Oct 6, 2003  •  Post A Comment

You have to feel at least a tinge of sympathy for a guy whose best defense goes something like this: “I’m not a racist, I’m just stupid.” This does appear to be the case with Rush Limbaugh, former darling of the paranoid right, now in a heap o’ trouble because of an ill-considered and ill-delivered remark about black quarterbacks.
Poor Rush thought he was beating up on his favorite punch-me toy, The Media, that big bad bogeyman-an institution of which, he seems to keep forgetting, he is a practicing and extremely well-paid member. “The Media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well,” Rush said on the air in his role as an ESPN analyst, attempting to support his argument that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was getting some kind of free ride because of his race.
It hardly seems possible that Rush could be so naive, or disingenuous, or just plain dumb as to drop-kick a hornet’s nest like this. Doesn’t he know his broadcast history? Can’t he remember what happened to Jimmy the Greek when, at the late lamented Duke Ziebert’s late lamented Washington restaurant in 1988, he made imbecilic remarks about black athletic prowess to a crew from a D.C. TV station?
Or the tremendous hullabaloo a year earlier when an apparently foggy-headed Al Campanis, Dodger VP, sat there on “Nightline” and “explained” why, according to his tortured logic, African Americans weren’t cut out to be team managers? Good grief, these were landmarks in the annals of stupidity or of racism disguised as ignorance. It takes a tremendous amount of insensitivity-or a knee-jerk knack for committing career suicide-to make, in public, such boorish and boobish remarks.
Worse, Limbaugh refused to apologize or even to do much explaining once the spit hit the fan and his defenders began abandoning him in droves and it became clear he’d have to turn in his blazer and leave ESPN. His explanatory comments were oddly phrased: “The great people at ESPN did not want to deal with this kind of reaction,” Limbaugh said at the National Association of Broadcasters convention, being held, ironically, in Philly. “The path of least resistance became for me to resign.”
Clearly Limbaugh sees himself and not McNabb as the victim of a kind of slander here. That’s one of the things that’s so perpetually galling about the relatively new breed of cat-calling “commentators” who poison the airwaves and cable’s optic fibers these days. Bill O’Reilly’s “ideology” isn’t really a political doctrine so much as it is the conviction that Bill O’Reilly is always right, that he is somehow constitutionally incapable of being wrong. Limbaugh has the same kind of petty, pitiful arrogance; he’s so much smarter than the rest of us that if he says something that sounds patently ridiculous, we must have heard it wrong; he couldn’t have made a colossal blunder or simply made a statement that flies in the face of reason.
Limbaugh’s defense that what he said was “just an opinion” doesn’t quite cut it, either. David Duke might say he’s just giving us his “opinions” in his racist campaigns for political office. “Just an opinion” can quickly swell to unimaginable and unmanageable size when it’s uttered on television for a vast audience to hear. Even in this age of disquieting recklessness by shock jocks and controversy-courting blabbermouths on MSNBC and the Fox News Channel, there are things you Just Can’t Say, or at least just can’t say and expect to remain employed.
The rules, if there still are any rules, have loosened up considerably over the years, but ignorant, divisive racial slurs are still considered, among even minimally polite company, utterly out of bounds. We don’t need that kind of junk.
Limbaugh was on his way to becoming a public figure who engendered something approaching sympathy. Al Franken’s book about him, titled “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot: and Other Observations,” seemed unnecessarily mean. Limbaugh went off wandering in the wilderness and managed to lose a great deal of weight. Unfortunately, he turns out to be one of those people who looks better chubby. He’s lost a sort of mitigating avuncular pudginess and now resembles any old corporate executive, or maybe one of those guys who goes from town to town holding seminars about how to avoid probate or make a ton of dough in real estate.
He’s talked about, argued about and condemned much, much less than he used to be, almost to the point of vanishing from the radar screen. Maybe, who knows, his seemingly self-destructive remarks on ESPN were a calculated way of reclaiming lost prominence (in America, notoriety and fame have come to be considered the same thing, especially by TV talkers and rap artists). One of Limbaugh’s comments at the NAB was simply, “We want controversy.”
Well, Rush, you got it, but when the smoke clears-and it may clear faster than you want it to-don’t be surprised if you’re even further out to Former-Celebrity Sea than you already were. Racist-sounding wisecracks may be good for a quick burst of infamy, but they usually backfire, and it’s hard to make a career out of them. Of course, there’s one other possibility: Limbaugh made the comments knowing they were absurd but hoping the ensuing fuss would draw attention away from the Klutzenheimer Kid-California gubernatorial hopeful Arnold Schwarzenegger, he of the daily gaffes and the daily laughs they inspire.
It’s a new kind of upstaging in our evolving (and deteriorating) celebrity culture: Shoot your mouth off making some unmistakably idiotic observation and wrest the title of Dumbest Man in America from whoever’s managed to cop it for the moment. Maybe Rush is falling on his sword-doing a perverse kind of twist on Dickens’ immortal Sidney Carton in “A Tale of Two Cities”: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done … and a far, far stupider remark than I have ever made … ”