Remember Bob Dole?
You know, the guy from the Viagra commercials, who used to be U.S. Senator, and the Republicans thought would be just the ticket to keep Bill Clinton from a second term, because he had a gimp arm from World War II while Slick had done handstands not to serve? Wife named Liddy ring a bell? The Southern gal with the pasted-on smile who ran the Red Cross and wanted to be President, too, but settled for a Senate seat, and is apparently very understanding about erectile dysfunction? Oh, come on: You must remember Bob Dole. He’s the Republican everybody likes because he’s got such a great sense of humor.
Well, he was on TV this weekend, talking about “good guy, good friend” John Kerry, and this time he wasn’t funny.
But then Vietnam never was, either.
That’s what Bob was talking about-like everybody since a Republican-financed veterans group with more connections to the Bush White House than Karl Rove has fingers and toes published a best-seller and started running TV commercials in battleground states, charging that the service that made Lt. j.g. Kerry a hero and the Democratic nominee was, in fact, a construct of lies, cowardice and self-inflicted wounds cunningly erected to secure him the Presidency of the United States 35 years later.
The accusation seemed so from Mars no one much believed it, at first, except Fox News and Matt Drudge. Certainly, John Kerry didn’t take it seriously. He said nothing about accusations that went to the heart of his integrity, until he looked around and saw that his standing among veterans-tied with Dubya at the time of the Democratic National Convention-was suddenly 18 points down. That got his attention-and everyone else’s, too. All at once, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth-”SBVfT,” in military-speak-was on well-informed lips. But there was still the puzzle: Did “Truth” belong in their moniker?
So, Saturday night, scads were tuning in to see what ol’ Bob’d tell Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Late Edition . Because on the subject of wounds, decorations and conduct under fire, he’s the authority-and has been since that April day in 1945, when he crawled out on an Italian hillside to retrieve a fatally hit buddy and had his right arm rendered ribbons by a Nazi machine gun. You want to know the whole story, check out his official Web site, which will tell you how he nearly died, endured agonizing years of operations and rehabilitations, despaired and wished for the worst, until one day lying in a V.A. hospital bed, “he realized through prayer and introspection, that God had a plan for him of faith, endurance and strength.” When Bob Dole says something about war, in other words, you’re hearing from the Almighty.
That’s why his appearance was so devastating.
“What I will always quarrel about are the Purple Hearts,” he said. “I mean, the first one, whether he ought to have a Purple Heart-he got two in one day, I think. And he was out of there in less than four months, because three Purple Hearts and you’re out …. Three Purple Hearts and never bled that I know of. I mean, they’re all superficial wounds.”
He also went after Mr. Kerry’s subsequent involvement in the anti-war movement: “I mean, one day he’s saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons. The next day he’s standing there: ‘I want to be President because I’m a Vietnam veteran,’” said Mr. Dole. “Maybe he should apologize to all the other 2.5 million veterans who served. He wasn’t the only one in Vietnam.”
The killer was his benediction of SBVfT: “Not every one of these people can be Republican liars. There’s got to be some truth to the charges.”
The expert had spoken. And John Kerry was in trouble. As a Democrat close to the Kerry campaign put it to The New York Times , “When you’re basically running on your biography and there are ongoing attacks that are undermining the credibility of your biography, you have a really big problem.”
Yes, friends, the other war-the one that happened a long time ago-is back, only with a twist. Instead of firing at peasants in black pajamas like in the old days, this time our boys are shooting at each other. The combat isn’t fatal, but politically it’s ruinous. And the stakes are higher than they ever were in that particular piece of Southeast Asian real estate. Who cares whether a row of make-believe dominoes topple? This is fate-of-the-world stuff.
By now, you doubtless know the backstory of how events 9000 miles and three and a half decades distant have come to dominate the 2004 election. A book called Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry kicked off the fuss. The television commercials that followed it were created by the same outfit who produced the doofus-in-a-tank-helmet ad that helped doom Michael Dukakis when he was running against Dubya’s dad. The most effective publicity, however, derives from SBVfT members (they number roughly 250, 0.0001 percent of those who served in Vietnam) working the radio and television talk-show circuit and, lately, the major network news programs as well.
