Franken’s Rush/Chelsea lie

Franken and his late friend Molly Ivins made some false claims about Rush Limbaugh in the early nineties. Rush for the most part ignored the claims, perhaps trying not to feed into the smears. So, Ivins weaved this whopper, based loosely on an actual event, and Franken then repeated it countless times until it became ingrained in cultural folklore. It was so ingrained that when the internet took off and LexisNexis came around,  no one bothered to fact check it.

Relying on the false history he had already established, Franken repeated this lie in Lies and the Lying Liars who tell them. So I looked into it and of course found hypocrisy, dishonesty and irony.

Following is a direct excerpt from Franken’s book followed by a closer look:

‘”I’ve never heard him [Rush] make an ad hominem attack.” As I would later learn, this was in keeping with Sean’s seasoned ability to lie and believe it. Or at least just lie.

“Really? How about when he called Chelsea Clinton the ‘White House dog’? Would that qualify?”

This was a very famous incident. On Rush’s TV show in 1993, shortly after Clinton took office and years before Buddy joined the First Family, the show put up a picture of Socks, the cat. “Did you know that the Clintons not only have a White House cat,” Rush said coyly, “but they also have a White House dog?” Then, on screen came a picture of a thirteen-year-old Chelsea.

Sean was ready for that one. “That was a mistake. A technician accidentally put up the wrong picture.”

“Really? Okay, then tell me, what was the joke? ‘The Clintons not only have a White House cat’–picture of Socks–’they also have a White House dog.’ What’s the joke? What picture was supposed to come up?”

Alan Colmes was standing nearby. “You know, he’s got a point, Sean. There’s no joke without the picture of Chelsea.”

But Sean would have none of it. “It was a mistake! A technician put up the wrong picture. That’s what Rush said. And I believe Rush.”

“Okay. Let me ask you this. It was a taped show. Taped hours before it aired. If it was a technical mistake, why didn’t they fix it with the correct picture, whatever that possibly could have been?”

Sean kept arguing his indefensible position…

All right, that’s Franken’s story. Let’s take a closer look. Before we delve into the more egregious violations of the truth, let’s start with his subtle deception.

Franken provides the date of “1993″. That is false. The only incident resembling Franken’s account took place Nov. 6, 1992. Anyone who tells you otherwise is confused or lying. Or both.

The date might seem like an insignificant detail, but it is important to the context. Nov. 6, 1992 was immediately after the election, when there was still a great deal of excitement. The new first family-to-be was a huge topic of discussion. Chelsea had been shielded during the campaign so most people didn’t know a lot about her or even what she looked like.   Switching the date to 1993 is a subtle, artful sleight that prevents Franken’s readers from seeing the need for Rush to identify Chelsea to his audience.

Franken solidifies the false date by claiming, falsely of course, that the incident was “shortly after Clinton took office” when clearly it was not.

Then, he fabricated details of the incident. Originally there was no mention of the cat.  Rush could not have said the line “coyly”, as Franken claimed, considering Rush never said it at all. All of the supposed quotes from Rush are fake.

All of them.

The following is what actually happened:

On his TV show in 1992, a few days after the Presidential election, Rush Limbaugh was reviewing In/Out lists (a popular fad at the time):

In today’s New York Daily News right here… it’s the obligatory in-out list. Every time there’s a massive change somewhere, people are in, people are out. I’m now out. It says about me on here, Rush Limbaugh, loud-mouthed conservative and Bush favorite. He’s out.

Rush commented that most of the other things on the days’ list were not funny, but that “one of them in particular” was. Rush quoted from the David Hinckley article

“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 of the “cute dog” (Millie) appeared on the screen instead of the “cute kid” (Chelsea).

Rush immediately said

No, no, no. That’s not the kid.

Then a picture of Chelsea Clinton came on the screen and Rush said

That’s– that’s the kid.

Rush apologized several times and told a story about how he had learned early in his career the importance of not making fun of someone’s appearance. He then apologized again and said

I’m– I hope you will forgive me. I’m fatigued. I’m tired…

Before breaking to a commercial, Rush asked the audience what he could do to make amends for the incident and, in an odd, spontaneous joke, proceeded to spank himself.

Was Rush trying to make the most of a mistake, or was the whole thing scripted—apologies and all? The fact that Franken had to use a fake version of events to argue his case tells us a lot. The real version has Rush talking about a “cute dog” as well as a “cute kid,” obviously not a set-up for calling the kid a dog.

