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William Rivers Pitt: Not So Swift Boat Veterans

Not So Swift Boat Veterans

By William Rivers Pitt
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Saturday 21 August 2004


Ever hear the old story of the lady and the snake?

A lady finds a snake injured in the road. She takes it home, cares for it, helps it heal, and the two become friends. One day, the lady is in her garden with the snake, and the snake suddenly bites her in the throat. The lady lays dying and gasps, "Why did you bite me? I was your friend?" The snake replies, "Lady, you knew I was a snake when you picked me up."

This is a parable the Bush/Cheney campaign is getting to know with suddenness and venom. They apparently picked up a snake named the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and that snake just took a mighty big chomp out of them.

It started at the end of July with the Democratic National Convention. The central theme was Kerry's Vietnam service record, and the convention brought out so many Generals and Admirals to vouch for Kerry, you thought the Fleet Center was hosting a brass festival. Couple that with Kerry's "Band of Brothers," the men who served with him and are now campaigning with him, and at the end of the thing you had the Democratic candidate packaged as a genuine American hero. After 9/11, after Afghanistan, after Iraq and all the casualties, having a blooded veteran standing forth was an image many Americans could get behind.

The polls started to move in Kerry's favor. Bush, who had been depending on an overwhelming military vote come November, saw Kerry gathering the approval of 50% of veterans. Karl Rove and the Bush election team smelled bad juju in the wind. They could not campaign on the administration's record regarding health care, education, environmental protections, justice or national defense, because Bush's record on these issues is startlingly abominable. The Bush campaign pursued the only option left to them, the option Lee Atwater taught Karl Rove how to use in the 'Willie Horton' episode. They went negative.

Or, rather, they had someone else go negative for them.

Not long after the convention, a commercial came out from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an independent political group under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code. The commercial showed several Vietnam veterans who claimed they knew Kerry had exaggerated his service in the war, that he did not deserve the Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Hearts he earned in the war, and that the wound that got him his first purple heart was self-inflicted. The ads ran in several battleground states, and pretty much wall-to-wall on the Fox News Channel.

It didn't take long for the charges, and resulting hullaballo, to descend into the realm of farce. One Kerry accuser, George Elliott, was the man who signed the recommendation for Kerry's Bronze Star and who defended Kerry in 1996 when others raised the claim that he didn't deserve his Silver Star. Elliot, writing Kerry's fitness report in 1969, stated, "In a combat environment often requiring independent decisive action, Lt. j.g. Kerry was unsurpassed."

It was quite a flip-flop, then, when Elliott came out with the Swift Boat Vets to attack Kerry after the convention, stating Kerry lied about his service. He even signed an affidavit on the matter. When the Boston Globe confronted Elliott about his prior remarks and written statements clashing with his new description of events, Elliott beat a rapid retreat, stating that signing the affidavit was "a terrible mistake."

There is also the strange tale of Larry Thurlow, a leader of the Swift Boat Vets, who is claiming Kerry doesn't deserve his Bronze Star. Kerry earned that citation when he maneuvered his swift boat through enemy fire to save First Lieut. Jim Rassmann, who had been blown off Kerry's boat by an explosion and was about to die. Raussmann was saved, but Thurlow, who was in his own boat at the scene during the incident, now claims there was no enemy fire at all, and so Kerry should have gotten no medal.

Here's the weird bit, though. Three men got a Bronze Star citation for bravery in action that day: Kerry, Thurlow, and radarman first class Robert Lambert, a petty officer in the boat captained by Thurlow. The citation for Thurlow's Bronze Star states that "all units came under small arms and automatic weapons fire from the river banks." According to the citation, Thurlow "directed accurate suppressing fire at the enemy," and lauds Thurlow's "coolness, professionalism and courage under fire."

This begs the question: If there was no enemy fire, as Thurlow claims, doesn't that mean that he does not deserve his Bronze Star any more than Kerry does? Shouldn't Thurlow give his medal back? And what of radarman first class Robert Lambert? Did Kerry somehow fake Lambert's claim to the award?

With the predictable exception of the Fox News Channel, most of the mainstream cable news shows began poking holes in the Swift Vets' unlikely tale. Even so, the commercials began to do damage to Kerry. After the convention, Bush and Kerry enjoyed an even split of the veteran vote. Once the Swift Boat ad did a few rotations, however, those numbers moved. A recent CBS poll showed Bush getting 55% of the veteran vote to Kerry's 37%.