Financing for the organization derives in large part from a Texas fat cat who’s an old, close pal of Karl Rove. The White House, needless to say, disavows any connection, stating that Mr. Bush never has and never will say anything to dishonor Mr. Kerry’s service.
You’re doubtless also aware that since waking up to the knife at his jugular, Mr. Kerry has called on the publisher of Unfit for Command (Regnery, home to Laura Ingraham and William F. Buckley Jr.) to pull the book from the shelves, and on the F.E.C. to look into Bush links to the TV commercials-chances of which are as likely as Ho Chi Minh City changing its name back to Saigon. Mr. Kerry has also accused Mr. Bush of having the SBVfT “do his dirty work for him,” and demanded that the President denounce the group’s activities. Mr. Bush predictably has declined to cooperate, artfully saying that he wants all soft-money “527 Committee” ads off the air, not just those of SBVfT-a prescription that would hurt Democrats far more than Republicans. So that’s not going to happen, either. A spokesman for Mr. Bush, meanwhile, has suggested that Mr. Kerry’s unpunctual lather may be a sign of mental unbalance-precisely what another spokesman hinted about John McCain when he exploded over Bush-supporting ads questioning his patriotism during the 2000 South Carolina primary. In between hugging Commander-in-Chief Bush and being bussed on the forehead by him, Mr. McCain himself has likened the SBVfT’s campaign to what was done to him when he ran for President (so has Vietnam triple-amputee Max Cleland, who was defeated for re-election to the Senate from Georgia under similar circumstances). Mr. McCain branded the SBVfT charges “dishonest and dishonorable” and echoed Mr. Kerry’s recommendation to Mr. Bush-to zero effect.
Finally, if you read The New York Times , The Washington Post , The Boston Globe or the Los Angeles Times (unlike, oh, 99 percent or so of the voting public), you’re cognizant, too, that exhaustive investigation of official U.S. Naval records fails to substantiate a single one of the SBVfT’s major charges. Instead, the commendations and “after-action reports” in Pentagon archives contradict them-sometimes in words written by those presently doing the accusing. Ten of the 11 men who sailed in the two boats Mr. Kerry commanded also back their former skipper. The eleventh, a laid-off “home inspection field manager” named Steven Michael Gardner, is an SBVfT member who accuses Mr. Kerry of repeatedly shying from engaging the enemy. “He wouldn’t go in there and search,” Mr. Gardner told The Boston Globe in March. “That is why I have a negative viewpoint of John Kerry.”
What amounts to cowardice in wartime is a damning charge. But there’s one little catch. By Mr. Gardner’s own admission, then-Lt. Kerry threatened to court-martial him for machine-gunning a sampan from which he thought fire was coming. When the shooting stopped, Mr. Kerry-who’d been in the wheel house when Mr. Gardner, then others opened up without order-personally inspected the flimsy native craft. No weapons were found, just a woman and the body of a little boy. “[Mr. Kerry was] screaming at the top of his lungs,” Mr. Gardner told The Globe . “‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’”
Green Beret Lt. Jim Rassman didn’t think he was being fired at when a mine explosion blew him off Mr. Kerry’s Swift boat; he knew the splashes all around him were being made by real ammo. “I was sure I was going to die,” he said. Then, above him, a long right arm reached out to pull him to safety; it belonged to John Kerry, who’d been thrown against the wheel house by the blast, which wounded Mr. Kerry’s left arm, according to the citation that accompanied his Bronze Star. Said Mr. Rassmann: “He saved my life.”
Not according to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. They say no one was firing anywhere near Lts. Rassmann and Kerry that day.
