Brian McGough, a 31-year-old former Army staff sergeant who was wounded in a roadside attack in Iraq, knew he wouldn't get a warm response from talk show host Rush Limbaugh when he starred in an ad by the anti-Iraq war veterans group VoteVets.org. The ad, which featured a photograph of McGough's shaved head with jagged scars, was a response to Limbaugh's implication during his broadcast last week that antiwar vets were "phony soldiers":
"Rush, the shrapnel I took to my head was real. My traumatic brain injury was real. And my belief we are on the wrong course in Iraq is real," McGough says in the ad. "Until you have the guts to call me a phony soldier to my face, stop telling lies about my service."
Limbaugh responded on air Tuesday, comparing McGough metaphorically to a suicide bomber. He said the ad was "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."
With the 2008 presidential primary season at a fevered pitch, both sides of the political noise machine are cranking up the volume, looking for opportunities to slam the other side for bad behavior, bad word choice or bad intentions. Schoolyard-style taunts flung by irrepressible partisans are blown up into national debates.
Last month, the Republican side amped up after the left-wing group MoveOn.org ran an ad in the New York Times characterizing U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus as "General Betray Us" on the eve of his congressional testimony about the Iraq war's status. Both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly to condemn the ad.
This week, it was the Democrats' turn to wage all-out noisefare after Limbaugh made his "phony soldiers" remark during an exchange with a caller Sept. 26.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) composed a letter to Limbaugh's boss, Clear Channel Communications' Chief Executive Mark Mays, urging him to "publicly repudiate" Limbaugh's comments and to ask the talk show host to apologize. Though Reid said he was confident that Senate Republicans would join Senate Democrats "in overwhelming numbers," none signed the letter. Of 41 signatures, all were Democrats, including four presidential contenders -- Hillary Rodham Clinton, Barack Obama, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Christopher J. Dodd.
In a written response to Reid, Mays said that he would not intercede because Limbaugh was exercising his right to express an opinion. He added that "if Mr. Limbaugh's intention was to classify any soldier opposed to the war in Iraq as a 'phony soldier,' which he denies, then I, along with most Americans, would be deeply offended by such a statement."
On Wednesday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called the issue "a manufactured controversy." The brouhaha over Limbaugh's remarks, he said, was an attempt by MoveOn.org and others "to change the subject away from the slanderous advertisement" about Petraeus.
Some observers simply shook their heads.
"This is why people hate politics in America and why they are so desperate for a change," said former GOP pollster Frank Luntz, a consultant for Fox News Network. "Everyone is looking for the political advantage. Everyone is looking for a story they can use to beat the other guy over the head."
Limbaugh maintains he was not referring to antiwar veterans. He was, he said, referring to antiwar activist Jesse MacBeth, a 23-year-old Tacoma, Wash., man who was sentenced to five months in prison last month after his false claims about his military service were revealed by conservative bloggers.
During his show Wednesday, Limbaugh, who did not respond to e-mails and a faxed request for an interview, expressed disappointment that more officials had not come to his defense, and announced that Republican presidential hopeful Fred Thompson had defended him. Thompson, in a brief statement on his website, accused congressional Democrats of "trying to divert attention from insulting our military leader in Iraq and pandering to the loony left by attacking Rush Limbaugh."
Jon Soltz, the Iraq veteran who co-founded VoteVet.org, said Limbaugh's "phony soldiers" remark was brought to his attention by the liberal media watchdog group Media Matters for America, with whom he is friendly but not affiliated. "This man has insulted these troops, and there is accountability for this stuff," said Soltz, who was not pleased with the "General Betray Us" ad either.
"What we need to do, as veterans of the Iraq war, is to distance ourselves from personal attacks and focus on the policy issues," Soltz said.
Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a 2004 Democratic presidential contender, said he was unmoved by Limbaugh's assertions that he was not insulting antiwar vets. "In the past, he's been very outspoken in attacking veterans who had honorable service because he doesn't agree with their political views. I think he has a selective memory."
McGough, who is nearing the fourth anniversary of his Oct. 17, 2003, wounding in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, said he was upset but not surprised that Limbaugh compared him to a suicide bomber. He said he had even received e-mails from Limbaugh fans who said they respected him though they disagreed with his antiwar stance.
As for Limbaugh, McGough said, "I knew he was going to deflect everyone off of him by calling me names. I just wanted to point out that I am not a phony soldier."