Slime slung by shameless surrogates sticks to Bush gang

August 30, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - It is an axiom of normal human behavior that one is embarrassed when caught flat-footed in a lie. That axiom, however, does not apply to the Swift boat critics of John Kerry. When caught cold in one lie, they simply move to the next.

The latest news reports shed light on the prevarications of John O'Neill, who succeeded Mr. Kerry as commander of Swift boat PCF-94. A ringleader of the Swift boat critics, Mr. O'Neill is the author of a book, Unfit for Command, that tries to discredit Mr. Kerry's wartime heroism. Now walking the low road for George W. Bush, Mr. O'Neill first got into the dirty-tricks business on behalf of Richard M. Nixon, who used Mr. O'Neill to try to undermine Mr. Kerry's rising appeal as an anti-war veteran in 1971.

Currently a darling of the right-wing talk-show circuit, Mr. O'Neill has insisted in repeated interviews that Mr. Kerry could not have been in Cambodia during the war, as Mr. Kerry has said. In his book, Mr. O'Neill wrote: "Kerry was never in Cambodia during Christmas 1968, or at all during the Vietnam War," adding, he "would have been court-martialed had he gone there."

But days ago, reporters unearthed taped conversations between Mr. Nixon and Mr. O'Neill, in which Mr. O'Neill bragged, "I was in Cambodia, sir. I worked along the border on the water."

Was Mr. O'Neill court-martialed? Apparently not. Did he so much as pause after being caught contradicting himself? Not on your life. He just moved from interviews with legitimate news reporters to the friendlier zones of conservatives such as Sean Hannity, who would not press him on his mendacity.

Neither Mr. O'Neill nor his band of liars is humiliated when one of their accusations blows up in their faces.

In a recent attack ad, for example, George Elliott, Mr. Kerry's commanding officer in Vietnam, insisted that Mr. Kerry "has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam." This is the same George Elliott who praised Mr. Kerry's courage and leadership profusely during the war, according to military records, and who campaigned for Mr. Kerry's re-election to the Senate.

He and the other veterans against Mr. Kerry apparently believe that truth doesn't matter; if they just keep throwing slime at Mr. Kerry, sooner or later some will stick. They don't seem to care that much of the slime clings to them. This group is so obsessed with tearing Mr. Kerry down that they not only tell blatant lies, but some of them have also trashed their own records of wartime heroism.

Take Larry Thurlow, who commanded a Swift boat alongside Mr. Kerry. Mr. Thurlow and others have spent weeks trying to undermine one of Mr. Kerry's central claims to heroism - his rescue of Jim Rassman, for which Mr. Kerry won a Bronze Star. Mr. Thurlow has insisted that none of the Swift boats in the Bay Hap River was under enemy fire that day, March 13, 1969.

But contemporaneous military action reports tell another story. Several documents back up Mr. Kerry's - and Mr. Rassman's - account. Indeed, the citation for Mr. Thurlow's own Bronze Star, received for his actions that day, notes "enemy small arms," "automatic weapons fire" and "enemy bullets flying about him."

Just last week, Oregon resident Robert Lambert, who was a crew member on Mr. Thurlow's boat that day, told his local newspaper: "[Mr. Thurlow] and another officer now say we weren't under fire at that time. Well, I sure was under the impression we were."

Several of the veterans opposed to Mr. Kerry trace their animosity back to Mr. Kerry's anti-war activities, during which he accused U.S. soldiers of committing atrocities. But they haven't framed their major attacks around that. That's because they know - or at least Karl Rove knows - that Mr. Kerry's fiery rhetoric from 30 years ago won't sink his campaign.

The Bush campaign must portray Mr. Kerry as weak and indecisive - an unfit commander in chief. That's difficult, since Mr. Kerry is a bona fide hero whose wartime exploits seem titanic compared with those of the president. Suffice it to say that Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry were not exactly in the same boat in Vietnam. So Mr. Bush's surrogates lie to tarnish Mr. Kerry's medals.

They may have succeeded in sullying Mr. Kerry's military record, but the real truth they've revealed is the corroded core of the Bush campaign, which denies any link with the Swift boat veterans but profits by their poisonous bite.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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