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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Slow Boat to Redemption?

John Kerry realizes that if he doesn't forcefully rebut the distortions of his military record by the Swift Boat Veterans, he might lose the election:

Kerry Pressing Swiftboat Case, Long After Loss, by Kate Zernike, NY Times: ...Three decades after the Vietnam War and nearly two years after Mr. Kerry's failed presidential bid, most Americans have probably forgotten why it ever mattered whether he went to Cambodia or that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accused him of making it all up, saying he was dishonest and lacked patriotism.

But ... the battle over Mr. Kerry's wartime service continues, out of the limelight but in some ways more heatedly — because unlike then, Mr. Kerry has fully engaged in the fight. Only those on Mr. Kerry's side, however, have gathered new evidence to support their case...

Some of the principals behind the Swift boat group continue to press their claims. John O'Neill, the co-author of the group's best-selling manifesto, "Unfit for Command," criticizes Mr. Kerry on television talk shows and solicits money for conservative causes and candidates. In a South Carolina newspaper, William Schachte recently reprised his allegation that he was aboard the small skimmer where Mr. Kerry received the injury that led to his first Purple Heart, and that Mr. Kerry actually wounded himself.

Swift boat message boards and anti-Kerry Web sites still boil with accusations that Mr. Kerry fabricated the military reports that led to his military decorations. Mr. Kerry ... is now fighting back hard.

"They lied and lied and lied about everything," Mr. Kerry says in an interview... "How many lies do you get to tell before someone calls you a liar? How many times can you be exposed in America today?" His supporters are compiling a dossier that they say will expose every one of the Swift boat group's charges as a lie and put to rest any question about Mr. Kerry's valor in combat. ...

Mr. Kerry portrays himself as a wary participant in his own defense... "I'm moving on," he says several times. But he can also barely resist prosecuting a case against the group that his friends now refer to as "the bad guys." "Bill Schachte was not on that skimmer," Mr. Kerry says firmly. "...It is a lie to suggest that he was out there on that skimmer."

He shows a photograph of the skimmer ... insisting that it could barely fit three people... "The three guys who in fact were in the boat all say he wasn't there... We know he wasn't there, and we have all kinds of ways of proving it."

Mr. Kerry has signed forms authorizing the Navy to release his record — something he resisted during the campaign — and hired a researcher to comb the naval archives in Washington for records that could pinpoint his whereabouts during dates of the incidents in dispute. Another former crew member has spent days at a time interviewing veterans to reconstruct every incident in question.

In February 2005, Mr. Kerry's supporters formed their own group, the Patriot Project, to defend veterans who take unpopular positions... One of their first tasks was to visit newspaper editorial boards in defense of John P. Murtha ... a ... veteran whose military record has been attacked by Republicans and conservative blogs since he called for pulling the troops out of Iraq. ...

Members of the Swift boat group have not seen Mr. Kerry's newly gathered evidence. But they seem unwilling to cede much. Mr. O'Neill said he "would be thrilled to look at anything he wants to send." ... Mr. Schachte said that ... "if they crank this thing up again, I'm not going to be quiet." ... "...I was in that boat with Kerry."

The veterans group, led by Mr. O'Neill, a former Swift boat commander ... backed by Republican donors and consultants, ...[attacked] his greatest strength — his record as a military hero... Naval records and accounts from other sailors contradicted almost every claim they made, and some members of the group who had earlier praised Mr. Kerry's heroism contradicted themselves.

Still, the charges stuck. At a triumphant gathering of veterans in Fort Worth after the election, Mr. O'Neill was introduced as the man who "torpedoed" Mr. Kerry's campaign; the Swift boat group spent more than $130,000 for a "Mission Accomplished" celebration at Disney World. The president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, sent a letter thanking the "Swifties" for "their willingness to stand up to John Kerry." Even people within the Kerry campaign believed that the attacks had cost their candidate the presidency.

Some of Mr. Kerry's friends and former Swift boat crew members made advertisements during the race to try to shoot down the group's charges. But the campaign declined to air them widely because some strategists said that directly challenging the charges would legitimize them. They approached Mr. Kerry after the election with the idea of setting the record straight.

So they have returned, for instance, to the question of Cambodia and whether Mr. Kerry was ever ordered to transport Navy Seals across the border... The Swift boat group insisted that no boats had gone to Cambodia. But Mr. Kerry's researcher, using Vietnam-era military maps and spot reports from the naval archives showing coordinates for his boat, traced his path from Ha Tien toward Cambodia on a mission that records say was to insert Navy Seals.

Mr. Kerry's supporters have also frozen frames from his amateur films of his time in Vietnam and have retrieved letters and military citations for other sailors to support his version of how he won the Silver Star — rebutting the Swift boat group's most explosive charge, that he shot an unarmed teenager who was fleeing his fire.

Another photograph provides evidence for Mr. Kerry's version of how he won the Bronze Star. And original reports pulled from the naval archives contradict the charge that he drafted his own accounts of various incidents — which left room, the Swift boat group had argued, to embellish them.

Mr. Kerry's defenders have received help from unlikely sources, including some who were originally aligned with the Swift boat group... One of them, Steve Hayes, was an early member of the group. A former sailor, he was a longtime friend and employee of William Franke, one of the group's founders... But Mr. Hayes came to believe that the group was twisting Mr. Kerry's record.

"The mantra was just 'We want to set the record straight,' " Mr. Hayes said this month. "It became clear to me that it was morphing ... into a highly political vendetta. They knew it was not the truth." Mr. Hayes broke with the group, ending a 35-year friendship with Mr. Franke... He has provided a long interview to Mr. Kerry's supporters, backing their version of the incident for which Mr. Kerry received the Bronze Star.

Of course, plenty of disappointed and angry Democrats would like to know why Mr. Kerry did not defend himself so strenuously before the election. ...

Mr. Kerry and his defenders say that they did not have the extensive archival material, and that it was too complicated to gather in the rapid pace of a campaign. He was caught off guard, he says; he had been prepared to defend his antiwar activism, but he did not believe that anyone would challenge the facts behind his military awards. "We should have put more money behind it," Mr. Kerry says now. "I take responsibility for it; it was my mistake. They spent something like $30 million, and we didn't. That's just a terrible imbalance when somebody's lying about you."

    Posted by on Saturday, May 27, 2006 at 11:34 AM in Politics | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (37)


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