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

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.

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.

To Alan Marcus, a crisis manager who's handled Donald Trump's myriad ups and downs, the difference between Limbaugh and other "fallen moralists" is that Limbaugh's fans have bought into the idea of as an entertainer, not a preacher. What's more, he has handled the situation as a true man of the media. That, and an atmosphere of constant scandal that has expanded Americans' patience for personal problems - perhaps, some say, to a fault.

"These self-righteous preachers, whether they wear the cloth or not, eventually fall," says Mr. Marcus. "It just happens more and more in today's culture, because there are no secrets anymore."

But Rush's "secret" is a paradox, too: After all, his wit wasn't dulled on the waves. Some say his ordeal could become a turning point in the mystique - and illicitness - of drugs, or spark a debate about addiction, and even drug use at work.

Limbaugh could follow the lead of libertarian talk-show host Neal Boortz in Atlanta, who said last week that Americans should be able to buy all drugs over the counter. Or he could use his case to support antidrug efforts.

Or, worries Fairfax, Va., writer Jacob Sullum, author of "Saying Yes: In defense of drug use," Limbaugh could blame the drugs and doctors who prescribed them. In the long run, Mr. Sullum says, that could make it harder for people in need to procure certain painkillers. "The reason the public is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt has to do with his perception that this is not the same ... as being a heroin addict," he says. "But assuming he was using it to relieve stress or unhappiness, I think it's very much the same."

Limbaugh has called for jailing more white drug users. But many fans say that's hardly the core of his quest. Sure, he may have thrown out a Rush-ism about Jerry Garcia, but "I just don't remember any long rants about [drugs]," says Rogers.

Radio, Rush, and the Teflon crusaders

At any rate, most listeners, despite their status of "ditto-heads," make their own judgments about Limbaugh's "practical" approach, says Dan Wise, a furloughed pilot perusing the Raleigh fleamarket. It is, they say, part of the appeal: "A lot of the time, I'll yell out, 'Right on Rush,' but other times I'll yell, 'Rush, you're way out there on this one!' " says Mr. Wise.

What few debate is Mr. Limbaugh's influence since reviving the AM format in the 1990s. He commands broad respect for carrying the flag in a conservative revolution still sweeping the nation. And it's not just truck-driving tobacco farmers who tune in: He's made inroads with coastal elites from Washington to Hollywood.

Philadelphia humanities professor Camille Paglia, a Democrat who voted for Bill Clinton, agrees: "He is a master broadcaster who singlehandedly revived AM Radio and whose dynamic influence can be felt in talk radio from coast to coast," she writes in an e-mail.

In the end, some say, radio personalities may be the true Teflon crusaders: Oliver North (arms to Iran) and G. Gordon Liddy (part of the Watergate robbery) are only two examples of tarnished figures who've come roaring back on the dial.

"It's these fallen figures who do the best on talk radio," says Mr. Marcus, the crisis manager. "Nobody wants to listen to the guy who lives a clean life, who doesn't cheat on his taxes, and who doesn't have a drug problem - how interesting could that guy be? I'm sure Rush is going to be much more entertaining now. At a dull moment, he can always refer back to his eclipse."

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