Swift-Boating Here to Stay

Michael Kinsley hopes that Swift-Boating, a combination of smear and truth that “exploits its own complexity and the reluctance of the media to adjudicate factual disputes” and thus sticks, will not reappear this election season.

The raw material for swift-boating this year is already apparent. There is Obama’s loony pastor, his friendship with a former radical, his dealings with a convicted financial sleaze. McCain’s friendship with a woman lobbyist is an issue the New York Times fumbled, but it could resurface. McCain was one of the Keating Five, tied to a financial and influence scandal from the early ’90s that could be brought down from the attic. And there is his alleged bad temper, a potentially legitimate issue that could be blended with his age in unsavory ways.

To swift-boat or not to swift-boat? What’ll it be? Both candidates have publicly sworn off the practice, and McCain was admirably loud in denouncing the Swift Boat campaign in 2004. Of course, that was when he was still a maverick. I’ve been shocked by how many Democrats, in an informal poll, take the position that whatever it takes to win is justified. They say, first, that the Republicans will do anything to win, and it would be naive to attempt a higher standard. Second, they say, the stakes in this election are so high that an excess of scruples in trying to win it would be morality misplaced. Many Republicans agree at least with this second point. The belief of some Democrats that only scruples are stopping them from swift-boating as effectively as Republicans is almost touching.

If these junior Machiavellis are right, there is no hope for a civilized campaign.

They are and there isn’t. There’s a decent chance both of the campaigns will forswear the practice but zero chance that their surrogates won’t engage in whatever tactics they think give their team the best chance at winning.

Ironically, the normally intellectually honest Kinsley both poisons the well and begs the question in his essay,
dismissing arguments that the smears about John Kerry in 2004 and about Michael Dukakis in 1988 were part and parcel of the Republican campaign strategy as unworthy of discussion. Indeed, this is precisely as underhanded as Swift-Boating itself, forcing the other side to prove and negative and relying on the complexity of a national campaign to obscure the truth.

There’s also a Reverse Swift-Boat at work here as well. While I immediately condemned the early, scurrilous charges of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against Kerry, they did bring to the table, as Kinsley concedes, many arguments against Kerry which were true and which damaged him. The fact that the group which did this was itself contemptible does not mean that the charges themselves were illegitimate. That charges that Kerry was a war criminal and a coward who connived to get phony medals were outrageous; pointing out that he repeatedly lied about other veterans and his own service was fair game.

Similarly, giving credence to the “Obama is a Muslim” argument and claiming that the Obamas are secret racists who hate America is beyond the pale. It’s perfectly fair, however, to call into question Obama’s judgment for associating with Jeremiah Wright and other questionable characters for so long. And, while most Keating Five attacks on McCain at this stage are likely to be specious, his involvement in the scandal is not an unreasonable topic for exploitation, especially against a candidate running on cleaning up government corruption.

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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. Steven W. says:

    McCain’s “involvement” in Keating 5 was only as a cover for Democrats so that they could point to one R when it was exclusively a Democrat scandal.

  2. Michael says:

    Jefferson was accused of being an atheist throughout his Presidential campaign. We expect civility in American politics now, in 2008, why?

  3. Beldar says:

    Kerry and his MSM surrogates had no qualms about exaggerating and misstating the SwiftVets’ actual allegations any time they wanted to put up strawman arguments that could conveniently be knocked down.

    The SwiftVets themselves did not claim that Kerry was a “war criminal.” You’re referring to the discussion in Unfit for Command of Kerry being awarded a Silver Star for, among other things, pursuing a VC soldier with an RPG into the jungle and shooting him in the back as he was fleeing. The SwiftVets readily acknowledged that killing a retreating enemy who’s still armed and gives every indication of being ready, in an instant, to pivot and continue firing, is entirely appropriate. The argument was, however, that Kerry’s actions (both in killing that individual VC soldier and throughout the rest of the engagement) constitute an ordinary performance of duty, in no way so exceptional as to merit one of the nation’s highest combat awards.

