CNN Wolf Blitzer Sunday October 12, 2003

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." The conservative icon, Rush Limbaugh, by far the most popular and influential radio talk show host in the United States, stunned his listening audience on Friday, announcing he was checking himself into a medical facility to combat his addiction to painkillers. Joining us now for some reaction to Limbaugh's revelation are three of his fellow radio talk show hosts. In Philadelphia, CNN contributor and WPHT radio host, MICHAEL SMERCONISH. In Los Angeles, the veteran radio talk show host, Michael Jackson. And here in Washington, the radio host and syndicated columnist,

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS. Gentlemen, welcome to "LATE EDITION." The cover of Newsweek magazine, and I'll put it up on the screen shows this: "Rush's World of Pain." The subhead, "His path to pill addiction, hypocrisy and the media wars. The scourge of oxycontin." Let me begin with you,

MICHAEL SMERCONISH. This is a huge story. Why is it as big as it is?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, because there is a lot of hypocrisy, at least in the eyes of the media who are covering this story. He has always had a very moralistic tone to his program, and as a result, I think that his credibility has been permanently wounded. In the same way that I can't look at Bill Bennett the way that I used to look at him, talking about virtues, now knowing that he likes thousand-dollar pulls of the slot machine. You've got the same issue with Rush.

BLITZER: ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, the story was originally broken in the National Enquirer: "Rush Limbaugh Caught in Drug Ring, Cops' Probe Nails Him."

MICHAEL SMERCONISH says that there's an element of hypocrisy here. Is there?

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, of course. I mean, he's talked about Darryl Strawberry and others on his show. No one can deny that. But even if there was not an element of hypocrisy, Wolf, I mean, it is still a huge story. This has been going on for years. The man is addicted to drugs. Some would say that he is a junkie. The fact that he could cover this and involve other people in his behavior, we don't know, all the facts have not come out yet, the smart thing that he's doing right now is that he has not said anything. But it's amazing that he was able to do this. And now all of a sudden he's checked himself into drug rehab for 30 days, and we know that it's going to take much more than that, that he's been in denial. And for other people who've been in these conditions, I mean, he has such a mountain to climb. It's just shocking and devastating, regardless of whether he's a hypocrite or not.

BLITZER: Let me let Michael Jackson in Los Angeles weigh in as well. Michael, how big of a problem does Rush Limbaugh have right now?

MICHAEL JACKSON, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: He has a problem with drugs. He does not have a problem with his audience, the most ardent of his fans calling themselves ditto-heads. In fact, I think ditto-heads would apply to many of the conservative talk show hosts who try to emulate Rush, but they can't. He is the most significant and important radio talk show host ever. That means the past half-century. When I listen to him, which is seldom, I disagree with him. When he went on the air with his hearing problems, I was amazed at the man's stamina and fortitude. I am not bowled over by the way in which he's reacted to the revelations about of his drug problems. I've heard talk show hosts of conservative bent saying that the man was brave and honest. Oh, baloney. He was outed by the National Enquirer. That's why he was honest. There was no other path, no other course of action that he possibly could have taken. I don't think he will see a diminished audience at all. I know he cannot cure himself in 30 days, or be helped by experts. Twice before, at least, he was unable to. I hope he's giving authorities the information about the people with whom he dealt. I know how he relished jumping on Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. He's a little more humble when his own failings are shown.

BLITZER: Well, let me -- let's let our viewers listen to what precisely what Rush Limbaugh said at the end of his broadcast on Friday. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LIMBAUGH: Immediately following this broadcast, I will check myself into a treatment center for the next 30 days. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Now, shortly thereafter, I interviewed Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor, who had to say this in response to Rush Limbaugh's decision to check himself into a rehab center.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ALAN DERSHOWITZ, HARVARD LAW PROFESSOR: The checking in is a legal tactic. That's not something his doctor told him to do. That's something his lawyer told him to do. You always check yourself in when there is an investigation of that kind. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: MICHAEL SMERCONISH, among other things, you're a lawyer. Legally speaking, he's got some serious problems. Checking into a rehab center, is that part of the legal strategy?

SMERCONISH: No. I think that's a cheap shot by Alan Dershowitz. I mean, I don't think it will ever get to the point, Wolf, where they'll go after Rush for this type of a transaction. If you believe everything that has been printed in the National Enquirer, and I've read it, they never go after a person who is at the bottom end of that chain of custody of the drugs. They'll go after the people who are the suppliers, but it will -- and I also think there'll be a perception that Rush has suffered enough with the public outing. No prosecution of Rush Limbaugh, in my view.

BLITZER: Well, you know, in the Newsweek magazine, that cover story that I just read that's coming out today, Michael, they make the point that that's not true, that in Florida they very often do go after those buying the illegal prescription painkillers, especially if they are personalities, someone that they can make an example of to show the rest of the community how bad this is. Hold on, let


SMERCONISH: I don't buy it. I think that Roy Black is the best in the business. If I ever got myself into a jam, he'd probably be the first guy that I'd want to call as well. But you cannot convince me that it was a legal strategy for Rush to check in. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and accept the fact that he really wants to be treated.

