WASHINGTON - I've been doing penance. I've listened to major portions of two Rush Limbaugh radio shows, I've done some heavy browsing of his new book, "The Way Things Ought to Be," and now I'm finally ready to say it:
Rush, I'm sorry.
No, I still haven't become a Rush Limbaugh fan; I'm not THAT sorry. But at the urgings of some 60 zillion readers (that's an estimate; I stopped counting after 147), I've taken another look at this phenom of the airwaves, and. . . .
But first I'd better back up and tell you what brought all this on. I recently wrote a column the point of which was that you shouldn't refrain from telling the truth as you see it just because somebody you don't care for agrees with it. What brought that on was a young man who was pained to inform me that Limbaugh had agreed with something I'd written. Twice.
Then instead of just saying you shouldn't refrain, etc., I proceeded to take a couple of shots at Limbaugh. Gay-bashing and demagoguery were among the kinder charges. But what opened the floodgates of reader response was my implication that Limbaugh is a bigot.
I confess now that, apart from a couple of accidental listenings (in someone else's car, for instance), I didn't know that much about Limbaugh. I still don't. My opinions about him had come largely from other people - mostly friends who think Rush is a four-letter word. They are certain he is a bigot. Is he?
He's smart-alecky, no question of it. He loves to rattle liberal cages. He is unrelenting in his assault on the apostles of political correctness and the militant feminists he calls (as I remember it) "feminazis."
He is a master of ridicule. Take this crack at an actor's support of environmentalism:
"Didn't Tom Cruise make a stock-car movie that destroyed 35 cars, burned thousands of gallons of gasoline and wasted dozens of tires? Tom, most people don't own 35 cars in their LIFE, and you just trashed 35 cars for a movie. Now you're telling other people not to pollute the planet? Shut up, sir."
That might not be all that funny to an environmentalist who, however, might get a huge guffaw out of a similar put-down of, say, a right-to-lifer. Which is part of the problem. My sense is that Limbaugh wouldn't take a similar shot at a right-to-lifer, or at any respectable conservative.
He seems to use his wit, his acute sense of exaggeration and his (yes) intelligence almost exclusively to attack the positions of those my friends and I consider "good guys." And he seems to take himself less seriously than a lot of other talk-show types. Indeed, even when his audience is behaving as though his opinions are a matter of the life or death of the Republic, I get the impression that Limbaugh is mostly having fun.
But does any of this make him a bigot? Don't Herblock and Art Buchwald exaggerate for effect? Of course they do. What is a caricature if not an exaggeration? Exaggeration, as every satirist understands, is the essence of humor. It's been done better, of course. Rush and Swift are not precisely synonymous. But what prompted my earlier piece was not the quality of his satire, but its target. It's a lot less funny when the ox being gored wears my brand.
When a caller asked me, quite reasonably, to give him an instance or two of a bigoted opinion from Limbaugh, all he got was my embarrassed silence. Sure he's taken digs at poor people and rioters and feminists and the NAACP, but why should any of these be immune?
Sure he often brings up problems without offering solutions. But is this journalistic heresy?
Limbaugh's is often (for many of us) the hated opinion, but that doesn't, by itself, make him hateful. Having spent long years holding forth against the various orthodoxies of the age, I ought to understand the difference.
One more thing. If I thought I knew Limbaugh from my friends' opinion of him, I also thought I knew his audience from a handful of on-the-air responses. He was, I was certain, "tossing the raw meat of bigotry to people who need desperately to feel superior to somebody."
There are, I don't doubt, such people in the Limbaugh audience. But the scores I heard from were more like this Floridian:
"I am a frequent reader of your column, and I agree with much of what you say about society's problems and the solutions you offer. . . . You obviously do not listen to Rush enough to know that he is not a bigot. He is one voice in the lonely land known as conservatism.
"Do you not think that the American public has enough intelligence to discern what is meritorious in your column and on Rush's show for themselves?"
Well, I guess I do now. Sorry, folks.
William Raspberry's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.
(Copyright, 1993, Washington Post Writers Group)