WASHINGTON – The owner of the company that airs Rush Limbaugh's show has come to his defense, telling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that while he isn't certain to whom Limbaugh was referring when he used the term "phony soldiers," the radio talk show host has a long history of supporting U.S. troops.
Mark P. Mays, president of Clear Channel, the parent company of Limbaugh's broadcast, on Tuesday responded to a letter signed by 41 Democrats that called on the network "to publicly repudiate" comments made by Limbaugh "that call into question" the service and sacrifice of troops who oppose the war in Iraq.
"Mr. Limbaugh's comments have stirred a lot of emotion, and I have carefully read the transcript in question," Mays wrote. "Given Mr. Limbaugh's history of support for our soldiers, it would be unfair for me to assume his statements were intended to personally indict combat soldiers simply because they didn't share his own beliefs regarding the war in Iraq.
"I hope that you understand and support my position that while I certainly do not agree with all the views that are voiced on our stations, I will not condemn our talent for exercising their right to voice them," he wrote.
Mays' letter came after Limbaugh ratcheted up his criticism of Democratic lawmakers Tuesday, calling efforts by Democrats in Congress to target him as a diversion meant to distract supporters from their failed efforts to get out of Iraq.
In an attack that began with the first words of the show and continued throughout his daily three-hour broadcast Tuesday, Limbaugh compared Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is using a liberal media watchdog to suppress her opposition and said he feels sorry for Sen. Tom Harkin's family for having to be associated with the Iowa Democrat's statements on the Senate floor a day earlier.
He then said the attacks aren't really about him personally.
"It's about them and they are desperately trying to salvage themselves with their own lunatic fringe base who they are not only disappointing but they are deceiving because the dirty, little secret, as I also predicted, was that if the Democrats win the White House in '08 they are not pulling out of Iraq. All the top tier Democrats have said so," Limbaugh told his audience.
"Time to distract those peasants with pitchforks out there who are fit to be tied over being betrayed by Harry Reid, (House Speaker) Nancy Pelosi and the rest of the Democrats," he said.
The conservative talk radio host was fighting back after Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate lambasted him over remarks he made last week suggesting veterans who oppose the Iraq war are "phony soldiers."
In the House, Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who is running for the open Senate seat in his state, has authored a resolution condemning the host. Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer has not decided whether or not he'll bring it up for a vote, his staff told FOX News.
On Tuesday, Hoyer tried to draw comparisons between the Limbaugh attack and GOP efforts last week to condemn ads by MoveOn.org that suggested Gen. David Petraeus, head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, had betrayed the United States by giving Congress a semi-positive report on the result of the troop surge there.
"What's good for the goose is good for the gander," Hoyer said, adding that everyone should try to show "restraint from condemning all that we disagree with."
Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl responded to the charge, becoming the first Republican lawmaker to support the radio host publicly.
“It’s troubling that some Democrats have taken a comment by Rush Limbaugh about “phony soldiers” totally out of context in order to find some moral equivalence to get them off the hook for refusing to condemn the MoveOn.org 'Petraeus' ad," he said. “The only thing phony about this is the contrived controversy."
Senate Democrats say they plan no similar resolution of to Udall's because, as one Senate Democratic leadership aide said, to do so would only give Limbaugh "the kind of attention he craves."
But on the Senate floor Monday, Reid accused Limbaugh of attacking "those fighting and dying for him and for all of us. Rush Limbaugh got himself a deferment from serving when he was a young man. He never served in uniform. He never saw in person the extreme difficulty of maintaining peace in a foreign country engaged in a civil war. He never saw a person in combat. Yet, that he thinks his opinion on the war is worth more than those who have been on the front lines," Reid said.
"Rush Limbaugh owes the men and women of our armed forces an apology," he said.
Harkin followed Reid, saying: "Maybe he was just high on his drugs. I don't know." In 2003, Limbaugh admitted a dependency on pain medication, but three years later reached a plea deal that cleared him of prescription shopping for Oxycontin.
