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Limbaugh's return to the microphone: Will his signal fade?

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 17, 2003



RALEIGH, N.C.

When Rush Limbaugh returns to the airwaves Monday morning after five weeks at an Arizona rehab center, Jim Rogers will be tuning his AM dial. He's one of 20 million or so self-proclaimed "dittoheads," a Limbaugh loyalist who's listened to the revered, reviled king of radio for years.

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But now, he wants more than the strident commentary of books like Mr. Limbaugh's "See, I Told You So," and "The Way Things Ought To Be." As this retired pilot bundles up against a cold rain at Raleigh's State Flea Market amid overall-wearers, Humvee-driving homemakers, and sometime-salesmen hawking everything from "chow-chow" relish to stovepipe birdhouses, he's wondering just how Limbaugh will handle the painkiller addiction that occasioned his absence last month.

It's a question buzzing in America this morning: How deep - and how indelible - will the moral stain be? Will Limbaugh be contrite - or contentious? So far, he's been a bit of both, emphasizing personal responsibility - but also the dangers of the opioid drugs that he was first prescribed after back surgery.

Even devotees like Rogers say Limbaugh walks a fine line, having violated the moral code that makes him famous and trounces "feminazis and "commie-symps." That the witty, bombastic conservative champion was getting buzzed - on the air, to boot - has been hard for many to swallow, especially since the same Limbaugh who condemned the late Jerry Garcia's drug use allegedly hoarded a cache of pills. And Limbaugh's confession came less than two weeks after he quit as a pro-football commentator on ESPN amid cries of racism over a comment on a black athlete.

Still, some 94 percent of Limbaugh's audience promises to return - and some say the legions will only increase, at least for Monday's show. "There's a disconnect between his behavior and all those years of calling for personal responsibility," says Joe Capella, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communication in Philadelphia. "The disconnect undermines his credibility ..., but the question is with whom?"

Many critics say Limbaugh is more sophist than ideologue, more in the camp of troubled actor Robert Downey Jr. than disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. His fans' forgiveness, some experts say, offers a telling glimpse of a country in a quandary - not just over "hillbilly heroin" like Limbaugh's OxyContin, but over a growing acceptance of populist leaders who do what they do, not what they say.

"I am addicted to prescription pain medication," Limbaugh told his audience before checking into the addiction program. The caveat he hasn't mentioned, critics say, is that only a small percentage of patients actually get hooked.

'Fallen moralists': benefit of the doubt

Still, there is broad sympathy for Limbaugh, who's had a series of medical complications and who, by many measures, leads a hectic life.

After two divorces, he signed a contract worth $250 million - making him the nation's best-paid radio personality, beating even Howard Stern.

To be sure, some think Limbaugh will mention it once and never again.

Yeah, right, others say, suggesting he'll turn his struggle into fodder, if not contrition. Some say they wouldn't be surprised if he takes an on-air drug test - and calls for others in media and politics to 'fess up to drug habits. "I think he'll turn it into a series of commentaries," says Rogers.

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