Sunk

When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth capsized John Kerry’s presidential campaign, much of the unfriendly fire came from Texas. Here’s how, in their own words, another band of brothers—and a few sisters—changed history. Or, at least, rewrote it.

January 2005By Comments

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 record as well.

SPAETH: Several of the Swifties came to the meeting carrying copies of the new Kerry biography, Tour of Duty, by Douglas Brinkley. They had gone through it with a fine-tooth comb, annotating it and filling it with Post-it notes. They were just livid. They spent a good chunk of the day reading the book out loud to each other. It drew on Kerry’s diaries, which were extensive and had very detailed accounts of meetings and operations. They would say, “Look at page 148! I was there, and that never happened.”

JOHN HURLEY, former national director of Veterans for Kerry: Brinkley painted a very unflattering portrait of Admiral Hoffmann. The book mentions veterans who compare him to Robert Duvall’s character in Apocalypse Now. Hoffmann had been supportive of Kerry in Vietnam—he sent four cables to Kerry praising him and his crew—and he was complimentary in print until pretty recently. His opinion changed after the book came out, and he started mobilizing veterans against Kerry. Now, John O’Neill had a different motivation. Kerry destroyed him in that debate on the Dick Cavett Show. He was humiliated. He doesn’t want to admit that; he still claims he won. But I think the New York Times summed it up well in its review of Unfit for Command: “As with many moments in the book, his fixation on attacking Kerry would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.”

O’NEILL: What motivated me, and a lot of other guys at that meeting in Dallas, in telling the nation that Kerry was not fit to be president was his own Senate testimony in 1971, in which he claimed atrocities were being committed on a day-to-day basis in Vietnam with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command. He listed a chronicle of banditry, of crimes against humanity, really: cutting off ears, tearing people limb from limb, and the like. He said our country had created a monster in the form of tens of thousands of people—American soldiers—who had been taught to deal in violence. Hearing his testimony was one of the most shocking moments of my entire life. I was from the same little unit in Vietnam, and we’d gone to tremendous lengths to avoid civilian casualties and war crimes. It felt like a total betrayal. 

SPAETH: Everyone at the meeting agreed that Kerry’s comments after Vietnam were outrageous and that they should disqualify him from becoming commander in chief. With respect to his record in Vietnam, most of the guys felt that it needed to be more fully examined. They started trying to piece together what bits of information they had. I said, “Guys, you really need an outside person to investigate this and go through this methodically.” I suggested Tom Rupprath, a Vietnam veteran and retired FBI guy I had worked with before. He could try to corroborate the Swifties’ allegations and tell them whether what they thought they knew to be true was in fact true or whether they had just arrived at the conclusion that they wanted to arrive at, given their opinion of Kerry.

BERNIQUE: I could not accuse John Kerry of anything other than serving with distinction. So I was not entirely comfortable with where the discussion was going that day. John O’Neill was not in Vietnam at the same time as John Kerry; I was. Don’t misunderstand me. It was a very warm, friendly meeting. I hadn’t seen some of these guys in 33 years, so it was a joyful experience to reunite with them. The last time we had seen each other we were young, virile guys. Now here we were, grandfathers. But after thinking it over, I decided not to join the group. My nonparticipation should not be misconstrued. I have been candid about what I think of John’s Senate testimony. It was scurrilous. He brought dishonor on himself, and on all of us. His sins, as far as I’m concerned, occurred when he returned home. Those sins were unforgivable.

SPAETH: At some point, I sat back and I had two realizations. First, that I believed them when they said they had doubts about Kerry’s record. Second, that this was going to be very difficult to explain to the American public, since most people don’t have any understanding of military protocol. And I knew we ran a terrible risk of looking political.

Going Public

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth held a press conference at the National Press Club, in Washington, D.C., on May 4. Many of the veterans had served on Swift boats at An Thoi around the same time as Kerry. None had served on his boat during the incidents for which he received his medals. Spaeth asked a former employee of Spaeth Communications, Jennifer Webster, to help prepare the veterans for their first public appearance.

