When the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" launched its campaign against John Kerry 10 days ago, leadership and guidance were provided by Republican activists and presidential friends from Texas -- notably Houston attorney John E. O'Neill and corporate media consultant Merrie Spaeth. Indeed, although the group made its debut at a press conference in Washington, it looked and sounded like a Texas GOP operation.
On closer inspection, the ostensibly nonpartisan "Swift Boat Vets" seem to have another pair of significant sponsors with deep and long-standing Republican connections in Missouri. Both are officers of Gannon International, a St. Louis conglomerate that does lots of overseas business in, of all places, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Ties to Gannon can be traced via the Swift Boat Vets Web site (as an alert reader advised me last week). On April 14, the site was registered under the name of Lewis Waterman, Gannon's information technology manager, at 11301 Olive Boulevard in St. Louis, the firm's headquarters address. Although Waterman wouldn't discuss why he had set up the Web site, he didn't deny that his boss, Gannon president and CEO William Franke, had asked him to do so.
"The information about my client is confidential," said Waterman. He acknowledged knowing, however, that his boss Franke is a Navy veteran who served in Vietnam on swift boats. Gannon vice president Stephen Hayes, who oversees the company's office in Alexandria, Va., is likewise a swift boat veteran who first met Franke when they served together in the Mekong Delta.
While neither Franke nor Hayes returned calls seeking confirmation of their roles in the Swift Boat Veterans organization, it seems obvious that Waterman wouldn't have set up the group's Web site using Gannon's corporate address without approval from his employers.
Franke is well known in Missouri as a longtime Republican Party activist and financier. In 1976, he managed John Danforth's victorious Senate campaign; two years later, he ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He also failed in an attempt to resuscitate the defunct St. Louis Globe-Democrat (which was, despite its name, a staunchly Republican newspaper) in 1986. Before the Globe-Democrat finally went under in 1987, Franke had obtained a commitment from the state industrial development authority -- all of whose members were appointed by then Gov. John Ashcroft -- to raise $9 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds to keep the paper afloat.
Last June, Franke gave the maximum $2,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign, and he has since donated an additional $2,000 to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay's political action committee, Americans for a Republican Majority, and $2,000 more to Keep Our Majority, the PAC operated by House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
Hayes left a long career in government to join Franke's company in 1993. His résumé is littered with public relations posts in Republican administrations dating back at least to 1984, when he worked as a transition spokesman for Treasury Secretary Donald Regan. He moved on to similar jobs at the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Agency for International Development.
Following the departure of the first Bush administration, Hayes joined Gannon. He maintains his conservative credentials as a director of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, an organization that promotes "faith-based diplomacy" to resolve global conflicts. (Among this outfit's other board members are a former Republican congressman from Ohio, an author of books and articles arguing against evolution, and former Reagan national security advisor Robert McFarlane, forced to resign for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal.)
What is most intriguing about Franke, Hayes, and Gannon -- especially in light of their apparent role in the campaign against John Kerry -- are their strong commercial interests in Southeast Asia. While Gannon is a highly diversified holding company whose divisions range from real estate in Florida and Missouri to Internet technology and software, it maintains an unusual presence in Vietnam, with offices in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Indeed, Gannon has operated in that country's tourism, real estate and import-export sectors for a decade. (The target market for its tours was fellow Vietnam veterans.)
None of Gannon's profitable activities in the communist republic would be possible, of course, without the approval of the Hanoi government, which Franke has described as "strong" and "stable." Nor would Gannon be conducting business in Vietnam without the Clinton administration diplomacy, assisted by Sen. Kerry, that established diplomatic and trade ties with the United States in 1994. Franke first began traveling to Vietnam on behalf of Operation Smile, an American charity that provides plastic surgery to children abroad. The relationships he established during those humanitarian missions provided a considerable advantage in doing business under government auspices.
It was also during those early visits to Vietnam, as he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that Franke reached a clearer understanding of the war he had once fought as a young Navy lieutenant.
"As I looked back 20 years, I saw that it was a very imperial relationship we had with these people," said Franke in 1989. "We were young. We were there because we were told to be there and that they were the enemy. This time I saw them as human beings who had fears and hopes the same as we."
Yet he evidently cannot forgive John Kerry for reaching the same conclusion about that war and its victims, so many years before he finally did.