugh's remarks]. Donovan McNabb made a believer out of me last year. He is one hell of a football player in all aspects of the game," Marvin Lewis, the African-American coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, told Rome on Thursday.

In another development, Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie accused ESPN of "institutional racism" for its decision to hire Rush Limbaugh in the first place. "Some of the events of this week are built with institutional racism," Lurie told the Associated Press. "It exists. Let's not hide it. Let's not make us believe the problem is a single person. It's far from that."

Limbaugh quickly appeared to launch a counterattack based on freedom of speech issues. "In certain places you can't express an opinion," Limbaugh told a convention of the National Association of Broadcasters on Thursday in Philadelphia. Look for him to play the martyr card on upcoming programs.

But Limbaugh may soon be brought down by an even bigger controversy: charges that he's been involved in illegally obtaining thousands of prescription drugs without a prescription. According to the Associated Press, in his resignation statement, "Limbaugh did not directly address media reports that began surfacing Wednesday that said the talk show host was under investigation in Florida for allegedly illegally obtaining and abusing prescription painkillers."

According to news services, Wilma Cline, Limbaugh's former housekeeper, who says she was Limbaugh's pill supplier for four years, was quoted by the New York Daily News as saying Limbaugh was hooked on the potent prescription drugs OxyContin, Lorcet, and hydrocodone and went through drug rehabilitation twice. "There were times when I worried," Cline told The National Enquirer, which also carried the story. "All these pills are enough to kill an elephant -- never mind a man."

Various news services reported that "Cline told the Enquirer she went to prosecutors with information about Limbaugh and others after four years of drug deals that included clandestine handoffs in a Denny's parking lot [and that] she wore a wire during her last two deliveries and gave the tapes to authorities." Cline maintained a "ledger" documenting how many pills she claimed to have bought for him -- 4,350 in one 47-day period -- and e-mails she claimed Limbaugh sent her, including one e-mail in which Limbaugh urged Cline to get more "little blues," the street name for the powerful narcotic OxyContin.

"You know how this stuff works ... the more you get used to, the more it takes," the May 2002 e-mail read. "But I will try and cut down to help out."

Premiere Radio Networks, which syndicates The Rush Limbaugh Show, issued a statement from Limbaugh saying, "I am unaware of any investigation by any authority involving me. No government representative has contacted me directly or indirectly. If my assistance is required, I will, of course, cooperate fully."

If Limbaugh has a drug problem, he should be accorded every opportunity to receive treatment. Perhaps an extended sabbatical would help chill him out. If, however, you're interested in Limbaugh's compassionate conservative views of people dealing with drug problems and other personal issues, read some of the transcripts gathered from Limbaugh's past programs (see "Rush On Drugs," page 20).

I'm not a certified television gas bag, but I'm expecting the following things to happen: Regarding his racist comments, Limbaugh will claim he was only exercising his First Amendment rights, and he will use his radio pulpit to launch a crusade around free-speech issues. Right-wing Republicans will close ranks around Limbaugh, beginning with discrediting the messenger -- The National Enquirer -- and then claiming that Bill and Hillary Clinton are behind the revelations. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, Dr. James Dobson, and Pat Robertson will spring to Limbaugh's defense and offer round-the-clock prayers on his behalf.

Years ago, popular televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was brought down when he was found to have been cavorting for years with prostitutes. Fellow TV evangelist Jim Bakker served time in the pen, lost his multimillion-dollar religious empire and his wife, Tammy Faye, as a result of a series of sex scandals and fraudulent business activities. William Bennett, the self-appointed maven of morality, has thankfully been silenced after it was revealed that he had a major gambling habit. Now we find that Limbaugh has been hopped up on pills for several years.

What's next? There never were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

Bill Berkowitz is a columnist.


Rush Limbaugh's problems with African Americans go back a few years.

by Jeff Cohen and Steve Rendall

Editor's note: A version of this column appeared in the Los Angeles Times in June 2000

-- around the first time Rush Limbaugh was being considered for a job as an NFL analyst.

Talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh may be returning to television. He recently auditioned for a job as color commentator on ABC's Monday Night Football. The tryout followed weeks of self-promotion by the self-styled "truth detector" to the millions who listen daily to his syndicated radio show on some 600 stations.

Limbaugh's audition is stirring controversy. Sports columnist Thomas Boswell quipped that if Limbaugh joins Monday Night Football then baseball's game of the week broadcasters might "team up with John Rocker."

Veteran sports writer Michael Wilbon, who is black, indicated a boycott might result: "If Rush Limbaugh is put in that booth, I will NOT listen to the broadcast," he wrote in a Washington Post chat session. "His views on people like me are well documented and I would find it insulting and hypocritical to watch him. ... There are tens of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands who feel the same way I do."

If ABC hires Limbaugh, it's not clear a boycott will materialize. What is clear is that his expressed views on racial matters -- from the spiteful to the sophomoric -- would make him an odd color commentator. Indeed, CBS Sports dismissed Jimmy the Greek Snyder for ignorant racial remarks less derisive than some of Limbaugh's.

As a young broadcaster in the 1970s, Limbaugh once told a black caller, "Take that bone out of your nose and call me back." A decade ago, after becoming nationally syndicated, he mused on the air, "Have you ever noticed how all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson?"

In 1992, on his now-defunct TV show, Limbaugh expressed his ire when Spike Lee urged that black schoolchildren get off from school to see his film Malcolm X: "Spike, if you're going to do that, let's complete the education experience. You should tell them that they should loot the theater, and then blow it up on their way out."

