Redefining 'Swiftboating' and Rewriting History

If the words "swift" and "boat" must be combined and turned into a verb, then let us insist on its proper use.  The word as a verb originates from the campaign undertaken in 2004 by the Swift Boat Veterans in response to the John Kerry presidential candidacy.  The word means, or should mean, the exposure of a fraudulent autobiography of one seeking political office or public influence. It is the correction of a personal and professional record that has been selectively and dishonestly compiled, as the Swift Vets did so effectively to that of John Kerry. 

Although swiftboating may be a neologism, there are other recent examples of this phenomenon.  Justus Reid Werner, in a seminal Commentary article, exposed the fraudulent life story created by Edward Said to advance his political agenda.  Dan Rather's macho claims to be an "ex-marine", when he did not finish marine basic training, were also revealed to be fraudulent.  This is swiftboating in its truest sense.

The Left is now redefining and, therefore, misusing the term swiftboating, and this misuse has become one of the many notable aspects of the 2008 presidential campaign.  Democratic candidates and their partisans in the blogosphere use this word to mean smearing their candidates for public office with lies and innuendo.  For some blog sites, the word is now synonymous with "screeds," the "politics of smear and fear," and "character assassination of proven effectiveness."  Recently, some candidates have angrily declared that they will not be swiftboated.

To understand better the origins of this term and the actual meaning of swiftboating, one can do no better than to read To Set the Record Straight, How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs, and the New Media Defeated John Kerry, by Scott Swett and Tim Ziegler.  In 2004 John Kerry chose to make his service in Vietnam as a supposed war hero the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.  In a scene now reminiscent of Groucho Marx's addresses to Fredonians in Duck Soup, who can forget John Kerry's infamous "reporting for duty" speech to the Democratic Convention in 2004?  This strategy adopted by Kerry actually made sense when one examines his time-serving and singularly undistinguished career in the Senate.  Here is a man who ran for President for no reason other than he could afford to.

To Set the Record Straight chronicles the actions of the galvanized Swift Vets and their campaign to expose the fabrications of John Kerry.  In far more detail than can be mustered in campaign television ads or press releases, this book documents Kerry's scant service record in Vietnam and his disgraceful behavior after he returned to the United States. We see a more thorough account of: 

  • Kerry's dubious "wounds" and purple hearts,
  • his night under attack in Cambodia that could not have happened,
  • the "heroic" rescue on the Bay Hap River that had little in common with the account of Kerry's colleagues or the physical evidence,
  • Kerry's highly publicized and false claims of wide-spread genocide perpetrated by American soldiers in Vietnam,
  • the usefulness of his 1971 Senate testimony to the North Vietnamese as a device to demoralize American POWs.

These accounts and the examination of the facts and circumstances compiled by the Swift Vets set the record straight as well as can now be done.  (John Kerry still refuses to release all of his military records, despite promising to do so.)  These corrective accounts of the Swift Vets are compelling and are the very definition of swiftboating. The term deserves the positive connotation of "whistle-blowing."

The book's very detailed account of the response to the Swift Vets from the mainstream media and other denizens of the Left is revealing, and this response is consistent with the thinking behind the current redefinition of swiftboating.  The book provides unsurprising accounts of spiked and distorted news stories, the drumbeat of false accusations about links to Karl Rove and the White House, the attempted sabotage of fundraising efforts, and attempts to trash the website of the Swift Vets. 

The reader can re-live the experience of Lawrence O'Donnell's hilarious and embarrassing meltdown on MSNBC, where he displayed all the wit and depth of one singing the 1960s tune "Liar, Liar, You're Pants Are On Fire."  (No, he was not fired.) One can see Douglas Brinkley, following in the footsteps of Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., morph from historian to political hack.

Despite their short-term relevance to the 2008 presidential campaign, this current misuse and redefinition of swiftboating are far more than just semantic developments.  Words and their meanings, like ideas, have consequences.  Here, there is a very real and conscious strategy involved with the redefinition of this word. It entails the contempt for and the willful disregard of the convincing case made by the Swift Vets. It also entails the continuing support of the illusions of an entire movement.

To make the definition of swiftboating synonymous with "smears," "lies," and "innuendo" is to declare John Kerry's innocence.  Once declared, one may conclude that it is the service of the Swift Vets that is tarnished, and that there may be some truth to Kerry's claims of heroism and charges of genocide in Vietnam.  After all, both Kerry and the Swift Vets cannot be telling the truth. Whether explicitly, or implicitly with this newly created derogatory connotation of swiftboating, to declare Kerry's innocence is to do again to the Swift Vets in 2008 what Kerry and cohorts did to them in 1971. 

Every time that a candidate today complains of being smeared by calling it swiftboating, he seeks the same exoneration or immunity that this redefined word gives to John Kerry, and, perversely, that candidate reinforces the false impression that the Swift Vets did something dishonorable in their campaign against John Kerry and in Vietnam years ago.

This clever manipulation of the meaning of words and its exoneration of John Kerry has much broader implications.  In the 1970s John Kerry led a high profile movement that not only defamed American servicemen as crazed killers, but Kerry and his real "band of brothers" also successfully pushed policies that had truly genocidal consequences in Southeast Asia.  To exonerate John Kerry is to exonerate his movement and all who participated in it for their role in the genocide.  It is to whitewash all of them from the consequences of their actions. (It also, peremptorily, excuses them of their behavior in the current war.) For them, to raise issues or to expose these facts is now to be summarily dismissed as swiftboating in this newly pejorative sense. So, down the memory hole is flushed another sad chapter authored by John Kerry and his ilk.  Oh well, they were only a few million Asians; and history is conveniently sanitized.

John Kerry and the movement that he led have demanded and, for the most part, received a free pass for over a generation. They even had the effrontery to demand a memorial celebrating the "bravery" of their movement back here in the United States where they so heroically endured the hardships of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. In 2004 the Swift Vets made them pay a little for that otherwise free pass by setting a small part of the record straight.  This is the meaning of swiftboating, and we should demand more of it.  All we have to lose are the dishonest autobiographies from our self-serving political class.

Henry P. Wickham, Jr. welcomes comments.
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