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August 23, 2004

Swift Boat Story a Sad Chord

That we are still fighting about the Vietnam War is sad. Watching an old political fight try to finish itself thirty years later in either the wreckage of the Kerry campaign or its triumph over the attempt to wreck-- that's sad. William B. Rood of the Chicago Tribune spoke out Sunday; he was a commander of a swift boat who had first hand knowledge. Rood thought it was sad that we're still fighting about this.

Asked if Mr. Kerry had lied about his war record, Mr. Bush said, “Mr. Kerry served admirably and he ought to be proud of his record.” — New York Times, Aug. 24

It’s sad. That’s my comment on the Swift Boat Veterans campaign to impeach the honor of John Kerry and question whether he deserved his medals. The whole thing is sad. I admit it’s not a very interesting opinion. It adds nothing to the debate to say: how sad for all of us. How sad for Kerry to be subjected to this. How sad for the Swift Boat Veterans that they have to take such measures. “Vietnam has moved on and we haven’t,” wrote Jeff Jarvis.

That we are still fighting about the Vietnam War is sad. Watching an old political fight (among veterans, but involving the nation) try to finish itself thirty years later in either the wreckage of the Kerry campaign or its triumph over the attempt to wreck— that’s sad. I’m with Meep, a voice at Jarvis’s weblog, Buzzmachine: “Are boomers going to be eating their livers in retirement because of Vietnam? Sounds like it to me.” Me too. That’s a sad thing to say about boomers, and I was born near the crest of that boom.

Now if you like sad as the best mood for consuming Swift Boat stories, if you think it fitting, then pay especially close attention to what the Chicago Tribune published over the weekend: This is what I saw that day by William B. Rood, a brilliantly disciplined and moving work of first-person journalism, which is also a moral statement, for while it defends John Kerry and his military record—and thus makes news—that is not the heart of what Rood meant to say. He was there with Kerry on one of his Swift Boat raids. His moral statement begins with this:

Many of us wanted to put it all behind us—the rivers, the ambushes, the killing. Ever since that time, I have refused all requests for interviews about Kerry’s service—even those from reporters at the Chicago Tribune, where I work.

But with the Swift Boat Veterans campaign heating up, Kerry—who could become president—calls him and says: please, tell what you know. Rood’s intention never to speak comes under severe pressure. If he’s going to break with that policy, it requires a reason. We are free to speculate on the real reason; I’m interested in what William Rood says it was:

I can’t pretend those calls had no effect on me, but that is not why I am writing this. What matters most to me is that this is hurting crewmen who are not public figures and who deserved to be honored for what they did. My intent is to tell the story here and to never again talk publicly about it.

Rood is an editor on the Chicago Tribune’s metropolitan desk— a career journalist. His published account broke 35 years of silence about events on Feb. 28, 1969 that resulted in Kerry’s Silver Star. You cannot understand Rood’s statement Sunday unless you also attend to this earlier silence, through which he has been speaking since ‘69. It says: wars don’t end until we stop fighting in them.

And so part of Rood’s “statement” is his intention to speak once about Feb. 28, 1969, and be done with it— in other words, return to his silence after breaking form once because of the high stakes in an election for president. He made the same point in other ways, by setting limits you would not set if you wanted to “get your voice out there.” Rood did not want his voice out there; he did not want to keep fighting that war. But something compelled him to testify— loyalty to men other than John Kerry:

Kerry’s critics, armed with stories I know to be untrue, have charged that the accounts of what happened were overblown. The critics have taken pains to say they’re not trying to cast doubts on the merit of what others did, but their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us.

Rood’s point is that we need to stop this. And he’s defending his right to privacy (even while speaking publicly) by restricting his statements to a careful minimum: only what he knows from direct experience serving in battle with Kerry, and the background knowledge needed to understand that eyewitness account.

Thus he engages in anti-frenzy behavior, even though he knows his statement will contribute momentum to the Swift Vets story, via the news cycle. This is from the Tribune’s news account of the statement (emphasis is mine):

Rood declined requests from a Tribune reporter to be interviewed for this article. Rood wrote that he could testify only to the February 1969 mission and not to any of the other battlefield decorations challenged by Kerry’s critics—a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts—because Rood was not an eyewitness to those engagements.

