Friendly Fire: The Birth of an Anti-Kerry AdSwift Boat Veterans Anti-Kerry Advertisement
By KATE ZERNIKE and JIM RUTENBERG, New York Times
August 20, 2004
After weeks of taking fire over veterans' accusations that he had lied about his Vietnam service record to win medals and build a political career, Senator John Kerry shot back yesterday, calling those statements categorically false and branding the people behind them tools of the Bush campaign.
His decision to take on the group directly was a measure of how the group that calls itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has catapulted itself to the forefront of the presidential campaign. It has advanced its cause in a book, in a television advertisement and on cable news and talk radio shows, all in an attempt to discredit Mr. Kerry's war record, a pillar of his campaign.
How the group came into existence is a story of how veterans with longstanding anger about Mr. Kerry's antiwar statements in the early 1970's allied themselves with Texas Republicans.
Mr. Kerry called them "a front for the Bush campaign" - a charge the campaign denied.
A series of interviews and a review of documents show a web of connections to the Bush family, high-profile Texas political figures and President Bush’s chief political aide, Karl Rove.
Records show that the group received the bulk of its initial financing from two men with ties to the president and his family - one a longtime political associate of Mr. Rove's, the other a trustee of the foundation for Mr. Bush's father's presidential library. A Texas publicist who once helped prepare Mr. Bush's father for his debate when he was running for vice president provided them with strategic advice. And the group's television commercial was produced by the same team that made the devastating ad mocking Michael S. Dukakis in an oversized tank helmet when he and Mr. Bush's father faced off in the 1988 presidential election.
The strategy the veterans devised would ultimately paint John Kerry the war hero as John Kerry the "baby killer" and the fabricator of the events that resulted in his war medals. But on close examination, the accounts of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth' prove to be riddled with inconsistencies. In many cases, material offered as proof by these veterans is undercut by official Navy records and the men's own statements.
Several of those now declaring Mr. Kerry "unfit" had lavished praise on him, some as recently as last year.
In an unpublished interview in March 2003 with Mr. Kerry's authorized biographer, Douglas Brinkley, provided by Mr. Brinkley to The New York Times, Roy F. Hoffmann, a retired rear admiral and a leader of the group, allowed that he had disagreed with Mr. Kerry's antiwar positions but said, "I am not going to say anything negative about him." He added, "He's a good man."
In a profile of the candidate that ran in The Boston Globe in June 2003, Mr. Hoffmann approvingly recalled the actions that led to Mr. Kerry's Silver Star: "It took guts, and I admire that."
George Elliott, one of the Vietnam veterans in the group, flew from his home in Delaware to Boston in 1996 to stand up for Mr. Kerry during a tough re-election fight, declaring at a news conference that the action that won Mr. Kerry a Silver Star was "an act of courage." At that same event, Adrian L. Lonsdale, another Vietnam veteran now speaking out against Mr. Kerry, supported him with a statement about the "bravado and courage of the young officers that ran the Swift boats."
"Senator Kerry was no exception," Mr. Lonsdale told the reporters and cameras assembled at the Charlestown Navy Yard. "He was among the finest of those Swift boat drivers."
Those comments echoed the official record. In an evaluation of Mr. Kerry in 1969, Mr. Elliott, who was one of his commanders, ranked him as "not exceeded" in 11 categories, including moral courage, judgment and decisiveness, and "one of the top few" - the second-highest distinction - in the remaining five. In written comments, he called Mr. Kerry "unsurpassed," "beyond reproach" and "the acknowledged leader in his peer group."
The Admiral Calls
It all began last winter, as Mr. Kerry was wrapping up the Democratic nomination. Mr. Lonsdale received a call at his Massachusetts home from his old commander in Vietnam, Mr. Hoffmann, asking if he had seen the new biography of the man who would be president.
Mr. Hoffmann had commanded the Swift boats during the war from a base in Cam Ranh Bay and advocated a search-and-destroy campaign against the Vietcong - the kind of tactic Mr. Kerry criticized when he was a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War in 1971. Shortly after leaving the Navy in 1978, he was issued a letter of censure for exercising undue influence on cases in the military justice system.