JENNIFER WEBSTER, founder of the Webster Group, a political consulting and communications firm in Houston: A few days before we went to Washington, we sent out the press release. My phone started ringing immediately. It didn’t stop until one in the morning, and then the calls would start up again the next day, at five a.m. It was a feeding frenzy. The BBC, Argentina radio—everyone was calling on this story. The only room we could book at the National Press Club was too small, so the entire event had this frantic feel to it. The room was absolutely packed. People couldn’t get their cameras in.

SPAETH: Each of the Swifties introduced himself and made a short statement. They wanted the American public to know who they were, where they had served, what they had seen, and why they were speaking out.

WEBSTER: The guys used a lot of military jargon that the public wasn’t necessarily going to understand, so Merrie and I helped them simplify their message. Merrie was critical in teaching them that the first thing out of your mouth must be your “message point.” We worked until one or two in the morning the night before, doing drills and reviewing some of these message points: He is unfit to be commander in chief. We served with him. We were there. We were on those rivers. His entire chain of command is here today to say this man cannot be trusted.

O’NEILL: All of the networks were there. So were the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Yet the only real coverage we got was on C-SPAN. The AP decided afterward that it wasn’t newsworthy. The sole question asked by the New York Times reporter was something to the effect of “Who is funding you?” or “Who paid for you all to come?” Now, this was at a press conference in which Joe Ponder, who was terribly wounded in Vietnam, talked about how Kerry’s 1971 Senate testimony had deeply affected his entire life—more profoundly than the wounds he had suffered, which placed him on disability all these years.

WEBSTER: That night I sat in front of the TV with the remote control, flipping from channel to channel, and there was nothing except a hatchet job on CBS. I was flabbergasted. The Kerry campaign had quashed it. They had handed out a list of talking points to the reporters at the press conference. It focused very heavily on Spaeth Communications and who Merrie had worked for. They told the reporters this was nothing more than dirty tricks put on by a Republican front group. Instinctively, the reporters must have known this wasn’t true. How were you going to get all these men to cooperate? But it gave them an out so they didn’t have to do the story.

O’NEILL: We were shocked by the attack that appeared in the New York Times the next day, which claimed that we were the same people who had attacked John McCain.

SPAETH: The Kerry people were desperate to discredit us, and me in particular. Because another Dallas firm, Rob Allyn, had worked on one of the McCain opposition ads and because we have worked with Rob occasionally, the Kerry people disseminated, and the Times and others reported, that we had done all the ads opposing McCain and Senator Max Cleland in 2000. I did not work on either set of ads.

O’NEILL: We felt that we had something very important to say, and yet we had no way of getting our message out to the American public. One of the POWs we spoke to said, “What you guys need is a tap code.” In Vietnam, when the POWs were held in the Hanoi Hilton, their guards wouldn’t let them talk to each other. So they devised a tap code to get around their guards. We started saying, “What we need is some kind of a tap code, some way of getting our message out and around the mainline media, past the three major networks and the New York Times.” So we developed a strategy to try to do that.

ALVIN A. HORNE, Houston attorney and secretary of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth: Merrie said that we needed to start speaking on regional radio talk shows—wherever, whenever, as often as possible—until we began to get the attention, for instance, of Fox News. She said that as the tempo increased, we would end up becoming a story that couldn’t be ignored by the mainstream media. And even when they attacked us, as they ultimately did, they would have to repeat our arguments in their attacks. As our arguments were repeated, then there would be additional interest. That would be reflected on television, starting with cable television interviews. And that’s exactly what happened.

The Money

In May the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth registered with the IRS as a 527 organization. A 527 may raise and spend unlimited amounts of “soft” money (unregulated by federal law) in an effort to influence a federal election as long as it does not coordinate its activities with a political party or candidate. Spaeth and O’Neill began meeting with wealthy Texans who had given generously to Republican causes in the past, asking for contributions.

