They knew how to win. Does John Kerry?

The Bush machine is running one of the dirtiest -- and most effective -- campaigns in modern history. The Democrats need to get back in the fight.

Published September 1, 2004 11:20PM (EDT)

Back before the Watergate break-in, Republican operatives had a name for their unique brand of below-the-belt campaign attacks: "rat fucking." Part character assassination, part collegiate pranks, the dirty tricks -- conducted in utmost secrecy -- were designed to throw Democrats off balance, create confusion, and tarnish reputations. Three decades later these attacks have been perfected. Except now they're practiced out in the open for everyone, including the compliant media, to witness.

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth became the latest multimedia incarnation. Launching the most bitter, and perhaps most deliberately misleading Republican-backed campaign attack since the racist Willie Horton ad of 1988, the group, bankrolled by a wealthy Bush donor, aired hollow, secondhand allegations that John Kerry lied about his actions in Vietnam that won five military medals. Not one charge about Kerry's medals has withstood the slightest scrutiny, but thanks to the inaction of the national press corps, which again appeared in awe of the mighty Republican attack machine and its conservative media echo chamber, the Swift Boat's dirty trick succeeded in disrupting the presidential campaign for several weeks this summer.

Instead of quickly pointing out that Kerry's Vietnam accusers were factually challenged and that the coauthors of the anti-Kerry book "Unfit for Command" had severe credibility problems, too many mainstream reporters, editors and producers, taking their cue from Republicans, agreed to abandon serious campaign coverage for weeks in order to focus, yet again, on a so-called character flaw of the Democratic candidate. By the time the Washington Post, New York Times and Los Angeles Times did deploy reporters to knock down the Swift Boat Vets' rickety charges, they'd taken on a life of their own in the anti-Kerry netherworld of talk radio, right-wing bloggers and Fox News.

The Republicans' brash maneuver was "highly reminiscent of Nixonian politics," says John Dean, who served as Nixon's legal counsel during the Watergate coverup. He notes that 33 years ago John O'Neill, coauthor of "Unfit for Command," was recruited into politics by one of Nixon's top dirty tricksters, Chuck Colson.

"We've come full circle since Watergate and dirty tricks," Dean says. "Although today they're much more nasty."

The nasty tricks have some Kerry supporters frustrated by the Democrats' inability to hit back hard -- and to take control of the news cycle by doing so. It hasn't always been this way. Two generations ago a Massachussetts Democrat, John F. Kennedy, beat the dirty-tricks politics of Richard Nixon by playing hardball himself. And in 1992, Bill Clinton defeated a nasty Bush campaign that had eviscerated Michael Dukakis four years earlier by running a tough campaign war room and aggressively fighting the Bush attempts at smears. So far the Kerry campaign hasn't been able to master the same instinct for the jugular.

"The response to the Swift Boat controversy was not at a level it should have been," says Paul Alexander, director of "Brothers in Arms," a new documentary about Kerry's Vietnam days. "The question should be, what about Bush's military record? That's the response. Not that there were 12 bullet holes on the side of Kerry's boat in Vietnam. The only way to beat Karl Rove and that level of viciousness is to hit back harder. If Democrats don't understand that ... well then, you can finish that sentence."

Frustration also simmers around the press, and the double standard it seems to have adopted toward the candidates. "Bush has run the most issueless, negative campaign in modern politics," notes Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network. "Yet nothing is written about the fact that a sitting president is offering no agenda for his second term. He should be getting fucking skewered in the press for the kind of campaign he's running, but there's nothing. Republicans are held to a different standard."

Nowhere has that that double standard been more apparent than when contrasting the way the media have covered the two parties' conventions. Compare the coverage of Bush's colossal blunder on Monday -- telling NBC's Matt Lauer that he didn't think the war on terror was winnable -- with Teresa Heinz Kerry's trivial "shove it" remark during the Democratic Convention in Boston last month. So far, Bush's gaffe has garnered far less coverage than Heinz Kerry's.

Defining the opponent has always been paramount in campaigns. As Lyndon Johnson once coached candidates, call the other guy an SOB and force him to hold a press conference to deny it. But whereas occasional attacks once punctuated campaigns, today's modern Republican run for the White House has evolved into nothing but attacks. The variety this year has ranged from the subtle (taking a word or phrase from a Kerry speech out of context to mock the candidate) to the sledgehammer (Swift Boat Veterans for Truth). Never have they been more important, though. Because with a presidential résumé that features a quagmire abroad in Iraq that has cost nearly 1,000 American lives, a net loss of more than 1 million jobs at home, and a job approval struggling to reach 50 percent, defining Kerry and putting him on the defensive may be the only way Bush can salvage a second term.

