In A Rush To 'Swift-Boat' Fox

Michael J Fox Rush Limbaugh CBS/AP

This column was written by John Nichols.
Rush Limbaugh is not just making an issue of Michael J. Fox's campaign ads for Democratic candidates who support stem-cell research. The conservative talk-radio personality is making it the issue of a fall campaign that gets stranger by the day.

While it may be hard to figure out why anyone with Limbaugh's political pull and national prominence would declare war on the guy who played Alex P. Keaton — one of television's most outspoken, if eccentric, conservatives — in the series "Family Ties," there is no denying the intensity of the assault.

For the better part of three hours each day this week, the radio ranter has been "Swift Boating" the television and film star for daring to do what Limbaugh — who freely admits that he is an entertainer — does every day.

In Limbaugh's warped assessment of the political process, it's fine for him to try and influence the votes of Americans. But woe be it to anyone else who attempts to do so.

Since Fox began speaking up in favor of candidates who support science over superstition, the television and film star who suffers from Parkinson's disease has been accused by Limbaugh of "exaggerating the effects of the disease" in campaign commercials in which he points out that Democratic candidates for the Congress and governorships in the battleground states of Missouri, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin and now Iowa favor a serious approach to stem-cell research while their Republican opponents do not. Limbaugh was relentless in his assault on Fox. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act," the conservative commentator says. "This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting." After it was pointed out to Limbaugh by everyone, literally everyone, who knows anything about Parkinson's disease, Limbaugh declared, "Now people are telling me they have seen Michael J. Fox in interviews and he does appear the same way in the interviews as he does in this commercial. All right then, I stand corrected…So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act."

That should have been the end of it.

But Limbaugh wasn't backing off. His new theme became: "Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democratic politician."

One problem with that line of attack is that Fox was the one who volunteered to cut the ads, with the express purpose of helping voters see beyond the spin and recognize the stark choices that they will be making on November 7. Another problem is that, two years ago, Fox cut an ad supporting a top Republican, Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, who supports embryonic stem-cell research. But the biggest problem is with Limbaugh's emphasis on the Fox's physical appearance, as opposed to what the actor is saying in the ads? Why blather on and on about whether Fox, an actor, might be acting?

Because it is easier to criticize the way that Michael J. Fox looks than it is to criticize the content of his message.

Fox's ads are fact-based. They reference the voting records, public statements and policy initiatives of the Democratic and Republican candidates he is talking about.

That being the case, beating up on the "Back to the Future" kid would not seem like a smart political strategy. And it certainly is not going to help Limbaugh soften his image as a partisan hit man who knows a little too much about what it means to be on or off particular medications.

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