A new ad by an independent, Bush-friendly group hit the airwaves this month, rocking both presidential campaigns like a mortar shell. It's too early to say, however, which party will sustain the more serious injuries.
The ad's charges are serious: A dozen veterans insist on-camera that John Kerry lied about his war record as a way to earn medals and an early ticket out of Vietnam. If proven, that would deal a fatal blow to a campaign built largely on a "war hero" image.
The ad drew howls of protest from both sides. GOP Sen. John McCain slammed the ad as "dishonest and dishonorable," calling on President Bush to repudiate the charges publicly. Jim Rassman, the man whose life was saved when Mr. Kerry fished him out of a river, provided vivid new details of that harrowing episode-details that burnished Mr. Kerry's credentials as a hero. The White House, so far, has remained silent.
Black-and-white images from nearly 40 years ago fill the screen: a uniformed John Kerry with his comrades, Swift Boats plying the waters of Vietnam. Eventually the images change, and a hippie-looking Mr. Kerry is seen protesting the war that his friends are still fighting. All the while a dozen of those men appear in color in the foreground, giving their opinions of Mr. Kerry's service and his leadership.
John Edwards: "If you have any question about what John Kerry is made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him."
Al French: "I served with John Kerry."
Bob Elder: "I served with John Kerry."
George Elliott: "John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam."
Al French: "He is lying about his record."
Louis Letson: "I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury."
Van O'Dell: "John Kerry lied to get his bronze star . . . I know, I was there, I saw what happened."
Jack Chenoweth: "His account of what happened and what actually happened are the difference between night and day."
Admiral Roy Hoffman: "John Kerry has not been honest."
Adrian Lonsdale: "And he lacks the capacity to lead."
Larry Thurlow: "When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry."
Bob Elder: "John Kerry is no war hero."
Grant Hibbard: "He betrayed all his shipmates . . . he lied before the Senate."
Shelton White: "John Kerry betrayed the men and women he served with in Vietnam."
Joe Ponder: "He dishonored his country . . . he most certainly did."
Bob Hildreth: "I served with John Kerry . . .
Bob Hildreth (off-camera): John Kerry cannot be trusted."
Though there is no time in a 30-second ad to back up the charges against Mr. Kerry, each of the Swift Boat veterans has filed a sworn affidavit with further details. They charge that Mr. Kerry's injuries, which got him out of Vietnam after just four months, were not as serious as he claimed and were at least partially self-inflicted by Mr. Kerry's own carelessness in handling a grenade.
Moreover, they insist that a key firefight never happened, and that Mr. Kerry's boat fled the scene of a confrontation while two other boats stayed to fight.
But the Kerry campaign points out that none of the men in the ad actually served on the boat commanded by Mr. Kerry. Their boats were some distance away when key events occurred, and Mr. Kerry's version of the story is supported by Mr. Rassman, who saw everything frighteningly close-up and still thought enough of Mr. Kerry's bravery to recommend him for a Silver Star. (The Navy awarded him a Bronze Star instead.)
With memories on both sides clouded by the passage of more than 30 years, only a full release of Mr. Kerry's military records is likely to settle the debate. In the meantime, both campaigns are nervously watching the response to the Swift Boat ad. Mr. Kerry could be crippled by the slightest uptick in public doubt about his service in Vietnam, while Mr. Bush could sustain "friendly fire" injuries of his own if voters decide the ad is mean-spirited or misleading.