NEW YORK -- Winston Churchill often repeated Stalin's observation that "in wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended to by a bodyguard of lies." And now that the Democratic National Convention has ended with Kerry's acceptance speech concentrating on his four-month service in the Vietnam War 35 years ago, rather than his service during the past 35 years, it appears particularly appropriate.
One of the pesky IRS Code 527 organizations that now buzz through the campaign atmosphere like insatiable horseflies in the aftermath of McCain-Finegold reforms has had the presumption to raise some serious questions about the truth of John Kerry's Vietnam wartime service.
Called "Swift Boat Veterans For Truth," the group has a website, airs TV ads running in key "battleground" states, and has published a book. The conniving and self-promoting lies of the John Kerry it portrays make Sammy Glick look like a rank amateur.
If the incidents it details are true, Kerry was a coward who fled in battle having unintentionally thrown his current supporter, Jim Rassmann, overboard in his panic. Kerry tried to get his first Purple Heart on the basis of a tiny self-inflicted wound from his own grenade. His supporter, Max Cleland, accidentally blew both his legs off and one hand off with one of his own grenades, but never asked for a Purple Heart because, just as in John Kerry's case, there was no enemy action at the time. Kerry went behind the back of the commander who refused his medal request and the doctor who had treated him, and got one anyway.
Swiftvet officers watched this kind of behavior for four months into Kerry's 12 month "tour of duty." Then three of them told him pointedly that he'd better use the three Purple Heart escape clause and return to the States fast. Kerry left the next morning. And those are just a few of charges the Swiftvets are making. It certainly is a very different picture of the war hero than his campaign has been painting of their JFK: John Forbes Kerry -- but this time as John "Flashman" Kerry.
"CONSIDER THE SOURCE" INVITED Kerry campaign spokesman Luis Vizcaino. And last week Marc Elias, General Counsel for Kerry-Edwards 2000, and Joseph Sandler, General Counsel for the Democratic National Committee sent a hurried and semi-hysterical letter warning television stations not to run Swift Boat Vets ads setting out their definition of "the source" It is well worth reading as a reductio of Kerry campaign logic.
"The group is a sham organization," it points out. Yet the Swift Boat Veterans had been organized months earlier with the IRS and Federal Election Commission, just like MoveOn.org and dozens of other 527s, and was no more "sham" than they were. As a matter of fact they had elected to remain unincorporated under the regulation and take the risk of being perhaps the only 527 in which its members were willing to accept personal liability for their actions, unlike MoveOn which had compared Bush to Hitler. The Swiftvets are either very brave or very dumb.
"The advertisement contains statements by men who purport to have served on Senator Kerry's SWIFT Boat in Vietnam… they pretend to have served with Senator Kerry… ." Actually nothing in the ad calls any of the men it cites as being Kerry's crew members. And there can be no doubt they "served with Senator Kerry" in the same Coastal Group 11 at the same time. Worse still, 16 out of the 23 surviving officers and commanders who served with Kerry at the base now claim he is unfit for command, much less to become commander in chief of the U.S. Armed Forces. And the Swiftvets claim to have a total of 254 members who served from Seaman to Admiral in Kerry's Coastal Squadron 1, including several of Kerry's commanding officers and some sailors who had been on Kerry's boat.
"Fake 'witnesses' speaking on behalf of a phony organization…"? Swiftboat service was not a lone wolf operation. Kerry's boat ran in tandem with other Swiftboats who were anywhere from 10 to a couple of dozen yards away, rather like World War II aircraft using formations to protect one another in combat. So the crews and commanders of other boats during Kerry's operations were witnesses all right. They kept a keen eye on anything another boat was doing, right or wrong-particularly since the mistakes of another boat could threaten their own survival. And boat commanders like Kerry, rather than enlisted crew members of his or any other crew, were more likely to have the best understanding of how the mission was being performed by another commander.
"The entire advertisement, therefore, is an inflammatory, outrageous lie"… and should stations run it anyway…"your station is responsible for the false and libelous charges made by this sponsor." Remarkable. On the face of the simple facts recited above, Elias and Sandler may have written the first legal letter in campaign history that actually commits the violations it charges its target with… making "false and libelous charges." It also raises a clear question of tortious interference with existing and proposed contracts between Swiftvets and the stations they had lined up to run the ads.
THEN THERE ARE THE "chilling effect" First Amendment violations of Swiftvets' perfectly ordinary 527 conduct in using its donors' funds to make its point of view heard without supporting a particular candidate. Ironically the real question is, who do Elias and Sandler represent? Who retained them? From their signatures as General Counsel it appears that both are working on behalf of and being paid by the taxpayer-funded Kerry campaign
But to do what? To threaten television stations that they may be sued for libel, purely on the basis of Kerry campaign assertions of false statements by individuals who are likely lack actual malice and were certainly in a position to have relevant opinions, if fallible memories, of events that happened 35 years ago? This is long before Kerry had any professional association with the Democratic Party. Let's assume Elias and Sandler are absolutely correct in their assertions and there is no statute of limitations on this kind of outrageous libel (there is, and it has passed). Isn't this Kerry's personal case to prosecute, not the Democratic Party's?
What if, for example, the Democrats had decided to run commercials based on what they felt was valid information attacking Richard Nixon for getting rich by cheating his shipmates at poker on those boring supply runs in the South Pacific during his naval service 25 years earlier and perhaps running a black market operation on the side out of naval stores at various ports? Should the Republican Party have used donor money to prosecute a case that has nothing to do with Nixon's political service?
Whatever the truth of the Swiftvets charges, they are a credible organization and their members were certainly in a position to have informed opinions. And in their unincorporated 527 status they are easy to sue and they are now on the record. So where are all the lawsuits against them for libel? Imagine the awards John Edwards' trial lawyer buddies can get out of an operation which, according to Al Hunt -- in one of his most embarrassingly often wrong but never in doubt rants, is "significantly funded and directed by Texas fatcats and political operatives."
In the New Republic yesterday, a naif named Kenneth Baer begs the Democratic Party to commence a major lawsuit against the Swiftvets for libel, lèse majesté, whatever. And given the sloppy work Elias and Sandler have done so far, that would be the answer to the Swiftvets' prayers. Wait till those expedited depositions start to leak -- forget the trial. Baer was a speechwriter for Al Gore. He runs "a Democratic consulting firm." The GOP should be so lucky as to have him gain influence.
In the meantime, Dick Morris, John McCain, Bill O'Reilly and others should stop twittering about how rude and crass and dishonorable and counterproductive it is to even explore such nasty possibilities in public and take a look at the charges and supporting documentation brought forth by the Swiftvets. Does it matter whether they are funded by Richard Mellon Scaife, George Soros, or The Tooth Fairy? What does matter in a close presidential election is if there is significant evidence that some or all of the Vietnam service Kerry has elected to make the center of his campaign to move from "war hero" to "war president" is a tissue of lies.
And it is time for the press to look into the charges brought by the Swiftvets. The Swiftvets have depositions, phone numbers, on the record statements, and for all of the innuendo from the Kerry apparatchiks, not one of the Swiftvets has enjoyed a fancy hotel room paid for by the Bush campaign, much less gone on a campaign tour with the candidate. It is easy to see what the nine Kerry crew members are getting out of their 15 minutes of fame. But what's in it for the 254 Swiftvets? It is important to answer that question in considering their charges.