I am spending the "holidays" (as one is almost legally obliged to call Christmas and New Year here these days) by the beach in Florida, where the local talk is all about Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh, 52, lives near my Floridian neck of the woods, in a $24m mansion in Palm Beach, and has made stupendous amounts of money as a talk show host - a far-right-wing one, as nearly all the successful ones are. They are to be found on a medium waveband that was not long ago moribund but in the 1990s came alive with far-right talk (Colonel Oliver North has his own show) or exhortations about God. Limbaugh has led the charge with a show, syndicated across the US, that nets more than 20 million listeners daily.
What makes Limbaugh stand out as a talk show host, though, is that he not only has an acute political ear but is also very funny. He had a field day with the Clinton impeachment proceedings and there was a resulting spread of "Rush Rooms" across the country, where people would gather to have lunch while listening and laughing to Limbaugh's daily harangues against anybody he deemed "liberal". Now he lambastes "liberals" every weekday from the comfort of his studio-by-the-sea.
But like many who get their kicks having fun at the expense of others, Limbaugh was struggling with his own secret demons. He claimed for some years that his hearing was going - a catastrophic loss for a broadcaster - but, later, that it had been healed by a cochlear implant. Latterly, he has said that he suffers from an agonising back condition, one so severe that doctors at first believed it was cancer. Which is where one Wilma Cline, Limbaugh's former housekeeper, comes in. She sold a story to the National Enquirer claiming that Limbaugh was addicted to narcotic painkillers and sedatives and that she had supplied Limbaugh with 4,350 pills over one six-week period. An e-mail from Limbaugh that she had kept thoroughly implicated him.
Thus Limbaugh comes to be accused of a peculiarly American crime: doctor-shopping. In Britain, GPs are supposed to supervise the monitoring of a patient's treatment, but there are no such safeguards here; you can go to any doctor, who is probably not interested in the treatments other doctors have prescribed. Limbaugh is alleged to have gone to four doctors in the Palm Beach area and, besides the ones he obtained from his housekeeper, was prescribed 2,130 pain and anti-anxiety pills over a five-month period, including the fashionable OxyContin. Doctor-shopping may seem to be a perfect right, but not for the purposes that Limbaugh is alleged to have done it: it is a criminal offence carrying a possible five-year prison sentence.
Days after the National Enquirer story, Limbaugh announced that he was a drug addict and said he was going in for a 30-day detox treatment. Five weeks later, he returned triumphantly to the studio with just a touch of humility ("I was a drug addict. I still am. From 1996, '95, whatever, to just five weeks ago" - spot the contradiction): he announced he had changed as a person but that the show would go on. Prosecutors, meanwhile, sought his medical records, a move that is being opposed by Roy Black, Limbaugh's celebrity lawyer.
Between them, Limbaugh and Black have managed to winkle out an obscure person in the state attorney's office who is an active Democrat, giving Limbaugh a typical cue as of old. "The Democrats in this country still cannot defeat me in the arena of political ideas, and so now they are trying to do so in the court of public opinion and the legal system. I guess it's payback time," he roared on his show (Limbaugh always "roars"). Judge Jeffrey Winikoff ordered that all medical records be made available to the prosecution but not to the public, but on Christmas Eve recanted and said they would be under seal for 15 days. Black, however, says this ruling came too late and that spicy details have already been leaked by prosecutors.
I wrote not long ago that America can be a cruel country, and I believe Limbaugh's treatment illustrates this. He has come in for relentless snide jokes in the media and has become a figure of idle fun. They say people laughed at Oscar Wilde as he stood in prison uniform waiting for a train at Reading station, but Britain has come on a bit from those days. Not here, though. It is clear that Limbaugh is a sick man who merits only sympathy over his addiction, but in America he has become a target of derision because of his terrible addiction and the millions that financed it. He is unlikely to receive that five-year sentence, but the judge may yet decide to seek to make an example of him. We will see what Florida justice delivers later in 2004.