When former Sen. Harry Reid gets laid to rest this weekend, he’ll be eulogized as a former boxer who fought for America. But I’ll be thinking of the time the Nevada Democrat threw a cheap shot at the First Amendment, only to have Rush Limbaugh knock him out cold.
In my interview with James “Bo Snerdley” Golden about his book, “Rush on the Radio: A Tribute from His Sidekick for 30 Years,” we marveled at our boss’s ability to absorb dishonest blindsides without ever fighting dirty.
Limbaugh was Rocky; the haters were Ivan Drago growling, “I must break you.” But Limbaugh would not be broken. He was, as the big Soviet said of Balboa, “like a piece of iron.”
In October 2007, what became known as “the Harry Reid Smear Letter” presented the most powerful opponent of Limbaugh’s career. Forty-one Senate Democrats wrote his syndicator demanding they repudiate radio’s G.O.A.T. It was a violation of the First Amendment’s spirit, as chilling as a law “abridging the freedom of speech.”
Mr. Reid’s letter started with a lie, which as Edith Keeler told James T. Kirk, “is a terrible way to say, ‘Hello.’” Like his baseless claim that Sen. Mitt Romney hadn’t paid taxes in 10 years, Mr. Reid charged that Rush had called troops who opposed the Iraq War “phony soldiers.”
Rush invited Mr. Reid on the show, challenging him, “Say it to my face,” but the senator feared stepping into the ring. He knew the long history of publicity seekers claiming to have served from the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli. The odious David Duke lied about fighting in Vietnam. So did Sens. Tom Harkin (who signed the Smear Letter) and Dick Blumenthal, both Democrats.
Others wove tales of marching at Bull Run, charging San Juan Hill, or dog-fighting the Red Barron. Two years before the Smear Letter, CBS News reported that “Stolen Valor” author B.G. Burkett had “exposed more than 1,000 phony vets,” and the media had hyped more than one who ripped former President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. Everyone knew who Limbaugh meant, even Mr. Reid.
Rather than throw in the towel to what’s now called cancel culture, Limbaugh came out swinging. As EIB strategist Brian Glicklich wrote in The Wall Street Journal, “Rush auctioned their letter off in a show of gleeful brio … matched the $2.1 million winning bid with his own funds and donated the money to scholarships for the children of fallen service members and police officers.”
That charity, the Marine Corps-Law Enforcement Foundation, doesn’t ask a deceased loved one’s political affiliation. That your mother or father died serving America is all that matters to them, and all that mattered to Limbaugh.
The issue appeared on Limbaugh’s radar for a Morning Update on Jesse MacBeth — a fake Army Ranger that the media touted as an anti-war war hero — and again with The New Republic’s debunked “Baghdad Diaries.” Those tales of U.S. atrocities read as so fictionalized, Pulitzer Prize-winner Peggy Noonan was immediately skeptical, thinking, “That’s not Iraq. That’s a Vietnam War movie.”
The phrase “phony soldiers” also aired when Limbaugh took a call from a Missouri mother lamenting, “I have a son in Afghanistan, a son-in-law in Iraq, and these phony soldiers — and by that, I mean these guys [like MacBeth] that were not men enough to cut basic or to get through basic — they make me sick.”
Six months earlier, Mr. Reid had declared, “This war is lost,” inspiring the enemies trying to kill our troops. Desperate to flip the script, he plucked the “phony soldiers” term out of context, dreaming it’d drop Limbaugh to the canvas like Apollo Creed.
Instead, that auction raised $4.2 million, and Limbaugh challenged Democrats to match the amount. (They didn’t.) The scheme collapsed. Mr. Reid was forced to crawl to the Senate floor and — in a craven attempt to claim credit — praise Limbaugh as if they’d funded those scholarships together.
As Washington Times opinion editor Charles Hurt said of the recent funeral of another senator, Bob Dole, “In the cavernous halls of Washington, every occasion is an opportunity for politicians to celebrate themselves,” and that’s already the case with Harry Reid.
But we can hope that former President Bill Clinton’s sentiment eulogizing Richard Nixon will prevail: “May the day of judging [him] on anything less than his entire life and career come to a close.”
Rather than canonize Mr. Reid as a statesman, let’s hope history considers his full legacy, including the bout with Limbaugh — a fight where free speech prevailed, forcing the boxer-turned-party boss to cry, “No mas, Rush! No mas!”
• Dean Karayanis @HistoryDean is a producer for the “Clay Travis & Buck Sexton Show,” longtime Rush Limbaugh staffer and host of the “History Author Show” on iHeartRadio.