03.09.12

Why Rush Limbaugh’s Apology for Sandra Fluke ‘Slut’ Remarks Bombed

Commentators often talk their way out of trouble these days. But Limbaugh couldn’t convince the media he was sincerely sorry for calling Sandra Fluke a ‘slut.’ Howard Kurtz explains why not.

It is a well-worn American ritual: public figure utters something offensive, apologizes for poor judgment, seeks forgiveness, resumes fabulous career.

But Rush Limbaugh bungled that delicate moment, for reasons that shed light on his unique status as a professional polarizer, the hostility of the media establishment, and the shrewdness of his Democratic opponents.

Don Imus, for one, revived his radio career after calling a women’s basketball team a bunch of hos (he met with the players and vowed to change his ways). CNN’s Roland Martin got off with a suspension after tweeting antigay jokes (he met with a gay-rights organization). MSNBC’s Ed Schultz also rebounded from suspension for using the very same S word that Limbaugh did (he deeply apologized to his target, radio host Laura Ingraham).

But while Rush dutifully recited the words, there was no music. He never called Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown Law student he had assailed as a “slut” and “prostitute” over her advocacy of contraceptive coverage. He kept slamming her for three days before issuing his statement of regret—which came as advertisers were starting to bail on his radio program, giving the exercise an air of damage control. He flunked the contrition test, retracting only his word choice and larding the statement with attacks on the left.

Limbaugh became a radio powerhouse, and a leader of the Republican Party, through withering attacks that rile up his base. When the House Democratic leader was pushing through President Obama’s health-care-reform legislation, he called her “mullah Nancy bin Pelosi” and no different than those who “convince all these people to put bombs on their kids.” But Pelosi has her own platform and can fight back. This time Limbaugh picked on a soft-spoken young woman no one had ever heard of and mockingly challenged Fluke to post a sex video online. He looked like a bully.

The apology failed for another reason: the mainstream media, much mocked by Limbaugh, has it in for him. There was no uproar in the press when Bill Maher, now a million-dollar donor to Obama’s super PAC, called Sarah Palin the C word as well as a “dumb twat.” Ed Schultz’s slut attack was a relative blip. Limbaugh, who is carried on more than 600 stations, has a far bigger megaphone, but he’s cut no slack by the left-leaning media. Slutgate was carried on MSNBC every 10 minutes or so (and largely downplayed at Fox News).

The apology failed for another reason: the mainstream media, much mocked by Limbaugh, has it in for him.

The Democrats, for their part, were more than happy to stoke the flames, not just to burn Rush but to buttress the charge by party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz that the GOP is conducting a “war on women.” President Obama upped the ante by phoning Fluke and assailing Limbaugh’s comments at a news conference, saying he wouldn’t want his daughters, Sasha and Malia, to be called terrible names for speaking out. Obama strategist David Axelrod called Mitt Romney “cowardly” for refusing to criticize Limbaugh beyond saying that he wouldn’t have used such language himself. And frustrated Republicans admitted that every day spent talking about Limbaugh, sluts, women, and contraception was a lost opportunity for driving a positive message.

Rush soon moved out of apology mode in any event, casting himself as a victim of media mendacity. News reports that he has lost 28 advertisers (the figures have varied) are wrong, he insisted, because those are not national advertisers but companies buying time on local stations.

“The whole effort is to dispirit you,” he said Wednesday. “It’s to make you think the left is being successful in its campaign when it isn’t. In fact, the left is so fed up, they can’t see straight. They thought they had me. They thought I would be off the air by now. They can’t understand why I still am on the air. There is also another rumor going around that I am going to be suspended for a week. It is utter BS. I would have to suspend myself!”

He thus completed the pivot from apology to aggressiveness.

The Limbaugh flap prompted a belated apology from Current TV host Keith Olbermann, who has used ugly language against conservative commentators Michelle Malkin and S.E. Cupp. He insisted that he was not in the same category as Rush and that his words were in no way anti-woman: “I said Ms. Malkin was animated by ‘mindless, morally bankrupt, knee-jerk, fascistic hatred, without which Michelle Malkin would just be a big, mashed-up bag of meat with lipstick on it.’ That doesn’t imply violence against women. It implies, rather clearly, that there’s no human being inside Michelle Malkin anymore, just meat.”

Still, Olbermann said he is suspending his “Worst Person in the World” segment: “So in neither case were my remarks misogynistic, nor were they things I did not say or could not have said about men. Nevertheless, they have apparently distressed Ms. Cupp and Ms. Malkin, and I apologize to both of them.”

As the Rush story has intensified, some Republicans are trying to seize the offensive. Sarah Palin used Twitter to go after Maher, saying Obama should demand that the comedian return a million-dollar donation. “Why doesn’t his super PAC return the $1 million that he got from a rabid misogynist?” Palin asked.

This is what’s known in politics as changing the subject. And technically, the president has no control over what the supposedly independent PAC does. But Palin has a point. While Maher, who will soon headline a fundraiser for Alabama Democrats, aimed his rhetoric at a former vice-presidential nominee, the language was even cruder than that employed by Limbaugh.

Which makes it fascinating that Maher, who lost his ABC show Politically Incorrect after a furor over his remarks about the Sept. 11 hijackers, isn’t joining the anti-Rush stampede. In fact, he tweeted, “Hate to defend #RushLimbaugh but he apologized, liberals looking bad not accepting. Also hate intimidation by sponsor pullout.”

I guess those who make their living with incendiary language tend to stick together.