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He's the talker, not the talk

Rush Limbaugh's Palm Beach neighbors take allegations in stride.

October 08, 2003|Dana Calvo | Special to The Times

PALM BEACH, Fla. — For years, scandal after decadent scandal washed up on the well-raked beaches of this slender isle, drawing attention to places like the Kennedy compound and the bedrooms of the Pulitzers, and providing the writers of television dramas like "Melrose Place" and "Dynasty" an authenticity to strive for.

Now comes another piece of titillating driftwood, dragging with it themes of drugs, power, racism and money. The figure at the center of the scandal is the country's most popular radio host, Rush Limbaugh, a man who became a hero to millions of listeners by demanding morality and integrity from the political and media elite.

Limbaugh, 52, has been accused by a former housekeeper of his Palm Beach estate, Wilma Cline, of illegally buying thousands of prescription painkillers from her over a four-year period. He has not been charged with any crime, and a spokesman for his employer, Premiere Radio Networks, said that Limbaugh would not respond to press inquiries about the case.

Cline, who worked for Limbaugh from 1998 to 2002, went to Palm Beach County prosecutors, who confirmed that they have given her immunity in the case. She then sold her story to the National Enquirer. But even before the tabloid hit the stands this week, Limbaugh was having a tough time.

Racially tinged comments about Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb that he made on ESPN provoked such ire that Limbaugh resigned Oct. 1 as a football analyst after only five Sunday appearances on the sports cable network. But while these twin scandals have drawn national attention, they seem to have made little impression on Palm Beach locals, who admittedly have a higher than normal threshold for infamy.

"A good insider stock scandal is something that Palm Beachers like to hang on to," said Shannon Donnelly, society editor for Palm Beach Daily News. "But this is nothing."

Here, in a charity-ball society where many houses still post a sign over side or back doors for "Service," Limbaugh is well-loved. What's more, many agree with his statements about McNabb. Still others doubt the veracity of Cline's accusations.

"I really love Rush Limbaugh, and I think none of the liberal stations can compete with him so somebody is trying to destroy him," said Sue Rewey as she idled in her sparkling 1957 pink Thunderbird in downtown Palm Beach.

An 80-year-old land developer who plays golf with Limbaugh in the winter described him as a "wonderful person." The developer, who spoke only on condition that his name not be printed, said Limbaugh's comments on McNabb were "absolutely correct.... I think it's a shame a man can't give an honest answer."

In fact, one of the only criticisms of Limbaugh is that he appears, even after eight years in Palm Beach, to have been overly casual with his domestic help. Many Palm Beach residents draw up employment contracts similar to the nondisclosure arrangements between Hollywood stars and their help. Contracts contain a penalty fee of $10,000 to $25,000 if a worker leaks information to the press about life behind a mansion's closed doors.

To some in Palm Beach society, the idea that Limbaugh would make himself vulnerable to his housekeeper for painkillers that easily could have been obtained through a savvy and willing physician is preposterous. After all, he is the most richly paid radio talk show host in the country; his nine-year contract is worth a reported $280 million. He lives in a $24.3-million home on the water. If he needed painkillers, they wonder, couldn't he find a doctor?

"People in this town understand about addiction," said Donnelly. "If anything, it draws compassion."

Seventy miles north of Miami on the east coast of Florida, Palm Beach is an island both literally and metaphorically, set apart from the rest of South Florida by a narrow channel of water. Known as the quintessential playground for wealthy conservatives, it is home during the winter months of family dynasties like the Post cereal descendants and the Pulitzers. More recently, "younger" jet-setters such as Donald Trump and musicians Rod Stewart and Jimmy Buffett have called it home.

Palm Beach is the nation's third-richest town. The average personal income is $109,219. It is not a gated community nor a private community, but it may as well be.

For years, nonresident workers such as gardeners and nannies were required to carry I.D. cards with them at all times. Visiting day workers were fingerprinted at the police station before they were allowed to work here. It was, officials said, an effective way of keeping the crime rate down and insulating the 9,000 permanent residents from the problems associated with poorer communities nearby. The ACLU challenged the law's constitutionality, and in 1986 it was overturned.

Still, say many who are hired to work on the island, the expectations are clear: do your work and leave.

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