The Birth of an Anti-Kerry Ad

Quite some time after the story hit the Drudge Report and came under cross-fire from the blogosphere, the NYT has decided that the controversy generated by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth should be investigated. The result is a long piece that fronts today’s edition, entitled “Friendly Fire: The Birth of an Anti-Kerry Ad.” [RSS]

The lead-in gives a pretty good indication of where the story is going:

After weeks of taking fire over veterans’ accusations that he had lied about his Vietnam service record to win medals and build a political career, Senator John Kerry shot back yesterday, calling those statements categorically false and branding the people behind them tools of the Bush campaign. His decision to take on the group directly was a measure of how the group that calls itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has catapulted itself to the forefront of the presidential campaign. It has advanced its cause in a book, in a television advertisement and on cable news and talk radio shows, all in an attempt to discredit Mr. Kerry’s war record, a pillar of his campaign.

How the group came into existence is a story of how veterans with longstanding anger about Mr. Kerry’s antiwar statements in the early 1970’s allied themselves with Texas Republicans. Mr. Kerry called them “a front for the Bush campaign” – a charge the campaign denied. A series of interviews and a review of documents show a web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures and President Bush’s chief political aide, Karl Rove. Records show that the group received the bulk of its initial financing from two men with ties to the president and his family – one a longtime political associate of Mr. Rove’s, the other a trustee of the foundation for Mr. Bush’s father’s presidential library. A Texas publicist who once helped prepare Mr. Bush’s father for his debate when he was running for vice president provided them with strategic advice. And the group’s television commercial was produced by the same team that made the devastating ad mocking Michael S. Dukakis in an oversized tank helmet when he and Mr. Bush’s father faced off in the 1988 presidential election.

The strategy the veterans devised would ultimately paint John Kerry the war hero as John Kerry the “baby killer” and the fabricator of the events that resulted in his war medals. But on close examination, the accounts of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’ prove to be riddled with inconsistencies. In many cases, material offered as proof by these veterans is undercut by official Navy records and the men’s own statements. Several of those now declaring Mr. Kerry “unfit” had lavished praise on him, some as recently as last year.

So, basically, the NYT and the Kerry campaign has the same news judgment on the story: To look into the motivations of the accusers rather than the substance of the allegations. Certainly, the former is a fair question. The latter, ultimately, is more important.

The problem with the former charge is that it’s self-evident. As Charles Krauthammer mocked a week ago:

This assault was bankrolled by rich Bush supporters, they charge. No kidding. Where else would Swift boat vets get the money? With the exception of the romantic few who serially marry millionaire heiresses, Swift boaters are generally of modest means. Where are they going to get the cash to be heard? Harold Ickes?

That the backers of a group opposing Kerry’s election to the presidency would be people who share that goal is hardly surprising. That they would employ an ad agency that launched a successful ad against a Democratic candidate once upon a time, similarly, hardly shocks. Indeed, the argument that “These people are not to be believed because they oppose John Kerry’s politics” is so obviously weak as to do a disservice to the term ad hominem.

Similarly, the fact that their allegations as to the circumstances of Kerry’s medals contradict Navy records is rather a given. In order to get medals from the Navy, one must have paperwork from the Navy. The paperwork would reasonably be expected to correspond with the outcome. If the Navy had records saying John Kerry was a lying weasel who submitted false reports to get medals and yet still gave him medals, that would be amazing indeed.

Finally, the idea that a group preparing to come out and take on the presidential nominee of one of the two major political parties would come together and form a strategy before going public is rather a sign of good judgment. Unless they are total morons, they knew that they would be in for a firestorm of counter-charges by the Democratic Party and its allies. As well they should.

The remainder of the story, basically, notes that some of the 60-odd members of the SBVFT have espoused some rather nutty views and that they have praised Kerry in other settings. The former hardly seems relevant. If someone making a charge is a virulent anti-black racist or a raving anti-Semite, one might reasonably not wish to have him over for dinner. It hardly, however, automatically vitiates his testimony against a white Catholic. The latter–inconsistent statements by a person on a given subject–is, of course, highly relevant. Of course, John Kerry has made numerous inconsistent statements about his own service in Vietnam. That doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to the Silver Star.

(Oh–tip to the NYT–the phrase “John Kerry the war hero” should not appear in a news story; that’s an editorial judgment. While I have less faith in it than I did a month ago, it’s a judment I share. But that’s not really the point.)

