John Kerry's campaign managers could hardly have foreseen the explosion of veteran resentment that would torpedo his cruise to the White House. No comparable opposition had materialized in his previous races, and a sympathetic establishment media could be trusted to spotlight Kerry's small group of veteran supporters, presumably leaving anti-Kerry vets little opportunity to reach the public.
Kerry had ridden his personal mythology of battlefield heroics to victory before, unleashing his "band of brothers" to attack any Senate opponent who dared question his patriotism. When Kerry greeted the Democratic National Convention in Boston with a salute and a claim to be "reporting for duty," the strategy was clear -- Democrats would wave the flag and tout Kerry's Vietnam credentials to defuse criticism of his anti-defense voting record, hopefully picking off enough rubes in flyover country to unseat the incumbent.
In January, as Howard Dean's candidacy imploded and John Edwards fell hopelessly behind, a number of middle-aged men who had long since put the Vietnam War behind them contemplated the dismal prospect of John Kerry as America's Commander-in-Chief. One of them was in a hospital bed recovering from donating a kidney to his wife. John O'Neill, a former Swift boat officer who had memorably debated Kerry on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971, quickly became the lead spokesman of the veterans' revolt. Traveling the country on a schedule that would have exhausted a healthy man, O'Neill would eventually log some 400 television and radio appearances while earning a national following and a reputation for coolness under fire.
Other Swift Vets added thousands more interviews, telling audiences that Kerry was no war hero and that his baseless charges before the Senate of American war crimes "authorized at all levels of command" constituted an act of unforgivable betrayal. Laying out the Swift Vet case against Kerry, "Unfit for Command" by O'Neill and political violence expert Jerome Corsi rocketed to the top of the bestseller lists.
More veteran groups pitched in. Vietnam Vets for the Truth held an anti-Kerry rally in Washington attended by several thousand people, and manned information booths around the country. Former POWs produced the documentary "Stolen Honor" to charge Kerry with increasing the misery of American prisoners in Hanoi and encouraging North Vietnam to keep fighting, and joined forces with the Swift Vets in a series of powerful TV ads. Other organizations and individuals created web sites, conducted research efforts, placed newspaper ads, held rallies and ran email campaigns.
New revelations emerged. John Kerry's photo was displayed in a Ho Chi Minh City museum, in a hall honoring foreign activists credited with helping North Vietnam win the war. Former VVAW member Steve Pitkin signed an affidavit that Kerry had pressured him to lie about war crimes at the group's "Winter Soldier" tribunal. Captured Vietcong documents showed that communist propaganda planners had used the Paris Peace Talks to direct American antiwar leaders such as Kerry. Evidence mounted that Kerry's original Navy discharge had been upgraded during the Carter Administration from less than "honorable" status.
Marinated in three decades of self-congratulatory agreement that opposing the Vietnam War represented the height of political principal, the "mainstream" media initially ignored the charges made by Kerry's veteran opponents. When that became impossible, they labeled the charges as "unsubstantiated" or "discredited" without further explanation, and dismissed the veterans as Republican tools.
But in the end, none of it worked. With Dan Rather's forged documents fresh in their minds, mainstream America recognized the attacks on the veterans as leftist propaganda. Kerry's supporters couldn't stop the book, couldn't suppress the documentary, couldn't silence the veterans, and, crucially, couldn't prevent the public from learning the facts the old media wouldn't report via talk radio and the Internet.
Last Updated Thursday, April 19 2007 @ 01:17 PM MDT; 10,893 Hits