"Republicans have one strategic imperative, and that is to make Americans more afraid of John Kerry than they are of four more years of George Bush," says Mike Feldman, a former advisor to Vice President Al Gore.

Over the years hardball-loving Republicans have done a masterful job of painting their opponents with a damning brush, the way the elder Bush easily wiped out a double-digit lead over Dukakis in 1988 by portraying the Massachusetts governor as a weak, out-of-the-mainstream liberal. In 2000, with the help of the press, they turned Gore into a duplicitous exaggerator.

Republicans enjoy an unmatched electronic and digital infrastructure to disseminate their attacks, says Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News. "The advantage the Republicans have is reaching a lot of people through Drudge and Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and well-organized surrogates who are willing to swarm the media with the same message over and over to drive the agenda, with what political professionals would call admirable shamelessness. Democrats do not have the same echo-chamber outlets for an as easy, or as unfiltered, crack at voters."

"The Republican capacity to create propaganda is much more developed and refined than ours," Rosenberg says. "Their infrastructure is just massive." Last spring the Bush-Cheney team launched a $90 million negative ad campaign, the largest TV attack blitz in presidential history. They hoped the onslaught would effectively knock Kerry out of the White House race before it began in earnest. Yet by late August, Kerry held a slight lead in most of the major polls.

Republicans argue that without that avalanche of attacks ads, Kerry might have built up an even larger lead over the summer. And there is some polling data to support that notion. In August, pollster John Zogby's survey of voters found 47 percent chose Kerry, while 43 chose Bush. Asked separately if Bush deserved a second term, just 43 percent said yes; 53 percent said no. "Those two measurements suggest negative ads are possibly working," Zogby notes, because "only 47 percent are supporting Kerry" even though 53 percent don't think Bush deserves reelection.

That's one reason some Kerry supporters remain anxious about the potential power of the Republican attack machine. "I'd give Republicans an A" in 2004, says one prominent Democratic strategist. "The Bush campaign is more adept than the Kerry campaign at playing the game. The game is, the press only covers four things in a campaign: polls, scandal, mistakes and attacks. And the only one of those you can control are attacks."

Many Democrats wonder why their party has been so slow to go on the attack. When tried to counter the Swift Boat smear with a hard-hitting ad pointing to questions about Bush's own Vietnam-era military service -- he's been unable to document his whereabouts for the last year of his stint in the Texas Air National Guard -- Kerry denounced the ad. When Bush refused to do the same with the Swfit Boat ad, Kerry was left alone on the high ground taking fire from his Vietnam critics.

More recently, a video surfaced capturing the former lieutenant governor of Texas admitting to being "ashamed" of his role in getting Bush a safe stateside spot in the National Guard during the height of the Vietnam War. But without Democrat surrogates actively pushing the story to the press, it barely made a media ripple, as most news outlets looked right past the story.

"The Barnes story collided with the mainstream media," says one Democratic strategist. "It didn't fall within their narrative" surrounding Kerry's service. There are indications that Barnes, who has been reticent in the past to discuss his dealings with Bush, may soon have more to say about the topic, which could force the press to cover the story more closely.

For attacks to take hold and sway crucial swing voters, Republican talking points have to spread beyond the conservative media's Fox News and New York Post echo chamber. Republicans need the help of the mainstream press corps to reiterate their attacks and create a negative narrative that plagues the Democratic candidate. The 2000 campaign proved to be the model as Republicans, with help from an often lazy and dishonest press corps, turned Gore, who for years enjoyed a public image of an overeager Boy Scout, into a liar who'd say anything to get elected. It was the press that gleefully amplified Republican distortions about Gore's exaggerations, creating urban myths that Gore had bragged about inventing the Internet, being the inspiration for "Love Story," or discovering the toxic-waste disaster at Love Canal. (To this day, the New York Post still prints that GOP spin as fact.)

"A lot of reporters were charmed by Bush in 2000 and a lot of reporters disdained Al Gore," says CNN's Tucker Carlson. "I will never forget traveling with the Gore campaign with a well-known liberal correspondent who exhibited such profound personal contempt for Gore, it just blew me away. And the press coverage totally hurt Gore. They did not cut him a break."

Alexander, the documentary maker, says not much has changed in four years: "I've been on the press plane and I've heard what the national press corps says about John Kerry. They don't like him. It's reminiscent of the Gore campaign."

Indeed, the Republican attack blueprint looks an awful like its winning 2000 strategy: Spend months raising doubts about the Democrat's character and hope the storyline explodes in the fall, the way it engulfed Gore following the presidential debates when he misstated some minor facts and the press pounced, announcing that his performance fit a troubling pattern of embellishments. The problem for Republican attack generals hoping to refight the last war is that the dynamics of 2004 are completely different from those of 2000, which saw a campaign set against the backdrop of peace and prosperity.