O’NEILL: The first person who helped us was [Houston homebuilder] Bob Perry. I knew Bob socially, but I had never been involved with him in any political endeavor before. I met with him last spring, and I talked to him at length about the Swift Boat Veterans. He gave us $200,000 initially, which we used to produce our first ad and our Web site. Then some protesters picketed his house. I contacted him to apologize for getting him involved. I felt very bad, you know, for affecting his life this way. He told me that it simply renewed his determination, which apparently was the case, because he gave us a total of $4.75 million. So I don’t think the picketing was very effective. I wouldn’t recommend it as a technique.

LOU DUBOSE, former editor of the Texas Observer and co-author of Boy Genius: Karl Rove, the Brains Behind the Remarkable Political Triumph of George W. Bush: When I saw that Bob Perry had backed the Swift Boat Veterans right at the start, with big money, I assumed—and many other people around Texas assumed—that Karl Rove was behind the organization. Perry was one of a handful of major donors who funded the Republican party in Texas early on, and it was Rove who first built the A-list for Republican fundraising in Texas. So you have the Rove money connection, and then you have the Rove MO: Attack your opponent’s strength until it becomes a liability. Who can imagine the Bush campaign countenancing such a risky attack on a veteran for two months during the campaign without Rove signing off on it? All you need to do is look at where the money came from.

BILL MILLER, Austin lobbyist and spokesperson for Bob Perry: Bob Perry does not seek out the limelight, and he does not do interviews. So he will not comment for this story. I can tell you that he gave a lot of money to the Swift Boat Veterans, there’s no question. John O’Neill talked to him, and Bob liked what he heard. But there is no conspiracy involving him and Karl. He hasn’t talked to Karl in over a year.

PAUL BEGALA, co-host of CNN’s Crossfire and former adviser to President Clinton; raised in Missouri City: I have no direct knowledge that anyone from the White House or the Bush campaign coordinated the attacks, and I doubt they did. But was there some kind of tacit or implicit approval? Of course. First, the president could have publicly expressed his disapproval of the ads; he chose not to. Second, it’s part of a remarkable pattern. In 1988 an “independent group” emerged from under a rock to run the Willie Horton ads. When Bush was running against John McCain, someone McCain claimed was from a “fringe” veterans’ group attacked his war record—and in at least one instance, in Bush’s presence. And in 2004 the pattern repeats. Either Bush is implicitly encouraging such shadowy attack groups or there’s one hell of a coincidence here.

SPAETH: Bob Perry helped us early on, as did [Dallas real estate executive and George Bush Presidential Library Foundation trustee] Harlan Crow. But it was slow going after that. I’m not a fund-raiser, so what I did was throw myself on the mercy of two very close friends here in Texas and say, “I need your help.” Neither of them has been identified in the press, so I would rather not say who they are. But they are both longtime Republicans who had no role in, or contact with, the Bush campaign. When I approached them about helping me fund-raise, their initial response was hardly positive. You have to understand what I was asking them to do. Because we were a 527, if they got involved they could not play a role in the campaign. Plus, if the whole thing blew up, we’d all look like idiots. So they were putting a lot at risk. Both of them came to the conclusion that the Swifties were very credible. They agreed to help me, and as a trio we went around scraping up money.

HAROLD SIMMONS, chemical- and waste-industry magnate; chairman of the board and CEO of Contrain Corporation, in Dallas: Merrie Spaeth came to see me.  I asked her, “How much do you need?” and she said, “To run an effective ad campaign, about $9 million.” So I told her I would give $500,000 to help her get started. I thought the Swift Boat Veterans had something to say that the public needed to know about. I ended up giving another $500,000, and then another million, and another million. So I gave $3 million in total.

