“Media Matters”; by Paul Waldman

Here at Media Matters, as in many other places, this was a week of Rush Limbaugh, not only because of what he said about American soldiers and veterans who oppose the Iraq war, but because of what he said about us. There has been some wild spinning coming from Limbaugh on this issue, so let's do a brief recap of what he has said and done since this whole to-do began:

Here at Media Matters, as in many other places, this was a week of Rush Limbaugh, not only because of what he said about American soldiers and veterans who oppose the Iraq war, but because of what he said about us. There has been some wild spinning coming from Limbaugh on this issue, so let's do a brief recap of what he has said and done since this whole to-do began:

Wednesday, September 26: On his radio show, Limbaugh gets into a discussion with a caller about people who oppose the Iraq war. “It's not possible, intellectually, to follow these people,” he says. The caller replies, “No, it's not, and what's really funny is, they never talk to real soldiers. They like to pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue and talk to the media.” Limbaugh then interjects, “The phony soldiers,” to which the caller responds, “The phony soldiers. If you talk to a real soldier, they are proud to serve.” The two then go on to talk about how real soldiers want to be in Iraq. A full one minute and 50 seconds later -- after the caller went on to discuss the purported presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and after Limbaugh thanked the caller for calling -- Limbaugh brings up Jesse MacBeth, who had claimed falsely to have served in Iraq and witnessed atrocities.

Friday, September 28: Responding to the controversy aroused by his “phony soldiers” comment, Limbaugh claims on his show that he had not been talking “about the anti-war movement generally,” but rather “about one soldier ... Jesse MacBeth.” He then tells his listeners he will present to them the “entire” segment from the day before, so they can hear what he actually said. But the clip he airs actually cuts out a full 1 minute and 35 seconds of discussion that occurred between Limbaugh's original “phony soldiers” comment and his subsequent reference to MacBeth, making it appear as though he had segued directly from “phony soldiers” to MacBeth, when this was not in fact the case. Limbaugh also claims he was “talking about one soldier with that 'phony soldier' comment, Jesse MacBeth,” when in fact he said not “soldier” (singular) but “soldiers” (plural). Limbaugh also states during his program, “And by the way, Jesse MacBeth's not the only one,” adding to his list of “phony soldiers” Congressman John Murtha, a Vietnam combat veteran and recipient of a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts whose service on active duty and in the Marine Reserve spanned 37 years before he retired as a colonel.

Tuesday, October 2: After the group VoteVets.org airs a television advertisement in which a wounded Iraq veteran, Brian McGough, criticizes Limbaugh for the “phony soldiers” comment, Limbaugh compares McGough to a suicide bomber. “He discusses his service in Iraq, the wounds he suffered there,” Limbaugh says, “and he says to me in this ad, 'Until you have the guts to call me a ”phony soldier" to my face, stop telling lies about my service.' You know, this is such a blatant use of a valiant combat veteran, lying to him about what I said, then strapping those lies to his belt, sending him out via the media in a TV ad to walk into as many people as he can walk into."

Thursday, October 4: Displaying his ongoing commitment to reasoned discourse, Limbaugh puts up a picture on his website of Josef Stalin sporting Media Matters' logo on his chest. Because posting audio and transcripts of Rush Limbaugh so people can see what he says is pretty much like heading up one of history's most brutally repressive regimes and murdering 20 million or so people. Just about, anyway.

Now that we're all caught up, we can talk about what this means. In order to understand it, you have to realize that Limbaugh's attack on soldiers who disagree with Bush's policy on the war is in perfect keeping with statements he has made in the past. While most commentators will at least nod to the notion that those who disagree with them can still love their country, Limbaugh has stated on numerous occasions his belief that people who oppose the war are unpatriotic. To take just one example, this past August, he said, “I want to respectfully disagree with the president on the last part of what he said. I am going to challenge the patriotism of people who disagree with him because the people that disagree with him want to lose.”

