Kerry’s Swift Demise?

N.Z. Bear issues a bold proclamation:

I’m going to go on record and predict that the Swift Boat Veterans kerfuffle won’t just be a major negative for Kerry: it will be a campaign-killer.

His rationale is that, if any of these charges stick, it will cement the image in the public mind of Kerry as a stranger to the truth and undermine the war hero shtick that is the lynchpin of his campaign.

The biggest problem for Kerry is that the Swifties’ attacks confirm what we really want to believe about him anyway. He’s been so damned annoying about his Vietnam record that we secretly want to think the worst of him, and now the Swifties have provided a rational basis for that gut-level irritation that Kerry inspires when he blathers on about his war record. This isn’t just bad for Kerry, it’s disasterous: the amorphous negative that normal people have when exposed to Kerry’s “leadership, courage, and sacrifice” / “three purple hearts” mantra now has a core of fact — or at least, alleged fact — around which to crystalize.

Unless Kerry’s campaign manages to completely discredit the Swifties — which seems increasingly unlikely — the campaign is over; Kerry is done. And after Election Day has passed, I expect that anyone looking backwards will wonder why in the world the Democrats ever thought making Kerry’s Vietnam service a centerpiece was a good idea in the first place.

Bear has even established a Swift Boat Tracker to chart Google results for “Kerry swift boat.”

While my initial reaction to totally dismiss the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” as “nuts” may have been premature, I still don’t see them as having much direct impact on the campaign. The idea that Kerry’s war medals were unearned is rather dubious and almost impossible to prove. Furthermore, as Bush’s re-election team seems to grasp, the mere fact that Kerry went to Vietnam trumps Bush’s record of halfhearted service in the Air National Guard. And the business about Kerry killing “a lone, fleeing, teenage Viet Cong in a loincloth” is just unbelievable coming 35 years after the fact.

That said, I do believe that Kerry’s actions after returning home from Vietnam will ultimately hurt him more than his Vietnam service helps him. I expect to see several ads focusing on his outrageous accusations against his fellow veterans, including the Senate testimony where he put forth numerous documentable lies. As Steven Taylor has noted, most of the animus of the SBVFT was generated by Kerry’s actions as leader of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War rather than his actual conduct in theater. It seems quite likely to me that this reaction will ultimately take place in other veterans and in the “swing voters” who have yet to make up their minds on Kerry’s character.

Even aside from the things he said about his fellow vets, Kerry has said some rather bizarre things about his own service. For example, he has repeatedly said that he participated in atrocities in Vietnam, which some have used to bolster the claims of SBVFT. If true, this alone would make him unfit to serve as president. It seems far more likely, however, that he in fact not a war criminal but lied about his actions when it served a different political agenda than he’s now pursuing. Less seriously, he threw his/someone else’s medals/ribbons over the White House fence in order to make a political point but then started proudly displaying them in his Senate office when being a war hero served his needs. The most recent such controversy is his assertion that he participated in illegal raids in Cambodia, which is almost certainly false. The combination of these things will quite reasonably bring into question his overall trustworthiness.

Bob Novak correctly observes that the Kerry campaign’s reaction has consisted almost entirely of “ad hominem counterattacks” rather than an actual refutation of the charges, most of them falsifiable.

The book’s strength is the vehemence of testimony by swift boat veterans, alleging that Kerry “gamed” the system to win decorations and later betrayed comrades by charging war crimes. Typical is the quote by Bob Hildreth, commanding an accompanying boat: “I would never want Kerry behind me. I wouldn’t want him in front of me, either. And I sure wouldn’t want him commanding our kids in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Some 200 “Swiftees” on May 4 signed a letter to Kerry demanding full release of his service records.

The book’s weakness is support for Kerry’s presidential campaign by his swift boat crewmates, presumably people who knew him best. O’Neill told me that these former sailors served with Kerry no more than five weeks. Jim Rassmann, now part of the Kerry presidential campaign, was a Special Forces lieutenant spending a few days with Kerry when he fell or was knocked off the swift boat while under fire and was fished out of the Mekong River by the future candidate.

The “band of brothers” was organized by Kerry, according to this book. It tells of a 2003 telephone call to Adm. Roy Hoffmann, who commanded swift boats in Vietnam, telling him he was running for president. Hoffmann, mistakenly thinking it was former Sen. Bob Kerrey, “responded enthusiastically.” Once the admiral realized it was John Kerry, “he declined to give Kerry his support.” Hoffmann is quoted as saying, “I do not believe John Kerry is fit to be commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States.”

