Rush Limbaugh and Private England: The Odd Couple

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I served briefly as Congressman Ron Paul’s research assistant
in the second half of 1976, I do not think of myself as a skilled
political observer. But some things are obvious, and one of them
is the present embarrassment of the faithful Republican Right
as a result of the prison scandals in Iraq. It has all hinged
on the photos. Oh, those irresistible photos!

That anyone
could be so imbecilic as to take photos, let alone videos, of
that morally repugnant debauchery illustrates a law of bureaucracy:
there will eventually be some bureaucrat in any government
bureaucracy who does something really stupid and then leaves a
. But it takes special level of mindlessness to make
and keep a record that plays well on prime-time network television.

Nixon made
audiotapes of his White House chats. This was stupid. But it took
an illegal leaker inside the White House or else a stolen set
of the tapes to disclose to the prosecutors which sections of
the tapes were the condemning ones. The courts and the press successfully
covered up what Susan Huck in 1975 thought should have been obvious:
the prosecutors knew exactly where on each tape the condemning
passages were. The prosecution did not receive carte blanche
from the courts to obtain the actual tapes. They could demand
only copies of specific extracts. Either there was a tipster inside
the White House or else an illegal set of duplicate tapes that
was given to the prosecutors. That was how the justice system
got tricky Dick: by being even trickier. Yet even today, almost
three decades after Dr. Huck published her discovery, only two
Garys have picked it up: first Gary Allen, then Gary North.

This time,
no such deception or illegal behavior has been necessary to get
out the story. The photos are everywhere: on the Web, on al-Jezeera
TV, and on network TV news. These photos condemn the United States
publicly as nothing that I can recall in American history. Abu
Ghraib is hardly the worst thing that the United States has ever
done, but it is surely the worst thing that ever got captured
on videotape and then reached a billion or more people on TV.

Rev. Talleyrand,
the most famous survivor of the French Revolution, once quipped,
“It was worse than a crime. It was a blunder.” Abu Ghraib was
both a crime and a blunder. It was a videotaped crime. In government
circles, this is regarded as the worst possible crime. It got
air time on prime-time TV.

And, speaking
of air time. . . .


Rush Limbaugh
faces daily the problem of everyone with a talk-based radio show:
he must keep talking in order to overcome the most important threat
on radio, namely, dead air. This means, inevitably, that the talker
will say something really stupid. Talk show air time is to its
hosts what video cameras are to Army prison guards. Eventually,
it will lead to a gaffe.

When the
talker is an ideologue, he feels compelled for the ratings’ sake
to say something shocking about a recent event. A brief observation
stating the obvious is never sufficient. I call this the Jerry
Springer temptation. But the outlandish statement must also be
consistent with the host’s perceived worldview, or at least his
shtick. Limbaugh could not resist Abu Ghraib. CBS News has posted his words verbatim.

sorry, folks. I’m sorry. Somebody has to provide a little levity
here. This is not as serious as everybody is making it out to
be. My gosh, we’re all wringing our hands here. We act like, ‘Okay
let’s just die,’ you know? ‘Let’s just give up. What can we do
to make these people feel better? Let’s just pull out of there,
and let’s just go. Let’s just become a neutral country. Let’s
just do that.’ I mean, it’s ridiculous. It’s outrageous what’s
happening here, and it’s not — and it’s not because I’m out
of touch; it’s because I am in touch, folks, that I can understand.
This is a pure, media-generated story. I’m not saying it didn’t
happen; I’m [not] saying the pictures aren’t there, but this is
being given more life than the Waco invasion got. This is being
given more life than almost — it’s almost become an Oklahoma
City-type thing. One more Bush sound bite, and the president continued
explaining how real democracy works here.”

I saw this
segment on the CBS Evening News, taken from his Web site. I could
not believe my ears. He was also quoted by The New Republic.

Here is
what he said to a caller and then posted on his own website (May 4):

is no different than what happens at the skull and bones initiation
and we’re going to ruin people’s lives over it and we’re going
to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really
hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people
are being fired at every day. I’m talking about people having
a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release?
You of heard of need to blow some steam off?

There was
a time in America when even hard-core conspiracy buffs had not
heard of Skull & Bones. They may have seen the 1970 TV movie starring
Glenn Ford, The Brotherhood of the Bell, but nobody who
was not a Yale alumnus knew it was about Bones. That changed after
Ron Rosenbaum published his article
on Skull & Bones
in Esquire (Sept. 1977), followed
by Antony Sutton’s book on America’s
Secret Establishment

Today, with
a pair of Bonesmen running against each other for President, a
Bones initiation has become a joke for Limbaugh, little more than
a fraternity hazing event. He has no awareness that taking a bloody
self-maledictory oath, coupled with self-revelations to fourteen
fellow initiates of one’s sexual history, might have psychological
and social effects in a person’s life — effects that have
to do with obedience, oath-bound silence, and control.

note: I hope that some interviewer at the televised debate asks
both of the candidates to describe Bones and their relation to
it. This, according to the original Bones’ rules, would force
both of them to leave the TV studio immediately. Then we could
watch a movie re-run or something more useful. This will not happen,
of course. No one will ask.]

statement is representative of the Republican Party’s response
to the Abu Ghraib videos: trivialization. His statement
can serve as a convenient epitaph for the Republican Right, written
by its number-one cheerleader.

