TCS Daily

Hillbilly Hero

By James Pinkerton - October 14, 2003 12:00 AM

OK, let's get the usual throat-clearing out of the way about Rush Limbaugh. It's -- ahem -- a shame that he's got a drug problem. Cough. It's a personal misfortune for him; he has our best wishes as he goes off the air for a month of drug detox and rehab. Cough, cough.


OK, I'm done with all that.


Now let me say a few other things. Such as, maybe probably, Limbaugh would have been better off if he had been left alone with his pill-predilections. That is, whatever his problems, the intervention of the Palm Beach police is not going to make his life better. And so, too, for millions of other Americans: they have their own habits, having made their own lifestyle choices, some of which are legal, some not. They might need our sympathy, but they don't need our legal scrutiny. What they really need is their privacy, unvexed by fear of police and prison. Most Americans might not approve of what drug-users do with their lives, but if freedom means anything, it should mean the freedom to do their own thing, including the right to get high.


Limbaugh could speak up for such human freedom, connecting the right of free speech -- which has made him rich -- to the right of others also to exercise personal freedom. Alas, instead, Limbaugh appears to be going in a different route, which is to say, he's taking the usual celebrity-in-trouble duck 'n' dodge route. When The National Enquirer first broke the story that he had bought some 30,000 prescription pills from 1997 to 2001, he had no immediate comment. He filibustered for awhile, saying that he was "trying to get all the facts" about the allegations.


Now, insulated by lawyers and p.r. flacks, he's disappearing from sight for a time. On Friday's show he explained that he fell into pill-popping because of "severe pain in my lower back and also in my neck due to two herniated discs." Ouch. Possibly, in fact, he needs all those pain-killers. Indeed, it's possible that all that self-medication is really doing the trick; at about the same time that he apparently was buying all those pills, he also took up golf. And here's what John Albers, writing for the Gold Press Association, had to say just this month about Limbaugh on the links:


No slouch with the sticks himself after only playing for the past six years, Limbaugh is visiting Lake Tahoe for the American Century Championship this year for the first time. Limbaugh has played in the PGA Tour's Bob Hope Chrysler Classic three times and the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am twice, making the cut in 2003 and playing on the weekend with PGA Tour professional Tom Pernice.


In other words, under the right circumstances, Limbaugh seems able to play through his pain. Good for him.


As with many a genius, Limbaugh is naturally a bit unbalanced. By definition, he's abnormal, "talent on loan from God," and all that. But the cover story in the latest Newsweek suggests that he's been cursed as well as blessed; the magazine describes him as "a lonely object of mass adulation, socially ill at ease, at least occasionally depressed."


Nothing new there, in the notion that the clown is crying on the inside. Jonathan Swift, the great wit and satirist of three centuries ago, was a manic-depressive; in her 1997 biography, Jonathan Swift: A Portrait, Victoria Glendenning observed of her subject, "his physical energy was, in spite of his recurrent nausea and giddiness, phenomenal. Violent exercise was a necessity for him." Once, tasked with delivering a message to King William III in London, he walked 38 miles -- each way. Of course, his weird energy leached into his personality; one appalled acquaintance described him as "insufferable both to equals and inferiors, and unsafe for his superiors to countenance." Yet if Swift had been just a regular fellow, it's hard to believe he could've summoned up the moral energy for such works as "A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of poor People in Ireland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Publick." Published in 1729, Swift's "modest proposal" suggested cannibalism as a win-win: fewer poor people, more calories for the rich.


Limbaugh has his own kind of intensity; my long-distance diagnosis is that he's an addictive personality type. First, he got heavy -- hitting a high of 320 lbs. And for a while he was a heavy smoker -- several packs a day. Then he took up cigars -- smoking 12-15 a day. No wonder he wound up on the cover of Cigar Aficionado magazine.


Yet at the same time, he puts on a great radio show, for which he is paid some $35 million a year. Does he really need advice from law enforcers and other public and bureaucratic scolds on how to live his life? If he consumed an average of 20 pills a day for four years -- and the Enquirer alleges that the true total could be even higher, as he might have had other suppliers -- then maybe other aspiring radio personalities could use the same kind of little helpers. As Abraham Lincoln said of his oftentimes-soused but usually victorious general, Ulysses S. Grant: send a case of whatever he's drinking to my other commanders, too.


And since we've gotten past the hemming and hawing here, let's consider another possibility: maybe Limbaugh enjoys taking a walk through the valley of the dolls. According to the Enquirer, his favorite pill was OxyContin, which he referred to as "blue babes." Another nickname for Oxycontin -- we're getting into Limbaugh-esque levels of political incorrectness here -- is "Hillbilly Heroin." Which is to say, to a certain group, it's more fun than shootin' possums or runnin' moonshine.


