The campaign for Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry said Friday it would file a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, charging that a Vietnam veterans group had been illegally coordinating its ad campaign about Kerry’s military record with President Bush.
But the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, denied allegations of wrongdoing and unveiled a television ad that it planned to begin airing in three states next week -- claiming that Kerry’s antiwar comments in 1971 hurt American soldiers imprisoned in North Vietnam.
The complaint and the ad capped a week in which debate about Kerry’s Vietnam-era record of combat and antiwar protest consumed the presidential race, drawing both campaigns into heated rhetoric Friday.
The Kerry camp argued that anti-Kerry veterans and Bush had colluded against Kerry, while surrogates for the president suggested that the Massachusetts senator had “lost his cool” and that his campaign was becoming “unhinged.”
The dispute over Kerry’s actions in Vietnam and his protest of the war after he returned to the U.S. began Aug. 5, when the anti-Kerry group launched an ad in select states accusing the candidate of lying about his war record for political gain.
After supporters and the candidate’s crewmates urged the campaign to rebut the charges more forcefully, Kerry punched back Thursday, accusing the group of doing Bush’s “dirty work.” On Friday, the campaign continued moving aggressively to halt the assault on his military credentials by questioning the credibility and political ties of the veterans group.
A poll released Friday showed that more than half of the country was aware of the anti-Kerry group’s first ad -- largely because of coverage by cable television news shows or talk radio.
Fifty-seven percent of those polled by the National Annenberg Election Survey said they had either seen the ad or heard about it. Respondents overall were evenly split on whether they believed the ad, as were the independent voters who were the focus of both campaigns’ efforts.
The FEC complaint, to be filed Monday, includes documentation showing close ties and personal relationships between the Swift boat group and the Republican Party. Many of those involved in the veterans group and its ads have been longtime donors to Republican causes and candidates in Texas, including the president.
Under campaign finance law, an independent 527 group like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is prohibited from coordinating its strategy or advertising with a presidential campaign.
Kerry aides said they would cite recent newspaper reports that discredited the Swift boat ads and showed connections to the Bush family, the president’s chief political aide, Karl Rove, and many high-ranking Texas Republicans.
The complaint will also state that “there is overwhelming evidence” that the Swift boat group “is coordinating its expenditures on advertising and other activities designed to influence the presidential election with the Bush-Cheney campaign,” according to the Kerry campaign.
The campaign also distributed as evidence the copy of a political flier picked up by a Kerry volunteer at the Bush-Cheney campaign office in Gainesville, Fla. The flier indicates that a local rally this weekend is being sponsored by the Bush-Cheney campaign and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Steve Schmidt, Bush’s campaign spokesman, said in a statement that the allegations were frivolous and that “real coordination is what John Kerry’s campaign has been engaged in with the Media Fund, America Coming Together and MoveOn.org.”
Schmidt argued that between the Kerry campaign and liberal independent organizations, there was a “revolving door of personnel, coordinated strategies and overlapping fundraising” that constituted “a flagrant disregard of the spirit and letter of the campaign finance reform law.”
In Crawford, Texas, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan accused Kerry of losing his cool by criticizing the ads. McClellan said the Bush campaign had not been involved in the anti-Kerry advertising.
“Sen. Kerry, you know, appears to have lost his cool, and now he’s just launching into false and baseless attacks against the president,” McClellan told reporters. “The Kerry campaign has fueled these very kinds of attacks against the president.”
The Swift boat ad, McClellan said, was “another example of the problems with these shadowy groups that are funded by unregulated soft money. And that’s why the president has spoken out against [this] kind of advertising.”
Kerry spokesman David Wade called his counterpart at the White House a “hired gun” and noted that the president, who served in the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam, had never fought in battle.
“Maybe if George Bush had seen combat up close, his hired-gun mouthpiece wouldn’t be so flip about the dishonest and dishonorable attack funded by the president’s Texas pals,” Wade said. “It’s too bad neither George Bush nor Scott McClellan have the courage to denounce these ads.”
The new Swift boat ad intersperses audio from Kerry’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April, 23, 1971, with wrenching charges by a disabled veteran and two former prisoners of war.