It’s journalism as its most elemental: This is what I saw that day. It’s journalism at its most disciplined: Rood testifies only to what he knows, and declines to go beyond that. It is also a compelling and vivid eyewitness account that helps you understand war. For 35 years he had refrained from giving any account of that day, precisely because Kerry’s involvement guaranteed it would be politicized.

And politicized it was at the moment Rood finally wrote about it. Here is the lead his own newspaper ran when it extracted nuggets of news from This is what I saw:

Swift boat skipper: Kerry critics wrong
Tribune editor breaks long silence on Kerry record; fought in disputed battle

The commander of a Navy swift boat who served alongside Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry during the Vietnam War stepped forward Saturday to dispute attacks challenging Kerry’s integrity and war record.

That’s the news, right? “Skipper: Kerry critics wrong.” If you’re scoring the debate, William Rood comes down on Kerry’s side. But Rood was saying something else when he added: This is my one statement. I will give no interviews. I will make no television appearences. I will not elaborate. I don’t care if your radio show needs a guest who was there. I am not interested in continuing this story. I actually don’t want to be a party to it. I will make no more media from my story.

He notes that the “survivors of all these events” are scattered across the country, and he gives us little sketches of them in peacetime— people who are “not in the public eye.”

Jerry Leeds lives in a tiny Kansas town where he built and sold a successful printing business. He owns a beautiful home with a lawn that sweeps to the edge of a small lake, which he also owns. Every year, flights of purple martins return to the stately birdhouses on the tall poles in his back yard.

Cueva, recently retired, has raised three daughters and is beloved by his neighbors for all the years he spent keeping their cars running. Lee is a senior computer programmer in Kentucky, and Lamberson finished a second military career in the Army.

With the debate over that long-ago day in February, they’re all living that war another time.

And Rood finds it sad that we’re doing that too, “living that war another time” during a presidential campaign, via a scandal story. What I admire about his account is the way it limits itself to a small territory within the Swift Boat Veterans’ contested claims— the day Kerry won his Silver Star. (There were only three officers who commanded boats that day: Rood, Kerry and a third who was later killed in action in 1969.) He makes no attempt to evaluate the strength of the group’s case overall. He declines to characterize Kerry’s credibility overall. He does not speak in any way excessively, or in the manner of Ed Cone’s ingenius Sunday column, “Don’t talk while I’m interrupting.”

My candidate is a hero. Yours is a zero. One cannot compare the youthful hijinks of my guy with the youthful wantonness of yours. My guy makes mistakes, yours commits sins of the worst kind. And likes it. My guy was misquoted, or simply misspoke, while your guy was caught on tape saying exactly what I expected him to say.

The mainstream flows right by my house while you live somewhere way out past the flood plain with the other weirdos. You are not in touch with the values of America, which I and those like me just happen to exemplify. You and your ilk have poisoned the culture, and I know the antidote.

What is the opposite voice to that voice? I say it’s William Rood, practicing a journalist’s discpline: This is what I saw that day, what I recall from experience, what I could verify by checking the record and the recollections of others. To go beyond that is to contribute to the frenzy; I decline to do that.

Plus: “There’s no final authority on something that happened so long ago—not the documents and not even the strained recollections of those of us who were there,” he wrote. It’s sad when people forget this, and feel they have found that final authority. Their zeal is sad.

It’s sad to me that the Swift Boat Veterans named themselves “for Truth,” but it would be equally sad if a Kerry Defense Squad did that. The Swift Boat Veterans were built for politics, and for stressful action in the theatre of a presidential campaign. Some of that action has been successful.

It’s sad that Kerry seems to have lied about or misrepresented his experience in Cambodia, one of the stories on which his truthfulness has been attacked. (See John Leo. On the other hand see Fred Kaplan in Slate.)