"In 2000 there were no major issues driving the election, so the softer stuff mattered more, like which candidate would you rather have a beer with," says former Gore advisor Feldman, referring to the pundit shorthand that dominated the 2000 campaign analysis: which candidate was more likable? "That's not where we are in 2004. The issues are war and peace, America's role in the world, and the future of the economy."

Tearing Kerry down remains the Republicans' single best option, and why Swift Boat Veterans for Truth proved so vital. And why the Kerry campaign's early hesitancy in dealing with the charges proved so costly. "I was surprised the Kerry people didn't move faster on it," Dean says. "They kept waiting for somebody else to knock this down." If the Kerry campaign thought the press would do its job and debunk such an obviously bogus story, it was sadly mistaken.

Coming during the slow news days of August, and playing off raw emotions as well as wild accusations, the Swift Boat story was tailor-made for the 24-hour news channels, which long ago grew tired of providing serious coverage of the war in Iraq. "Cable TV is like the creature in 'The Predator,'" says the Los Angeles Times' Ronald Brownstein. "It's drawn to heat and conflict. It looks for things with the most edge to it."

Yet at the same time, the press seemed to do its best to gloss over any unsightly edges around the veterans criticizing Kerry in order to sustain their believability. For instance, "Unfit for Command" coauthor O'Neill insisted from the beginning he was acting independently, telling CNN's Wolf Blitzer, "I've had no serious involvement in politics of any kind in over 32 years." Truth is, over the last 14 years O'Neill made $15,000 worth of political contributions, all if it to Republican candidates and organizations.

Prior to writing "Unfit for Command," O'Neill's coauthor, Jerome Corsi, often posted radical commentaries on the right-wing Web site, where he compared Gore and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to Islamic terrorists, and labeled Kerry as "anti-Christian, anti-American" and his supporters as "communists." (What are the odds that an anti-Bush book coauthored by someone who spouted off online making fanatical slurs comparing Bush to a terrorist and his supporters to Nazis would ever be taken seriously by CNN?)

Both O'Neill's blatant misinformation and Corsi's hateful rhetoric should have been red flags prompting the press to use extreme caution in addressing the Swift Boat charges or giving the Kerry critics an extraordinary amount of free media exposure. Other hoaxlike examples abounded:

  • In 1968, Grant Hibbard, a lieutenant commander in Vietnam during Kerry's tour, described Kerry as "one of the top few in his willingness to seek and accept responsibility." Today he insists Kerry lied about his war record.
  • In 1969, Rear Adm. Roy Hoffmann congratulated Kerry on the daring Swift boat attack he led, calling it a "shining example of completely overwhelming the enemy." Today he insists Kerry lied about his actions in Vietnam.
  • Another highly critical Vietnam vet, Capt. George Elliot, also flip-flopped in public.
  • Larry Thurlow insisted Kerry lied about the circumstances surrounding his Bronze Star, that Kerry was not under fire. Yet according to Thurlows own military records, which recorded the event in question, "enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire" were directed at "all units" of the five-boat flotilla, including Kerry's.
  • Trying to explain away the discrepancy of the official records that support Kerry's version of the events that led to his medals, Swift Boat Veterans claimed Kerry exaggerated the facts when filling out the after-action reports. Even though one key document was initialed "KJW," Swift Boat Veterans' O'Neill claimed the initials identified it as having been written by Kerry. Of course, Kerry's initials are "JFK."
  • In one Swift Boat attack ad, Dr. Louis Letson looked into the camera and declared, "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury." Overlooking the obvious question of why, 35 years after the fact, Letson would remember treating what he claims to have been Kerry's minor flesh wound, is a more pressing point: If Letson treated Kerry, then why isnt he listed as the medic in the official records?
  • In June, Vietnam vet Paul Runyon, who served with Kerry on the chaotic night he took shrapnel in his arm and won his first Purple Heart, got a call from a private investigator, asking for a statement about the incident. Runyon, who calls Kerry "one helluva sailor," recounted the facts, only to have the private eye, hired by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, rewrite his account in a skewed way to tar Kerry. "He made it sound like a trivial operation, like it was a leisurely midnight run. It was far from it," says Runyon, who in June had never heard of the anti-Kerry activist group.
  • Al French, the first person to appear in the infamous Swift Boat ad, announced: "I served with John Kerry. He is lying about his record." French later conceded he had no personal knowledge of Kerry's activities and relied on secondhand accounts to make his extraordinary on-screen accusation. Worse, French, a lawyer, signed an affidavit for the Swift Boat group declaring, "I do hereby swear, that all facts and statements contained in this affidavit are true and correct and within my personal knowledge and belief." (Emphasis added.)
  • The White House insisted it had no ties to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, yet the group's single largest financial donation came from Republican benefactor and Karl Rove friend Robert Perry. Additionally, one of the Swift Boat Vets who appeared in a damning anti-Kerry ad served on the Bush campaign's veterans' advisory committee, while one of the Bush-Cheney campaign attorneys, Benjamin Ginsberg, also counseled the Swift Boat group. (Ginsberg resigned from the campaign last week.)