Kerry spoke as a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and the testimony helped make him a household name; it also angered many veterans and active members of the military. That anger fuels the anti-Kerry group today and bubbles through the 60-second spot, which is scheduled to begin appearing Tuesday in three battleground states, including New Mexico and Nevada.
According to Associated Press, the ad will also appear in Pennsylvania.
A spokesman said that the group would spend just over $600,000 to place the ad for about a week.
Paul Galanti, a former POW, speaks out against Kerry in the new ad.
“If you ever talk to Vietnam War veterans about Jane Fonda, you hear the anger,” he said of the actress and antiwar protester. “Well, when it comes to John Kerry, take that anger and double it.
“It’s got nothing to do with Bush. They could tell us to stop these ads, and we wouldn’t do it.”
In the new ad, Kerry is heard describing atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers during the war. As he speaks, a picture of the 27-year-old in a fatigue jacket, slouched over a table with a crowd behind him, appears on the screen, along with his words in large type.
“They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads,” Kerry says as the ad begins. Joe Ponder, who was wounded in an ambush in November 1968, then says, “The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.”
Kerry continues: " ... razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan.”
Former POW Galanti says: “John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I and many of my comrades in North Vietnam in the prison camps took torture to avoid saying. It demoralized us.”
The ad does not make it clear that Kerry is recounting stories that came to light during the so-called Winter Soldier Investigation in Detroit earlier in 1971, in which more than 150 honorably discharged veterans talked about war crimes they had committed in Southeast Asia. He was not claiming to describe events that he had witnessed.
Contrary to Ponder’s assertion, Kerry did not say that all soldiers committed heinous acts against the enemy.
“In the context of that testimony, this is not a statement of every soldier, sailor and Marine in Vietnam,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, whose organization documented the widespread recognition of the group’s first ad.
“You can say that by repeating it, he’s legitimizing [the allegations], but it’s not fair to him to make it seem that he’s making the charges himself and making them about all soldiers.”
The Kerry campaign argued that the new ad took Kerry’s Senate testimony out of context and edited his comments in a manner that distorted the facts.
Kerry himself did not address the latest Swift boat ad Friday, instead talking about job creation in Charlotte, N.C., and touring the damage from Hurricane Charley in southwestern Florida with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson. Kerry had spoken out against the first ad Thursday, charging that the Swift boat group was doing Bush’s “dirty work.”
A senior Kerry aide said that the candidate was briefed periodically throughout the day about the campaign’s decision to file an FEC complaint, but that he spent much of the day preoccupied with scheduled events.
Still, the issue spilled over into his day, as Kerry received a slew of calls from his former crewmates and other supporters praising his denunciation of the Swift boat group.
According to the aide, Kerry was particularly touched by a call from a Republican veteran from Kansas who told him that the anti-Kerry group had tried to recruit him and that he had refused to join. He said he believed Kerry had spoken out against their tactics appropriately.
The catalyst for the formation of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was the mounting anger among several Navy veterans to the publication last spring of “Tour of Duty,” an authorized biography of Kerry’s Vietnam stint by historian Douglas Brinkley.
The most vocal of these veterans was retired Rear Adm. Roy F. Hoffmann, a Virginian who headed Swift boat missions under Operation Sealords, a late-1960s effort to cut Viet Cong supply routes along remote canals and rivers in Vietnam’s southern peninsula.
Hoffmann, who had granted a 45-minute interview to Brinkley during a 2003 reunion of Swift boat sailors in Norfolk, grew incensed after reading that he was a “hawkish” commander with a “taste for the more unsavory aspects of warfare.”
By February, Hoffman was calling other veterans to ask if they’d read the book and pressing them to join him in his efforts to respond to it. In mid-April, he flew to Houston and met with a dozen other Swift boat veterans.
According to several attendees, some of those at the nine-hour meeting declined to join in with Hoffmann. They empathized with his anger toward Kerry’s antiwar stance, but were reluctant to openly question the background of Kerry’s awards or criticize his service record.
Most of those who met at that point did sign up; Hoffmann’s main ally was John E. O’Neill.
The conservative Houston lawyer had tangled with Kerry in 1971, during a series of televised debates over the war.
