Part II: Can conservative bloggers tell the truth?

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

I don't mean to be judge and jury, but I must say my challenge last week to conservative blogger John Hinderaker over at Power Line, who recently claimed that most of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations from 2004 have never disputed and that the Swift Boat vets have not been discredited, was a resounding success for the home team. How else to describe the fact that in his rebuttal to my very specific laundry list detailing precisely how the Swift Boat accusers had been discredited, Hinderaker never challenged a single fact I published?

I don't mean to be judge and jury, but I must say my challenge last week to conservative blogger John Hinderaker over at Power Line, who recently claimed that most of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations from 2004 have never disputed and that the Swift Boat vets have not been discredited, was a resounding success for the home team. How else to describe the fact that in his rebuttal to my very specific laundry list detailing precisely how the Swift Boat accusers had been discredited, Hinderaker never challenged a single fact I published?

No joke. He didn't take issue with one factual assertion. Similarly, Power Line colleague Scott Johnson wrote that my Swift Boat work was built around a "barrage of little lies." Johnson then promptly failed to unmask a single lie that I told. In fact, he didn't even try.

I'm not surprised. The revisionist claim that the Swift Boat accusers were somehow vindicated by the facts -- that "most of what the Vets said in their ads has never been disputed, let alone discredited," as Hinderaker put it -- remains a pipe dream that only partisan GOP bloggers still cling to.

Note that Hinderaker also claimed it "was certainly true" that during the 2004 election, "[Sen. John] Kerry's [D-MA] purported heroism in Vietnam was being grossly over-sold." [Emphasis added.]

Unlike Kerry, Baby Boomer Hinderaker didn't volunteer for Vietnam, yet he's comfortable today casually demeaning Kerry's military service, including the senator's Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. That's a pretty good indication of the editorial and ethical standards Power Line regularly employs.

In his name-calling response to my challenge that he defend his ill-advised claim that "most of what the Vets said in their ads has never been disputed, let alone discredited," Hinderaker stressed that he was referring to the later Swift Boat attack ads, not the first, most controversial one. (Hinderaker claims the allegations from the first attack ad were "relatively minor.")

Oh, you mean that ad. The one that premiered on August 4, 2004, and launched the entire Swift Boat media frenzy and kept the story on cable television for weeks on end and generated thousands of newspaper and magazine articles and columns. Without that first ad accusing Kerry of lying about his medals, there would have been no Swift Boat controversy. Period. The later ads, which dealt with Kerry's 1971 anti-war testimony and the claim he'd crossed over the Cambodian border while serving, didn't air for weeks and had far less impact, according to Glenn Kessler, whose firm, HCD Research, monitored voter reaction to the Swift Boat ads.

Appearing on Fox News on August 23, 2004, Kessler reported that 42 percent of viewers were leaning toward voting for Kerry before seeing the first ad, but just 29 percent were leaning toward Kerry immediately after seeing it. As for the second ad, Kessler said viewers had little or no reaction, and that his firm even detected a backlash against Bush among some independent viewers.

Again, the entire Swift Boat firestorm was ignited by the first ad, which was laced with disputed allegations and discredited accusers. Yet Hinderaker makes sweeping statements about how most of the Swift Boat allegations were never disputed except, for y'know, maybe in the first ad.

Right, and other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

In his response to my column last week, Hinderaker actually backtracked a bit, conceding there were "significant factual dispute[s]" in the first Swift Boat ad. I'll chalk that up as progress. (Hinderaker also claimed that I had deliberately deceived readers because I did not quote extensively from his original defense of the Swift Boat Vets. I suppose the fact that I linked to his post, which offered readers a chance to examine his defense in full, counted as part of my master plan of deception.)

Meanwhile, if Power Line bloggers want to think the Swift Boat Vets damaged Kerry's campaign not by making shocking (and false) accusations about his fraudulent war medals, but by raising doubts about whether Kerry crossed over into Cambodian waters 38 years ago, they're free to do so. Then again, Power Line bloggers are convinced the surge is working in Iraq, that the press won't report all the good news from Baghdad, and that the administration's recent purge of U.S. attorneys is a "non-story." In other words, they're Bush era dead-enders, struggling as they watch their beloved administration fall deeper into permanent disrepair.

Honestly, I wasn't expecting any sort of Swift Boat correction or even a heartfelt acknowledgement of error from Power Line, which can't even muster the courage to do that when it's caught dead to rights, the way Greg Sargent did earlier this year by refuting Power Line's phony claim that U.S. troops had snubbed Kerry during his recent visit to Iraq (i.e. The Great Kerry Photo Caper). Instead, when confronted with proof its story line was false, the Power Line brain trust danced around the facts, insisting its original accusation against Kerry was "light in tone," that Power Line readers didn't really care that much about the story, and then told Sargent to "get a life." (How dare somebody document Power Line's serial mendacity?)

I still think blogger Ezra Klein put it best, back in 2005, after Power Line was unmasked for hyping yet another one of its fruitless conspiracy theories:

Powerline, we must begin to understand, has no fucking idea what they're talking about at any given moment.

[...]

They get nothing right. Their fact-checking skills are atrocious. They neither report nor call experts, it's just whatever they invented twenty seconds ago. [...] Arguments are created on the fly, accuracy is unimportant so long as the product accuses the "MSM" or Democrats of some cardinal sin that'll leave Powerline's sycophantic readers moaning with the exquisite pleasure that comes only from having one's biases expertly stroked. [Emphasis original.]

