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Swiftboating Michael J. Fox

originally posted: October 28, 2006
last updated: December 14, 2006

Recently there was a bit of a media frabble between right wing commentator Rush Limbaugh and actor Michael J. Fox. Fox starred in a television advertisement in which he endorsed Missouri senate candidate Claire McCaskill for her strong stand in favor of stem cell research, which he hopes could lead to a cure to the Parkinson's disease from which he suffers. Many people found this a very effective ad. Polls showed that it raised support for stem cell research from 78% before seeing the ad, to 83% afterwards, and the level of concern for a candidates views on stem cell research went from 57% before to 70% after.

On his October 23, 2006 program, Rush Limbaugh counterattacked by accusing Fox of "moving all around and shaking" and said "it's purely an act. This is the only time I have ever seen Michael J. Fox portray any of the symptoms of the disease he has." He continued, "this is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting, one of the two."

Now there have been a lot of people crying shame on Rush for these comments, but I think that, at the end of the day, Rush, the Republican Party and its candidates have every reason to feel very happy with the outcome of the thing. It's a neat little example of swiftboating which I suspect has effectively nullified the Fox ad.

Swiftboating is a campaign tactic named after the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," a group that called into question John Kerry's military record during the 2004 presidential campaign, on the basis of remarkably dubious evidence. Kerry had volunteered for hazardous duty during the Vietnam war and had been awarded a Silver Star for his courage under fire. Bush, by contrast, had avoided all dangerous duty by joining the National Guard, and had apparantly gone AWOL from even that duty. Although the Swift Boat Veteran's campaign never actually provided any credible reason to doubt the Kerry's military record, they did raise enough of a fog of uncertainty to cause voters to just throw up their hands over the whole thing, not knowing what to believe. This was enough to largely neutralize it as a campaign advantage for Kerry.

I think Rush's attack on Michael J. Fox was a smaller scale example of the same thing, and it makes a nice example of how the tactic works.

First, the attack must be launched by someone other than the actual candidate, indeed, by someone who is not directly connectable to the candidate. If George Bush himself had questioned Kerry's military record, it would have backfired on him fiercely. Even if his own record had not been so pathetic, people would have found it reprehensible for him to attack another serviceman's record on such a slim basis. Instead, the Swift Boat Veterans were organized by a person who had been director of media relations for Reagan, but who had no apparant connections to the Bush campaign. When it was revealed that the same lawyer worked for the Bush campaign and the Swift Boaters, he immediately resigned from Bush campaign, to ensure that separation was maintained.

Rush Limbaugh is similarly well situated to launch attacks of this sort. It does him no harm if people get angry with him. On the contrary, it probably increases his audience. He's not a candidate. He doesn't need to convince people to vote for him, only to tune into his show. And though he is certainly a supporter of the Republican party, he has no official role in that party and is in no sense an official spokesperson for the party. Thus, few people are going to hold McCaskill's opponent, Jim Talent, responsible for Rush's words. It would even be possible for the Republican candidates who thought it would do them some good to condemn Rush for his crass remarks.

Note that I do not believe there is any kind of secret conspiracy here. I doubt Bush or his campaign had any hand in organizing the Swift Boaters and I doubt if Talent or his campaign had any input into Rush's attack on Fox. These are, in all probability, people who found themselves in a position to help their party, and acted on their own.

Second, the attack doesn't actually have to make sense, it just has to draw attention. The "facts" on which the Swift Boat attack and the attack on Fox were based do not actually stand up under close inspection. What's more, even if everything the Swift Boaters said about Kerry was true, Kerry's war record would still indicate vastly more personal courage and a vastly greater dedication to serving his nation than Bush's did. And whether or not Fox's tremors were deliberately arranged to make a more effective ad, he really does suffer from a genuine debilitating disease that could potentially be cured by stem cell research. Whether or not Michael J. Fox was presented in a way artificially calculated to win our sympathy, no one is denying that he is legitimately worthy of the public's sympathy.

So the attacks are essentially stupid, but it doesn't matter. The debate has been shifted. Was Fox faking? Is Rush a jerk? These are what is discussed in the media, and they are not campaign issues. Nobody's vote is going to be changed by their opinions about Fox's veracity or Rush's crassness. The actually campaign issue is "should we support stem cell research to help people like Michael J. Fox?" That question gets almost completely lost in the storm, and that is the whole point of the storm.

The third key principle, is to never ever admit you are wrong. Negative feedback to Rush's comments was immediate, and later in the same broadcast, Limbaugh said, "I will bigly, hugely admit that I was wrong, and I will apologize to Michael J. Fox if I am wrong in characterizing his behavior on this commercial as an act, especially since people are telling me they have seen him this way on other interviews and in other television appearances." Some media sources actually reported that Rush apologized, but though he talked a lot about apologizing, he never actually did. Every new apology was wrapped up with a fresh attack.

On October 25, Limbaugh said "I stand by what I said. I take back none of what I said. I wouldn't rephrase it any differently. It is what I believe. It is what I think. It is what I have found to be true."

On his October 26 program, Limbaugh said, "I want to make an apology here." and continued by not doing so:

But I was wrong. He did take his medications, and now, he took too much medication. The point is, he did something differently to appear in this ad than when he appears on Boston Legal.
and later
I apologize for saying he didn't take his meds. Instead, he took too much medication. But he didn't do this when he went on Boston Legal, and he didn't do this when he was with Tammy Duckworth later -- or earlier this week on a public appearance, fundraiser.

If Limbaugh had actually backed down, then the fog would be removed from the question. It would be settled. People's attention might return to the actual question of stem cell research. Instead, these "apologizes" just add more fog, drawing out the false debate, and making it even more complex and ambiguous. He actually managed to set off debates about whether he had apologized or not!

Stem cell research is an issue where the majority of public opinion is strongly against the Republican party. So their tactic has to be to muddle it in the public mind with as many pointless side issues as possible. In this context, Rush Limbaugh's comments were not crass and stupid, they were crass and smart, and totally effective.

But what's to be done about it? Rush and the Swift Boaters have as much right to state their opinions as I do, and I'm not about to deny it. I think that the American people and the American media are just going to have to learn to recognize these kinds of tactics and not let themselves be distracted by them. When Rush makes a statement like this, the media ought to call up Jim Talent and the Republican party leaders to ask them what they think. Report that. If they agree with Rush, you've got a big story. If they don't back him up, you've got a little story: "Limbaugh breaks with Republican Party over Fox Ad." After all, what Rush thinks is not big political news, just celebrity gossip. What our candidates for public office think is big news.

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