In our day,
Rush Limbaugh is the past master of keeping the Republic Right
in line. That was a productive public service when the Clintons
were in office. He can be amusing. He sometimes goes to the heart
of a matter. He is a master of ridicule. For eight years, he inflicted
pain on one group of incumbent politicians, which is half the
battle in a two-party system. But with the Republicans in power,
he must of necessity maintain his position as the party’s in-house
cheerleader. His ridicule is reserved today for those who are
inflicting pain on incumbent Republicans — the other half
of the battle.

has now spoken for his listeners. He has articulated their moral
vision. This moral vision can be expressed in one sentence: “When
our guys get caught breaking the law, the infraction is not a
crime any more.” This outlook denies the rule of law. Specifically,
it denies Exodus 12:49. “One law shall be to him that is homeborn,
and unto the stranger that sojourneth among you.” The rule of
law is the bedrock judicial foundation of Western civilization.
Limbaugh has dismissed it as a joke.

Is this
politics as usual? You bet it is.


Three decades
ago, the Nixon Administration was being assailed from all sides.
Vice President Spiro Agnew was under investigation for income
tax evasion as a result of bribes he had taken as governor of
Maryland. He told the press at one point, “I did nothing as governor
of Maryland that any previous governor had not done.” That was
when I concluded that he was guilty as charged. Maryland was legendary
for its political corruption.

I recall
one televised snippet in the months prior to his “nolo contendere”
(no contest) plea on October 10, 1973. He was speaking to a crowd
of Republican faithful. He told the crowd that he was innocent,
and that he would not resign. I specifically recall a group of
women, wearing straw hats, jumping up and down and cheering. I
think they were also waving little American flags, but I could
be wrong. Mentally, they surely were.

He soon
resigned in disgrace. Had he not been caught, he would have become
President when Nixon resigned in disgrace ten months later.

note: Agnew did not serve time in prison. He was forced to pay
the IRS $10,000 for interest and penalties. Then he got sued by
a group of Maryland residents, who had been put up to this by
a group of George Washington University law students, who were
doing it as a class project. They had found a precedent in old
English law that required a malefactor to re-pay the state of
Maryland for his graft. He was convicted and had to write a check
for $268,482.]

Those women
in their straw hats symbolize the terminally gullible. Politics
could not function in a democracy without the votes of the terminally
gullible. These people are the infantry of democratic politics.
They are the boots on the ground. They are the ones who are told
to march in the mud of local campaigns. They are the targets of
psychological warfare — not just by the enemy, but by their

Over time,
they die off. Their ranks are not being replaced. The steady decline
in the percentage of Americans who vote indicates the extent of
the attrition. Terminally gullible people are becoming more scarce.

gullible voters are always in the hip pockets of whichever political
party they belong to. People in a politician’s hip pocket spend
most of their lives being sat on.


Today, there
are millions of Republican faithful whose attitude is this: “George
W., he’s my man.” This is normal in politics. Clinton had the
same kind of support, as have all Presidents. But Bush is facing
what Clinton did not face. Seducing an intern with a cigar is
not the same thing, politically speaking, as what happened in
Abu Ghraib prison. Here is the difference: Lewinsky did not have
a videotape of the event. Had she had a video, rather than a semen-stained
dress, Clinton would have been convicted by the Senate. Why? Because
of on-camera stupidity. (Of course, had she not kept the unwashed
dress, he would not have been impeached by the House.)

A President
can get away with anything except gross stupidity in full public
view. To embarrass your political peers is considered unforgivable.
You embarrass them by doing something truly stupid that leaves
a record. Their constituents may think, “This guy was taken in
by the President. He must be really gullible.” Making tapes is
incontrovertibly stupid. Without the audiotapes, Nixon would not
have been forced out.

Bush’s ratings
are falling. Why? Because of the videotapes. There is no scandal
yet. Congress is miffed that it was ignored by Rumsfeld, but nobody
is saying, “Bush must have known about this.”

At this
point, Bush is protected by the perception that he is not too
bright, which is not the case. He got through Yale University
and Harvard Business School. His problem is not a low IQ. He,
like Clinton, can remember everyone’s name. He is no dummy.

Here is
his intellectual problem. He lacks the ability to assess the truth
of what he is being told by his subordinates. He cannot sort the
wheat from the chaff. Being President, he is surrounded mostly
by chaff. Politics is long on chaff and short on wheat.

His mind
does not work in a coherent fashion. He cannot put things together,
and details bore him. He is also inarticulate. He seems like a
bit of a dim-wit on-camera. This protects him politically in a
world where most voters perceive themselves in much the same way:
bright enough to get by in life, but confused and unable to speak
in public. Millions of them think, “George W. he’s my man.”

But now
the videos have arrived. The moral debauchery of what was done
has not outraged the party faithful. Instead, it has embarrassed
them. No one likes to be embarrassed.

