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Why Running "On the Record" Is Harder Than You Think


The past several weeks have seen charges and countercharges flying over the claimed release of medical records by the current prospective Democrat and GOP candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain.

It would seem to be a relative uncomplicated process, but the pack of lawyers serving both sides continue to create more suspicions by their tactics than they inspire confidence. Obama's handlers only put out an innocuous letter that basically confirms that their candidate has a heartbeat and his heart is likely to keep beating for sometime. All this did was make everyone wonder what else is in his medical history?

McCain's campaign put out over a thousand pages as well they should have given the torture he endured and injuries he suffered during his years in the Hanoi Hilton as a POW. After all, McCain is trying to become the oldest American president in history and his health is an important issue to both his supporters and his opponents.

But the McCain camp released the material in the classic slimy lawyerly way, late in the day of a Friday afternoon, using the tactic Nixon, Johnson and Clinton employed repeatedly to kill embarrassing news and lessen its impact. Any reasonable person would wonder "why?" They must have been trying to hide something. Instead of allaying suspicions, the McCain campaign merely whetted interest. One can't blame a reporter like Jeffrey Klein for asking reasonable questions. But one also can't help wondering why Obama's opaque submission raised so little interest.

Look at the controversy swirling about what one might expect to be an innocuous Obama birth certificate posted on Daily Kos. Some keen-eyed bloggers spotted discrepancies that establish that whatever it is, it is not an exact copy of the original birth certificate. It has clearly been doctored in a graphics program and its certificate number removed. Was this an unintentional screw up by a well-meaning Obama staffer trying to clean up a document so it was easier to see online or evidence of some kind of skullduggery? All Obama has to do is authorize the State of Hawaii to release copies of the original to anyone who wants one. If he doesn't, bloggers should be having a field day for weeks to come.

In the current poisonous political atmosphere, the electorate doesn't know whom to trust. Its growing distrust of conventional "mainstream media" has caused an unprecedented meltdown in circulation and network news viewership nationwide. And their distaste for the vicious politics of both parties in Congress has driven the level of public approval of the political establishment at every level -- from the press, to candidates, to elected officials -- to all time lows.

To understand how we got ourselves in the middle of an important presidential election with so little information and so much suspicion, we need to review the 2004 election issues that largely revolved around what was, or was not, "on the record" about Kerry and Bush. The recent attempt by a small group headed by Kerry supporters Del Sandusky and Fred Short (pdf) to try to pick up on T. Boone Picken's proffered bet with John Kerry last November shows just how confusing all this gets. Could Kerry prove false a single one of the many charges the 527 group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth made in their advertising against him in the 2004 election? That question has been left on the table since last November.

The records in contention then and now were largely military records which, like Vatican records, are a particular form of hell for researchers. In 2004, and this 2008 election so far, three-fourths of the records that are in question are military records. It does not help that otherwise intelligent members of the press haven't a clue how to read them or what to look for. The vast majority of what is left of the press is a decidedly atypical group of Americans who don't smoke or drink and have never been in the cub scouts or brownies, much less in the military service. And they do a lousy job of even reading military records intelligently, much less reporting on them.

And they continue to do so, as one can see with the latest frisson in The Huffington Post where both Jeffrey Klein and Sam Stein have run with stories that were just dead wrong in their basic facts about John Kerry's records release and his bet with Boone Pickens. And at the same time a minor Boston Globe columnist and Kerry's New York Times kneepads in residence reporter got the Pickens-Kerry bet story just as wrong for the same reason as they celebrated the Sandusky-Short group's appearance.

They have covered only one side of the story and they hadn't a clue how to research the realities of a confusing situation. No one had apparently even looked at the basic correspondence between Kerry and Pickens of November 16, 2007 which established their positions at the beginning.

Attempting to review "the records' is no easy task, even when a candidate is attempting to cooperate. When a candidate like John Kerry engages in lies and subterfuge about his records during a presidential campaign and for years after, it is all too easy to get confused about what records have been made public, what has been released, what has been concealed, and the authenticity of any of them.

The Kerry 2004 election campaign's first position was that they had not only released all Kerry's records, but they had been put on his campaign website where anyone could examine them. Kerry had also coordinated the publication of a heavily documented authorized biography, Tour on Duty, by a respected scholar, Douglas Brinkley. The biography was a bestseller and Kerry had spent many hours being interviewed by Brinkley during its preparation. So the 2004 presidential campaign began with a general assumption that while the confusion exhibited by the hapless Bush campaign had raised many questions about his military record that made him look like a draft dodger, Kerry had been admirably forthcoming.

