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Recent Accusations by Fellow Swift Boat Veterans Impact John Kerry’s Campaign

August 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: For the past three weeks, a 60-second TV ad, airing in only three states, has been the primary focus of the presidential campaign. The ad, critical of John Kerry’s Vietnam combat record, was produced by a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, and partly funded by a top Republican donor in Texas. A second ad begins airing this week. Kerry and running mate John Edwards repeatedly have called on President Bush to condemn the ads.

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: These false attacks are tied directly to President Bush and his friends. The clock is running. The American people deserve to hear directly from the president of the United States that these ads should come off the air.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the president only would say he was against all unregulated political ads. When asked at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, today, the president came as close as he has to rejecting the swift boat ads outright.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I said this kind of unregulated soft money is wrong for the process. And I asked Sen. Kerry to join me in getting rid of all that kind of soft money, not only on TV, but used for other purposes, as well. I frankly thought we had gotten rid of that when I signed the McCain-Feingold Bill. I thought we were going to once and for all get rid of a system where people could just pour tons of money and not be held to account for the advertising. And so I’m disappointed with all those kinds of ads.

REPORTER: When you say that you want to stop all…

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: That means that ad; every other ad.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, John Kerry was set to begin a counter attack today, with ads accusing the Bush campaign of using smear tactics.

SPOKESMAN: American soldiers are fighting in Iraq. Families struggle to afford health care. Jobs heading overseas. Instead of solutions, George Bush’s campaign supports a front group attacking John Kerry’s military record.

KWAME HOLMAN: And over the weekend, there were more developments.

SPOKESMAN: Cutoff limbs, blown up bodies.

SPOKESMAN: That was part of the torture was to sign a statement that you had committed war crimes.

KWAME HOLMAN: Retired Air Force Gen. Ken Cordier, a Vietnam veteran who appears in the second swift boat veterans spot, resigned as a volunteer adviser to the Bush campaign.

In yesterday’s Chicago Tribune William Rood, the paper’s editor, who served as commander of a swift boat alongside Kerry’s, gave a 1,700-word personal account of what happened the day Kerry earned one of his five combat medals, the silver star.

Rood said: “Kerry’s critics armed with stories I know to be untrue have charged that the accounts of what happened were overblown. The critics have taken pains to say they’re not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us.”

But last night on CNN, former Republican Sen. Bob Dole raised his own doubts about Kerry’s commendations.

BOB DOLE: As far as I know, he’s never spent one day in the hospital. I don’t think he draws any disability pay. He doesn’t have any disability and boasting about three purple hearts when you think of some of the people who really got shot up in Vietnam.

KWAME HOLMAN: Despite the limited TV run of the anti-Kerry ads, they’ve received heavy news coverage, and coincide with a CBS News poll that shows Kerry has lost some support among veterans nationwide.

GWEN IFILL: Joining us now to discuss the political impact of the swift boat controversy are David Gergen, advisor to four presidents and now professor of public service at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Dave Gergen, why is this story still a story?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, I think, Gwen, in the beginning many of us were surprised it became such a hot story. The national mainstream media, and in particular the print press took a look at it and said this is not something we believe is true, and therefore they didn’t cover it very much.

But it became a major story on cable television. It spread. Annenberg School picked up in their survey, as Kathleen will tell us, I’m sure, that it was widely seen after it became splashed all over cable television shows and became a center of dispute.

And of course there were some people who had an interest in stirring it up. Now that it’s taken some toll on Sen. Kerry as that CBS poll shows that he’s lost some support among veterans, the Kerry people have no choice but to fight back. They have to put a dagger into this so they can move on in their campaign.

GWEN IFILL: Kathleen Hall Jamieson, tell us more about the poll that the Annenberg School took that showed how many people have been paying attention to this.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The National Annenberg Election Survey showed that over half of the people in the country by the middle of last week had either seen or heard about the ad despite the fact that the ad aired only in three states and with a very small time buy.