    Opponents of the SwiftVets immediately proceeded to focus upon the “shot in the back” portion of the narrative — which, by the way, came from Kerry’s own description of the event to Boston Globe reporters — as somehow being a claim by the SwiftVets that Kerry was a “war criminal.” (They also tried to re-focus the SwiftVets’ point into a dispute about whether the VC soldier was or wasn’t a teenager and whether he was or wasn’t wearing only a loincloth — none of which was remotely relevant.) That’s bogus, but it was effective media manipulation by Kerry and his minions. I’m disappointed to see that they managed to manipulate you into it too, Dr. Joyner.

  4. Beldar says:

    By the way, “the group which did this,” which you find “contemptible,” included dozens and dozens of veterans whose own service accomplishments eclipsed John Kerry’s literally many thousandfold. It includes Medal of Honor winner Bud Day, for example, a leader of the ex-POW contingent who joined the SwiftVets. It includes John O’Neill and many more like him — men whose own medals aren’t disputed by anyone, and who didn’t bug out after six weeks of combat based on Purple Hearts for band-aid wounds. You have a strange definition of “contemptible.”

  5. Beldar says:

    Actually, as I reflect back, I recall more details:

    The “war criminal” stuff actually originated with the Boston Globe reporters during Kerry’s run for Senate against William Weld. It was the naive Boston Globe reporters who — hearing Kerry describe himself as having shot someone in the back — suggested that he’d admitted to a war crime. At that point, several of Kerry’s fellow Swift Boat veterans defended Kerry from the “war criminal” charge. (Their so doing was then alleged by Kerry, in 2004, to be evidence of duplicity and betrayal when they condemned other of his actions — indisputable proof that no good deed goes unpunished.)

  6. Michael says:

    men whose own medals aren’t disputed by anyone

    Only because they never ran for President or other highly-publicized office.

  7. Beldar says:

    Sure, Michael, all of the Swift Boat officers who were in service at the same time as John Kerry were cowards, slackers, and fools. Only he and the three who supported him in 2004 were the real heroes. Why, Kerry himself was practically Audie Murphy and Sgt. York rolled into one — had to be, since he earned two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, and a Bronze star all between Feb. 20 and March 13, 1969 (within three weeks and one day). All those other guys who served full-year tours are the bogus bananas. John Kerry, who bugged out after his Swift Boats training plus six weeks of combat, was practically the only heroic soldier of the war.

  8. Michael says:

    Sure, Michael, all of the Swift Boat officers who were in service at the same time as John Kerry were cowards, slackers, and fools. Only he and the three who supported him in 2004 were the real heroes.

    I think you misinterpreted what I was saying. I’m not accusing those men, John Kerry, or anyone else of not deserving their medals. I’m saying that if you’re running a highly publicized, somebody is going to claim that.

    If George Washington himself came back and ran for President tomorrow, you’d find at least two dozen people accusing him of not being a patriot. Hell, they did that back when he _was_ President. People would accuse Mother Teresa of being a godless whore if she didn’t support their pet issue to their satisfaction, that’s just the nature of politics in this country.

    Saying that Kerry may not have deserved his medals because someone questioned him, and not these other guys who weren’t running for office, is a straw man.

  9. James Joyner says:

    Bill: I think the Swifties had an excellent case against Kerry which they sullied by mixing in some dubious smears which, thanks to Matt Drudge and others, got the most early attention. The “Winter Soldier” business was well worth rallying around. The “Kerry’s medals were unearned” business was unseemly and unfalsifiable.

  10. Hoodlumman says:

    Last I heard Kerry had still not released his full military record to the public for scrutiny, only a partial selection to the Boston Globe.

    Wouldn’t releasing the full records have put the SBVFT group to rest? In theory?

  11. Beldar says:

    I don’t now why you suggest that the criticisms of two of Kerry’s three Purple Hearts are “unfalsifiable.” There are objective requirements, set out in long-standing regulations, that must be met before Purple Hearts can be awarded.

