Rush Limbaugh has always had far more followers than friends. Bombastic and clowning on air, shy and bumptious off it, Limbaugh could count on 20 million "Dittoheads" and talk-radio fans to tune in five days a week. But it's hard to find many people who really know him. He was a lonely object of mass adulation, socially ill at ease, at least occasionally depressed and, for the past several years, living in a private hell of pain and compulsion.
In the end, he was betrayed by his own housekeeper. Law-enforcement sources tell NEWSWEEK that Limbaugh's exposure as a pain-pill addict began when Wilma Cline, 42, who had worked at Limbaugh's $30 million Florida estate from 1997 to July 2001, showed up at the Palm Beach County state attorney's office late last year eager to sic the cops on her former boss. Her motive remained murky, but her story--how she had met Limbaugh in parking lots to exchange sandwich bags filled with "baby blues" (OxyContin pills) for a cigar box stuffed with cash--was luridly damning. Between July 2001 and June 2002, Cline delivered enough pills to Limbaugh "to kill an elephant," she told the National Enquirer, the supermarket tabloid that broke (and paid for) Cline's story.
She gave e-mails and ledgers to the cops showing that Limbaugh had purchased more than 30,000 hydrocodone, Lorcet and OxyContin pills, the Enquirer reported. Law-enforcement sources confirmed the basic facts of the Enquirer story to NEWSWEEK. Limbaugh protested that the stories contained "inaccuracies and distortions," but last Friday, his vast listening audience heard that resonant, righteous, morally certain voice admit that he had become an addict and was entering rehab.
Limbaugh clung to the ideology of self-reliance to the last. "I'm not going to portray myself as a victim," he said. Millions of pain sufferers who use powerful medications could sympathize. But the mockery was instantaneous. Liberal mouth Al Franken (author of "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot") hit the airwaves to relish Limbaugh's greatest hits of hypocrisy and his sneers at celebrity dopers like baseball player Darryl Strawberry and rocker Kurt Cobain, and virtually every newspaper dredged up this 1995 quote from Rush: "Too many whites are getting away with drug use. The answer is to... find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them, and send them up the river." The penalty for illegally buying large quantities of prescription painkillers in Florida can be five years in jail, and contrary to some published reports, prosecutors do go after users as well as pushers--especially if they want to make an example of a celebrity.
The fall of a moralist is always a great American spectacle. The Elmer Gantry story--the righteous preacher who turns out to be a letch and a boozer--has a special resonance in a nation that postures as morally superior but enjoys sin. Nothing entertains (or instructs in the essentials of human nature) like hypocrisy on a grand scale. When Bill Bennett, best-selling author of "The Book of Virtues," was outed as a compulsive gambler, and evangelist Jim Bakker was caught embezzling from his Praise the Lord empire, the lamentations of the true believers were drowned out by the snickers of the knowing.
But Limbaugh's story owes more to the "Wizard of Oz" than "The Scarlet Letter." The man behind the curtain is not the God of Family Values but a childless, twice-divorced, thrice-married schlub whose idea of a good time is to lie on his couch and watch football endlessly. When Rush Limbaugh declared to his radio audience that he was "your epitome of morality of virtue, a man you could totally trust with your wife, your daughter, and even your son in a Motel 6 overnight," he was acting. He "regards himself as an entertainer who is very pleased that people pay attention to his political views," says Wall Street editorial writer John Fund, who collaborated with Limbaugh on one of the radio host's books ("The Way Things Ought to Be").
Granted, Limbaugh's act has won over, or fooled, a lot of people. With his heartland pieties and scorn for "feminazis" and "commie-symps" like "West Wing" president Martin Sheen ("Martin Sheenski" to Limbaugh), he is the darling of Red State, Fly-Over America. Former president George H.W. Bush, always eager to cover his right flank, personally carried Limbaugh's bags into the White House when Limbaugh stayed in the Lincoln Bedroom in 1992. After the Republicans won control of the House in 1994 for only the second time in 50 years, lawmakers called to personally thank Limbaugh and made him an honorary member of Congress.