Most of the MSM press promptly gave Kerry the benefit of any doubt and continue to do so. A few reporters such as Michael Dobbs at the Washington Post, Scott Canon of the Kansas City Star and Josh Gerstein at the New York Sun actually began to look carefully at the posted Kerry records and found many troubling details that raised more questions than the "complete" records answered.

The reappraisal began with my articles (here and here) in March of 2004 that found that Kerry had lied to Brinkley and others about not being present at an annual meeting of hundreds of members of his "Vietnam Veterans Against the War" in November of 1971 in Kansas City. At that meeting, there was a vote proposed to murder a number of U.S. Senators who had supported the Vietnam War.

The VVAW final vote was against the murder plot, and Kerry acquitted himself well by voting against it. But he was there, as attested by witnesses, many of whom were working for the Veterans for Kerry campaign organization, and my reporting was confirmed by the surfacing of other witnesses by other reporters. Kerry's attempt to get witnesses to recant their confirmation of his presence was reported by me and confirmed on the front page of the New York Times.

Once FBI surveillance records confirmed his presence as well, Kerry floated a flimsy "failure of memory" statement through his able press aide, David Wade. Many were astounded by the explanation. Some things are hard to remember, but a man now a sitting United States Senator's experience in working hard to defeat a lunatic plot to kill a number of U.S. Senators seems hard to forget. Then Brinkley revised his account in the paperback edition of Tour of Duty. At that point, some of us wondered what else was missing or out of place in those "complete" records.

There was a lot. For a summary survey you can check here and here.

Kerry exhibited certificates supporting some of his medals, all signed by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman (now a consultant to McCain), years after they had been granted. Lehman told me he had never signed any of those certificates and had no knowledge of them. One of the medals Kerry posted on his website was a Silver Star, the third highest medal for valor granted by the Navy.

Admiral Zumwalt, the commander of Naval forces while Kerry was on duty, confirmed to me that he had personally pinned the medal on Kerry and was happy to do so. The only problem was the certificate Kerry posted included a "V" for valor. The Department of the Navy told me that since the Silver Star was a medal for valor, it had never in its history granted a V to a Silver Star.

This isn't the place to go into a recap of all the detailed discrepancies skilled researchers found in the "complete records" posted on Kerry's campaign website. And anyone with service records can spend the rest of their lives trying to correct the inaccuracies various clerks and differing levels of command can litter them with, so these discrepancies don't have to be Kerry's fault.

But the discrepancies raised questions that were worth pursuing for any journalist. Why had a Boston snob like John Kerry gone to a subway law school like Boston College? A source who had been on the Harvard Law School admissions board revealed that with Kerry's bad military record he was turned down for admission though clearly qualified because they didn't want to admit someone who they thought would be unable to pass the bar.

What "bad military record?" There was no sign of it on Kerry's website nor in the Brinkley biography and Kerry had certainly never spoken of it. The clue turned out to be the peculiar release from military service and its late timing that was on the Kerry website. Reporters with no understanding of the terms of Kerry's and others' military service at the time were never going to see the clues right in front of them.

(Here is the Kerry certificate and my two stories on it are here and here.)

Finally, a former Secretary of the Navy told me that Kerry had asked him to expunge the disciplinary action the Navy had taken against him for what the Navy regarded as treasonous activities supporting the enemy in a time of war so he could be admitted to a law school and get on with his career. The Secretary refused. So it appears that Kerry went to Father Drinan, the former dean of the Boston College Law School. Kerry had decided not to run against Drinan for an open Congressional seat Drinan then occupied. Kerry asked him for help. The disciplinary action disappeared from Kerry's official records with the general Jimmy Carter amnesty for Vietnam veterans with bad service records, the first bill Carter initiated after his inauguration.

By August 2004, the firestorm of accusations by hundreds of officers and men who had served in Vietnam with Kerry in the same Market Time command, calling themselves the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, hit. Kerry calculated that a press oblivious to the clues that had already been reported would be equally clueless in evaluating the "unsubstantiated" charges of the SBVT. He was right.

But he forgot something important. The American people had now stirred from its usual slumber that ends after the summer political conventions, and they were paying attention. And they made the SBVT's August book Unfit for Command the number one bestseller in the country well before the election in November.