It is not an assault on Chelsea, as her picture only comes up in the context of correcting the error.

Franken set up a fake joke, falsely accused Rush of trying to tell it and then complained that the joke would only make sense if Rush put up the picture on purpose. The question of, “what picture was supposed to come up?” is not ironclad, it is ironic. Rush replaced the picture.

Rush has always maintained the incident was an accident. On his show four days later, Rush offered an explanation to his audience. First, the show played, “Who’s sorry now” in the background and Limbaugh pointed to himself. Then he said:

Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry. Let me tell you very quickly what happened last Friday night. There was a new in list and new out list that was published in the newspaper. The writer said in, cute kid in the White House; out, cute dog in the White House. Could we show the cute dog in the White House who’s out, and they put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton back in the crew. And many of you people think that we did it on purpose to make a cheap comment on her appearance. And I’m terribly sorry. I don’t–look, that takes no talent whatsoever and I have a lot of talent. I don’t need to get laughs by commenting on people’s looks, especially a young child who’s done nothing wrong. I mean, she can’t control the way she looks. And we really–we do not–we do not do that on this kind of show. So put a picture up of her now and so we can square this.

They then showed the picture of Chelsea Clinton. She had a displeased look on her face, as if to show that she was not too happy with the mistake.

Rush continued:

All right. We’re sorry. We didn’t intend to hurt her feelings. We’ll be back with our final segment right after this. Don’t go away.

This apology offers considerable insight into what happened.  Rush indicates that he had asked to see the “cute dog”.  That is not what happened on the show, but is probably what had been planned–which explains why Rush has it backward. If Rush was supposed to ask to see the “cute dog” first, that would explain why the technician put up the picture. They had it cued first.  In addition, if they had the pictures cued according to the names “Chelsea” and “Millie,” it is even easier to see how a mistake could have happened. Both are female names and like most of America at the time, the technician probably did not know Chelsea by name.

As for Franken’s question of why, if it was an accident, Rush did not fix the problem, the actual context again has the answer. Rush corrected the initial error right away and apologized several times — thereby fixing the problem. There was no need to go back and re-tape a different sequence of events. Mistakes that don’t violate FCC regulations are routinely left in TV talk shows, most notably late-night shows like Jay Leno or Conan O’Brien or Rush Limbaugh’s show.

Besides, Rush gave us his reasoning in 1990 after an embarrassing incident had occurred when he was hosting a show for Pat Sajak. Rush said,

Since I as a broadcaster on radio and now on television believe in behaving in an honest fashion, not faking anything and allowing whatever happens to happen, uh, you saw what happened… Many other shows would have attempted to keep you from seeing what happened in this studio tonight. It happened; we don’t hide behind it…

It is worth noting that, interestingly, there was an incident– in 1993– where Rush did discuss Chelsea Clinton’s appearance. Here’s what he said:

You know, she’s [Hillary Clinton] got an interview out in Redbook magazine that just came out this week. And in it she says that she thinks it’s very childish of shows like “Saturday Night Live” to make fun of Chelsea. And I agree. I mean, I don’t think you should take shots at a little kid, especially the way a little kid looks and… Well, they do it on “Saturday Night Live” and they’re really mean and vicious about it. And I think that it’s worth pointing out that the liberals who run “Saturday Night Live” are the ones doing that. They always say that people like me make fun of the way people look, and we haven’t done that; and-and so she [Hillary] talks about that…

(Rush Limbaugh TV Show, February 12, 1993)

What, you may ask, was Rush talking about? Well, a Saturday Night Live skit had Madonna making a sexual advance toward Chelsea Clinton (played by a dressed-up Julia Sweeney, the actress who also played the androgynous character “Pat”). It was outrageous. The following is from a transcript of the show, which aired on 1/16/1993:

[Clinton gives Madonna the "Call Me!" signal again, but she shakes hr fingers "No, no", and acknowledges Chelsea instead, who is pleasantly surprised by the outcome]

Yes, Hillary had in fact complained about Saturday Night Live, where her daughter’s appearance was being viciously mocked.

As you may recall, whether he was directly involved in the skit or not, Al Franken was a cast member, a writer and a co-producer for the show at the time they were making fun of Chelsea’s appearance– when Hillary complained about it.

Rush Limbaugh of course has not been the only conservative to be attacked unfairly, but he has been attacked more than perhaps any other.