But Limbaugh rarely shows up in Washington and counts few political heavyweights as his friends. One exception is Bill Bennett, whose book, "The Moral Compass," Limbaugh touted on radio. Bennett knew nothing of Limbaugh's pill popping. "He's a very private man," Bennett told NEWSWEEK. "He takes problems into himself." Journalists who have spent time with Limbaugh have been struck by the contrast between Rush the Radio Know-It-All and the private, ill-at-ease Limbaugh. "It was almost as if every step away from the studio, he grew smaller and less confident, shrinking with each step into the real-life Rush Limbaugh," Randall Bloomquist, an editor at Radio & Records newspaper, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd spent a revealing dinner date with Limbaugh in 1993. "What I do in my off time has nothing to do with what I am," he told Dowd. "I don't go to movies. I've been to a couple of plays. I basically work. I don't watch television. I watch the news and the N.F.L.; that's it." Dowd recounted this mournful snippet of conversation:
" 'What's your idea of an ideal day?' 'I don't have an ideal day,' he replied, glumly. 'Well, what if a good friend came into town one Saturday, what would you do?' 'When I have someone coming into town for the weekend, I get stressed out on Tuesday thinking about it'." Limbaugh went on to say that he hates walking, hates window-shopping and likes New York mainly because you can order in.
Limbaugh's own mother remarked on his somewhat passive-aggressive reticence as a child. Little Rush was "very quiet," his mother, Millie, told the Southeast Missourian, a newspaper. At Halloween, "he really didn't care much for trick or treating. He would rather stay at home. I found he was upstairs and he'd have water balloons. Sometimes when the little children would leave, he would drop them down." Limbaugh's best friend in high school, Craig Valle, told Peter Boyer for a May 1992 Vanity Fair article, "You would find him in his dark bedroom playing with his tape recorder and radio."
A chubby kid who made the football team as a placekicker, Limbaugh regarded high school as "prison." Radio gave him an escape. He began as a DJ at 16, but was disappointed when he didn't win popularity. His parents were after him to become a lawyer, like his father, grandfather and various uncles and cousins, prosperous and respected men about town. "The Limbaughs in Cape Girardeau are royalty," says Jay B. Knudtson, the mayor of Limbaugh's hometown on the Mississippi River. In a December 1993 Playboy interview, Limbaugh spoke reverently of his grandfather, "a man who never cursed, never smoked, never drank, never lied, never cheated," and lived to be 104. His father was crankier; Rush learned to rant at the Eastern elite by watching his dad yell at Walter Cronkite on the evening news.
Limbaugh lasted only a year in college. He jokes that he flunked Public Speaking. Actually, he got a "D," his speaking teacher, Dr. Bill Stacy, told NEWSWEEK. Limbaugh's father maneuvered him into the communications class, hoping his son would like it enough to stay in college and eventually become a lawyer. Limbaugh was more interested in riffing off the top of his head. "You need to make an outline. You need some data to support your assertions," Stacy told young Limbaugh. "Frankly, he wouldn't do those things."
He was not much of a success as a disc jockey, either. Fired twice (and briefly on the dole, a detail Limbaugh overlooks when he rants against welfare), Limbaugh finally scored when he replaced Morton Downey Jr., an angry right-wing talk-radio host, on a Sacramento station. Limbaugh had a lighter, more satiric touch, though his gibes at the helpless could be a little crude. (He once suggested staging a "Homeless Olympics" with events like "the 10-meter shopping-cart relay, the Dumpster dig and the hop, skip and trip.")
He quickly became the patron saint of conservative talk radio and has stayed on top of the charts for more than a decade. (His most recent contract, signed in 2001 for eight years, was for $285 million.) But his personal life left something to be desired. Despite his fervent moralizing, he smoked a little pot and watched a little porn (as he has publicly admitted). His first two marriages failed. His second wife, Michelle, told Vanity Fair that Limbaugh's father never quite approved of his career path, and that Rush would be depressed and deflated every time he got off the phone with his dad. He struggled with his weight, which ballooned to as high as 320 pounds (he now weighs between 250 and 275 pounds).
