On April 4, 2004, nine Vietnam veterans gathered in the conference room of a Dallas PR firm. They agreed that Senator John Kerry, then the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, should not be elected and spent the day talking about how to make their case to the American people. None of them could have imagined that what they were about to set in motion would transform the campaign and frame the political debate until Election Day. The group, which decided to call itself the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, soon produced a series of TV ads, a book, and a sophisticated media campaign that argued that Kerry’s war medals—three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star—were largely undeserved. Senator John McCain, whose Vietnam service had been similarly attacked in the 2000 presidential primary, called the ads “dishonest and dishonorable … the same kind of deal that was pulled on me.” But they were extraordinarily effective.
The Democrats had always feared that their candidate’s past would come back to haunt him, and it did, though not as they might have anticipated. In 1971, after returning from Vietnam, Kerry questioned the legitimacy of the war in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, famously saying, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” His anti-war stance was not the primary focus of the Swift Boat commercials, but it helped galvanize the group of veterans in Dallas, who were still incensed, 33 years later, by what he had said. Chief among them was Houston attorney John O’Neill, who had debated Kerry in 1971 on the Dick Cavett Show and who had been, with his powder-blue suit and good manners, the perfect foil to the shaggy-haired anti-war-movement hero. O’Neill had served in the same unit as Kerry, Coastal Division 11, near the Mekong Delta and had, like Kerry, commanded a Swift boat in the waters off An Thoi. But he had not arrived in Vietnam until after Kerry had left; the two men met only under the glare of television lights back home. President Richard Nixon was impressed enough with O’Neill that he met with the former naval officer for an hour at the White House, telling him, “We need more O’Neills to speak up to the Kerrys.”
O’Neill did just that once again, in 2004, laying out his case in the book Unfit for Command and serving as the instigating force behind, and the most recognizable spokesperson for, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. In the end, whether the charges against Kerry were accurate was irrelevant. The Swift Boat Veterans had succeeded in keeping the American electorate focused on a war that ended three decades ago rather than on the war that is currently raging in Iraq. This is the story of how a handful of Texans mounted one of the most successful attacks on a presidential candidate in recent history.
The First Meeting
John O’Neill and a group of Vietnam veterans met in the Dallas offices of Spaeth Communications in April. Founder Merrie Spaeth, who honed her craft as director of media relations in the Reagan White House, counts among her clients Fortune 500 companies and prominent Texans and helped coach Ken Starr for his testimony at Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearings. Her late husband, Tex Lezar, who had been one of O’Neill’s law partners, made an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor in 1994, the year George W. Bush ran against Ann Richards.
JOHN O’ NEILL, partner at the Houston law firm Clements, O’Neill, Pierce, Wilson & Fulkerson: I was in the recovery room at Methodist Hospital in February, having donated a kidney to my wife, when I happened to look up at the television. There was John Kerry, wearing a brown leather flight jacket, next to a couple of Swift boat veterans who were standing there like props. Kerry was announcing yet another primary victory. I was shocked, because I had thought he had no real chance of being nominated. But he had recently won the Iowa caucuses, and he was looking like the presumptive nominee.
MERRIE SPAETH: John called me in February and told me that C- SPAN was planning to run the old Dick Cavett Show where he debated Kerry. C- SPAN wanted an interview with him, and so did everybody else— CNN, NBC, you name it. He said, “Here’s what I’m going to tell them,” and he let loose with this string of allegations about Kerry’s war record and his medals. My reaction was, “Wait a minute. You aren’t going to tell anyone any of this unless you can prove it ten ways till Sunday.” The arguments he laid out that day would later become the basis for Unfit for Command. But I told him, “Don’t say anything to anybody until this story is fully developed, until you understand who saw what when, how you’re going to explain it, and how you’re going to present yourself to the American public.”
O’NEILL: Merrie told me to forget about doing interviews and to focus on getting better. I said, “I can’t forget about it. I feel too strongly that Kerry is not fit to be president.” A few weeks later, Admiral Roy Hoffmann, who commanded our unit in Vietnam, contacted more than one hundred Swift boat veterans and asked if we wanted to join together as a group and speak out against Kerry. Nine of us met at Merrie’s office. Admiral Hoffmann came from Virginia. We spent the entire day talking about what we should do.
MICHAEL BERNIQUE, former naval officer who served with Kerry at An Thoi in 1969; chairman of the board of RF Monolithics, in Dallas: There was one unifying factor at the meeting: We all agreed that John was unfit to be commander in chief. The only difference of opinion was how to go about making the case—whether to focus solely on his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 or to question his military