    Even when the press took the time to dissect the Swift Boat charges, and found them lacking in factual basis, reporters still treated the accusers, and the partisan attack machine behind it, with undue care. For instance, in a detailed Aug. 17 report, the Los Angeles Times noted three key findings: that contemporaneous military documents support Kerry's -- and the Navy's -- version of the events surrounding his medals, that the men who actually served with Kerry on his Swift boat strenuously support Kerry's claim, and that some of the Swift Boat critics have been caught changing their stories and giving conflicting accounts. Yet the paper came to a timid conclusion: "What actually happened ... 35 years ago along the remote southern coast of Vietnam remains murky," suggesting the controversy is an impossible-to-solve he said/he said dispute.

    Some of the weakest coverage was posted by the newsweeklies. The Aug. 30 editions of both Time and Newsweek offered the kind of timid, on-the-one-handism brand of journalism that defined the Swift Boat coverage. Newsweek announced, "An examination of one key incident -- Kerry's rescue of a comrade -- tends to support Kerry's version of events, though questions remain." It then promptly failed to raise a single serious question about that rescue.

    In Time, the magazine offered up a one-page scorecard, "Kerry in Combat: Setting the Record Straight." In each account of Kerry's medals, the magazine accurately reported how the Swift Boat charges failed to hold up under any sort of factual scrutiny. Yet Time restrained itself from coming to the obvious conclusion about the validity of the controversy. What could account for such a timorous, detached, you-figure-it-out brand of reporting?

    "It used to be we as the press would adjudicate the facts of the battle," says Scott Shepherd, a political correspondent for the Cox newspaper chain who is covering his fifth presidential election. "We don't do that anymore. Now we present attacks. That's troublesome to me. We've gotten the idea if we say something is 'fact,' then somehow we're biased," he says, referring to the constant charge on the part of conservatives that the press shows a liberal bias. "The attacks have worked. People are intimidated."

    A Dallas Observer headline was typical of the shoulder-shrugging quality of the Swift Boat coverage: "A group of veterans says John Kerry stretches the truth about his Vietnam service. Whom can you believe? Who knows?" USA Today, ignoring the official Navy records, threw up its hands and announced, "A clear picture of what John Kerry did or did not do in Vietnam 35 years ago may never emerge." Early on in the controversy, ABC's "Nightline" reported: "The Kerry campaign calls the charges wrong, offensive and politically motivated. And points to naval records that seemingly contradict the charges." (Emphasis added.)

    Seemingly? A more accurate phrasing would have been that Navy records "completely" or "thoroughly" contradict the Swift Boat Veterans charges that emerged 35 years after the fact. Just this week, a CNN scrawl across the bottom of the screen read, "Several Vietnam veterans are backing Kerry's version of events." Again, a more factual phrasing would have been "Navy records completely back Kerry's version of events." But that would have meant undermining cable news' hottest story of the summer.

    Even when faced with bold-faced Swift Boat Veterans contradictions, the press rarely blinked. In an Aug. 25 dispatch, the Associated Press revealed that in 1971 O'Neill met with President Nixon and told him, "I was in Cambodia, sir. I worked along the border," a conversation captured on the White House's secret taping system. Asked about the quote, which completely contradicts O'Neills "Unfit for Command" claim that any soldier, including Kerry, who entered Cambodia would have been court-martialed, O'Neill simply told the AP he never went to Cambodia. The AP then failed to ask the obvious follow-up: What part of "I was in Cambodia" did O'Neill not understand?

    It wasn't until Aug. 19, nearly two weeks after the controversy had been festering in the press, that the New York Times laid out the facts, stating in no uncertain terms that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had close Republican ties, that their claims were not supported by the Navy's record, and that many of them had publicly praised Kerry in the past.

    By then, though, the story, powered by Republican-friendly talk radio as well as cable news' insatiable appetite for "character" conflicts, had taken on a life of its own. "For the Republican attack machine, part of the victory is simply confusing people," says David Brock, author of "The Republican Noise Machine." "If the Swift Boat story raised questions about Kerry's record and character, then it was a success."

  • By Eric Boehlert

    Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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    George W. Bush John F. Kerry