Political Pundits on How to Win the White House

The Swift Boaters pointed out authentic ?aws and contradictions in some of Kerry's assertions about his war service and protest activity. But their most sensational claims were either unsupported by evidence or contradicted by independent journalistic inquiries. This nevertheless did nothing to diminish the group's signi?cance in the 2004 campaign: It in?icted crippling damage on Kerry. Many of his strategists in retrospect regard the Swift Boat Veterans as the single biggest reason he is not president today. Initially, coverage was limited, and what did appear was sympathetic to Kerry. A Washington Post story from August 6 led with John McCain, a prominent Republican but a longtime Kerry friend, defending his fellow senator. The Post cited McCain's interview with the Associated Press in which he attacked the group's campaign as "dishonest and dishonorable."

Yet within a couple of weeks the Swift Boat Veterans charges were dominating the front pages, and reporting teams were assigned to ascertain the truth of the group's charges.

One reason the controversy moved from the margins to front-and-center was that Bush's reelection team -- which had been watching the story with delight -- helped push it there. While there is no evidence that the Bush campaign orchestrated the group's allegations, surrogates gave the charges respectable validation. The party's 1996 nominee, war veteran Bob Dole, appeared on CNN on August 22 and declared that the Vietnam criticism was fair game.

If nothing else, Dole said, it exposed Kerry as a hypocrite: "I mean, one day he's saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons. The next day he's standing there, 'I want to be president because I'm a Vietnam veteran.' " As for the merits of the accusations, Dole suggested that the Swift Boat Veterans could not all be "Republican liars -- there's got to be some truth to the charges." What about Kerry's war wounds? "I respect his record. But three Purple Hearts, and [he] never bled, that I know of. I mean, they're all super?cial wounds. Three Purple Hearts and you're out [of the combat zone]." A week later, the president's own father weighed in similarly on CNN. From what he could tell, the forty-?rst president said, the claims of the Swift Boat Veterans were "rather compelling."

The Swift Boat Veterans' offensive presented Kerry with a classic political dilemma. If he responded, it might only elevate the prominence of the allegations. The alternative was to let damaging charges go unrebutted. It was not an easy question at the time but, in retrospect, there plainly was a right and a wrong answer. Kerry chose the wrong one. He and his team allowed themselves to imagine that, because the Swift Boat Veterans at ?rst were not getting wide coverage in the Old Media, they could not be gaining much traction with the public.

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