Limbaugh's shots at Fox put him back at center stage
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Rush Limbaugh's ultra-publicized comments on a political ad by Parkinson's disease sufferer Michael J. Fox may not change one vote in November, or a single opinion on stem cell research. They are a reminder, instead, that he is still the unrivaled puppet master of American discourse -- what's left of it, that is.
"This is Limbaugh's role, and he fulfilled it. We haven't seen much of Limbaugh lately in terms of these politically incorrect kinds of controversies, so I guess he's getting back into his old form," said Michael Harrison, publisher of the radio industry's Talker magazine. "Limbaugh lives out there under the spotlight of public controversy. It's to be expected, it's the nature of the beast, it's what he does."
Mr. Fox taped a series of emotional television ads for Democratic candidates supporting stem cell research, in which the actor, diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991, speaks in a halting voice and his head and upper body twitches and weaves.
The latest brouhaha -- or Limbaha -- started Monday, when the nation's highest-rated radio host briefly accused the former "Family Ties" and "Back to the Future" star of faking the symptoms on the ads to score political points.
Mr. Limbaugh told his 10 million-strong radio audience that it looked like Mr. Fox "was either off his medication or acting. He is an actor after all." He apologized the same day, but has continued to criticize the ads for being misleading, and Democrats for exploiting the disease for political gain.
"I haven't been this angry at Rush in a long time because it's all such silly theater, but this really makes me mad. Michael J. Fox is not pretending to have Parkinson's disease," said John McIntire, a left-leaning host on KDKA Radio. "I wish there was a synonym for unconscionable that meant satanically unconscionable. ... there are lines you shouldn't cross."
Another host on KDKA (which dropped the Limbaugh show in 2004), the right-leaning Fred Honsberger, said "Michael J. Fox and some of the others who are really going nuts on this embryonic stem cell issue are misguided and the research doesn't back up what they say. ... But to say he was faking the movements, that's a rough one."
Jim Quinn, a conservative host for Mr. Limbaugh's current Pittsburgh station, WPGB-FM, said, "I don't know that I would have said it the same way" as the national host, but backs his overall argument.
Democrats act as if advocates such as Mr. Fox or Cindy Sheehan (the anti-war activist whose son died in Iraq) should be off-limits to criticism, Mr. Quinn said, while it is supposedly insensitive for right-wingers to voice their opinions.
"There's a certain dishonesty about this ad that the left thinks they can get away with, because this guy's the victim of a rotten disease," said Mr. Quinn, whose late mother had Parkinson's.
"When talking about politics, you're talking about laws and everybody has to live under them. ... When you step into the political arena, you have to face the consequences."
One of Mr. Fox's ads backs a Democratic Senate candidate in Missouri who supports a constitutional amendment that adds further protections for stem cell research in the state. A celebrity rebuttal ad was completed Tuesday, in time for broadcasts during St. Louis Cardinals World Series games, urging voters to reject the amendment, which opponents say could lead to human cloning.
It includes pleas from Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner, Cardinals pitcher Jeff Suppan and actors Patricia Heaton and Jim Caviezel. Mr. Caviezel, who portrayed Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ," starts the ad by speaking Aramaic.
In a classic of the talk-radio genre he largely created, Mr. Limbaugh has also criticized the media reaction to his comments on Mr. Fox -- in stories just like this one -- while continuing to talk about the ads for three days.
As "The Note," the ABC News political column, pointed out yesterday, all the talk about Mr. Limbaugh is a "three-fer" of good news for Republicans less than two weeks before the midterm elections: it pulls attention away from Iraq, brands Democrats as shrill liberals and stirs suspicions about the media.
WPTT-AM talk-show host Lynn Cullen had an anti-stem cell research caller waiting on hold to begin her 9 a.m. show yesterday. She had planned to talk about Republican attack ads, but instead spent three hours talking about Mr. Limbaugh and stem cells, with battle lines drawn along intractable religious lines.
"It was a distraction. I wasn't doing the issues I wanted to hit -- I was doing that old abortion argument with people, where you don't change anybody's mind," she said.
Officials from the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Parkinson Foundation welcomed the newfound attention to the disease, saying it could help fund-raising efforts for research and education and raise awareness of Parkinson's symptoms.
"Michael has put a face on Parkinson's across the country and internationally. He is a well-respected figure in the Parkinson community because of the work he's done and what he's experiencing," said Kevin Brown, executive director of the Parkinson Chapter of Greater Pittsburgh.
Mr. Fox's appearance in the ads "seems very real to us," Mr. Brown added, and typical of someone undergoing treatment for the disease, which attacks the central nervous system.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Oct. 27, 2006) This story as originally published Oct. 26, 2006 about Rush Limbaugh misspelled the name of KDKA-AM host John McIntire.
First Published October 26, 2006 12:00 am