time last week, John Kerry was pictured in a salute
on the front of US newspapers, telling the nation
that he was "reporting for duty". Today,
his political opponents are hoping to take the
shine off his military record with allegations
that he won his five medals by lies and subterfuge.
advertisement broadcast last night in the swing
states of Wisconsin, Ohio and West Virginia -
where a few votes could make all the difference
- featured veterans such as Larry Thurlow telling
voters: "When the chips were down, you could
not count on John Kerry."
Thurlow was in Vietnam at the same time as the
presidential candidate, but he was not one of
the men who had served on his Mekong delta swiftboat.
Mr Kerry describes them as his "band of brothers",
and they portray him as a courageous fighter and
Kerry's supporters, who have made much of his
service in contrast to that of George Bush - who
was excused Vietnam duty to serve in the Texas
National Air Guard - are alleging dirty tricks.
advert is part of a coordinated campaign. A week
on Sunday, a book called Unfit for Command: Swift
Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, will
be published, co-authored by former swiftboat
commander John O'Neill.
alleges that the wounds Mr Kerry won his three
purple heart medals for were not worthy of the
awards and, in at least two cases, had been self-inflicted
in order to get him off the battlefield.
argues that for him to run for president with
such a record while faulting his opponent's would
"represent unbelievable hypocrisy and the
truly bottom rung of human conduct".
Republican senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran,
spoke out after the advert's screening to "deplore"
the tactics. When he ran against Mr Bush for the
Republican nomination in 2000, he had to fight
off allegations that being a captive (he was held
in solitary confinement for three years) was not
as heroic as actively attacking the enemy. Yesterday,
he called on the White House to condemn the "dishonest
and dishonourable" commercial.
Bush's spokesman, Scott McCellan, did not denounce
the advert but the money that paid for it - so-called
"soft money", which is collected by
independent political funds known as 527s. These
are not counted as the Bush or Kerry campaigns
so long as they do not actively call on voters
to elect either man. Criticising a candidate's
record is, however, fair game.
neither of the parties behind the advert are part
of the Republican party or the Bush campaign.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is a 527, and Regnery
Press is a commercial (although politically committed)
publishing company. However, a look at the people
who connect the enterprises reveals them to be
part of a rich partisan tapestry.
O'Neill is the link between them. As well as being
the book's co-author, he is a member of the Swift
Boat Veterans for Truth steering committee. The
group was set up with the help of Merrie Spaeth,
the widow of Tex Lezar, who was Republican candidate
for lieutenant governor of Texas in the same year
that Mr Bush ran for governor. He was a partner
of Mr O'Neill's at their Houston law firm.
meanwhile, proclaims itself to be the leading
conservative publisher in the US. Acquired by
Republican donor Thomas Philips in 1993, it is
a subsidiary of Eagle Publishing, which is using
its flagship Human Events magazine to promote
Unfit for Command and build up its subscription
base and mailing lists.
publishes on any number of topics (from threats
to marriage to a defence of assault rifles), but
scored a number of hits in the Clinton years with
titles such as the conservative columnist Ann
Coulter's High Crimes and Misdemeanors: the case
against Bill Clinton.
most notorious - Gary Aldrich's Unlimited Access:
an FBI agent inside the Clinton White House -
depicted the executive mansion as a den of debauchery,
drug-taking and gay sex. One section claimed the
president was smuggled out under a rug for trysts
with a female celebrity in a nearby hotel. Mr
Aldrich admitted in the book that many of his
allegations were, at best, second-hand.
top of this, the O'Neill/Regnery axis has links
going back to Richard Nixon. Also a swift boat
commander in Vietnam, Mr O'Neill was hired by
presidential aide Charles Colson in 1971 to discredit
the recently returned Mr Kerry's campaign against
the war. Mr Kerry reputedly beat him in a nationally
televised debate on the Dick Cavett Show.
Blumenthal, a Guardian columnist and former adviser
to Mr Clinton, said he saw nothing new in Mr O'Neill's
book and the campaign mounted by Swift Boat Veterans
for Truth. "It reeks of partisan dirty tricks,
and the facts simply don't hold up at all. The
intent is simply to dirty Kerry," he said.
"They have been trying to do this for a long
time. Regardless of whether it is false, they
will put it out to see if it will hurt."
truth of the allegations is disputed by the Kerry
campaign, and contradicts the most authoritative
account of his time in Vietnam, Douglas Brinkley's
Tour of Duty. The author is director of the Eisenhower
Centre for American Studies at New Orleans university,
which specialises in military history.
the truth does not matter - to confuse the issue
of Mr Kerry's military service, which he has made
such a strong part of his campaign, is enough
to occupy the candidate, distract him and muddy
is not the first time dirty tricks have surfaced
in the 2004 campaign. The Drudge Report (which
has served as a conduit for the allegations over
Mr Kerry's Vietnam service, including allegations
that he slaughtered livestock and burned down
a village with a Zippo lighter) ran reports in
February that the Massachusetts senator had an
affair with an intern. There was no truth in it.
a photograph emerged of Mr Kerry at a rally with
Jane Fonda, the actress who visited Hanoi during
the war and, to some, will forever be known as
Hanoi Jane. It was proven to be a fake.
all this campaign, attacking Kerry on his Vietnam
heroism has always backfired," Mr Blumenthal
is particularly ironic and dangerous, given the
fact that Bush is withholding national service
records that that show he did not show up for
duty in the Alabama national guard, and that he
has still not come clean about why he was suspended
from flying in the Texas air national guard after
refusing to take a physical."
course, Democrats are not the only victims of
dirty tricks. The emergence of documents detailing
Mr Bush's arrest for drink-driving a few days
before the last presidential election was blamed
in some quarters for the closeness of the result
and his failure to win the popular vote.
the time of the Kerry intern allegations, the
Republican national committee chairman, Ed Gillespie,
expressed outrage that the musician Moby, a Kerry
supporter, had told the New York Daily News it
would be possible to spread anti-Bush gossip on
the internet to bring down his support among,
for example, anti-abortionists.
then turned it into a pre-emptive rebuttal of
a rumour that did not even exist, opening up the
interesting question of whether allegations of
dirty tricks constituted a form of dirty campaigning.
know now that, some time this fall, Kerry campaign
operatives intend to go into pro-life chatrooms
on the internet to spread a scurrilous story that
President Bush drove a former girlfriend to an
abortion clinic and paid for her abortion,"
Mr Gillespie told the Washington Times.
campaigning is nothing new in US politics: in
1800, Thomas Jefferson was accused of favouring
the teaching of "murder, robbery, rape, adultery
of Mr Nixon's operatives, Donald Segretti, was
imprisoned for illegal campaign material, including
faked letters alleging that a senator had fathered
an illegitimate child with a 17-year-old.
2004 race for the White House is close, and we
should not be surprised to see more dirty campaigning
between now and November.
Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
Posted: August 10, 2004