As the battle over “Obamacare” was reaching fever pitch, Rush Limbaugh threatened to leave the United States if the health care bill passed. Well, the bill did pass, and he’s still here.

This reminded me of the time one of my friends vowed to change his citizenship and move to Ireland if George W. Bush got re-elected. Bush did get re-elected, but my friend never left New Jersey. Neither did my friend who said she’d move to France if Bush won a second term. Bush got his second term, but my friend never once budged from her New York apartment.

Her vow to scoop up her marbles and pack it in, just like Limbaugh’s histrionic vow to become an expatriate, fell into the broad, general category of the idle threat.

Ever since I was a child, I have abhorred idle threats. Real threats, like “I’ll knock your teeth down your throat if you tell Sister John Laurentia who put the softball through the stained-glass image of St. Anthony of Padua,” didn’t bother me because they were graphic and implacable and let you know exactly where you stood.

Nor did I get all that upset when my mother would warn us that Dad would beat us when he got home. What upset us was when Dad didn’t beat us when he got home. Now we had no way of knowing whether he had merely forgotten, or if he was using this delaying tactic as an additional measure in the reign of domestic terror he mistook for parenting. Either way, it added a level of uncertainty to our lives that we did not need.

If you were going to make a threat, you were honor-bound to go through with it. Otherwise, you were merely confusing the issue.

Throughout my life, I have tried hard to avoid issuing idle threats. For the most part, I have done a pretty good job. I once told a local pharmacist who charged me twice to send the same fax that if he didn’t give me my money back, I would never come into his store again. He thought it was an idle threat. Twenty years later, I was still snubbing him, right up until the day he went to prison for Medicaid fraud. Ha!

Serious, non-idle threats have been a major component of my daily life for as long as I can remember. A few years ago, I threatened to boycott all future Kate Hudson movies until she finally made a good one, and thus far I have honored that commitment. Admittedly, honoring it wasn’t that hard.

Last week I read about a new poll indicating that if the health care bill passed, 46 percent of primary-care physicians would close up shop. Well, it’s passed, so it’s time to put your money where your mouth is, physicians of the republic.

The same goes for you, Rush. First you threatened to leave New York City if a new tax on the rich got passed. The legislation is now law, but it took you a year to put your Manhattan apartment on the market. Then came the Costa Rica threat, but two weeks after Obamacare passed, you’re not there.

This is unmanly and unconscionable. If you tell everybody that you’re so fed up that you’re going to leave, then you are morally obligated to leave, or at least give your fellow Americans a timetable for your departure.

Otherwise, the rest of us find ourselves in a Boy Who Cried Wolf scenario, wondering what whopper you’ll tell next. But unlike the boy, who only told a fib, you committed a truly unforgivable crime. You got people’s hopes up.

Joe Queenan writes frequently for Barron’s, the New York Times Book Review and the Guardian. His most recent book is a memoir, “Closing Time.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.