Rush Limbaugh, the most listened-to radio talk-show host in history, is coming to the defense of television host Bill Maher over Maher’s controversial remarks suggesting U.S. military actions were “cowardly.”

“In a way, he was right,” Limbaugh said of the host of ABC’s late-night talk program “Politically Incorrect.” The topic was raised on Limbaugh’s show yesterday in the wake of reports that Maher did not expect his own program to remain on ABC once his contract expires next year.

“To get canned over this – it’s strange,” said Limbaugh. “What is the title of the show? It’s called ‘Politically Incorrect.’ I don’t know that they are canning him. This could be a pre-emptive strike.”

The pre-emptive strike he referred to is an interview with Maher in the December/January issue of Talk magazine. In it, Maher said the uproar over his comments had ruined his relationship with the network.

“Could we keep working together? Yeah, but there’d still be that tension and that conflict,” explained Maher. “They’re not going to change, and I’m not going to change. … After this whole thing, I’m not expecting to be here after my contract runs out in 2002 – if we make it that long,” he said.

Bill Maher

The firestorm of complaints erupted just five days after the Sept. 11 attacks on America, when Maher suggested some previous U.S. military actions had been “cowardly.” The TV veteran was contrasting American efforts to those taken by suicide hijackers who piloted passenger jets into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

“We have been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away,” Maher said. “That’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane when it hits the building – say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.”

The remarks prompted some network affiliates to drop his show, and advertisers, including Sears and FedEx, pulled their sponsorship.

Soon after, ABC released a statement defending Maher, saying the program “celebrates freedom of speech and encourages the animated exchange of ideas and opinions. … There needs to remain a forum for the expression of our nation’s diverse opinions.”

Yesterday, Limbaugh – whose audience is 22 million per week – took time to recount what Maher originally said, then came out strongly in his defense.

“People went bonkers!” Limbaugh exclaimed. “This was, in my mind, one of the few things Bill Maher has ever said that’s correct. In a way, he was right.”

Limbaugh went on to explain what specifically he thought got Maher into trouble.

“He used the word ‘we,’ implying the American people, when he said ‘we’ are cowards. The American people cannot order a cruise missile launch. There’s only one man who can order a cruise missile launch – the guy who gave the speech in Georgetown last night [Bill Clinton].

“Had he said, ‘The commander in chief’ had engaged in something cowardly, he wouldn’t have gotten in trouble at all. But when he used the word ‘we,’ that brought in the specter of the entire American population. The American people are not cowards, especially in a situation like this when they’ve got no say-so in the matter. But even at that, Maher has said far more controversial, crazy things [than] this,” Limbaugh stated.

Limbaugh’s analysis echoes what Maher himself had said in what appeared to be an apology during the Sept. 19 broadcast of “Politically Incorrect.”

“These are sensitive times, and I should’ve been more clear when, in a discussion of how we have in the past conducted our war on terrorism, I said ‘We have been the cowards. … ‘ The problem there is the word ‘we,’ I think. It’s indistinct, and I should’ve been more clear.”

Maher said his original criticism was “meant for politicians who, fearing public reaction, have not allowed our military to do the job they are obviously ready, willing and able to do, and who now will, I’m certain, as they always have, get the job done.”

In the wake of the furor, Maher hit the talk-show circuit to explain his comments, saying he in no way intended to impugn the bravery of men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Limbaugh isn’t the first analyst coming to Maher’s defense. Others, including WorldNetDaily columnist Debbie Schlussel have been outspoken on the matter. In her recent column, Schlussel said the reaction against Maher and his show is “completely ridiculous.”

“Anyone who’s watched ‘Politically Incorrect’ on a regular basis knows that Bill is a big fan of the military. He almost always praises them and believes the military and defense is the primary purpose of government,” Schlussel wrote.

“Unlike politicians – and those are the cowards to whom Bill was rightly referring – Bill didn’t wait until there was a terrorist attack on this country … to verbally attack terrorists and our weak policy toward them on his show. Over a year and a half ago, Bill attacked terrorist groups in the Middle East and supported Israel’s right to fight them.”

Despite the controversy – or perhaps because of it – ratings for Maher’s show are on the increase, according to TV Guide’s Annabel Vered. But she told Extra she believes hosts like Bill Maher should learn to be a little more PC, as in “patriotically correct.”

“Right now, people are feeling very patriotic, and they don’t want anybody to be ridiculing the U.S. military or even making fun of any politicians,” Vered said. “We don’t want anybody tearing these people down.”

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