Even as allied warplanes streak across the Balkan skies, another air war is going on, right here in the United States.
The target? President Clinton.
Still bristling with moral outrage over the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the conservative hosts who dominate talk radio are now attacking Clinton for sending the U.S. military into Kosovo.
"What good is Clinton? Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah!" shouted nationally syndicated host G. Gordon Liddy on his Monday program. "You've got a perverted, draft-dodging coward, that's what you've got!"
But the bombing in Kosovo presents a dilemma for conservative hosts. How do you oppose the war and criticize the commander in chief without seeming anti-military or, worse, unpatriotic?
"We find ourselves in a very awkward situation, because usually conservatives are in the forefront of supporting military action," said Chuck Baldwin, a Pensacola, Fla., radio host. "But that doesn't mean that we just roll over and accept what's happening."
Nearly every conservative talk radio personality of national reputation -- Rush Limbaugh, Ollie North, Roger Hedgecock, Baldwin and Liddy, to name a few -- has opposed the war in Kosovo.
At the same time, these hosts have bent over backward in trying to make sure no one thinks they are soft on dictators, dovish on military action or less than fully supportive of American troops.
"It's a very difficult act to achieve," observed Michael Harrison, publisher of the magazine Talkers, which tracks talk radio. "You run the risk of seeming like you are only in the business of bashing Clinton."
Even the most conservative members of the talk radio audience, Harrison said, understand that the question of American intervention in Kosovo should be considered apart from Clinton's moral failings.
"Some believe that if Clinton were not the president, these hosts would be supporting the war, and they are letting their personal animosity color their judgment," Harrison said.
But such is the legacy of the impeachment episode, experts said. Many conservatives are so disgusted with Clinton the man they can no longer stomach anything the Clinton administration does.
"For the past year, all the talk was about Clinton's sex life," said Carol Nashe, president of the Boston-based Talk Radio Group. "Now the spin is that Clinton is a weak leader."
Hedgecock, a San Diego talk show host who fills in occasionally on "The Rush Limbaugh Show," acknowledged that it would be hard for him to back any military action led by Clinton.
"I don't think Clinton's record in Somalia or Rwanda bolsters his argument that we are fighting for moral reasons," Hedgecock said. "His ability to turn on the tears in one situation, and turn his back on another, is just astonishing."
But how much of Hedgecock's opposition to the Kosovo mission stems from his dislike of Clinton? "A lot of it," he concedes. "I just don't trust him to do the right thing."
On the air, Hedgecock has argued passionately against committing American air power to the Balkan conflict. "If our bombing is causing more problems than we are solving, then maybe by stopping the bombing we can undo some of the damage," he said. "Stop the war!"
Limbaugh, probably the most influential radio talk show host in America, has also weighed in against the air campaign in Kosovo, arguing that NATO is stepping into a quagmire with no way out.
"We don't have a plan," he said yesterday. "If we had a plan, we'd have 200,000 ground troops deployed and standing by."
When Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic announced yesterday that his forces would observe a unilateral cease-fire through Sunday, Limbaugh said it offered NATO a way out.
"Let's cut our losses and accept this cease-fire," Limbaugh said. He added sarcastically, "Give the President a Congressional Medal of Honor and let's get back home!"
The reach of talk radio has expanded dramatically in the past decade, driven in part by Limbaugh's success in developing a format that channels conservative frustrations with the Clinton presidency.
According to Tom Taylor, editor of the M Street Daily Journal, which covers the radio industry, the number of stations following a format that includes talk show programming has quadrupled since 1989. Through 1998, Taylor said, the number of stations carrying talk show formats had risen to 1,382 from 308, while the number of stations overall remained approximately the same.
The overwhelming majority of radio talk shows have remained conservative, said Joseph Cappella, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, who has studied the demographics and political views of talk radio hosts and their audiences.
The upshot is that nearly the entire talk radio industry finds itself caught in the same bind. "And it's not a comfortable situation for any of us," Hedgecock said.
Baldwin, for one, finds some comfort in the fact that liberals are faced with a similar situation, supporting a Democratic president in a war they might oppose if a Republican held the White House.
"I find it ironic that the doves on the left who burned their draft cards during the Vietnam War are the ones calling for blood in Kosovo, while conservatives oppose this war," he said. "It is strange."
© 1999 The Star-Ledger. Used with permission.