Both Mr. Hoffmann and Mr. Lonsdale had publicly lauded Mr. Kerry in the past. But the book, Mr. Brinkley's "Tour of Duty," while it burnished Mr. Kerry's reputation, portrayed the two men as reckless leaders whose military approach had led to the deaths of countless sailors and innocent civilians. Several Swift boat veterans compared Mr. Hoffmann to the bloodthirsty colonel in the film "Apocalypse Now" - the one who loves the smell of Napalm in the morning.
The two men were determined to set the record, as they saw it, straight.
"It was the admiral who started it and got the rest of us into it," Mr. Lonsdale said.
Mr. Hoffmann's phone calls led them to Texas and to John E. O'Neill, who at one point commanded the same Swift boat in Vietnam, and whose mission against him dated to 1971, when he had been recruited by the Nixon administration to debate Mr. Kerry on "The Dick Cavett Show."
Mr. O'Neill, who pressed his charges against Mr. Kerry in numerous television appearances Thursday, had spent the 33 years since he debated Mr. Kerry building a successful law practice in Houston, intermingling with some of the state's most powerful Republicans and building an impressive client list. Among the companies he represented was Falcon Seaboard, the energy firm founded by the current lieutenant governor of Texas, David Dewhurst, a central player in the Texas redistricting plan that has positioned state Republicans to win more Congressional seats this fall.
Mr. O'Neill said during one of several interviews that he had come to know two of his biggest donors, Harlan Crow and Bob J. Perry, through longtime social and business contacts.
Mr. Perry, who has given $200,000 to the group, is the top donor to Republicans in the state, according to Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that tracks political donations. He donated $46,000 to President Bush's campaigns for governor in 1994 and 1998. In the 2002 election, the group said, he donated nearly $4 million to Texas candidates and political committees.
Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush's top political aide, recently said through a spokeswoman that he and Mr. Perry were longtime friends, though he said they had not spoken for at least a year. Mr. Rove and Mr. Perry have been associates since at least 1986, when they both worked on the gubernatorial campaign of Bill Clements.
Mr. O'Neill said he had known Mr. Perry for 30 years. "I've represented many of his friends,'' Mr. O'Neill said. Mr. Perry did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. O'Neill said he had also known Mr. Crow for 30 years, through mutual friends. Mr. Crow, the seventh-largest donor to Republicans in the state according to the Texans for Public Justice, has donated nowhere near as much money as Mr. Perry to the Swift boat group. His family owns one of the largest diversified commercial real estate companies in the nation, the Trammell Crow Company, and has given money to Mr. Bush and his father throughout their careers. He is listed as a trustee of the George Bush Presidential Library Foundation.
One of his law partners, Margaret Wilson, became Mr. Bush's general counsel when he was governor of Texas and followed him to the White House as deputy counsel for the Department of Commerce, according to her biography on the law firm's Web site.
Another partner, Tex Lezar, ran on the Republican ticket with Mr. Bush in 1994, as lieutenant governor. They were two years apart at Yale, and Mr. Lezar worked for the attorney general's office in the Reagan administration. Mr. Lezar, who died last year, was married to Merrie Spaeth, a powerful public relations executive who has helped coordinate the efforts of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
In 2000, Ms. Spaeth was spokeswoman for a group that ran $2 million worth of ads attacking Senator John McCain's environmental record and lauding Mr. Bush's in crucial states during their fierce primary battle. The group, calling itself Republicans for Clean Air, was founded by a prominent Texas supporter of Mr. Bush, Sam Wyly.
Ms. Spaeth had been a communications official in the Reagan White House, where the president's aides had enough confidence in her to invite her to help prepare George Bush for his vice-presidential debate in 1984. She says she is also a close friend of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a client of Mr. Rove's. Ms. Spaeth said in an interview that the one time she had ever spoken to Mr. Rove was when Ms. Hutchison was running for the Texas treasurer's office in 1990.
When asked if she had ever visited the White House during Mr. Bush's tenure, Ms. Spaeth initially said that she had been there only once, in 2002, when Kenneth Starr gave her a personal tour. But this week Ms. Spaeth acknowledged that she had spent an hour in the Old Executive Office Building, part of the White House complex, in the spring of 2003, giving Mr. Bush's chief economic adviser, Stephen Friedman, public speaking advice. Asked if it was possible that she had worked with other administration officials, Ms. Spaeth said, "The answer is 'no,' unless you refresh my memory.''
"Is the White House directing this?" Ms. Spaeth said of the organization. "Absolutely not.''
