Swift Boat Vets and POWs for Truth achieved its primary goal yesterday with Sen. John Kerry’s concession to President Bush, but the deeply divisive issues the group has raised and the activists it has spawned might not fade with the closing of the 2004 election.
“The whole group was oriented to beating Kerry; now that that’s been accomplished, there is a formative discussion to say, ‘Where do we go from here?’” said Jerome Corsi, co-author of the group’s influential New York Times No. 1 best seller “Unfit for Command.”
Corsi believes current discussions indicate there will be post-election follow up, whether through some or all of the more than 250 veterans, or through independent investigators and journalists.
“There is a movement to get Kerry to continue to release all of his documents and to press forward on the military discharge issue,” Corsi said, referring to discrepancies in Kerry’s record suggesting he is hiding a less-than-honorable discharge.
Corsi also notes that the concerns about Kerry’s anti-war activism have grown into a movement to restore the honor of veterans who contend they have been besmirched by the conventional, leftist interpretation of the Vietnam War.
“That’s going to continue,” he said. “So I see Kerry is not going to simply be able to go back peacefully into the Senate and shut the door on the Vietnam chapter of his life.”
“It will dog him,” Corsi said, “certainly in the next two years and when he attempts to run for re-election” in 2008.
In a statement issued yesterday, the 527 group’s organizer, retired Adm. Roy Hoffman, gave no indication of the group’s future, but expressed pleasure at the election result.
“As we have stated since we formed, we believed that John Kerry’s actions in Vietnam, coupled with the reprehensible statements he made after he returned, were serious and consequently made him unfit for command,” he said.
Hoffman, one of Kerry’s commanders during the war, said the group sought to “provide a voice for the courageous and honorable veterans of Vietnam, more than 280 Swift Boat Vets, Coast Guardsmen and POWs who served their country with honor.”
He noted the grass-roots effort attracted donors from every state, who gave more than $26 million, including more than $7 million in online contributions.
“We were the true embodiment of grass-roots citizen action, complied fully with federal election law and had every right to participate in the public discussion of John Kerry’s qualifications as commander in chief,” Hoffman said.
‘Negative, awful ads’
In their assessment of Kerry’s campaign, many of the senator’s defenders grudgingly point to the swiftboat vets’ well-organized effort.
Asked to come up with a key moment in the campaign, analyst Juan Williams told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace “the turning point” was “distortions and caricatures” of Kerry, epitomized by the swiftboat vets.
Just after the Democratic convention, in which Kerry made his Vietnam service the foundation for his argument he is fit to lead the nation in a time of war, the swiftboat vets “came out with such negative, awful ads,” Williams said.
“Initially, I think, the Kerry campaign didn’t understand the damage that was being done [and] was slow to respond,” he recalled.
“And that damage has been incalculable,” Williams said. “It has stayed in the voters’ minds. It has defined this campaign in such as way as to damage his opportunity to have a say. When he went into the debates, when I do focus groups and talk to people, they’re still hearing the image and the echo of Swift Boat Veterans.”
Discussing highlights of the campaign Tuesday, National Public Radio’s Tavis Smiley told syndicated columnist Clarence Page, “We’ll never forget this phrase, either, Clarence: Swiftboat ads.
“There was a flurry of political advertisements on both sides, but John Kerry was hit awfully hard by the Swift Boat Veterans,” he said before playing a clip from one of nine advertisements that aired in battleground states from August through the end of the campaign.
Smiley then played a soundbite from an anti-Bush ad with “Fahrenheit 9/11″ producer Michael Moore.
“So you get the swiftboat veterans on one side, you got Michael Moore on the other side. This campaign, Clarence, was unparalleled in the level of propaganda.”
Page replied, “That’s true, and both of those soundbites you have were turning points where you saw the anti-Bush side really began to take shape and get new energy after Michael Moore’s movie came out.”
Page said the swiftboat vets turned Kerry’s “biggest positive into a big negative, or at least a big controversy. It really began to hurt his forward momentum, and as we saw, Kerry began to struggle going into the debates after his polling numbers fell behind those of George Bush.”
Kerry campaign senior strategist Tad Devine has admitted the senator’s low point was not answering the swiftboat ads right away.
But Douglas Brinkley, author of “Tour of Duty,” the account of Kerry’s war record that angered the swiftboat vets and prompted their campaign, has a different take on the group’s effectiveness, contending they may even have helped him by energizing his base.
Brinkley wrote Tuesday in an article in the Financial Times that, “Nobody in U.S. politics can endure as many body blows without suffering psychological dents” as Kerry.
Brinkley said Kerry’s initial silence amid the swiftboat vets’ charges was part of his style and strategy.
“Mr. Kerry welcomes abuse,” he said. “He goads his opponents to come out in the open and go for his jugular. They always do. They rise to the bait. When a group of Swift Boat vets attacked Mr. Kerry’s record in August he said nothing for two weeks. Why not swing back immediately? That is not his style.”
Brinkley maintains Kerry waited until the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post “exposed his critics as liars and frauds.”
A defensive player by nature, Kerry waited,” he said. “Ultimately, the Swift Boat attacks only helped Mr. Kerry solidify his base.”
On MSNBC’s “Hardball” yesterday, reporter Andrea Mitchell tied the swiftboat campaign to the reported impact of moral values on the voting Tuesday.
She said “the way the swiftboat veterans and the other groups define John Kerry early in the campaign, is to make him seem as though he were as not in sync with moral values, because he was, you know, a flip-flopper or whatever. By having defined him that way they really put him in a box. And it was very hard for him to get out of that box.
Corsi sees a clash-of-moral-values angle also, noting parallels to Kerry’s first run for Congress in 1972 as an anti-war candidate in the traditional, working-class town of Lowell, Mass.
After a big primary victory, financed by New York and Hollywood luminaries such as George Plimpton and Otto Preminger, Kerry encountered the disdain of what President Nixon termed “the silent majority,” Corsi said, the people of traditional religious values who rejected the radicalism of Kerry and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern.
But Corsi believes Kerry’s biggest miscalculation was a lesson he should have learned from Nixon — thinking he could lie to the American people and get away with it.
Kerry’s lie, Corsi contends, was to “exaggerate his four short months of service in Vietnam and his minor wounds into a self-advanced glory of mythic proportions” and to falsely characterize Amerian servicemen as war criminals.
The senator, for example, was forced to backpedal on assertions he had made for decades, such as his presence in Cambodia during the war. And his refusal to release all of his military records amid numerous unanswered questions hurt his credibility, Corsi pointed out.
In his 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry described the U.S. military as the “army of Genghis Kahn, “disgracing” the service of more than 2 million Americans who served with honor, Corsi added.
“All of this the American public might well have accepted and forgiven,” he maintained, “if only John Kerry had told the truth and asked for forgiveness.”