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ELLEN GOODMAN

When bad things happen to annoying people

AFTER ALL these years, I have finally come up with the definition of a liberal wimp. It's someone who feels sorry for Rush Limbaugh.

Here is a man who has kept 20 million dittoheads on a closed loop of right-wing rhetoric for three hours a day, five days a week, for 15 years. Here is a man for whom the word "bombastic" was invented.

Imagine what he would say about some "feminazi" caught popping 30 illegal pills a day. Imagine how forgiving he would be to an "environmental wacko" scoring OxyContin while tree-hugging. Or any liberal who had to be outed by the National Enquirer before he took "full responsibility for my problem."

This is a man who created so many petards over the years, it's hard to know which one to hoist him on. How about the title of his book: "See, I Told You So." Or how about one of his many tirades against druggies: "The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river, too." It's Rush, after all, who complained, "We're becoming too tolerant, folks."

But everytime I rev up a rant, I imagine the demi-god of dittoheads skulking around a Denny's parking lot to get his fix. I imagine the man waiting, surely, for his housekeeper/drug dealer to drop a dime. I imagine a lonesome, 275-pound guy who apparently never even told his wife when he went into rehab and relapsed twice. A man so hooked he may have sacrificed his hearing to his little blues.

And I, gulp, feel sorry for him.

This is the curse of liberal wimpathy. Conservatives talk of right and wrong. Liberals talk of strengths and weaknesses. The right thinks of drug abuse in particular as a moral failing; the left thinks of it as a medical illness. When one of ours goes bad, they jump on him like a churchyard dog. When one of theirs goes bad, we tend to . . . understand.

With a few exceptions, conservatives have shown some fancy footwork in defending Rush. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum said, "I don't think any less of him for having ordinary frailties." Gary Bauer, president of American Values, made a moral distinction between getting addicted in order to get high and getting addicted to kill pain. Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, defended him to Don Imus because Rush never claimed to be a victim. And a dittohead caller on his show said, "we all make mistakes."

Meanwhile, opponents, like this wimpette, who would generally like to put a sock in his mouth, are restrained to the point of gentility. Even Al Franken, who wrote "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot," said, "I don't wish that (drug addiction) on anyone." Joe Conason, author of "Big Lies," said, "It's hard not to feel sorry for anyone whose suffering causes them to hustle narcotics." And Howie Kurtz, the media voice of a favorite Rush target, The Washington Post, wrote, "I suspect most people, even those who can't stand the guy, will see a man struggling with his personal demons and be careful about condemning him for his weakness."

Does being a member of the righteous right mean never having to say you're sorry? The closest Rush came to an apology is saying "Well, I am no role model" for going into rehab. But his fans give him a prayerful pass.

His opponents, however, are members of a left that has always been touchy (and feely) about value judgments. The worst charge that a liberal launches at the personal misbehavior of a Bill Bennett or Rush Limbaugh is one of "hypocrisy!" Gasp. Last time I looked, hypocrisy wasn't even on the waiting list for additions to the Ten Commandments.

Limbaugh once described himself as an "epitome of morality of virtue, a man you could totally trust with your wife, your daughter, and even your son in a Motel 6 overnight." We have yet to see whether the police agree. But in the court of public opinion, the talk master and voice of the angry white man, who once had his bags carried into the White House by George Bush the First, is being treated with the sort of tolerance and forgiveness that he disparages.

So call me a wimp. When bad things happen to bad people, I have trouble going for the jugular. Wimpathy by another name is plain ol' empathy. And willy-nilly, Rush gets a slice of mine.

In his statement, Limbaugh asked us to pray for him. Well, I'll pass. But I will hope that while big Rush is in rehab he learns to walk a corridor in somebody else's shoes.

Ellen Goodman's e-mail address is ellengoodman@globe.com.

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