Another participant is the political advertising agency that made the group's television commercial: Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, based in Alexandria, Va. The agency worked for Senator McCain in 2000 and for Mr. Bush's father in 1988, when it created the "tank" advertisement mocking Mr. Dukakis. A spokesman for the Swift boat veterans said the organization decided to hire the agency after a member saw one of its partners speaking on television.
About 10 veterans met in Ms. Spaeth's office in Dallas in April to share outrage and plot their campaign against Mr. Kerry, she and others said. Mr. Lonsdale, who did not attend, said the meeting had been planned as "an indoctrination session."
What might have been loose impressions about Mr. Kerry began to harden.
"That was an awakening experience," Ms. Spaeth said. "Not just for me, but for many of them who had not heard each other's stories."
The group decided to hire a private investigator to investigate Mr. Brinkley's account of the war - to find "some neutral way of actually questioning people involved in these incidents,'' Mr. O'Neill said.
But the investigator's questions did not seem neutral to some.
Patrick Runyon, who served on a mission with Mr. Kerry, said he initially thought the caller was from a pro-Kerry group, and happily gave a statement about the night Mr. Kerry won his first Purple Heart. The investigator said he would send it to him by e-mail for his signature. Mr. Runyon said the edited version was stripped of all references to enemy combat, making it look like just another night in the Mekong Delta.
"It made it sound like I didn't believe we got any returned fire," he said. "He made it sound like it was a normal operation. It was the scariest night of my life."
By May, the group had the money that Mr. O'Neill had collected as well as additional veterans rallied by Mr. O'Neill, Mr. Hoffmann and others. The expanded group gathered in Washington to record the veterans' stories for a television commercial.
Each veteran's statement was written down as an affidavit and sent to him to sign and have notarized. But the validity of those affidavits soon came into question.
Mr. Elliott, who recommended Mr. Kerry for the Silver Star, had signed one affidavit saying Mr. Kerry "was not forthright" in the statements that had led to the award. Two weeks ago, The Boston Globe quoted him as saying that he felt he should not have signed the affidavit. He then signed a second affidavit that reaffirmed his first, which the Swift Boat Veterans gave to reporters. Mr. Elliott has refused to speak publicly since then.
The book outlining the veterans' charges, "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against Kerry," has also come under fire. It is published by Regnery, a conservative company that has published numerous books critical of Democrats, and written by Mr. O'Neill and Jerome R. Corsi, who was identified on the book jacket as a Harvard Ph.D. and the author of many books and articles. But Mr. Corsi also acknowledged that he has been a contributor of anti-Catholic, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic comments to a right-wing Web site. He said he regretted those comments.
The group's arguments have foundered on other contradictions. In the television commercial, Dr. Louis Letson looks into the camera and declares, "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury." Dr. Letson does not dispute the wound - a piece of shrapnel above Mr. Kerry's left elbow - but he and others in the group argue that it was minor and self-inflicted.
Yet Dr. Letson's name does not appear on any of the medical records for Mr. Kerry. Under "person administering treatment" for the injury, the form is signed by a medic, J. C. Carreon, who died several years ago. Dr. Letson said it was common for medics to treat sailors with the kind of injury that Mr. Kerry had and to fill out paperwork when doctors did the treatment.
Asked in an interview if there was any way to confirm he had treated Mr. Kerry, Dr. Letson said, "I guess you'll have to take my word for it."
The group also offers the account of William L. Schachte Jr., a retired rear admiral who says in the book that he had been on the small skimmer on which Mr. Kerry was injured that night in December 1968. He contends that Mr. Kerry wounded himself while firing a grenade.
But the two other men who acknowledged that they had been with Mr. Kerry, Bill Zaladonis and Mr. Runyon, say they cannot recall a third crew member. "Me and Bill aren't the smartest, but we can count to three," Mr. Runyon said in an interview. And even Dr. Letson said he had not recalled Mr. Schachte until he had a conversation with another veteran earlier this year and received a subsequent phone call from Mr. Schachte himself.
Mr. Schachte did not return a telephone call, and a spokesman for the group said he would not comment.
The Silver Star was awarded after Mr. Kerry's boat came under heavy fire from shore during a mission in February 1969. According to Navy records, he turned the boat to charge the Vietcong position. An enemy solider sprang from the shore about 10 feet in front of the boat. Mr. Kerry leaped onto the shore, chased the soldier behind a small hut and killed him, seizing a B-40 rocket launcher with a round in the chamber.
