The latest conservative outfit to fire an angry broadside against John Kerry's heroic war record is Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which today launches a campaign to brand the Democrat "unfit to serve as commander in chief." Billing itself as representing the "other 97 percent of veterans" from Kerry's Navy unit who don't support his presidential candidacy, the group insists that all presidential candidates must be "totally honest and forthcoming" about their military service.
These "swift boat vets" claim still to be furious about Kerry's 1971 Senate testimony against the war in which he spoke about atrocities in Indochina's "free fire zones." More than three decades later, facing the complicated truth about Vietnam remains difficult. But this group's political connections make clear that its agenda is to target the election of 2004.
Behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are veteran corporate media consultant and Texas Republican activist Merrie Spaeth, who is listed as the group's media contact; eternal Kerry antagonist and Houston attorney John E. O'Neill, law partner of Spaeth's late husband, Tex Lezar; and retired Rear Adm. Roy Hoffman, a cigar-chomping former Vietnam commander once described as "the classic body-count guy" who "wanted hooches destroyed and people killed."
Spaeth told Salon that O'Neill first approached her last winter to discuss his "concerns about Sen. Kerry." O'Neill has been assailing Kerry since 1971, when the former Navy officer was selected for the role by Charles Colson, Richard Nixon's dirty-tricks aide. Spaeth heard O'Neill out, but told him, she says, that he "sounded like a crazed extremist" and should "button his lip" and avoid speaking with the press. But since Kerry clinched the Democratic nomination, Spaeth has changed her mind and decided to donate her public relations services on a "pro bono" basis to O'Neill's latest anti-Kerry effort. "About three weeks ago, four weeks ago," she said, the group's leaders "met in my office for about 12 hours" to prepare for their Washington debut.
Although not as well known as Karen Hughes, Spaeth is among the most experienced and best connected Republican communications executives. During the Reagan administration she served as director of the White House Office of Media Liaison, where she specialized in promoting "news" items that boosted President Reagan to TV stations around the country. While living in Washington she met and married Lezar, a Reagan Justice Department lawyer who ran for lieutenant governor of Texas in 1994 with George W. Bush, then the party's candidate for governor. (Lezar lost; Bush won.)
Through Lezar, who died of a heart attack last January, she met O'Neill, his law partner in Clements, O'Neill, Pierce, Wilson & Fulkerson, a Dallas firm. (It also includes Margaret Wilson, the former counsel to Gov. Bush who followed him to Washington, where she served for a time as a deputy counsel in the Department of Commerce.)
Spaeth's partisanship runs still deeper, as does her history of handling difficult P.R. cases for Republicans. In 1998, for example, she coached Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, to prepare him for his testimony urging the impeachment of President Clinton before the House Judiciary Committee. She even reviewed videotapes of his previous television appearances to give him pointers about his delivery and demeanor. The man responsible for arranging her advice to Starr was another old friend of her late husband's, Theodore Olson, who was counsel to the right-wing American Spectator when it acted as a front for the dirty-tricks campaign against Clinton known as the Arkansas Project; he is now the solicitor general in the Bush Justice Department. (Olson also happens to be the godfather of Spaeth's daughter.)
In 2000, Spaeth participated in the most subterranean episode of the Republican primary contest when a shadowy group billed as "Republicans for Clean Air" produced television ads falsely attacking the environmental record of Sen. John McCain in California, New York and Ohio. While the identity of those funding the supposedly "independent" ads was carefully hidden, reporters soon learned that Republicans for Clean Air was simply Sam Wyly -- a big Bush contributor and beneficiary of Bush administration decisions in Texas -- and his brother, Charles, another Bush "Pioneer" contributor. (One of the Wyly family's private capital funds, Maverick Capital of Dallas, had been awarded a state contract to invest $90 million for the University of Texas endowment.)
When the secret emerged, spokeswoman Spaeth caught the flak for the Wylys, an experience she recalled to me as "horrible" and "awful." Her job was to assure reporters that there had been no illegal coordination between the Bush campaign and the Wyly brothers in arranging the McCain-trashing message. Not everyone believed her explanation, including the Arizona senator.
The veteran group's founder, Rear Adm. Roy Hoffmann, first gained notoriety in Vietnam as a strutting, cigar-chewing Navy captain. But it was O'Neill, by now a familiar figure on the Kerry-bashing circuit, who came to Spaeth for assistance.
Until now, Hoffmann has been best known as the commanding officer whose obsession with body counts and "scorekeeping" may have provoked the February 1969 massacre of Vietnamese civilians at Thanh Phong by a unit led by Bob Kerrey -- the Medal of Honor winner who lost a leg in Nam, became a U.S. senator from Nebraska and now sits on the 9/11 commission.
After journalist Gregory Vistica exposed the Thanh Phong massacre and the surrounding circumstances in the New York Times magazine three years ago, conservative columnist Christopher Caldwell took particular note of the cameo role played by Kerrey's C.O., who had warned his men not to return from missions without enough kills. "One of the myths due to die as a result of Vistica's article is that which holds the war could have been won sensibly and cleanly if the 'suits' back in Washington had merely left the military men to their own devices," Caldwell wrote. "In this light, one of the great merits of Vistica's article is its portrait of the Kurtz-like psychopath who commanded Kerrey's Navy task force, Capt. Roy Hoffmann."
Arguments about the war in Vietnam seem destined to continue forever. For now, however, the lingering bitterness and ambiguity of those days provide smear material against an antiwar war hero with five medals on behalf of a privileged Guardsman with a dubious duty record. The president's Texas allies -- whose animus against his Democratic challenger dates back to the Nixon era -- are now deploying the same techniques and personnel they used to attack McCain's integrity four years ago. Bush's "independent" supporters would apparently rather talk about the Vietnam quagmire than about his deadly incompetence in Iraq.