Once you've constructed and maintained this argument -- that only people who hate America could possibly disagree with George W. Bush on national security questions -- what do you do when you encounter veterans who do, in fact, disagree? People who have put their very lives at risk in order to serve their country? So much of the rhetoric coming from people like Limbaugh operates on the premise that people who hold different opinions aren't merely wrong or mistaken, they have bad motives.

Think about how much time and effort they expend on convincing Americans that progressives and Democrats are “anti-military,” “hate the troops,” and even “hate America.” So any progressive veteran who criticizes Bush administration policies represents a profound threat to all the arguments they have made. It becomes particularly thorny when nearly the entire current leadership of the conservative movement -- not only media figures like Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly, but also political figures including President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and many others -- were of draft age during the Vietnam war but managed to stay out of harm's way.

Let's be clear: I'm not arguing that any particular individual on that list didn't have legitimate reasons to avoid serving in Vietnam -- some may have. Nor am I arguing that the opinions of veterans on matters of national security are necessarily more valid simply because they are veterans. The point is that accusations of troop-hating and insufficient patriotism are difficult to wield at veterans, particularly when thrown by those who were subject to the draft but managed to avoid it.

Unless, that is, they can argue that the veteran in question isn't a real veteran, that his service wasn't real service, that his sacrifice wasn't real sacrifice, and that his patriotism isn't real patriotism. So that's exactly what they do.

If this were the first, or second, or even third time this had happened, one might be able to come up with another plausible explanation. But what we heard this week with Rush Limbaugh was a replay of a record we've heard many times before: a war critic with a military record emerges, and the right responds by attacking his patriotism, arguing that his service wasn't real, or both. Consider the following:

  • John Kerry, a Vietnam veteran and recipient of a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts, saw a campaign of truly epic dishonesty waged during the 2004 presidential election to convince the American people that he didn't deserve his medals and that the injuries he sustained in combat were phony. Among the many ways conservatives got into the act: At the 2004 Republican convention, delegates wore Band-Aids with purple hearts on their cheeks to mock Kerry's medals. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings asked Newt Gingrich at the time whether the purple heart Band-Aids made him uncomfortable. “No,” Gingrich replied, “I think it's funny.” (The conservative Media Research Center cited this exchange as an example of liberal media bias because it was shocked that anyone would take offense at a gesture “meant to make light of John Kerry earning purple hearts in Vietnam for superficial wounds.”)
  • Max Cleland, who lost both legs and one arm in Vietnam, was the subject of an attack ad from challenger Saxby Chambliss (reason for avoiding Vietnam service: bum knee) featuring photos of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, claiming that Cleland was hindering efforts to fight terrorism. “Max Cleland says he has the courage to lead,” the announcer said, “But the record proves Max Cleland is just misleading.”
  • When Congressman John Murtha -- to repeat, a Vietnam combat veteran, recipient of a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, whose service on active duty and in the Marine Reserve spanned 37 years before he retired as a colonel -- became critical of the Iraq war, he was attacked relentlessly by conservatives. Ann Coulter said that Murtha is “the reason soldiers invented fragging,” slang for soldiers killing a member of their own unit. Coulter later said that if Murtha “did get fragged, he'd finally deserve one of those Purple Hearts.”
  • Nebraska Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was called "Sen. Skeptic (R., France)" by the National Review when in 2002 he raised questions about the Bush administration's push for war -- in other words, Hagel didn't represent the United States but a foreign country. More recently, Rush Limbaugh has said: “By the way, we had a caller call, couldn't stay on the air, got a new name for Senator Hagel in Nebraska, we got General Petraeus and we got Senator Betrayus, new name for Senator Hagel.”
  • When Rep. Joe Sestak, a retired rear admiral, walked in a Memorial Day parade wearing his uniform during the 2006 campaign (without doing any campaigning, as per military regulations), the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania sent out a press release titled “Sestak's Got No R-E-S-P-E-C-T For Uniform” according to an August 7, 2006, article in the Navy Times.
  • In 2006, incumbent Republican Congressman Mike Fitzpatrick held a press conference in which he presented an Air Force major named Kevin Kelly who accused Fitzpatrick's challenger, Democrat Patrick Murphy, of claiming to be more of a combat veteran than he was. As The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on October 11, 2006, “Kelly claimed that Murphy, who was in Baghdad during 2003 and 2004 as a captain and lawyer with the 82d Airborne, exaggerated his combat experience. But in response to a reporter's question, Kelly could not cite any place, incident or publication where he heard Murphy make such claims.”
  • Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran, ran for Congress in a special election in Ohio in 2005. Rush Limbaugh said of Hackett, “it appears that, you know, he goes to Iraq to pad the résumé.”

