Sunday, November 14, 2004

During the most mean-spirited verbal gunfire of any presidential campaign I remember, I have most respected the steady, measured refusal of swift boat veteran John O’Neill to let his fierce, robot-like attackers deter him from his successful determinationto show that John Kerry is — as the title of his book puts it — unfit for command.

Mr. O’Neillwas called a “liar” to his face on a number of television appearances, and, on the Oct. 14 “Nightline,” ABC-TV’s Ted Koppel actually sent a crew to Vietnam to film alleged eyewitnesses in order to disprove one of the accounts in “Unfit for Command” of how Mr. Kerry won his Silver Star. Casually, ABC News director Andrew Morse mentioned that “the Vietnamese require an official minder to accompany journalists on reporting trips.” The minder-censor from the Communist totalitarian state was there, watching, to ensure that the “eyewitnesses” stuck to the government script.

On camera, Mr. O’Neill told Mr. Koppel: “You went to a country where all the elections are hundred-percent [victory margin] elections, and you relied on people that were enemies of the United States” for the alleged testimony. Mr. O’Neill repeatedly showed Mr. Koppel how the supposed eyewitnesses contradicted Mr. Kerry’s own accounts in the past.

At first, the mainstream media had ignored the charges of the Swift Boat Veterans. Alison Mitchell, deputy national editor of The New York Times, admitted to Editor & Publisher that she’s “not sure that in an era of no-cable television we would even have looked into (the Swift Boat story).” But as happened with the exposure of Dan Rather’s use of ultimately discredited documents to deride George W. Bush’s National Guard service, cable television and the Internet allowed the public to examine both sides of the swift boat veterans stories.

Moreover, in a front-page Aug. 22 Washington Post story, reporter Michael Dobbs noted, as Mr. O’Neill often has, that “although Kerry campaign officials insist that they have published Kerry’s full military records on their Web site (with the exception of medical records shown briefly to reporters earlier this year), they have not permitted independent access to his original Navy records.” When Mr. Dobbs tried to get those Kerry records through a Freedom of Information request, he received just over six pages and was told by the Navy Personnel Command that the full file consisting of at least 100 pages could not be released unless Mr. Kerry himself signed a Standard Form 180 granting permission.

To this day, Mr. Kerry has not signed that release form.

In his story of one contested episode during Mr. Kerry’s service in Vietnam, Mr. Dobbs found that the edge favored Mr. Kerry’s version, but that in Mr. Dobbs’ extensive interviews, the accounts by both Mr. Kerry and his swift boat opponents “contain significant flaws and factual errors.” Only Mr. Kerry refused to be interviewed for the story.

Among the relatively few reporters who have engaged in substantial research on the contentions of both sides, the most painstakingly persistent has been Thomas Lipscomb in his reports in the Chicago Sun- Times and the New York Sun. Mr. Lipscomb has found much that credits Mr. O’Neill’s charges, and so have I.

The former publisher of Times Books and an old-fashioned journalist in the tradition of one of my mentors, George Seldes, Mr. Lipscomb is an insistent fact-checker, dogged until he’s ready to file his story. Accordingly, a Lipscomb report on the front-page of the Nov. 1 New York Sun begins: “A former officer in the Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps Reserve has built a case that Senator Kerry was other than honorably discharged from the Navy by 1975…. The (subsequent 1978) ‘honorable discharge’ on the Kerry Web site appears to be a Carter administration substitute for an original action expunged from Mr. Kerry’s record.” If I were still teaching journalism, I would have the students study Mr. Lipscomb’s entire article as an example of the quality of research that complex stories require but do not often get during the hurried reporting in the present 24-hour news cycle.

As that news cycle keeps churning, a few other reporters have taken the time to find out more about the so-called Bush operative Mr. O’Neill. In both the Aug. 28 New York Times and Los Angeles Times, a careful reader would have discovered that Mr. O’Neill voted for Democrats Hubert Humphrey, and, years later, Al Gore, for president. And his favorite presidential candidate this year was John Edwards. Also, Mr. O’Neill has described George W. Bush as an “empty suit.”

Yet, on Election Day, historian Douglas Brinkley who wrote a hagiographic book on Mr. Kerry, “Tour of Duty,” triumphantly told the Financial Times that the mainstream media have “exposed Kerry’s critics as liars and frauds.” I would not take a course with that careless historian; but I respect Mr. O’Neill for his courage and his public service for having enabled many Americans to look much more closely as John Kerry’s presidential qualifications. And, indeed, the swift boat veterans did a lot to keep Kerry from the Oval Office.

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