Rush Limbaugh is not just making an issue of Michael J. Fox’s campaign ads for Democratic candidates who support stem-cell research. The conservative talk-radio personality is making it the issue of a fall campaign that gets stranger by the day.

While it may be hard to figure out why anyone with Limbaugh’s political pull and national prominence would declare war on the guy who played Alex P. Keaton — one of television’s most outspoken, if eccentric, conservatives — in the series “Family Ties,” there is no denying the intensity of the assault.

For the better part of three hours each day this week, the radio ranter has been “Swift Boating the television and film star for daring to do what Limbaugh — who freely admits that he is an entertainer — does every day.

In Limbaugh’s warped assessment of the political process, it’s fine for him to try and influence the votes of Americans. But woe be it to anyone else who attempts to do so.

Since Fox began speaking up in favor of candidates who support science over superstition, the television and film star who suffers from Parkinson’s disease has been accused by Limbaugh of “exaggerating the effects of the disease” in campaign commercials in which he points out that Democratic candidates for the Congress and governorships in the battleground states of Missouri, Maryland, Illinois, Wisconsin and now Iowa favor a serious approach to stem-cell research while their Republican opponents do not. Limbaugh was relentless in his assault on Fox. “He’s moving all around and shaking and it’s purely an act,” the conservative commentator says. “This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn’t take his medication or he’s acting.”After it was pointed out to Limbaugh everyone, literally everyone, who knows anything about Parkinson’s disease, Limbaugh declared, “Now people are telling me they have seen Michael J. Fox in interviews and he does appear the same way in the interviews as he does in this commercial. All right then, I stand corrected. . . . So I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox, if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act.”

That should have been the end of it.

But Limbaugh wasn’t backing off. His new theme became: “Michael J. Fox is allowing his illness to be exploited and in the process is shilling for a Democratic politician.”

One problem with that line of attack is that Fox was the one who volunteered to cut the ads, with the express purpose of helping voters see beyond the spin and recognize the stark choices that they will be making on November 7. Another problem is that, two years ago, Fox cut an ad supporting a top Republican, Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Arlen Specter, who supports embryonic stem-cell research. But the biggest problem is with Limbaugh’s emphasis on the Fox’s physical appearance, as opposed to what the actor is saying in the ads? Why blather on and on about whether Fox, an actor, might be acting?

Because it is easier to criticize the way that Michael J. Fox looks than it is to criticize the content of his message.

Fox’s ads are fact-based. They reference the voting records, public statements and policy initiatives of the Democratic and Republican candidates he is talking about.

That being the case, beating up on the “Back to the Future” kid would not seem like a smart political strategy. And it certainly is not going to help Limbaugh soften his image as a partisan hitman who knows a little too much about what it means to be on or off particular medications.

So why are Limbaugh and other readers of Republican talking points continuing to accuse Fox of “acting” sick, and of lying his own disease and about the role that stem-cell research may play in the search for treatments and a cure? Why devote so much time and energy to attacking one ailing actor and one set of commercials?It has a lot to do with the powerful lobby that is opposing serious stem-cell research.

Unspoken in much of the debate over this issue is the real reason why candidates such as U.S. Senator Jim Talent, the embattled Republican incumbent who is the target of Fox’s criticism in Missouri, and U.S. Representative Mark Green, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who is mentioned in Fox’s ads in Wisconsin, so vehemently oppose embryonic stem-cell research.

It is not because they think the research is unnecessary — no one who has heard from top scientists and groups advocating on behalf of the sick and suffering, as both Talent and Green have, would take such a stand. Rather, it is because Talent, Green and other politicians who are campaigning not just against their Democratic opponents but against scientific inquiry want to maintain the support of the groups that oppose serious stem-cell research: the powerful and influential anti-choice political action committees that in each election cycle spend millions of dollars in questionable cash to support candidates who are willing to echo their faith-based opposition to research that could identify treatments and perhaps even cures for for life-threatening illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, Type I or Juvenile Diabetes, Duchenne’ Dystrophy, and spinal chord injuries.

Groups that oppose reproductive rights are central players in our politics because they have established networks that serve as some of the most effective hidden conduits for special-interest money that is used to pay for crude attack campaigns against mainstream candidates.

They also mobilize voters on behalf of contenders who cynically embrace the ugliest forms of anti-scientific dogma to make the rounds since the evolution deniers ginned up the Scopes trial.For this reason, the antiabortion machine gets what it wants when it wants it.

Politicians who align themselves with antichoice groups are willing to attack anyone who challenges them — and for good reason. In states across the country, so-called “Right-to-Life” and “Pro-Life” groups spend freely on behalf of the candidates they back. And much of that spending goes essentially undetected, as the groups often do not give money directly to candidates but instead run “issue ads” and mount independent-expenditure campaigns.

Republican politicians like Talent and Green fully understand that, without the behind-the-scenes work of antiabortion groups — most of which flies under the radar of the media and campaign-finance regulators — they could not possibly win. And Limbaugh, whose stated goal is to maintain Republican hegemony, is perhaps even more aware of the fact than the candidates he is working so feverishly to elect.That’s why the radio personality is on a personal crusade against Fox. That’s also why Limbaugh has been willing to stick to his outlandish claims about the actor, even while acknowledging that he’s gotten the facts wrong.

Like the Republican politicians who are scrambling to smear Fox, Limbaugh is doing the bidding of one of the most powerful behind-the-scenes political forces in America — a force that is essential to Republican prospects. And he is not going to let a little thing like the truth make him back off.

Politics is a cynical game. But, sometimes, the cynicism becomes so extreme that the word “unconscionable” doesn’t quite seem to capture the ugliness of it all.


John Nichols’ new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders’ Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. “With The Genius of Impeachment,” writes David Swanson, co-founder of the coalition, “John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States.” Studs Terkel says: “Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: ‘Bugger off!’ So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so.” The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at