Just what Washington needs: one more political action committee. In a politically divided nation where every tiny interest group seems to have its own PAC, the formation of yet another such organization would hardly qualify as a newsworthy event under normal circumstances.
But the standing-room-only crowd of journalists at the National Press Club on May 4 was a clear indication that Washington's newest PAC was about to make a big splash in the media. Despite a rather unwieldy name-Swift Boat Veterans for Truth-the group had a simple message: John Kerry is unfit to be commander in chief.
That's a message-should it catch on-with the potential to sink Sen. Kerry's entire campaign, built as it is on the war-hero status of the presumptive Democratic nominee. Indeed, even as the Swift Boat PAC was announcing its formation to the Washington press corps, Democratic operatives were already scrambling to discredit the group. Half an hour into the press conference, a news release from the Kerry campaign suddenly began circulating in the room. "Kerry crewmates respond to GOP attack machine," read the release urging reporters to attend a pro-Kerry press conference scheduled to start in 10 minutes on the next floor down.
No one seemed to move, however. Democrats might complain about the new PAC's motives, but the Navy veterans at the front of the room were impossible to ignore. Like Sen. Kerry, they had served on the small, highly mobile Swift Boats that patrolled the rivers of the Mekong Delta. Unlike Sen. Kerry, however, they didn't go back home to undermine the war effort.
"We lost the war at home, and at home John Kerry was the field general," said Lt. Robert Elder, one of the 18 former Swifties who spoke at the press conference. Like the other PAC members, he said that charges of U.S. atrocities leveled by Sen. Kerry in his anti-war speeches crippled the morale of the men he fought alongside back in Vietnam.
David Wallace, another Swifty, said he never saw the alleged American atrocities, though he served in Vietnam much longer than Sen. Kerry. "He told everyone I knew and everyone I'd ever known that I and my comrades had committed unspeakable atrocities. We'd tortured people, raped women, burned villages without any reason, that sort of thing. He never let up on that.... Now he's parading around in a Navy jacket with patches all over it. Well, I was in Vietnam three times longer than the senator-I haven't seen anybody wear a flight jacket in 90-degree weather."
In an open letter to Sen. Kerry, the Swift Boat Veterans complained that the Democrat had "grossly and knowingly distorted the conduct" of American servicemen upon returning home, making him unfit to serve as commander in chief at a time when the armed forces are once again embroiled in a controversial war overseas. The Swifties also called on Sen. Kerry to authorize the independent Navy release of his military records, putting to rest questions about his service and the recognition he received.
Some 200 Swift Boat veterans have signed the letter, according to organizers. Only 19 have refused. Most damaging of all, they said that 12 of the 18 servicemen pictured in Mr. Kerry's celebrated "band of brothers" photo had signed onto their cause.
Despite a clear assumption by reporters that the group is simply a front for the Bush White House, a spokesman for the Swift Boat Veterans stressed that the PAC was nonpartisan and differed on issues from abortion to the federal deficit. In fact, he said, "We're unified on absolutely nothing except one thing-John Kerry is not fit to be commander in chief."
-with reporting by Priya Abraham in Washington