As part of ongoing efforts to undermine Senator John Kerry's war record, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group founded to discredit Kerry's record during and after his service in Vietnam, held its first news conference on May 4. Also on that day, Media Matters for America released a report on the group's founder, John O'Neill -- also one of Kerry's strongest critics; the report documents O'Neill's participation in Republican efforts to smear Kerry dating back to the Nixon administration. The scrutiny that cable networks directed toward Kerry's critics throughout the day varied significantly; FOX News Channel provided in-depth coverage, including revealing that some of Kerry's present-day critics have, in the past, actually praised Kerry for his Vietnam service.
In many of the May 4 cable news reports, the partisan political backgrounds of the Swift Boat Vets were mentioned. CNN's afternoon news program, Live From..., described the group only as "Vietnam vets who formed a special purpose political action committee" and did not note O'Neill's or any other member's political affiliation. Later in the day, CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley reported on Inside Politics: "[T]he Kerry campaign points out there are Republicans here." Crowley also noted that the group's spokeswoman "is a Texas Republican who has contributed to the Bush campaign." On CNN's Crossfire, co-host James Carville also pointed to the Swift Boat Vets' Republican ties, as reported in Salon.com by Joe Conason in a May 4 article.
On MSNBC's Scarborough Country, host Joe Scarborough mentioned criticism of O'Neill's "dirty tricks" for the Nixon administration and asked if O'Neill was doing it again for the Bush campaign. MSNBC's Lester Holt Live showed a clip of Michael Meehan, Kerry presidential campaign adviser, criticizing the Swift Boat Veterans for their partisan attacks on Kerry and noting that a number of Kerry's crewmembers in Vietnam have praised his service. An afternoon report on MSNBC's daily news show, MSNBC Live, noted only that the Kerry campaign is "of course putting up veterans who disagree" with Kerry's critics. The broadcast omitted any information on individual members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whom the program identified as "a group of former Navy swift boat commanders and personnel many of whom served with Kerry in Vietnam."
FOX News Channel pushed harder on the credibility of some of the group's members. On several shows throughout the afternoon and evening, including Special Report with Brit Hume, FOX News Channel chief political correspondent Carl Cameron provided substantial background on some key Kerry critics. Cameron reported that the veterans held a news conference "essentially to trash [Kerry]" and that much of their criticism "dramatically conflicts with the public record." Cameron stated, "Senator Kerry has released most of his military records and for the most part, they are a glowing detail of his military service." Not only does their criticism conflict with what The New York Times described in an April 22 article as Kerry's "uniformly positive" evaluations included in his military records, but, as Cameron also reported, their criticism is inconsistent with statements previously made by many of the Swift Boat Vets themselves. Cameron reported that in 1968, Kerry critic Grant W. Hibbard, a lieutenant commander in Vietnam during Kerry's tour:
... described Kerry in various favorable ways, as quote, "One of the top few in his willingness to seek and accept responsibility." Captain George Elliot, who served in Vietnam at the same time Kerry did, condemns Kerry now for touting his service in a war that Kerry later protested. ... But in '96, Elliot and other critics of today, praised him for going after the enemy.
Beyond pointing out the inconsistent statements by some of Kerry's critics, Cameron also reported that Democrats say that "many of them ... have become Republicans ... who have supported the Bush campaigns in Texas, have been close friends of the Bush family both in politics and business." Cameron stated on Special Report with Brit Hume, "The GOP says it's not involved with the veterans criticizing Kerry, but many of them are Republicans who have contributed to and backed various Bush campaigns and causes over the decades."
On FOX News Channel's Hannity & Colmes, co-host Alan Colmes challenged the credibility of the Swift Boat Vets. Colmes noted that Swift Boat Vets leader O'Neill did not serve in Vietnam with Kerry; rather, as O'Neill told Colmes, "I actually took his boat over, but about two months after he [Kerry] left." Colmes also draws attention to the flip-flopping nature of the comments made about Kerry by several group members. Colmes questioned O'Neill who appeared on the show:
Here is what Grant Hubbard [sic], who's now part of your group, here's what he had to say back then about John Kerry. And he signed -- let's put it up on the screen -- a report on Kerry. He said on initiative, one of the top few. Cooperation, one of the top few. Personal behavior, one of the top few. Why would he say that then and now be supporting you now?
Colmes further probed:
Let me show you the report of George Elliott, who also graded John Kerry in Vietnam. Here's what was said. Here's what he said. "In a combat environment often requiring independent, decisive action, Lieutenant Junior Grade Kerry was unsurpassed. LTJG Kerry emerges as the acknowledged leader in his peer group. His bearing and appearance are above reproach." That's a report of officer fitness from 1969 by George Elliott, who also graded Kerry. How do you account for that? Do you want to claim that everybody now is saying what you're saying? It's clearly not true.
Colmes went on to say to O'Neill, "You haven't explained to me how the very people who you claim are supporting you now had these superlative things to say about John Kerry back in the day when he was serving in Vietnam. I don't understand the discrepancy. Maybe you could explain it."
O'Neill answered by saying, "Sure. They were hardly superlative. If you look at John Kerry rated ... as a member of a group, you'll find that virtually everybody in the group got the same ones. Commander Hibbard, related generally, graded John Kerry as not observed. So you take that two or three items and ignored the not observed item on there."
Colmes replied, "[E]verything he did observe him on he was superlative."
O'Neill responded: "Yes, and mostly it was not observed."
During his April 19 MSNBC show Scarborough Country, former Florida Republican Representative Joe Scarborough referred to an April 14 Boston Globe story, from which he quoted the following: "John Kerry's much-heralded service medals are being questioned." Scarborough extensively quoted the Globe's interview with Kerry's commanding officer in Vietnam, Lieutenant Commander Grant Hibbard, who has questioned Kerry's first Purple Heart: "He [Hibbard] said -- quote -- 'He [Kerry] had a little scratch on his forearm. He was holding a piece of shrapnel. People in the office were saying, I don't think we got any fire.' And when asked about Kerry's medal, Grant said: 'Obviously, he got it, I don't know how.'"
Scarborough failed to mention the following facts from the Globe article: that Hibbard is a Republican and that "a review by the Globe of Kerry's war record ... found that the young Navy officer [Kerry] acted heroically under fire, in one case saving the life of an Army lieutenant."
In an April 14 Salon.com article, historian Douglas Brinkley debunked efforts to diminish Kerry's Vietnam record. Brinkley is the director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies, a history professor at the University of New Orleans, and author of Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.