Rush to Judgment

I’m no fan of Rush Limbaugh. As far as I’m concerned, he’s a blowhard who too many people, including himself, consider to be the de facto lead conservative thinker in the country. Oh, for the days of William F. Buckley.

On the other hand, I have this thing about apocryphal quotes, so I feel compelled to come to Rush’s defense on a small matter.

It’s a quote that’s floated around since 1993, at one point working its way into a book by Al Franken, and while I thought it might have finally been consigned to ignorant blog comments, the other day it found its way into a press release from the National Organization for Women:

On that point, it’s important to note that when Chelsea Clinton was 13 years old she was the target of numerous insults based on her appearance. Rush Limbaugh even referred to her as the “White House dog.”

– Lisa Bennett, NOW Communications Director, June 11, 2009

Now other websites have taken on the apocryphal nature of this quote before. Wikipedia has a lengthy discussion of it, with the consensus being that it didn’t happen that way. Consult those websites for the full story; here’s the Cliffs Notes version.

On November 6, 1992, three days after the Presidential election, Limbaugh did a segment on his TV show about an In/Out list produced by David Hinckley of the New York Daily News. Here’s the transcript of what happened on that show:

LIMBAUGH: David Hinckley of–of the New York Daily News wrote this, and what he has–he’s got–it’s very strange. He says, In: A cute kid in the White House. Out: Cute dog in the White House.’ Could–could we see the cute kid? Let’s take a look at–see who is the cute kid in the White House.

(A picture is shown of Millie the dog)

LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) No, no, no. That’s not the kid.

(Picture shown of Chelsea Clinton)

LIMBAUGH: (Voiceover) That’s–that’s the kid. We’re trying to…

This transcript, reportedly from Lexis-Nexis, has floated around the web for a few years, and reliably shows up whenever someone cites Limbaugh’s “White House dog” incident. However, rather than nip the quote in the bud (or at least make people, like NOW, use a real quote rather than a made-up one), the response to the actual transcribed evidence has been to claim that there were two separate incidents, with the REAL “White House dog” comment occurring in 1993.

And it’s that mysterious “1993” incident that I want to address.

Now, folks who cite the existence of a second Chelsea/dog incident never date it any more specifically than “1993.” No time, no date, no month; just the year. Since the story hinges on a visual event, it can be assumed to be Limbaugh’s television program, but that’s about it for details. Yet despite being a TV show (and one that multiple Limbaugh-haters claim to have personally witnessed), there is no footage. Nor has a transcript ever surfaced.

A cursory news search for Limbaugh/Chelsea stories turned up just one of note, a short article called “Low blows,” which appeared in Newsweek on May 17, 1993:

FEUDS

Why did Bill Clinton take a verbal jab at Rush Limbaugh? At a recent Washington dinner, Clinton joked that the talk-show host defended Janet Reno after Rep. John Conyers grilled her on the Waco fiasco “only because she was attacked by a black guy.” Limbaugh complained he’d been called a “racist.” White House aides say Clinton-who’s supersensitive about his daughter-was getting back at Limbaugh for comparing Chelsea to George and Barbara Bush’s dog, Millie, on TV. Limbaugh’s producers say he apologized after “the wrong photo” was aired when Chelsea was mentioned. They say they don’t recall if it was a photo of a dog.

Clearly a reference to the November 1992 incident. Since Newsweek doesn’t reference a second incident, it seems logical to assume that one hadn’t happened before May 1993. So this is hardly a source to back up a second incident.

As far as sources go, defenders of the “1993” incident rely mainly on two: “Lyin’ Bully”, a 1995 opinion piece by Molly Ivins:

On his TV show, early in the Clinton administration, Limbaugh put up a picture of Socks, the White House cat, and asked, “Did you know there’s a White House dog?” Then he put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton, who was 13 years old at the time and as far as I know had never done any harm to anyone.

and “16 Candles for Chelsea”, a 1996 opinion piece by Roxanne Roberts:

The first lady was…even angrier when Rush Limbaugh took this shot: “Everyone knows the Clintons have a cat,” said Limbaugh. “Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?” And he held up a picture of Chelsea.

Two things of note about just these two pieces. First, both specifically cite Socks the cat as being part of the ‘joke.’ Second, Ivins and Roberts disagree over the type of image used. Ivins says it was displayed on a screen; Roberts claims Limbaugh held up a photo.

Opinion pieces from two years after an alleged event are hardly the best sources. Surely if Limbaugh did what they claim, someone would have mentioned it sooner. For instance, mention of the November 6, 1992 incident can be found on Usenet at least as early as November 17, 1992 (“Chelsea insult, apology,” posted by Linda Jensen to alt.rush-limbaugh). So when did the Ivins/Roberts 1993 version start getting passed around?

This much I know: I have yet to find even a single Usenet post before October 12, 1993 citing the Ivins/Roberts version of the story, or claiming that the photo ‘joke’ was repeated with the inclusion of Socks. The significance of October 12, 1993 is that that day saw the printing of “Mega-un-dittos from here, Rush,” an opinion piece by Molly Ivins that was published in the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram. The column was also syndicated in multiple papers across the country. In it, Ivins wrote:

Perhaps it is not fair to hold a radio talk-show host responsible for the several idiocies of his listeners, so let’s consider Limbaugh himself. Here is a Limbaugh joke: “Everyone knows the Clintons have a cat. Socks is the White House cat. But did you know there is also a White House dog?” And he puts up a picture of Chelsea Clinton. Chelsea Clinton is 13 years old.

Even then, note that Ivins doesn’t cite a date, or give any indication when this allegedly happened (i.e., early in the year, or days before the column was written?). Not that she necessarily should; this is just an opinion column. But it’s telling that even the earliest use of this version of the story cites no source, provides no date, and gives no indication that this was an incident independent of the documented one on November 6, 1992. To the contrary, if Rush had made the same cruel ‘joke’ TWICE, you’d think Ivins would want to mention that. It would certainly undercut his claim of “It was a mistake” to do it again.

In any case, by at least July 1994, FAIR was reporting Ivins’ version as authentic, and Usenet posts were beginning to spread it (Tracy Monaghan, seattle.general, 7/8/94). By January 1998 there were avid defenses of the accuracy of the Ivins’ version over claims of inaccuracy (Watson Aname, alt.rush-limbaugh, 1/6/98).

But there appears to be no citation of the Ivins version of the story prior to Ivins herself putting it in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in October 1993. And in the 16 years since, no one has yet managed to produce a date or transcript of a supposed second, parallel photo ‘joke’ by Limbaugh. Nor has anyone managed to produce any contemporary mention of Limbaugh executing the same photo ‘joke’ after having claimed the first was an accident. It’s an allegation that continues to rest solely upon the undated, unsourced recollections related in opinion columns that were printed years after the incident supposedly took place.

Admittedly, there are those who claim they happened to watch Limbaugh enact Ivins’ version onscreen, even if they can’t remember when. Memory, unfortunately, is not a reliable source in these matters. I have personally interacted with Obama-haters who claim they personally witnessed Obama say on TV that he wanted to change the National Anthem to “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” Obviously, that didn’t happen. It’s an urban myth. I showed them the evidence, and they still swore that they saw it happen. Both of these stories exhibit the same quality of sourcing and citation, relying on op-eds and personal recollections rather than reliable news reports.

Could I be wrong, and could there have been a second incident where Rush “accidentally” called Chelsea a dog? Perhaps. And perhaps Obama really did say he wanted to change the National Anthem. But I doubt it.

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