"I feel like apologizing for his family for what he said yesterday," Limbaugh said of Harkin. "Such a demeaning thing he did and so below the decorum and stature of (a member) in the United States Senate.
"It's unconscionable what Sen. Reid and Sen. Harkin and these other Democrats are doing. And again I want to apologize today to all of you in the United States military — active duty and retired — for this smear. I am not apologizing for myself. I am apologizing for Media Matters.org, for Hillary Clinton, for Harry Reid. I am apologizing for all of these groups that are undertaking efforts to demoralize you. ... I want to apologize to you on their behalf for this storm having been created out of thin air out of a total lie."
Limbaugh has vehemently denied a wholesale attack on antiwar servicemen and women. A literal reading of the Sept. 26 show in question shows that the controversial host did not in fact say that soldiers opposing the war are "phony," but his remarks have left confusion as to whom he is referring when he used the phrase.
The offense came up when a caller named Mike, who said he is currently serving in the Army, described his anger about talk of a pull-out from Iraq. Limbaugh readily agrees, according to the recorded exchange:
CALLER 2 (Mike): ...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: The phony soldiers.
CALLER 2: The phony soldiers. If you talk to a real soldier, they are proud to serve. They want to be over in Iraq. They understand their sacrifice, and they're willing to sacrifice for their country.
Limbaugh has since said on his show that he was referring only to one soldier: disgraced, convicted former Army soldier-turned-antiwar-activist Jesse Macbeth. Macbeth falsely claimed to have participated in war crimes in Iraq and received a Purple Heart, but in reality, he was discharged after only 44 days of service, never placing a foot in Iraq.
Macbeth was sentenced to five months in prison for fraudulently collecting more than $10,000 in benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The problem with the exchange, say critics, is that Limbaugh refers to multiple "soldiers." He gets to a conversation about Macbeth about two minutes after referring to "phony soldiers." In subsequent radio shows, Limbaugh attempted to clarify his position, but muddied the waters by editing out a portion of it, prompting outrage from the liberal media watchdog Media Matters, which has been driving this latest controversy.
In edited form, the discussion of Macbeth comes much more quickly after the reference to "phony soldiers."
On Tuesday, Limbaugh returned to Macbeth, noting that the convicted soldier's false accounts were merely the latest in a string of reports that Limbaugh has covered on his show.
"This is a willful and purposeful missing of the context of this program," Limbaugh said of arguments regarding his use of the plural to describe the Macbeth story. "We have discussed many of these phony soldiers over the course of the last few months. We discuss them constantly. Macbeth was just the latest."
He then quoted a Sept. 21 release from the U.S. Attorneys Office from the Western District of Washington state referring to eight "phony vets" who had scammed more than $1.4 million by lying about their military service for financial gain.
Despite attempts to clarify his remarks, a veterans group opposed to the Iraq war said it will launch a television ad campaign lambasting the radio host. It will feature a Purple Heart recipient who was injured while serving in Iraq.
"More and more troops and veterans of Iraq believe George Bush's military policy has been a disaster. I am one of them. Rush Limbaugh called vets like me "phony soldiers" for telling the truth about Iraq. Rush, the shrapnel I took to my head was real. My traumatic brain injury was real. And, my belief that we are on the wrong course in Iraq is real. Until you have the guts to call me a "phony solider" to my face, stop telling lies about my service," says veteran Brian McGough of Washington, D.C.
Limbaugh decried the ad by the group that he linked to MoveOn.org, figuratively saying VoteVets is treating McGough like a suicide bomber.
"This is such a blatant use of a valiant combat veteran, lying to him about what I said and then strapping those lies to his belt, sending him out via the media and a TV ad to walk into as many people as he can walk into. This man will always be a hero to this country with everyone. Whoever pumped him full of these lies about what I said and embarrassed him with this ad has betrayed him, they aren't hurting me they are betraying this soldier," Limbaugh said.
Limbaugh also repeated his invitation to Reid to come on his show to debate his record of support for the troops, and said any refusal by Reid would be "quite telling."
FOX News' Trish Turner, Chad Pergram and Molly Hooper contributed to this report.