The Kerry explanation that "it was all on the campaign website" was no longer working. Kerry began to be hectored on every talk show as to when he was going to release his records. And Kerry promised again and again to sign the Form 180 that would allow the Navy to release those records to the public -- but he succeeded in delaying the release until after the election.

Finally, in the Spring of 2005, Kerry pulled off one of the most remarkable political ploys in American history. He got three of the greatest imperial powers in the American press to conspire with him to hide the very records Kerry had repeatedly promised to release to the American people.

Kerry signed a Form 180 restricting the release of his military records to the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and the Los Angeles Times on the condition that the three news organizations would be allowed to extract them for their readers, but must not publish more than a certain amount of them. When I approached these organizations asking to see the records, they refused me access -- just as they have refused anyone else.

Kerry had picked three news organizations that were among those that had done the poorest job pursuing any investigative reporting that might have seen through his charades. They were now the arbiters of whatever they thought was important enough for the unwashed public to read. And it was very little indeed.

It was the most disgraceful performance by any news organization in my forty years of contemporary journalism, much less three of the largest. News organizations dedicated to public access had now conspired in a cover-up clearly against the public's need to know -- and in favor of a politician who had lied about his presence at a meeting discussing the assassination of U.S. Senators. And in an age in which it is a lot cheaper to put these records on the Internet than it was for the New York Times and the Washington Post to print and distribute hundreds of pages of the "Pentagon Papers," it was inexcusable.

Worst of all, it confused both the public and the press as to what had happened. And if the press has a major utility in society it is in its ability to try clear up confusion and cant rather than take a hand in creating it.

A well-meaning Huffington Post article last week demanding McCain release his complete records the way Kerry had in the 2004 election is the result.

Of course, Kerry never released his complete records to the public during the election. He did restrictively release his records to the three news organizations, as we have seen, many months after the election and has still never released his records to the public. This leaves Kerry free to continue to lie and mislead with impunity

In May of 2006, Kerry announced a "Patriot Project" that was going to expose the lies of the Swift Boat vets. The New York Times thought that was front-page news. No one ever heard of the "Patriot Project" again. Whatever and whoever it was never "exposed" a single lie.

On November 7, 2007, Boone Pickens made an offer to pay $1 million to John Kerry if he could disprove just one of the assertions made by the SBVT advertising he had funded. Kerry accepted on November 16th, based upon press reports of the offer that had not included Pickens' condition the disproof be restricted to the Swift Boat Vets advertising. No press reports I have seen included this restriction, so one can understand Kerry's alacrity in accepting what looked to him like a wide open offer, and his anger at learning of the conditions attendant upon it.

However, claims by Kerry that Pickens added that condition after Kerry accepted are erroneous. Two attendees at the dinner have confirmed to me that Pickens explicitly stated the restriction to Swift Boat advertising claims in his dinner speech -- the press just missed it.

On the same day Pickens received Kerry's offer, Pickens faxed Kerry back to make sure Kerry understood the condition and then added that to disprove any assertion Kerry would have to authorize the release of records that could establish that disproof (click here to see a pdf of the complete correspondence).

The final act was Kerry's undated letter to Pickens, based upon a Redstate.com report that Pickens had offered $1 million to "anyone who could show anything that the SBVT said was false," in which Kerry told Pickens: "These were your words -- and nowhere did you ever suggest, as you are now trying to, that your challenge referred specifically and exclusively to any advertising by the SBVT."

Of course Kerry trying to hold Pickens to a second hand account on a blog as "your words" is ridiculous after he had been in direct correspondence with Pickens. And that ended the discussion between them. "Nowhere did you ever suggest" has been taken care of by witnesses present that evening. There was no recording of the proceedings. As far as Pickens is concerned, the offer still stands.

Given the discrepancies in Kerry's "complete records" on his campaign website, and the complicity of the seraphim of American journalism in hiding the only records anyone can trust -- those which came directly from the Federal records and did not pass through Kerry's hands -- one can understand Pickens' definition of his requirement for "proof."

Kerry let the original offer lie. He had to. Kerry couldn't take the chance anyone who knew more about military records than the news patsies he had already suckered might get their hands on them in the course of the "proof."

