Who is John O'Neill?; CNN's Blitzer failed to probe partisan ties of Kerry critic

The May 4 Wall Street Journal editorial page featured an op-ed by John O'Neill about Senator John Kerry under the headline “Unfit to Serve.” O'Neill is identified by the paper as having “served in Coastal Division 11 in 1969-1970, winning two Bronze Stars and additional decorations for his service in Vietnam.” As Joe Conason wrote in Salon.com on May 4, O'Neill has long-standing ties to the GOP establishment, and O'Neill's own p.r. adviser has described O'Neill as sounding like “a crazed extremist.”

O'Neill is one of several Vietnam veterans who have criticized Kerry and called into question the decorations he received for his service combat. O'Neill is associated with the newly formed group “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” which held a press conference on May 4 that was promoted by the Media Research Center's Cybercast News Service and highlighted by The Drudge Report on May 3. According to Cybercast News, “Hundreds of former commanders and military colleagues of presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry are set to declare in a signed letter that he is 'unfit to be commander-in-chief.'”

The Heritage Foundation's website Townhall.com became a vehicle for bringing O'Neill back to the current media spotlight. On April 2, Townhall.com published a syndicated column by Mona Charen -- and on April 8, David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine published a timeline by Winter Solider.com -- both making brief mention of a 1971 debate between Kerry and O'Neill on The Dick Cavett Show in which O'Neill accused Kerry of lying about the activities and conduct of American military forces in Vietnam.

On April 20, O'Neill made his cable debut on CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports. During the interview, O'Neill said that John Kerry told “damaging lies” about war crimes in Vietnam. He said, “We know the truth and we know that [John Kerry] is unfit to be the commander in chief.” O'Neill continued, “I think you'll find people are very, very angry at John Kerry. They remember his career in Vietnam as a short, controversial one. And they believe only Hollywood could turn this guy into a war hero. I saw some war heroes, Wolf. John Kerry is not a war hero. He couldn't tie the shoes of some of the people in Coastal Division 11.”

Though Blitzer acknowledged that questions were likely to be raised about whether O'Neill was speaking out against Kerry for political reasons, Blitzer conceded that he had not looked into O'Neill's partisan affiliations. “Maybe you're a Republican -- I have no idea -- or the Bush people are encouraging you,” Blitzer said.

Houston lawyer John O'Neill is a Republican -- as the Houston Chronicle noted the day after O'Neill's interview with Blitzer. According to the paper, O'Neill voted in the 1998 Republican state primary. But O'Neill's ties to the Republican Party extend far beyond party affiliation. During the CNN interview, Blitzer reported that former President Richard Nixon had urged O'Neill to publicly counter Kerry on The Dick Cavett Show, but there is more to the story. O'Neill was a creation of the Nixon administration, as Joe Klein detailed in the January 5 issue of The New Yorker. Former Nixon special counsel Chuck Colson told Klein that Kerry was an “articulate” and “credible leader” of those veterans calling for an end to the Vietnam War and therefore “an immediate target of the Nixon Administration.” As such, the Nixon administration found it necessary to “create a counterfoil” to Kerry. Colson recounted, “We found a vet named John O'Neill and formed a group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace. We had O'Neill meet the President, and we did everything we could do to boost his group.” Articles from the April 21 Houston Chronicle and the June 17, 2003, Boston Globe confirm close ties between O'Neill and the Nixon administration.

Beyond his role in the Nixon administration's strategy to undermine Kerry in the 1970s, O'Neill is also connected to Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist (a Nixon appointee) and to former President George H.W. Bush, according to Houston Chronicle articles from March 31 and April 21. In the late 1970s, O'Neill clerked for Rehnquist; in 1990, according to an October 7, 1991, report by Texas Lawyer, the former President Bush considered O'Neill for a federal judgeship vacancy.

Media Matters for America will be monitoring media coverage of today's “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” activities and will issue an updated report.