On the August 28 edition of CNN's The Capital Gang, syndicated columnist and CNN Crossfire co-host Robert Novak contradicted his own August 16 column in an effort to bolster the claims of his highly touted witness, retired Rear Admiral William L. Schachte Jr., who says he was the commander on the December 2, 1968, mission for which the U.S. Navy awarded Senator John Kerry (D-MA) his first Purple Heart. According to Schachte, Kerry did not deserve the award.
Media Matters for America has previously noted that Novak -- having landed what he called Schachte's "first on-the-record interview about the Swift Boat Vets dispute" -- quoted Schachte claiming that he was on Kerry's crew for the mission and denying that the boat received hostile fire. Mounting evidence contradicts both of these claims -- yet the New York Post, The Washington Times, and Capital Gang weekly panelist (and National Review Washington editor) Kate O'Beirne have all joined Novak in advancing Schachte's assertions.
In his August 16 column, Novak wrote that he had contacted Patrick Runyon and William Zaladonis, the two enlisted men who said they were on Kerry's boat during the December 2, 1968, mission. "Each said they did not know whether there was enemy fire and did not know how Kerry was wounded. But each said he was certain that they alone were in the boat with Kerry and did not even know Schachte," Novak wrote.
But on the August 28 edition of The Capital Gang, Novak changed his account of their story. In his August 16 column, Novak wrote that Runyon and Zaladonis "did not know whether there was enemy fire"; yet on Capital Gang, he claimed, "[T]hey told me they didn't believe there was any enemy fire." Both of Novak's versions -- but particularly the one he made on August 28 to bolster Schachte's claim that Kerry did not deserve the award -- are contradicted by what Capital Gang co-panelist (and executive Washington editor of The Wall Street Journal) Al Hunt had just learned from interviewing Runyon and Zaladonis earlier that day: that both men, in fact, remember being "in a firefight." The exchange went as follows:
HUNT: I talked to those two enlisted men today. I talked to Pat Runyon and Bill Zaladonis. ... They remember -- Zaladonis remembers Kerry saying, Shoot over here, rather than over here, when they were in a firefight.
NOVAK: In the first place, I also interviewed those two guys, Runyon and Zaladoris [sic], and they both said they both doubted there was any enemy fire. I don't know if you didn't ask them that question. But they told me they didn't believe there was any enemy fire. I don't know if you didn't ask them that question. But they told me they didn't believe there was any enemy fire. That -- that's just a factual thing.
HUNT: Bob invoked my name and said I -- you know, didn't know if I asked them -- I did ask them the question. They both very clearly say there was a firefight. They describe it in detail. They describe firing at people that night. And Zaladonis -- by the way, you have his name wrong. His name is Zaladonis, Bob. You know, if you called him, you ought to get his name right -- describes when Kerry was hit. They both say that, Mark [Shields, moderator of The Capital Gang], and I challenge anyone to call them, and they'll tell him.
NOVAK: They both -- they both told me they didn't believe there was any fire coming from the enemy on that boat. ... Now, maybe they've changed their story!
The Washington Times, the New York Post, and O'Beirne joined Novak in transparent attempts to bolster Schachte's credibility. In an August 27 editorial, The Washington Times named Schachte "the Noble of the week" for "sticking to his guns in the midst of a political firestorm." The New York Post stated in an August 29 editorial that "Schachte's statements [to Novak regarding Kerry's first Purple Heart] lends [sic] credibility to the Swift-boat vets' version and put Kerry on the defensive yet again." And appearing with Novak on the August 28 edition of The Capital Gang, O'Beirne stated: "Well, this latest eyewitness, the retired admiral, is certainly a credible witness."
Conservatives have touted Schachte's claims as the truth despite mounting evidence discrediting them:
SCHACHTE'S CLAIM: There was "no enemy fire" during the December 2, 1968, mission
FACT: Schachte described "firefight" in 2003 Boston Globe interview
Schachte told NBC News senior investigative correspondent Lisa Myers in an August 24 interview (portions of which were aired on Hardball with Chris Matthews on August 27) that there was "no enemy fire" on the December 2, 1968, mission. But in an April 2003 interview with The Boston Globe, "Schachte described the action as a 'firefight' and said of Kerry: 'He got hit,'" the Globe reported on August 28. According to the Globe, Schachte "did not challenge Kerry's Purple Heart" during that interview.
SCHACHTE'S CLAIM: He was on Kerry's boat for the December 2, 1968, mission
FACT: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's own website says only Kerry and two enlisted men were on the boat
Schachte claims that he was the commanding officer on the boat for the December 2, 1968, mission, with Kerry and one other enlisted man. But as MMFA has documented, according to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's website (archived copy here), "The action that led to John Kerry's first Purple Heart occurred on December 2, 1968. ... Kerry volunteered for a nighttime patrol mission commanding a small, foam-filled "skimmer" craft with two enlisted men."
FACT: Two enlisted men on Kerry's boat that night insist Schachte was not there
Zaladonis and Runyon have both insisted (here, here, and here) that no one apart from Kerry was with them on the boat on the December 2, 1968, mission. "There definitely was not a fourth," Runyon told The Boston Globe. Zaladonis told NBC's Myers, "[H]e's [Schachte] wrong. The night that I'm talking about it was just myself, John Kerry and Pat Runyon."
SCHACHTE'S CLAIM: He is "nonpartisan"
FACT: Schachte contributed to George W. Bush's presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004
Schachte told Myers he is "nonpartisan" -- and Novak, in his August 27 column, described him as a "political independent." But as MMFA has documented, Schachte has a history of political contributions heavily weighted to Republicans, including $1,000 contributions to George W. Bush's presidential campaigns in both 2000 and 2004.