Great sadness came with Rush Limbaugh's announcement that he needed to take a break from his wildly successful radio career to conquer a prescription-drug addiction. Few things can be more humiliating than to have to admit in front of an entire nation, that you are ... a junkie. And yet that's exactly what Rush did - with no excuses. Humiliating, maybe. But also highly courageous. From coast to coast, the Limbaugh Nation is hoping and praying that after taking 30 days off for rehabilitation, he'll be bouncing back, liberated from his demons, sharper and happier.
A few hours after Rush made his explosive announcement, Chris Matthews asked me to be his guest on "Hardball" that evening. On the set before the start, I told Chris I just wasn't up for the high-voltage debate style that's made his Hardball show famous. Thankfully Matthews was in full agreement and conducted what was a difficult interview with a level of professionalism - and grace - that one rarely finds in the media today.
He wondered how Rush's fans would react to the news. The truth, I think, is that this is the very least of his worries. Rush Limbaugh enjoys the greatest well of sympathy for any public figure in the conservative firmament, with the exception of Ronald Reagan. Contrary to caricatures from liberals who never listen, Rush has been an inspirational leader, a great popularizer of the conservative cause, and an oasis of hope and humor for the millions who feel their causes and heroes are pounded unmercifully by the liberal press. Twenty million listeners are indebted to him and will repay him with their affection.
Then Matthews stated his concern that some on the left would greet the news with glee. How right he was.
Some liberals have tried to restrain their glee, but their feelings of moral superiority - or arrogance, for short - still came shining through. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, columnist Richard Roeper responded to a listener telling Rush "we all make mistakes" with the rejoinder: "I don't think that's the general philosophy of Limbaugh or his audience when it comes to his targets. It sounds a lot more like something a liberal caller might say to an NPR host, doesn't it?" Liberalism equals compassion, understanding, and forgiveness.
Tell that to Rush's fans after what they've seen liberals do since Rush's addiction story broke. Before his admission, "comedian" Al Franken, joyfully proclaimed that he was "looking forward to the perp walk...I'll be switching channels to get it from every angle." Katie Couric thought Rush's addiction was great fodder when she appeared on the Leno show: "I feel actually good because I flew out here, and Rush Limbaugh sat next to me on the plane. He gave me some vitamins. Whaa! It feels good!" In the latest Democratic debate on CNN, candidate John Kerry cracked that to improve access to prescription drugs, "You can hire Rush Limbaugh's housekeeper or you could elect me President of the United States."
The reaction wasn't kinder after Rush began his rehabilitation regimen. CNN anchorman Aaron Brown conceded that he could not deny the "permanent smirk that seems to be attached to my face." (He then ceded his show to more bile from Franken.) Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter gave this compassionate assessment: "It's been a bad year for bully-boy conservatives. Time for them to taste their own bitter medicine." The Newsweek cover story by Evan Thomas called Rush "a childless, twice-divorced, thrice-married schlub whose idea of a good time is to lie on his couch and watch football endlessly."
But the king of the mud mountain was Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, who spread the taunts across the entire Limbaugh audience: "His people are hopelessly, embarrassingly dumb. Or - sudden revelation! - they're all out there whacked out on Hillbilly Heroin just like Rush. Only they can understand his babble."
Where are all the national nannies of the public discourse to tut-tut at all of these compassion-deprived leftists now?
Let no one now pretend that the problem with liberals is that they're too tender and toothless, too compassionately cuddly and fuzzily forgiving. Trapped in arrogance and wishful thinking, supposedly astute analysts like Alter and Franken believe that if Rush undergoes a successful recovery, he will come out more enlightened and less vitriolic - and his show will be finished, since conservatives only want heaping helpings of ignorant vitriol.
After all of these slurs and insults, Rush knows that the best way to respond is to put this whole mess behind him, to apply all the force of his radio personality to the power of his own will. It's also what his audience knows, and will expect. That's tomorrow's agenda. For now, 20 million supporters are just pulling for him to pull through.