Swift Boat Veterans for Truth describes the man Mr. Kerry killed as a solitary wounded teenager "in a loincloth," who may or may not have been armed. They say the charge to the beach was planned the night before and, citing a report from one crew member on a different boat, maintain that the sailors even schemed about who would win which medals.
The group says Mr. Kerry himself wrote the reports that led to the medal. But Mr. Elliott and Mr. Lonsdale, who handled reports going up the line for recognition, have previously said that a medal would be awarded only if there was corroboration from others and that they had thoroughly corroborated the accounts.
"Witness reports were reviewed; battle reports were reviewed," Mr. Lonsdale said at the 1996 news conference, adding, "It was a very complete and carefully orchestrated procedure." In his statements Mr. Elliott described the action that day as "intense" and "unusual."
According to a citation for Mr. Kerry's Bronze Star, a group of Swift boats was leaving the Bay Hap river when several mines detonated, disabling one boat and knocking a soldier named Jim Rassmann overboard. In a hail of enemy fire, Mr. Kerry turned the boat around to pull Mr. Rassmann from the water.
Mr. Rassmann, who says he is a Republican, reappeared during the Iowa caucuses this year to tell his story and support Mr. Kerry, and is widely credited with helping to revive Mr. Kerry's campaign.
But the group says that there was no enemy fire, and that while Mr. Kerry did rescue Mr. Rassmann, the action was what anyone would have expected of a sailor, and hardly heroic. Asked why Mr. Rassmann recalled that he was dodging enemy bullets, a member of the group, Jack Chenoweth, said, "He's lying."
"If that's what we have to say," Mr. Chenoweth added, "that's how it was."
Several veterans insist that Mr. Kerry wrote his own reports, pointing to the initials K. J. W. on one of the reports and saying they are Mr. Kerry's. "What's the W for, I cannot answer," said Larry Thurlow, who said his boat was 50 to 60 yards from Mr. Kerry's. Mr. Kerry's middle initial is F, and a Navy official said the initials refer to the person who had received the report at headquarters, not the author.
A damage report to Mr. Thurlow's boat shows that it received three bullet holes, suggesting enemy fire, and later intelligence reports indicate that one Vietcong was killed in action and five others wounded, reaffirming the presence of an enemy. Mr. Thurlow said the boat was hit the day before. He also received a Bronze Star for the day, a fact left out of "Unfit for Command."
Asked about the award, Mr. Thurlow said that he did not recall what the citation said but that he believed it had commended him for saving the lives of sailors on a boat hit by a mine. If it did mention enemy fire, he said, that was based on Mr. Kerry's false reports. The actual citation, Mr. Thurlow said, was with an ex-wife with whom he no longer has contact, and he declined to authorize the Navy to release a copy. But a copy obtained by The New York Times indicates "enemy small arms," "automatic weapons fire" and "enemy bullets flying about him." The citation was first reported by The Washington Post on Thursday.
Standing Their Ground
As serious questions about its claims have arisen, the group has remained steadfast and adaptable.
This week, as its leaders spoke with reporters, they have focused primarily on the one allegation in the book that Mr. Kerry's campaign has not been able to put to rest: that he was not in Cambodia at Christmas in 1968, as he declared in a statement to the Senate in 1986. Even Mr. Brinkley, who has emerged as a defender of Mr. Kerry, said in an interview that it was unlikely that Mr. Kerry's Swift boat ventured into Cambodia at Christmas, though he said he believed that Mr. Kerry was probably there shortly afterward.
The group said it would introduce a new advertisement against Mr. Kerry on Friday. What drives the veterans, they acknowledge, is less what Mr. Kerry did during his time in Vietnam than what he said after. Their affidavits and their television commercial focus mostly on those antiwar statements. Most members of the group object to his using the word "atrocities" to describe what happened in Vietnam when he returned and became an antiwar activist. And they are offended, they say, by the gall of his running for president as a hero of that war.
"I went to university and was called a baby killer and a murderer because of guys like Kerry and what he was saying," said Van Odell, who appears in the first advertisement, accusing Mr. Kerry of lying to get his Bronze Star. "Not once did I participate in the atrocities he said were happening."
As Mr. Lonsdale explained it: "We won the battle. Kerry went home and lost the war for us.
"He called us rapers and killers and that's not true," he continued. "If he expects our loyalty, we should expect loyalty from him."