As Mark Steyn explains, this idea may well spread because of strategic errors on the part of the Kerry campaign:

[T]he Democrats let their contempt for Mr. Bush run away with them. It wasn’t enough to argue Mr. Kerry’s four months in the Mekong Delta gave him authority on national security issues. Instead, they saw an opening to diminish Mr. Bush, to reduce him from the 21st century commander in chief who had toppled two enemy regimes to the 1970s pampered frat boy with the spotty National Guard record. And so they made the strategic error of hammering on about what their man was doing vs. what the Republicans’ guy was doing during the Vietnam War. And they were having such fun at Mr. Bush’s expense and getting so high on those four months from the 1960s that they gave not a thought to the great wasteland of John Kerry’s 1970s, ’80s and ’90s.

That’s one of the defects of living in the media-political echo chamber, where you’re so hip to the spin and counterspin and counter-counterspin you forget that back on Planet Earth folks don’t look at things that way. On the big speech night in Boston, with Mr. Kerry’s crewmates and triple-amputee Max Cleland and “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty,” the Dems and the media saw it as an ingenious way of downgrading Mr. Bush. But every normal person that night saw only a strange man with nothing to say about anything that has happened since the early 1970s.

And most Americans don’t want a Vietnam candidate. Vietnam veterans mostly loathe Mr. Kerry for riding the war-what-is-it-good-for-absolutely-nothing movement to celebrity status and, just as they thought they couldn’t despise him any more, here comes the old opportunist riding the I-was-proud-to-do-my-patriotic-duty shtick to the presidency. Older veterans think the endless exhibitionist preening about one’s war record is cheap and vulgar. To everybody else, the Vietnam act is just a bummer, a reminder of a bad time in the national story. Doesn’t matter whether it’s John Kerry in “The Green Berets” or John Kerry in “Apocalypse Now.”

Indeed, this is the great irony of the Kerry campaign. Last week, appearing on the Don Imus radio program, Doris Kearns Goodwin observed that Kerry’s convention speech finally gave Vietnam veterans the respect that they’d long been denied by portraying one of them as a heroic, successful figure rather than the image of baby killers and burnouts that had been created in the popular mind. This would be poetic justice indeed, given that John Kerry played a large part in creating that image.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Afghanistan War, The Presidency, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    I’ll say to you and the Bear the same thing I said to captain Ed yesterday:

    You’re quite right, it should be devastating, and were we dealing with an homorable Democrat base, it would and should end his carreer.

    Only one problem.
    We’re not dealing with such an honorable Democrat voter base. I will ask you to remember Bill Clinton. If catching someone in a lie swayed Democrats, it certainly would have happened then… and we both know it did not. I will remind you of an Oldsmobile being driven off a bridge a few years earlier. Either of those would under the conditions of an honorable electorate, have ended their carrers, and swung elections for a few decades to come.

    Neither happened, and we both know why… The Democrats, as a rule, hold party over truth.

    It’s as I said a few days ago: Kerry’s rabidly leftist base disagreed with his even being in the service in the first place. Any lie he tells in that regard will be viewed by such people as a badge of honor among them.

    His base isn’t moving even should be suddenly be revealed as an axe murderer. What motivates Kerry’s base isn’t getting Kerry elected, nearly as much as it is a hatred for George W. Bush and getting him unelected. As such, I expect the net effect to Kerry’s base however this falls out will be zero.

    Now, of course there are the undecideds to worry about, and the few Democrats with an ounce of integrity left. But will it be enough to swing an election?

  2. James Joyner says:


    Almost certainly. It is almost a truism in modern politics that hard core Democrats and Republicans are not, at the end of the day, going to vote for a president of the other party. As much as they may be dissatisfied with their guy, they’re not voting the other way because the stakes are too high. The two parties have essentially 35-40% of the electorate apiece locked up. Elections are decided, therefore, on turnout (mobilizing one’s voters) and convincing the swing voters.

  3. Kevin Polk says:

    Gotta agree with James here, the nation is remarkably divided right now.

