WASHINGTON -- Four months ago, I wrote a column suggesting that critics of John Kerry who disparaged his service in Vietnam might be barking up the wrong tree. "Mr. Kerry's problem isn't whether he deserved the medals he was awarded," I wrote. "His vulnerability is his record after the war -- especially his involvement with the radical Vietnam Veterans Against the War and his role as an apologist for the communists we were fighting in Vietnam."
At the time, almost no one had heard of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the organization now at the center of a storm of controversy over the Massachusetts senator's record in Vietnam. The group held a press conference May 4 that received almost no media attention.
Boy, what a difference a few months and a half-million dollars make. The Swift vets are now all the rage -- thanks to a low-budget ad campaign (a small buy in only a tiny handful of states) that has dominated news coverage of the presidential campaign in recent days.
The group has unhinged the Kerry camp, which has tried to censor the ads, threatened television stations that might air them, attempted to intimidate bookstores from carrying Unfit for Command, a new anti-Kerry book by Swift vets John O'Neill and Jerome Corsi, and fired back with its own ad claiming the Bush campaign is behind Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
The latter charge is blatantly false. The Bush campaign has been in the forefront of trying to shut down so-called 527s, unsuccessfully challenging the legality of the groups at the Federal Elections Commission this year. Most 527s are on the left and have spent more than $60 million trying to defeat the president.
Bush campaign officials are scrupulous in avoiding even the appearance of coordination with independent groups.
Yet the mainstream media seem far more interested in chasing down false leads about alleged ties between the Swift vets and Bush-Cheney '04 than they do exploring the substance of the group's charges against Mr. Kerry, especially his dubious record in the anti-Vietnam War movement and its influence on his Senate career. The latest Swift vets ad uses snippets from Mr. Kerry's 1971 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in which he said American soldiers "raped, cut off ears, cut off heads ... cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan."
Mr. Kerry based his statements not on his own knowledge but on the fabricated testimony of a group of anti-war activists at "hearings" sponsored by the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and paid for by Jane Fonda. Some of those who testified to witnessing atrocities later proved not to have served in the military, much less in Vietnam. Congressional and military investigations into these allegations found no substantiation of the specific charges.
Why hasn't the media investigated Mr. Kerry's anti-war activities more closely or spent time tracking down the veracity of the allegations he made about atrocities?
Why haven't enterprising reporters asked Mr. Kerry why he went to Paris in 1970 to meet with representatives of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong during the Paris peace talks, or why he has never criticized the communist government of Vietnam in the years since the fall of Saigon?
Why haven't journalists called him on his claims to have taken his boat into Cambodia during Christmas 1968 -- an uncorroborated assertion he has made at least eight times since 1979, including once on the floor of the Senate in 1986, according to research by Joshua Muravchik of the American Enterprise Institute?
News organizations spent considerable effort to investigate George W. Bush's National Guard service, devoting hundreds of stories to the issue, but they show almost no interest in getting to the bottom of whether Mr. Kerry made up stories about his involvement in what would have been an illegal incursion into Cambodia.
These are the real leads the media ought to be tracking -- not the obvious distraction of the Swift vets' purported ties to Republicans.
Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.