It’s sad that Douglas Brinkley, an historian quite savvy in the ways of media, disappears and cannot be reached by the Washington Post when his research is called into question. Brinkley’s Book, “Tour of Duty” mentions an unfinished book proposal Kerry prepared sometime after November 1971, more than two years after he had returned home from Vietnam. Michael Dobbs, the Post reporter, had questions about it and other sources Brinkley used. It’s at least possible that he could shed some light about matters in hot dispute. So Dobbs tried to reach Brinkley, a man normally quite accessible to reporters seeking an authoritative quote.

Brinkley, who is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, did not reply to messages left with his office, publisher and cell phone. The Kerry campaign has refused to make available Kerry’s journals and other writings to The Post, saying the senator remains bound by an exclusivity agreement with Brinkley. A Kerry spokesman, Michael Meehan, said he did not know when Kerry wrote down his reminiscences.

This is sad because Brinkley (who is said to be writing an account for the New Yorker) should be in the business of giving out knowledge, and that doesn’t include eluding the press when you so often use the press to broadcast your work.

It’s sad that Kerry has based so much of his argument for election on his service in Vietnam, but I find it even sadder that he went ahead with this while expecting to avoid reflection on the anti-war chapter of it, which has now roared back into his campaign.

Its sad that he said in his speech from Boston, “I defended this country as a young man,” without realizing or caring that if the war in Vietnam was, indeed, defending the United States, then the anti-war movement’s arguments are rendered hollow. But those were Kerry’s arguments, so how could he say that?

It’s sad that his campaign appears to have been surprised by the Swift Boat Vets and their success in getting onto the public’s radar. The outlines of the attack on Kerry’s truthfulness have been known for many months. Just in the comments section at PressThink, I learned quite a bit about the coming charges and what made Swift Boat supporters think they would have legs. As Josh Marshall says today, “This was always in the cards. Always.” I agree. And there was a sad inevitability to the events as they played out last week.

Even so, this post by Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit was great blogging (and real journalism) while this page from the Chicago Tribune was web journalism at its Big Media best. (But you have to register.)

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

I got this e-mail the next day from Harris Meyer, a journalist in Florida:

Don’t you think the news media are now obligated to put aside the he said/he said form of coverage of Kerry’s war record and basically say in every story that reporting in the NY Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune in the last few weeks has documented that the key attacks on Kerry’s record —concerning how he shot the VC, whether he came under fire while rescuing Rassman, that he acted inappropriately in responding to the VC ambush — are not empirically supported and that those reports have demonstrated that substantial evidence supports Kerry’s version of these events, which also happens to be the official U.S. military version?

I’d say this is another example of how the “objective” school of journalism— which considers itself obliged to report all sides of a dispute as if they all had equal empirical support — has badly failed the public. Every time a news organization reports that Kerry is responding to the “dispute” over his war record, a reader or listener has reason to think there is some plausible empirical basis for the “dispute.” But that dispute essentially has been put to rest on the merits.

—Harris Meyer

My reply: I am not sure how advice of this kind deals with the problem that zero disputes get “put to the rest” in a world where political actors are taught to dispute everything, just to slow down the other side, or confuse the press, or take up space. Journalists can still make decisions: charge X is bogus, Y’s case collapsed, Z has zero credibility, and so on. But they will be doing so in an atmosphere where no case is put to rest. This means they become a factor in the dispute.

What Harris advises is: become an actor, a judge of that dispute. Our press is not that bold. Michael Tomasky is on to the larger question when he writes: “If the conventions of mainstream journalism prevent our media from letting readers, viewers, and listeners examine the full truth in its broadest context, then it’s time to reexamine those conventions.” Sharp words.

Here’s Tomasky in the American Prospect: “Cowards All Around: The media should take a step back and remind us what Bush and Cheney were up to in 1969.”

Our media can sort through the facts in front of their nose and determine, at least some of the time, who’s lying and who’s not. But they are completely incapable of taking a step back and describing the larger reality. Doing that would require making judgments that are supposedly subjective rather than objective; but the larger reality here is clearer than clear.

… If the conventions of mainstream journalism prevent our media from letting readers, viewers, and listeners examine the full truth in its broadest context, then it’s time to reexamine those conventions. Until that happens, people who are willing to say anything, and who have the money to back them up, will be setting the agenda.