T. BOONE PICKENS, former oil tycoon and corporate raider; CEO of BP Capital, in Dallas: John O’Neill came to my office in July, and I listened to his story. He was very convincing. He said, “We believe the American people need to know about John Kerry’s record in Vietnam.” He asked for my help. Now, this may come as a surprise to you, but I don’t like 527’s. I think Congress made a big mistake when they allowed that loophole. This legislation was supposed to take big money out of political campaigns, which is how it should be. But once we were stuck with the playbook, we didn’t have a choice. Democrats were pouring money into 527’s. [Billionaire investor and philanthropist] George Soros made a commitment that he was not going to see President Bush reelected, and he gave millions to make that happen. He made some pretty strong statements against the president that I thought were out of bounds, and that really got my attention. I figured if 527’s were going to be a part of the process, we’d have to play our part too. That coincided with O’Neill coming to see me. I wrote the Swift Boat Veterans a check for $100,000 toward the end of July. Shortly after that, I gave them another $400,000. My entire contribution was $2.5 million.

O’NEILL: The whole thing was like a snowball that rolls downhill, gathering force and mass as it goes. Once we had major contributors backing us, it was easier for us to solicit donations. We also began operating a very sophisticated Web site, which gave us an additional way to raise money, particularly with small donors. Ultimately the Web site took in more than 150,000 individual contributions. We raised $8 million on the Internet alone. I think the total amount of money we raised was $27 million.

The Ammunition

At the request of Spaeth and the Swift Boat group, Tom Rupprath, a former FBI agent based in Rockwall, interviewed several of Kerry’s crewmates and other Swift boat veterans last spring. The crewmates would later accuse him of twisting their accounts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of Kerry’s medals. O’Neill interviewed more veterans and turned his findings into his book, Unfit for Command. It makes the group’s argument that Kerry should not have been awarded his first or third Purple Heart, his Bronze Star, or his Silver Star.

O’NEILL: Two of the Purple Hearts that Kerry obtained are extremely questionable. They were almost certainly the result of wounds that were inadvertently self-inflicted—by which I mean that he wounded himself by mistake, by setting off a grenade too close—rather than from hostile fire. His wounds were of the minor, tweezers-and-Band-Aid variety, not the kinds of injuries that usually earned you medals. His citations were drawn from his after-action reports by an administrative commander, whose only knowledge of what happened came from Kerry. Everyone else in our unit, unless they were killed or seriously wounded, spent a year in Vietnam. Kerry left after four months, invoking a rule that if you had three Purple Hearts, you could go home. He was the only one in our unit to ever invoke that rule without being injured in any serious way.

HURLEY: John O’Neill would have you believe that the United States Navy was duped by John Kerry and his crew. It’s ludicrous. Document after document supports Kerry’s version of events, as does every single member of his crew who witnessed these incidents. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the way his medals were awarded. John O’Neill says that the initials K.J.W., which appear at the bottom of the after-action report that led to Kerry’s Bronze Star, prove it was written by Kerry. But Kerry’s initials are J.F.K. And Larry Thurlow, one of the Swift Boat guys who was on another boat, who said there was no hostile fire that day, wouldn’t release his own citation for the Bronze Star that he received after that same incident. Why? Well, the Washington Post filed a Freedom of Information Act request, and lo and behold, his citation said that he had come under “enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire” and had had “enemy bullets flying about him.”

VAN ODELL, a woodworker in Katy and a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth: When John O’Neill contacted me last spring, I went back and read Kerry’s account of how he won his Bronze Star. I told O’Neill, “The guy’s lying. Nothing like this ever happened.” Kerry claimed that he pulled Jim Rassmann out of the water in a hail of gunfire and saved his life. Except there was no hail of gunfire. I was the gunner’s mate on another Swift boat that was there that day. I sat fourteen feet above the waterline and I had a 360-degree view, and I saw no gunfire whatsoever. O’Neill said, “Can you help us?” And I said, “You can count on me to help you in any way that I can.”