His self-absorption made dating difficult. Two women who dated Limbaugh told conservative activist (and Limbaugh friend) Paul Weyrich that they couldn't seem to get his attention. "They both said, 'I'll never go on a date with him again'," Weyrich told NEWSWEEK. "They did not have a good time. He talked about himself and didn't seem interested in them at all."
In 1994, Limbaugh married his current spouse, Marta Fitzgerald, a former aerobics instructor who is nine years younger (they met through a computer bulletin-board service). Shortly after they were married, a $125-a-plate audience became uneasy when Limbaugh called his wife onstage and then seemed to forget that she was there. As he ranted at Democrats, she seemed to cower and edge toward the shadows. "Rush!" some yelled from a nearby table. "Your wife!" Startled, Limbaugh pulled her to his side and later apologized to her on the air (despite his on-air bombast, Limbaugh is known for his politeness, even gentleness at times).
None of Limbaugh's friends contacted by NEWSWEEK seemed to know he had a drug problem. "What's interesting," one of these friends told NEWSWEEK, "is that he apparently hid the pills from his wife." Limbaugh's dependence on painkillers began after an unsuccessful back surgery in the late '90s. In last week's radio confessional, he told his listeners that he had twice gone to a hospital to detox. "What did he tell his wife when he checked into the treatment center?--unless these were 24- to 48-hour clinics to clean out your system. There's an awful lot of mystery about it," said the friend.
Limbaugh may have dropped a hint a few months ago when he joked, in a seemingly offhand way on his radio show, that he had been "popping pills" for back pain. He drew a very sympathetic response two years ago when he announced that he had suddenly gone deaf--the result of some kind of autoimmune illness, he said at the time. Much of his hearing was restored by an electronic device implanted in his ear, although his partial deafness has added to his dislike of social gatherings, says a friend. Suspicion has now turned to his drug habit: repeated large doses of hydrocodone, a painkiller sold under the brand name Vicodin, can cause severe hearing impairment.
According to his ex-housekeeper Wilma Cline, Limbaugh was bullying her into providing ever-larger supplies of painkiller pills at the time. By Cline's account, he took as many as 30 OxyContin pills a day. It is not clear why Cline went to the authorities. She could still be prosecuted, despite a partial grant of immunity, say law-enforcement sources. The investigation has so far produced an arrest of a Palm Beach County couple accused of pushing hydrocodone and OxyContin. Limbaugh's lawyer, Roy Black, has been quietly talking to the prosecutors. (The timing of the story is also a source of intrigue. The National Enquirer was tipped off to Limbaugh's habit two years ago. It may or may not be a coincidence that the story appeared just five days after Limbaugh quit his sideline job as an ESPN football analyst in a storm of controversy; Limbaugh had suggested that the NFL had been pushing Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb because of his race, not his talent.)
Limbaugh may have to undergo the indignities of the legal system: arrest, a "perp walk," a criminal trial. But he faces a more immediate ordeal, trying to withdraw from addiction to powerful drugs. Limbaugh has given himself 30 days at a treatment center; medical experts say that truly freeing himself from addiction could take much longer.
Will the Dittoheads forgive him? Probably. Gary Bauer, president of the conservative organization American Values, drew a distinction between a crack addict and Limbaugh's brand of addiction. "From a moral standpoint, there's a difference between people who go out and seek a high and get addicted and the millions of Americans dealing with pain who inadvertently get addicted," Bauer told NEWSWEEK.
Limbaugh's best shot at keeping his vast audience is by being open about his problem. Glenn Beck, an up-and-coming conservative talk-radio host who is regarded as one of the heirs if Limbaugh falters, is himself a former drug addict and recovering alcoholic. "The hardest thing I had to do was stand up in front of a room of people and say, 'I'm an alcoholic,' and those were people who were sympathetic to what I was saying. He had to do it in front of 18 million... I can't imagine how hard it was to get on the air and say I have a problem." Limbaugh's long-running act as a paragon of virtue is over. Now the question is whether he can make a virtue out of honesty.