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The Reticence in Broadcasting Network

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rush Limbaugh was halfway through his second hour of broadcasting excellence yesterday when he paused for a moment of self-pity.

"Look at me," the radio host instructed his millions of listeners. "On Tuesday, before Obama is inaugurated, I'm invited to the White House for a birthday lunch by the president, and I'm toasted. Twelve weeks later, I am public enemy number one."

Mega-dittos, Rush. But it's hard to imagine he's too broken up about it.

On Sunday, former vice president Dick Cheney leapt to Limbaugh's defense on CBS's "Face the Nation," agreeing with the broadcaster that former secretary of state Colin Powell should leave the Republican Party. Asked to take sides between Powell's and Limbaugh's versions of Republicanism, Cheney said: "I'd go with Rush Limbaugh."

The night before, comedian Wanda Sykes, speaking before President Obama and thousands of others at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, said of Limbaugh's expressed wish that Obama fail: "I hope his kidneys fail -- how about that?" She further speculated that "maybe Rush Limbaugh was the 20th hijacker, but he was just so strung out on OxyContin, he missed his flight."

Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs, who has already given Limbaugh priceless publicity by using the White House podium to brand him the leader of the Republican Party, tried to calm the situation by distancing Obama from Sykes.

"I think there are a lot of topics that are better left for serious reflection rather than comedy," Gibbs said. "I think there's no doubt that 9/11 is part of that." It had an unfortunate echo of Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer's denunciation of comedian Bill Maher after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001: Americans need to "watch what they say."

At noon yesterday, Limbaugh went on the air with his usual bombast: "I'm Rush Limbaugh, America's truth detector, America's real anchorman, the doctor of democracy, all combined as one harmless, lovable little fuzzball."

He ignored the Sykes controversy -- though he seemed to refer to it at the end of his show when he interrupted himself with what appeared to be a conversation with a producer: "How can they be running a response when I didn't respond? . . . Well, there isn't going to be a response."

This means one of two highly unlikely things had to be true: Limbaugh really was the 20th hijacker, or he was taking the high road.

As he assumes ever-greater command over the American conservative movement, the high road has not been a common route for Limbaugh. On his show yesterday, he compared Cheney favorably with Bill Clinton: "He is not hot for interns." He discussed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's looks: "She wears Armani clothes -- fashionable. Botox shots -- fashionable." He hurled epithets: "Compliant sycophantic slavish drive by media." He made caricatures of Democrats' positions: "There's just a genuine dislike for this country . . . certainly by a lot of Democrats." And he continued his personal assault on the president's character: "Barack Obama has yet to show in any way how he will control the cost of anything, including his ego."

Though the recent attacks went unmentioned, El Rushbo exulted in his notoriety. He read a quote by H.L. Mencken: "The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth."

Limbaugh certainly attracts his share of violent detestation. A request for readers' Limbaugh jokes on The Post's Web site yesterday produced a bumper crop of one-liners, not one of which the editors saw fit to print in this column.

Among callers to his show yesterday, the opinions of Limbaugh were more on the side of extravagant admiration: "There are no words to adequately describe our appreciation for your program and your individual accomplishments as a patriot."

The host had a similar sentiment: "I normally don't pat myself on the back, but today global warming is an issue that has the concern of 30 percent of the American people, and years ago it was over 50 percent," he said.

"That's because somebody spoke up day in and day out and said, 'This is a hoax, this is BS.' That somebody was me."

An on-air promo for the show modestly called Limbaugh "the man who runs America." Limbaugh himself, whose talent is "on loan from God," said he was broadcasting with "half my brains tied behind my back just to make it fair."

Even in this compromised state, he was able to get off good shots at stimulus spending ("It was about stimulating the Democrat Party and stimulating Barack Obama"), the administration's economic policy ("Everybody's going to be poorer . . . they want stagnant zero-sum economics") and his political opponents ("The feminazis ought to be interested in this"). A love of dictators, he argued, is "why Obama has a high approval rating."

Limbaugh played some excerpts of Cheney's appearance on "Face the Nation," where the former vice president praised the radio host and disparaged Powell. "The biggest mistake Republicans can make is to follow Colin Powell's advice . . . to move to the center," Limbaugh told his listeners yesterday. Cheney, by contrast, "knows that there's no such thing as a centrist . . . there's no such thing as a moderate."

Maybe that's because Limbaugh hijacked them?

Etch-a-Sketch: In advance of President Carter's appearance at a Senate hearing entitled "Energy Security: Historical Perspectives and Modern Challenges," Dana Milbank wants to hear your favorite 1970s energy crisis memories.

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