Illustration by Ian Moore
THE BAFFLER: As any consultant or press surrogate will tell you, presidential campaigns are in part referendums of character—or at least had been prior to Trump’s ascension. So even in spite of Kerry’s self-inflicted weaknesses as an antiwar candidate, the patrician senator was still well positioned to provoke a deadly contrast between two candidates. After all, without the Iraq war as a defining issue, the 2004 presidential election would likely have been just another battle between two members of America’s landed gentry. Kerry, given the inside track to be the representative of principled opposition to the war, played up his sacrifices, his honorable actions, and his fraternal mien around military veterans. From this secure ground, it should have been no great trick to portray Bush as a rich wastrel who had absconded from similar duty (going missing for long stretches of his National Guard deployment in Texas) and then run a new generation of soldiers into hopeless overseas entanglements through his sheer and painfully self-evident lack of competence.
It seems pretty clear that the forces supporting President Bush knew all too well such a comparison could prove to be fatal. That’s because, rather than attack Kerry at the ripest points of contradiction that were already on offer, they opted instead to libel him.
The Drunken Boat
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth announced themselves with a letter dated May 4, 2004, less than two months after Kerry had locked up enough primary votes to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and three days after U.S. forces pulled out of Fallujah, leaving it in the care of a CIA-backed Sunni security force. At this point, it was starting to become clear that opposition to the U.S. occupation in Iraq was not simply a rearguard action on the part of the erstwhile loyalists of the Hussein regime; it was a mass insurgency led by those whose hearts and minds the United States was failing to win. (Thomas Ricks, in his book Fiasco, would record a wan assessment of the first battle of Fallujah from a Marine officer named Jonathan Keilar: “The Battle of Fallujah was not a defeat, but we cannot afford many more victories like it.”)
It was a time of bad news from Iraq and the downward-trending opinion polls on Bush and the war, and the Swift Boaters stepped forward with the first great fake news initiative of the new American century. Their letter painted Kerry as a thoroughgoing fraud. Insisting that many of the signatories were “men who served directly with [Kerry] during [his] four month tour,” the signers accused Kerry of “grossly and knowingly” distorting the “conduct” of his fellow soldiers, hiding “material facts as to [his] own conduct” during the war, and acting “without regard for the danger [his] actions caused [the signatories].”
The letter continued:
We believe you continue this conduct today, albeit by changing from an anti-war to a “war hero” status. You now seek to clad yourself in the very medals that you disdainfully threw away in the early years of your political career. In the process, we believe you continue a deception as to your own conduct through such tactics as the disclosure of only carefully screened portions of your military records. Both then and now, we have concluded that you have deceived the public, and in the process have betrayed honorable men, to further your personal political goals.
“Senator Kerry, we were there,” they wrote, reaching a crescendo. “We know the truth.”
But were they, and did they? Of the more than 250 people whose names were affixed to the letter, only one—Steven Gardner—had spent time as a member of Kerry’s Swift boat crew. In one of the group’s television advertisements, Gardner claimed to have “spent more time on [Kerry’s] boat than any other crew member” and for good measure contended that Kerry had lied about being on a “secret mission” in Cambodia during the Christmas of 1968. But records showed that Gardner had only spent a month and a half with Kerry, less than many other soldiers. Furthermore, Kerry had never characterized his excursion in Cambodia as a “secret mission,” and while Kerry later admitted the actual trip across the border occurred within the first few months of 1969, his presence near the border of Cambodia that Christmas season was backed up by both military reports as well as in Douglas Brinkley’s 2004 book on Kerry’s wartime record, Tour of Duty.
Unfit to Remember
It turned out that the Swift Boat letter was full of such rank distortions and untruths. Despite the signers’ righteous “we were there” claims, most simply were not. Former Swift Boat partisan Alfred French, for instance, later admitted that he had no firsthand knowledge of events that he’d claimed to have witnessed in a sworn affidavit. And some of the Swift Boaters who had been Kerry’s contemporaries were not at all ill-disposed toward him. Grant Hibbard, a division commander who’d signed the letter, was the author of positive evaluations of Kerry. Another signatory, George Elliot, had submitted Kerry for a Bronze Star.
Of the more than 250 people whose names were affixed to the letter, only one—Steven Gardner—had spent time as a member of Kerry’s Swift Boat crew.
John O’Neill, a SBVT founder who coauthored the group’s book-length campaign-season broadside, Unfit for Command, with Jerome Corsi, drew criticism from several interview subjects who contended that he’d distorted their reminiscences into stump-style attacks on Kerry’s character and pointedly edited out their favorable accounts of Kerry’s wartime service. Such omissions were especially telling, they argued, since O’Neill had no firsthand experience with Kerry in Vietnam and had in fact only served on a Swift boat after Kerry had finished his tour of duty.
Throughout it all, those among Kerry’s “band of brothers” defended him against the charges, joined in that cause by Kerry’s Senate colleague and fellow Vietnam veteran John McCain, who referred to the SBVT’s attacks as “dishonest and dishonorable.” (Four years later, he’d end up welcoming their donations to his own presidential campaign.) The Associated Press reported that even some of the men Kerry had fought against in Vietnam were perplexed by the accusations. (“I think it’s just American politics,” one former Viet Cong fighter archly and accurately noted.) MORE