This piece was online late last evening (I saw it before retiring for the evening but wasn’t in the mood to delve into it then) and much good commentary on it has been written from all around the political spectrum.

Jon Henke‘s summary is a pretty good encapsulation of my view: “All in all, a fairly one-sided story–note the very limited “other side”–but the criticisms appear valid and damning to the Swift Boat Veterans. It’s encumbent on Kerry’s critics to recognize that the Swift Boat Veterans may very well be incorrect….or worse.”

Kevin Drum agrees that the story focuses too much on the GOP ties of the accusers but contends, “Something tells me that before long George Bush is going to be sorry he didn’t step up to the plate and disown this group from the start. Their story, tattered from the start, looks worse and worse every time somebody shines a light into another of its dank corners.” We shall see. But I agree that the press should be shining light here. It’s about time.

John Cole reminds us, in some detail, of all the groups funding scurilous charges against President Bush. Not shockingly, they’re “Democratic operatives.” The horrors.

Patterico (also here) proclaims, “I don’t think I have ever seen such a partisan hit piece in my life” and points out some rather glaring omissions from the NYT story.

Orrin Judd wonders whether President Bush telling a 527 group not to run an ad would amount to illegal “coordination.”

“Captain Ed” Morissey quips, “I assume the big expose’ of MoveOn as a dirty-tricks front for the Democrats will be forthcoming from the New York Times. I’ll start looking tomorrow. ”

Big Trunk, among a slew of others, notes the glaring absence of coverage of the Cambodia story: “[W]ouldn’t you expect the Times to find some significance in the fact that Kerry has lied about one of the principal events in his campaign biography?”

Paul at Wizbang
has an amusing edited version of the story.

Meanwhile, Deborah Orin has a related piece in the New York Post, “KERRY CAMP FRETS OVER CAMBODIA TALE,” that points out the other side of the story.

THERE’S now some real angst in Dem ocratic circles be cause of the growing evidence that Democrat John Kerry’s claim to have a memory “seared in me” of spending Christmas 1968 in Cambodia was false — and just didn’t happen. But what worries some pro-Kerry Democrats is the fear that Kerry has, as one put it, “an Al Gore problem” — that he’s a serial exaggerator. (Remember how Gore claimed to have invented the Internet and inspired the novel “Love Story”?) Remember Kerry’s claim that “I’ve met foreign leaders” who told him he had to beat Bush? Turned out he hadn’t met any foreign leaders in years.

Kerry’s campaign Web site claimed credit for Vietnam missions when another man, Tedd Peck, was the skipper (that was removed when he protested) and last week was claiming credit for former Sen. Bob Kerrey’s service as Senate Intelligence Committee vice chairman.
“John Kerry, Bob Kerrey — similar names,” blithely explained Kerry campaign spokesman Michael Meehan, as if Kerry didn’t know his own bio.

I made a similar argument in a recent piece for TCS.

Again, my strong instinct on this is to believe that Kerry earned every medal awarded by the Navy and completed his service honorably. I am highly dubious of charges that emerge with convenient timing 30-odd years after an event, regardless of my view of the target of the charges. The burden is definitely on the Swifties here. I am, however, inclined to believe that Kerry has distorted his own record and that of his fellow veterans when it has suited him to do so: Winter Soldier, Cambodia, atrocities, and so forth. His anti-war activities deserve more scrutiny than they’ve had in this campaign, especially in light of his constant use of his service in Vietnam as a cloak. His more recent experience in the Senate certainly deserves more attention than it’s gotten.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. legion says:

    There’s an interesting zero-sum game at work here… the more the ‘Swifties (or the GOP or ‘Republican Operatives’ or whoever…) dig into Kerry’s Vietnam service, the more it’s going to reflect light onto Bush’s service – just you wait, as soon as the Kerry side gets the Swifties accusations under spin control, more questions about Bush’s service records will pop up.

    I think this also applies to your last point, James – the more the GOP digs into Kerry’s Senate records and past positions & votes, the more the Dems will dig into Cheney’s history. I think there’s a certain parallel with ‘detente’ here…

  2. James Joyner says:

    But Bush’s military history is well documented. More importantly, it is not and never has been a focus of his argument for why he should be president. Further, what ever Bush did in the 1970s, it’s esentially irrelevant because we have a plausible change of life scenario. Bush got religion, he got sober, and he grew up. Kerry was politically conscious from the late 1960s through today. In many ways, that’s more admirable. But Bush has been the guy he’s running as his whole public career, short though it may be. Kerry can’t say the same thing.

