Politics & Policy

Swiftboating the Swiftboaters

Doing an effective political campaign historical justice.

Barack Obama’s campaign is “not sufficiently aware of the danger that exists from the conservative Freak Show,” the Politico’s Jonathan Martin wrote this week.

“Freak Show” is a loaded term; it comes from the book The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008, co-authored by Time political reporter Mark Halperin and Martin’s boss at The Politico, John F. Harris. They wrote: “The Freak Show is about the fundamental changes in media and politics that have converged to tear down old restraints in campaigns and public debate. The power of the Freak Show has developed through a confluence of generational and technological forces, including the destabilization of political journalism practiced by the so-called Old Media.” But ultimately it is the pejorative it sounds like; they add, Freak Show “opponents are portrayed not simply as wrong but as morally flawed.”


The quintessential example of the conservative Freak Show is the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

If Obama’s unaware of the danger of the Freak Show, that’s a new development. Back in November, after Bob Novak reported that the Clinton campaign was telling prominent Democrats that they were sitting on “scandalous” information about Obama, the Illinois senator issued a curious response. “The cause of change in this country will not be deterred or sidetracked by the old ‘Swift boat’ politics,” Obama said. Mainstream media outlets readily accept the term “swift boating” as a synonym for unfair political attacks.

How did that happen? Two irrefutable facts about the Swift Boat Veterans don’t square with the revisionist characterization of them as political hatchet men. First, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign was a grassroots movement of Vietnam vets who were not partisan political operatives. Second, even if it is impossible to determine what exactly happened on those muddy riverbanks over 30 years ago, the Swift Boat Veterans’ accusations were credible and exhaustively documented. Those who use the term “swift boating” seem to have collective amnesia: They have forgotten that the Kerry campaign was forced to admit that statements the candidate had made about his war record were inaccurate, such as his claim that he crossed into Cambodia in Christmas of 1968.

A new book on the Swift Boat Veterans bears this out, To Set the Record Straight: How Swift Boat Veterans, POWs, and the New Media Defeated John Kerry by Scott Swett and Tim Ziegler. (Full disclosure: Ziegler is a distant relative of mine by marriage, who I met briefly after reading the book.)

Swett and Ziegler have pored over the group’s campaign in a straightforward and scholarly fashion — the text runs to 328 pages, followed by 39 pages of citations. Such an approach was necessary: there are those who still deny the basic facts of the Swift Boat Veterans’ assertions. The two authors took great care to document all assertions, and present an objectively convincing account.


The book’s greatest strength is in revealing the motivations of the group and how it came into being. Because the Swift Boat Veterans briefly employed a public-relations officer who had ties to Texas Republicans, the media tried to dismiss the group as partisan operatives. To Set the Record Straight, however, describes the group’s initial purpose was not to hit John Kerry, but to defend fellow Swift Boaters whom Kerry had attacked unfairly during his run for office.

In January 2004, Adm. Roy Hoffman read Douglas Brinkley’s campaign biography, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, and was incensed. In the book, Kerry said that Hoffman, the officer in charge of the swift-boat mission, had “a genuine taste for the more unsavory aspects of warfare” and sought “splashy victories in the Mekong Delta” to get promoted. But Hoffman has a distinguished military record, and Kerry provided no evidence for his assertions. Hoffman began working the phones to try to clear his name, asking swift-boat veterans who had served under him if Tour of Duty squared with their own experiences. From there, problems with Kerry’s statements — past and present — began to pile up. Vietnam vets had long been troubled by Kerry’s exploitation of antiwar sentiment to jumpstart his political career, and by his questionable descriptions of the basic details of his service. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was an organic development.

To Set the Record Straight tells the story of Vietnam veterans who refused to accept the media’s grotesque portrayal of their service for their country — as angry malcontents who committed atrocities in fighting an unjust war, and who now suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. A group of nonpolitical veterans put an organization together on the fly –and swung the outcome of a presidential election. That fact alone testifies to how upright and capable they really are. The book also notes that most of the veterans involved did so at great personal sacrifice: Aside from the time and expense, a few even lost their jobs.


Their feat is all the more impressive when you consider what they were up against. As the book documents, the media were almost uniformly in opposition. Time and again the book shows how major media either misrepresented the group’s claims, coordinated with the Kerry campaign, or went to extraordinary lengths (unsuccessfully) to discredit the group. Nightline sent a camera crew to Communist Vietnam to find witnesses to back Kerry’s version of events with regard to a Silver Star citation the Swift Boat Vets called into question. Essentially, ABC was saying that a few civilian witnesses in a Communist dictatorship that honored Kerry’s antiwar actions in its national museums were somehow more credible than dozens of American veterans who served with Kerry.

On MSNBC, host Lawrence O’Donnell screamed that Swift Vet spokesman John O’Neill was a liar — 46 times in 11 minutes. And the book has a great chapter connecting the Swift Boat Vets’ actions to Dan Rather’s ignominious demise following his fraudulent 60 Minutes story regarding President Bush’s Air National Guard Service. The Rather story crumbled under the attacks of the “Pajamahadeen” truth-squads; advantage Freak Show.

It’s baffling that the Kerry campaign expected his history to be a boon. As a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, he testified before Congress that U.S. soldiers were committing mass murder; and he received three Purple Hearts in less than four months without missing a single day of active duty due to his injuries, a feat that is surely unprecedented. Organized opposition from Vietnam veterans had to be expected.

The book’s detail is so extensive that even news junkies and SBV boosters will learn from it. It’s by no means perfect, however. It would have benefited from tighter editing. But flaws can be expected in a self-published book. It still manages an impressive — and necessary — feat. We’re likely to hear more derogatory uses of “swift boating” and the “Freak Show.” But the media’s resentful rebranding of the Swift Boat Veterans’ campaign doesn’t stand up to the cold hard facts. To Set the Record Straight lives up to its title.

There is a “How to Win” lesson here for Barack Obama from the Swift Boaters, but it’s not to “beware the Freak Show.” The lesson is far simpler: If politicians want to avoid being portrayed as morally flawed, they shouldn’t do and say things to demonstrate that they are. Failing that, they can apologize and be held accountable. When demanding more honesty and accountability in politics gets you accused of creating a Freak Show, you know who the real clowns are in the political circus.

– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.


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