NEW YORK -- John Kerry is desperately trying to slide safely away from the collapse of his "Christmas in Cambodia" fairy tale. Two embarrassing "failures of memory" now permanently scar Senator Kerry's campaign to gain trust and demonstrate strength as he tries to move from war hero to war president.
In March, reliable witnesses came forward who placed John Kerry at a November 1971 Kansas City meeting where the Vietnam Veterans Against the War secretly voted on a proposal to kill six pro-war senators. This appeared especially odd because Kerry had told two historians, Gerald Nicosia and Douglas Brinkley, that he was not there and that he had resigned from the organization before the meeting was held. He denied eyewitnesses' accounts as well, even when six witnesses had appeared, several of whom were working for his presidential campaign.
As the story developed, and was widely ignored by the major media, several things emerged that reflected favorably on Kerry's conduct at the meeting. He had argued strongly against the assassinations and prevailed in the final vote. But Kerry still denied the accounts. He stuck to the resignation story as well, even though there was clear evidence in the New York Times and other papers that Kerry had continued as a spokesman for the VVAW, making media and speaking appearances for a year and a half after his supposed resignation.
When FBI files emerged establishing Kerry's presence in Kansas City, the campaign conceded that Kerry somehow must have forgotten his involvement in the plot to assassinate U.S. senators while still on the executive committee of the VVAW. What might have been an unforgettable experience for a man who was now a Senator himself turned out to be just one of those little memory lapses we all have.
And now the new book by Kerry's fellow Swiftboat veterans, Unfit for Command, has inspired another "failure of memory." Kerry has maintained for years that he was forced to go on a secret mission to plant a CIA agent in Cambodia during Christmas 1968 under President Richard Nixon.
He mentioned it in the Boston Herald in October 1979, saying he had been in Cambodia "on more than one occasion." He referred to it at length on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1986 and said, "I have that memory which is seared-seared into me… ." And in a touching sidelight to a Washington Post profile as recent as June 2003, Kerry revealed that his briefcase has a secret compartment that held a "frayed" souvenir he actually showed reporter Laura Blumenfeld. "My good luck hat, given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia."
It did seem odd that Douglas Brinkley's best-seller Tour of Duty, which came out a few months after the Post profile, placed Kerry in Sa Dec, inside Vietnam about 50 miles from the Cambodian border. And now with the publication of Unfit for Command, so do three of Kerry's Swiftboat crewmen at the time.
As the Cambodian fantasy began to look ridiculous, the "explanations" got positively surreal. Kerry apologist Jeh Johnson was sent to appear on Fox to explain. It seems that Kerry has had another memory failure, "a mistaken recollection," and Johnson spoke of a retraction of the Cambodia story. ""I believe he has corrected the record to say it was some place near Cambodia he is not certain whether it was in Cambodia but he is certain there was some point subsequent to that that he was in Cambodia." Got that?
John Hurley, head of the Veterans for Kerry campaign operation, had a totally different explanation on Tony Snow's radio program. Perhaps Kerry was not in Cambodia that Christmas after all, just close by. Perhaps he was confused about the date and unsure exactly where he was. "I don't know how anyone can say if they were in or near Cambodia." And Christmas is so easy to mistake for any other day of the year. Perhaps he had not been "under fire" there by South Vietnamese, Viet Cong, or the Khmer Rouge. It was so long ago. How is one to remember everything? We shouldn't be "shocked, shocked" in spite Kerry's Senate-floor assertion that his memory was "seared-seared." And how about that "lucky hat" in the secret compartment in the briefcase?
IT IS NOW CLEAR THAT Kerry spent many years trying to build his record. His political ambitions were obvious even as a Yale student. One former classmate relates a story about how a group of his fellow students had decided while they would support him as far as senator, but they had doubts about his making a good president. Like the young Jimmy Gatz "he always had some resolves." And like the Jay Gatsby young Jimmy grew into, Kerry's life is all about his ambitions and the green light at the end of the White House dock that has been drawing him to his destiny for 40 years.
Somewhere there are those hidden journals whose contents have been selectively shared with Douglas Brinkley. And as Brinkley puts it: "Kerry saves everything." To the amazement of supporters and opponents alike John Kerry elected to make his four-month service in Swiftboats 35 years ago the centerpiece of his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. One can understand why. He thought he had that period of his life boxed and ready for presentation.
