The attack on John Kerry’s war record is a standard Republican “gray propaganda operation,” created and financed by the Texas G.O.P. machine so that the White House can deny complicity, however implausibly. The attackers lack credibility, not only because of their partisan motives but because their most important witnesses have contradicted themselves or recanted their own prior statements, while offering no substantial evidence to support their grave accusations about whether Mr. Kerry earned his battlefield honors.
The Navy’s official record-including numerous documents signed by senior officers now leading the assault on Mr. Kerry-shows that he conducted himself with exemplary courage and honor in Vietnam. That official record is confirmed by the men who served in the boats he captained, as well as by other veterans now stepping forward to speak on his behalf after many years of silence.
Within the past week, the chief eyewitness against Mr. Kerry was thoroughly discredited. Larry Thurlow, the former Swift boat captain who claims that there was no enemy fire on the day when Mr. Kerry won his Bronze Star, turns out to have won his own Bronze Star in the same March 13, 1969, firefight. Confronted with that fact, Mr. Thurlow lamely retorted that he didn’t remember what his own medal commendation stated about the incident. Did he never notice that his Bronze Star included the “combat V” for valor-which can only be awarded for bravery under enemy fire?
Meanwhile, Jim Russell, a former officer who served on one of the other Swift boats in the March ’69 incident, has endorsed the official record. He vividly recalls Mr. Kerry leaning over to pull Green Beret Jim Rassmann from the river, while small-arms fire from shore raked the air.
And former Swift boat captain William Rood published his memories of the February 1969 incident in which Mr. Kerry won a Silver Star. As an editor at the Chicago Tribune -which four years ago endorsed Mr. Bush for President-Mr. Rood had little to gain by standing up for the Democratic nominee. But like Mr. Russell and Mr. Rassmann, a retired police officer and lifelong Republican, he did the right thing.
Yet the truth-tellers haven’t won yet. The Republican gray op has succeeded so far, if only by distracting the press and the public from Mr. Bush’s incompetent management of the economy and the nation’s security. The Republicans have drawn attention to phony questions about Mr. Kerry’s military service, while real questions about Mr. Bush’s years in the National Guard-and the outright lies he told about his Guard service in his 1999 autobiography-have yet to be fully examined.
Why these appalling tactics work so well is the kind of professional issue mainstream journalists and television pundits enjoy discussing endlessly. What they know but rarely mention is that these smears follow a well-worn path trod by the Bush family and its associates.
Pretty much the same cast of characters has engineered the same sort of dirty trick so many times that no experienced journalist can pretend not to understand how this game is played-and who is playing it. The web of connections between the White House and the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” extends well beyond the financing provided by two of the biggest G.O.P. donors in Texas (one of whom also sits on the board of George H.W. Bush’s Presidential library).
Consider these other cute coincidences: Merrie Spaeth, the P.R. woman who manages the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” last showed up in 2000 as the flack for “Republicans for Clean Air,” an “independent” group of Texas millionaires whose ads smeared Senator John McCain in the Republican primaries. The godfather of Ms. Spaeth’s daughter is Solicitor General Theodore Olsen, who helped to oversee the secret “Arkansas Project” scheme to smear the Clintons.
Perhaps the saddest aspect of this episode is who has leaped into the gutter along with the Swift boat group, and who has failed to climb out. There was a time, not so long ago, when Republican leaders would have blanched at the very notion of besmirching a brave opponent’s military service-if only because they took such pride in their own respect for veterans and the armed forces.
Such decent restraint has vanished from the party that repeatedly sponsored vile attacks on the patriotism and war record of Max Cleland, the former Democratic Senator from Georgia who lost three limbs in Vietnam, and that now encourages the Kerry smears. Senator John McCain, the conscience of his party, at first protested the attacks on Mr. Kerry as “dishonest and dishonorable,” but he has since fallen silent. Perhaps he has forgotten how Mr. Kerry sprang to his defense four years ago.
Worse still, former Senator Bob Dole publicly (and inaccurately) endorsed the attacks on television. He dishonored himself and proved that he will never rise above the role of partisan assassin.
At a moment when the country needs its old war heroes to defend common patriotic values, both of them have failed.