MANY AMERICANS disdain Rush Limbaugh; some of them are high-placed and influential. The author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot'' is now a US senator from Minnesota. The incumbent president of the United States publicly picked a fight with the broadcaster less than a week after being inaugurated. "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh,'' Barack Obama admonished attendees at a White House summit in January 2009.
But tens of millions of fans do listen to Limbaugh — fans whose years of loyalty have made him the most important talk-show host in America. Those fans deserved better than Limbaugh's disgraceful performance last week, when for three days running he insulted liberal activist Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who testified in support of the Obamacare contraception mandate.
That mandate is part of a preposterous public policy, and Fluke's testimony — with its wacky claims about throngs of Georgetown women "struggling'' to pay for birth control — offered ample scope for ridicule and rebuttal. What Limbaugh resorted to instead was crude ad hominems. He didn't just call Fluke a "slut'' and "a prostitute.'' He also labeled her "round-heeled,'' an "immoral, baseless'' woman, someone "having so much sex it's amazing she can still walk.'' He demanded that she post "the videos of all this sex . . . online so we can see what we are getting for our money.''
As if this misogynistic dredge through the gutter wasn't reprehensible enough, Limbaugh compounded his offense with an apology that rang false. In a 12-sentence statement posted on his website Saturday, Limbaugh praised himself as a hardworking master of the absurd who never intended to launch "a personal attack on Ms. Fluke.'' Most of his statement was devoted to rehashing his contraception argument. Not until the last sentence did he "sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke'' — and even then, it was only "the insulting word choice'' he was sorry for.
On Monday, with seven sponsors having pulled their advertising from his program, Limbaugh tried again. "The apology was heartfelt,'' he claimed. "The apology was sincere.'' He didn't believe that Fluke was "either of those two words,'' and he regretted having "acted too much like the leftists who despise me. . . . I descended to their level when I used those two words. . . . That was my error.'' He insisted again that his apology "was for simply using inappropriate words.'' And he complained of a double standard — that there is "never an apology'' from the "leftists that call me and other conservatives the most rude and explicit names.''
It won't do, Rush.
I'm no Limbaugh-hater. Far from it. I'm a conservative who shares most of El Rushbo's political views and appreciates his sense of humor. I have defended him when he's been the target of scurrilous attacks from the left. And I fully agree — and have written — about the double standard on liberal hate speech.
This is different. Limbaugh's verbal assault on Fluke was no off-the-cuff blooper. It was boorish and deliberate. And the way to apologize is not by harping on left-wing misogyny. It's by apologizing — full stop.
Limbaugh, and the rest of us, could take a lesson from the liberal radio host Ed Schultz, who in the heat of an on-air moment referred to Laura Ingraham as a "right-wing slut'' last May. Just one day later, Schultz apologized.
"On my radio show yesterday, I used vile and inappropriate language when talking about talk show host Laura Ingraham,'' he began. "I am deeply sorry, and I apologize. It was wrong, uncalled for, and I recognize the severity of what I said.'' He didn't restate the argument he had been making. On the contrary, he said, "it doesn't matter what the circumstances were. It doesn't matter that it was on radio and I was ad-libbing. . . . . What matters is, what I said was terribly vile.''
Schultz's words that day were ashamed, humble, and seemingly heartfelt — nothing like Limbaugh's grudging words of regret.
On the left they're gleefully milking this incident for all it's worth, eager to take down the man National Review once dubbed "the leader of the opposition.'' I would hate to see Limbaugh, who has often been falsely smeared, give his enemies a victory they don't deserve. But this time he is guilty as charged. His lapse in judgment and taste was egregious. And his sullen "apology'' is only making things worse.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.