On May 4, some 20 representatives of the newly-formed group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth held a press conference in Washington to announce a public letter signed by hundreds of Vietnam veterans questioning Senator John Kerry's fitness to serve as Commander-in-Chief. 15 out of 23 of Kerry's fellow Swift Boat commanders from Coastal Division 11 have signed the letter, as have all officers in Kerry's own chain of command. The veterans' primary grievance is with Kerry's post-war claim that America's military routinely committed atrocities against Vietnamese civilians "with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command." To a man, the Swift boat veterans stated that they had neither witnessed nor participated in war crimes. The veterans also asked Senator Kerry to sign a simple form authorizing the complete release of his military records to the public.
The media response to the press conference -- an event without precedent in American political history -- was disturbing. The Associated Press declined to cover the conference at all despite having a reporter present, saying that it "does not further the anti-Kerry Vietnam veteran story." AP's silence in this matter contrasts sharply with its obsessive reporting on President Bush's National Guard service, typified by articles such as "Dentist Doesn't Remember Treating Bush." Other news organizations opted for the smear instead of the spike. A CBS Evening News report by Byron Pitts characterized the conference as an Administration-controlled event implementing "the same strategy used to go after Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam." Pitts didn't provide any evidence to support this emotion-tugging claim.
The Swift veterans held a preparation meeting on Monday night at the Comfort Inn where they were staying. I provided display materials from WinterSoldier.com, a web site I manage that researches "war crimes" propaganda within the Vietnam antiwar movement. The initial part of the meeting was a cheerful reunion of old friends, some of whom had not seen each other in over 30 years. Spokesman John O'Neill asked each "Swiftee" to introduce himself and give his reasons for attending. The remarks that followed were very similar to the statements the veterans would give the following morning. At one point the group's chairman, retired Rear Admiral Roy Hoffmann, rose to his feet. None of us are experts on John Kerry's qualifications for the presidency, Admiral Hoffman suggested, but we can speak with professional authority on his fitness to command. Twenty men nodded in unison, and the term "President" vanished from the discussion in favor of "Commander-in-Chief."
O'Neill then introduced communications specialist Merrie Spaeth, widow of his former law partner, and her assistant. Whatever their sinister associations with the Bush Administration, they were not there to tell the combat veterans what to say -- it is difficult to imagine anyone doing that -- but to provide tips on dealing with the media, and to help organize the event. They fired distracting questions at the veterans to see if they could be drawn off-topic and had them practice addressing the premise of a question as well as the question itself. The veterans picked this up quickly, and then worked to trim their statements to around 90 seconds. At one point, O'Neill -- who friends describe as a moderate Democrat -- mentioned that Kerry operatives had characterized the Swift veterans to reporters as "Republican shills" and "bitter alcoholics." "That's ridiculous," deadpanned one Swiftee, "I'm not bitter." As the laughter died down, O'Neill shot back, "Hey, it's an improvement over being called 'war criminals.'" I passed around my copy of "The New Soldier," Kerry's hard-to-find 1971 chronicle of the Washington protest that made him famous, so the veterans could see his "other band of brothers" throw away their medals and pretend to murder civilians on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. After a late dinner of Chinese take-out and soft drinks, along with a few war stories, the meeting ended.
Tuesday morning at the National Press Club, the Swift boat veterans faced the TV cameras, many for the first time in their lives, and gave searing, heartfelt testimony about the damage John Kerry's false "war crimes" charges had done to their own reputations and to the reputations of all Americans who served in Vietnam. They described their experiences with Kerry under fire, and rebutted his contention that the Swift boat operations had been a badly managed failure. Admiral Hoffman summarized the purpose of the group, saying, "I signed this letter because I do not believe John Kerry is fit to be the Commander-in-Chief of the United States armed forces. This is not a political issue. It is a matter of his judgment, truthfulness, reliability, loyalty and trust."
The veterans then fielded questions from reporters. They explained how Swift boats went into combat in groups of three or four, stayed focused on their topics, and refused to be baited by loaded questions. Afterwards, dozens of journalists milled around looking shocked and unhappy while the veterans talked quietly to a few reporters. The Kerry campaign immediately held its own press conference to denounce Kerry's former brothers-in-arms and handed out talking points, which appeared verbatim in many subsequent news reports.
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are eyewitnesses to a critical period in the life of Senator John Kerry, who has made his service in Vietnam the centerpiece of his candidacy as he seeks the world's most powerful job. These men are neither pawns nor shills, and they deserve better than to be ignored and maligned by media organizations increasingly difficult to distinguish from the Kerry campaign itself. Their testimony should be presented fairly, without filters and distortions, so the public can weigh their harsh assessment of Senator Kerry's fitness to command.