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Kerry and the swift-boating victims

As the skipper of a Swift Boat during the Vietnam War, I recently watched with interest as Sam Fox, a Missouri multimillionaire, small-talked his way through a confirmation hearing on his nomination to be the United States ambassador to Belgium.

I have no personal interest in Belgium, but one feature on Mr. Fox's long list of support for all things Republican caught my attention: "Foxy," as President Bush affectionately calls him, had donated $50,000 to the distasteful smear machine known as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth during the 2004 election.

Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but one of the lessons drilled into me by the military and preserved through the memory of friends who were lucky enough to come home from Vietnam alive, is that truth matters above all else. And as a military man, it doesn't matter much who is being attacked -- John McCain, Max Cleland, John Kerry, or Jack Murtha -- I just don't believe that assaults on the military records of veterans belong in our politics. Nor do I believe that those who finance smears of decorated Vietnam veterans deserve to represent America on the world stage.

I could care less whether the diplomatic assignment requires "no heavy lifting." I think too highly of the country I defended in combat to trust America in the hands of those who would so casually bankroll lies about an American hero.

So I read with great interest the hoopla over Mr. Fox's confirmation hearing. Given the long history of campaign contributions that Mr. Fox has spread around, it's no surprise that he had strong support from the Bush administration. Sure, "Foxy" lacks any background whatsoever in Belgium -- he can neither speak the language nor provide any hint of knowledge about the country, its culture, its people or its government. His background includes buying companies and making money -- not diplomacy.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing was a study in Washington decorum. For the first hour and a half, senators tossed Mr. Fox fat softballs -- praising his background and family.

Finally Sen. John Kerry had the courage to ask him a straightforward and unemotional question: "Do you believe that the truth in public life is important?" Mr. Fox couldn't quite square his profession of commitment to the truth with his hefty contribution to a terrible lie.

Instead, Mr. Fox repeatedly said he abhorred dirty politics. He said, "I'm against 527s, I've always been against 527s." He also defended it by claiming that he was on the record as being opposed to 527s. Did he simply believe that two wrongs make a right? As the questioning continued, Mr. Fox squirmed, fidgeted and stammered as he struggled to justify the unjustifiable. He delivered a graduate course in hemming and hawing. The most amazing thing we learned during the hearing -- if Mr. Fox is to be believed -- is that he can't remember who asked him to write the $50,000 check to fund the dirty tricks. "I can't tell you specifically because I don't remember."

Make no mistake: I remember. Mr. Fox had helped bankroll one of the nastiest, dirtiest negative campaign ads of the entire 2004 presidential campaign, if not in presidential history. But it was more than that. It was personal to me. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth sullied the reputation of one of the Navy's bravest, most dedicated fighting forces. Again and again I see the word "Swiftboating" used as a pejorative -- not the valiant, honorable term it was nearly 40 years ago when young men gave their lives on the Mekong Delta.

Mr. Fox told Mr. Kerry, "Senator, you're a hero. And there isn't anybody or anything that's going to take that away from you." But, why then did he put his money behind a 527 that tried? At the conclusion of the hearing, Sen. Barack Obama looked coolly at Mr. Fox and observed: "I would have preferred you saying... contributing to this Swift Boat campaign was a mistake and I wish I hadn't done it." Yes, even a "confirmation conversion" would have been salve for the wound Sam Fox and other Republicans so heartlessly inflicted on veterans like me in 2004.

Those of us who are real swift boaters know something about judgment and responsibility for our decisions. We live with the consequences of war every day. All decisions have consequences -- and so should Mr. Fox's decision in 2004. The Senate must reject Mr. Fox. We need to hold our public officials to the highest standards of integrity, judgment and honesty, and we need to honor the values that the Navy taught young men decades ago.

Wade Sanders, former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, is a decorated former swift boat skipper and combat veteran, currently practicing law.

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