Rush Limbaugh's Strategically Ambiguous Monologues

Was the talk radio host being earnest or sarcastic when he praised the president for killing bin Laden? Neither answer is correct.

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Osama bin Laden's death caused a bunch of curiosity seekers to tune into Rush Limbaugh's radio program. Would the man who said he wanted President Obama to fail congratulate him on this success? The talk radio host was in a tough spot. He's long insisted that Obama is opposed to the U.S. asserting itself as an arbiter of justice. But there the president was: weighing America's options, ordering a unilateral military operation, and glorying in the death of Civilizational Enemy No. 1.

For Limbaugh, this was potentially devastating. President Obama is a flawed leader, no matter his recent success. His critics are right to keep saying so. But the particular criticisms Limbaugh regularly voices? "Obama doesn't believe we have the moral authority to do anything other than mouth a bunch of words," he said just weeks ago. "He doesn't look at America as the solution. We're the problem." That narrative was shown by dramatic real world events to be utter nonsense.

And he knows it. But to admit as much?

His problem was that he couldn't come out Monday morning swinging. Sure, some of his listeners would stick by him. But the Limbaugh audience is largely made up of nationalistic War on Terror hawks who wanted bin Laden's head on a pike as much as anyone. Opening with a direct attack on Obama after an event that brought out the jingoism in NPR listeners wasn't going to play.

Longtime Limbaugh watchers won't be surprised by his ingenious if cowardly solution. This is a man who often makes self-contradictory remarks that would evoke cognitive dissonance if uttered by a less talented broadcaster. (A recent example is his brazen about face on the war in Libya.) Over the years, he's gotten around this problem by putting ever more weight on his intellectual crutch of choice: deliberately ambiguous monologues that cannot be pinned down.

Did a segment have its intended effect? Then Limbaugh was totally serious. Is it generating more heat than anticipated? Oh, he was only joking. Isn't it just like humorless liberals to have missed that? His audience always buys these weak explanations because they're told that they're sophisticated enough to understand the nuance of his radio program, something his critics in "the drive-by media" lack the attention span and intelligence to grasp. The fact that he is often misunderstood by his least sophisticated critics only helps him get away with this clever feint.

That brings us to the way that he started his Monday program (transcript below):

We need to open the program today by congratulating President Obama.  President Obama has done something extremely effective, and when he does, this needs to be pointed out.  President Obama has continued the Bush policies of keeping a military presence in the Middle East.  He did not scrub the mission to get Bin Laden.  In fact, it may be that President Obama single-handedly came up with the technique in order to pull this off.  You see, the military wanted to go in there and bomb like they always do. They wanted to go in there and drop missiles and launch bombs, a number of totally destructive techniques here. But President Obama, perhaps the only qualified member in the room to deal with this, insisted on the Special Forces.  No one else thought of that.  Not a single intelligence advisor, not a single national security advisor, not a single military advisor came up with the idea of using SEAL Team 6 or any of the Special Forces.
Our military wanted to go in there and just scorch the earth, leaving no evidence of anything after the mission.  But President Obama single-handedly understood what was at stake here.  He alone understood the need to get DNA to prove the death.  Obama alone understood the aftermath, alone understood that there would be doubting Thomases if the place was just obliterated and no evidence was to be found.  According to news reports, not one member of the military, not General Petraeus, nobody in the intel community, nobody had the slightest idea of going in there and using Special Forces.  It was President Obama, single-handedly and alone, who came up with the strategy that brought about the effective assassination of Osama Bin Laden.   

On Andrew Sullivan's blog, Twitter, and elsewhere, folks were debating whether Limbaugh was being earnest or sarcastic in that segment. It's easy to understand their confusion: The "Osama is caught" monologue isn't a coherent example of either approach. Various aspects of it don't work as sarcasm. After all, President Obama did reject a military plan to reduce the compound to rubble, and actually deserves credit for ordering an attack that would leave proof of bin Laden's death. Plus there's all that stuff about how he continued George W. Bush-era policies, and being proud of the troops (more on that in a moment) -- just what you'd expect an earnest Limbaugh to say.  

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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