“Swift boat’ has become the synonym for the nastiest of campaign smears,” the New York Times declared recently. The Times’s assessment — in a front-page news story, mind you, not in an editorial — has become the conventional wisdom of the 2008 presidential race. And indeed, references to “swift boating” are everywhere. “Instead of the word ‘demonizing,’ we could use the words ‘swift boating,’ ” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer said the other day during an interview with a Republican and a Democratic strategist. “Will Republicans go ahead and try to swift boat Barack Obama?”
Well, we all know the answer to that, don’t we? In much of the media, as in the Democratic party’s talking points, “swift boating” has come to be defined not only as a smear but as any criticism of Barack Obama. But before the phrase slips irretrievably into the general usage, can we take one moment to remember how this all got started?
The organization Swift Boat Veterans for Truth emerged just four years ago, in the 2004 presidential campaign. It was founded by a group of former Navy officers who served alongside Sen. John Kerry in Vietnam. They were with him in that place, at that time. They were in a position to know about Kerry and his actions in Vietnam. Based on what they had personally witnessed, they questioned Kerry’s version of his service.
For example, you might remember that Kerry claimed to have been in Cambodia in Christmas 1968, a memory which he said was “seared — seared — in me.” The Swift Boat vets made a very convincing case that this never happened. They also raised doubts about the wound that resulted in the first of Kerry’s three Purple Hearts, a wound the doctor who treated Kerry described as a shrapnel scratch so minor that it was treated with a Band-Aid. The Swifties also cast an engagement in which Kerry won the Bronze Star in decidedly less heroic fashion than the Kerry campaign.
More than that, the Swift Boat vets were appalled and angry over what Kerry said when he returned home from Vietnam. This was the Kerry who told the Senate in 1971 of American servicemen who “raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan. . . . ” As officers who had served side-by-side with Kerry in Vietnam, the Swift Boat vets were personally insulted by what they maintained were outrageous lies from John Kerry.
So they spoke out, and they did serious damage to Kerry’s campaign. Now, not everything they said, based on their 35-year-old memories, checked out; for example, their criticism of Kerry’s actions in winning his second Purple Heart, as well as in winning the Silver Star, were less than persuasive. But the Swifties were honorable men, defending both their own honor and that of the U.S. military they had served. Given that they had extensive personal knowledge of Kerry’s service, it was entirely proper that their criticisms be heard.
But now, what they did has become synonymous with “smear.” Kerry’s big mistake, the conventional wisdom goes, was not in embellishing his record, nor in slandering the United States military, but in failing to push back quickly against the Swift boat “smear.” The lesson: Hit back hard and fast. So Barack Obama vows he won’t be swift boated.
And he won’t — at least not unless several close associates from his past, relying on personal, firsthand knowledge, get together to criticize his behavior at some key point in his life. Were that to happen, the swift-boat analogy might be apt. But otherwise, when it comes to the run-of-the-mill, day-to-day attacks that presidential campaigns launch at one another, can we please dispense with the s-word?