    What is interesting is how some partisans, even on this board, malign not only candidates, but tens of millions of honest, hardworking Americans
    simply because they hold different political views.

    Maybe that’s part of why the nation is so divided.

  4. Bithead says:

    Kevin, your charge is almost amusing, but it avails nothing, once it’s expsed to the real-world situation.

    Tell me; Are there any good Democrats?

    I mean it. Are there any in this country at all? One? I gotta tell ya….in watching political events in America, I’m fast coming to the
    conclusion that there are no ‘good Democrats’.

    OK, maybe I should define “good’ for the purpose of this discussion. By “good” I mean good for the country, and for the cuulture. I mean those who are willing to put country over party, and honor over party. And by that definition there are none.

    I know… you think that a pretty sweeping statement, and you’re quite right, it is. Yet, the evidence backing this statement has been
    getting clearer, clear enough now that all but the most partisan Democrats can see it.

    Tell me; were there any Democrats who led the charge to get Al Gore to sit down and shut up after he lost the last presidential election?
    Any at all, willing to publicly do so? There were none.

    Were there any Democrats who dared to suggest that Gore didn’t play by the rules in Florida? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    Were there any Democrats who were willing to stand up and say that sticking Lutenburg into Torrecelli’s slot was against the law and should not be pursued? Was there any who publicly denouced the party for doing so? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    And for that matter, were the Democrats as to Torrecelli’s criminal acts? Were any willing to take him publicly to task? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    Were there any Democrats who denounced their fellow Democrats who claimed that president George W. Bush had Paul Wellstone and his
    family killed? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    Were there any Democrats who dared to stand up against the criminal Clinton White House, for the good of their country and the world? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    Were there any Democrats, who did not,in spite of all evidence, did not defend Bill and Hillary Clinton, and shield them from the consequences of their actions, so the damage to their party’s power would be minimized? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    Were there any Democrats who spoke up against the DNC taking campaign funding from their socialist brothers in Bejing? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    Were there any Democrats willing to speak out against Bill Clinton, selling technology to China that would allow them to target missiles against United States citizens? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    Where are the good Democrats willing to stand up and be counted against the constant scare tactics being employed by Democrats against our elderly, as regards Social Security? Are there any? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    Where are the Democrats willing to say those in their party, who are now arguing against our defending ourselves and the world, vis a vie
    the war on terrorism, are wrong? Are there any at all? Any at all, willing to publicly do so? None. No, not one. To a man, they’re all mouthing the Howard Dean line about hw Bush lied, and it’s all about oil, yada, yada.

    Is there any Democrat who called for Newt Gingrich to get an apolgy and his money back, from those fines he paid, before he was later
    found innocent of all charges? Any at all, willing to publicly do so?

    Is there even ONE Democrat that gave back his $300 tax refund check after critisizing the present administration, and calling the refunds
    a ‘measure that will break the balanced budget’?

    Oh, I’m sure there are those who will insist that this is a bigot’s stand. Fine. Let’s see how they fare with this… let’s take a measurement.

    I issue an open challange: Show me a Democrat who was willing to stand up to his party… who was willing to openly and publicly disagree with his party… who put the needs of the country over the needs of his party.

    Oh, I mean, of course other than James Tafficant, who, interestingly was given the bum’s rush by his party as soon as it was fairly painless to do so… The real reason? He was caught once too often,standing up to his party, of course. The message sent by the Democrats to their own on this one was clear… Lockstep or you’re history the first chance we get.

    Ditto for Zell Miller, who has basicly been disowned for backing George W. Bush. Other than these two can you name one? Can YOU point to where you, yourself have spoken out on these outrages?

    Let’s be clear, here; the Democrats have been taken over by the far extreme of their own party, and refuse to recognize it, or else are deathly afraid to make any complaint about it, for fear of being excommunicated. The message clearly has been sent to the rank and file of the Democrat party: Lockstep or step off. And nobody dares stand up to the party’s radicals.

    I fully expect the silence in response to this challange to be utterly staggering in scope. Care to take another shot, Kevin? I await your answer.

  5. Jim Rhoads says:

    Take a look at CPT Ed’s discussion of the issues discussed here. The Swifties are not your ordinary group. They are ready for the attack. It may be the battle of faux warriors against real warriors. The fire fight has begun, and I don’t think it will be over for a while, primarily because the Michael Moore/ attacks set the tone. Real facts backing up an attack ad will be something new and different. Stay tuned.

