He was introduced as someone who had been there and seen it all firsthand, this seemingly authoritative, but certainly dour and angry guest, who had been given a national television forum by Pat Buchanan on MSNBC's Scarborough Country. Using all the military lingo that comes with the territory, he charged that John Kerry wasn't all that seriously injured, that he had earned his Silver Star by killing a North Vietnamese who had already been wounded in the leg and that Kerry had never crossed into Cambodia. Meet Ted Sampley, co-founder of an organization calling itself Vietnam Veterans Against John Kerry.
Buchanan then turned to MSNBC senior political analyst Lawrence O'Donnell, his debate partner, and asked for a response. Instead, O'Donnell directed a question at Sampley. He asked if Sampley wasn't the same person who had been arrested back in 2000 for assaulting a member of John McCain's campaign staff. After a blink or two -- and stunned silence by Buchanan - Kerry's would-be exposer admitted that, yes, back during the 2000 campaign he had been arrested for assaulting a member of John McCain's staff. He then muttered something to the effect that he could "back up" everything he had said about McCain. O'Donnell then fired back for effect: "You said John McCain was brainwashed and is a 'Manchurian Candidate' and is an agent of another government. That's who we now have. That's who we're sharing this broadcast with right now."
This is on a nationally televised broadcast, supposedly devoted to enlightening people about the presidential race. Incredible! Anyone watching had to be asking why Pat Buchanan -- or anyone -- had given Sampley a national television audience, then actually introduced him as a man who could be taken seriously. If we can answer this question, maybe we can get to the bottom of all the Kerry-bashing going on.
So far, it's been the "exposers" who have been so easily exposed. For example, we now know that the doctor who claimed that one of Kerry's wounds wasn't that serious wasn't the doctor whose name went onto the medical record. And Sampley? He wasn't anywhere near Kerry's swift boat as it came under fire back in February of 1969. Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, put it best. These people, he said the other night, served with John Kerry in about the same way that Snoopy served with the Red Baron.
Now four more sailors and one more officer who were at the battle in question have come forward to reaffirm what the members of Kerry's own boat -- and the institution we call the United States Navy -- have said for years: by all military measures, Kerry performed heroically.
According to Navy policy, even minor wounds, if received in combat, do qualify for the Purple Heart. So what are these guys suggesting, that we go back throughout the history of American wars and revisit the size of each wound suffered by each veteran and decide if it was bad enough? No, just for John Kerry, it turns out.
The Ahab to Kerry's Moby Dick has been John O'Neill. This Naval Academy graduate, Vietnam veteran (and part-time partisan mouthpiece for Chuck Colson of Watergate infamy) declared war on Kerry more than three decades ago, when Kerry testified before the Fulbright Committee in 1971. Most unacceptable to O'Neill was Kerry's charge that Americans had been made to commit war crimes.
For more than three decades, O'Neill has been in denial. One would think that the revelation of the My Lai massacre would have demonstrated to him that American troops are fully capable of committing war crimes. (And Abu Ghraib shows they still are.) We know for certain that some American troops committed horrible acts in combat.
To slice and dice events in a war over now for 30 years, of course, misses the larger point Kerry was trying to make: that the officially approved rules of engagement in Vietnam actually called for war crimes to be committed. Kerry referred to the so-called free-fire zones. Imagine if you will that the local police, in search of a dangerous felon, pour into your neighborhood with orders to shoot on sight anyone or anything that moves. That's a free-fire zone. Kerry argued that such zones violated the Geneva Conventions, and he was right. The deadliest and most massive free-fire zone of all, of course, was Cambodia, where our B-52s rained down bombs on a neutral country. To be specific, those bombings violated Protocol I, Art. 57, Sec. 2b of the rules of war, which states: "Area bombardments and indiscriminant attacks are forbidden."
Naturally this leads to President Bush, who apparently didn't think it was all that important to go to Vietnam to help "smoke 'em out." This whole episode is a repeat of the South Carolina primary in 2000, when these same guys came out of the woodwork to help Bush by questioning the service of John McCain. Sadly enough, it worked, and McCain lost in South Carolina. Most important, McCain's momentum was derailed, and Bush's money advantage allowed him to take over and win the nomination. In South Carolina, Bush was desperate; now, despite finally calling Kerry's service "admirable," he's just unwilling to offend his base by refusing to condemn these attacks. Will he do the right thing? So far he hasn't.
The linkage between his campaign and the funding for the anti-Kerry commercials calls for him to do more than offer up a sanitized statement about how such commercials are bad for "the system." Bad for the system? No, these attacks are bad period. Let me take crack at drafting the statement Bush should make: "I denounce those who attack John Kerry over his war record. The Senator was and is a war hero. To attack him like this is to attack all who were awarded medals for bravery by the United States Navy. Kerry came home from Vietnam a critic of the war, as did many. That he expressed deep concern over a very divisive and tragic war does not justify this truly reprehensible attack on a patriot who put himself in harm's way to serve his country."