Selective memory is everyone's' secret enemy. Kerry hadn't been challenged in his selective recall since he left Vietnam, and his stories kept getting better and better. No wonder Kerry told the Washington Post interviewer, "I wish they had a delete button on LexisNexis."
But what is now clear is that Kerry has gone a step farther. Kerry lies. He not only lies to the Senate, the press and historians, he lies to his own press people, and he lies to himself. And he has been lying for years. And whenever one of Kerry's lies is under attack, he attacks every one else -- as liars.
And there is a pattern to his responses as well. When the lie becomes undeniable, the sources are attacked. In the case of the VVAW plot, John Hurley, head of Veterans for Kerry and a former VVAW member himself, pressured eyewitnesses, like totally disabled vet John Musgrave, to change their story. In the case of the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, there has been a direct attack by lawyers for the campaign trying to silence their advertising as containing "outrageous lies." And yet no specific lie is ever charged. Nor does Kerry ever take the chance of actually bringing charges against his accusers for libel which would open the issue to a courtroom trial of the truth.
When the lie becomes unsustainable, it is attributed to a memory failure. Kerry never appears. He never tries to make an explanation. He takes no responsibility. He even hides from the press as he has for the past several days.
With rueful admiration, former Senator and Navy Seal Bob Kerrey called the last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, "an exceptionally good liar." Unfortunately Senator John Kerry is an exceptionally bad liar. How many lies he has told and how serious they are remains a question that is now under examination. Perhaps no one really cares. These days historians, journalists and the public alike appear to value sheer celebrity more than any standard of truth.
Today's journalists have so little experience with the military they haven't a clue how to evaluate the charges brought by the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth about Kerry's quest for medals. They can't tell the difference between a bronze star and a Boy Scout merit badge, and can't be bothered to learn. What does the press care about cowardice, deceitful conduct, and lying about a mere war record? At least Kerry has one and there is no arguing with that. But it will be very hard for Kerry to swim out of the Cambodian fiasco without getting all wet. For here Kerry was lying directly to the press itself and they know it.
NOW DOUGLAS BRINKLEY HAS taken on the thankless task of trying to explain the florid Cambodian Christmas fairytale Kerry has been flogging for 30 years to the press, in speeches, and in his own campaign publications and Internet site. In a speech on the floor of the Senate Kerry called it one of the defining moments of his life. Now it is time to redefine it to save Kerry's political life, before the embarrassed silence of the media gives way to a real desire to find out what else Kerry has lied about. And it's not going to be easy. Look at the challenge Brinkley has set for himself in his statement to the London Telegraph last week:
"Kerry went into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions. He had a run dropping off US Navy Seals, Green Berets and CIA guys."
That is really raising the ante. All Kerry had said until now was that he had been in Cambodia on "more than one occasion." It won't be easy to find "three or four" occasions in that time period. Remember Kerry crewmember Steve Gardner was with Kerry for almost all of January, and Gardner has already said he never went into "Cambodian waters."
These missions took place under the direction of Kerry's superior officers who had to detach Swiftboats from other duties to handle these insertions. And there were indeed missions like this. Swiftvet leader Admiral Roy Hoffmann is perfectly well aware of them. How likely are any of Kerry's commanders to support his latest insertion assertion?
Kerry was stuck down on an isolated base at An Thoi on Dao Phu Quoc Island off the coast of Cambodia during February 1969. He certainly wasn't going on these missions on his own without his superior officers being aware of them. Who else was going to pick Kerry out of the other Swiftboat commanders for the assignment? And "three or four times" is pretty conspicuous in a month with only 28 days.
Kerry has stated, "I took my patrol boat into Cambodia." He recalled it was his Swiftboat, which most likely would have been PCF94, with full naval markings. And that means he had his crew on board. He couldn't operate the Swiftboat on his own. Which of his crew will back Kerry up with memories of "three or four" trips into Cambodia the way they did on stage at the Democratic Convention? Or is there an ancient CIA man out there eager to try on his hat in a photo op with Senator Kerry?
Perhaps there is a pumpkin in a patch somewhere hiding microfilms of secret Kerry papers explaining all this written on his old Underwood typewriter. But after so many "memory failures" based on selections from Kerry's journals, they are unlikely to be taken at face value at this point. Whatever Brinkley comes up with, the payoff on this story is likely to be at least as fascinating as Nixon's secretary Rose Mary Woods' explanation of how she accidentally erased the 18 and a half minutes of a crucial Watergate tape. I can't wait.
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