What seems to go right over the head of the press is that Kerry would not accept an offer that only required the assertions in the "lying" Swift Boat advertising be disproved. Doesn't that in effect mean he is confirming that they can't be disproved? Maybe SBVT doubters should go back and take another look at them

Now, in June of 2008, a "spontaneous" group of Kerry supporters headed by longtime Kerry Kritters Del Sandusky and Fred Short send a letter to Pickens claiming they will supply the records and take him up on his bet (pdf). Tellingly, Sandusky and Short "accept" the offer that was never made, and that Kerry tried unsuccessfully to demand as "your words" from Pickens: "a million dollars to anyone who could show that anything the SBVT said was false."

Idiotic "reporting" of this latest Kerry ploy, as if it were hot news rather than a cynical press rehash 7 months after the Pickens-Kerry bet stalled, managed to totally miss the point. Butch Cassidy had the first question that should have occurred to a reporter: "Who are those guys?" And why are trying to horn in on a bet between Pickens and Kerry that never closed? The answer was that all the signatories had been on stage with John Kerry as Swift Boat crew members attending the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Oddly enough, the majority of those Swift Boat veterans did not sign the letter, including William Zaldonis who is mentioned twice and quoted in the Sandusky-Short letter. Zaldonis told me he wasn't even aware any letter had been sent out and asked me to send him a copy so he could see what was in it.

Sandusky-Short attacked SBVT for "lies told by people who were not there and never bothered to talk with us." Considering that their letter was signed by 9 people, 5 of whom were at some time on Kerry's boat, and that the Swift Boat Veterans were made up of 294 veterans of Swift Boat action, 69 of whom had served at the same time in some of the same actions as Kerry, that was a rather strange charge indeed. Members of the SBVT had been having a lively email correspondence with many of them for years.

The bet was between Pickens and Kerry. It wasn't a bearer bond anyone could pick up and cash. And why should Pickens accept this group's notions of documentary evidence any more than he could accept Kerry's or anyone else's ideas of what would be "evidence"? What any objective observer needs to prove or disprove anything this complicated is access to the Federal files covered up by the Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the AP. That would require Kerry to sign another Form 180 made out to Pickens or a neutrally acceptable judge. And how likely is that? And why has no reporter asked if "those guys" even had one million dollars to bet with -- and, if they did, where it came from?

Finally, a serious offer would have directly challenged some of the assertions made in the SBVT advertising, for, as Kerry knew seven months ago, the Pickens-Kerry bet was restricted to disproving any one of them. But the Sandusky-Short letter ignores the Pickens-Kerry bet conditions and talks about "a check for one million dollars to anyone who can show anything SBVT said was false." The letter shows it is on an irrelevant track with its first "disproof," in which it attacks a "cover letter and associated materials provided to TV stations" rather than any assertion actually made in one of the SBVT ads.

It is surprising Sandusky hasn't elected to take on Pickens' original challenge to disprove any one of the claims in the SBVT ads. In October 2004, as an official Kerry spokesman during the campaign, Sandusky had charged: "All of the claims and all of the TV ads were proven false. America ain't listening to them anymore. They are just a crock of lies."

The advertising that is germane to the bet is all still on the Internet on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth website. All any reporter had to do was read the Sandusky-Short letter, and compare it to the assertions on the SWBT ads. No one has so far. If the bet can be transferred to anyone, it might be worth $1 million if someone actually does some work on it.

In 16 pages, wherever the truth may lie, every complaint and quibble in the Sandusky-Short letter is irrelevant to the claims made in the Swift Boat advertising. Only one alludes to questions raised in an ad about Kerry's first Purple Heart. That is the sole assertion of something that, if disproved, might yield a $1 million dollar check under Pickens' conditions. My own reporting on that incident in "John Kerry's Skimmer Scam" indicates that the most either side can get out of that dispute is a tie.

So it was a non-event. Another "Patriot Project" that will vanish into the mist. The Sandusky-Short gang has no special knowledge. Most of them lived very well during their appearances with the Kerry campaign in 2004. They show no sign of having any material evidence outside of what Kerry gives them -- and that is a poisoned provenance. They are just a bunch of props to keep the Kerry delusions of SBVT persecution alive and possibly help Kerry's deteriorating poll numbers for his Senate reelection. The wonder is why any newsman would cover it.

And sadly, it was the latest testimony to the damage that continues to be done three years after the most disgraceful event in contemporary American journalism.

Let's hope what is left of the mainstream media do a better job evaluating comparative records for McCain and Obama in the current election season.