Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s denunciation of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s military record may have stunned the political world, but some pundits played down Trump’s diss by resurrecting a similarly worded quote about McCain from a Democrat 15 years ago.
Pundits from Rush Limbaugh to The Weekly Standard’s John McCormack to MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough have pointed to McCain’s current colleague Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., as another man who questioned the valor of McCain’s POW experience.
Limbaugh in particular said on his July 20 radio show that the lack of uproar around Franken’s comments proves the bias of "leftists" and the media.
"Al Franken, back in 2002 before he was running for anything, Al Franken said almost exactly what Trump said," Limbaugh said. "There hasn’t been any outrage at any of this that has been said about McCain by leftists. Proving my point -- when leftists attack McCain, they are perfectly warranted because they are nice people and they are compassionate people and they’re politically correct people."
Limbaugh contrasted this to Trump’s portrayal of McCain. "He’s not a war hero," Trump said July 18 at the Family Leadership Summit, a presidential forum in Ames, Iowa. "He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured."
We wanted to find out if Limbaugh was comparing apples to apples. Did Franken really insult McCain like Trump?
Remembering Franken’s comedic past
Relevant to this fact-check is Franken’s former day job. Before he joined the U.S. Senate in 2009, Franken worked as a comedy writer and actor. He was on staff of Saturday Night Live in its first few seasons and again from 1985 to 1995. After that, he wrote several books that parodied conservative politics, including 1999’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations.
In his 2004 book Lies: And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them, Franken describes a 1999 speech he gave to the White House News Photographers Association in which he rattles off essentially the same lines.
According to his book, the riff went like this (italics are Franken’s):
"Hey, I like John McCain. And I really think he’s courageous. I mean, his stance on campaign finance reform and tobacco. Wow. That takes guts. But this whole ‘war hero’ thing — I don’t get it. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, he sat out the war. I mean, anyone can get captured! Am I wrong, but isn’t the idea to capture the other guy?"
The line was skewered in the conservative Washington Times as "landing with a thud." Franken, though, described it as getting "big laughs" with the news photographers and said the Times had put his remarks through the "de-irony-izer" to make him look unpatriotic. (We could not find more coverage of the speech.)
In the book, Franken framed the joke in the context of admiring McCain, with whom he shared a mutual friend in a Vietnam War protester.
Most pundits comparing Franken's comments to Trump's aren't using this speech as their example. Instead they highlight a 2000 Salon.com article that featured a few paragraphs from Franken and other newsmakers about the 2000 presidential election. McCain vied for the GOP nomination that year but withdrew from the race in March 2000 as George W. Bush pulled ahead.
"I doubt I could cross the line and vote Republican. I have tremendous respect for McCain but I don’t buy the war hero thing. Anybody can be captured. I thought the idea was to capture them. As far as I’m concerned he sat out the war."
Limbaugh was quick to point out the similarities between the two statements, crying foul at the perceived double standard for conservatives and liberals. But Limbaugh appears to have missed Franken’s intent, even if it was not obvious
According to Franken press secretary Michael Dale-Stein, the remark "was a joke." (Michael Alvear, the author of the Salon piece, no longer works for the publication and couldn’t be reached for comment.)
More than taking Dale-Stein’s word for it, we looked for more evidence. The Salon piece wasn’t the last time Franken used the bit about McCain’s war record.
In 2004, Franken had McCain as a guest on his Air America radio show, The O’Franken Factor, where he retooled the bit for a third time. Franken jokingly suggested that only McCain’s political courage should be rewarded, and not his military service in Vietnam.
Franken’s Senate office provided only the following excerpt from the interview. We tried to locate a copy or transcript of the show but could not find one.
"Because, I mean, I consider you a hero, tremendous political courage," Franken tells McCain, according to a transcript provided by Franken’s office, "not, you know, the thing about five years, or five and a half years at the Hanoi Hilton; as far as I'm concerned you just sat out the war. I don't consider that real heroism. Anybody can get captured, right?"
Some news accounts at the time suggested that Franken "took considerable heat" for talking about McCain’s imprisonment so lightly. MSNBC’s Scarborough recently said on Morning Joe that Trump was repeating Franken's "despicable joke."
Spokespersons for Limbaugh and McCain could not be reached for comment.
Limbaugh claimed, "Al Franken said almost exactly what Trump said" about John McCain’s war-hero credentials.
Franken has literally used similar words as Trump in describing McCain’s military record — but it’s misleading to look at the comments without context. A closer look at Franken’s books and coverage of the 1999 event where he used this bit — before the Salon article came out — shows Franken meant the insult sarcastically. It may be a despicable joke to some, but it’s a joke nonetheless. Trump, however, has not insisted that his comment was meant as satire.
Limbaugh’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details and takes things out of context. We rate the claim Half True.
The New York Times, "Donald Trump Says McCain Is No War Hero, Setting Off Another Storm," July 18, 2015
Salon, "What’s at Stake in the 2000 Elections?," January 10, 2000
Email interview with Michael Dale-Stein, Press Secretary, Office of Sen. Al Franken, July 20, 2015
Chapter 23, Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, by Al Franken.
The Washington Times, "Inside the Beltway," May 11, 1999
Harvard Magazine, "You Can Call Me Senator," March-April 2012
Episode of The O’Franken Factor, April 19, 2004
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