Political Pundits on How to Win the White House

In 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth started out on the margins of the presidential race. In an era of Old Media domination, they might have stayed there. When the group's founders held a news conference at the National Press Club in Washington on May 4, there was nothing in the next day's Washington Post, and the episode got scant attention elsewhere. A conservative website, FreeRepublic.com, however, covered the news conference and listed the fax numbers of Establishment news organizations, urging readers to send missives demanding to know why they were "blacking out" the event. A day later, the Post and New York Times carried short stories inside the paper. The Post report included the Kerry campaign's response that the Swift Boat Veterans was a "politically motivated organization with close ties to the Bush administration."

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was organized by Vietnam veterans who profoundly resented Kerry's role in the antiwar movement. Some of the men personally had served with Kerry in Vietnam. The group was funded and promoted by prominent Republicans, several of whom had ties to both President Bush and Karl Rove, though no evidence of a coordinated effort ever emerged.

As it happened, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth need not have worried about the amount of coverage they would receive, in either the New Media or the Old. And the spasm of publicity would come at the worst possible time for Kerry. On July 28, one day before Kerry formally accepted the Democratic nomination at the party's national convention in Boston, Drudge touted the imminent release of Un?t for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry. On the morning of Drudge's report, the book was ranked at #1,318 on Amazon.com. The next day it had jumped to #2, and within a couple of days it hit #1.

The book, published by the conservative Regnery Publishing, alleged that key elements of Kerry's account of his Vietnam service were false. Most dramatically, it claimed that Kerry's Bronze Star for heroic service, earned on March 13, 1969, was based on fraud. The group also questioned other aspects of Kerry's versions of his tour of duty and his involvement with the antiwar movement.

Beyond the book, the Swift Boaters started with relatively modest purchases of television advertising time. But their sophisticated political advisers knew that cable TV, talk radio, and, eventually, the Old Media would pick up on the ads themselves as controversial content, and give them the equivalent of millions of dollars in free coverage. This, of course, promoted their message and drove up awareness of their cause, traf?c to their website, and donations to their coffers. In the end, the group was able to purchase additional millions' worth of television ads. Democratic polling showed widespread awareness of the group's message, even in places where the advertisements never aired. The group's work also lit up the blogosphere and talk radio for weeks, giving the Old Media another hook in covering the coverage of the story.

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