What this suggests is that the cable talk, the cable news as well as political talk radio, have managed to increase the likelihood that people have heard and seen an ad that didn’t get much buying power behind it. One of the things that we found was high cable viewers, more likely to have seen and heard about, high political talk radio listeners and political talk radio is largely conservative, much more likely to report seeing or hearing.

We also found what you would predict: That is that political partisans drew the reasonable inference from their own ideology that either the ad was definitely true, the Bush supporters, or definitely false, the Kerry supporters. But importantly among those reported seeing or hearing the ad there was higher belief in the statement that Kerry hadn’t deserved all of his medals than among those who didn’t report seeing or hearing about the ad.

GWEN IFILL: So the practical political… let’s continue on that for a moment. Obviously dust is swirling now and doubt has been raised about John Kerry’s war record. What is the practical political effect? Dave Gergen just alluded to the CBS poll and Kwame did as well in which he lost ground with veterans. Is there a direct connection?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: We don’t know if there’s a direct connection because the CBS poll didn’t tie that finding back to seeing or viewing the ad but what we do know from analysis of how communication functions with audiences is that if you have extended discussion about whether or not someone earned something, you’re creating doubt.

So, for example, if we say let’s have a discussion about whether Kathleen Jamieson is a murderer and David goes on television and says she’s definitely not. We have absolutely no proof. The fact that we’ve had that discussion, let’s say repeatedly over cable for about a week-and-a-half and political talk radio, might make you more wary the next time you see me with a paring knife.

GWEN IFILL: Well, David Gergen, let’s talk about — not so much about Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s character but John Kerry’s character. Is that what this debate is really about? Is it about his record or is it about that old character question coming back in a different guise?

DAVID GERGEN: I think it’s more about George Bush’s character than John Kerry’s. Clearly what they’re trying to do here is that Kerry’s war record was the bright, shining asset in his campaign. And the Republicans are trying to, you know, sow or build a large cloud, a dark cloud over that so it doesn’t shine quite so brightly. I think in the short term they have succeeded.

As Kathleen knows, these negative ads often do work. The public says “we hate negative ads. We don’t like to see these things,” but they then they watch them. Just like the public said we don’t want to see anymore O.J. Simpson, we’re sick of this on television, and then everybody turned the television sets on to watch it.

There is the tendency with these negative ads for people to see and to hear and to register in the short term, so I think in the short term I think the president has gained. But I will tell you, Gwen, in the long term, this may backfire on him. There are some real dangers here for the Republicans in this story.

GWEN IFILL: So when the president says, as he did today, listen, I just think all these ads are bad, that’s not arm’s length enough?

DAVID GERGEN: No. No. I think that there is a very strong danger here for the White House that a lot of voters will conclude — because, of course, the evidence is coming out in the print press is there’s very little… there isn’t anything to support these allegations in this first ad. And that the ad looks more like a smear.

Now the danger for the president is if people conclude this was a below-the-belt tactic that was intended to smear John Kerry and that it plays into a pattern of going after John McCain in 2000 and going after Max Cleland in 2002, that may well backfire on the White House, and that’s the danger that they face. Short term they’ve got a gain. Long term they could pay a price.

GWEN IFILL: Now, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, that word smear is the one that the Kerry folks have been using in Internet advertising and other places. Does that work? Does that punch through with viewers who have been paying attention to these ads? Is there any way to know in the same way that the original accusations do?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: The interesting thing about this is that during the time that the ad was being aired sometimes full screen on cable talk shows without a rebuttal ad from the other side, the Kerry representatives were coming in to try to rebut the charges, the news paired the two together. But ultimately that’s a losing proposition for the Kerry campaign because the ad has repetition behind it, repeatedly aired in cable. It’s visual, it’s evocative; it’s got evocative music.

But now the tables are starting to turn. When the Washington Post did the first investigative piece, found evidence that some of those claims aren’t true, the New York Times then came into play, journalism, largely print, has been moving forward fairly aggressively to check these claims against the documentary evidence, and Kerry’s case has been built substantially as a result. That helps turn the news agenda to benefit Kerry.

