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Did ABC Play Politics With 'MNF'?

So radio talker Rush Limbaugh didn't get the ABC "Monday Night Football" job, and comedian Dennis Miller did. If the network shied away from Limbaugh because his political outspokenness might be too controversial, then it shouldn't have hired Miller, either.

Limbaugh is widely and accurately viewed as a true-blue Reagan conservative; Miller is widely and inaccurately viewed as a sardonic, plague-on-both-your-houses impartial critic. True, he's no Democratic toady; otherwise, he wouldn't have called Hillary Clinton a "craven careerist," as he did in early June.

But there's not an impartial bone in his body, either. The simple fact is that Miller easily is at his most politically venomous when he's attacking conservative personalities and causes. During Pat Buchanan's 1992 presidential campaign, Miller, who then hosted a syndicated Monday-Friday late-night program, likened Buchanan to a Nazi. Perhaps that wasn't outstanding because Jay Leno and others were doing the same thing.

But Miller and his slimy barbs did begin to stand out in late 1994, by which time he had moved to HBO for a weekly show. For whatever reason - perhaps in part because negative feedback from sponsors was no longer a possibility - Miller saw fit to tell plenty of vicious "jokes" about Newt Gingrich, leader of the new Republican congressional majority. For example:

-Speaking as Gingrich, Miller remarked, "Once we get them to the orphanages, we see if they're sickly. If they are...we hold their little heads in our hands...and crush them like walnuts."

-Gingrich's book "about his political vision for the future of America [will be] available through the Mein Kampf of the Month Club."

-"Gingrich admitted it was a dumb idea to suggest the government provide tax credits to poor people so they could buy laptop computers. Gingrich explained that what he meant to say was that poor people should be rounded up and exterminated."

Newt was Miller's primary victim in those days, but certainly not his only one. Sometimes Miller swiped at the GOP in general, in December of 1994 defining a moderate Republican as "someone who refers to blacks as 'coloreds.'" In June '95, he charged that some in Washington "furtively crave teen pregnancies because they need the scapegoats...We need to get the religious right to take off their official Ralph Reed blinders and wake up." (By the way, his guest that night was masturbation evangelist and ex-Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders, whom Miller said "deserves to be the [expletive] president of the United States.")

Before long, Gingrich, his image tarnished by such matters as the government shutdown and Clinton demagogy on Medicare, was a less inviting target, but Miller had no trouble finding other Republicans to bash. In June 1998, when Trent Lott said homosexuality was a sin and an addiction, Miller sneered, "Maybe we shouldn't come down on Trent just because he believes the only thing a man should have up his [rear end] is his own head," and called Lott a "stiff-haired, pinhead scumbag."

After all that, I think Miller's dumbest disquisition came a little over a year ago. Behold its mastery of both contemporary and historical wackiness: "The NRA is notorious for sabotaging essentially decent lawmakers who want a little sanity in our nation's gun laws by showering their political opponents with money, and if the anti-gun politician doesn't have an [election] opponent, the NRA will prop up some halfwit, nondescript, right-wing [expletive] with a bad toupee and a midnight cable-access show and run him."

Second Amendment supporters, Miller added, "always lean on the Constitution, and this just kills me, because...what other thing from 200 years ago do we still adhere to? Do [we] still churn butter?...No, and yet when it comes to the core issues of our country, we whip this thing out. If you brought Thomas Jefferson back today and [said], 'You know what we run our country by? That stupid [expletive] thing you wrote 200 years ago!' he'd look at you and go, 'You're [expletive] me, you [expletives]!'"

Oh, maybe you're wondering if, amidst all Miller's skewering of conservatives, he's ever gone after Limbaugh. He has. In July 1998, he claimed that Limbaugh's show "barely educates [and also] reinforces the narrow-minded prejudices of both the host and the listener." (If we're talking about shows that barely educate, I'd like to note for Mr. Miller's benefit that Jefferson did not attend the Constitutional Convention; he was serving in France during that time.)

It says something about the worldview of Disney/ABC that Limbaugh, with the biggest audience in the history of talk radio, is nevertheless too controversial for this network - yet Miller is acceptable. Perhaps it also says something about the state of our popular culture that the lack of any public outcry over this choice validates that thinking.