It is a twisted state of affairs that George W. Bush's most avid surrogates are trying to make this election turn on the question of whether Lt. John Kerry was or was not in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968.
Having pretty much failed at their efforts to disprove the official U.S. Navy account of Kerry's valor in battle as skipper of a "Swift boat" patrolling the Mekong Delta, the veterans against Kerry have moved to discredit his more obscure claim—made a few times over the years, in interviews and Senate floor speeches—that, on Dec. 24, he took CIA or special ops forces across the border into Cambodia, even while Washington claimed no American troops were there.
Kerry first told this story publicly in an article published in the Boston Herald on Oct. 14, 1979, before he was a senator:
I remember Christmas Eve of 1968, five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas.
He elaborated the tale on March 27, 1986, during a Senate debate over whether to aid the Nicaraguan contras:
I remember Christmas of 1968, sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there, the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared—seared—in me.
A more intriguing reference—now known as "the famous good-luck-hat story"—was made in a Washington Post profile, by Laura Blumenfeld, published on June 1, 2003:
There's a secret compartment in Kerry's briefcase. He carries the black attache everywhere. Asked about it on several occasions, Kerry brushed it aside. Finally, trapped in an interview, he exhaled and clicked open his case.
"Who told you?" he demanded as he reached inside. "My friends don't know about this."
The hat was a little mildewy. The green camouflage was fading, the seams fraying.
"My good luck hat," Kerry said, happy to see it. "Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia."
But now some anti-Kerry veterans are saying he was never in Cambodia. John O'Neill, who has been dogging Kerry more than 30 years, told Matt Drudge that the senator's Christmas-in-Cambodia stories "are complete lies." As evidence, he cites Kerry's own wartime diary, as quoted in Douglas Brinkley's Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. That book—according to Drudge's account of it—places Kerry in Sa Dec, 50 miles away from Cambodia, on Christmas Eve, and seemingly at peace. "Visions of sugarplums really do dance through your head," Kerry wrote in his diary that night, "and you think of stockings and snow and roast chestnuts and fires with birch logs and all that is good and warm and real."
That passage is on Page 219 of Brinkley's book. But O'Neill, Drudge, and the other sneerers choose to ignore the 10 preceding pages—the opening pages of a chapter called "Death in the Delta." On Christmas Eve 1968, Brinkley writes, Kerry and his crew: