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Bowled over by a Rush of attention

Monday, February 25, 2002

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague said that the mighty Rush Limbaugh had "excoriated" me on his radio show.

"Me?" I replied. "You're kidding." I hadn't remembered saying anything nice about Ted Kennedy, the women's movement or campaign finance reform. Also, I didn't know he read the Post-Gazette.

Turns out I'd run afoul of the conservative commentator over -- are you ready for this? -- the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler. Reacting to my recent column on the subject, Limbaugh accused yours truly and our great city of stealing the concept from him.

Now, you'd think one of America's most influential opinion-makers -- that would be Limbaugh -- would have his hands full with important stuff, say, downplaying the Enron pranksters or preparing President Bush's canonization papers. But Limbaugh feels strongly about this Tomb business.

He said he invented the Tomb in Raytown, Mo., when he was an obscure DJ in the '70s. It's entirely possible. But was anyone listening? Not me. Nor was I listening when he excoriated me. If it hadn't been for my colleague's retired husband and a letter-writing prison inmate from Virginia, I might never have known. (I'm not suggesting that retirees and jailbirds make up Rush's demographic; I'm just explaining how I got my Limbaugh news.)

A Limbaugh listener tried to make me feel better: "If you mentioned that God rested on the seventh day, Rush would claim it was his idea." Maybe so. Maybe I should have had the foresight to name it the Tomb of the Unknown Liberal Bowler as a Rush-repellent. But I was willing to put aside the man's outburst and find common ground, as you can see from this Feb. 7 e-mail:

Dear Rush Limbaugh,
I'm sure the unknown bowler turned over in his tomb when you questioned the authenticity of his resting place in Pittsburgh's PPG Plaza, assuming he was tuned into your show. Can't you let this poor man (or possibly woman) rest in peace?
I don't blame you a bit for mentioning my name on the air. Radio is a rough business, and you have to do anything to hype ratings. But while I can take personal attacks, how dare you attack Pittsburgh? That's my job, thank you very much.
You'll consider this unfair, but I want to inject facts into the discussion. PPG Plaza was completed in 1984. In May 1987, I -- and this might be my crowning achievement in 20 years as a columnist -- saw the plaza monument for what it was and named it the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler. This was before you became famous. The term has since become civic lore.
The suggestion that Pittsburgh or this scribe would steal from you is deeply offensive and worthy of a secret military tribunal or a seat on the Enron board. No offense, but we would sooner steal from Cleveland than from Rush Limbaugh.
As for you having invented the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler in Raytown, Mo., it would never occur to me to question your spurious claim. Nor would I accuse you of ripping off my idea, even though you did at one time work in Pittsburgh.
I was thinking of filing a class-action suit on behalf of dead bowlers. But I see no need to fatten the wallets of two lawyers when we can settle this like gentlemen. To show there are no hard feelings over your crude bludgeoning of our fair city, I invite you to visit Pittsburgh, where you may have the honor of placing a six-pack on the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler, assuming there are no cops around.

Peter Leo

Doesn't that sound extraordinarily high-minded and statesmanlike? I think so, too. What response did I get? None. So last Thursday afternoon I managed to get Limbaugh's private e-mail address and resent the note with this intro: "Don't you know it's rude to pick a fight, then run and hide? Maybe my message, sent back on Feb. 7, got lost in the e-mailroom, but that's no excuse. Here it is a second time. Pittsburgh awaits an apology."

Within minutes, a contrite Rush sent an e-mail while on the air:

Dear Peter,
This is indeed the first note from you I have seen and I am replying promptly. Simply stated, I was invited to place the six-pack at the Tomb of the Unknown Bowler in Raytown, Mo., in 1976. Perhaps 1977. It was a long time ago. This was to happen after the annual "Let's Run 'Em" drag races on Highway 50 . . .
Oops, hang on. Spot break is over and my last broadcast segment of the busy broadcast day is coming up . . .
OK. I just responded briefly on my show to your note. Yours is indeed a most enlightened way to "solve" this dispute. By virtue of my laying the six-pack on the Pittsburgh Tomb of the Unknown Bowler in PPG Plaza, said Tomb will thus be verified and confirmed the Official Tomb of the Unknown Bowler. And you are right. Pittsburgh is a much better fit for the Tomb. More later. I wanted to be sure and reply.

Rush Limbaugh

Wow, what a nice guy, I thought, a mellow, conciliatory, sincere Rush trying to do the right thing. Touching, really. Who said he was an inflexible ideologue? It felt good that two Great Americans could put aside their egos -- one considerably bigger than the other's -- for the good of dead bowlers everywhere. I went to bed Thursday night with warm feelings of peace and understanding, musing about what I would wear at the Nobel ceremonies, only to wake up to this vitriol on the Rush Limbaugh Web site:

"During the course of Thursday's program, I received a caustic, threatening e-mail from Peter Leo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette." Limbaugh went on to restate his Missouri triumph, insult Pittsburgh and outline the Leo conspiracy once again. What happened to "Dear Peter," my "enlightened" peace initiative, the bonhomie between fellow Tomb founders? I wrote back more in sorrow than in anger:

"Rush, You need professional help. 'Caustic, threatening'? I'm detecting some anger management issues, not to mention some humor impairment issues. But I'm not giving up on you. I still think there's a good, honest inner Rush hidden beneath the bluster and oversimplifications, so I'm going to assume it was one of your underpaid lackeys who wrote that for you. I wouldn't fire him, because, in the end, you have to take responsibility for yourself, as all Americans must. Until then, I'm afraid you're not getting so much as one ditto from me."

I'm thinking what you're thinking, Dear Reader: Rush could very well be a nice guy imprisoned by his lucrative tough-guy public act. The whole thing is a cry for help, and I want Rush to know I'll be there for him at pleo@post-gazette.com.

Peter Leo is the Post-Gazette's writing coach. His column appears on the last Monday of the month. You can reach him at 412-263-1561 or pleo@post-gazette.com.

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