The night that the Washington Post piece aired the Kerry people pulled their spokespersons off the air and as a result cable was left with swift boat statement from one person representing a swift boat veterans and on the other side a Washington Post reporter. That suggests a danger for the Bush campaign — credible news information suggesting that there are problems with that ad in an environment which the Kerry counterattack says this is part of a pattern, linked to previous attacks on McCain and distraction from issues we should be talking about.

The question then becomes does the public say, “yes, we should be talking about those issues, this is a distraction and yes we grant the pattern?” If so, net damage potentially to President Bush.

GWEN IFILL: Well, David Gergen, so say that they decide that maybe this first round of ads questioning what his behavior was in these particular situations in which medals were won, they set that aside and they turn as they have in the latest ads to questioning whether John Kerry should have been campaigning against the war.

His activity was Vietnam Veterans Against the War when he came home. Does that pose the same danger for John Kerry, especially if he takes what it was — two weeks to respond?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, I do think it does pose some danger for John Kerry. It strikes me that his actions once he came home are subject for legitimate debate about whether it was appropriate or not to go after the war. And he’s going to have to take that on too. He’s going to make a speech tomorrow apparently that’s going to go after this group and make his arguments and he should take on both sides of this.

But let me go back to something which Kathleen also said. The other danger here for the Bush team and for everyone and John Kerry included is that the public is going to very rapidly get fed up with a campaign which is debating something that happened 35 years ago. Nobody wants to debate a war in Vietnam when we should be debating Iraq. If either side is seen as trying to create a long-term diversion in this campaign people are really going to get angry very fast.

GWEN IFILL: You anticipated my very next question, David, which is: are there examples in the past that you can cite in which debating the past backfired?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, you can’t find many, I guess, that are… nothing comes to mind in that.

GWEN IFILL: Didn’t it work for Michael Dukakis, for instance, when Willie Horton which was part of his past was raised, it hurt him. Hasn’t it worked with other candidates before?

DAVID GERGEN: Oh, there’s no question that going after someone’s past can hurt that candidate if you do it effectively. Michael Dukakis did not answer quickly or effectively at that time.

I think that John Kerry has an opportunity to dig into the past here for some of the people involved in the swift boat thing. For example, John O’Neill who is involved for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — as they call themselves — was first recruited by Chuck Coalson of the Nixon White House to go after John Kerry way back in the 1970s. We all remember what kind of dirty tricks came out of that office then. There are opportunities both ways.

My sense of where this is going right now is that it’s going to play through the end of this week and then the subject is going to change because the Republican Convention is going to switch subjects on to, you know, the president and the Republicans in New York. And this will have become an episode in the past but it will have taken a pint of blood out of John Kerry. The real issue is now can he even the score? Can he get back in there by convincing people that this was essentially a smear? I think that’s the challenge he has tomorrow and for the rest of this week.

GWEN IFILL: So, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, you’re an average voter trying to decide what to make of this. How do you decide what to believe based on all this conflicting information?

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: Well, the first thing to ask is what matters to me in making a voting decision? What are the issues I care about and how relevant do I consider the biographical detail and the war records or the military service records of these two candidates? If one answers the question by saying “that’s the past, they both served honorably end of discussion. I’m interested in the future,” one makes a very different kind of decision. Kerry is inviting that move right now.

The problem is, as David notes, he is vulnerable to the move that’s being made in the second swift boat ad. If I could go back for a moment to the Willie Horton ad from 1988 produced by National Security Political Action Committee, that worked for two reasons. One, Dukakis didn’t rebut. But two, the press didn’t investigate to find out what the facts actually were.

In this case, the press appears to be more aggressive in determining what is fact in these circumstances — as it was when charges were raised about President Bush’s military service.

GWEN IFILL: Kathleen Hall Jamieson and David Gergen, thank you both very much.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: You’re welcome.

DAVID GERGEN: Thank you.