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 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 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 “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? … 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.”

Limbaugh agreed: “The phony soldiers.”

Two days later, under heavy critical fire for using those words, he claimed to be the victim of a “smear.” He served up a neatly trimmed transcript of the Sept. 26 program, omitting more than a minute and a half to make it seem as if his “phony soldiers” reference was intended solely for an anti-war activist who had allegedly masqueraded as an Army vet. That falsified transcript has provided fodder for Limbaugh’s defenders, a motley assortment of bloggers, Fox News personalities, and a Republican congressman from Georgia who has actually introduced a resolution commending him.

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 he and his defenders change the original phrase “phony soldiers” and say “phony soldier” instead — because the plural belies his alibi and emphasizes his nasty intention.

While today he whines because Media Matters for America, the progressive watchdog group, caught and publicized his slur, he cannot escape what the audio proves.

Only in a media environment where conservatives have long felt exempt from scrutiny would Limbaugh still feel free to mock the military service of those who disagree with him. He is, after all, a certified chicken hawk 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 a Missouri county, where his family enjoyed 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.

Despite that undistinguished record, however, he has never hesitated to denigrate the service of Sen. John Kerry, former Sen. Tom Daschle and other Democrats who volunteered to wear the nation’s uniform. He spent hours repeating the “Swift boat” lies when Kerry ran for president in 2004. And now he insinuates that the troops and vets who question this war are “phony soldiers.”

What really worries 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 policies that have cost them so dearly. Leaders of VoteVets, a group of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans organized in support of smarter security policy, have angrily challenged 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 opinion — it is no longer so easy for the Limbaugh crowd to claim the military and the flag as their exclusive property.

That illegitimate seizure of everyone’s patriotic heritage is coming to an ignominious end.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer (

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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