Like many recovering addicts fresh from rehab, he was bursting with new personal insights. His vaunted confrontational vocabulary had taken on an unexpected dimension -- self-empowerment references and the occasional reminder that you cannot feel responsible for other people’s happiness.
Only this time the recovering addict was a rich and famous 52-year-old man sitting inside a Manhattan radio studio, speaking to millions of people.
Rush Limbaugh, who has become a cultural and political force as America’s most popular radio host, returned to the air Monday after five weeks in an unnamed Arizona rehabilitation facility where he was treated reportedly for addiction to the painkiller OxyContin.
His departure had been forced by a National Enquirer expose in which a former housekeeper claimed Limbaugh bought and hoarded tens of thousands of pills. Limbaugh’s on-air admission of his addiction Oct. 10 set off weeks of ideological clashes over whether he should be seen as a victim or a hypocrite. It also prompted hundreds of supportive and often adoring e-mails from fans of the show, which usually reaches about 15 million listeners each week. “I was beginning to wonder if you were human. I guess you are,” one man wrote.
Monday, an audience believed to be far larger than usual heard Limbaugh say he’d been a drug addict since 1995 or 1996 -- around the same time he advocated sending drug users “up the river.” He told his listeners that, despite a few well-publicized quotes, he’d tried to avoid talking much about drugs on the air over the years because “I was keeping a secret. I didn’t want to sound like I had any knowledge.”
He said rehab had been an “exciting” experience that is “going to give new meaning to the future,” and said he wished he’d had the introspective experience 30 years ago. He said he had avoided recent back surgery because “I liked the pills too much.” He continued to withhold comment on published reports that he is under criminal investigation in Palm Beach County, Fla., where he lives and normally broadcasts from, for illegally purchasing huge amounts of prescription drugs.
A law enforcement source familiar with the Florida case, speaking on condition of anonymity, said officials will decide in about two weeks whether to file charges against Limbaugh.
On the air, Limbaugh suggested to fans he would be vindicated.
Hands down, it was the strangest day in Limbaugh’s 15-year career as a syndicated talk-show host -- a career that paved the way for the domination of conservative-themed talk radio, that won Limbaugh praise for helping the Republican Party obtain its first majority in the House of Representatives in a generation, and that earned him a $285-million, multiyear contract serving 650 Premiere Radio Networks affiliates. Never had a man whose voice practically bursts with certitude and who likes to boast he has “talent on loan from God” so publicly shared his insecurities and weaknesses.
The three-hour show featured plenty of standard liberal-bashing (including a drinking-glass sound effect when Sen. Edward Kennedy was mentioned). But early on, there was the moment when Mary Jo from Alabama called in to ask Limbaugh’s advice about the kind of conversations to have with a friend who is in recovery.
“Mary Jo,” Limbaugh said sternly, sounding more like Dr. Laura, “you are not responsible for what your friend does. You can’t live your friend’s life. It’s not your job. You’re not an addict, you’re not in recovery. If they’re gonna relapse, they’re gonna relapse. Be who you are. Don’t try to make decisions for this person. Just trust ‘em.”
Later in the morning, Limbaugh mocked anti-war liberals who accuse war supporters of hypocrisy “because they’re not in the line of fire.”
Using himself as an example, he said: “There are people who are saying I’m a hypocrite because I was using drugs, yet I was telling people to live a moral life. If what I was saying to do was the right thing, does the fact I was not doing it myself mean it’s not right to do? My behavior doesn’t change right and wrong.”
He brought his example back to the war -- when you insist we leave Iraq because casualties are mounting, you forget that the soldiers volunteered -- and then added a coda of non-Limbaugh-esque pop-psych-speak: “You are transferring your values to other people. You don’t have a right to do that.”
In the show’s final minutes, in response to a caller’s medical question, Limbaugh said he is now managing the pain of two herniated discs in his back with the drug Vioxx, which he said “has cut the pain considerably.” He said he had resisted surgery in recent years because the procedure doctors wanted to use would have gone near his larynx. But he also acknowledged that he resisted the operation because it might have weakened his rationale for painkillers. “I found excuses to take them,” he said.
He said his loss of hearing a couple of years ago “had nothing to do” with the painkillers, which in addition to producing feelings of euphoria have been linked to deafness in some users.
Observers differed as they tried to put Limbaugh’s performance into perspective.
“Rush has gone through something like life-threatening surgery,” said conservative columnist Pat Buchanan.
Liberal comedian Al Franken, author of “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” was dismissive, comparing Limbaugh’s remarks about his treatment to “a bad Doctor Phil or Oprah .... It’s interesting how the Republicans are always dismissive of therapy and ‘feelings’ but now Rush is talking like everybody should have this.”
Supporters of Limbaugh have drawn distinctions between the moral failings of a political leader (like President Clinton) and celebrities (like Limbaugh or Robert Downey Jr.), and between those who become addicted inadvertently and those whose addiction stems from a search for drugs. Critics took aim at several comments Limbaugh has made about strong punishment for those who use illegal drugs. When Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia died, Limbaugh mocked tributes to the musician, arguing, “Jerry Garcia destroyed his life on drugs. And yet he’s being honored, like some godlike figure.” In 1995 he said, “Too many whites are getting away with drug use. The answer is to find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river.”
Bruce Cotter, a recovering addict and alcoholic who has been an addiction interventionist for a dozen years, suggested that Limbaugh faces several challenges. First, did he spend enough time in rehab? Cotter, who has an office in Palm Beach, said five weeks is an exceptionally short period. Second, can Limbaugh accept the advice he has been receiving or will he feel above it? Third, “Who’s he going to be? Rush Limbaugh the entertainer or Rush Limbaugh the recovering addict?”
Limbaugh had twice checked into rehab facilities in the last six years in failed efforts to break his addiction. He described this rehabilitation visit as “a wonderful process ... as important as the first grade and maybe the second grade,” something that would benefit many people without drug problems.
“I’m not a role model,” he said. “What I did, I did knowingly. What I did, I did because I wanted to do it, but I knew it was wrong the whole time. It’s a powerful addiction this stuff has.”
“I can no longer anticipate what I think people want and try to give that to them,” he said at another moment. “I can no longer try to live my life by making other people happy. I can no longer turn over the power of my feelings to anybody else, which is what I have done a lot of my life.”