Over the past two weeks, a group of allegedly independent Vietnam veterans calling themselves Swift Boat Veterans For Truth managed to gain the attention of most of America with TV ads and cable talk show appearances tearing down John Kerry’s service in Vietnam.
A good part of Kerry’s appeal is in his biography, a courageous, decorated Swift boat commander, whose leadership has been endorsed by the “band of brothers” who served with him at a time when America’s weekly casualties ran into the hundreds. Having experienced combat, having watched his friends die in battle, Kerry says, would make him a better, less reckless commander in chief.
With growing public dissatisfaction about Iraq, it was an argument beginning to take root.
By the Bushies, I don’t mean just the White House and the family. I mean that network of Texas cronies and political operatives, the stable of friends and moneybags who are always at the ready when Poppy or Junior needs help. Then, of course, there are the captive voices at Fox News and talk radio ready to massage the message over and over 24/7.
George W. Bush, who spent his Vietnam era service safely tucked away in the Texas Air National Guard, and Dick Cheney, who rode it out on five draft deferments, lack the footing to challenge Kerry. Another means had to be found.
The first truth squad commercial, shown in only three swing states, questioned Kerry’s authenticity. Vietnam veterans charged that Kerry did not deserve the three Purple Hearts he was awarded and may have exaggerated the combat reports that resulted in the Navy awarding him Bronze and Silver stars. These are Vietnam vets saying Kerry is a manipulative phony.
A follow-up TV commercial attacked Kerry for joining the anti-war movement after his discharge, thereby betraying his comrades still in Vietnam.
They wanted even more famous veterans to endorse the effort, but the GOP’s most authentic Vietnam vet, John McCain, proved unavailable.
McCain was similarly slimed by Bush pals when he ran against George W. in 2000. His years as a POW in Hanoi, it was suggested, had left him psychologically unfit to be president. McCain is offended by the work being done on Kerry and demands that the president personally and specifically denounce the ads.
Now ready to do in another decorated veteran, Dole suggested that Kerry was in a big hurry to get his three Purple Hearts, which entitled soldiers to leave the war zone. “He got two in one day, I think,” said Dole on CNN, a cheap accusation he must have known to be false.
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, organized as a 527 group, is required to be independent of any campaign. Its commercials are effective, aimed at the core of Kerry’s authenticity, and polls showed that over half the country saw the ads or heard about them.
However, it was quickly established that the on-screen vets had tilted the facts or were settling old scores. Their money came from long-standing Bush friends and contributors in Texas. Legal advice came from the chief outside counsel for the Bush-Cheney campaign in Washington. Lifting the sheets, reporters discovered a network of former Bush family allies, including a millionaire Texas pal of White House political director Karl Rove.
Max Cleland is a triple amputee Vietnam War veteran, a former U.S. senator who was defeated for re-election in a campaign where his patriotism was questioned. A Silver Star recipient, he was depicted as soft on Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in attack ads reminiscent of what is now being done to Kerry.
As David Halberstam says, in America today patriotism is an ideologically determined condition.
For the job he undertook this week, Cleland is a precision-targeted bomb. Imagine how George W. Bush felt, lounging at the ranch, when he got the news, “Max Cleland is rolling up the driveway.”
Ken Bode is Pulliam Professor of Journalism at DePauw University