SBVfT has also been challenging Mr. Kerry’s Silver Star, claiming, among other things, that a Viet Cong guerrilla he leapt out of the boat to pursue and kill during the encounter that led to the award of the second-highest decoration for gallantry the Navy bestows, was unarmed, clad in a loincloth, only a boy and-to top it off-shot in the back. Mr. Kerry’s crewmates that day have repeatedly said otherwise, stating that the V.C. was gunned down only after he’d come close to blowing up the boat and all aboard with a B-40 rocket, and appeared set to fire another. Despite their testimony, and Naval records backing Mr. Kerry, the SBVfT’s tale was gaining traction.
Then last weekend an officer of unassailable reputation stepped forward. Breaking a 35-year silence, Chicago Tribune editor William Rood-the only other surviving commander of the three-boat engagement (Lt. j.g. Donald Droz, the third and Mr. Kerry’s best friend in Vietnam, was later killed in action)-wrote a front-page, 1,700-word account that left SBVfT’s claims dead in the water. For starters, Mr. Rood reported that there was not just a single Viet Cong but two (both fully clothed); that one was armed with a rocket-launcher; and that when he returned from dispatching him, Mr. Kerry had the weapon in tow. To prove it, The Trib published a snap of a grinning Mr. Rood and a somber John Kerry, a loaded rocket-launcher slung over his shoulder.
Mr. Rood’s story also demolished Mr. Gardner’s claims of Mr. Kerry’s timidity in the face of the enemy.
Before the boats set out, Mr. Kerry-in operational command that day-took Droz and Mr. Rood aside and laid out a plan “about not responding the way boats usually did in an ambush.” Instead of gunning it for safety, they’d head directly at their attackers, beach the boats and fight them toe-to-toe. Said Mr. Rood: “It worked.”
But Mr. Rood was at his most powerful explaining his motives. “Many of us wanted to put it all behind us-the rivers, the ambushes, the killings,” he wrote. “But Kerry’s critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that the accounts of what happened were overblown …. Their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It’s gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there …. My intent is to tell the story here and to never again talk publicly about it.”
And the vets private detectives ferreted out to destroy Mr. Kerry? This much is clear: None come remotely close to being as decorated as the man they vilify; some appear to lead postwar lives that haven’t quite worked out; and the highest-ranking SBVfTer-retired Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann-has trouble keeping his story straight. In May, he told a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter that he didn’t know Mr. Kerry personally (though Mr. Kerry served under his command) and had “no first-hand knowledge to discredit Kerry’s claims to valor.” Earlier this month, he was telling Sean Hannity the opposite. Not only did he now know Mr. Kerry “well,” but had “operated very closely with him”-newfound intimacy that led him to conclude that Mr. Kerry was, as the admiral puts it on SBVfT’s Web site, “vain and prone to impulsive judgment … a ‘loose cannon.’”
Former Lieutenant Commander George Elliott is even more scrambled. He started off as a Kerry supporter, coming to Boston during Mr. Kerry’s close electoral call with William Weld in 1996 to counter press reports questioning Mr. Kerry’s Silver Star-which Mr. Elliott had approved. Since running into SBVfT, though, Mr. Elliott has suffered multiple changes of heart. In the group’s initial TV ad, he says, “John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.” But when contacted by The Boston Globe , which had in hand his glowingly written commendation papers for both Mr. Kerry’s Silver Star and his Bronze Star, Mr. Elliott recanted. “I knew it was wrong,” he said. “It was a terrible mistake …. It makes me look kind of silly, to be perfectly honest.” He looked sillier later, signing a sworn affidavit recanting his recantation.
Van Odell-who accused Mr. Kerry of “fabricating” an after-action report about a March 13, 1969, engagement that wounded Mr. Kerry and brought him his Bronze Star-is certain only about his certainty. This weekend, on Fox News Sunday , he admitted he had no evidence to back up his charges, not even “a single document.” Why, then, does he say in SBVfT ad: “John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star …. I know, I was there, I saw what happened”? Mr. Odell’s answer: If there were as much fire, how come he wasn’t wounded, too?