In a similar vein, here is Limbaugh's mocking take on the NAACP, a group with a 90-year commitment to nonviolence: "The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies."

When Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) was in the U.S. Senate, the first black woman ever elected to that body, Limbaugh would play the "Movin' On Up" theme song from TV's The Jeffersons when he mentioned her. Limbaugh sometimes still uses mock dialect -- substituting "ax" for "ask" -- when discussing black leaders.

Such quotes and antics -- many compiled by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) for our 1995 book -- offer a whiff of Limbaugh's racial sensibility. So does his claim that racism in America "is fueled primarily by the rantings and ravings" of people like Jesse Jackson. Or his ugly reference two years ago to the father of Madonna's first child, a Latino, as "a gang-member type guy" -- an individual with no gang background.

Once, in response to a caller arguing that black people need to be heard, Limbaugh responded, "They are 12 percent of the population. Who the hell cares?" That's not an unusual response for a talk-radio host playing to an audience of "angry white males." It may not play so well among National Football League players, 70 percent of whom are African American.

Compared to some talk-radio hosts, racism is not central to Limbaugh's shtick. But there has been a pattern of commentary indicating his willingness to exploit prejudice against blacks to further his on-air arguments.

ABC has the right to hire Limbaugh, even at the risk of alienating members of its audience. (Monday Night Football is the second-most-watched TV show in black households.) Thrust into the world of pro football where Limbaugh himself would be something of a racial minority, is it possible that he'd rise above his history of racial bigotry and insensitivity? Not likely.

When all is said and done, the athletes are the key players on Monday Night Football. It would be great to know how they'd feel about a color man who seems to have trouble with people of color. n

Jeff Cohen and Steve Rendall are staffers at the media watch group FAIR and co-authors of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error.

Rush on Drugs

In the shadow of his own words.

by Ellis


"Let's all admit something."

Rush Limbaugh was on his usual tear.

"There's nothing good about drug use," he was saying. "We know it.

It destroys individuals. It destroys families. Drug use destroys societies. Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country. And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. And the laws are good because we know what happens to people in societies and neighborhoods which become consumed by them. And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up."

And this includes zillionaire radio hosts? Hmmm ...

When you have a talk-radio show 15 hours a week, you have an awful lot of air to fill. On this particular day, which was October 5, 1995, Rush was roaring about the scourge of illegal drug use.

Even though blacks and whites break the drug laws in roughly equal percentages, he noted, black druggies go to prison far more often than white druggies do. But to the liberal-bashing host, this was no reason to ease up on blacks.

"What this says to me," he told his listeners that day, "is that too many whites are getting away with drug use. Too many whites are getting away with drug sales. Too many whites are getting away with trafficking in this stuff. The answer to this disparity is not to start letting people out of jail because we're not putting others in jail who are breaking the law. The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them, and send them up the river, too."

Including zillionaire radio hosts? Well, maybe not.

What a week it's been for Rush! First he gets chased out of ESPN in a racial furor. Then he is accused in Florida of buying thousands of powerful painkillers from an illegal drug-selling ring.

OxyContin. Hydrocodone. Highly addictive opiates. A gargantuan number of pills over several years -- almost 100 a day on one 47-day binge. His 42-year-old housekeeper, Wilma Cline, says she dealt the closely controlled pills to America's top-rated syndicated radio host. Some were hidden under his mattress so his wife wouldn't find them. Others were passed in a Denny's parking lot.

The story was broken by The National Enquirer, but it's already burst into the mainstream press. Secret tapes. Incriminating e-mails. Twice, Limbaugh reportedly checked himself into rehab -- and later relapsed.

What will the conservative listeners think? What pain, what disappointment, what insecurity could explain something like this? Rush wasn't talking about that yesterday.

Understandably so.

Another public moralist had been caught in a personal jam. And Rush's words were coming back to haunt him.

The constant digs at Bill Clinton not inhaling.

The heartless shrug when Jerry Garcia died.

"'When you strip it all away," Rush had said of the Grateful Dead guitarist, "Jerry Garcia destroyed his life on drugs. And yet he's being honored, like some godlike figure. Our priorities are out of whack, folks."

Rush Limbaugh isn't the first prominent finger-pointer to eat his own words. It wasn't so long ago that Bill Bennett was explaining how an anti-vice crusader could also be a degenerate gambler.

And Jeb Bush, the president's brother and Rush's governor, was pleading for leniency and privacy when his daughter got arrested for drugs. Yet he'd been happily sending other Florida youngsters to long prison terms for similar crimes.


But there in the dusty Limbaugh archives one glimmer of sanity did appear yesterday.

It came from 1998, just about the time Wilma Cline's black-market drug ring was revving up. Rush was on the radio. He was talking about America's "half-baked" war on drugs. We might all be better off, he said quite plainly, if drugs were legalized -- and then regulated like cigarettes.

"What is missing in the drug fight," he said, "is legalization. If we want to go after drugs with the same fervor and intensity with which we go after cigarettes, let's legalize drugs. Legalize the manufacture of drugs. License the Cali cartel. Make them taxpayers and then sue them. Sue them left and right and then get control of the price and generate tax revenue from it. Raise the price sky-high and fund all sorts of other wonderful social programs."

Was he serious? I'm not sure.

But the timing is interesting, you'd have to say. And I'll bet he quotes those words again.

Ellis Henican writes for Newsday, where this column first appeared.

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