HURLEY: Jim Rassmann and every single crewmate who served on Kerry’s boat during that incident—Del Sandusky, Gene Thorson, Michael Medeiros, David Alston—all confirm that they were under hostile fire. Van Odell was not on Kerry’s boat. Jim Rassmann came forward this year to talk about how Kerry saved his life when he pulled him out of the water while snipers were shooting at him. It was Rassmann who recommended Kerry for a medal. The after-action report, the personnel casualty list, and the damage-assessment report for Kerry’s boat all verify that they were under hostile fire. These reports were written at the time of the incident, not 35 years later, when memories may have become clouded by the fog of war. Let’s not forget the bigger picture, too, that John Kerry volunteered to go to Vietnam. He served with distinction, he was decorated for heroism in combat, and he was discharged honorably. The man still has shrapnel in his leg. And yet we’re supposed to second-guess his service to this country?

BERNIQUE: There were men who patrolled the river with me who were scared to death. And then there were men like John who had guts, who fought with me, who I could count on, who I knew had my back. He showed courage; I want to emphasize that.

The Media Blitz

In August the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth made their first commercial with Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, Washington’s preeminent Republican advertising firm. (The firm’s founder and president, Greg Stevens, produced the devastating Dukakis-in-a-tank ad for George H. W. Bush’s 1988 campaign.) It featured the Swift Boat Veterans’ assessments of Kerry: “John Kerry has not been honest.” “He is lying about his record.” “John Kerry is no war hero.” “John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam.” “He dishonored his country.”

WEBSTER: The commercial went up a few days after the Democratic convention, and it got some interest, but not the play you saw later, when it was on TV around the clock. Then the Kerry campaign filed a complaint with the FCC to have it pulled, and that’s when it went gangbusters. I literally could not answer the phone fast enough; it was not physically possible to return all the calls that came in. Fox News was playing the ad over and over again, as was MSNBC. There was a very steady drumbeat on talk radio as well.

SPAETH: The mainstream media wouldn’t deign to cover the Swifties until we ran our first ad. It ran in three states for just one week, but it had a bigger impact than we had anticipated. We hadn’t known when we shot it in early July that Kerry would turn the Democratic convention into a Vietnam retrospective. But when he made his military service the centerpiece of the convention, that made us much more relevant.

RICK REED, partner, Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm: The first ad helped them raise revenue, which led to us making subsequent ads. The ads ran in battleground states like Ohio, New Mexico, Wisconsin, and West Virginia as well as in central and northern Florida, where there is a large retired military population. There is empirical evidence that the ads had a pretty substantial impact: Kerry’s numbers took a huge hit during the month of August.

O’NEILL: Just as everything was really starting to heat up, Unfit for Command came out on August 12. I had finished a draft on June 30, and the publisher rushed it into print. It was number one on the New York Times best-seller list for four weeks, which I took great delight in, I must tell you. It gave me the opportunity to go out and defend the book, while all of our guys were out defending our ads. We had, at times, more than fifty people giving interviews around the country. We had multiple press conferences in Ohio, Florida, and Iowa. Sometimes we had eight or nine people in the same day on talk radio, on cable television, and giving print interviews.

HURLEY: The charges were so outrageous, so patently false, that we initially assumed that no one would believe them. Never before in the history of this country had any veteran’s military record been subjected to this kind of attack. If you told our guys who are over in Iraq right now earning Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars that in the year 2040 someone was going to come forward and challenge their medals and discredit and dishonor what they’re doing, you would have some very depressed troops on the ground.

