WASHINGTON -- Put aside for a moment the politics of birth control and your personal beliefs, religious or otherwise, about whether contraception has a place in the national health care debate, whether those who don't condone the practice should have to provide support for it anyway.
Lay all that aside, if possible. What is left in the ravings of Rush Limbaugh is a much deeper and darker element that is frighteningly out of tune with decency. It is a meanness and hatefulness that transcends honest commentary and can't be explained away or excused as just the shtick of a veteran mouthpiece of political discourse.
Limbaugh has apologized for the incredibly tasteless, intemperate and rude on-air remarks he made about a Georgetown University law student who had the temerity to stand up publicly for what she believed. Sorry. It is far too late for that. Limbaugh labeled her as a "slut," "prostitute" and a sex addict (who wants the government to pay for her promiscuousness) in commentary over several days, belying any contention that it was a spontaneous outburst.
This probably was the most slanderous performance I've witnessed in my 55 years in journalism, and it came over airwaves that are not private, if that matters, but are public and from which Limbaugh, an undereducated bully with a one-time drug problem, has amassed a fortune and a huge following by degrading those who disagree with him. At the beginning of this latest diatribe, he relied on one of his patented phrases, "Feminazi," thereby libeling tens of millions of American women by comparing them to the most villainous political party in modern history.
A wise editor once warned me that stirring in excrement frequently resulted in getting some of it on oneself. With that in mind, it would be prudent to withhold further comment on a personal level. In this case, though, I will chance it. To parrot attorney Joseph Welch in the long-ago Army-McCarthy hearings, "Have you no shame, Mr. Limbaugh?" That seems an appropriate question to someone who suggested, as Limbaugh did, that the object of his wrath, Sandra Fluke, should video her sexual activities and put them on the Internet so that he and other taxpayers could get their money's worth for financially supporting her contraception.
All of this leaves us dismayed at the depth of intolerance and nastiness that pervades our national colloquy. The tenor of today's debate has coarsened.
Another example: A disgruntled citizen posts a sign in the Washington subway telling the president of the United States to "go to hell." Never mind that the sign defaces public property and subjects hundreds of thousands of passengers to disrespect for the office, let alone the man who sits in it. What a role model that is for students who throng here annually for spring break to view firsthand the workings of their government.
In the old days of broadcasting, the utter disregard for social propriety displayed by Limbaugh and others would never have been tolerated. Should it be now? Should the sponsors who have made this creature wealthy beyond belief continue to feed his irresponsibility, as the industries and noble families of Germany once did Adolf Hitler? Some have decided not to, most likely prompting his "apology" to a young lady whose crime was to address a panel of Democratic congressmen in support of a provision in the healthcare bill.
Before those supporting Limbaugh's attack can accuse me of support for what Republicans call Obamacare, it's important to note that I have been highly critical of the initiative from the beginning, expressing my view that it was far too broad, expensive, disruptive and the cause of a presidential lack of focus on more important problems.
Two should occur now, in addition to a review by sponsors: Republicans should disassociate themselves from Limbaugh, a figure closely aligned with them in public perception. (My late father and his Republican friends are somewhere whirling in anger and dismay.) And the Federal Communications Commission should take a close look at this commentator's slanderous and contemptuous remarks as a violation of First Amendment privileges.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.