Politics & Policy

The Song of The Kerry Boatmen

Part Deux.

Vladimir Bukovsky, the great anti-Soviet dissident, once reproved me for quoting the old joke about the two main official Soviet newspapers: “There’s no truth in Pravda [Truth] and no news in Izvestia [News.]” He pointed out that you could learn a great deal of truthful news from both papers if you read them with proper care.

In particular, they often denounced “anti-Soviet lies.” These lies had never previously been reported by them. Nor were they lies. And their exposure as such was the first that readers had been told of them. By reading the denunciation carefully, however, intelligent readers could decipher what the original story must have been. It was a roundabout way of getting information–but it worked.

That is exactly how intelligent readers now have to read the New York Times and most of the establishment media–at least when they are reporting on the “anti-Kerry lies” of the Swift-boat veterans.

When I first wrote on this topic three weeks ago, I pointed out that the main media outlets were ignoring the story that 254 Swift-boat veterans were accusing Senator John Kerry of being, in effect, a liar and a blowhard. But I doubted this suppression could be sustained for long since the unpaid voluntary freelance journalists of the “blogosphere” on the Internet were examining it in detail–and uncovering damaging evidence that at least some of the Swiftvets’ charges had substance.

In the event it was sustained for exactly one week. Then the Kerry campaign quietly withdrew the senator’s claim–a claim he had made repeatedly in speeches and articles for 20 years–that he had been on an illegal secret mission inside Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968. Suddenly, however, that claim was–what was the Nixonian term?–”inoperative.”

Kerry’s own Cambodia incursion was still operative in the establishment media, though. His campaign’s admission of error was not reported the next day either in the New York Times or in the Washington Post. True, the Washington Post did carry an editorial supporting Kerry against the Swiftvets. But it ignored the only new piece of news, presumably because that supported the Swiftvets rather than Kerry and would thus have undermined the point of the editorial.

A handful of other newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, joined the Post in writing editorials or columns supporting Kerry. Still the New York Times maintained a dignified silence.

Then Senator Kerry delivered a major speech on the following day [Thursday the 19th of August] denouncing the Bush campaign for secretly (and illegally) orchestrating the Swiftvet allegations. At which point the NYT finally realized there was a legitimate story here.

On Friday, August 20, it reported the Kerry speech in a front-page story that sought both to undermine the Swiftvet’s accusations and to endorse the Kerry charge that President Bush was orchestrating their advertising campaign.

Here then were the denunciations of the “anti-Kerry lies” that would finally enable NYT readers to get the news–even if through a glass darkly. At long last they could be told what 57 percent of Americans (according to a poll) had already learnt from the Internet, talk radio, a handful of conservative papers and magazines, and other samizdat outlets.

Even so, in order to get an accurate picture, the reader had to interpret the Times’s report with especially close attention. For instance, towards the end of its long analysis–in its 62nd paragraph, to be precise–the Times conceded the existence of the Cambodia story, stating that this was the one Swiftvets accusation that Kerry “had not been able to put to rest.”

In fact this was the one accusation that the senator had put to rest by admitting that his oft-repeated claims were unfounded. All the other accusations remained in the limbo of charges still disputed by both sides.

The Times was no less ingenious in seeking to demonstrate collaboration between the Swift-boat veterans and the Bush campaign. It produced no actual evidence of orchestration–nor did the Kerry campaign–but pointed out that some of those helping the veterans were Texas Republicans who knew other Texas Republicans who knew political consultants who knew people in the Bush campaign who knew Karl Rove. Gotcha!

It illustrated these sinister connections with a chart, boxes, arrows, linking diagrams, and helpful notes on the relationships of those cited such as “married” and–still more sinister–”formerly married.” There were no actual links to the Trilateral Commission, the Bilderberg Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, or the Black Hand Gang. Doubtless these had been held back by the paper’s hotshot Conspiracy Correspondent for the special Election Day edition.

Here was journalism that combined the political commitment of Howell Raines with the journalistic techniques of Jayson Blair. If the Bush campaign could be convicted of secretly “coordinating” with the Swift boaters on such evidence, then the Kerry campaign could well end up being held responsible for the vastly larger $60 million ad campaigns organized by independent “527″ organizations hostile to Bush and even for the publication and distribution of the New York Times itself!