    One Purple Heart was, by anyone’s version of events (including Kerry’s own), based on rice fragments in Kerry’s butt that came from him throwing his own grenade into a rice pile. Another came from a night training action on a skimmer; there was no action report ever completed for it because, according to Kerry’s training commander, there was no confirmation of enemy contact, and neither was there a casualty report for Kerry’s injury (another band-aid cut, this time to the arm). Purple Heart regulations require that wounds be documented by casualty reports, and that there be after-action reports documenting that the wounds were due to enemy action (not accidental self-infliction). Kerry’s admission that the butt wound was accidentally self-inflicted and the absence of required documentation for the other is proof that the Purple Hearts were erroneously awarded. (The SwiftVets never challenged the third Purple Heart, a shin wound from a shell or mine fragment that, once again, was only a band-aid wound that didn’t result in any missed duty. They did point out that it was trivial, though, just like the other two, which indirectly relates to whether Kerry had good moral grounds for taking the 3-PH bug-out.)

    Kinsey talks about the reluctance of people to get into nitty-gritty details. That’s true, but it’s been used to give Kerry a free pass. I’ve yet to meet anyone who can explain to me how Kerry self-perforating his own butt with rice fragments through careless use of his own grenade ought to qualify him for a Purple Heart. Yet without that Purple Heart, he wouldn’t have been back stateside as an admiral’s aide after serving less than a third of a normal Swift Boats tour of duty and only six weeks of intermittent combat. Dr. Joyner, can you offer a justification for how he got that PH (and thus got home so early)?

    I will grant you that the Silver Star and Bronze Star awards are far more subjective. What I don’t understand, however, is why the subjective judgment of the SwiftVets is automatically supposed to be “unconscionable” or “unseemly.” They’re veterans, some of whom participated in these same engagements, and others of whom participated in similar ones in the same operational theater. Why aren’t they entitled to have, and express, their opinions?

  12. Michael says:

    I a soldier was injured as a result of their own action, but that action was taken due to enemy action, would it be considered? I’m hoping that John Kerry wasn’t just casually throwing grenades behind rice piles.

  13. James Joyner says:

    Bill: The Navy awarded him three Purple Hearts and there’s no evidence that he somehow faked injuries or falsified reports. Any injury received in combat operations against the enemy qualifies, no matter how trivial or stupid.

    The “three Purple Hearts and you go home” policy isn’t one I’d heard of before the 2004 campaign but it’s apparently what the Navy was doing. Presumably, Kerry was glad to take the out being offered to him given that he was clearly disillusioned with the war. Unless he falsified documents, pulled questionable strings, or otherwise acted dishonorably, I’m not sure why it’s particularly relevant. Especially not in a campaign against a contemporary who didn’t leave CONUS.

  14. Beldar says:

    Dr. Joyner, the Purple Heart requirements are much more detailed than you suggest. The injury must be the “result of an act” by the enemy. By regulation, Kerry’s first Purple Heart should have been supported (see paragraph 2-8f of Army Regulation 600-8-22 on page 41 of the .pdf file) by both an after-action report documenting “the key issue that commanders must take into consideration,” which is “the degree to which the enemy caused the injury,” and by a casualty report documenting the injury (see paragraph 2-8e on page 41 and 2-8k(3) on page 42). Accidents and self-inflicted wounds are specifically excluded. If all that was required was that an injury be received “in combat operations against the enemy,” Max Cleland would have one. He doesn’t, because his horrific injuries, while certainly incurred while on active duty in a theater of war, were the result of a mechanical accident which caused a helicopter crash, instead of being the direct result of enemy action.

    Moreover: Kerry made a big deal throughout the 2004 campaign over his “war hero” credentials — can you possibly have forgotten the “reporting for duty” limp-wristed salute on-stage at the Democratic Nat’l Convention? He made a big deal over the fact that he volunteered for the Swift Boats. (Of course, when he volunteered, the Swift Boats were doing exclusively coastal interdiction duties that were not much more dangerous than his previous year’s service on the guided missile cruiser USS Gridley; it was only while he was in training that the Swift Boats were re-tasked to one of the Navy’s most dangerous missions in the Vietnam War, i.e., patrolling interior rivers and canals.) When you’re trying to sell voters on your character, and you’re offering as a data point that you volunteered to serve your country in dangerous duty, it’s surely relevant to show that you volunteered yourself back out after only six weeks of intermittent combat, while your comrades (all of whom surely suffered at least as many band-aid wounds as you had, and many, much worse) stuck it out and continued serving their full tours.