Larry Thurlow-in command of another Swift boat when John Kerry pulled Jim Rassmann from the drink-is the principal source of there being no fire during the rescue. “I never heard a shot,” he swore in a SBVfT affidavit. But Mr. Thurlow’s story has a hook, too; several, in fact. When The Washington Post learned he’d also received a Bronze Star for nearby action that night and asked what the accompanying citation described, Mr. Thurlow said he’d lost it 20 years before-and refused to authorize the paper to retrieve a copy from the Navy. After The Post secured his military records anyway, via FOIA request, and told Mr. Thurlow that all the boats on the river that night, Mr. Kerry’s and his own included, were under “enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire,” and that he was portrayed acting heroically “despite enemy bullets flying around him,” Mr. Thurlow said that was news to him. Mr. Kerry, he guessed, must have cooked up another lie. When Chris Matthews asked for proof during a Hardball appearance, Mr. Thurlow said Mr. Gardner told him so.
Louis Letson seems a simpler case. He says in the SBVfT commercial, “I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury.” Maybe he did. But the actual medical records are signed by corpsman J.C. Carreon. Mr. Letson’s further claim-that Mr. Kerry slightly wounded himself while firing an M-79 grenade launcher-is where it gets complicated. In an interview with the L.A. Times , Mr. Letson said he gleaned the information from “some medical corpsmen,” who, in turn, had picked it up from crewmen that there’d been no incoming fire, and that Mr. Kerry had accidentally dinged himself. Were the crewmen on Mr. Kerry’s boat? That Mr. Letson didn’t know.
Now we get to the main actors, starting with John O’Neill, co-author of Unfit For Command . His animus against Mr. Kerry goes back to 1971, when convicted Watergate felon Chuck Colson recruited him to dig up dirt on VVAW star Kerry, who was perceived as a threat to the war’s continuation. According to Mr. Colson, Mr. O’Neill failed to come up with “anything negative,” but did get an invitation to debate Mr. Kerry on The Dick Cavett Show . Prior to that appearance, Mr. O’Neill had a one-hour, Oval Office sit-down with Mr. Colson’s boss, Richard Milhous Nixon.
Jerome R. Corsi, Mr. O’Neill’s co-author, passes spare moments posting thoughts on FreeRepublic.com, a righter-than-thou Web site. They range from “buggering” Catholics to “worthless, dangerous, Satanic” Islam to Democratic politicians such as “lesbo … FAT HOG … HELLary,” “anti-American Communist” Bill, and “Mullah Ali’Gore.” Mr. Corsi also has views on his book’s subject:
“Kerry offers a clear choice. Anti-American hatred.”
“JohnF-ing Commie Kerry and Commie Ted discuss their plans to hand America over to our nation’s enemies.”
“First let’s undermine the U.S. in Vietnam. Then we can go for gay marriage. When you get to be Pres, JFK-lite, there will be no end to how much of America we can destroy.”
“Just don’t let anybody put a tablet with the Ten Commandments in front of the school where that girl who wants to wear a Muslim scarf-OH, no-then the RATS would complain. Anti-Christian, Anti-America-just like their Presidential candidate-Jean Francois Kerrie.”
“After he married TerRAHsa, didn’t John Kerry begin practicing Judaism? He has paternal grandparents that were Jewish. What religion is John Kerry?”
When Media Matters for America tumbled to his scribblings, Mr. Corsi said, “I always considered them a joke.”
Which brings us back to rollicking Bob Dole, arbiter of Purple Hearts. He has two of his own, though his Web site doesn’t describe how, when and on account of what severity the first was attained. In any event, he’s wrong about the Purple Hearts given to Mr. Kerry (who never claimed they were awarded for anything more than “walking-wounded” injuries). Each of Mr. Kerry’s three Purple Hearts were the result of separate actions weeks apart; the last left pain in his arm for years and shrapnel in his leg he still carries.
“I wasn’t trying to be mean-spirited,” said Mr. Dole when informed of his mistake.