After all, the timing of the paper’s Bush conspiracy theory–just the day after the Kerry campaign had unveiled that very same conspiracy–was distinctly fishy.

Yet all this solicitousness towards Kerry by the establishment media may have ended up harming rather than saving him. For when the Sunday Washington Post published a full and fair-minded account (by Michael Dobbs) of one disputed incident for which Kerry had received a Bronze Star, the net effect was favorable to the Democratic candidate.

The accounts of both the Kerry veterans and their Swiftvet opponents were fully examined and fairly weighed. The “fog of war” was taken into account. Some of the Swiftvets’ memories were upheld as consonant with the evidence. But the final cautious verdict was that Kerry’s claim of heroism on this occasion had not been disproved. He probably deserved his Bronze Star.

The force of this verdict came from the fact that–unlike almost all the other establishment media stories–this one was not a “whitewash.” It did not dismiss the Swiftvet claims as utterly unfounded–it examined the evidence for them and found it wanting. It criticized the Kerry campaign (and one Swift-boat veteran) for not releasing his full medical records when these might settle some of the disputes once and for all. It routed the accusation that the Swift-boat veterans were Republican stooges–their campaign, said the Post, was inspired by their anger at what Kerry had said when he returned from Vietnam in 1971. But it ultimately came down on Kerry’s side.

If other establishment media outlets had devoted the same time and energy to investigating the Swiftvet allegations, it is possible that the other charges against Kerry would have been judged similarly unproven, or entirely baseless, or containing some truth.



My own sense of the matter is that Kerry both behaved bravely in Vietnam and yet also exaggerated and embroidered his bravery. If the establishment media had honestly reached that conclusion after proper investigation, it would have been far better for Kerry than the continual drip-drip-drip of accusations that the press first ignores, then denounces, and is finally forced to investigate by discoveries made by bloggers. Why, however, did the media treat this story like radioactive material?


The high-minded dismissal that there is no story there–advanced, for instance, by the Boston Globe’s Thomas Oliphant–is simply absurd. When more than two hundred retired naval officers support serious accusations against a fellow-officer, that alone is a story. And when they include eyewitness accounts and other supporting evidence, there is at least a case to answer in law and a fortiori in journalism.

Partisan bias is one obvious explanation for their being MIA. Elite media journalists are overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic and so not disposed to embarrass their party’s standard-bearer in an election year (especially when George W. Bush is his opponent.)

This hypothesis is strengthened by the report in Editor and Publisher that journalists believe this story has gone on quite long enough and will shortly expire. It is eerily reminiscent of earlier episodes of media navel-gazing when the topics were “Were we too tough on Clinton?” (Answer: Yes) and “We were too soft on Reagan?” (Yes, again.) All these reveal a–well, a liberal bias.

But why should a reluctance to damage Kerry politically dictate a failure to investigate the Swiftvet allegations if Kerry is as plainly innocent as establishment journalists maintain? Here we enter the murky waters of psychoanalysis–and in particular psychoanalysing the liberal mind: Maybe at the back of their minds they feared he was guilty.

After all, one of the most marked features of this controversy has been the high ratio of anger, hostility, and shouting to information on the part of the Kerry defenders.



Television debates in particular have illustrated this odd disparity. Chris Matthews, for instance, shouted down Michelle Malkin and threw her off Hardball because he was unaware of a staple argument in this debate: Namely, that a “self-inflicted wound” means an unintentionally self-inflicted wound not a deliberately faked injury. Matthews thought Malkin was alleging dishonorable conduct by Kerry when she was merely trying to point out that in military law a medal cannot be awarded for such a wound.


Even at this late stage of the debate, the establishment media continues to get quite simple points wrong. Both the Los Angeles Times (in a front-page report) and The New Republic (in an editorial) have claimed in recent days that all those who served on Kerry’s swift-boat support his version of events.

