I’ll Never Forget Rush Limbaugh Mocking Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s

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Ilya S. Savenok/Getty
Ilya S. Savenok/Getty

When the news broke that Rush Limbaugh died Tuesday at age 70, in an unusual occurrence, other celebrity names began trending in connection with him: The people he had cruelly mocked.

Chelsea Clinton, for example, spiked as a trending topic. “Everyone, the Clintons have a cat. Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?” Limbaugh said once, setting up a joke. (Following his death from cancer, the controversial radio broadcaster’s biggest fans were quick to remember his purported sense of humor.) The punchline is that Limbaugh then showed a photo of Chelsea Clinton. She was 13 at the time.

Michael J. Fox also began trending in the wake of Limbaugh’s death. In fact—and, admittedly, perhaps as a testament to my own echo chamber that I’ve built online—I’ve seen more people tweeting about Fox than I have about Limbaugh himself. That’s because a clip has gone viral in which Limbaugh makes fun of the actor and accuses him of exaggerating the effects of his Parkinson’s disease in a 2006 political ad he appeared in.

There has been no shortage of remembrances and commentary pieces in the wake of Limbaugh’s death, sussing out how he had become so popular, putting into context the formative role he had blowing steam into the modern right-wing movement, and characterizing what was so “entertaining” about his style that he became such a polarizing fixture in the media landscape—love him or loathe him. But the Michael J. Fox video is the first thing I thought about when he died. It’s why I have no patience for the measured obits.

In 2006, the Family Ties and Back to the Future star appeared in a campaign video for then Democratic Senate candidate Claire McCaskill. Fox is one of the most popular actors, arguably, of all time, and he has been admirably public about his battle with Parkinson’s, using his platform to raise awareness and funds while also showing the ways in which the illness didn’t need to limit a person’s potential. In his case, that meant continuing to appear in TV shows and movies on occasion, or, in this case, in a political ad. That is to say that the tremors and tics that are associated with Parkinson’s were, at that point, a familiar sight for most Americans.

Limbaugh saw that McCaskill ad, and he mocked him.

“In this commercial, he is exaggerating the effects of the disease,” Rush said in the 2006 broadcast, while mocking Michael’s tremors. “He is moving all around and shaking and this is purely an act. I have never seen Michael J. Fox display any of these symptoms of the disease. He can control himself enough to stay in the frame of the picture and he can control himself enough to keep his eyes on the lens, the teleprompter. But his head and shoulders are moving all over the place. This is really shameless, folks. Either he didn’t take his medication or he’s acting.”

Rush Limbaugh Spent His Lifetime Speaking Ill of the Dead

The crudeness speaks for itself. Accusing the actor of faking his Parkinson’s symptoms, all because he chose to appear in an ad supporting someone on the other side of the political aisle from Limbaugh, isn’t just obviously heinous, because duh. It is, to be quite honest, patronizing. Is that all he thinks of his listeners? That they’ll seriously buy this base-level, grotesque, and, maybe most embarrassing of all, amateurish gaslighting?

Fox and this clip of Limbaugh have gone viral again, 15 years later. I’m not the first to point out these comments as something more informative to remember Limbaugh by than the both-sidesism considerations of his legacy that are being hurriedly published.

“I know it’s tempting to lash out, but try to treat Rush Limbaugh with the same dignity, respect, and humanity as he showed to rape victims, Michael J. Fox, Sandra Fluke, Iraq War veterans, refugees, and the victims of mosque shootings,” writer Bess Kalb tweeted this afternoon, for example.

“Racist, sexist jerk who once accused Michael J Fox of exaggerating his Parkinson's disease, called a pro birth control college girl ‘a slut’ & suggested Donovan McNabb was overrated cause he was black has died. I wish I could say something nice to say his life-but I'm not a liar,” echoed Out Loud host Claudia Jordan.

Kalb and Jordan hit on the biggest point. The Fox comment is not the only shitty thing Limbaugh said. I don’t have the bandwidth to list them all. Nor, frankly, do I find this person worth mustering the rage that a chronicling of all the bile he’s spewed would stoke.

Before the accusations of being an oversensitive snowflake start to storm in like a blizzard, here’s why this Fox clip sticks with me: It’s not a reach to say that Rush Limbaugh may be the most popular radio broadcaster in U.S. history. This guy. The guy who said that. That’s what America liked. What it wanted to hear. What it still wants to hear. In essence, this person, and that mindset, is who we were. And are.

That clip was from 2006. Is it no surprise that, a decade later, a political candidate would mock a journalist’s disability at a rally and the act would help him win the presidency?

I sometimes wonder how fair, or even ethical, it is to unbury anecdotes about another person who becomes collateral news because of a different person’s death. Is there value in digging up the comments that someone like Limbaugh made about Fox, bringing attention again to cruelty that could be re-traumatizing? In this case, there isn’t just value. It’s necessary.

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