Swift Boat Veterans for Truth

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Swift Boat Veterans for Truth

PO Box 26184
Alexandria, Virginia 22313
E-mail: [email protected]
Web site: www.swiftvets.com



It was generally acknowledged that the ad campaign having the greatest impact on the 2004 U.S. presidential election was that run by the political action group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The group, which counted 275 Vietnam War veterans among its ranks, strongly opposed Senator John Kerry's presidential bid, charging him with being unfit to lead America as its commander in chief. To that end they created, with the help of the Virginia-based advertising agency Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, a series of damning television ads calling into question Kerry's war record, the medals he had been awarded, and even his patriotism. The attacks were direct, personal, and highly effective.

Over the course of six months, from May through October 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans, led by fellow Vietnam veteran John O'Neill, raised $6.7 million, all but $800,000 of which was spent producing and airing its television spots. The ads were simple in design and clear in purpose. Each featured a number of real veterans, all members of the Swift Boat Veterans organization, explaining in their own words why they felt that Kerry was ill-equipped to be president. In one ad the veterans repeatedly used words and phrases such as "not been honest," "lied," "lying," "dishonored," "cannot be trusted," and "betrayed" in reference to Kerry. While most major news outlets debunked or refuted the claims of the Swift Boat Veterans, and although only a very few of their ranks had ever actually served with Kerry in combat, their message was played and replayed throughout the national media, garnering them far more exposure than their limited budget ever could have allowed. Indeed, this was part of their overall strategy.

Regardless of the accuracy of their claims, or perhaps because of their inflammatory nature, the Swift Boat Veterans were successful in casting doubt on one of the cornerstones of Kerry's campaign: his war record. President George W. Bush was reelected for a second term, but more importantly for the Swift Boat Veterans, Kerry was defeated. The group all but disbanded once the election was over and chose to use what little money remained from their fundraising to help disabled veterans and the families of soldiers killed in action.


Both Kerry and O'Neill served in Vietnam in the late 1960s, both served on small river patrol craft, or "swift boats" (O'Neill took over the command of Kerry's boat once Kerry had completed his tour of duty), and both were decorated for valor and service in combat. Soon after Kerry returned to the United States, however, he became vocal in his opposition to the war. Despite having served in Vietnam—or perhaps because of what he had witnessed there—he came to feel that the war was both immoral and unwinnable. After meeting with a group of Vietnam veterans in early 1971 to hear their eyewitness accounts firsthand, Kerry testified in April of that year before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as an outspoken member of Vietnam Veterans against the War. His testimony detailed atrocities, war crimes and violations of the Geneva Convention that had taken place during the conflict. Many veterans felt that Kerry was betraying and dishonoring them by making sweeping accusations about the conduct of soldiers in the field. In truth, Kerry's primary goal was not to denigrate the actions of his fellow soldiers but rather to condemn those of higher rank who, he felt, either sanctioned or turned a blind eye to crimes being committed against the civilians of Vietnam. U.S. soldiers, Kerry testified, "personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, cut off limbs, [and] randomly shot at civilians." He claimed that these acts "were not isolated incidents but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command."

In support of those who opposed Kerry's position, O'Neill joined the group Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, and in June 1971 he and Kerry appeared in a one-on-one televised debate on The Dick Cavett Show. Kerry defended his Senate testimony, while O'Neill blasted him for turning his back on the very men with whom he had served. "Never have so many been libeled by so few," said O'Neill, referring to Kerry and other former soldiers who had spoken out against the war.

O'Neill's ire was rekindled in February 2004 when it became clear that Senator Kerry was poised to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. president. "It was important for me to be involved in this because everything is not just politics," O'Neill told the Washington Times. "Kerry is a guy who deeply lied about what happened and that has been demeaning to those of us who were really there." Soon thereafter he became one of the prime architects of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. O'Neill succinctly summed up the group's guiding principle in the Wall Street Journal: "We formed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth for one purpose: to present to the American public our conclusion that John Kerry is not fit to be commander in chief."


The 2004 presidential election was extraordinarily close; in any given poll either candidate's lead often was within the margin of error. On one hand this meant that even the slightest gain from any single demographic could influence the outcome of the election; on the other it meant that the majority of voters had already made up their minds.

In order to differentiate himself from President Bush, who served in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War but was never called up for active duty, Senator Kerry made his Vietnam service and decorated heroism a cornerstone of his political campaign. He drew as much attention as he could to his wartime conduct, often appearing with fellow veterans at campaign stops and even saluting the audience as he walked onstage at the Democratic National Convention. Unfortunately for Kerry, this served to make the attack of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth on his honor and character all the more potent. By casting doubt on Kerry's war record and by bringing attention to his own antiwar protests in the early 1970s, the Swift Boat Veterans successfully targeted those Kerry supporters for whom his war record and numerous medals were decisive factors in their support.