But why should urban hipsters have all the fun? Whenever I think of heroin, I think to myself how gross and dangerous it is to inject -- all those needles and all that blood. But others, with infinitely more artistic talent, beg to disagree. Like Lou Reed, author of the 70s song, "White Light/White Heat": the lyrics are an unabashed ode to h-addiction -- "I surely do love watching that stuff shooting itself in." For Reed, smack was a joy: "White light, it's lightin' up my eyes... don't you know it fills me with surprise." Should they have put Reed in jail? Would that improve America?


To be sure, most people wouldn't be well advised to imitate Reed's walk-on-the-wild-side lifestyle. Yet today Reed, now in his early 60s, is recognized as one of the most important figures in rock 'n' roll over the last four decades. So he must have been doing something right. Indeed, he is a member in good standing, along with other important musicians such as Keith Richard (b. 1943), and Iggy Pop (b. 1947) in the I-can't-believe-they're-still-alive club.


And if gold-record types can have their fun, why not everyone who has a song in his heart and maybe a controlled substance in his hand? The late Joseph Mitchell, longtime staff writer for The New Yorker, published a series of articles in the 30s and 40s, gathered into a compendium -- still in print -- called Up in the Old Hotel. The title of the book is misleading, since it's mostly a celebration of drinkers and drinking. The first chapter, for example, is called "McSorley's Wonderful Saloon." In another story, Mitchell describes a Mr. Flood, as a happy man with "a highball in his left hand and a cigar in his right, and he kept time with the cigar as he sang, 'Come, let us drink while we have breath/For there's no drinking after death.'" Now there was a fellow, that Mr. Flood, who knew what he wanted to do with himself -- although, of course, in today's New York City, he couldn't smoke that stogie, proof that human freedom is perpetually under assault.


Pills, too, have their devotees. Perhaps the most famous song about dolls is "White Rabbit," released by Jefferson Airplane in 1967, when young Rusty Limbaugh was a 16-year-old teenager in Cape Girardeau, Mo., just getting into radio. You remember "White Rabbit," an homage to both Alice in Wonderland and San Francisco psychedelia. It begins with the lines, "One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small," and ends with the anthemic urging to "Feed your head." Is it a good idea to do that -- to feed your head with someone else's chemistry experiment? Probably not. But it's a worse idea to hire hundreds of thousands of cops to spend their time putting millions of people in jail, spending billions of dollars in the in the process.


Nobody should worry too much about Limbaugh. Even after getting nailed by the Enquirer, and maybe the local authorities, he'll do OK. He'll spend a million bucks on his lawyer, Roy Black; if the high-priced barrister could get William Kennedy Smith acquitted on the charge of raping a woman back in 1991, he can get Limbaugh off the hook on charges that he unscrewed the lid off too many plastic vials.


And who knows? Maybe Limbaugh will be cured of his admitted addiction. Although, of course, in the weird world of drug "treatment," oftentimes the "cure" for one of kind of "abuse" is the use of another drug, such as methadone. But folks like Limbaugh suffer a high recidivism rate; maybe half of them end up back on something. Indeed, if Limbaugh has all that pain, who can blame him for looking for relief wherever he can find it?


I wish him the best. I'll always be grateful to him for his conservative advocacy, especially in the early 90s, when he was a relatively lonely voice, helping to break the Democratic majority in Congress.


Today, by contrast, Limbaugh is just one of many conservative voices. So if he eventually resumes his broadcasting career having skated and lawyered his way past these pill-egations, the charge that he's another right-wing hypocrite -- one kind of justice for rich white people, another kind for poor minorities -- will hang on him, like the albatross in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (whose author, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, was another high-functioner; his vice of choice was opium, since he thought the poppy stuff helped his work).


But there's a better path for Limbaugh. He can build upon his own personal experiences to strike a signature blow for liberty. He can get back on the air and use his mega-microphone to proclaim that personal freedom means that people should have a right to pursue happiness in their own way, so long as they don't hurt others. He can say that he escaped from the coils of justice -- in truth, injustice -- because he had money and influence, but that others, not so rich, are rarely so lucky.


That's a message that would resonate, I believe, with most Americans. We all have demons that we try to deal with as best we can. But surely the current anti-drug regime of cops, snitches, and jails are extra demons that none of us needs. And if Limbaugh made a brave live-and-let-live argument, based on painful lessons learned, he'd be a hero to millions more.


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