A former Swift boat skipper who inherited Kerry’s old boat -- but who never served with Kerry -- O’Neill had been encouraged by Charles Colson, an aide to President Nixon, to take Kerry on to show that antiwar veterans were a small minority among Vietnam soldiers returning home from the war.
O’Neill won an approving audience with President Nixon and was later hired to clerk for new Supreme Court Justice William H. Rehnquist. He then embarked on a career as a Houston attorney with Clements, O’Neill, Pierce, Wilson & Fulkerson, a firm with ties to top state and national Republicans. O’Neill has written the book “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry.”
One of O’Neill’s law partners, Margaret Wilson, was Bush’s general counsel from 1998 to 2000, when he was Texas governor. Another partner was the late Harold Joseph “Tex” Lezar Jr., who ran as a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor with Bush in 1984, during his first race for governor. Bush won; Lezar lost.
A key participant in the April meeting in Houston was Lezar’s widow, Merrie Spaeth, a former Bush administration official who joined, she said later, as a favor to O’Neill.
Spaeth was a director of media relations in the Reagan White House and also served as an aide during the Reagan administration to FBI Director William H. Webster and to the Federal Trade Commission.
And when Bush encountered stiff opposition from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) during the South Carolina GOP primary in 2000, Spaeth was spokeswoman for Republicans for Clean Air, an independent interest group that ran $2 million in ads attacking McCain’s environmental record. The group was later linked to Sam Wyly, a wealthy Texas contributor to Bush’s campaign.
As the Swift veterans group coalesced, Spaeth primed members for their first event, an anti-Kerry press conference in Washington on May 5. She girded for the expected criticism from Kerry aides for her close GOP ties, insisting in one interview that she had no political motives.
“I haven’t talked to any of my old friends, like [longtime Bush aide and friend] Karen Hughes,” Spaeth said in a Times interview just before the first Swift boat news conference May 5. “And there has been no contact with the Bush campaign or the RNC [Republican National Committee]. There’s no contact, no guidance, no money, nothing.”
An Alexandria, Va., communications firm called Creative Response Concepts has since begun working with the group. One spokesman, Sean McCabe, was a campaign aide to conservative Pat Buchanan during his 1996 run for president.
In a recent interview, O’Neill said, “It would be false to say that the White House got me to debate Kerry” in the early 1970s. And he said he had not voted for a Republican nominee for president since 1988. But campaign finance records show that between 1992 and 2004, he gave $10,250 to GOP congressional campaigns.
Texans for Public Justice, an organization that tracks campaign donations to Texas candidates, said O’Neill also gave $1,000 to Bush’s 1998 gubernatorial reelection campaign.
On June 30, the group got its first major donation, $100,000 from Houston homebuilder Bob J. Perry, Texas’ biggest campaign donor and a loyal giver to the Bush campaign. Perry has since given another $100,000, according to the group.
Perry gave $46,000 to Bush’s 1994 and 1998 campaigns for Texas governor and has contributed the maximum allowable -- $2,000 -- to Bush’s current campaign, according to Texans for Public Justice. He also was the largest individual contributor to the Texas Republican Party during the 2002 election cycle, giving $905,000.
Perry is also a friend of close Bush advisor Karl Rove. McClellan, the White House spokesman, acknowledged Friday that Perry and Rove “know each other,” but said, “that still shouldn’t be used to draw any connection there, because we have not been involved in this ad whatsoever.”
Times staff writers John M. Glionna and Edwin Chen contributed to this report. La Ganga reported from San Francisco, Gold from Fort Myers and Braun from Washington.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Behind Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
John E. O’Neill -- Author of “Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry” and a former
Swift boat skipper himself. Debated Kerry in the early 1970s at the behest of the Nixon White House.
Roy F. Hoffmann -- Retired rear admiral who is founder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and one of Kerry’s most vocal critics.
Merrie Spaeth -- Directed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s early communications efforts; was director of media relations in the Reagan White House; spearheaded an interest group that attacked Sen. John McCain during the Republican primary season in the 2000 election. Donated to Bush in 1999 and 2003.
Bob J. Perry -- Donated $200,000 to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Is a major donor to Republican politics in Texas. Gave $46,000 to Bush gubernatorial campaigns; is friends with top Bush advisor Karl Rove.
Compiled by Maria L. La Ganga