See Kaythryn Joyce in The Revealer on the vanishing of a scandal: “The story of how Bush’s top Catholic adviser resigned in anticipation of the publication of a report detailing his sexual abuse of an intoxicated and damaged young student.” (The article that started it all.)

The Los Angeles Times, editorial: These Charges Are False: It’s one thing for the presidential campaign to get nasty but quite another for it to engage in fabrication.

Bring a charge, however bogus. Make the charge simple: Dukakis “vetoed the Pledge of Allegiance”; Bill Clinton “raised taxes 128 times”; “there are [pick a number] Communists in the State Department.” But make sure the supporting details are complicated and blurry enough to prevent easy refutation.

Then sit back and let the media do your work for you. Journalists have to report the charges, usually feel obliged to report the rebuttal, and often even attempt an analysis or assessment. But the canons of the profession prevent most journalists from saying outright: These charges are false. As a result, the voters are left with a general sense that there is some controversy over Dukakis’ patriotism or Kerry’s service in Vietnam. And they have been distracted from thinking about real issues (like the war going on now) by these laboratory concoctions.

Belmont Club, Battle in the Clouds, is a brilliant analysis of one thing going on. (Aug. 24)

The undercard in the Kerry vs Swiftvets bout is Mainstream Media vs Kid Internet, two distinctly different fights, but both over information. The first is really the struggle over the way Vietnam will be remembered by posterity; whether its amanuensis will be John Kerry for the antiwar movement or those who felt betrayed by them. The victor in that struggle will get to inscribe the authoritative account of that mythical conflict in Southeast Asia: not in its events, but in its meaning. The fight will be as bitter as men for whom only memory remains can be bitter.

But the undercard holds a fascination of its own. The reigning champion, the Mainstream Media, has been forced against all odds to accept the challenge of an upstart over the coverage of the Swiftvets controversy.

Steve at Llamabutchers makes special reference to this post from Glenn Reynolds: “the photo showing the Congressional Record version of Kerry’s Cambodia speech I think was what crystalized this for many people.” The image of crystallizing opinion by extending the story, and opening up its contents, is a very useful way to think about the weblog sphere.

See The Note for a good round up of the Swift Boat coverage in the mainstream press.

There’s something sad, too, in this way of addressing it, from Tom Oliphant in the Boston Globe:

Discerning voters will notice that the more reputable organs of the national press have not cast doubt on Kerry’s Vietnam service. That is because political attacks on it don’t pass the smell test. We are influenced by eyewitnesses, not by people whose stories keep changing or are contradicted by official records. We are used to arguments over things like war records, but the burden of proof is with the accuser and Kerry’s accusers cannot shoulder it with the credible evidence required of credible stories.

Jeff Jarvis: Testing blog mettle

Think of the next 11 weeks until the election as a challenge: as a test of weblogs’ real value:

When we wake up after the election, will we be able to point to the ways and posts in which this new medium contributed, or at least tried to contribute, to improving the coverage of the campaign and the policies of the candidates and the wisdom of the electorate? Will we have made a difference at all? Or will we have made it worse?

Did we push the coverage and the candidates in ways that mattered? Or did we wallow in mud?

Via Instapundit, two interesting blog posts:

Let it Alone by Adeimantus: Conservative Political Commentary.

Years ago, wearied by their own arguments as much as by the arguments of their antagonists, sensible majorities of both the supporters and the opponents of the Vietnam war yielded to an unwritten domestic truce composed of two principles:

(1) Those who participated in the war, with the exception of anyone at or above the rank of general officer, are entitled to public honor for their service.

(2) Those who actively opposed the war, with the exception of the most extreme Jane Fonda-types, are not to be branded as cowards or traitors to their country.

Suggestion for keeping the peace by Dale Franks… “In order to move the presidential campaign away from what happened or didn’t happen in Vietnam 35 years ago, I offer a suggestion. Since the Kerry camp wishes to argue that official Navy records are conclusive proof that Kerry served honorably and with distinction, I suggest that those of us opposed to Kerry offer to accept that argument, as long as the Kerry people accept the logical corollary: the official Air Force records indicating George W. Bush was honorably discharged from his service is conclusive proof that he properly met his obligations as well.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at August 23, 2004 4:07 PM