After everything I did to boost Rush Limbaugh’s career, I cringe at the shellacking he’s taking these days. To explain:

One fine morning in June 1994, when I was working as a talk show host, President Bill Clinton was headed to St. Louis to headline a fundraiser for Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who then was the U.S. House majority leader.

Gephardt’s office arranged for the president to call me from Air Force One for an on-air interview. After the usual pleasantries, I asked, “Do you get the sense that the American people are becoming more cynical, becoming less tolerant?”

“Absolutely,” the president said, adding, “much of talk radio is just a constant, unremitting drumbeat of negativism and cynicism,” and complaining, “After I get off the radio today with you, Rush Limbaugh will have three hours to say whatever he wants. And I won’t have any opportunity to respond. And there’s no truth detector.”

We’d barely hung up the phone before the boss rushed into Studio B and pulled the air tape from the reel-to-reel recorder. He hurried down the hall and uploaded the audio to Limbaugh’s New York studio. Limbaugh had a field day with it: The president of the United States had complained about his influence! He declared himself to be “the truth detector.” It was brilliant. He dined off our interview for weeks.

Now, 15 years later, the tables have turned. Another Democrat is in the White House, and it is Limbaugh who has said something profoundly stupid – “I hope he fails” – that the other side is using against him.

He first made the comment Jan. 16 and has been amplifying it since. In what he puckishly called his “first nationally televised address to the nation,” Limbaugh said, “President Obama, your agenda is not new, it’s not change and it’s not hope. Spending a nation into generational debt is not an act of compassion.

“We’re in the process of winning the war. The last thing they wanted was to win. They hoped George Bush failed. So where is it? What is so strange about being honest and saying, I want Barack Obama to fail if his mission is to restructure and reform this country so that capitalism and individual liberty are not its foundation? Why would I want that to succeed?”

This is classic Limbaugh: Create a straw man by distorting the argument and then rail against it. His enormous talent as a broadcaster, and the built-in advantage of a day-time talk show audience that skews old, male and conservative, earns him $50 million a year. That makes him, to use his term, one of the “achievers” whose hard work makes this country great.

This bold defense of privilege delights his fans and the Obama administration, which is working night and day to portray Limbaugh as the head of the Republican Party. It frightens mainstream Republicans, who knows that Democrats are happy to cede the right to Limbaugh as long as it can have the left and the middle.

But when Michael Steele, the new Republican national chairman, downplayed Limbaugh’s status by calling him an “entertainer,” he was forced to back down. Rush himself declares that he’s not a Republican, but he is the third rail of Republican politics: Touch him and you die.

Boy, it’s tough to know who to root for. Limbaugh is the prototype of all the preening, self-important media blowhards of the right and the left, too – the Dobbses, the Olbermanns, the Hannitys – who bastardize the news business and coarsen public discourse.

So Rush was reaping what he sowed when lefty blogger Tom Watson said of Limbaugh’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference that he looked “for all the world like the seating floor manager on the late afternoon shift at Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club in an unbuttoned shiny black shirt and undersized sport coat.”

Even Republicans are going Rush on Rush: “With his private plane and his cigars, his history of drug dependency and his personal bulk, not to mention his tangled marital history,” writes former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, “Rush is a walking stereotype of self-indulgence – exactly the image that Barack Obama most wants to affix to our philosophy and our party.”

This is sad. Sure, Limbaugh changed the rules, but this is business, not personal. Sure, he used to make fun of Chelsea Clinton’s looks, and she was a teenager at the time. Sure his ego is huge and his skin is thin, but this ought to be about ideas, not personalities.

The Obama people are smart. The more Rush Limbaugh becomes the avatar for the Republican Party, the happier the Democrats are. That leaves Rush with a problem:

What happens if President Obama offers him the Medal of Freedom?

Kevin Horrigan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. E-mail: [email protected]

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