Joe Conason writes political commentary for Salon and The New York Observer. Here’s his take on the sudden flood of attacks aimed at slandering John Kerry’s authentic military hero status…
Feb. 10, 2004 | Many months before the dormant controversy over George W. Bush’s military career resurfaced, conservatives and Republicans were raking over yellowed clippings as they sought to revive dim memories of the Vietnam War. Their target was not the errant National Guard Lt. Bush, of course, but the decorated Navy Lt. John F. Kerry.
Last year, when Kerry was considered the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, he began to take flak from the far right over his antiwar activism and his war record. Those attacks slowed when his candidacy stalled and temporarily sank.
But now, as he claims primary victories and climbs past Bush in the polls, Kerry is again the prime target of conservative invective that depicts his peace activism as unpatriotic, anti-military, and somehow hostile to his brothers in arms. With scrutiny focused on Bush’s alleged failure to fulfill his Guard obligations, the destruction of Kerry’s character has reached red-alert urgency on the right. And a key purveyor of this anti-Kerry propaganda is a former Green Beret named Ted Sampley, who has run a profitable business as a “POW/MIA advocate” from his home in North Carolina for most of the past two decades. Few remember that Sampley was critical to efforts to similarly smear Sen. John McCain, another war hero, when he ran for president against George W. Bush in 2000. Now Sampley has started an organization pointedly calling itself “Vietnam Veterans Against Kerry,” which proclaims its determination to ruin Kerry’s campaign.
Republicans are understandably rattled by Kerry’s political appeal to Vietnam-era veterans — and, by extension, to veterans of more recent conflicts as well. From the beginning, the Massachusetts senator has been accompanied by a contingent of vets; but their presence was dramatized last month in Iowa by the sudden appearance of James Rassmann, a veteran who described how Kerry had pulled him out of a river, while machine-gun fire raked their boat, and saved his life. That was why he had traveled from Oregon to join the campaign, Rassmann explained — even though he is a registered Republican.
The Democratic vet offensive inspired a pair of contradictory responding salvos from the Republicans. Versions of both have appeared recently on the Wall Street Journal editorial pages. In a brief essay published on Feb. 7, World War II hero Bob Dole warned that “we do not need to divide America over who served and how,” and pointed out that Kerry himself had issued a similar plea in 1992 regarding the issue of Bill Clinton’s Vietnam draft history. Dole forgot to note that his fellow Republicans, ignoring Kerry’s plea, incessantly excoriated Clinton as a draft dodger and worse.
Only two weeks earlier, the Journal editors had published a harsh attack on Kerry’s war record titled “Conduct Unbecoming: Kerry Doesn’t Deserve Vietnam Vets’ Support.” Written by a former Special Forces lieutenant, the essay complains that Kerry’s antiwar activism was “financed by Jane Fonda,” whose 1972 solidarity visit to Hanoi made her a permanent symbol of betrayal to many Vietnam vets. “Many veterans believe these protests led to more American deaths,” wrote the author, Stephen Sherman, “and to the enslavement of the people on whose behalf the protests were ostensibly being undertaken.” Significantly, he also berates Kerry for suppressing a “revealing inquiry” into the POW/MIA issue, another matter of deep sensitivity for vets, as co-chairman of a Senate investigating committee. Even for the Journal, that was a remarkably irresponsible accusation.
But for the Republicans, cutting off Kerry’s potential base among veterans is as vital as deflecting questions about Bush’s military record. From obscure Web sites to Rush Limbaugh to the Weekly Standard, the right-wing media are eagerly popularizing the same attacks featured in Sherman’s essay. The Web site for Ted Sampley’s Vietnam Veterans Against Kerry offers a pungent example of the right’s rhetorical style: The Viet Cong’s National Liberation Front flag is the background to a shot of a young, fatigue-clad Kerry. That picture is pure computer magic — in other words, a fake.
