After realizing that ignoring charges by Swift boat vets was not working, the Kerry campaign and its press allies embarked last week on sharp attacks. The New York Times led the way by treating the vets as liars, calling them a "Republican-financed group of Vietnam veterans vilifying Mr. Kerry."
Meanwhile, those vets began airing a second advertisement. This one focused on Mr. Kerry's explosive congressional testimony in 1971, during which he accused soldiers in Vietnam "on a day-to-day basis" of acting "in a fashion reminiscent of Ghengis Khan." With a black-and-white photo of a young Mr. Kerry in a congressional hearing room as backdrop, the audio of his testimony plays: "They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads . . . randomly shot at civilians . . . cut off limbs, blown up bodies . . ."
The ad interposes Mr. Kerry's accusations with statements by Vietnam-era vets about the impact his words had on them. Joe Ponder: "It hurt me more than any physical wounds I had." Paul Gallanti: "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."
Democratic strategists, clearly worried about the new ad, accused President Bush of using a front group to spread "lies" and "smears" about Mr. Kerry. The New York Times intensively investigated several ties between Bush campaign personnel and the vets, while ignoring more extensive connections between the Kerry campaign and left-wing 527 organizations like MoveOn.org. A Kerry strategist said, "When those connections are made in this campaign and are imputed to this president, it's going to be a very bad thing for the president."
The Kerry campaign also worked to silence the Swift Boat vets, asking TV stations to reject the ads, publisher Regnery to recall the book Unfit for Command as a "fraud," and the Federal Election Commission to step in. Other Democrats went further. In Oregon some pledged to try to recall Alfred French, a local official who signed the Swift Vets petition. The New York Daily News reported that a "group of Democratic loyalists is compiling incriminating dossiers on the members of the veteran group-and they sent us a preview of what might be in store for Swift Boat activist James Zumwalt, son of illustrious Adm. Elmo Zumwalt-and it isn't pretty."
Candidate Kerry himself wasn't answering questions. The only media representative able to get close enough to him to ask a question was a comedian, Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's The Daily Show. "I'm sorry," Mr. Stewart said. "Were you or were you not in Cambodia?" Mr. Stewart and Mr. Kerry then leaned in and stared each other down before Mr. Stewart moved on to other subjects.