Thirty-three years ago, fresh from combat in Vietnam, John O’Neill parted his hair neatly, put on his only suit, stared into a television camera and made it clear how much he detested John Kerry. Not Democrats. Not liberals. John Kerry.
“This man,” O’Neill said during a 1971 debate with Kerry on “The Dick Cavett Show,” “has attempted the murder of the reputations of 2.5 million of us, including the 55,000 dead in Vietnam.”
President Nixon had recruited O’Neill to counter Kerry, who had come home from Vietnam convinced that the war was a military and moral mistake. Much of the nation was starting to agree with that assessment, and in O’Neill, Nixon found an articulate spokesman for his policies.
Today, O’Neill, a high-dollar attorney in Houston with two grown children and an admirable golf handicap, is back on the national stage. After disappearing from the public eye for three decades, he has emerged as a chief architect of an attack on the military credentials of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.
The effort has had a surprising effect on the campaign; a Los Angeles Times poll this week showed that O’Neill’s organization, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has eroded Kerry’s support by questioning whether he deserved his war medals.
The Swift boat group has run ads that claim Kerry lied about the military service that earned him several combat medals. Numerous questions have been raised about the group’s honesty and credibility. O’Neill, who has been accused of inconsistencies, has acted as a spokesman for the group, provided it with critical legal advice and written a book about Kerry titled “Unfit for Command.”
In an hourlong interview this week, the 58-year-old O’Neill sought to distance himself from the Republican Party operatives and partisans who have been linked to the campaign against Kerry. Wearing a monogrammed shirt, he spoke in his firm’s swank, 18th-floor offices overlooking City Hall and decorated with paintings of Venice, Italy.
He portrayed himself as a political independent -- a Reagan Democrat, he said, if he had to have a label. Although he typically supports GOP candidates, he says, he voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000. And although the “Swifties” have agreed to focus on Kerry and not to discuss President Bush, O’Neill made it clear he is no great fan of the president, whom he has described to several friends as an “empty suit.”
He has become, effectively, a single-issue voter in this election, akin to an otherwise liberal Roman Catholic who cannot bring himself to vote for a pro-choice candidate. O’Neill’s single issue is simple: He despises Kerry. Whether Bush benefits from the campaign, he said, is a distant concern.
“I know everybody thinks politics is the most important thing in the world,” O’Neill said. “But it’s not.”
After Kerry returned from Vietnam, he famously asked a Senate committee: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” His purpose, Kerry said then and says today, was to call for an end to the war, not to indict those who fought it.
O’Neill, however, felt that Kerry had impugned the integrity of every soldier who had fought in Southeast Asia. The son of a Navy admiral and the grandson of a naval academy instructor, O’Neill had been taught since he was young to support U.S. troops -- no matter who sent them to fight, no matter the circumstances of the war. Kerry, he said, violated an unspoken military creed.
O’Neill had been asked to publicly resurrect those concerns several times during Kerry’s rise to prominence, but he had always declined, saying that it wasn’t worth revisiting a painful period of his life to intervene in a Senate race. But when it became clear that Kerry had become a serious contender for the presidency, O’Neill was persuaded to speak up because he “couldn’t stomach” the idea of Kerry being commander in chief.
O’Neill said he believed, in hindsight, that legitimate questions were raised about the war. He said that some who voiced concerns -- such as Al Gore Sr., a Tennessee senator who jeopardized his career by announcing his opposition -- were brave and even patriotic. But O’Neill did not believe Kerry was brave. He said Kerry was an opportunist who used Vietnam to advance his political ambitions.
“I’ve lived a happy life, sure, but at least 15 of my friends died there,” O’Neill said. “What I’m dealing with is a set of values that are above and beyond politics. And if following the truth -- coming forward -- elects Bush, we can accept that.”
Some of O’Neill’s closest friends are among those who question his crusade. But they say it is merely a reflection of his tenacity.
“He develops legal lockjaw,” said Gerry Birnberg, a prominent Houston lawyer, a friend of 20 years and the chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. “All of this relates entirely and exclusively to his personal feeling of outrage -- with which I do not agree at all -- about Kerry’s opposition to the war. That indelibly and irreversibly formed his image of Kerry. It is an image that he cannot and will not get over.”
O’Neill has many connections to GOP politics. He was invited to speak at the 1972 Republican convention in support of Nixon. Bush’s father unsuccessfully nominated O’Neill for a judgeship. One of his law partners was Bush’s general counsel when Bush was governor of Texas.
But his record is more complex than those of some of the others backing the Swift boat campaign. In this year’s election, O’Neill said, his choice among all the candidates, regardless of party, would have been Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who is now Kerry’s running mate.
Although O’Neill’s firm has close to ties to the oil and gas industries, he has worked largely as a plaintiff’s lawyer -- taking cases on behalf of people allegedly wronged by big companies.
He once represented a group of elderly and disabled hot dog vendors -- in a company called Hot Diggity Dog -- who said they had been wrongfully shut down by superstores. In 2001, he won a $429-million judgment on behalf of investors who fell victim to an elaborate securities fraud.
“The idea that anybody is telling John O’Neill what to do or what to say -- nothing could be farther from the truth,” said David K. Bissinger, a partner at O’Neill’s firm. “He doesn’t follow any particular ideology. If he thinks the law is being broken, or if he thinks there is a miscarriage of justice, John is there.”
Others see nothing noble about O’Neill’s campaign.
The Kerry camp has pointed to inaccuracies in O’Neill’s book and inconsistencies in statements he has made over the years. O’Neill, for instance, wrote that Kerry lied when he said he was in Cambodia as part of a secret war linked to Vietnam. No Americans were in Cambodia, O’Neill has said. But O’Neill told Nixon in 1971 that he was also “in Cambodia.”
O’Neill said his statements have remained consistent, that he was speaking in general terms to Nixon and meant that he was near Cambodia, not across the border. The Kerry campaign’s accusations, however, have left some in Texas wondering whether O’Neill is as independent as he claims.
“I just think it is sad that we have people who served together in Vietnam -- maybe not next to each other, but together -- trashing each other,” said U.S. Rep. Gene Green, a Houston Democrat. “I don’t think it’s good for the country.”