There was an ad in The New York Times a week ago Sunday entitled "A Thank You Letter to Rush Limbaugh," which read: "We, the women of America, want to express our deep-felt appreciation for throwing down the gauntlet. You have awakened a sleeping giant. You have given us the power to crush the Republican Party. We are coming after all elected officials, Republican or Democrat, who have failed us miserably. Smart, strong women are coming after you."
This was, of course, in response to Limbaugh's putrid tirade about a Georgetown law student invited to testify before Congress about a colleague who needed birth-control pills for treatment of an ovarian cyst. Although the need was medically verified, the insurance company insisted it was for contraception and continued to deny coverage. For having the temerity to speak out, women's-rights activist Sandra Fluke was attacked as a "slut" and a "prostitute" by Limbaugh, and those were just the headlines. He continued that Ms. Fluke "is happily presenting herself as an immoral, baseless, no-purpose-to-her-life woman. She wants all the sex in the world whenever she wants it, all the time, no consequences. No responsibility for her behavior."
Limbaugh not only stepped over the very same line that brought down Don Imus, he snorted it. I don't know which is the most offensive: his ignorance of how women's contraception works, his referring to a woman's health advocate as a prostitute, or his total disdain for the rules of broadcast journalism. Rush's claim that Fluke was "having sex so frequently that she can't afford all the birth control pills that she needs" was simply stupid. After four marriages, didn't any of his wives tell him how it works? During his non-apology about "using those two words," Limbaugh was perspiring like a whore in church, so I don't understand his rage against prostitutes. Nor do I understand how he can oppose contraception when he himself is a scumbag.
As a proud graduate of the University of Memphis' College of Journalism, among the first things we learned was what was and what was not considered "protected speech" under the 1st Amendment. Usually, people in the public eye — celebrities or commentators having been placed in that position by design or circumstance — are considered fair game for criticism, which explains tabloid journalism, The Jersey Shore, and The Fashion Police. That's why if I wanted to call Sarah Palin a moronic inferno of malediction or imply that Limbaugh is showing traces of being back on the Oxy, that is protected speech because they are both public figures. To intentionally pronounce malicious falsehoods against a private person that may tend to damage their reputation, however, is against the law. Attempting to defend the defenseless, the ditto-heads are scrambling to find equivalencies in leftist rhetoric by Bill Maher or Ed Schultz. The problem is that these editorialists always pick their fights with the powerful. Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly prey on the powerless and rely on scapegoating singular examples, like doctored ACORN videos or selectively edited speeches by Shirley Sherrod, to besmirch an entire movement or people. Let the blowhards ridicule Nancy Pelosi's Botox all they want, but never ask a female congressional witness to post sex tapes online for your edification. That makes you not just a defamer but a pervert, too.
This entire controversy exploded onto social media with a ferocity I had not yet seen. When Limbaugh apologized for his words but not for their intent, dozens of petitions popped up on Facebook and Twitter urging signers to go after Limbaugh's advertisers. Limbaugh scoffed at the herd of corporate sponsors heading for the door, saying it was "like losing a couple of french fries from the container when it's delivered to you at the drive-thru. You don't even notice it." It's true that Limbaugh appears to never have missed a french fry, but with more than 98 sponsors and counting suspending their ads, that's beginning to sound like a supersized order. Still, Limbaugh affirmed that on the business side "everything's cool," although his final radio program of the week contained over five minutes of dead air. By brushing off the desertion of advertisers, Limbaugh has inadvertently left a blueprint for protesters to follow: Go after his networks and local stations, which would be Clear Channel Communications, Premier Radio Networks, and, locally, WREC-AM 600.
Limbaugh may well be "too big to fail" and survive the onslaught of outrage coming his way, but consider the long-term damage he has done. Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine, the only Republican to vote against the Blunt Amendment, which would have vastly restricted women's access to contraceptives, announced she will leave public office, blaming an "atmosphere of polarization." Not a single Republican rebuked Limbaugh for his noxious campaign. Santorum said Limbaugh was "just being absurd," and Romney disapproved of his "choice of words." Frontrunner Romney might have shown some courage with a "Joseph Welch moment," but he blew it. Welch was the army attorney who finally confronted Senator Joseph McCarthy in the Fifties by saying, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" This assumes Limbaugh ever had any decency to begin with. It's a mammoth undertaking to knock Limbaugh from his perch, but never underestimate the power of passionate women on social media. The unwarranted attack on Sandra Fluke's character has morphed into an insult to all thinking women. Limbaugh might save his job, but he's lost the GOP any chance they might have had to win the presidential election.
Randy Hapsel writes the Born Again Hippies blog, where a version of this article first appeared.