Monday, June 13, 2005

Hawks, Doves, and "Chickenhams"

Al Franken has come up with a variation on his "chickenhawk" theme. According to Franken, those conservatives who support current military action, but did not serve in Vietnam in the 60s and 70s, have no business talking about U.S. foreign policy. Liberals who did not serve in the military are not subject to similar criticism since their current beliefs and past actions (30 years ago) are seemingly consistent. Current liberals who are also veterans (McGovern, Kerry, etc.) are seen as uniquely heroic.

As memories of Vietnam fade, Franken has substituted USO tours for combat tours. Ann Coulter quips that Al Franken is the world's largest donor of mentions of his own USO involvement. That is to say, he brags a lot about his USO shows.

Scott Johnson has posted a review of the recent Franken-fundraiser (sounds like something an evil scientist would create in a lab) in Minneapolis. The Saturday Night Live alum chided Rush Limbaugh and other conservative celebrities for failing to perform in USO shows. Chickenhawks have now become chickenhams.

Let me say that this is a positive development. If A-list celebrities -- both liberal and conservative -- are dueling to see who can entertain the most troops, that is wonderful. In my heart, every entertainer who performs in a show for the military here or overseas is A-list. But it is also true that my personal A-list is not always in sync with the box office and billboard charts. Bob Hope was no longer the number one star of radio, television, and film when he went to Vietnam. This may have been a normal career progression, or a situation where his popularity in a divided country was hurt by his support for the war. Personal gain was not Hope's motive. He did not travel to the South Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon, or Iraq because it would help his career, or because it would give him bragging rights over a political rival.

David Letterman is the model of a selfless entertainer who raises the morale of our military. During a hiatus in his late night show, he quietly slips off to Afghanistan. No fanfare, no rant about how great he is.

In the case of Rush Limbaugh, he criticized the USO as being liberal (I do not have enough information to evaluate this claim), and met with troops in Afghanistan courtesy of the State Department. I guess that Franken has problems with what Limbaugh said to the troops, which shows that you can't win with this charter member of the Formerly Funny Club.

I seem to recall that, during the First Gulf War, troops requested Morton Downey Jr. (the Model-T version of Rush Limbaugh) to entertain them, but the Defense Department balked. Most entertainers are not brought into deployed areas by the USO, a private charity, but by the military itself through the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) program. The USO, Red Cross, and other groups provide a much needed boost to morale, but it is not the case that they are the only conduit of entertainment for servicemembers.

There was also a controversy over troop requests for Rush Limbaugh on Armed Forces Radio and Television during President Clinton's administration. If memory serves, the White House claimed that only two percent (or some small number) of troops wanted to hear the conservative commentator on Armed Forces Radio. But this figure came from a multiple choice survey in which the participants could add comments. Without being asked, two percent of the respondents wrote in comments asking for the Rush Limbaugh radio show. If that many servicemembers requested it, sua sponte, then there really was an audience among the overseas military and their families. During the controversy, Limbaugh offered to package his show in any length the military wanted, from 30 minutes to the full three hours.

All of this points out that 1) entertainers are not always able to decide when and where they entertain troops, and 2) Limbaugh has not turned a deaf ear (so to speak) to military morale.

Turning back to Al Franken, I wonder whether his behavior has been consistent over the years. The chickenhawk argument posits that a person can not mature or have a change of heart over the course of 30 years. Any seemingly inconsistent behavior and rhetoric, decades apart, is fair game for the charge of hypocrisy and cowardice. As Franken's fame grew in the mid-1970s, there were probably no large USO shows for the remaining troops in Vietnam. But he could have entertained the stateside draftees who were finishing their military obligation. Or the hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe and Korea. And what about the veterans recovering from their wounds in VA hospitals? Something tells me that a visit from a hip writer/performer on the hottest variety show would have boosted morale.

Franken's ability to separate the warrior from the war is quite selective. His "support the troops" mantra apparently does not cover Vietnam veterans. Consider this passage from ther book Live From New York, by Shales and Miller:

One day [shortly after the Vietnam War] Henry Kissinger calls up," 'Saturday Night Live' writer Tom Davis recalled years later, "and the call is picked up at an NBC page's desk. And the page goes, 'Henry Kissinger's on the phone. He wants tickets for his son.' And Al [Franken] grabs the phone and yells into it, 'You know, if it hadn't been for the Christmas bombing in Cambodia, you could've had your f---ing tickets!

OK. So Kissinger does not exactly qualify as one of the troops. But Franken's outburst does seem to perpetuate the myth of our military being "baby killers." For a more succinct example of his feelings about Vietnam veterans, check out this transcript from a November 2000 broadcast of Politically Incorrect, where Franken says that we weren't the good guys in that war.

Although Franken is not a chickenham, neither are some of the people he criticizes. Moreover, he lacks the moral authority to accuse other entertainers of hypocrisy, given his own conduct over the years. Bottom line is that Al Franken should continue to do USO tours, but he should keep his mouth shut about it.


Anonymous marty andrade sr said...

Just a quick comment on Bob Hope, whom I carried around Viet Nam in a C-130. He gave up his Christmas every year to go overseas from WWII until he was too infirm to be able to do the streneous travel that his tours entailed. Sure, he always got a great show out of it once he was on tv, but his show was always oriented on entertaining the troops, not on his future tv show. He did his tours in jungle heat,artic cold,at sea and in actual combat areas where his safety could not be insured. For all of his bragging Franken will never touch Hope's record. Plus Bob Hope was actually funny, something that Al Franken has forgotten to be lately(if he ever was)

June 16, 2005 3:01 AM  

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