Sailing buddies

A flotilla of new reports shows that the Swift Boat Veterans group is helmed by longtime cronies of the Bush family.

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Revelations during the past week about the forces behind Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the allegedly independent outfit sponsoring unfounded attacks on John Kerry’s military record, strongly suggest that the group is guided by Republicans at the commanding heights of the conservative movement.

Those partisan operatives and lawyers, in turn, have longstanding connections with the Bush family, although the White House and the president continue to insist they bear no responsibility for the assault on the Democratic nominee’s Vietnam service.

Previous investigative reports in Salon have established that major Texas Republican donors Bob Perry Jr. and Harlan Crow provided nearly all of the initial financing for the Swift Boat group — and that professional public relations and research experts affiliated with the GOP were instrumental in launching the group. This week, media reports focused on the president’s chief outside campaign counsel, Benjamin Ginsburg, who has given legal advice to the Swift Boat group. That sudden exposure prompted Ginsburg’s resignation from the Bush-Cheney campaign.

The network of Republican operatives involved in the Kerry-bashing campaign can be traced still further to a pair of the most influential national conservative organizations, Empower America and Citizens for a Sound Economy, which officially merged last July under the banner of a new entity called FreedomWorks.

That merger brought together such right-wing luminaries as former House Republican leader Dick Armey of Texas, former Bush White House counsel C. Boyden Gray (who also served on the Bush-Cheney transition team in 2000), former Republican vice-presidential candidate Jack Kemp and author and foundation official William J. Bennett. Empower America and Citizens for a Sound Economy boast a combined “volunteer army” of more than 600,000 activists across the country, with many organized into state chapters. Their new combined Web site features an endorsement from George W. Bush: “Folks, you’ve got to get to know this organization. … They have been doing a great job all over the country educating people.”

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While Empower America, Citizens for a Sound Economy and their successor FreedomWorks describe themselves in high-minded prose as nonpartisan crusaders for liberty and American values, their aims are almost always ideological and often highly partisan.

This year, in a transparent effort to assist the Bush-Cheney campaign, Citizens for a Sound Economy and its state chapters have mobilized their members to help place Ralph Nader on the ballot in several battleground states. In 2000, ironically enough, the Nader-founded Government Accountability Project denounced CSE as a “rent-a-mouthpiece” and “mercenary” for corporate special interests.

And now, it seems clear that a FreedomWorks employee is directly employed in another direct thrust at Kerry through the Swift Boat veterans.

The Times provided the first clue to the FreedomWorks connection by tracing the post office box registered to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to Susan Arceneaux, a Fairfax, Va., resident named as the contact person for the mail drop. As the Times noted, Arceneaux is a veteran conservative activist who has worked for various Republican campaigns and organizations over the years. She is listed as the treasurer of the Majority Leader’s Fund, a Republican political action committee founded by Armey.

Both Arceneaux and a spokesman for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth declined to explain to the Times who had introduced her to them.

The Armey PAC’s most generous donors include Bob J. Perry, contributor of $200,000 to the Swift Boat Vets group, and Sam and Charles Wyly, the Texas business executives who secretly financed attack ads against John McCain during the 2000 primaries.

While Armey’s Fund has been less active in 2004 than during previous election cycles, the former majority leader and his conservative colleagues are pursuing their political agenda under the new rubric of FreedomWorks. Like many other think tanks and activist groups, FreedomWorks also maintains a political action committee. The PAC’s first quarterly report last April was signed by its treasurer, Susan Arceneaux — not long before she showed up to work for the Swift Boat Vets group.

Perhaps the surfacing of so many major contributors and operatives from the Bush/Texas Republican machine and the Washington conservative network in the “Swift Boat” controversy is all innocent coincidence. Yet by this stage, the myriad coincidences and connections heavily outweigh the strained credibility of White House denials.

Just for history’s sake, consider yet another coincidental connection between the FreedomWorks nexus and the Swift Boat group.

Back in 1996, an attorney named Harold “Tex” Lezar was appointed chairman of Empower America after running unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Texas on the same ticket with George W. Bush, who won the governor’s race. When Lezar died last January, the mourners included his wife, Dallas public relations executive Merrie Spaeth, and his law partner, John E. O’Neill. By April, Spaeth and O’Neill were meeting to plan the launch of O’Neill’s new political venture — the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

The vast right-wing conspiracy truly is a small world after all.

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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