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The Battle Over Kerry's Vietnam War Record

Last Friday, I reported on All Things Considered about a new ad that attacks Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's record as a naval officer in small-boat combat. The ad was sponsored by a group of Vietnam veterans.

It took all of four minutes after the piece aired for the first e-mail to arrive, challenging my story's accuracy.

I had said that all but one of the surviving sailors who served on Kerry's boats was now a supporter. The e-mail writer said I was wrong, that they all do: "Why did you not tell the whole story? Every member of Kerry's crew supports him. The one that doesn't is dead!… Do you have a hidden agenda? If not, it is just sloppy. Tighten up!"

It's easy to see why someone might have hit the roof and then hit the "send" button last week. After a Democratic National Convention that stressed Kerry's image as a war hero, it was a sharp slap to hear from the group that calls itself "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth."

This conservative political group put up a TV ad in three key states that essentially calls Kerry's war record a fraud.

One of the ad's backers is Texas lawyer John O'Neill, himself a swift boat veteran, who contributed $25,000. O'Neill was debating the war in public forums with Kerry as far back as the early 1970s. He is now also co-author of a new book elaborating on the fraud theme -- Unfit For Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry -- which is due out this week.

It's no surprise that when you combine a tight presidential campaign with memories of an unpopular war, every detail can be a flashpoint. And a little bit of the back story behind the ad shows why.

First, the detail of Kerry's crew: Who supports him and who doesn't?

Kerry commanded two swift boats -- small, lightly armed and noisy diesel craft that prowled the Mekong Delta.

Many members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth served with Kerry in the swift boat fleet. But none served on either of the two boats that were under Kerry's command.

There were 11 men who did serve under Kerry. One has since died. Nine of the remaining 10 are campaigning for Kerry. Then there's Steve Gardner. In March, Gardner told a Charlotte Observer reporter that under fire, Kerry "ran like a dog." Gardner makes no secret of his support for President Bush.

When historian Douglas Brinkley was researching his book Tour Of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, he interviewed all of the surviving crew -- except Gardner, whom he looked for but failed to find. The book depicts the crew members as a "band of brothers," different in many ways, including politics, but united by their experience in the delta.

Tour Of Duty was published Jan. 6, near the peak of the Democratic primary season. Kerry's campaign was staggering at the time, living off the proceeds of a mortgage Kerry took out on his house. Then the "band of brothers" began to appear with him, and the campaign turned around. Kerry went on to an upset victory in the Iowa caucuses and, in a matter of weeks, clinched the nomination.

Right about that time, Gardner surfaced -- inspired, he explains -- by Rush Limbaugh. Following up, historian Brinkley interviewed Gardner for a story that appeared on Time magazine's Web site. His conclusion was his book's "band of brothers" was actually "a band of brothers minus one."

That story caused a splash, as did some other interviews with Gardner at the time. But as my incoming e-mail shows, the "minus one" never fully caught up to the "band of brothers" story -- especially among Kerry partisans.

Then there's the business and legal side of putting the anti-Kerry veterans' ad on the air.

According to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the ad buy totals $550,000 of airtime on "dozens" of TV stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

The Kerry campaign says that's an exaggeration. Like all serious campaigns now, the Kerry folks closely track who else buys time for political ads in markets it cares about. According to a Kerry spokesman, by the end of the week, the Veterans for Truth group had bought only about $150,000 worth of airtime.

As a Section 527 political organization, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth files quarterly reports with the Internal Revenue Service. Its first and only report so far doesn't show much. As of June 30, the group had received O'Neill's $25,000, another $25,000 from Texas developer Harlan Crow and a notable $100,000 from Texas homebuilder Bob J. Perry, a prominent backer of Republican candidates and causes. Then there were several checks for $2,000 or less. The group reported spending small amounts on research and Web site design, plus $10,000 for fundraising and $27,855 on media consulting.

In other words, if it's really throwing a half-million dollars into TV ads, the actual checks to pay the bills either arrived in the past five weeks or have not yet arrived. The group's next disclosure report will be well read, indeed.

At the same time, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the Kerry campaign are waging war against each other. TV stations are the main battleground, and documents are the ammunition. Veterans for Truth wants to prove its ad is fully researched and therefore must run. The Kerry campaign declares the ad false, presents its evidence and warns stations that they "have an overriding duty" under federal law not to run deceptive advertising.

A spokesman for the anti-Kerry group says two stations are still vetting the ad, but no station has turned it down.

Maybe the most unusual element in all this is the timing. It's August, a month when the presidential campaign usually gives way to preoccupation with the Olympics. The games are about to begin in Athens. But back home, the campaign games are not subsiding. Even in the presumed doldrums between the conventions, the political world is furiously arguing over what happened 35 years ago, and what it might mean today.

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Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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