Rush Limbaugh acknowledged yesterday that he is addicted to painkillers and said he is taking a 30-day leave of absence to try to kick the habit.
Breaking a week-long silence since the National Enquirer reported that he had been caught up in a drug investigation by Florida authorities, the nation's most popular radio host told listeners: "I want you to know I'm no role model. I refuse to let anyone think I'm doing something heroic here, something great here. I'm not a victim. I'm not going to portray myself as a victim. . . . I take full responsibility for this problem."
Limbaugh, 52, said he had twice checked into rehabilitation clinics over the last half-dozen years in an effort to break his addiction and would do so again immediately. He said he could not discuss the investigation, which is based in part on the account of a former housekeeper at his $30 million Palm Beach County estate.
Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers magazine, said Limbaugh's 20 million listeners would stand by him. "If people think he'll lose his following because he suddenly appears to be a hypocrite, forget it. Part of what makes him successful is he's a lightning rod. . . . I don't buy that he's some type of moral leader in this country. He's a man who's extremely colorful and darn good on the radio."
Chris Berry, president of Washington's WMAL, one of the 600 stations that carry Limbaugh's program, called the problem "a bump in the road. . . . The fact that he came clean will serve him well with his listeners."
Limbaugh, perhaps the most prominent conservative commentator on the air, said on his program that he began taking painkillers five or six years ago after unsuccessful spine surgery, which caused lingering pain in his back and neck. He said that some of the news stories about him "contain inaccuracies and distortions" but that he could not elaborate for now. He closed by asking the audience "for your prayers."
The sudden leave, during which Limbaugh will be replaced by guest hosts, caps a difficult period for the man whom industry observers credit with saving AM radio 15 years ago and clearing the way for a conservative takeover of the medium. He had a cochlear implant in late 2001 that enabled him to regain his hearing after going totally deaf, and last week he resigned as an ESPN football commentator after making racially charged remarks about a black quarterback.
Limbaugh could potentially face a prison term if he is found to have illegally obtained such painkillers as OxyContin and hydrocodone. The Enquirer has not denied paying his former housekeeper, Wilma Cline, for the information. The supermarket tabloid has published what it says are extensive e-mails and phone messages from Limbaugh about obtaining, for example, more than 30 pills a day of what one alleged letter called "the little blues."
Another hurdle is whether Limbaugh can overcome his addiction in so short a period. Medical experts say it can take months or even years for someone to wean himself from painkillers.
OxyContin, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, was prescribed more than 6 million times in 2001. Federal prosecutors say the powerful drug, intended only for severe amounts of pain, is widely abused. In one case, prosecutors have been investigating 60 to 80 people in Northern Virginia, including two doctors who authorities say have issued "obscene" amounts of prescriptions for the drug.
Medical experts say another painkiller, hydrocodone, which is sold under such brand names as Vicodin, has caused numerous cases of severe hearing loss, though there is no evidence that this caused Limbaugh's deafness.
A bombastic host who loves to rip and ridicule his political opponents, Limbaugh has said things about drugs over the years that are already coming back to haunt him. As People magazine noted, Limbaugh said in a 1995 interview that "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."
In his book "See, I Told You So," Limbaugh wrote: "Ask a liberal why there are so many drugs being sold in our cities and he or she will probably tell you that teenagers look at the job prospects facing them and decide that it makes more sense to sell crack for $100 an hour than to flip hamburgers at McDonald's for minimum wage."
Limbaugh's political clout is such that the first President Bush invited him to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom, President Clinton publicly complained about his influence, and Newt Gingrich made him an honorary member of the House Republican class of 1994 after the GOP takeover. Vice President Cheney appeared on his show last year.
Limbaugh has long aroused passionate feelings for his sharp-edged partisanship far beyond the loyal fans dubbed dittoheads. Joe Conason, a columnist for Salon and the New York Observer, said, "The test of liberal compassion is whether you can muster compassion on behalf of someone who has probably earned a different kind of reaction." He cited Limbaugh's "own lack of compassion toward other people who have problems, ranging from the poor to the addicted to the imprisoned. . . . I hope he and the dittoheads might learn something from this and their hardhearted attitude might change as a result of seeing someone they care about in trouble."
David Frum, a National Review columnist and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, said this is hardly the first case of someone becoming addicted to medicines taken for pain. "I don't think any less of him for having ordinary frailties," he said of Limbaugh. "The question is, do you face up to them in a manful way, which it sounds like he did. . . . There is nobody -- not you, not me -- who doesn't have flaws at least as serious of those of Rush Limbaugh."
Harrison, the editor of Talkers, said the episode might actually help Limbaugh's program by adding to the aura of controversy around him. "The worst thing that could happen to Rush Limbaugh would be to fade out by becoming predictable and boring," he said.