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New – and Old – Lows

When Limbaugh Wore a Fedora

Rush Limbaugh apologized over the weekend for a choice of words that he admitted “was not the best,” a reference to his radio show delivered “slut” and “prostitute” characterization of a  Georgetown University law student.

Conservative commentator David Frum summed up El Rushbo’s latest tirade when he wrote, “Limbaugh’s verbal abuse of Sandra Fluke set a new kind of low. I can’t recall anything as brutal, ugly and deliberate ever being said by such a prominent person and so emphatically repeated. This was not a case of a bad “word choice.” It was a brutally sexualized accusation, against a specific person, prolonged over three days.”

“Brutal, ugly and deliberate” for sure, unprecedented not so much.

Mostly forgotten now, and that may be the ultimate justice, is the man who was Rush before Rush. Limbaugh with a fedora – Walter Winchell. From the 1930’s to the 1950’s, Winchell commanded a national radio audience vastly larger than Limbaugh’s, plus he held forth in a daily newspaper column where he savaged his enemies, coddled his friends and was with great regularity brutal, ugly and deliberate.

Neal Gabler wrote the definite biography of Winchell and when you read his often searing descriptions it’s easy to substitute the name Winchell with the name Limbaugh. The two “entertainers” were cut from the same cloth and their style – a half century apart – is strikingly similar.

“Over the years,” Gabler wrote in his 1994 book, “Walter Winchell would lose his reputation as a populist who had once heralded an emerging new social order, lose his reputation as a charming gadfly. He would be remembered instead, to the extent that anyone remembered him at all, as a vitriolic, self-absorbed megalomaniac an image indelibly fixed by Burt Lancaster’s performance as gossipmonger J.J. Hunsecker in the 1956 film Sweet Smell of Success, which everyone assumed had been inspired by Winchell’s life.”

By the early 50’s Winchell’s bright light had flamed out. He became an apologist for Joe McCarthy and, as Limbaugh will become soon enough, he was only important because he had once been important. The meanness, the ego, the brutal, ugly, deliberate excess brought him down. The great wit Dorothy Parker quipped, “Poor Walter. He’s afraid he’ll wake up one day and discover he’s not Walter Winchell.”

Winchell died in 1972. His daughter was the only person at his funeral. As one observer wrote at his death, “In the annals of addiction nobody ever turned more people on than Walter Winchell.”

Poor Rush. One day, when the excess finally really drives away the advertisers and the Republican politicians who so carefully calibrate their responses to his outrages cease to do so, he’ll go the way of the Winchell. Another name, as Neal Gabler put it, “on the ash heap of celebrity.”

Leave it to Ron Paul, the one Republican in the presidential field who has nothing to fear from Limbaugh, to put the latest brutality in perspective.”I don’t think he’s very apologetic,” Paul said on Face the Nation Sunday. “It’s in his best interest, that’s why he did it.”

There will come a day when it’s no longer in any one’s interest to put up with the guy.


Another War

PhotoThe No Debate No Fly Zone

The truly amazing thing about the “no fly zone” policy adopted over the last few days by the United States and the United Nations is not that it will be imposed on Gaddafi’s Libya, but rather that it was done with virtually no domestic debate, no Congressional action and little effort to bring the American public along.

I know it has become a political non-issue, a quaint detail of American history, but Article 1, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution says: “Congress shall have the power…to declare war…”

Make no mistake we are going to war with Libya. The American policeman is walking the Middle East beat, again.

Moreover we are headed into another open-ended, frightfully expensive engagement with scarcely any attempt to define the short, let alone long-term objectives. Set aside for the moment the legitimate debate over whether the “no fly zone” strategy actually works. Might it be appropriate for the president and the Congress to define, in a good deal more detail, just what we hope to accomplish by engaging in a shooting war in Libya.

American anti-terrorism experts are already warning that Gaddafi is entirely capable of retaliating with some non-conventional response – read terror attack – while we spend an estimated $100 to $300 million a week to try and use air power to enforce order on the ground in Libya. It’s estimated that the initial attack on Libya’s command and control capabilities could cost a billion dollars.

Meanwhile, the Congress is virtually paralyzed in a budget debate that may well shut down the federal government in three weeks. We’ll spend millions to enforce a UN resolution on Libya with no debate, while the Congress runs the government by continuing resolution and bogs down in a completely partisan argument over funding laughably small budget lines for National Public Radio and the National Weather Service.

While the Obama Administration can claim an international consensus to use force against Gaddafi’s military, only one guess is required in the game who will pay most of the cost. The world’s greatest deliberative body – the U.S. Senate, where foreign policy used to be a regular concern – can find plenty of time for posturing over who is responsible for the budget deadlock, but couldn’t find even 15 minutes to debate whether the country ought to send more brave, young Americans into another desert war.

We can all lament the disaster of the Libyan nut job waging war on his own people, but since we’ve equipped Arab air forces from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Jordan, why not let the vaunted Arab League deal with one of their own? Have we no leverage over the King of Jordan or the princes of Arabia? The most sensible voice in the administration, soon to be gone Defense Secretary Robert Gates, may have made his concerns about the “no fly” strategy know too early, while the rest of the administration struggled to figure out a response.

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” Gates said earlier in March, “a no fly zone begins with an attack on Libya.” He called it a “big operation in a big country” and warned of the unknown unintended consequences of yet more American military engagement in a Middle Eastern country.

We are left to hope that in a week or two no American carrier pilot is sitting in Gaddafi’s custody after being shot down attempting to enforce a no fly zone with no defined objective, no end date and no obvious concern about the human and financial cost…to the United States.

The United States time and again undertakes military action with the expectation that it will be short, painless and sanitary and that the outcome will be entirely to our liking. Funny thing: our wars never seems to work out the way we envision them.