It’s common to see mentions in the press these days about some “swiftboating” of Barack Obama that is allegedly in the works, or might someday allegedly be in the works, or might someday be thought to be allegedly in the works. While I’m sure there will be some hit jobs on Obama — this is a presidential campaign, after all — this talk seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding, perhaps willful in some cases, of the swiftboat episode in the 2004 campaign.
The swiftboat veterans in that year were the officers who served alongside John Kerry in Vietnam. They had first-hand knowledge of Kerry’s service, and they had a story to tell about Kerry’s behavior in Vietnam and his later antiwar activities at home. Based on 35 year-old memories, some of their claims were accurate, and some weren’t. But the point is, these men were in a specific position to know about a specific time in Kerry’s life. It was entirely proper that their criticisms be aired.
Later, some of the swiftboat veterans criticized Kerry on other issues, but who cared? They had no more standing to speak about Kerry’s position on, say, Social Security, than anyone else. But as far as Vietnam was concerned — they were there.
Today, there is a tendency to describe any criticism of Barack Obama as “swiftboating.” So far, it’s been a pretty effective attack pre-emption device. But it has nothing to do with “swiftboating”; you can’t just “swiftboat” somebody. Now, if all of the pastors who worked with Obama when he was a community organizer in Chicago came together to criticize his behavior back then, that would qualify. But until something like that happens, could everyone — at least those not working for the Obama campaign or the DNC — dispense with the “swiftboating” talk?