Pundits have cast around for the reasons behind President Bush's remarkable victory. Some have seized on moral values, or a poorly run Democratic campaign, even Kerry's personality. One cause mostly overlooked in the mainstream media is a small group of Vietnam veterans, a bunch of political amateurs, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who redefined the central issue of the election.
The Swifties, as they call themselves, made the election a referendum on character. Their ads, and best—selling book Unfit for Command, said that Senator Kerry is a man who lacks the character to be Commander—in—Chief. He gamed the system to win medals under false pretenses, lied about aspects of his service (he never spent Christmas in Cambodia) and, above all, turned on his fellow soldiers, falsely accusing them of systematically engaging in war crimes while he met twice with the enemy in Paris in time of war.
Bush's election architect, Karl Rove, was himself surprised at the group's impact. On Fox News Sunday, he credited them with galvanizing Republican and veteran voters. 'I was really surprised how strongly men and women who had served in Vietnam and in the Armed Forces felt about that,' Rove said.
The Swifties made their debut on May 4, holding a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. They were virtually ignored.
Everything changed in early August when the group released its first ad attacking Kerry's war record. Although the ad ran in few television markets, it swept through the internet. Cable talk shows picked up the story and played the ads for free. Thousands donated. The group eventually raised over $26 million.
According to John O'Neill, chief spokesman for the group, within three weeks 50% of the country had seen or at least heard about the first ad. This was despite the fact that none of the three major networks had run a single story about it, nor for that matter had the New York Times.
The ad gave a boost to the Bush Campaign, which by early summer was in serious trouble. After an overconfident April, the President had begun to sink in the polls. There was the prison scandal at Abu Ghraib, the worsening insurgency in Iraq, and a series of bad economic numbers. By late July, following the Democratic Convention, Senator Kerry had pulled ahead. Democratic strategist James Carville said it would be a miracle if Bush recovered.
In fact, Kerry's lead didn't last long. The devastating effect of the ad, followed by a second ad later in August ripping into Kerry's anti—war activities, eroded the challenger's standing still further, especially among voters who were veterans or had veterans in their families.
Kerry's campaign, which until then had ignored the Swifties, felt compelled to go on the offensive. This only fanned the flames, giving a green light to the mainstream media to cover the story. True, they followed Kerry's lead, largely running hit pieces on the group. Nevertheless, the story had become front—page news.
The success of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was Kerry's worst fear come to life. He had an earlier run—in with O'Neill in 1971, when they went head—to—head in a debate on The Dick Cavett Show. News accounts at the time, including in the New York Times, gave the win to O'Neill. Kerry sank into anonymity for the next 12 years. He had no desire to repeat that experience.
According to Newsweek, the Kerry campaign, aware of potential trouble, asked cable network C—SPAN to refrain from running tapes of Kerry before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, when he compared U.S. soldiers to Genghis Khan. Kerry also vainly tried to bribe the leader of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Retired Admiral Roy Hoffmann, promising to have his biography revised to show Hoffmann in a better light if he'd call off his troops.
It was more than passing strange, then, that Kerry would put his Vietnam service front and center, 'reporting for duty' at his party's convention. But Kerry had once told a prominent journalist that his Vietnam service would bring a double benefit. He both fought in Vietnam and was against the Vietnam War. Kerry might have pulled it off were it not for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
As for the Swifties, they don't care if pundits recognize their contribution or not. In an interview after the election John O'Neill said, 'We're happy to fade back into our own jobs and our own places and none of us did it to try and get credit. None of us would want to be in politics, so if the commentators conclude that we had a small role or no role that's fine with us. It doesn't make any difference.'
This election, despite all its modernity, the polls, the spin doctors, the BlackBerrys and cell phones, was ultimately old—fashioned. It centered on a question of character.
David Isaac is a reporter and editorial writer for Investor's Business Daily and a contributing writer to the Washington, D.C—based magazine The American Enterprise.