On Monday evening, September 24, Rush Limbaugh was struck by a story that appeared on ABC’s World News with Charles Gibson. “A closer look tonight at phony heroes,” Gibson said in his introduction to the report, which was about men who claim to be veterans but are not. In the story, reporter Brian Ross discussed two men who claimed to have served in wartime, possibly to receive free veterans’ hospital and other benefits.
And then this: “Authorities say the most disturbing case involves this man, 23 year-old Jesse Macbeth,” Ross continued. “In a YouTube video seen around the world, Macbeth became a rallying point for anti-war groups, as he talked of the Purple Heart he received in Iraq and described how he and other U.S. Army Rangers killed innocent civilians at a Baghdad mosque.” Ross played video of Macbeth saying, “Women and men, you know — while in their prayer, we started slaughtering them.”
As it turns out, none of that happened. Macbeth was in the Army for just six weeks, was discharged before completing basic training, and was never in Iraq. “Last week in federal court in Seattle,” Ross concluded, “Macbeth offered an apology for defaming the real American heroes as he admitted to lying about his service record and his supposed atrocities.” Ross’ story was headlined “Phony War Vets” on the ABC News website.
Among the viewers that night was a person who works for Limbaugh’s radio program. “My call screener saw the ABC News report and he told me about it,” Limbaugh told me yesterday. Limbaugh decided to make the story the subject of his commentary for Tuesday, September 25, a commentary that played in the morning on the 600 stations that carry Limbaugh’s show. “We researched it and put the commentary together,” Limbaugh continued. “In our research, we also found a story on FoxNews.com from, I believe, May 20th on Macbeth that had ‘Phony Soldier’ in the headline. We also found a press release from the U.S. Attorney, Western District of Washington, on 9/21, who had successfully prosecuted eight of what he called ‘Fake Soldiers’ who had defrauded the VA system.”
So Limbaugh told Macbeth’s story in the commentary and added his own words about the people who had made Macbeth a hero. “They have to lie about such atrocities because they can’t find any that fit the template of the way they see the US military,” Limbaugh said. “In other words, for the American anti-war left, the greatest inconvenience they face is the truth.”
[Author’s note: After this article appeared on NRO, Limbaugh called to say that, in telling me the story, he had gotten the timeline wrong. In fact, he said, his staff had noticed stories about Jesse Macbeth on Friday, September 21, and those stories, along with earlier reports and the U.S. Attorney’s statement, were the basis of Limbaugh’s radio commentary, which was taped on Monday afternoon, September 24 -- before the ABC World News story aired. Limbaugh’s commentary ran on Tuesday morning, after the ABC story was broadcast, and, Limbaugh said, “all day Tuesday, my call screener was telling me about the ABC report on phony soldiers that updates the commentary we did.” Nevertheless, Limbaugh told me, “The ABC report had not formed a basis for the writing of that commentary.” None of that changes the basics of the “phony soldiers” matter -- Limbaugh told me again that, “The ABC story and the update were what was on my mind” when he made his remarks on Wednesday, September 26. But he told me he wanted to correct the record about the timing of events.]
During his program the next day, Wednesday, September 26, Limbaugh spoke to a somewhat emotional caller who claimed to be a Republican fed up with the war in Iraq. After a long and sometimes testy exchange, Limbaugh cut to another caller, a man named Mike in Olympia, Washington who said he had served two tours in Iraq. Discussing war critics on the left, the caller said, “What’s really funny is they never talk to real soldiers. They pull these soldiers that come up out of the blue — “
“The phony soldiers,” Limbaugh said.
“The phony soldiers,” the caller repeated. “If you talk to any real soldier and they’re proud to serve, they want to be over in Iraq, they understand their sacrifice and they’re willing to sacrifice for the country.”
“I was thinking of Macbeth when I said ‘phony soldiers,’“ Limbaugh told me. As the caller talked, Limbaugh told a staff member to print out the previous day’s commentary on the ABC “Phony Heroes” story. After “vamping” a bit while the commentary printed out, Limbaugh moved on.
