Houston attorney John E. O'Neill, the Navy veteran who has emerged recently as a harsh and ubiquitous critic of John Kerry's military service, tells reporters that he has never really been interested in politics and isn't motivated by partisan interests. In the media, O'Neill is often described simply as a Vietnam vet still enraged by the antiwar speeches Kerry delivered more than 30 years ago. That was when O'Neill first came to public attention as a clean-cut, pro-war protégé of the Nixon White House's highest-ranking dirty trickster (aside from the late president himself), Charles Colson.
Colson, who went to prison for Watergate crimes, saw O'Neill as a perfect foil to Kerry, whom Nixon and his aides feared as a decorated, articulate and reasonable opponent of the war and their regime. Indeed, O'Neill was perfect -- a crewcut officer who had served on the same Navy swift boat that Kerry had commanded, although their stints in the Mekong Delta didn't overlap. In June 1971, Colson brought O'Neill up to Washington for an Oval Office audience with Nixon. His impressions live on in a memo filed later:
"O'Neill went out charging like a tiger, has agreed that he will appear anytime, anywhere that we program him and was last seen walking up West Executive Avenue mumbling to himself that he had just been with the most magnificent man he had ever met in his life."
Now O'Neill has emerged from those decades of silence, roaring denunciations of the man who will become the Democratic nominee for president this summer. "I saw some war heroes," he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday. "John Kerry is not a war hero."
To establish his nonpartisan credentials, O'Neill assured the CNN anchor that he was "never contacted" by the Bush-Cheney campaign. What he didn't mention, however, is that his law firm boasts long-standing and powerful connections with the Bush White House.
With an oil and litigation practice focused on the defense of major energy and industrial firms, the dozen partners in Clements, O'Neill, Pierce, Wilson & Fulkerson have clout that exceeds their firm's small size. Their corporate clients include Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Reliant Energy, Koch Industries and Eastman Kodak. More important, among the name partners is Margaret Wilson, the former general counsel to George W. Bush during his second term as Texas governor. (She succeeded Alberto Gonzales, who currently serves as White House counsel.)
In 2001, Wilson went to Washington with the new president, who appointed her deputy general counsel in the Department of Commerce. During her tenure as Bush's counsel in Austin, she was implicated in the Service Corporation International funeral home scandal. State government whistle-blower Eliza May accused Wilson of participating in an effort to "intimidate" her from pursuing an investigation of SCI, a major Bush campaign donor.
Among the firm's partners with close ties to Bush was "Tex" Lezar, who ran for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket with him in 1994, when Bush won and Lezar lost. An indefatigable conservative activist and lawyer sympathetic to the most extreme elements in Southern GOP circles, Lezar died last January at the age of 55. Before joining the Clements firm, Lezar served in the Reagan Justice Department, where he befriended Kenneth Starr, whom he often defended to the press when Starr was pursuing the Clintons as Whitewater independent counsel. In later years, Lezar held important positions in the Federalist Society, Empower America, the Texas Public Policy Foundation and various other right-wing organizations.
As for O'Neill, his Republican loyalties may well have been cemented in 1974. Three years after Colson first brought him to the White House to meet with Nixon, who encouraged the young O'Neill to "get" Kerry and the protesters in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he launched his legal career with a coveted clerkship in the United States Supreme Court. No doubt it was mere coincidence that O'Neill clerked with William Rehnquist, the controversial conservative who was Nixon's favorite justice and who went on to be appointed chief justice by President Reagan.
Nixon is gone, but his political heirs possess the White House -- and no doubt the disgraced politician would be pleased and proud that they are harassing Kerry with the same zeal that first brought Karl Rove to the attention of Watergate investigators. The young veteran he once showcased is now 58 years old, but O'Neill seems just as eager to battle Nixon's old enemies as he was back then.
The credibility of Vietnam veterans like O'Neill is crucial to Republican efforts to denigrate Kerry's war record. Those efforts suffered a setback yesterday when, after angry demands for disclosure from GOP chairman Ed Gillespie, the Democrat posted hundreds of pages documenting his service and decorations on his campaign Web site. Those pages from his Navy records show that Kerry's superiors consistently rated him as an outstanding and unusually talented officer. Those pages show that he volunteered for service in Vietnam and earned a Bronze and a Silver Star for valorous conduct under fire.
So far, at least, the attempts to smear Kerry have backfired. Looking over the citations and reports, and particularly those incidents when Kerry risked his life to protect his comrades, it is natural to contrast his experience with the National Guard career of George W. Bush -- and to wonder why veterans like O'Neill are not troubled by the difference.