The term "swift boat" referred to a type of 50-foot aluminum-hulled craft used to patrol rivers and deltas throughout Vietnam during the war. The official Navy term for the boat was PCF, or Patrol Craft, Fast. The origin of the nickname remained in doubt, however. Some claimed that it came from the manufacturer of the boats, Sewart Seacraft, which named its products after seabirds, in this case a swift. Others said that SWIFT was an acronym for Shallow Water Inshore Fast Tactical Craft. Still others claimed that it was a nickname applied after a Navy admiral had watched a demonstration of the boats and offhandedly called them "swift."


The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was not the only independent political group on the offensive in 2004. In fact, so-called 527 groups—named for the section of the Internal Revenue Code that governed their operations as nonprofit groups without political affiliation—proliferated after the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law was enacted in 2002. The law capped donations to political candidates and their campaigns at $2,000; it also capped donations in the same manner for any political group directly affiliated with a candidate or campaign. The 527 groups circumvented this rule by remaining independent of the candidates, even though groups on both sides pulled no punches when it came to divisive politics. On the liberal side MoveOn.org, the Media Fund, and America Coming Together all funded or produced TV ads blatantly in support of Kerry or against Bush, while conservative groups such as the Club for Growth and Progress for America spent millions of dollars in support of Bush's reelection.

Once the ads of the Swift Boat Veterans had begun to appear, both MoveOn and the Kerry campaign itself were quick to produce ads in response. MoveOn's spot featured one of the Swift Boat Veterans' ads in the background, with a voice-over calling its allegations into question and ending with a call to President Bush to "take that ad off the air." The trouble with this approach was that, as much as the Swift Boat Veterans' ads were helping Bush by harming Kerry, the Bush campaign was not responsible for them. MoveOn was trying to establish a tenuous link between the Swift Boat Veterans' ads and Bush, but there was no such verifiable connection.


The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had set out to host a single press conference to voice their opposition to Kerry and his bid for the White House. Nearly 200 veterans met in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2004, to issue a press release outlining their concerns about Kerry's war record and his ability to lead. The veterans did not expect to make a big splash as a result of the press conference, but they were surprised by the complete lack of coverage by the mainstream media. Not surprisingly, some smaller cable shows and news networks ran their story, but the major media paid little attention to it.

"The mainstream media can ignore a press conference," Chris LaCivita, one of the lead creatives behind the Swift Boat Veterans' ad campaign, told the National Review, "but they can't ignore an ad." With Rick Reed, LaCivita subsequently developed the first ad of the campaign in conjunction with the Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm agency. The ad itself was straightforward. It featured overlapping testimony by numerous swift boat veterans that impugned Kerry's heroism and cast doubt on the actions that led to his being awarded the Silver Star and the Bronze Star as well as one of his three Purple Hearts. As Reed told Brandweek, "The key was to let these guys talk. What made the campaign work was that these were credible men, telling credible stories, with no agenda outside the truth."

The first ad was inexpensive to produce, but the Swift Boat Veterans had little funding to put it on the air where it would count. At the time their advertising coffers contained only $500,000. Instead of buying airtime in major markets, something they could ill afford anyway, they chose to release the ad at the beginning of August in minor television markets in only three states: Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Ohio. To help ensure that the ad received the media attention the original press conference on May 4 had not, the group worked with the conservative political consulting firm Creative Response Concepts, which sent press releases and extensive background material to conservative radio talk shows, cable news programs, and journalists, hoping that the controversial content of the ad would become a story that the mainstream media would subsequently pick up and disseminate. The plan worked. "By the time the ad made its debut," wrote Jason Zengerle of the New Republic, "the conservative media was primed, and the group's allegations against Kerry spread like wildfire through it."


The upshot of the media attention was not just that the message of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth got out to a wider audience but that it also brought in scores of new donations. By the time the group rolled out its second television spot, titled "Ravaged," it had $2.5 million to spend. And for the final ad, called "Questions," it had over $3 million at its disposal.

Through the creative leveraging of conservative media channels, the group was also able to turn its controversial political advertisements from simple television spots into a national news phenomenon. No other group received the same media attention for its ads. Even MoveOn.org, which at one point had two member-created ads posted to its website likening President Bush to Adolf Hitler, failed to generate a comparable buzz among journalists.

As for achieving its goal of defeating Kerry's presidential aspirations, the Swift Boat Veterans played a significant role in the election's outcome, although a precise measure of the group's impact was difficult to determine. While media analysts and political observers gave the group a good deal of the credit for helping to erode support for Kerry, O'Neill remained modest. When asked by Fox News if he thought that his group had contributed to Kerry's defeat, he replied, "No, not really. I think we had two significant effects. First, I think John Kerry was unable to run simply as a war hero. And second, I think that we reclaimed, I believe, the honor of our guys living or dead who served in Vietnam. I don't think anybody will claim again that we're war criminals."

Having seen its goal fulfilled on November 2, 2004, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth used the remaining $800,000 worth of donations to help both the families of soldiers killed in action and wounded veterans through a charitable foundation.


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                                 Jonathan Kolstad