The first apology by Rush Limbaugh, posted on his website over the weekend, sounded forced, qualified, almost defensive. The second, broadcast live on his Monday show, sounded sincere and heartfelt.
Rush Limbaugh did something not usually associated with either himself or bombastic talk radio. He apologized for calling a woman a "slut" and a "prostitute."
The woman, 30-year-old Sandra Fluke, a law student at Georgetown University, wants the Catholic school to pay for contraceptives in its insurance policy because, she says, she and her friends cannot afford the cost otherwise. Apparently Fluke is not aware that contraceptive pills, according to John McCormack of The Weekly Standard, "can be purchased for as low as $9 per month at a pharmacy near Georgetown's campus." Or that some places dispense them for free, along with condoms.
Back to the Limbaugh apology. I have known Rush for some years (he wrote a forward to one of my books) and I think I can tell when he is sincere. A lot of what he does is theatrics designed to rev up his audience with red meat and to dramatize a point. It isn't that he is insincere about his positions; rather, it is because the media environment, in which we are all forced to live, requires some to be louder and more emphatic than others to attract attention and ratings.
Limbaugh opened his Monday show sounding contrite: "I acted too much like the leftists who despise me. I descended to their level using names and exaggerations to describe Sandra Fluke. It's what we have come to know and expect from them, but it's way beneath me. And it's way beneath you. It was wrong and that's why I've apologized, 'cause I succumbed. ... Don't be mad at them or mad at her. Everybody here was being true to their nature except me. I'm the one who had the failing on this, and for that I genuinely apologized for using those words to describe Ms. Fluke."
That sounds sincere to me and should end the controversy, but it probably won't. Limbaugh's political enemies have never demonstrated anything approaching contrition when it comes to their desire to destroy him. They have succeeded in getting several sponsors to drop ads from his show and calls for a boycott of his show continue. Limbaugh's detractors have the example of Glenn Beck, late of Fox News Channel, as inspiration. That network dropped Beck in part because, though his ratings were high, few sponsors wanted to be associated with his controversial remarks.
Limbaugh's apology shifts the burden to his critics, including Ms. Fluke. If they keep attacking Limbaugh, they risk damaging their own character for refusing to forgive. In fact, Ms. Fluke went on ABC's "The View" Monday morning to say that Limbaugh's apology changed nothing.
As noted in many other places, there is often a double standard when it comes to speech. Horrible things have been said about conservatives and especially conservative women, but have a conservative said anything close to those things about a liberal woman and you have the Sandra Fluke controversy. Rush is right, though. Such things ought to be beneath conservatives.
That civil discourse may be on life support is not news to anyone paying attention to political rhetoric. Part of this has to do with fundraising, which mostly relies on negatives, not positives, because as a fundraiser once told me, you can't raise money on a positive. Part of it is also ratings. In an uncertain world, people like to tune into programs — liberal and conservative — that reinforce views they already hold.
Limbaugh might resist this next suggestion, but I speak from experience, having had to apologize for a recent misstatement of my own. Limbaugh should invite Sandra Fluke to lunch and get to know her as a person, not a label. At the very least, he would send an important message that civility and strong political speech do not have to be contradictory.
Who knows, he might even persuade her to become a conservative. From his perspective, and mine, that would be a win-win for everybody, except liberals.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist and author.