“I want to thank you, Mike, for calling. I appreciate it very much. I gotta — here is a morning update that we did recently, talking about fake soldiers. This is a story of who the left props up as heroes. And they have their celebrities. One of them was Army Ranger Jesse Macbeth…” Limbaugh read the entire commentary from the day before and wrapped up that segment of the program. From there, he moved on to a discussion of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
And that was that — until the next day, September 27, when Media Matters, the liberal media watchdog group, posted a story headlined, “Limbaugh: Service members who support U.S. withdrawal are ‘phony soldiers.’“ “During the September 26 broadcast of his nationally syndicated radio show,” Media Matters reported, “Rush Limbaugh called service members who advocate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq ‘phony soldiers.’“ Media Matters included a transcript — with some extraneous remarks edited out — of Limbaugh’s broadcast.
Within a few hours, a half-dozen congressional Democrats had denounced Limbaugh’s remarks. “How dare Rush Limbaugh label anyone who has served in the military as a, quote, ‘phony soldier?’“ asked Illinois Democratic Rep. Jan Schakowsky. “Rush Limbaugh owes our military and their families an apology,” said Maryland Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen.
The next day, September 28, Limbaugh used his program to explain the “phony soldiers” remark at some length. As part of that explanation, he played a tape of the original September 26 program. He cut some extraneous material out — “for space and relevance reasons, not to hide anything,” he told me — and then found himself again under attack from Media Matters for “selectively edit[ing]” the clip. Media Matters did not claim that Limbaugh had cut anything substantive out — he did not — and in fact his cuts were similar to the cuts Media Matters itself made when it published an edited version of the transcript of Limbaugh’s original broadcast. But it was one more dart to throw at Limbaugh.
And that was just the beginning. In the coming days, Democrats in Congress, stung by the controversy over MoveOn.org’s “General Betray Us?” ad and resentful of being outmaneuvered by Republicans who pushed for resolutions condemning the ad, pushed hard against Limbaugh. “What’s most despicable is that Rush Limbaugh says these provocative things to make more money,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin in a speech delivered on the Senate floor. “So he castigates our soldiers. This makes more news. It becomes in the news. More people tune in. He makes more money. Well, I don’t know. Maybe he was just high on his drugs again. I don’t know whether he was or not.”
Finally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that Limbaugh had gone “way over the line.” “This comment was so beyond the pale of decency, and we can’t leave it alone,” Reid said. Reid and 40 other Democratic senators signed a letter to Mark May, CEO of Clear Channel Communications, calling on May “to publicly repudiate these comments.” May, who said he had carefully read the transcript of Limbaugh’s remarks, declined.
Where the controversy goes now is not clear. Democrats, and particularly their supporters in the left-wing blogosphere, are pressing for payback over the MoveOn.org affair. But Limbaugh’s explanation will likely make it harder to make the clear-cut case against him that Republicans, and some Democrats, made against MoveOn. The fact that Limbaugh, on the original September 26 program, brought up the ABC report, unbidden, to explain the “phony soldiers” remark suggests that that indeed was what he had in mind at the time he said it. That’s also supported by the fact that he had recorded a commentary on the story the day before, and that he printed out and re-read that commentary on September 26 as he explained “phony soldiers.” It was clearly on his mind.
And even though there are political arguments on all sides of this controversy, independent-minded critics who look at Media Matters might conclude that its political motivations are simply too strong to merit serious consideration. In addition to its ties to major Democratic donors and to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Media Matters is a deeply politicized organization down to its lowest levels. In the past few days, it has posted eleven stories on the Limbaugh matter. Those postings were written by, among others, Julie Millican, a veteran of the Kerry campaign, MoveOn.org, and the Democratic turnout organization America Coming Together; Sarah Pavlus, formerly of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Andrew Ironside, who worked for the Howard Dean campaign; Adam Shah, a lawyer who worked for the Alliance for Justice, the organization best known for opposing President Bush’s judicial nominees; Jeremy Schulman, a former spokesman for Colorado Democratic congressional candidate Dave Thomas; and Matthew Gertz, former deputy campaign manager for Connecticut Democratic congressional candidate Diane Farrell, as well as intern for New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer.