Limbaugh garners hopeful support inside hometown

Sunday, October 12, 2003

Rush Limbaugh's hometown of Cape Girardeau boasts a splashy mural along a Mississippi River floodwall of its famous native son.

Before he gained celebrity and riches on the airwaves, "Rusty" Limbaugh pitched Little League baseball and Blake Esicar played first base, a lineup immortalized in a black and white snapshot Esicar proudly displayed Saturday in his family's meat market.

"Rusty could throw quite a curve ball," Esicar said, then shook his head. "I just know he's dealing with quite a curve ball now, and we're just praying for him."

Limbaugh, who often reminisces warmly about his upbringing in Cape Girardeau, startled his national radio audience Friday by acknowledging an addiction to prescription pain medication and announcing he was leaving the air for a 30-day rehabilitation program.

Esicar was driving his delivery truck when he heard Limbaugh's announcement.

Because of Limbaugh's past anti-drug declarations and his family's stalwart local reputation, "it was a really big surprise to me," Esicar said. "But it's sinking in now."

Getting a break

On Saturday, even local Democrats were giving Limbaugh a break.

"Mostly the Democrats wonder whether Rush's following will stay with him. While I expect some will be disillusioned, they'll stick with him," said former Missouri Secretary of State Bekki Cook, a Democrat who once practiced law with Limbaugh's now deceased father.

At the Varsity Barbershop on Broadway, where a teenage Limbaugh shined shoes, Jerry Lawrence settled into a barber's chair and read the Southeast Missourian's front-page story Saturday about the commentator's addiction.

"Rush admitted a problem and that is the first step. It is when you keep lying about it that you get in deep and lose respect," declared Lawrence, a Republican who used to deliver groceries to the Limbaugh house.

Willis Segraves, who cut hair while Rush shined shoes, said he favors Democrats, "and I think Rush wouldn't care for Jesus if Jesus was a Democrat, so we don't agree on a lot."

"But I think we would all agree that he should kick this habit and get his life together, and I hope he does," Segraves said.

The son of former state representative Mary Kasten attended high school with Rush, and Kasten was friends with Rush's mother.

Kasten said she understands how addictive pain killers can be. Her husband, Mel, who suffered from health problems, took OxyContin at one time as prescribed by a doctor.

"I can see where you can easily become addicted to it," she said. "I am just hoping and praying he won't have a tough time in recovery."

Kasten, a longtime Republican, praised Limbaugh for disclosing his addiction and seeking treatment.

"I think he has just handled it beautifully."

Peter Bergerson, who taught political science at Southeast Missouri State University, had Rush as a student. "I hate to think the worst," said Bergerson, who now lives in the Naples, Fla., area and teaches at Florida Gulf Coast University.

"My heart goes out to him," said Bergerson, who is politically liberal but still sees the conservative Limbaugh as a friend. Bergerson believes the drug addiction will hurt Limbaugh's credibility nationally.

Justin Buchheit, 23, a graduate student, said he was raised Republican and shares many of Limbaugh's views. But he wondered how an admission of drug use would play with Limbaugh's conservative fans.

"We love Rush in Cape, but the general public may be less impressed with him now that he has admitted a drug problem after being so tough on drug users on his show," Buchheit said.

Drug's destruction

In the past, Limbaugh has decried drug use on his bluntly conservative show, often making the case that drug crimes deserve punishment.

"Drug use, some might say, is destroying this country. And we have laws against selling drugs, pushing drugs, using drugs, importing drugs. ... And so if people are violating the law by doing drugs, they ought to be accused and they ought to be convicted and they ought to be sent up," Limbaugh said on his short-lived television show on Oct. 5, 1995.

During the same show, he commented that the statistics that show blacks go to prison more often than whites for the same drug offenses only illustrate that "too many whites are getting away with drug use."

Down at the floodwall with the big Rush mural, a club's bicycle ride was wrapping up and cyclists were musing about how to balance the smiling image against the drug revelations.

"I'm no Rush fan, but my husband is. Makes no difference whether you're a fan of Rush or not -- this could happen to anybody," said Martha Cox.

As cyclist Jay Moore loaded his bike on the back of his pickup truck, he said he remains a Limbaugh admirer.

"People that are Rush fans are with him no matter what -- and that goes double in Cape Girardeau," he said.

Staff writer Mark Bliss contributed to this report.

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