Almost right. One such veteran, Stephen Gardner, is among those veterans attacking Kerry. He may be mistaken or lying, of course, but he exists. Indeed, he appears in the forthcoming third Swift-boat advertisement. As media scolds say on these occasions, “almost right” is not good enough–especially when Internet “bloggers” stand permanently at the ready to check and chuckle over these errors of the “old” media.

Now, something is afoot when people rage and storm over charges of which they remain ignorant and even positively incurious. Usually some sort of denial is at work. And the simplest theory of denial here is that Kerry’s journalistic admirers fear he has something to hide.

That, however, can only be speculation. Besides, a deeper and wider denial is almost certainly at work too.

What the Swiftvets have done is revive the debate over the Vietnam War. Was it a moral war? Was it winnable? And if it was winnable, who lost it? And why?

Commentators from different points on the political spectrum have agreed on half the explanation: that the Vietnam War remains the grumbling appendix of American politics. It is an unhealed wound, a persisting trauma, a nightmare that every now and then erupts into our waking hours. But why? Neither the Second World War nor Korea is still traumatic, even though the latter ended in an unsatisfactory draw.

The second part of the explanation is that Vietnam was also an American moral civil war in which the antiwar counterculture, led by the establishment media, defeated the rest of America. The war was settled on the counterculture’s terms–Saigon fell and “Amerika” was humiliated. And to clinch the permanence of this victory, the counterculture labored to ensure that its own history of the war would become the Authorized Version.

It succeeded. Vietnam is now almost universally described as an immoral and unwinnable war. Despite occasional attempts to correct the historical record by Henry Kissinger, Norman Podhoretz, Michael Lind, and Peter Braestrup–and despite Ronald Reagan’s assertion that it was a “noble cause”–it is the counterculture’s version that has prevailed in public discourse. The establishment media, of course, helped ensure this. It is victor’s history.

But the Authorized Version was never accepted by the majority of the American people who became anti-war only in the sense of being war-weary and who resented the constant repetition of America’s unique guilt. In particular it was never accepted by the great majority of Vietnam vets. Thus, the Authorized Version of Vietnam was always a fragile consensus maintained by media power. At some level the establishment media sensed this and discouraged any but the most ritualistic discussion of it.

Then Senator Kerry made his Vietnam service the centerpiece of the Boston Convention.

That risked over-turning the Authorized Version in any event. What made the debate especially dangerous for the media is that Kerry was a leader in their own domestic anti-war campaign in the seventies. And though there may be disputes about his heroism in Vietnam, there are none about his leadership of the antiwar campaign in the U.S.

In those days he alleged–from hearsay, he now says–that the U.S. armed forces were daily carrying out the most horrendous war crimes in Vietnam with the knowledge of their military commanders at all levels. He is captured on film saying this publicly to the U.S. Congress. His testimony is occasionally shown in full on C-Span. And it reminds all Americans, but in particular veterans, that the anti-war campaign was more a rejection of America than an embrace of a free Vietnam (about which the anti-war movement cared nothing once it had disappeared into the prison camp of totalitarianism.)

An authentic war hero might have the status to condemn other veterans as Kerry did. But if his heroism began to be questioned, then his testimony would be examined more skeptically–and the entire countercultural mythic version of Vietnam might tumble down. The establishment media, sensing this, shied away from any such examination.

But events escaped their control via the new alternative media. Kerry’s account of himself as a war hero received at least flesh wounds. It was enough to make people listen when excerpts from his testimony appeared in the second Swiftvets television advertisement, interspersed with comments from Vietnam POWs who complain that they were tortured by the North Vietnamese to get them to say what Kerry said for nothing.

Well, not for nothing exactly. Kerry’s congressional testimony was a large stepping-stone to his present eminence. But the contradictions of being a war hero and an antiwar hero have finally caught up with him.

That is why the Swift-boat veterans will ignore pleas from Bush or anyone else to halt their campaign. And why that campaign will dominate the election for some time yet–whatever the papers say.

Or don’t say.

John O’Sullivan is the editor of The National Interest and editor at large of National Review. He can be contacted through Benador Associates at www.benadorassociates.com..


The Latest