Liar vs. coward in the Vietnam ad war.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Aug. 18 2004 6:57 PM

Unfriendly Fire

Liar vs. coward in the Vietnam ad war.

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"Any Questions" was produced for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth by Stevens Reed Curcio. "Swift Response" was produced for MoveOn PAC by Zimmerman and Markman. To watch "Any Questions" on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Web site, click here. To read the script, click here. To watch "Swift Response" on the MoveOn PAC Web site, click here. To read the script, click here.

From: William Saletan
To: Jacob Weisberg

The negative phase of the general election started early this year, so the traditional late-summer moral descent is taking us one step deeper, to the personally nasty. "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth"—their Web site calls them Swiftvets—say Kerry lied about Vietnam. MoveOn PAC says the Swiftvets, with Bush's complicity, lied about Kerry lying.

The Swiftvets' allegations are deliberately blurred. Their ad starts with John Edwards urging people to talk to "the men who served with" Kerry. Several Swiftvets then appear on the screen, saying they "served with" Kerry. This is a semantic trick. Edwards is talking about crewmates who, at one time or another, accompanied Kerry on his six-man boat. The Swiftvets served with Kerry only in the sense that they manned other boats in Vietnam. It's a bit like saying you spent the night with Bill Clinton because you were on Martha's Vineyard, too.

Thirteen vets make 15 statements in the ad. Let's discard the unfalsifiable ones: "You could not count on John Kerry," "John Kerry is no war hero," "John Kerry has not been honest," "John Kerry cannot be trusted," "He is lying about his record," and "He lacks the capacity to lead." There's no way to fact-check these because they cite no facts.

Next, let's distinguish Kerry's statements about what he did from his statements about what others did. Most of the Swiftvets' material complaints address the latter: "John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam," "John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam," "He dishonored his country ... he most certainly did," "He betrayed all his shipmates ... he lied before the Senate." Phrases such as "what happened in Vietnam," "dishonored his country," "lied before the Senate," and "the men and women he served with" (there were no women on Kerry's boat) give away that these claims have nothing to do with Kerry's service. They're about his allegations afterward that American forces participated in war crimes.

The war crimes debate is murky. Kerry testified not about what he had seen but about what other servicemen had told him. And some war crimes clearly occurred. So at a minimum, in both spirit and substance, he didn't lie.

That brings us to the allegations that he misrepresented his own experiences. Here, Kerry's testimony was firsthand, so his veracity is on the line. Only two statements in the ad fall into this category. One comes from Louis Letson: "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury." The other comes from Van O'Dell: "John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star. ... I know, I was there, I saw what happened."

Letson loses credibility right away for implying that he has firsthand knowledge about his allegation. He doesn't. The allegation has to do with the source of Kerry's injury, not its severity. According to Tuesday's Los Angeles Times, Letson told the paper that after treating Kerry, "[Letson] learned from some medical corpsmen that other crewmen had confided that there was no exchange of fire and that Kerry had accidentally wounded himself as he fired at the guerrillas. Letson said he didn't know if the crewmen giving this account were in the boat with Kerry or on other boats."

That's third-hand testimony from somebody who doesn't even know the identity or location of the firsthand source. Pretty lousy stuff. Furthermore, the Times notes, "Navy rules during the Vietnam War governing Purple Hearts did not take into account a wound's severity—and specified only that injuries had to be suffered 'in action against an enemy.' … A Times review of Navy injury reports and awards from that period in Kerry's Swift boat unit shows that many other Swift boat personnel won Purple Hearts for slight wounds of uncertain origin." Case closed.

O'Dell, on the other hand, really "was there" when Kerry earned his Bronze Star. This was the incident in which Kerry pulled Jim Rassman, a green beret, from a river. Nobody disputes that it happened or that mines had gone off. Kerry says the rescue happened under fire. O'Dell and some others who were in boats nearby say it didn't. Rassman backs up Kerry's version. So does Del Sandusky, a crewman on Kerry's boat, who told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last week, "I saw the gunflashes shooting at us from the shore. I saw the rounds hitting the water." So does the Navy's official after-action report. Such reports normally included input from all Swift boat officers involved in a battle. Bottom line: Everyone agrees that there were explosions, and among the men who were on Kerry's boat or in the water next to it, the record of testimony on Kerry's account that shots were fired is 2-0 for Kerry. So much for the Swiftvets ad.

By comparison, the charges in the MoveOn PAC ad are relatively mild. The script posted on the PAC's Web site says of Bush's service in the National Guard, "When the chips were down, [he] went missing." (The posted video version is phrased differently.) Please. What Bush went missing from was a routine physical. In the National Guard, the chips were never down. That's why Bush signed up, or wormed his way in, or whatever you want to call it. He's guilty of avoiding fire, not fleeing it.

What the MoveOn PAC ad flatly misrepresents isn't the Bush of three decades ago. It's the Bush of today. Bush is "allowing" the Swiftvets to air false charges against Kerry, says the ad. It concludes, "George Bush, take that ad off the air." In a press release accompanying the ad, the MoveOn PAC notes that Bush and the Swiftvets share a major donor. The PAC asserts that "with one call, George W. Bush could stop them."