BLITZER: All right, let's listen to another excerpt of what Rush Limbaugh told his listeners on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LIMBAUGH: I'm not making any excuses, and I don't intend to. You know, over the years, athletes, celebrities have emerged from these treatment centers. They've come out to great fanfare and praise for conquering great demons. They are said to be great role models and examples for others. They've gotten a lot of praise for doing this. I want you to know that I'm no role model. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, because when I listen to that comment from Rush Limbaugh, I was reminded of what he told me almost exactly three years ago, when I interviewed him on the eve of the presidential election. There were stories circulating that then-Governor George W. Bush had had a run-in, he had a traffic accident while he was drunk, supposedly, and at that time, listen to what Rush Limbaugh told me.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LIMBAUGH: I think the thing for the American people to focus on is the present and the future -- how he's dealing with it. With George W. Bush, if I may, there's no pattern of behavior here. This is a one-time thing. He faced the cameras, he didn't lie, he didn't make excuses, didn't try to make himself a victim, didn't blame it on anybody else. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Armstrong, how is he handling this right now, Rush Limbaugh, based on the advice he had for a lot of other people who had similar problems, their fall from glory, if you will? WILLIAMS: I think he's handling it in an exceptional way. The fact of the matter is, someone said here today that he was outed; he had no choice. I just think this guy has been in a lot of pain. He's suffered. I just think these drugs has really impacted his thinking. But the fact is, he has not lied. He has not made excuses. He's -- as he just said, "I'm no role model." He has flaws. He's dealing with it. And he says to his audience, "When I'm able to give you more information, I will." And he did just that. I think he's handling it, and I think he's a fine example.

BLITZER: Michael... WILLIAMS: His...

BLITZER: Michael Jackson, let me let you respond. But as you respond, I want to put up on the screen a quote, a widely publicized quote from 1995. Rush Limbaugh said this: "Too many whites are getting away with drug use. Too many whites are getting away with drug sales. The answer is to go out and find the ones who are getting away with it, convict them and send them up the river." A lot of people recalling that quote, referring to the problems -- potential legal problems -- Rush Limbaugh has right now.

JACKSON: I was watching Barbara Walters the other night with Courteney Cox and her husband, who talked about smoking heroin. If you're white and a celebrity, you go on television, mea culpa, and not only is all forgiven, you become almost a hero. This guy has a sickness. OxyContin, Lorcet -- they are terribly powerful drugs. He's got a problem. But he's the same guy, over and over again on -- over the years, has said put them behind bars, those who abuse drugs. Drugs are abusing him right now. I feel great pity for him. He will be treated fairly. His celebrity, I don't think, will help him at all, because we love to make an example of people who have stature or high visibility. This man has problems. Though I disagree with him, he's a brilliant, brilliant broadcaster. He's wrong on so many issues. I love combating him. He'll come back. He'll be stronger than ever.

BLITZER: And a lot of our viewers,

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, will remember that it was only a couple of years ago he signed a $285 million, nine-year contract to continue that very popular radio program. Friday night, Al Franken, who has been a great critic -- a great nemesis to Rush Limbaugh over the years, the author of "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations," was on "Newsnight" with Aaron Brown, and he said this. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) AL FRANKEN, AUTHOR: I don't think you can do it rigorously on a show. I have listened to him enough, done enough books on him that he is always -- he's a dishonest demagogue. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What do you think? Can Rush Limbaugh,

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, survive this, go back to his listeners as Michael Jackson suggests and have a successful program in the years to come?

SMERCONISH: Yes is the answer to that question. I think what happens is that when he cleans himself up and gets back on the air, his audience is actually enhanced, because everybody is going to want to listen to the new Rush Limbaugh and was he able to weather the storm. Long-term I think he can hold his base intact, but his credibility suffers, because the next time that he launches into a diatribe that's moralistic in nature, you're going to have to sit back and listen and take it with more of a grain of salt. And, Wolf, that comes from somebody who likes Rush. I consider his politics to be much the same as mine. But I have to be honest. He's taken a huge blow credibility-wise.

BLITZER: All right, MICHAEL SMERCONISH, I'm going to ask you to stand by. I want you to stand by for our next segment. But Michael Jackson,

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, I want to thank both of you for joining us. And just to remind our viewers, the allegations against Rush Limbaugh purchasing illegal prescription painkillers in Florida are simply that, allegations at this point. He hasn't been charged. There's been no confirmation of anything along those lines. Let's not rush to judgment on that front. Up next, we'll get a quick check of the hour's top stories. Then, Kobe Bryant back in the courtroom. Our legal panel debates the controversial defense strategy during the preliminary hearing. "LATE EDITION" will continue right after a quick check of the headlines.

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