We could go on to list the many Democrats who have had their patriotism assaulted -- like Air Force veteran Tom Daschle, who was accused of treason by Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) (Davis said that comments Daschle made in 2002 questioning the success of the war on terror had “the effect of giving aid and comfort to our enemies,” language taken directly from the Constitution's definition of treason), and was the subject of a press release by since-disgraced Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) titled “Foley Questions Daschle's Patriotism.” But that would take far more space than we have at hand. One thing that all these cases have in common is that no one in the media even considered referring to these conservative attacks as “anti-military,” while media figures routinely characterize progressives as “anti-military” if they take issue with policies like the Iraq war, not to mention the converse, that Iraq war supporters are by definition “pro-military” folks who “support the troops” (see here, here, here, here, or here).

So let's consider Limbaugh's comment about Hackett. As far as Limbaugh is concerned, a progressive can't possibly join the military out of a commitment to national service or simple patriotism; if a progressive joined the military, his or her motives must have been dishonorable, in this case to “pad the résumé.” By the same token, if a soldier opposes the war, he must not be a real soldier. After making the “phony soldiers” statement, Limbaugh and his caller went on to discuss how real soldiers want to be in Iraq. “They joined to be in Iraq!” said Rush.

Yet you would have had trouble finding too many Republicans in Washington willing to step forward and condemn Limbaugh, or do what Democrats are asked to do whenever a progressive anywhere says something controversial, and “distance themselves” from his remarks. Why? Because Rush Limbaugh is one of the most important components of the conservative spin machine. After all, when Republicans scored their dramatic electoral victory in 1994, they named him an honorary member of the 104th Congress. He'll have to go a lot further than insulting soldiers to get them to turn on him.

At one level, one can have some sympathy for O'Reilly and Limbaugh. Every day, they spend a lot of time on the air -- three hours in Limbaugh's case, and three more for O'Reilly (one hour on television and two on radio), talking extemporaneously about the issues of the day. As seasoned performers, they both know that passion and anger, whether genuine or feigned, are necessary elements of their oeuvre. Given all that, it would hardly be remarkable if every now and again they said something they regretted.

But to hear them tell it, they never regret anything they say. No word that escapes their mouths is anything other than exactly what they meant. If people are offended, they just don't understand, or they've been manipulated by the enemies of the right.

When people do get offended, or fed up at the seemingly unending stream of falsehood and misrepresentation, the right-wing media do what they always do: attack the messenger. So lately, Media Matters has been the subject of some awfully nasty comments from Limbaugh, O'Reilly, and their allies; a recent favorite is Bill O'Reilly calling Media Matters President David Brock "the biggest villain, in my opinion, in the country" (eat your heart out, terrorists!). And don't even ask about the emails we get -- let's just say Rush and Bill's fans are extremely angry and prone to vulgarity, and need to work on their spelling.

This strategy isn't hard to interpret. If you can get people talking about a sinister left-wing conspiracy, then suddenly they aren't talking about you and your statements anymore. And for the likes of Limbaugh, it's always somebody else's fault.