RECOVERY/Larry Kearney

Responsibility Requires Memory

Rush Limbaugh -- hypocritical, dishonest, and always willing to crucify the helpless for money.

I noticed him most powerfully when he held up a picture of 13-year-old Chelsea Clinton on national television and said there was a dog as well as a cat in the White House.

My view of the country shifted then, painfully, with the recognition that it was now possible to do such a thing -- be brutal and stupid and evil (willing to harm children for money), and still get laughs, and still have supporters.

I detest everything Rush Limbaugh stands for, and I revel in the notion that Chelsea Clinton is now the kind of radiant, elegant woman that the cheesy Limbaugh couldn't approach in his dreams.

But ... but ... we've discovered that Rush is an addict ("I take responsibility," he says -- for what? His maid blew the whistle on him -- what the hell else could he do?), and there's a part of me, the most important part, that unwillingly, shudderingly, has to recognize the mass of his pain and the undoubted misery of the life that formed it.

I know plenty of people in physical pain. I know some who've gotten strung-out on pain pills. Dave, a dear friend, drove to the Golden Gate and jumped.

So I have to respond to Limbaugh's misery. I have no choice. A man who has come to a place where he lies and wounds for money has the long-term agony of the child who hurt a lot and couldn't understand and so had to make himself up out of nothing but fear and rage and armor.

The rage it takes to be a man like Limbaugh eats at the soul, and since the soul can't be diminished, it's an eternal, hideous chewing. "Kill the pain at all costs," is the message. It has nothing to do with physical pain. All you have to know about Limbaugh is that he was out in the bright afternoon buying shoeboxes full of pills -- a vicious man stripped of everything but physical need, blinking in the light and tucking a box under his arm -- then sitting at his microphone again, savaging the weak and reveling in the helplessness of the poor who have to get their drugs cheap and worry about jail.

But Rush takes responsibility. That's a big thing nowadays. You say, "I take responsibility," and then someone slips you a Get Out of Jail Free card. Unless of course you're poor or black or anonymous.

What does he take responsibility for? For cheapening the public soul? For degrading human discourse? For lying about things that are critical to our survival? For being willing to increase human misery for money?

Sadly for Rush, these are precisely the things that he's going to have to take responsibility for if he wants to get straight. He can fake it, of course -- thousand-dollar-a-day treatment facilities have a certain vested interest in letting you fake it.

The program I worked in was largely for the indigent. There wasn't anyone there who had time to lie. The ones who thought they did went out to die, frequently enough. The ones who stayed came to understand that there is no solid perch from which to be lofty, and that the measure of a man is not how much he has but how much he gives away, knowing he has nothing at all, really.

God appeared there in the sudden grace of the lifelong graceless, and the occasional sense of humanity as one experience -- a way of being in which pain is pain is pain, much the same through classes and races and personalities and souls. The ones who made it left understanding what "The Buddha says you think you have time," means.

It's too bad Rush went first-class. He didn't start first-class and now that he's got to where he thinks it is, it's hard for him to give it up, even if anyone in The Solid Gold Chapel of Self-Satisfied Recovery has had the nerve to tell him.

So he came out again the same guy. I wish he'd done better. I wish him bluebirds in the spring and all the tender mercies of his sub-class. Mostly, as an addict, I wish him a measure of peace. And inside that a measure of silence. The silence is for the rest of us.

I hope that eventually he gives up and becomes a decent man for whom I don't feel contempt. Contempt is a difficult thing to carry around, anyway -- it's heavy, and it leaks and stains. I wish him all the memory in the world, and a quiet place to hide, and the dignity that comes with looking at one's life honestly.

I remember Marlon Brando telling Slim Pickens about dignity in a movie called One-Eyed Jacks.

He says, as I remember it, "Get on up, you big tub a guts."

Larry Kearney is a writer in Larkspur, Calif., whose works of non-fiction include Whiskey's Children [Kensington], a prose narrative of an alcoholic life, and its sequel, A Bar on Every Corner [Hazelden], which won the Independent Publisher's Award for best memoir of 2002. Email This is the fourth in a series.

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