Rush Limbaugh, healthcare and idle threats


As the battle over “Obamacare” was reaching fever pitch, Rush Limbaugh threatened to leave the United States if the healthcare bill passed. Well, the bill did pass, and he’s still here.

This reminded me of the time one of my friends vowed to change his citizenship and move to Ireland if George W. Bush got reelected. Bush did get reelected, but my friend never left New Jersey. Neither did my friend who said she’d move to France if Bush won a second term. Bush got his second term, but my friend never once budged from her New York apartment.

Her vow to scoop up her marbles and pack it in, just like Mr. Limbaugh’s histrionic vow to become an expatriate, fell into the broad, general category of the idle threat.


Ever since I was a child, I have abhorred idle threats. Real threats, like “I’ll knock your teeth down your throat if you tell Sister John Laurentia who put the softball through the stained-glass image of St. Anthony of Padua,” didn’t bother me because they were graphic and implacable and let you know exactly where you stood.

Nor did I get all that upset when my mother would warn us that Dad would beat us when he got home. What upset us was when Dad didn’t beat us when he got home. Now we had no way of knowing whether he had merely forgotten, or if he was using this delaying tactic as an additional measure in the reign of domestic terror he mistook for parenting. Either way, it added a level of uncertainty to our lives that we did not need.

If you were going to make a threat, you were honor-bound to go through with it. Otherwise, you were merely confusing the issue.

Throughout my life, I have tried hard to avoid issuing idle threats. For the most part, I have done a pretty good job. I once told a local pharmacist who charged me twice to send the same fax that if he didn’t give me my money back, I would never come into his store again. He thought it was an idle threat. Twenty years later, I was still snubbing him, right up until the day he went to prison for Medicaid fraud. Ha!

I also told the guy in the 7-Eleven that I would stop coming into his store, and I’d forbid my children to patronize the establishment, unless he stopped calling me Boss. For two years I honored that threat and kept a close lookout to make sure that my kids did the same. One day he got so fed up he quit. Or so I like to believe.

Then, after a typically crummy, phoned-in Buddy Guy concert, I said that I would never again set foot in New York’s tourist trap B.B. King Blues Club, a promise I have kept. I also avoided Shea Stadium for the last seven years of its existence, declaring that I would never attend another Mets game until they tore down that hideous rat trap out in Queens and replaced it with an upscale, plastic replica of Camden Yards, which they have. And three years ago I told everyone I knew that I would stop patronizing Starbucks if they didn’t stop disrupting my Starbucks client experience by stacking the counter to overflowing with lame Paul McCartney CDs and touchy-feely twaddle like “The Kite Runner.” They never altered their policy. Neither have I.


Serious, non-idle threats have been a major component of my daily life for as long as I can remember. A few years ago, I threatened to boycott all future Kate Hudson movies until she finally made a good one, and thus far I have honored that commitment. Admittedly, honoring it wasn’t that hard, nor was going through with my threat to abstain from cauliflower for the next 50 years.

And my son is about to find out the hard way that when I drew that mythical line in the sand, vowing that I would never pay a nickel toward either of my children’s graduate school education, this was no idle threat. He can go to law school on his own dime.

Last week I read about a new poll indicating that if the healthcare bill passed, 46% of primary-care physicians would close up shop. Well, it’s passed, so now it’s time to put your money where your mouth is, physicians of the republic. The same goes for you, Rush. First you threatened to leave New York City if a new tax on the rich got passed. The legislation is now law, but it took you a year to put your Manhattan apartment on the market. Then came the Costa Rica threat, but two weeks after Obamacare passed, you’re not there.

This is unmanly and unconscionable. If you tell everybody that you’re so fed up with the direction the country is headed that you’re going to leave, then you are morally obligated to leave, or at least give your fellow Americans a timetable for your departure. Otherwise, the rest of us find ourselves in a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario, wondering what whopper you’ll tell next. But unlike the boy, who only told a fib, you committed a truly unforgivable crime. You got people’s hopes up.

Joe Queenan writes frequently for Barron’s, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian. His most recent book is a memoir, “Closing Time.”