Radio host Rush Limbaugh

Radio host Rush Limbaugh Credit: AP

Americans praise civility, but we constantly reward rudeness. That annoying fact of life helps to explain why the blessings that Rush Limbaugh brought to the Republican base recently turned into a curse.

The switch abruptly came as the conservative radio icon came under attack from all sides for calling a female law student a "slut" and a "prostitute," among other insults in three days of on-air rants. Limbaugh finally apologized over the weekend, as several of his sponsors were reported to be withdrawing their advertising.

Now we know which Speech Police even Rush respects. Sponsors rule.

Slower to respond were the Republican Party's leading presidential candidates. Politics make strange ironies. Four years ago, candidate Barack Obama wrestled his way out from under the burden of intemperate remarks by his Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Now President Obama gets to watch his Republican rivals try to evade Rush's rash ravings.

Obama publicly broke all ties to the unrepentant Rev. Wright and suffered not a bit with his base. The Republican presidential wannabes are not that lucky. Their attempts to distance themselves from his vile language without losing his supporters come off like profiles in cowardice.

Frontrunner Mitt Romney, approached by a reporter, said Limbaugh's language was "not the language I would have used," then tried to change the subject to the economy before scurrying off.

Rick Santorum, Romney's closest challenger, said on CNN, that Limbaugh was "being absurd but that's, you know, an entertainer can be absurd." That's how Limbaugh excuses himself, too. He says he's an "entertainer" whenever people who disagree with him take him seriously. Yet he seldom objects when his conservative fan base circles the wagons around him like a messiah.

Master spinner Newt Gingrich on NBC's "Meet the Press" called it "appropriate for Rush to apologize and I'm glad he apologized." Then, with a "But," the former House speaker managed to blame the dust-up on his pet target du jour, the "elite media."

"I am astonished at the desperation of the elite media to avoid rising gas prices" and several other issues "to suddenly decide that Rush Limbaugh is the great national crisis of this week." Never mind that, if any media worker qualifies as an "elite," it is Rush.

But let's hear it for Rep. Ron Paul, the Grand Old Party's only presidential hopeful to question the sincerity of Limbaugh's expressed contrition over his "very crude" language. "I don't think he's very apologetic," Paul told the CBS program "Face the Nation." "He's doing it because some people were taking their advertisements off his program. It was his bottom line that he was concerned about." No wonder so many independent voters appreciate Paul's candor. And no wonder he hasn't got a prayer of being nominated by either one of the two major parties.

Helping to confirm Paul's suspicions the next day, Limbaugh's lengthy on-air apology managed to blame his favorite whipping boys and girls, the political left. He just couldn't help himself, he said: "Against my own instincts, against my own knowledge, against everything I know to be right and wrong, I descended to their level when I used those words to describe Sandra Fluke." Ah, well, he just an "entertainer," right?

Last May, MSNBC suspended host Ed Schultz for a week after he described conservative radio host Laura Ingraham, a "right-wing slut," a remark for which he later apologized. But Rush's syndicator, Premiere Networks, a subsidiary of Clear Channel, said it would not suspend Limbaugh, despite his breathtaking assault against a private citizen whose only crime, after all, was to testify before a congressional committee hearing in support of mandatory health insurance for contraception.

But don't kid yourself into thinking this is the end of King Rushbo's reign. Like a radio shock jock, he'll probably benefit from his recent negative publicity, as long as his ratings hold up.

The Republican candidates may not get off that easily. Limbaugh has distracted voters from issues like the economy and religious freedom, on which President Obama is vulnerable, over to contraception, an issue that gives credence to the Democrats' charge of a GOP war against women. With friends like Limbaugh, Republicans don't need Democrats.

Clarence Page is a columnist and member of the editorial board at the Chicago Tribune. His email address is


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