    Just say outright that you choose not to look behind his medals, no matter whether they were justified or not. I can understand that position; I can see policy arguments for it. But if that’s you’re position, then admit, too, that you’re deliberately blinkering yourself to everything that’s not contained on the face of the citation, whether good or bad. (That seems to me to be what you’re doing.)

    Michael: Blowing up the rice piles was legitimate, because they were trying to destroy enemy caches of supplies and ammunition. Doing so in a way that results in one’s own butt being shredded suggests not heroism, but stupidity in the use of lethal weapons. (No one has ever suggested that Kerry deliberately intended to hurt himself, however, with respect to either this self-inflicted wound or the probably self-inflicted wound from the skimmer mission.)

  15. James Joyner says:


    See my “Heroes Don’t Shout” link above. We’re mostly in agreement about how Kerry handled his military service during the campaign.

    As to the Purple Heart, this is what the regs say:

    3. Criteria: a. The Purple Heart is awarded in the name of the President of the United States to any member of an Armed Force who, while serving with the U.S. Armed Services after 5 April 1917, has been wounded or killed, or who has died or may hereafter die after being wounded;

    (1) In any action against an enemy of the United States;

    (2) In any action with an opposing armed force of a foreign country in which the Armed Forces of the United States are or have been engaged;

    (3) While serving with friendly foreign forces engaged in an armed conflict against an opposing armed force in which the United States is not a belligerent party;

    (4) As a result of an act of any such enemy of opposing armed forces;

    (5) As the result of an act of any hostile foreign force;

    (6) After 28 March 1973, as a result of an international terrorist attack against the United States or a foreign nation friendly to the United States, recognized as such an attack by the Secretary of the department concerned, or jointly by the Secretaries of the departments concerned if persons from more than one department are wounded in the attack; or,

    (7) After 28 March 1973, as a result of military operations, while serving outside the territory of the United States as part of a peacekeeping force.

    (8) After 7 December 1941, by weapon fire while directly engaged in armed conflict, regardless of the fire causing the wound.

    (9) While held as a prisoner of war or while being taken captive.

    b. A wound for which the award is made must have required treatment by a medical officer.

    It’s pretty broad. You could have been a hero, an innocent bystander, or a klutz. The injury could range from the proverbial “flesh wound” to death. Until a few years ago, it was a low ranked medal. It got bumped up the pecking order during peacetime because so many people in the 1980s had rows of medals with no combat service and some thought being wounded in battle should count for more than meritorious peacetime service.

  16. Beldar says:

    I’ve read the regs, James. You keep ignoring the part in them about documentation, and the part about enemy action being required.

  17. Beldar says:

    (And what you just quoted is a summary, an accurate but not complete one. What I linked are the actual current regs, which have been added to even since 2004, but which correspond in the material respects I’ve pointed out to what were in effect in 1968-1969.)

    Are you suggesting that when the Viet Cong piled up that rice, that was an “act of the enemy” that caused John Kerry to set off that grenade? Damn, those VC were clever, if that be true.

  18. Grewgills says:

    One Purple Heart was, by anyone’s version of events (including Kerry’s own), based on rice fragments in Kerry’s butt that came from him throwing his own grenade into a rice pile. Another came from a night training action on a skimmer

    From the description of the events when Kerry received each of his Purple Hearts the two Purple Hearts you mention both appear to both refer to his first Purple Heart received on a night action where smugglers were interdicted. The second came from an RPG and the third came during the course of events that lead to his Bronze Star.

  19. rpk says:

    If Kerry’s file supported his accounts and not the Swifties, I am sure we would have seen the entire file by now. Since we haven’t I suspect that there is unflattering details in it.