TCS Daily

Learning from Limbaugh

By Fraser Seitel - October 3, 2003 12:00 AM

"I offered an opinion. This opinion has caused discomfort to the crew, which I regret."                

            -- Rush Limbaugh, former ESPN commentator


"We regret the circumstances surrounding this. We believe he took the appropriate action to resolve this matter expeditiously."                                                           

            -- George Bodenheimer, president of ESPN



Public relations wise, Rush Limbaugh was smart. Oh sure, it was the week from hell for El Rushbo. The rock-ribbed, conservative icon learned the hard way -- with unprecedented speed and fury -- the fundamental lesson of celebrity in 21st century 24/7 media reality: "If you live by the sword, you die by the sword."


Limbaugh's clearly non-spontaneous comments on ESPN's "Sunday NFL Countdown" that Philadelphia Eagles star Donovan McNabb was overrated because the media wanted to see a black quarterback succeed triggered a predictably unforgiving response. He was eviscerated, beheaded, verbally assaulted by just about every self-respecting Democratic politician or social activist whom Limbaugh has ever bad mouthed on the most listened to radio show in America. In lightning fashion and with unfettered ferocity:


·      McNabb, himself, called a press conference to denounce the statements as the same kind of racially explosive remarks that in the past had led to the celebrated firings of broadcaster Jimmy the Greek Snyder and baseball executive Al Campanis.


·      ESPN was barraged with demands for Limbaugh's ouster from, among others, the NAACP, 20 House Democrats, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and all 10 Democratic candidates for President.


·      The New York Daily News, in the pigskin tradition of "piling on," rushed to print a story, alleging that Limbaugh "is being investigated for allegedly buying thousands of addictive painkillers from a black-market drug ring." The News gracefully introduced the story with a 72-point, front page headline, "ADDICT RUSH IN PILL PROBE."


And then, just as swiftly as the loose-lipped Limbaugh crisis erupted to the top of the cable news agenda -- it was over. Nipped in the bud by Rush himself, who threw in the towel immediately, saying:


"I love 'NFL Sunday Countdown' and do not want to be a distraction to the great work done by all who work on it. Therefore, I have decided to resign."


And that's where Rush, the stupidity of his McNabb comments notwithstanding, demonstrated how media savvy he really is. He knew he couldn't win. The long knives were out for his scalp. Digging in would have only prolonged the agony. The right thing to do -- the only smart thing to do -- was to take the temporary heat, swallow his pride, and quit.


Which brings us to the other swirling national controversy involving the Bush administration and the potentially illegal leak of the identity of an undercover C.I.A. officer. Like the Limbaugh matter, Democrats smell blood, as the administration fumbles its way through the aftermath of the outing of former Ambassador Joseph Wilson's C.I.A agent wife. Wilson himself has accused the White House of disclosing the information in retribution for his report that Iraq was not guilty, as the administration had charged, of seeking to buy Uranium from Niger.


Most damning, pro-Bush (but Iraq war skeptic) commentator Robert Novak has acknowledged learning -- and subsequently revealing -- the identity of Wilson's wife in an interview with an "administration source."


In response, the Justice Department has launched an investigation, which has only triggered further Democratic denunciation and doubt. If not properly disposed of, the C.I.A. leak issue threatens to give the loyal opposition a bone fide issue -- i.e. the ethics and integrity of government -- from which to hoist the Bush Administration on its own petard in the coming election.


To prevent this, President Bush has one choice. A la Limbaugh, he must immediately announce who in his Administration met with Novak, what he told the columnist and why, and, if the explanation is indefensible in the face of logic or law, the person must summarily be fired. Anything short of this final solution will only enflame the Beltway hysteria and bring further ignominy upon the administration.


·      First, with every journalist in Washington -- who wasn't tipped off by the original "Administration source" -- ravenous to find out the identity of Novak's confidant, the name will soon be known by all.


·      Second, no matter how "clean" an investigation the Justice Department runs, Attorney General John Ashcroft will continue to engender hurtful daily stories of suspicion.


·      Third, in the wake of the Clinton "years of scandal," the last thing the Bush administration needs now is to become distracted in defense of its bedrock issue of "restoring government integrity" -- particularly while it's got a lot more pressing and problematic issues to confront.


The real point is that no matter how critical to the administration the Novak leaker is, he is still less important than retaining the Presidency. And make no mistake. As we learned first in Watergate, unless politically combustible issues, such as the C.I.A. leak, are dealt with immediately and decisively, they can, indeed, be the straw that brings down a Presidency.


So if the President is smart, he will learn from his friend, the former ESPN announcer, take the hit and move on. Now.


Fraser P. Seitel, managing partner of Emerald Partners communications consultancy, is author of The Practice of Public Relations, now in its ninth edition.

TCS Daily Archives