Five years ago, a group of Vietnam veterans came forward at the National Press Club in Washington to dispute the "war hero" stories that formed the basis of candidate John Kerry's presidential campaign, and to challenge the claims of rampant US war crimes Kerry had used to launch his political career 33 years earlier -- false accusations, they said, that helped to poison the reputations of a generation of American troops. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth included Kerry's entire former chain of command from Vietnam and dozens of eyewitnesses to his actions there. Kerry, the veterans said, was not fit to be America's Commander-in-Chief
The Swift Vets intended to hold a single press conference and go home, thinking that Kerry would quickly be withdrawn as the nominee of his party. However, instead of reporting the veterans' charges accurately, the Democrat-dominated media either ignored or disparaged their testimony. In response, the Swift Vets planned and executed a remarkably effective end run to bypass the DNC media, presenting their case with the book Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, the website SwiftVets.com (which I managed), a devastating TV ad campaign, and thousands of individual interviews, mostly on talk radio. In early August 2004, the multipronged effort paid off. Unfit for Command topped the best-seller lists and millions of dollars in donations flooded into SwiftVets.com. The TV ads, as reporter Bill Sammon would later write, were "transfixing" the country. Polls showed that the veterans were perceived as highly credible. Kerry's support plummeted, especially among veterans, the families of veterans and independent voters.
Kerry ignored the firestorm for two weeks and his media allies followed suit. Finally, on August 20th, he denounced his critics by name. The media responded instantly with a blizzard of anti-Swift Vet articles. For ten weeks, the Kerry campaign and the DNC media worked desperately to discredit the veterans, but with little success. When Kerry narrowly lost the election, many observers cited the Swift Vets as the key factor.
The liberal spin after the election was that Kerry had been "too slow" to respond to his critics. Some Kerry advisors admitted that they had relied on the media to keep the Swift Vet story from breaking through. However, if ten weeks of attacks weren't enough, two more probably wouldn't have made much difference.
Ever since 2004, the media has tried to correct its failure to turn public opinion against the Swift Vets.
Shortly after the election, the DNC media began using the term "swift boating" as a shorthand reference for supposedly dishonest political criticism - but only for criticism targeting Democrats or Democratic initiatives. Like the earlier use of "McCarthyism," this sloganeering was intended to silence debate through repetition.
In 2004, the media had eagerly repeated the Kerry campaign's unsupported charge that the Swift Vets were really a secret Republican operation rather than an independent group. Kerry filed a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission demanding a complete investigation, and the FEC responded with a flurry of subpoenas followed by a forensic examination of the Swift Vets' records. I was ordered to turn over some 10,000 emails to the FEC, and I was only a website contractor. After two years of exhaustive investigation, the FEC finally concluded in December 2006 that the Swift Vets "did not unlawfully coordinate its activities" with any party or candidate. The media ignored the group's exoneration, focusing instead on the FEC's decision to fine the Swift Vets for forming as a "527" organization instead of as a political action committee.
Meanwhile, Tim Ziegler and I were working on a book about the anti-Kerry veterans' movement, of which the Swift Vets had been the most visible part. Again and again our research uncovered new information that supported the Swift Vets' affidavit-backed testimony over the claims of the Kerry campaign. For example, we were able to interview a former Forward Air Control pilot who had observed Kerry's "No Man Left Behind" mission from above. We also located and spoke with former Special Forces officer Richard O'Connor, the mission commander, who had declined to be interviewed in 2004. His subordinate Jim Rassmann was the man Kerry had famously extracted from the river that day. Both O'Connor and the FAC pilot confirmed the Swift Vets' statement that there was no enemy fire during the mine explosion and subsequent rescue operations, flatly contradicting the campaign version promoted by Rassmann and Kerry. Early in 2008, Wintersoldier.com published summary reports of the Army Criminal Investigation Division (CID) investigations into the atrocity allegations made by Vietnam Veterans Against the War -- the very claims Kerry presented to the Senate during the testimony that launched his political career. The CID documents, unseen for more than thirty years, showed that the "winter soldiers" had been utterly unable to support their claims with real evidence. Several of the activists had backtracked or disavowed their stories entirely when interviewed by military investigators. The DNC media couldn't have been less interested.
One of John Kerry's key veteran supporters in 2004 was Wade Sanders, who helped to introduce the candidate at the Democratic National Convention and was mentioned as a candidate for Secretary of Defense. Sanders also acted as Kerry's lead attack dog against the Swift Vets, whom he repeatedly compared to Nazis.
Two weeks ago, Sanders was sentenced to 37 months in prison on child pornography charges. Rather than admit to wrongdoing, Sanders claimed that he had been doing "research." He blamed his obsessive interest in the subject on a flare-up of post-traumatic stress caused by -- you guessed it -- the Swift Vets. Alas, as James Taranto pointed out, Sanders' acquisition of child pornography began in 2003, before the Swift Vets even existed. The DNC media, including Kerry's troubled hometown Boston Globe, ignored Sanders conviction.
Imagine the media coverage if the offender had been someone like Swift Vet spokesman John O'Neill.
The Swift Vets were created for a single purpose: to inform the public about John Kerry. The group did not engage in any political activity after 2004, and it disbanded a few months after the FEC investigation ended.
Nevertheless, the DNC media continued to report that the Swift Vets were engaged in a wide variety of anti-Democrat political ventures. Usually, the only connection was to one of the group's former contractors - political consultants who have done work for hundreds of clients over the years. On other occasions, the culprits were wealthy Republicans who gave money in support of the veterans, as they have for many other political initiatives. The reports always dishonestly implied that the Swift Vets themselves were involved.
Ironically, this was the same style of attack Dan Rather and CBS News used the very first day the Swift Vets went public. Parroting talking points provided by the Kerry campaign, Rather falsely labeled the group a "Republican operation" while Byron Pitts claimed that the Swift Vets had used similar tactics against Senators Max Cleland and John McCain. In fact, none of the veterans had taken part in any such effort. The latest canard is that "swiftboaters" are behind an effort to oppose President Obama's health care plan. Obama's former campaign manager David Plouffe recently sent out an email to Obama supporters on behalf of a DNC-managed group claiming that "the same people behind the notorious ‘swiftboat' ads of 2004 are already pumping millions of dollars into deceptive television ads." Plouffe asked for $5 to help "fight back."
The health care effort is coordinated by CRC Public Relations, which did do contract work on the Swift Vets' successful TV ads. Of CRC's many PR campaigns, however, a far more relevant example is the "Harry and Louise" series that helped derail the Clintons' attempt to socialize the American medical system back in 1993.
Perhaps an honest reporter might want to ask Mr. Plouffe this question:
"Sir, you recently suggested that the Swift boat veterans group is opposing the President's health care proposal. How is that possible given that the organization has been inactive since 2004?"
Don't hold your breath while you wait.