He’s nourished the cause, nonetheless-and set the table for second helpings. For, in one of those coincidences that so often happen when Karl Rove’s on the prowl, as Mr. Dole was finishing up his assault on Mr. Kerry’s anti-war activities, wouldn’t you know that SBVfT was readying the release of a second television commercial centered on that very theme? This one includes snippets of Mr. Kerry’s most incendiary testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, and features a former P.O.W. named Paul Galanti, who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966. “If you ever talk to Vietnam War veterans about Jane Fonda, you hear the anger,” says Mr. Galanti, who chaired John McCain’s Virginia Presidential campaign. “Well, when it comes to John Kerry, take that anger and double it.”
The spot barely had an initial airing when it emerged that another featured player, retired Air Force Colonel Ken Cordier, was a member of the Bush campaign’s veterans steering committee. That revelation brought his abrupt resignation, but collateral damage is part of war, and Colonel Cordier had served his purpose: A second front was open.
It’ll be the scene of shock and awe aplenty in the days ahead, because at bottom, the bitterness of SBVfT and their sympathizers in the V.F.W. and the American Legion is not over what transpired when a single lieutenant j.g. was cruising the Mekong Delta. No, the grit in the craw is being the only Americans to lose a war.
You can see it in the black P.O.W. flags that proclaim “You Are Not Forgotten”-though countless Defense Department and Congressional investigations (one led by Mr. Kerry, which maddens many veterans no end) have established beyond reasonable doubt that no one’s left to remember. It’s present as well in the unshakable belief that G.I.’s were spat on when they came home-despite the lack of a single verified instance of that odious insult ever occurring. Wherever veterans gather and gab, it’s the same. Be it the conviction that atrocities were never committed, or at least only rarely (forget the front-page color photographs of the heaps of My Lai corpses, or the confirmation of Mr. Kerry’s claims before Congress in 1971 by General Tommy Franks). Or the certainty that valor was stolen not by a peasant army more motivated and disciplined-flat better-than our own, but by a media-politician-protester cabal. John Kerry-the man who threw his ribbons onto the Capitol steps-is that cabal’s perfect embodiment: Eastern, Ivy-educated, liberal, anti-war, rich.
What all this will mean for an election three months off, only a fool would hazard to guess. But for Mr. Kerry, the signs are ominous. The most recent CBS News poll-conducted late last week, after he finally began returning fire-showed him leading the President by exactly one percentage point. The last CBS poll, taken at the onset of the SBVfT controversy, had his margin at five points. In a race this tight, the difference is enormous.
Unless the backlash Mr. Kerry’s handlers are saying novenas for sets in, things stand to get worse. Mr. Bush will almost certainly be enjoying a post-convention “bounce,” and we can look forward to more ads and media sideshows, more frequent references to Mr. Kerry’s 1971 Senate testimony, and perhaps even pictures of young John communing with Jane Fonda-if Karl Rove’s elves can ever master PhotoShop.
Add that to Mr. Kerry’s story of ferrying C.I.A. spooks to Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968, when he says Richard Nixon was President (L.B.J. was, and, however devoted, Mr. Kerry’s shipmates won’t swear to that trip); his proposal to cut $6 billion from the intelligence budget; his non-attendance at three-quarters of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s hearings (a couple of Mr. Kerry’s press releases had him listed as “vice-chairman”; another Vietnam vet named Bob Kerrey was); and the $87 billion Iraq appropriation he memorably voted for, then against-tote that all up, and you might start thinking Canada wouldn’t be a bad place to hide out till 2008.
Mr. Kerry’s sins are venial compared to the trespasses against him, which his partisans are already likening to McCarthyism in combat fatigues. But when Uncle Joe was operating, at least there were a few Communists to hunt; SBVfT’s bogeymen exist in the imagination.
Which makes them so deadly. Facts, you can fight. How do you defeat phantoms?
So welcome to New York, Republicans.
You’ve got a lot to be proud of.