New – and Old – Lows
Rush Limbaugh apologized over the weekend for a choice of words that he admitted “was not the best,” a reference to his radio show delivered “slut” and “prostitute” characterization of a Georgetown University law student.
Conservative commentator David Frum summed up El Rushbo’s latest tirade when he wrote, “Limbaugh’s verbal abuse of Sandra Fluke set a new kind of low. I can’t recall anything as brutal, ugly and deliberate ever being said by such a prominent person and so emphatically repeated. This was not a case of a bad “word choice.” It was a brutally sexualized accusation, against a specific person, prolonged over three days.”
“Brutal, ugly and deliberate” for sure, unprecedented not so much.
Mostly forgotten now, and that may be the ultimate justice, is the man who was Rush before Rush. Limbaugh with a fedora – Walter Winchell. From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, Winchell commanded a national radio audience vastly larger than Limbaugh’s, plus he held forth in a daily newspaper column where he savaged his enemies, coddled his friends and was with great regularity brutal, ugly and deliberate.
Neal Gabler wrote the definite biography of Winchell and when you read his often searing descriptions it’s easy to substitute the name Winchell with the name Limbaugh. The two “entertainers” were cut from the same cloth and their style – a half century apart – is strikingly similar.
“Over the years,” Gabler wrote in his 1994 book, “Walter Winchell would lose his reputation as a populist who had once heralded an emerging new social order, lose his reputation as a charming gadfly. He would be remembered instead, to the extent that anyone remembered him at all, as a vitriolic, self-absorbed megalomaniac an image indelibly fixed by Burt Lancaster’s performance as gossipmonger J.J. Hunsecker in the 1956 film Sweet Smell of Success, which everyone assumed had been inspired by Winchell’s life.”
By the early 50’s Winchell’s bright light had flamed out. He became an apologist for Joe McCarthy and, as Limbaugh will become soon enough, he was only important because he had once been important. The meanness, the ego, the brutal, ugly, deliberate excess brought him down. The great wit Dorothy Parker quipped, “Poor Walter. He’s afraid he’ll wake up one day and discover he’s not Walter Winchell.”
Winchell died in 1972. His daughter was the only person at his funeral. As one observer wrote at his death, “In the annals of addiction nobody ever turned more people on than Walter Winchell.”
Poor Rush. One day, when the excess finally really drives away the advertisers and the Republican politicians who so carefully calibrate their responses to his outrages cease to do so, he’ll go the way of the Winchell. Another name, as Neal Gabler put it, “on the ash heap of celebrity.”
Leave it to Ron Paul, the one Republican in the presidential field who has nothing to fear from Limbaugh, to put the latest brutality in perspective.”I don’t think he’s very apologetic,” Paul said on Face the Nation Sunday. “It’s in his best interest, that’s why he did it.”
There will come a day when it’s no longer in any one’s interest to put up with the guy.