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Rush Hour

What Rush Limbaugh's bad week means for the right and for his empire.

12:00 AM, Oct 3, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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THIS HAS TO BE the worst week in Rush Limbaugh's storied career--and yet things could get much worse still. The king of political radio resigned from a side gig doing football commentary on ESPN because of what are being called "racially-charged comments"; at the same time, another story broke that Limbaugh has a serious drug habit, and as a result has become ensnared in a large narcotics investigation in Florida.

To sum up the ESPN story: On Sunday, Limbaugh argued on air that Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb was receiving more praise than he deserved for his team's performance--on account of the fact that McNabb is black. "I think what we've had here is a little social concern in the NFL. I think the media has been very desirous that a black quarterback do well. They're interested in black coaches and black quarterbacks doing well. I think there's a little hope invested in McNabb and he got a lot of credit for the performance of his team that he really didn't deserve. The defense carried this team."

Speaking to the National Association of Broadcasters on Thursday in an already scheduled address, Limbaugh said, "The great people at ESPN did not want to deal with this kind of reaction. . . . The path of least resistance became for me to resign."

Proving that it doesn't rain but pour, an even bigger Limbaugh story broke on Wednesday. As first reported in the National Enquirer and followed up the next day in the New York Daily News, Rush Limbaugh has, allegedly, been regularly (and illegally) purchasing and consuming vast quantities of pain-killers over the last four years and has become a target in a wide-ranging drug investigation involving local, state, and federal authorities. This investigation (which the News confirmed and Limbaugh claims ignorance of) has already nabbed a pharmacist and his wife on drug-trafficking charges and is reported to be close to making more arrests.

Most of the detailed and elaborately documented Enquirer story is based on an interview with Limbaugh's former housekeeper Wilma Cline, who is cooperating with the investigation in exchange for immunity for her and her husband. Cline says she was Limbaugh's main supplier of Hydrocodone, Lorcet, and, later, OxyContin. Limbaugh's appetite for opiates, said Cline, came to approximately 30 pills a day, but she says that during one 4-month period she was supplying him with levels averaging 75 a day. It may be relevant that during the last few years, Limbaugh's health underwent two widely-publicized changes: In early 2001, he'd shed a great deal of weight and was clearly well below his former 300-plus-pound range; later in the year, he underwent surgery for hearing loss in his left ear, receiving a cochlear implant.

Cline revealed to the Enquirer a ledger of her alleged transactions with Limbaugh and emails allegedly from Limbaugh, peppering her with requests for fresh deliveries. The messages adopt a code for the various pills Limbaugh took, calling OxyContin pills "little blues" and Lorcet pills "big blues." Other details from the Cline account include measures taken by Cline and Limbaugh to conceal the drug consumption from Limbaugh's wife, how the deliveries took place (at work and other drop spots, including the parking lot of a Denny's that was on the way to Rush's golf course), stories of Limbaugh's increasing suspicions that he was being watched by the police, and much else.

What, if the story is true, does it mean for Limbaugh and the Right? A scattering of thoughts:

Fuller Brush Conservatives: It's no fun being the face of the American right wing. Bush (public conservative number one) and his friend Rush (number two) are both taking it on the chin these days, with the president's approval slump and Rush's potential fall from grace. Last night President Bush extended his support to Limbaugh, calling him a "great American," a gratuitous gesture of solidarity which surely doesn't help either of them. Bush will recover; if the drug story holds, Rush's moral credibility will be permanently damaged. During the '90s, the Left treated Rush and his legions of dittoheads with the same kind of wild, over-the-top disdain they reserve these days for the Fox News Channel. This story could shift the Left's major hate beams back toward Limbaugh.

Rush and Arnold: Although Limbaugh holds a special place in the heart of California right-wingers ("The Rush Limbaugh Show" show as we know it got its start in Sacramento), it was asked recently whether his taking up Arnold Schwarzenegger's cause would help the action star-gubernatorial candidate. This much at least is clear: Rush's drug story makes Arnold's movie-set groping seem like good clean fun and to some extent steps on the politically-timed story of Arnold's decades of movie-set shenanigans. So Rush is helping Arnold, just not in the expected manner.