There is
something else — never mentioned in public. Private England
is so plug-ugly that when I first saw the thumbs-up
, I thought she was male. Yet she is four months pregnant.
This fact undermines the confidence of American males in our troops.
“What kind of soldier would impregnate this woman? To what level
have our troops fallen?” No political commentator ever mentions
this. The very suggestion is sexist.

If you ever
had any doubts about women in the military, Private England should
settle the question. General Janis Karpinski, who was in charge
of Abu Ghraib, and who has been quietly moved out of Iraq, has
also not made it any easier for members of the National Organization
of Women. Her defense was developed by Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s
Heroes. “I know nothing. Nothing!” She
was out of the loop. I
think of these two women as Schafly’s revenge.

To trivialize
Abu Ghraib is easy. Limbaugh has done it, instinctively, knowing
that this would be accepted by his audience. The fact is, most
politically decisive issues are trivial. Great moral issues rarely
reach the top of the short list of those issues that decide political
outcomes in modern democracies. Great issues of right vs. wrong,
good vs. evil, threaten to divide electorates. Incumbent politicians
do whatever they can to de-fuse such issues, for they do not want
their constituents divided. They want a majority of the voters
who show up at the polls to re-elect them.

The more
voters who show up, the more risk there is for incumbents. Moral
issues attract voters who normally stay home out of boredom or
disgust with politics. No incumbent politician wants a lot of
newcomers to show up at the polls. Their presence might de-stabilize
the existing order, wherein he has been able to win.

So, it is
unlikely that Abu Ghraib will become a moral line drawn in the
political sand. It is likely that the photos, the investigations,
and the drip-drip-drip of the media will produce a sense of embarrassment
and even disgust on the part of the Republican faithful. The faithful
will not rise up in righteous disbelief to defend Bush or Rumsfeld.
They will mumble. Then they will think about something else.


What is
not trivial is the fact that at least five prisoners died as a
result of military interrogations in Iraq. This story has hit
the American press in the hinterlands (The Denver Post), but is not front-page news
in the senior newspapers of record. These deaths took place last
year. There were no videos, so Congress does not care. Even getting
linked on Drudge’s site made no difference. Photos matter. Official
reports don’t. Prime-time matters. Murder doesn’t.

deaths include the killing in November of a high-level Iraqi general
who was shoved into a sleeping bag and suffocated, according to
the Pentagon report. The documents contradict an earlier Defense
Department statement that said the general died “of natural causes”
during an interrogation. Pentagon officials declined to comment
on the new disclosure. Another Iraqi military officer, records
show, was asphyxiated after being gagged, his hands tied to the
top of his cell door. Another detainee died “while undergoing
stress technique interrogation,” involving smothering and “chest
compressions,” according to the documents.

of the death investigations, involving at least four different
detention facilities including the Abu Ghraib prison, provide
the clearest view yet into war-zone interrogation rooms, where
intelligence soldiers and other personnel have sometimes used
lethal tactics to try to coax secrets from prisoners, including
choking off detainees’ airways. Other abusive strategies involve
sitting on prisoners or bending them into uncomfortable positions,
records show.

is the only thing you can call this,” said a Pentagon source
with knowledge of internal investigations into prisoner abuses.
“There is a lot about our country’s interrogation techniques
that is very troubling. These are violations of military law.”

I am waiting
for Rush Limbaugh’s lively comments on these developments. I wonder
what fraternity rites he will compare these to.


A widespread
sense of shame is fatal for an incumbent political party. Only
slightly less threatening is a widespread sense of embarrassment.
If the party faithful, who spend their lives in the party’s hip
pocket, decide to stay home, then the other party will become
the incumbent party.

There should
be a sense of moral outrage in Republican Party ranks. There never
is, of course. Outrage is always reserved for big-name candidates
of the other party. But there is a growing sense of embarrassment.
While most Republicans are not willing to condemn the armed forces
command system of having perpetrated a great moral evil, or even
accuse it of incompetence, they are ready to wonder what lies
ahead for a military regime staffed by troops with video cameras
and no common sense. According to the Army Times, American
troops in Iraq are referring to the six morons
who lost the war
. This raises legitimate questions regarding
the wisdom of the Administration that started it.

The photos
have betrayed the Republican faithful. They, like those straw
hat ladies in Agnew’s crowd of adoring fans, now sense that they
have somehow been misused. This sense of doubt points to the truth:
they have indeed been misused. They will never admit this to their
Democrat friends. But they will not be so ready to show up on
election day next November. Some will drop out of politics. Nobody
likes being made a fool in public, and Private England has made
fools of millions of Republican stalwarts.

When the
party faithful stay home, swing voters will decide the outcome
of an election this close. This is bad news for Republicans.

Some of
us remember the 1960 sketch of Nixon, reprinted everywhere: “Would
you buy a used car from this man?” It lost the election for him.
I keep imagining a photo of Private England, thumbs up. The caption:
“Is this the line of defense between you and Osama bin Laden?”

21, 2004

North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit
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