All through last year’s presidential race, Vietnam-era critics of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) charged that he was trying to hide something by refusing to authorize the public release of his entire military and medical file.
On Tuesday, Kerry provided access to his complete records. The long-awaited documents contained no bombshells, and his enemies still were not satisfied.
The 180-page sheaf of medal commendations, officer’s fitness reports and medical entries released under federal guidelines by Kerry’s Senate office provided a few new nuggets of information about his 1968 to 1969 stint as a Swift boat commander during the Vietnam War.
There was one page from a January 1969 officer evaluation that appeared to back Kerry’s claims that he had been well-rated by his superiors. During the heat of the 2004 campaign, some members of a group of anti-Kerry Navy veterans suggested that the then-missing document might provide a damning assessment of his wartime role.
Kerry said in a statement Tuesday that he had provided “unprecedented access” to his military and medical records during the campaign “and now months after it ended.” In releasing the file, he said, “the facts speak for themselves and as these records prove, once again the right wing is wrong.”
But Kerry’s reluctance to provide easy access to records that buttressed his war resume remains one of the more puzzling aspects of his campaign strategy.
Pollsters and political scientists who have studied the race said that Kerry might have left himself vulnerable by reacting too slowly to criticism by pro-Bush veterans and their insistent calls for public access to all of his records. Kerry’s move to release the file now, observers said, could inoculate him from similar pressure if he decided to run again in 2008.
“This would certainly help him keep his options open,” said William Benoit, a communications professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia who has analyzed the repairing of political images.
But a former Swift boat officer who led the Navy veterans’ bitter public campaign against Kerry demanded more Tuesday, saying that the file was incomplete.
“We asked him to universally release his entire file, and what we’ve seen instead is a parceling out of incomplete records,” said John O’Neill, a Houston lawyer who was a founder of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The group last year mounted a well-bankrolled advertising campaign to undermine Kerry’s wartime pedigree.
O’Neill expressed doubt that Kerry’s latest document release included material from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. But David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, said that the request to Navy Personnel Command to release documents extended to all government record repositories.
In a phone interview from Houston, O’Neill said the Swift boat group was pressing for information about three unresolved controversies from the 2004 race: Kerry’s disputed contention that his Swift boat had entered Cambodian waters about December 1968; wording discrepancies among several versions of Kerry’s medal commendations; and a perceived lag between Kerry’s discharge from the Navy in 1970 and a later departure date in 1978.
“If he made a true universal release of his records and not through selective journalists, maybe we could get to the records that would answer some of these questions,” O’Neill said. “If there were orders, for example, that sent him to Cambodia, they should be in his file.”
Navy archives are sometimes incomplete, and Kerry’s latest document release contained no new information on any of those controversies. But it did include the missing first page of a two-page evaluation from 1969. That document indicated that Kerry would have been selected for “accelerated promotion” and described him as “one of the top few” in his officer group -- the highest rank available.
“No matter how much these dishonest partisans pretend otherwise, the truth is right there in black and white in fitness reports written by his commanding officers,” Wade said.
A less flattering portrait of Kerry shows up in other documents in the file. Correspondence from Navy officials reveals that soon after leaving Vietnam, Kerry took pains to make sure that all his wartime commendations were documented in his military file.
“Subject officer advised ... that he has never received the citation or decoration for the Silver Star medal,” a Navy personnel officer wrote in a file notation in December 1969 -- nine months after Kerry had returned from Vietnam.
Kerry’s reluctance last year to give unfettered access to his file may have provided Swift boat critics with a ready-made issue. But his political caution, Benoit said, was understandable.
“He wanted to release it in the best light possible, and to do that, he has to keep control,” Benoit said. “Even if he had put it all out there for everyone to see, I’m not so sure the Swift boat people would have been any easier on him. By putting all the records out there now, at least he gives them one less argument to use against him next time.”