BEGALA: Kerry’s problem was twofold. First, he didn’t respond at all, so the charges went unrebutted for weeks. Second, when he did respond, it was linear and literal; he defended his war record. The better approach would have been to do what Clinton did when he was attacked: Describe the attack as an attempt to smear him so he couldn’t do the work the American people wanted him to do. Here’s what Kerry should have said: “Lately you may have seen ads trashing my record in Vietnam. I was there. I know what happened, and I’m proud of my service. The reason they’re trashing my record is because they can’t defend their record of trashing our economy, our health care system, and our respect and reputation around the world. Those are the issues I’m going to focus on—in this campaign and as your president. Anything else is just trash talk.” I sent ad copy like that to the Kerry campaign. They never ran such an ad. Instead, they ignored the attacks and then allowed their campaign to be hijacked back to 1971.

WEBSTER: We pretty much dominated the news cycle during the month of August. In September we decided to bypass big media and go straight to regional newspapers and radio. We didn’t care how small they were. We started getting incredibly long articles that were running on page A-1 and hitting every message we had, and there was no one in town from the Kerry campaign to rebut it. We always tried to have a local veteran give the interview so that readers could say, “Hey, look. He’s from Canton, Ohio, too.” Then the headlines usually read something like “Local Swift Boat Vet . . .” or “Native Son Speaks Out Against Kerry.” When we saw how successful that was, we decided to do a media tour, and we ended up taking it to every swing state: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and, at the end, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.

SPAETH: At the end of the day, the American people might not remember the specific details of why Kerry wasn’t deserving of this medal or that medal. But there were enough pieces of the message that were simple, that people could remember—and they cast doubt on Kerry’s ability to serve as commander in chief.

CHAD CLANTON, senior communications adviser to the Kerry campaign; Waco native: You know, it was Mark Twain who said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” That’s what happened here. I’m not going to Monday-morning-quarterback what we did; we had a great team. But one lesson I learned is that the best way to knock down a false charge isn’t with rapid response but rapid attack. Because in the world of 24-hour news, where you have Web sites and blogs and mass e-mails and the news of the day can change every hour, you have to strike first.

Election Day

By November 2 the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had spent more than $19 million on television advertising, with $5.1 million devoted to Ohio alone. A survey conducted after the election by GOP pollsters found that 75 percent of voters in twelve battleground states had seen or heard of the group’s ads and their allegations.

SPAETH: Right up until Election Day, the Kerry campaign was insisting that this all led back to the White House. They basically told reporters I was coordinating these attacks with the administration, and the Washington Post and CBS reported that. Salon portrayed me as Karen Hughes’s evil twin. Then the New York Times, of course, printed a story with an organizational chart that had me at the center. Their proof that I was working with the White House was that I’m a friend of Kay Bailey Hutchison’s and Kay had been a client of Karl Rove’s, ergo Rove was directing the whole thing. Wick Allison, the publisher and editor of D Magazine, had the funniest take on it. He wrote in his column that the mainstream media had learned the astonishing fact that Texas Republicans know each other.

WEBSTER: We organized a conference call on the night of the election, at ten o’clock Central time. Somewhere between forty and fifty people were on that call. You could barely make out what people were saying, except every now and then you’d hear “It looks like we got Florida!” or “Does anybody know what’s going on in New Mexico?” At about ten-thirty, one of the guys from Reed Curcio, the ad firm, got on the line and said, “I was able to talk to someone in the Bush campaign—we can talk to them now, because the election has taken place—and I just heard that Karl Rove told Bush, ‘You got Ohio.’”

HORNE: It was a pretty joyous conference call. There were some tears that night.

O’NEILL: Some friends of mine from the Navy were over at my house that evening. I had a bottle of port from 1970, the year that I served in Coastal Division 11. After the conference call, we opened up that bottle of port and drank it in remembrance of our friends in Vietnam. I was tremendously relieved about the election. I felt that the country had dodged a bullet. I think we all shared a sense that we had done our duty.

PICKENS: I don’t know how you measure how much influence these Swift Boat guys had on the election. Somebody’s smart enough to figure that out, but I’m not. All I can tell you is this: I don’t run into George Soros very often, but the next time I see him, I want to tell him that I got a hell of a lot more for my money than he did for his.

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