According to author Susan Katz Keating, who has written extensively on Vietnam veterans and the POW/MIA movement for the Washington Times and Soldier of Fortune magazine, deception is what Sampley does for a living. Her book “Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW-MIA Myth in America,” published in 1994 by Random House, exposes how Sampley and his allies abused the hopes of grieving families for fun and profit. Their best-known victim, until now, was Sen. John McCain. He first drew Sampley’s poisonous attention when, along with Kerry, he debunked the idea that Americans were still being held by Vietnam, and endorsed the restoration of diplomatic relations with the Communist government.
Keating describes in detail how, in 1992, Sampley commenced a “scurrilous” crusade to punish McCain:
“Sampley … accused McCain of being a weak-minded coward who had escaped death by collaborating with the enemy. Sampley claimed that McCain had first been compromised by the Vietnamese, then recruited by the Soviets.
“To those who know McCain and are familiar with his behavior in captivity, the charge is ludicrous. McCain resisted his captors to such a degree that he was isolated in a special prison for troublemakers. He repeatedly refused special favors, including early release, and emerged as a spiritual and religious leader for other prisoners. Nonetheless, Sampley was persistent enough in his claims that the press in McCain’s home state of Arizona picked up on the KGB story.”
In 1992, Sampley wrote a long article that portrayed McCain as a “Manchurian candidate,” who had betrayed America to the North Vietnamese and then enlisted as a secret Communist agent. But it wasn’t until seven years later that the celebrated Navy pilot and ex-POW found out how much damage such smears could inflict. After McCain declared his presidential candidacy in 1999, Sampley revived the “Manchurian candidate” smear as a convenient weapon for the Senator’s political enemies. Some of them, including the prominent conservative Paul Weyrich and Richard Mellon Scaife’s Newsmax Web site, didn’t hesitate to pick up the slimy stuff generated by Sampley. The fringe assault on McCain, amplified by the likes of Weyrich and talk radio, caused grave injury to his campaign during the pivotal South Carolina primary.
Insinuations of treason are being revived for deployment against Kerry, who happens to be a close friend of McCain (Kerry defended McCain against Sampley, denouncing him as a “stupid ass” in print). The simplest way to tar Kerry as an antiwar extremist — and indict him for unpatriotic betrayal in the eyes of many vets — is to pair him with “Hanoi Jane” Fonda. On Monday, Rush Limbaugh published a photograph of Fonda at what appears to be an antiwar rally, under the headline “John Kerry With Hanoi Jane in September, 1970.” And indeed, a blurry face about two rows behind her does resemble the young Kerry.
But Limbaugh, like so many who attack Kerry for working with Fonda against the war, distorts reality. Fonda didn’t travel to Hanoi until August 1972. Obviously that was two years after the September 1970 rally and, more important, a year after she joined demonstrations led by Kerry and his fellow vets in Vietnam Veterans Against the War. By the time Fonda visited Hanoi, Kerry was running for Congress in Boston. There’s no evidence that he worked with Fonda after her notorious trip. (If Monday’s rant indicates Limbaugh’s state of mind, he is absolutely unhinged by the prospect of renewed debate over Vietnam. Might his hysteria have anything to do with his own embarrassing escape from the draft?)
Searching for proof of Kerry’s alleged anti-American radicalism has frustrated his more intelligent adversaries. The current issue of the Weekly Standard carries a windy account of this ongoing quest by David Skinner, who dug up a copy of the New Soldier, a 1971 antiwar volume that carried Kerry’s byline. Skinner offers a long, dull account of his effort to find a copy of this minor, somewhat moldy period piece — and when he does, the results are anticlimactic. “Anti-Kerry oppo researchers will be disappointed to learn that Kerry wrote very little of the book,” he reveals at long last. “It reprints his  Senate testimony and includes a brief afterword from him.” Skinner can’t manage to work up much righteous anger. At the end, he complains that in the midst of the movement’s turmoil, Kerry “was able to have his cake and eat it, too, becoming the establishment, patriotic face of a radical, anti-patriotic movement.”
Please allow me to translate: The Weekly Standard found nothing because there was nothing to find. But that won’t stop the desperate, screaming smears, escalating in volume as Kerry stumps toward his party’s nomination.