It is a lesson in just how persistent and irritating smear campaigns can be. Nearly four years after the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth trotted out a series of outrageous accusations about John Kerry's war record, the issue is still being litigated within the halls of politics. Only this time, it is the accusers who are on the defensive.
On Thursday, ten veterans who witnessed or served with John Kerry in Vietnam penned a lengthy letter to T. Boone Pickens - the Texas oil tycoon and major SBVT financier - taking him up on his challenge to prove false one element of that group's attacks from the 2004 campaign.
"Dear Mr. Pickens," the letter (pdf) begins, "We are the crew and individual servicemen who served on or with Patrol Craft Fast 94 in Vietnam in early 1969... Regrettably the lies of the SBVT, which you helped bankroll and apparently still defend, tarnished the sacrifices we made, called into question the medals we were awarded and challenged the very authenticity of our service... We have children and families who were deeply affected by these lies and we believe you and the SBVT whom you supported owe us and the American people an apology for the tactics you bankrolled.
"We are aware of media reports that at a dinner in Washington D.C. on November 6th, 2007, you made a public challenge that you would give a million dollars to anyone who could show that anything the SBVT said was false. We also know that Senator John Kerry, who was the skipper of the PCF-94, contacted you to take you up on that challenge. We are writing to you now as a group to accept your challenge and document how you funded lies and character assassination."
What follows, aides to Kerry say, is one of the most comprehensive conglomerations of evidence disputing the SBVT attacks. Taking on the argument that, somehow, Kerry didn't deserve his Silver Star, the signatories dispute ten "falsehoods," including the claim that Kerry chased and killed a "young Viet Cong in loincloth" (it was an actually a "man of normal military age" carrying a B-40 rocket); that he only was in combat with this one individual (there were "multiple VC scrambling to get away"); and that Kerry made a tactical error in captaining his boat that day ("there was no 'plan' to charge the bank"). The letter concludes with perhaps the most poignant and currently relevant point.
"Finally, the continued insistence that Kerry has not released his full military record is refuted by the Navy, which has publicly certified he has, and by three newspapers which have independently received signed releases and reviewed those records."
Indeed, it is important to remember that in 2004, Kerry posted military records on his campaign's website and allowed selected reporters access to his military medical records. After the campaign, he signed a 180 waiver, authorizing the release of his complete file to three publications.
At the time, the SBVT claimed they couldn't trust that this was the entire cache. No such protests were aired about President Bush's refusal to overturn Vietnam related documents. Currently, Sen. John McCain has released 19 pages of his Nave file to the Associated Press. But, as documented by Jeffrey Klein, there could be upwards of 600 pages that have not been made public.
What kind of response Kerry's Vietnam contemporaries receive from Pickens remains to be seen. The Texan, who supports McCain, said in November that he would give $1 million to anyone who could disprove a single one of the allegations made by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Kerry took him up on the challenge, promising to donate the proceeds to the Paralyzed Veterans of America. Pickens then reneged, saying he would need to see combat films, additional military records and wartime journal. The current letter contains a 40-plus-page file of such evidence (sans combat films).
That Kerry and his allies are fighting back with such vigor four years after the fact may seem bittersweet for Democrats. Pickens, after all, does not seem poised to play as influential a role in this campaign as he did in 2004, when he invested $3 million into the SBVT ads. The outfit he was connected to this go-around - Freedom's Watch - has so far been hampered by financial problems. Meanwhile, his spokesman Jay Rosser, recently told Politico: "He is not giving anything to 527s involved in the presidential race this cycle, and has communicated that...to Republican strategists and operatives."
But for the Vietnam Vets, the SBVT attacks were not strictly political. And setting the record straight, even if Pickens is not, currently, a political lightening rod, is worth doing even four years after the 2004 election.
For them, they've wanted to clear the record for years. And have looked for every opportunity to do that," said Kerry aide David Wade. 'For some of these guys whose lives are not politics it has had a profound impact. When they saw the Pickens explanation in November they were pretty stunned by that... the crew said let us have a shot."