    I’m not sure what it is about Cheney that we’d look into. My point about Kerry’s war protest and Senate career isn’t that there is some scandal to be unearthed, merely that his record as a public citizen does not comport with the image he’s trying to stake out for this election. Cheney’s political conservatism has been rather consistent for three decades.

  3. Joseph Marshall says:

    It is my fond hope that this continues for some little while longer. Its time the American public truly ate its fill of this style of politics, which it has for so long relished as a guilty and secret pleasure. We finally need to eat it to surfeit.

    Keep blogging it James, give us every gory detail, blow by blow, as you have in the past few days. Don’t let any inclination to even consider that John Kerry might have served honorably restrain you.

    This is one we really need to wallow in to find out who and what we really are as a people and a nation.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Joseph: Do you actually even read the posts?

  5. legion says:

    James – I think you’re right about the Bush-life change thing (well, I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s a plausible argument for disconnecting his early life from his current life); but given the way even mildly complex issues get shorthanded and soundbitten into the public’s eye, I still think it’s a bad idea to focus on (or to allow one’s supporters to focus on). You’re basically saying “Bush has changed over the last 30+ years, so we should forget what he did then, but Kerry hasn’t, so we should roast him for it”, and unless your political ad then spends the next ten minutes discussing Bush’s “life change”, it’s going to come across as shallow and bogus to voters – there’s no political traction to be gained on that route, whether you’re fer or agin’ him.

    As for Cheney, I’m not real familiar with his Senate record either; I just recall much Conventional Wisdom from the primaries about how it’s harder for a Senator to run for Pres than a Governor, since Senators have so many issue votes in their past that can be twisted by the opposition. While I believe this, it seems odd that we haven’t seen more attacks on Kerry for that. I know he was hammered earlier this year for some of his votes, but I also recall seeing a few of Cheney’s old floor speeches trotted out by the Dems, and I haven’t heard much since then, so I assume there’s been some sort of mutual cease-fire called…

  6. James Joyner says:

    I figure Bush is largely inoculated by any of that by the sheer virtue of the fact that he’s been president four years. We know longer have to speculate what kind of president he’d make: We know. (For good or ill.)

    Actually, Cheney never served in the Senate unless one counts his stint as its president for the last four years. He was in the House a number of years, sandwiched in between tours of duty in the Ford White House and working for the two Presidents Bush as SECDEF and Veep. And, again, he’s been Veep for four years and is running for another four years as Veep. It’s not like he’s a mystery candidate.

  7. William Modahl says:

    It was Hannah Arendt who said that the great achievement of the totalitarianisms of the 20th Century was reduce matters that called for discussion and evidence to mere questions of motive. Naturally, whatever motive someone has for asserting a fact has no bearing on truth. Either it is true or not. We have a two party system, as Krauthammer reminds us, for just this reason. We depend on each party to bring out uncomfortable facts about the other. For the left, on the other hand, whose intellectual language is pidgin Marx, motive and interest is all there is – any notion of objective truth is mere “bourgeois morality” or obscurantism designed to cover up interest. This seems to have been handed down to and is readily accepted by liberals wishing to avoid inconvenient facts.

  8. Joseph Marshall says:

    Not as thoroughly as I might, James. I haven’t seen Farenheight 9/11 either. The sum total of both is “John Kerry is a bad man, unfit to be President. Here are the ways he is a bad man.” or “George Bush is a bad man, unfit to be President. Here are the ways he is a bad man.”

    We can pontificate endlessly about whether such charges are right or wrong, partisan or impartial, significant or insignificant. They all ask the wrong questions, no matter what the answers.

    And, ultimately (with a few rare exceptions), the answers boil down to “The Candidate (choose your own name) is human and imperfect in the face of a world of ambiguous moral choices.” Who isn’t?

    I think personally that about 80% of what any President does he does by rote and any well-stuffed blue suit would do. Neither candidate is going to disband the Department of Homeland Security, declare the Iraq war over and leave, or stop the CIA from spying on anybody under current circumstances. They are choices already made which no one is going to unmake and any President will simply have to manage. Do you disagree?

    It is the other 20% that is truly important. Therein lie the right questions: What has George W. Bush actually done? What does John Kerry propose to do? How much do I support or approve of either?

    I note that only one campaign, and its supporters, seems to be interested in trying to answer those questions as of yet. To quote Thomas Pynchon, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.”