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Limbaugh's Barbs Test Palin's Honest Outrage

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I never thought it would come to this. Sarah Palin is going to have to unheart Rush Limbaugh. Otherwise the only conclusion is that she fakes her emotions, even those that seem most genuine.

In her reaction to a remark by Rahm Emanuel, the crude White House chief of staff, her hurt seemed real. Last August, according to a Jan. 26 article in the Wall Street Journal, Emanuel called congressional liberals not supporting the president "retarded," preceded by a favorite curse word of his. Palin called for his head.

"Just as we'd be appalled if any public figure of Rahm's stature ever used the 'N-word' or other such inappropriate language, Rahm's slur on all God's children with cognitive and developmental disabilities -- and the people who love them -- is unacceptable, and it's heartbreaking," Palin wrote on her Facebook page.

Nothing about Palin is more appealing than her love for her child born with Down syndrome. Palin may wear her other children on her sleeve, and on stage, but Trig she holds in her heart. In the umbrage she took over a tasteless David Letterman joke about one of her daughters, her anger looked simulated. She dragged out that controversy well after the host said he was sorry. Here, her reaction was appropriate.

Emanuel apologized privately to Tim Shriver, head of Special Olympics, which was started by his mother, Eunice, to encourage the developmentally disabled through sports. On Wednesday, Emanuel had Shriver and a number of disability groups come to the White House for a public apology.

Double Derogatory

Limbaugh took the occasion to double-down on Emanuel's remark. On his radio show, Limbaugh made an even more derogatory comment, insisting that there can be no insult in "calling a bunch of people who are retards, retards."

The real news, Limbaugh continued, was that Emanuel had directed his "retard" comment at Obama supporters. "So now there's going to be a meeting," he said. "There's going to be a retard summit at the White House."

Having called out Emanuel, Palin can't let Limbaugh get away with his own "slur on all God's children." Surely Limbaugh qualifies as a "public figure," one with far more reach than Emanuel. If a six-month-old Emanuel remark uttered at a private meeting broke her heart, Limbaugh's rant must have crushed her.

Limbaugh's on-air claim yesterday that, in throwing around the word "retard," he had been "just quoting Emanuel" is, of course, laughable. As for his observation that the "drive-by" media is "trying to goad Sarah Palin into denouncing" him for his remarks: Well, why not goad, even if we're not as good at it as Rush is?

More Than Crude

Limbaugh's reference to a "retard summit" wasn't reflexive crudeness. He made the comment with malice aforethought, cloaked in his usual objection to political correctness, on which he bases his license to pick on the weak. His running shtick is that it's rich white fuzzballs like him who really suffer in a warped society that punishes success.

Palin, usually among Rush's chosen strong, is among the weak in this instance. Mean words about her son touch a spot so tender she flinches.

I get a slew of hate mail about my opinions, stupidity and hair. It comes with the privilege of writing a column. The only cruelty I can't stand is against my mentally disabled brother. I spent much of my childhood forcing the neighborhood kids to choose him for their teams. Now that I'm his guardian, I run a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Jimmy. The need to protect never goes away.

Triumph of Politics

In Palin's case, we'll see if politics triumph. She will not want to treat Limbaugh as she did Emanuel, a political enemy. She and Limbaugh are in a mutual-admiration society, working the same side of the street, manning the barricades against the heathen liberals, enforcing the same pure strain of conservatism against infidels.

Rush has a conscience. One reason his television show wasn't as successful as his radio one was that he couldn't play himself. Inside the cocoon of his radio studio, he exempts himself from the usual rules. He's an entertainer, so he can say anything. He's not a journalist, so he doesn't need to be factual. Liberals are mushy-headed wimps, so he can attack those they coddle to even the score.

Physical disability is not off limits. He went after Michael J. Fox with relish, performing a spastic chair dance while claiming that Fox had purposely not taken his medication so that his Parkinson's disease would be on full display in a TV ad in favor of candidates supporting stem-cell research. (Not true, Fox said.)

Maternal Instinct

I have a lot of questions about Palin as a candidate for president but not about her maternal instinct. I bet she would give up everything if it would make her child well. I would for my brother.

Politics has gotten much meaner since 1995, when I had a long interview with Rush as part of a cover package on him for Time magazine.

I went in thinking he was a jerk but came away believing that underneath his jerky persona was a not-so-bad, hyperbolic talk jockey. Now, if he doesn't apologize for his gratuitous cruelty, I'll have to conclude that underneath that talk-show bluster, he's a jerk.

Margaret Carlson, author of Anyone Can Grow Up: How George Bush and I Made It to the White House and former White House correspondent for Time magazine, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.

Originally published at Bloomberg.com.