The Kerry campaign had been holding fire on the issue, believing Bush would publicly distance himself from the ad. Bush didn't. Kerry, who to this point had been working hard to maintain a relentlessly upbeat and non-negative tone, saw the writing on the wall. His people realized that sometimes you have to wrestle the alligator where you find him, be it up on the high road or down in the scum vats. They strapped on helmets and hip waders, and got to work.

What followed was a marvelous bit of political theater. In rapidfire succession over the last 100 hours, the Kerry campaign revealed:

* Funding for the Swift Boat Vets activities came from men with umbilical financial ties to the Bush family, and to Karl Rove specifically.

* The team that made the anti-Kerry commercial was the same group that made commercials for Bush Sr. against Dukakis in 1988.

* The group that got the whole ball rolling were the same fellows who engineered the despicable smearing of John McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary, on behalf of George W. Bush.

More interesting, perhaps, were the Kerry accusations:

* Citing "overwhelming evidence” that the Swift Boat group is “coordinating its expenditures on advertising and other activities designed to influence the presidential election with the Bush-Cheney Campaign,” Kerry's campaign filed an FEC complaint against the Bush campaign. The Swift Boat group is a 527, and if they got funding or assistance for their work from the Bush campaign, it would be a clear-cut violation of the law.

* On the same day these accusations were made, Bush campaign officials in Florida were caught handing out Swift Boat Vets promotional flyers at Bush/Cheney headquarters.

* Adding to the weight of evidence that the Swift Boat Vets were working fist-in-glove with the Bush campaign, an enterprising blogger named digby revealed that a member of the Swift Boat Vets steering committee, Ken Cordier, was listed on the Bush campaign website as a member of the campaign team until August 19th. His name has since been removed, but as digby points out, you can still see it there if you visit the cached version of the site.

If Kerry's people do indeed have "overwhelming evidence" of collusion between the Swifties and Bush, they have proof of a criminal conspiracy. Tie this in with the fact that none of the accusations leveled by the Swifties are borne out by any evidence whatsoever, and that many of the accusers are contradicted by their own words.

The ugliest aspect of this episode is two-fold. You have a sitting President of the United States allowing a decorated veteran to be slandered in public in order to advance his political aspirations. While Bush may denounce the spending rules that allow 527s to operate this way, he did nothing to stop them, and if the evidence bears out, he in fact went out of his way to promote them.

Worse, you have an entire administration filled with men who had "other priorities" and important family connections when the call to service in Vietnam came. These are the same men, now, who have sent almost 1,000 American soldiers home in steel coffins in the name of lies and profiteering. If ever one needed evidence of the ruthless and utterly shameless nature of the Bush crew, they have it here before them.

In a just world, the final word on this disgraceful episode would come from William Rood, a Swift Boat officer who was part of one of the disputed Vietnam battles being flogged by these Swift Boat Vets. Rood has written an account of February 28, 1969 for the Chicago Tribune titled 'Anti-Kerry Vets Not There That Day.' Rood writes:

"There were three swift boats on the river that day in Vietnam more than 35 years ago - three officers and 15 crew members. Only two of those officers remain to talk about what happened on February 28, 1969. One is John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate who won a Silver Star for what happened on that date. I am the other. For years, no one asked about those events. But now they are the focus of skirmishing in a presidential election with a group of swift boat veterans and others contending that Kerry didn't deserve the Silver Star for what he did on that day, or the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts he was awarded for other actions."

"Many of us wanted to put it all behind us," continues Rood, "the rivers, the ambushes, the killing. Ever since that time, I have refused all requests for interviews about Kerry's service - even those from reporters at the Chicago Tribune, where I work. But Kerry's critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that the accounts of what happened were overblown. The critics have taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there."

From people who were not there. One hopes Mr. Bush pays some attention to that last line. He picked up this snake, and now must deal with the poison.


William Rivers Pitt is the senior editor and lead writer for truthout. He is a New York Times and international bestselling author of two books - 'War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know' and 'The Greatest Sedition is Silence.'

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