Rush Limbaugh’s gross comments about a female college student who voiced support for President Obama’s birth-control insurance compromise have forced some old Republican allies to distance themselves from the talk-radio star, raising questions about Limbaugh losing his potency, says Peter Dreier.
By Peter Dreier
The response to Rush Limbaugh’s latest tirade about college women having too much sex suggests that he may be growing impotent, politically at least.
With a large audience of conservative listeners, the radio reactionary was once able to intimidate Republican politicians into defending his outrageous comments or publicly apologizing to him if they dared voice even the mildest criticism. He was invited to speak to gatherings of GOP pols and activists, who took Limbaugh’s advice in order to gain his favor and avoid his vitriol.
A Who’s Who of the conservative political world — including Karl Rove, Sean Hannity, Mary Matalin, Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — attended Limbaugh’s fourth wedding in 2010.
But the reaction to his comments on his radio show last week – when he called a Georgetown University student a “slut” and a “prostitute” for advocating expanded access to birth control – shows that his influence may be on the wane. Has Limbaugh finally become politically impotent?
Last year, Fox News pulled Glenn Beck’s show off the air as a result of declining ratings, a boycott by consumers of companies that advertised on his show, and growing controversy over Beck’s increasingly lunatic diatribes. Is the end now in sight for Limbaugh’s radio empire?
The latest firestorm over Limbaugh began after he attacked Sandra Fluke, a law student who testified on Capitol Hill last month in favor of the Obama administration’s decision to require employers to offer health insurance plans that cover birth control.
Limbaugh said that Fluke “wants to be paid to have sex. She’s having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.”
The talk-show host then went further, adding: “So Miss Fluke, and the rest of you Feminazis, here’s the deal. If we are going to pay for your contraceptives, and thus pay for you to have sex. We want something for it. We want you post the videos online so we can all watch.”
Limbaugh’s remarks sparked sharp criticism not only from President Barack Obama (who phoned Fluke on Friday to express his support) and other liberals like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, but also from some Republicans and conservatives, who acknowledged that Limbaugh had crossed the line.
GOP presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum were forced to rebuke Limbaugh’s comments, even though their own remarks were quite tepid. Republican Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who is running for reelection, called Limbaugh’s comments “reprehensible” and said that he “should apologize.”
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that Limbaugh’s words were “inappropriate.” Carly Fiorina, the former corporate CEO and one-time GOP candidate for U.S. Senate from California – who now serves as vice chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee – called Limbaugh’s comments “”insulting.”
Could it be possible that the GOP establishment is finally realizing that its sharp rightward turn — fueled in large part by the right-wing echo chamber of which Limbaugh is the most influential player — is alienating all but the most conservative voters and leading the party off a cliff?
(Over the past two decades, the modern Republican Party has often walked hand in hand with Limbaugh toward that cliff. After the GOP congressional victory in 1994, the House Republicans were so thankful to Limbaugh that they made him an honorary member of their new majority.)
Since his comments about Fluke, however, several of Limbaugh’s top advertisers pulled out of his syndicated radio show. Quicken Loans’s Twitter statement said: “Due to continued inflammatory comments — along with valuable feedback from clients and team members — QL has suspended ads on Rush Limbaugh program.”
Two mattress companies, Sleep Train and Sleep Number, made similar statements on Friday. A Sleep Number spokesperson wrote on Twitter, “Recent comments by Rush Limbaugh do not align w/ our values, so we made decision to immediately suspend all advertising on that program.”
At first Limbaugh not only stood by his statements, but escalated the controversy. On Friday, he offered to “buy all of the women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as they want,” as a form of birth control.
But by Saturday, the anger toward Limbaugh had reached such a crescendo that he was forced – perhaps for the first time in his career – to apologize. The apology, posted on his website, said he did not mean to make a “personal attack” against Fluke.
“My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir,” he wrote. “I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.”
However, his sincerity remains in question. Limbaugh has made a habit – indeed an entire career – of cowardly hate-mongering toward women and other groups. For years he has called women’s rights activists “Femi-Nazis.”
The Anti-Defamation League has challenged Limbaugh for anti-Semitic remarks. He has a long history of making anti-gay statements. He lost his position as an ESPN sports commentator for his racist comments about an African-American quarterback.
But what fueled Limbaugh’s tirade against Ms. Fluke? The brouhaha over Limbaugh’s recent comments have drawn attention to Limbaugh’s hypocrisy between his past public rhetoric and his own personal life, including his previous habit of unleashing harsh attacks on drug users at the same time he himself was addicted to drugs.
Now, in light of Limbaugh’s attack on the Georgetown law student, it hasn’t escaped attention that the radio shock jock has been married four times (beginning in 1977) and has no children. Did all of Limbaugh’s wives use birth control? Or could it be that Limbaugh is impotent in that way, too?
In 2009, returning from a vacation in the Dominican Republic, Limbaugh was briefly detained by U.S. Customs when they checked his bags and found a vial of Viagra with another person’s name listed as the user. Viagra is prescribed for erectile dysfunction, but it is sometimes taken by men visiting other countries for “sex tourism.”
Limbaugh’s attorney Roy Black said Limbaugh’s doctor prescribed the Viagra for Limbaugh but the prescription was put in the doctor’s name for privacy reasons. Limbaugh chuckled about the Viagra incident on his radio show, “I had a great time in the Dominican Republic. Wish I could tell you about it.”
Now, people are wondering: Could the link between Limbaugh’s sex life, his anxiety about his declining political power and his intemperate outburst about female birth control just be a fluke?
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, will be published by Nation Books in June.