My guess is that if Bush made that call, MoveOn PAC would be in court tomorrow, accusing Bush of illegal coordination with a nominally independent organization. Bush ought to repudiate the Swiftvets ad, just as Kerry has now repudiated the Moveon PAC ad. But Bush can't take the Swiftvets ad off the air because it isn't his. And if we're going to hold him accountable for it, Jake, maybe you and I ought to revisit the question of whether Bush is entitled to hold Kerry responsible for the Hitler ad that appeared on the Web site of—guess who—MoveOn.org.

From: Jacob Weisberg
To: William Saletan

Let's get some things straight here. There is a right-wing slime machine. It has kicked into gear with this phony attack on Kerry's military record. Bush benefits from the ad and condones it. And if Kerry doesn't hit back harder, it could cost him the election.

I think this could be a watershed in the campaign, so let me elaborate on each of these points.

1. The Conintern propaganda machine is running full tilt. The extra-chromosome conservatives at Regnery bring out a scurrilous book accusing Kerry of being a war criminal and faking his injuries in Vietnam. Matt Drudge promotes the book and touts the related Swiftvets ad. Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and others further hype the charges in the book and the ad. Here's an excerpt from the first part of what is billed as a news story in the Washington Times: "[William E.] Franke and about 200 others, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, came forth in May to question Kerry's deception. … Kerry's actions were disgraceful. … Most fellow Swiftees who were with Kerry at Cam Ranh Bay never knew until Kerry decided to run for president that he had somehow successfully maneuvered his way to this undeserved Purple Heart." The "controversy" over Kerry's war record—as opposed to merely the controversy over the ad—is in the process of jumping the species barrier into the non-movement media. Voilà!—a phony campaign issue.

2. The ad is a carefully crafted lie. The Swift Boat Veterans ad is beyond vile. You nail many of its distortions. There's a useful survey of some others at Fact check.org. Suffice it to say that the spot packs an impressive amount of deceit into 60 seconds. Without entering into every detail of the "controversy," it pretends, as you note, that people who weren't present when Kerry sustained injuries were eyewitnesses. It implies that Kerry wouldn't deserve his Purple Hearts if his injuries had been caused by friendly fire, when in fact he would still qualify. It implies he has said things about his experience that he hasn't. It blurs the distinction between friendly fire and "self-inflicted wounds," implying that Kerry intentionally harmed himself to receive medals and escape Vietnam. It makes criticism of his activities after returning home sound like criticism of his activities in Vietnam. "He betrayed all his shipmates ... he lied before the Senate."

3. The ad greatly benefits Bush. A story in today's New York Post (part of the aforementioned slime machine) says the ad has the potential to be hugely effective for Bush. According to an independent study cited by the Post, "the ad planted doubts in the minds of 27 percent of independent voters who planned to vote for Kerry or leaned pro-Kerry. After seeing it, they were no longer sure they'd back him, the study found." The reason the ad really might be so effective, despite its fraudulence, is that it undermines the heroic part of Kerry's biography, which forms the basis of a big, positive personal contrast with Bush, while at the same time bolstering the GOP theme that Kerry is "untrustworthy."

4. Bush condones the ad. President Bush is of course tacitly encouraging the independent group running the commercial, which is being paid for by a backer of his from Houston. He is doing this by declining to say he doesn't like it. Bush has declined to criticize or condemn the ad, despite being encouraged to do so by his supporter Sen. John McCain, who called it "dishonest and dishonorable." His White House spokesman has refused to criticize or condemn it. The Bush campaign has refused to criticize or condemn it. I disagree with you about the extent of Bush's control here. He probably could stop the ad if he wanted to without courting any complaints about coordination, by saying he finds it offensive and objectionable. Bush chooses not to do so, not for legal reasons, but for the obvious ones.

Will, there's no moral equivalence here. The MoveOn PAC spot raises a legitimate issue about Bush's avoiding service in Vietnam with the help of family connections. To be sure, the advertisement reaches in charging that Bush went "missing" from the National Guard, since there's no definitive proof that he failed to show up for duty after moving to Alabama (and no real proof he did show up, either). This is hardly slanderous or directly dishonest in the way the Swiftvets ad is. But even though this spot is defensible, Kerry was quick to distance himself from it, as he was with the amateur Hitler ad that, as you yourself pointed out, the MoveOn folks also promptly denounced when they realized someone had put it up on their site.

5.Kerry's not hitting back hard enough. In response to the ad, Kerry has been sending surrogates like Wesley Clark and his Swift Boat buddies out to stick up for him. He's not hitting back personally because to answer these charges would fuel the idea that there's a legitimate debate about whether Kerry was a traitor who faked his medals. You lose that argument even if you win it, just by participating. But Kerry's avoidance isn't working. With the conintern stoking the issue, it's not going away. Perhaps Kerry should try to turn this libel to his advantage, the way an Alfonse D'Amato would have, by loudly proclaiming his injury. Without getting into the substance of the charges (which is a no-win situation), he should give Bush unshirted hell for the sleaze being sent out in his name. Kerry could ask his friend John McCain to stop campaigning for Bush until the Swiftvets ads stop. If Bush doesn't respond, Kerry should loose his own attack dogs and make a bigger issue out of Bush avoiding the draft.

Kerry volunteered to go to Vietnam and, once there, volunteered for dangerous duty. He killed enemy fighters, was injured and decorated. Then he came home and distinguished himself in opposition to the war. That a president who shirked any similar duty would try to make an issue out of Kerry's war record is simply amazing. Bush won't get away with it—unless Kerry lets him.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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