Must-reads bonus, Swift boat edition


Geraldine Sealey
August 23, 2004 6:59PM (UTC)

The nasty fight over John Kerry's Vietnam War record (we're waiting for a renewed and paralleled scrutiny of George W. Bush's Guard record to dominate media coverage like this) continued to rage over the weekend, superseding news coverage of other stories, including the war in Iraq, and both candidates' healthcare proposals. New eyewitnesses came forward to back Kerry, and his campaign tried to put the onus on President Bush to denounce the "dirty work" being done on his behalf. So far, no denunciations from the Bush-Cheney camp, just an attempt to equate the lies of the Swift Boat Veterans for "Truth" with all 527 group activity, including that of MoveOn.org. The Kerry campaign, late to the fight on this one, seemingly caught off-guard that the SBVT campaign to destroy his candidacy would have such legs, issued a TV ad on Sunday calling on Bush to "denounce the smear" and get back to the issues.

The New York Times on Friday illustrated the intricate web of connections between the SBVT campaign, the Bush family and Karl Rove. But the Times today reports that the Bush campaign "sent a letter to television station managers calling the new Kerry advertisement libelous."

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Meanwhile, Bob Dole is now also doing "dirty work" for his party's nominee, appearing on television yesterday to question his "friend" John Kerry's wounds from combat. As the Times put it: "[Dole] appeared to get behind some of the accusations raised by the group, when its most serious contentions have been undermined by official records and conflicting accounts."

In a classic "with friends like these" moment, Dole told Wolf Blitzer on Sunday: "And here's, you know, a good guy, a good friend. I respect his record. But three Purple Hearts and never bled that I know of. I mean, they're all superficial wounds. Three Purple hearts and you're out."

In a Sunday editorial, even before Dole emerged on the airwaves to diminish the war record of a fellow veteran, the Boston Globe imagined what would have happened in 1996 if Bill Clinton had played dirty with Dole's record.

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"After all, Dole was given a Purple Heart for a leg scratch probably caused, according to one biographer, when a hand grenade thrown by one of his own men bounced off a tree. And while the serious injuries Dole sustained later surely came from German fire, did the episode demonstrate heroism on Dole's part or a reckless move that ended up killing his radioman and endangering the sergeant who dragged Dole off the field?"

"The truth, according to many accounts, is that Dole fought with exceptional bravery and deserves the nation's gratitude. No one in 1996 questioned that record. Any such attack on behalf of Clinton, an admitted Vietnam draft dodger, would have been preposterous. Yet amazingly, something quite similar is happening today as supporters of President Bush attack the Vietnam record of Senator John Kerry."

"The situations are not completely parallel. Bush was not a draft dodger, but he certainly was a Vietnam avoider, having joined the Texas Air National Guard rather than serving in the regular military. Kerry, on the other hand, may have done more than Dole to qualify as a genuine war hero. Although his tour in Vietnam was short, on at least two occasions he acted decisively and with great daring in combat, saving at least one man's life and earning both a Silver Star and a Bronze Star. That's not our account or Kerry's; it is drawn from eyewitnesses and the military citations themselves."

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Speaking of eyewitnesses, more came forward over the weekend to back Kerry and debunk the claims of the SBVT.

Wayne D. Langhofer, an employee at a Kansas gunpowder plant who was a gunner on the Swift boat directly behind John Kerry's during a March 1969 ambush, backs Kerry's recollection that the boats were taking enemy fire.

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Chicago Tribune editor William Rood, who with Kerry was one of three Swift boat officers on the Dong Cung on Feb. 28, 1969, broke his silence about the events of that day that led to Kerry being awarded the Silver Star and Rood the Bronze. In a matter-of-fact first-person account, Rood told his story, which meshes with Kerry's but contradicts the SBVT accounts. Kerry had called Rood in recent days, the Tribune editor said, but he emerged to tell his story not for Kerry, but for other veterans out of the public eye whose wartime records were being impugned along with the presidential candidate's.

From Rood's piece: "Many of us wanted to put it all behind us -- the rivers, the ambushes, the killing. Ever since that time, I have refused all requests for interviews about Kerry's service -- even those from reporters at the Chicago Tribune, where I work. But Kerry's critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that the accounts of what happened were overblown. The critics have taken pains to say they're not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us. It's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there."

"... What matters most to me is that this is hurting crewmen who are not public figures and who deserved to be honored for what they did. My intent is to tell the story here and to never again talk publicly about it.

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And SBVT member Van Odell admitted to Fox News' Chris Wallace on Sunday that he had no documented proof to back his claim that the Swift boats were not taking fire during the mission in March 1969 for which Kerry received a Bronze Star and his third Purple Heart, only saying Kerry fabricated what was in the "after-action" reports. Odell pointed to the fact that he was not injured as evidence there was no enemy fire.


Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at Salon.com.

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