"Dishonest and dishonorable" is how John McCain described the attack ad now appearing on television in several swing states, courtesy of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Dishonest because the men who appear in the ad make false claims about John Kerry's wartime conduct and decorations. Dishonorable because these men have waited three decades to publicize their slurs, with partisan motives, during a presidential campaign.
With his passionate denunciation of the swift boat commercial and its sponsors, McCain again displayed the dignity and self-respect that once elevated him above other politicians. Calling on President Bush to repudiate the ugly anti-Kerry ad, McCain took a step back from his awkward embrace of the Republican ticket last month. "I can't believe the president would pull such a cheap stunt," he told reporters, while acknowledging that he didn't know whether Bush strategists were involved.
The response of the Bush spokesmen was bland but telling. They saw no reason to disavow or endorse the swift boat ads. White House press secretary Scott McClellan said that the president has never questioned Sen. Kerry's military service (as if he is in any position to do so). Although he suggested that all the "unregulated soft money" advertising should cease, he pointedly refused to condemn the swift boat ad. "The Bush-Cheney campaign has never and will never question John Kerry's service during Vietnam," echoed campaign press secretary Steve Schmidt.
When the White House and the Bush-Cheney campaign declined to follow his lead, the Arizona senator could hardly have been surprised. Nobody who understands American politics as well as McCain has any illusions about the game that the Republicans are playing here. It is a strategy that dates back to the racially inflammatory Willie Horton ad aired by an "independent" group in 1988, and that was used against McCain himself in 2000 when another "independent" group aired ads against him during the Republican primaries.
The Republican orientation of the Swift Boat Veterans organization is transparently obvious, despite the inclination of some journalists to pretend otherwise. From stern to bow, they're strictly GOP.
As previously noted in this space, the group was organized last spring with the assistance of Merrie Spaeth, a Republican public relations executive from Houston whose late husband, Tex Lezar, ran for Texas lieutenant governor on George W. Bush's ticket in 1994.
Its guiding spirit is John E. O'Neill, a partner in Lezar's law firm and an early protégé of Nixon-era dirty trickster Charles Colson. (O'Neill's latest contribution to the cause is a book titled "Unfit for Command," selling fast thanks to promotion by the Drudge Report.) Its Web site was put up courtesy of William Franke, a St. Louis businessman with longstanding ties to Attorney General John Ashcroft and the Missouri Republican Party. Its chief financiers, according to the group's last quarterly IRS filing, are Houston builder Bob J. Perry and the Crow family, both major Republican donors from Texas.
Last November, the Dallas Morning News profiled the mysterious Perry. During the past four years, he has given more than $5 million to candidates and causes, nearly all of them Republican and extremely conservative. The article didn't say whether Perry himself ever served in the military. The Crow family, a clan of megadevelopers based in Dallas, are close Bush friends as well as generous backers. Harlan Crow is also a trustee of the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library Foundation.
In short, the financial supporters of the Swift Boat Vets are not exactly strangers to George W. Bush and Karl Rove.
Among the other leaders featured on the Swift Boat Vets' site are Alvin A. "Andy" Horne; Weymouth D. Symmes, also listed as the group's contact on its IRS filings; and Bill Lannom. Horne is a former Houston prosecutor who was once short-listed by former Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, for an appointment as U.S. attorney. Symmes is a retired banker from Missoula, Mont., who along with his wife has donated more than $5,000 to Republican candidates and committees since 2000 (including $1,000 to Bush-Cheney 2004).
Lannom works for Iowa athletic-wear company owned by his staunchly Republican family. As his mother once explained to a local historian, "We've all been active, all my sons have been active in politics." She charmingly recalled that the Lannoms' antagonism toward Democrats dates all the way back to FDR.
The hired help employed by the Swift Vets committee is thoroughly partisan, too. Aside from Spaeth and Thomas Rupprath, the private detective she recommended to provide research services, the group's IRS filing names several experienced Washington political operatives. The June 30 filing shows payments to Robert A. Hahn, a right-wing Internet activist and Web designer who also runs something called the Free Republic Network (apparently an affiliate of the extremist Free Republic Web site); and to Tom Wyld, a Navy veteran and former director of public relations for the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association.
The White House has deniability, to be sure, if charged with complicity in this campaign. The question is whether its deniability is plausible -- or risible.
As for the accuracy of the Republican veterans' accusations, they can be tested against the testimony of the men who served under Kerry's command -- all of whom but one have repeatedly endorsed his courage, his decency, and his candidacy. Denigration of Kerry's record should also be measured against the sterling evaluations that he received during the actual time of his service, including by Adm. Roy Hoffman, who now chairs the Swift Boat Veterans group.
No doubt the Republicans hope that attacking Kerry will distract from important issues they would prefer not to discuss or debate. But their campaign is backfiring, as drawing fresh attention to Vietnam does not flatter the candidate who avoided service there.