Fortunately, Limbaugh is incomparable

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There's nothing more pathetic than dittoheads making moral equivalency arguments about Rush Limbaugh and his liberal rivals.

"What about Bill Maher?" they bleated in unison on dozens of phone messages I received after my last column.

"I don't recall you criticizing Bill Maher when he called Sarah Palin that vulgar word," they said while reciting the script provided by sympathetic conservative radio hosts.

I asked one of the callers why he threw chivalry to the wind in Ms. Palin's case, failing to complain promptly last year when Mr. Maher characterized the former GOP vice presidential candidate profanely on his HBO show. Only indignant enough to call on big, bad Rush's behalf, the man snorted that he was tired of "the hypocrisy of the elite media."

The caller admitted he hadn't heard the nasty Palin quote directly, nor had he ever seen "Real Time with Bill Maher," which was obvious because he didn't know how to correctly pronounce the comedian's name.

Once again, I found myself in a weird, alternative universe argument with a low-information caller convinced that the acerbic HBO talk show host was somehow bigger than Rush Limbaugh and as imminent a threat to the republic as Nancy Pelosi, the socialistic-minded Girl Scouts and the late Saul Alinsky.

I didn't have the heart to tell the poor guy that Mr. Maher had come to Mr. Limbaugh's defense with a tweet that made him a strange bedfellow to the caller: "Hate to defend #RushLimbaugh but he apologized, liberals looking bad not accepting. Also hate intimidation by sponsor pullout."

Mr. Maher, whose politics skew more reliably libertarian than Democrat, was chased from network television a decade ago when he made comments about the Sept. 11 hijackers that angered conservatives.

Because he's on HBO, Mr. Maher is now immune to threats of boycott. His largely liberal audience "gets" his humor, which is ribald, scatological, irreverent about most institutions, non-partisan in its contempt for the foibles of politicians and, frankly, sexist. There are times when you can't help wincing, especially when his humor is more puerile than perceptive.

Although Mr. Maher has been known to make cruel observations about conservative female politicians such as Ms. Palin and Michele Bachmann, he doesn't pick on people who don't have power -- like Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke. He's always aware of the discrepancy in power and rarely punches down. The same can't be said about Rush Limbaugh.

You also get the impression that Mr. Maher doesn't hate conservative women wholesale, as his friendship with the insufferable Ann Coulter testifies. Arianna Huffington credits Mr. Maher and Sen. Al Franken with helping her navigate the ideological fjord from Gingrich-style conservatism in the 1990s to liberal firebrand and media mogul today.

Amy Holmes, S.E. Cupp, Christine O'Donnell and other conservative women have been regulars on "Real Time" and its predecessor, "Politically Incorrect." Fox News has a lot of 'splaining to do if the various "news personalities" there truly believe Mr. Maher is a misogynist. Until recently, he was often interviewed on "The O'Reilly Factor" and other Fox shows.

Rush Limbaugh's three-day verbal smackdown of Ms. Fluke was of a crudity far different than anything Mr. Maher ever managed in a quip. The tirade by the four-times-married broadcaster also was more in keeping with his character as a skeptic of female empowerment.

His rants against women -- remember "feminazi"? -- have entered the modern lexicon. When he called the advocate for funding of contraceptives a slut and a prostitute, it sounded like he meant it. That's what people are reacting to. That's why his sponsors are fleeing to the tune of nearly 50 this week.

It should also be noted, as fair-minded conservatives like David Frum already have, that Mr. Limbaugh represents the modern Republican Party in ways no other figure can. There is no progressive or liberal equivalent on the airwaves. No Democrat cares what Mr. Maher, Keith Olbermann or Ed Shultz thinks.

On the other hand, all Republicans -- except Sen. John McCain -- are terrified of Rush Limbaugh. In the past, even the mildest criticism of "el Rushbo" by a conservative has resulted in a swift rebuke from the broadcaster, followed by abject groveling to him on his syndicated show.

The revulsion aimed at Mr. Limbaugh isn't based on one misogynistic incident. It's a recognition of a pattern of female resentment on his part. He's not fooling anyone.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com ; 412-263-1631; www.Twitter.com/TonyNormanPG


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