The story seems widely accepted through repetition that Sen. Kerry did not respond to the attacks on his military record by the Swift Boat Veterans, and that this was a major reason for his defeat at the hands of George W. Bush in 2004.  Sen. Obama, it is said, has learned the lesson of the Kerry campaign and will not allow such attacks to go unanswered. This is a reference to his campaign’s attacks on Jerome Corsi’s new book, Obama Nation. 

As Time magazine reports in the current issue:

In stark contrast with the Kerry campaign in 2004, the Obama campaign is mapping out an aggressive counter-attack against the new Swift-Boat-Vet style book targeting Obama — including plans to dig more deeply into the author's past statements, plans for increased surrogate action against the book, and stepped up pressure on high-level media executives to let the Obama team have air time to rebut the charges.

Joe Klein, writing on Time’s website, posted something similar over the weekend:

And it is true, as John Kerry knows, that a more effective response--and a bolder campaign--might have neutralized the Swiftboat assault four years ago.

Klein goes on to criticize Sen. McCain for failing to denounce Corsi’s new book on Sen. Obama, much as Sen. Kerry’s operatives mounted an attack on President Bush in 2004 for failing to denounce the Swift Boat Veterans.  He also attacks the publisher for daring to put out such a book, as if liberal publishers have not already put out an entire line of books attacking President Bush, Republicans in general, conservatives, neo-conservatives, and anyone associated with the current administration.

Yet Klein and his colleagues at Time are being slightly disingenuous in claiming that Sen. Kerry did not respond to the Swift Boat attacks, and also in the implication that Democrats would never stoop to question an opponent’s military service.  

In fact, Sen. Kerry mounted a furious attack on the Swift Boat Vets, denouncing their ads as false, scurrilous, and unpatriotic, doing their best to correct the record via testimony from veterans who served with Sen. Kerry, and even deploying former senator and Vietnam war veteran Max Cleland to picket President Bush’s ranch in Texas with demands to repudiate the ads.  The themes in the television ads that seemed most underhanded were those that suggested that Kerry had fabricated or exaggerated the encounters in Vietnam for which he was decorated.  Though Kerry and his spokesmen may have blunted these attacks, they could not run away from the old news clips of his 1971 testimony before Congress where he suggested that U.S. servicemen were guilty of war crimes in Vietnam– and, indeed, that the war itself was an immoral enterprise. These old clips, which Kerry did not even try to explain or answer, did great damage to his effort to use his military experience as an asset to his campaign. Democrats are obviously fearful that films of Rev. Wright’s inflammatory sermons will be used to the same effect this time around.   

But the heart of the Kerry campaign’s response to the Swift Boat ads was the now discredited 60 Minutes segment on President Bush’s service in the Air National Guard which aired on September 8, 2004, only a few weeks after the Swift Boat ads first appeared.

That segment, based on documents later shown to be forgeries, was narrated by none other than Dan Rather, the face of CBS News. He claimed, in his review of the files, that Bush received preferential treatment during his years of service due to family connections, that he was frequently absent from duty, and that he disobeyed orders from superiors. The program received wide attention and the Kerry campaign quickly jumped on these revelations.

Such accusations, if shown to be true, would have undermined the President’s record of military service and blunted the attacks on Sen. Kerry.  Whenever the Swift Boat Vets attacked Sen. Kerry, his campaign could have highlighted the 60 Minutes charges, much as President Clinton had earlier undermined his accusers in the impeachment controversy by showing that they were guilty of the same things he was charged with.  There is some evidence that the phony documents that were the basis of the 60 Minutes charges originated with people friendly to the Kerry campaign – which is to say that Democrats were not above impugning President Bush’s military record. 

The accusations were based on documents supposedly taken from the files of Bush’s superior officer, the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian who passed away in 1984..  The documents were supplied to Mary Mapes, the producer of the segment, by Lt. Col Bill Burkett of the Texas National Gurard, who claimed to have obtained them from someone with access to Col. Killian’s private files.  Mapes and her associates made only the most cursory efforts to authenticate the documents, later arguing her book that the burden of proof was on critics to demonstrate that the records were false, instead of on her to show that they were authentic.  Nor did the 60 Minutes producers make much of an effort to learn where Burkett had obtained the files.  Instead, CBS went forward hastily to air the segment, almost certainly with the intention of neutralizing the Swift Boat Veterans.  In the interests of disclosure, CBS News immediately posted the documents on line.

Before the show went on the air, Mapes called Joe Lockhart, senior advisor to Sen. Kerry, to tip him off about the impending broadcast and also to put him in touch with Burkett, the source for the documents.  Lockhart later denied making contact with Burkett, which would have been unnecessary at that point since CBS was already planning to break the story.  This contact between CBS News and the Kerry campaign raised the intriguing possibility that the documents may have originated with a source close to the Kerry campaign.  

The cherished documents, however, were shown to be forgeries within hours of the broadcast by internet bloggers who were able to show that they were typed in a Microsoft format that was not available when the documents were ostensibly produced in the early 1970s.  They could not, in other words, have been typed contemporaneously by Col. Killian or his assistant, but had to have been typed up much more recently on a computer with Microsoft software.

The 60 Minutes segment soon turned into a fiasco for all concerned, for CBS News, which soon repudiated the segment as unreliable, as well as for Dan Rather and Ms. Mapes, who within months were shown the door by CBS.  A panel commissioned by CBS to review the subject concluded that the segment was hastily produced and that the producers failed to take appropriate precautions to make certain that the documents were reliable and authentic.   

Most of all, it was a fiasco for the Kerry campaign, which lost an opportunity to turn the Swift Boat attacks back against President Bush and thus to demonstrate that Sen.Kerry would be the superior military leader in time of war.  Soon after the story collapsed, Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, made the ridiculous charge that the documents had been provided by none other than Karl Rove for the purpose of discrediting CBS News and the Kerry campaign.  

Thus it is false to say that Sen. Kerry did not respond to the Swift Boat Veterans.  He tried mightily to neutralize those attacks, not simply by challenging them in substance, but by opening up a parallel line of attack against President Bush’s military record.  When that latter effort collapsed so spectacularly, it seemed to lend additional credence to the Swift Boat Vets, at least insofar as many voters were concerned. 

Klein, the editors of Time, and many Democrats are mainly fearful, not so much that Sen. Obama will fail to respond to attacks, but rather that such responses will be ineffective against an advertising campaign featuring Rev. Wright and Fr. Pfleger with their rants against the United States and white people in general.  Their real hope is in finding a way to keep those ads off the air in the first place, much as Klein said that the Corsi book should not have been published.  This is the real lesson that they have taken from the Swift Boat Vets.