The controversy over what Rush Limbaugh meant when he uttered the phrase “phony soldiers” last week isn’t just another broadcast sideshow. As the political power of conservatism declines, the symbolic authority of figures such as Mr. Limbaugh is likewise shrinking. That is why he backs away from his own words, rips them from context by selectively editing his program’s transcript and insists he didn’t demean soldiers and veterans who dissent from the Bush White House war policy—as he and his fellow partisans have done so many times before.
This revealing episode began on Sept. 26 during a conversation between Mr. Limbaugh and “Mike,” a caller who identified himself as an active-duty soldier and supporter of the Iraq war, who warned against the consequences of withdrawing U.S. troops as urged by a previous caller “because Iraq itself would collapse and we’d have to go right back over there within a year or so.”
At that point the host interjected, “There’s a lot more than that that they don’t understand. They can’t even—if—the next guy that calls here, I’m gonna ask him: Why should we pull—what is the imperative for pulling out? What’s in it for the United States to pull out? They can’t—I don’t think they have an answer for that other than, ‘Well, we just gotta bring the troops home. Save the—keep the troops safe,’ or whatever. It’s not possible, intellectually, to follow these people.”
Replied Mike, “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.”
That was when Mr. Limbaugh said: “The phony soldiers.”
Two days later, under heavy critical fire for using those words to describe critics of the war who have served in uniform, he claimed to be the victim of a “smear.” He served up a neatly trimmed transcript of the Sept. 26 program, which cut more than a minute and a half of yakking to make it seem as if his “phony soldiers” reference was intended solely for an antiwar activist who had allegedly masqueraded as an Army Ranger after washing out of basic training. That falsified transcript has provided fodder for Mr. Limbaugh’s defenders, a motley assortment of bloggers, Fox News personalities, and a Republican congressman from Georgia who has actually introduced a resolution commending the radio blowhard.
Not content with insulting the troops, the Limbaugh clones seem to think any soldier who examines the transcript will be too dumb to figure out how they have tampered with it. It is equally telling that both Mr. Limbaugh and his defenders change the original phrase “phony soldiers” and say “phony soldier” instead—because the plural belies his alibi and makes his nasty intention so plain.
Today he whines because Media Matters for America, the progressive watchdog group, caught and publicized his slur. But he cannot escape what the audio proves he said.
Only in a media environment where conservatives have long felt exempt from serious scrutiny would Mr. Limbaugh still feel free to mock the military service of those who disagree with him. He is, after all, a certified chickenhawk who cheered on the Vietnam War as it ground up tens of thousands of young Americans, but saw no reason why he should serve. His local draft board in Cape Girardeau, Mo., a town where his family enjoyed great political influence, granted him a 1-Y deferment after he dropped out of college and forfeited his student deferment.
Explaining how he escaped the draft, he has cited both a “bad knee” and a cyst on his backside that supposedly rendered him medically unfit for service.
Despite that undistinguished record, however, he has never hesitated to denigrate the service and patriotism of Senator John Kerry, former Senator Tom Daschle and other Democrats who volunteered to wear the nation’s uniform. He called Mr. Daschle “Hanoi Tom,” and he spent many hours repeating the “Swift boat” lies when Mr. Kerry ran for president in 2004.
And now he insinuates that the troops and vets who question this war are “phony soldiers.”
No doubt what really worries Mr. Limbaugh and his right-wing comrades is that more and more of those who bravely serve America abroad, from foot soldiers to flag officers, have begun to voice their anger at the reckless and dishonest policies that have cost them and their comrades so dearly.
Leaders of Vote Vets, a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans organized in support of smarter military and security policy, have angrily challenged Mr. Limbaugh to repeat his slur to their faces—something he is most unlikely to do.
Thanks to all the veterans with the courage to speak out—no matter what their affiliation or opinion—it is no longer so easy for the Limbaugh crowd to claim that the military and the flag as their exclusive property.
That illegitimate seizure of everyone’s patriotic heritage is coming to an ignominious end.