Having infuriated millions of Robin Williams fans with insensitive remarks on the late actor's suicide, Rush Limbaugh now blames the "liberal media" and "despicable leftists" for distorting his innocent message.
This is an old dodge for Limbaugh. Yet however he parses his language, there can be no doubt that he sought to exploit a tragic event for what he likes to call "political education." His attempt to brand Williams' suicide with "the leftist worldview" was perfectly plain. And as usual, his alibi is plainly false.
In his original commentary on Williams, Limbaugh quoted Fox News — hardly a "liberal media" source, even by his elastic definition — about the great comic's possible motivations for taking his own life:
"There's a story (on the) Fox News website. Do you know, it says right here, that the real reasons that Robin Williams killed himself were he was embarrassed at having to take television roles after a sterling movie career? ... He'd had some divorces that ripped up his net worth, and he had a big ranch in Napa that he couldn't afford any longer and had to put up for sale and a house in Tiburon he couldn't afford anymore. This is all what's in the Fox News story.
"He had it all, but he had nothing, made everybody else laugh but was miserable inside. I mean, it fits a certain picture or a certain image that the left has."
Pursuing this tendentious theme, Limbaugh went on to mention the "survivor's guilt" that Williams reportedly suffered over the early deaths of three close show business friends, Christopher Reeve, John Belushi and Andy Kaufman. "He could never get over the guilt that they died and he didn't. Well, that is a constant measurement that is made by political leftists in judging the country," he harrumphed, concluding with a few incomprehensible sentences about "outcome-based education." (Even more oddly, Limbaugh promoted a wonderful appreciation of Williams in The Guardian by Russell Brand — an actor with very strong left-wing opinions.)
Still, his point was unmistakable: If you're concerned about life's unfairness — as Williams, a dedicated lifelong liberal, certainly was — then you probably suffer from a dark and pessimistic worldview that may very well lead you to kill yourself.
Insofar as Limbaugh pretends to be educating the public, let's school him by turning around his exploitative blather and putting him in the place of his rhetorical victim. A decade ago, when the radio talker's addictive dependency on prescription painkillers was first exposed, it would have been easy enough to lampoon his behavior as an expression of his right-wing worldview.
Popping mouthfuls of OxyContin? He thought he could get away with it because of his wealth and status, like so many other millionaire crooks. Violating the narcotics code? He hates government and thinks he can ignore laws that inconvenience him, just like the Bundy Ranch gang. Publicly urging criminal prosecution of drug addicts while indulging the same weakness? He is just another moral hypocrite, like so many of his cronies on the right, from William Bennett to Newt Gingrich.
As America watched Limbaugh struggle with his own personal issues, nobody tried to claim that he had become a junkie because of his political attitudes. Indeed, most liberal commentators wished him a full recovery, even while noting his frequent failures of empathy. A few even suggested that he seize the opportunity to contemplate his habitual cruelty to others — and try to change.
Sadly, that never happened. If it had, then Limbaugh might have come to understand depression and substance abuse, which evidently killed Williams, as illness rather than political or moral failing — exactly like the addiction that harmed Rush's hearing and could have claimed his life. He might even have experienced an emotion so often mocked as "liberal" and too often absent from conservative moralizing: compassion.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.