  6. Howard Lindos says:

    Listen… I want Bush to win, but these
    Swift Boat Veterans are not going to do it.
    In fact, I think they are hurting. I know
    you want to win, but these people are really
    kind of pathetic.

    The Vatican paper is already carrying an
    article on its site denouncing the author
    as a anti-Catholic hatemonger. And being
    Catholic, I have already heard other Catholics
    complaining about them… I’m not sure you
    understand, but Catholics by and large do
    not like what this Corsi fellow have to say…
    I am mean the guy is a real lowlife… I am
    in Illinois and if it is the same in Ohio
    and Pennsylvania then it is hurting the
    Catholic vote which is crucial. When the
    Church denounces (even subtly) an anti-Kerry
    group then you know there is trouble.

    Furthermore, I don’t think we need them to win.
    So why align ourselves with bigots, morons,
    cowards and the alike? It just makes the GOP
    look bad…

    Vote Bush, but Screw the Swifties

  7. snease says:

    Given the partisan split in this election, I don’t see why anyone would think that the Swifties claims would have any significant impact on the voters. When questions were raised about Bush’s accounted for time in the Alabama National Guard, it didn’t move the polls the other direction either. Both camps are determined that the other side will lie, cheat and steal to convince the voters that the other guy is a bum. Both sides have big credibility issues with the unconverted on the other side.

    And the Swifties have one of the biggest credibility issues of all. They claim they were present at the firefight where everyone including Kerry got Bronze Stars. If Kerry didn’t deserve his medal, did the others deserve theirs? In my opinion, they are preaching to the choir. But they will have little effect on the unconverted.

  8. Howard Lindos says:

    Snease has it right I think exactly.

  9. Fred Boness says:

    Let’s just say your views are too nuanced for this old sergeant (U.S. Army 1970 – 1973).

  10. Bill Parker says:

    Lets face it this is a red herring. It gives the million dollar a year talking head news-readers smoke to blow. Real issues such as accountability for the billions being spent on Iraq and a viable exit strategy are probably too complex for anyone who would actually spend money to buy that kind of book.

    They pulled a Swiftee on us…and laughed all the way to the bank.

  11. Atm says:

    The Swiftees won’t change too many minds, but it will probably depress turnout for Kerry.

  12. Attila Girl says:

    This will hurt Kerry. Political junkies will follow the ins and outs as the Swifties’ credibility is discussed; the swing voters will only see that a large group of veterans is working very hard to see that Kerry isn’t elected.

  13. Banyardi says:

    Hey Bithead,

    I’ve heard alot of talk about “Duty, Honor, Country”, so let’s look at the facts. Duty: Kerry served in Vietnam, Bush did not. Honor: Kerry stood up for what he believed when he took the unpopular stance with Vietnam Vets Against the War, Bush practiced the same deceptive lies and malfeasance he now decries when he was at Harken oil. Where’s the investigation into his insider trading? Country: Bush failed to listen to the Clinton security team when they tried to warn him of Al-Quaida. Later they failed to fully prosecute the war on terror in Afghanistan, allowing our arch-enemy Bin-Laden to escape at Tora-Bora, because W was prosecuting an illegal and ill-conceived war in Iraq, which he had been planning since day one of his presidency. Kerry at-least understands how important it is to act within international law and actually reads his briefing papers.

    Let’s talk about other issues. 1) Do you own a portfolio of stocks valued over $100k? No, then you probably won’t benefit from W’s tax cut on capital gains. But us working stiffs will still pay as much or more on our earned income. 2) Are we more secure or less secure since Bush has instituted his Patriot Act idiocy? Have you seen my civil liberties? I lost them under a Bush. The Patriot Act is showing who are real patriots by defying it. 3) Why is he cutting funding to schools when he promised that “No child will be left behind”? 4) Why has he cut benefits and pay to US Armed Forces and their families in time of war? 5) Why has he insisted that US Armed Forces not be subject to the International War Crimes Commission, and then authorized torture as evidenced in Abu Ghrab and elsewhere? 6) Why does W want to privatize the Civil Service, which was invented after the Civil War to curb crony capitalism?

    And I won’t even get started on Cheney, who is profiteering our tax dollars from this war through Haliburton. This is the worst administration to be in power since Taft.