If nothing else, this Swift Boat exercise has been instructive in that nobody at Power Line was willing, or able, to defend any of the Swift Boat accusations from the first, most famous attack ad. That's why Hinderaker wouldn't touch my laundry list of Swift Boat deceptions. Conservative bloggers claim the Swift Boat Vets have never been discredited, yet when confronted with my 2,500-word examination of their blatant contradictions and hollow claims, the GOP bloggers at Power Line simply look away, refusing to engage in the facts. It's telling, especially since the bloggers at Power Line are attorneys. Honestly, if even they won't try to defend the Swift Boat accusers, who will?

Still, what about Hinderaker's assertion that the second and third Swift Boats ads were never disputed, let alone discredited? Turns out that's also a bogus claim. (Beyond the third ad, the Swift Boat claims became factually inconsequential.)

The second ad, which premiered August 20, 2004, featured highlights from Kerry's famous 1971 testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he detailed grim war crimes conducted in Vietnam.

Last week, Hinderaker asked, "Has that ad been refuted or discredited in any way? It's hard to see how it could be; I suppose Kerry could imitate the professional athlete who claimed he was misquoted in his own autobiography, but here we have Kerry on tape."

It's telling that three years after the fact Hinderaker still knows so little about the Swift Boat controversy that he suggests perhaps Kerry claimed he was misquoted in the ad. Anyone who followed the story in real time knows Kerry made no such claim, but Hinderaker, prancing around as a Swift Boat expert, still doesn't have the slightest clue about the facts.

More important, was that second ad ever refuted? Of course it was. It was well-documented in 2004 that the ad clearly, and purposefully, misled viewers via dubious editing. The ad suggested Kerry had personally accused Vietnam vets of grisly war crimes. A Swift Boat Veterans' accuser in the second ad stated, "The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating." (Hinderaker made a similarly blatant misstatement, claiming that when he returned from Vietnam, Kerry "falsely accused his fellow servicemen of being war criminals." Again, Hinderaker appears to be clueless as to the facts, or a very committed fabricator.)

In truth, during his 1971 testimony, Kerry was simply relaying -- summarizing -- the crimes that more than 100 Vietnam vets had publicly claimed they had personally committed. Kerry was not accusing anyone.

Also, keep in mind that Kerry's testimony came less than one month after Army Lt. William Calley had been convicted for his role in the My Lai massacre, where nearly 350 unarmed Vietnamese civilians -- mostly women and children -- were executed by U.S. soldiers. Given the abominable crimes documented at My Lai, Kerry's comments about atrocities were hardly the rantings of a radical, as the Swift Boat Veterans insinuated.

In the third ad, the Swift Boat accusers asserted that Kerry lied when he once claimed during a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate that he had spent Christmas Eve 1968 on a Swift Boat in neutral waters in Cambodia.

The truth is Kerry did have to back away from his statements about being in Cambodia that day. Of course, what Hinderaker doesn't want to discuss is the fact that head Swift Boat accuser John O'Neill was also forced to backtrack from his 1971 statement that he had crossed over into Cambodian territory during a Swift Boat mission. Meaning, in the ad that contained a relatively undisputed fact, the incompetent Swift Boat Vets still managed to stumble over their inconsistencies.

The accusers claimed Kerry being in Cambodia was impossible because nobody aboard a U.S. Swift Boat ever crossed over into Cambodia. Nobody. In fact, Kerry would have been court-martialed if he'd ventured into Cambodian territory, the Swift Boat veterans told reporters.

Except that O'Neill told President Nixon he had done just that. Here's a discussion recorded during O'Neill's White House visit in 1971:

O'NEILL: I was in Cambodia, sir. I worked along the border on the water.

NIXON: In a Swift boat?

O'NEILL: Yes, sir.

When the Oval Office tape surfaced in 2004, the Associated Press quizzed O'Neill about the apparent discrepancies. O'Neill never blinked. "In an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press, O'Neill did not dispute what he said to Nixon on June 16, 1971, but he insisted he was never actually in Cambodia."

In other words, O'Neill did not dispute that he told Nixon he "was in Cambodia," O'Neill simply disputed the fact that he was ever in Cambodia.

Priceless.

If you really want to get down into the Swift Boat minutia, and I realize Power Line bloggers don't want to since they have enough trouble grasping even the simplest facts of the saga, O'Neill was actually caught in a double lie regarding Cambodia. Here's how: He claimed he wasn't in Cambodia, even though he's on tape telling Nixon he was in Cambodia. OK, fine. O'Neill was simply being a braggart trying to impress Nixon. O'Neill's fallback position in 2004 when the Nixon tape surfaced was that he was merely "along the border" of Cambodia.

Yet in making the original allegation against Kerry and his "made-up story" about Cambodia, O'Neill, in the Swift Boat Veterans' attack book, Unfit For Command, declared that no Swift Boat got closer than 55 miles to the Cambodian border because the U.S. military was so vigilant about not letting them cross or even get too close. [Pages 47-48]

Indeed, in 2004, Swift Boat accuser Stephen Gardner told reporters it was "physically impossible" for Swift Boats to even approach the Cambodian border because of a U.S. naval blockade.

So why did O'Neill tell Nixon that he was "along the border" of Cambodia, despite the fact the Kerry accusers claimed that no Swift Boaters were allowed within 55 miles of the border? Even O'Neill's lies didn't add up.

Given Hinderaker's weak-kneed rebuttal last week, I don't suspect he's yet willing, or able, to argue the facts of the Swift Boat smear campaign. But I'm sure he'll continue to insist that the Swift Boat Vets haven't been discredited. That's because Power Line rarely lets the facts get in the way of a good story.

Person
John O'Neill
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Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, 2004 Elections
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