My High School Friend John O'Neill and the Swiftboat Attack
Saturday, August 21, 2004
The mastermind behind the Swiftboat commercials presently causing such controversy is Houston lawyer John Ellis O'Neill. John and I were close friends at Central Catholic High School in San Antonio, between 1960 and 1963. We were debaters and often debated as partners, sometimes as opponents.
John was the son of an admiral. They weren't from San Antonio. The Admiral had retired here and was involved in residential development to supplement his income. John was, in those days, very much as he appears now: a frumpy, genial fellow with an extremely good mind. He was also loyal to his friends and to those whom he loved, to a fault.
We had wonderful times together, sharing the dreams and the long, long talks of youth, our hopes (and our myriad more-or- less hopeless strategies for landing girls.) You had to be careful around John, though: everything he touched broke. If you had something you liked, it was important that it never enter his hands. No matter how good his intentions, it would end up ruined. We had a lot of fun, fond memories from long ago.
In those days, John was a liberal Democrat, as I recall. I could be wrong, but that was the impression I have. More recently, he has said publicly that he voted for Al Gore in 2000, and is known in Texas as a Democrat with a sort of Republican override, voting for and supporting both Democratic and GOP candidates. He has evolved into a political maverick, but on one issue he joins the conservatives wholeheartedly: he hates John Kerry.
In our senior year, John got appointed to the Naval Academy. He left for the Academy, as I recall, with plans to follow his father into a naval career. He acquitted himself well, and was soon posted to Vietnam. He was in Swiftboats for a time, and it must have been dangerous, difficult fighting. As it happened, he served in the same Swiftboat that John Kerry had previously commanded.
It is important to note that John commanded the same boat, not, as far as is known, the same crew.
John was changed by Vietnam. When he came back, the joy was gone out of him. Mutual friends reported that the bubbling, delightful human being we had known was gone, replaced by somebody sadder and quieter, and very different.
I felt deeply for him. He did not pursue a career in the Navy, but entered law school instead. John was and is a sensitive and brilliant human being, and the war hurt him, I have no doubt of it. In 1970, I watched him debate John Kerry on the Dick Cavett Show. I was proud of him. He made a compelling case that it was wrong of Kerry to attack the Vietnam soldiers the way, in John's opinion, that he was doing. Kerry countered that he was attacking the system, not the soldiers, but John was eloquent in showing how his words were directed at the fighting man, not at the politicians behind the war.
John Kerry fought his fight and spoke his mind. He was also young and full of fire and crazy in love with his country and his ideals, and apt, like any such young man, to set his flame too high.
At the same time, I felt that my old friend's defense of himself and his fellow warriors was noble and well-formed. He was right to call Kerry out for the way he was approaching his opposition to the war, and after the Cavett debate, I noticed that Kerry was much more careful in his choice of words.
I am much less happy about the Swiftboat commercials, and about the article that John published in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago. In that article, and even more in the ads, he purposely implies that the Swiftboat vets criticizing Kerry served "with" him, and, indeed that he himself served "with" Kerry. This is meant to make it seem as if they were eyewitnesses to the acts that got Kerry his medals.
However, before I create the impression that this article is an unbridled defense of Kerry's stories, I must add something about Purple Hearts in Vietnam. The Vietnam war was extraordinarily dangerous. Most of us looked on being sent there as a virtual death sentence. And anybody who received three Purple Hearts could come home.
As the war progressed and morale spun down, soldiers began to do as little fighting as they could. Officers included. The military responded by making Purple Hearts easier to get, in the hope that soldiers would try for them--that is to say, actually fight.
John Kerry was there four months, received his three Purple Hearts and went home alive. It can be argued that two of them were granted for relatively trivial injuries. And the Swiftboat ads certainly make that point. What they do not say is that many thousands of Purple Hearts were granted in Vietnam for similar injuries. And the kind of derring-do war that Kerry was fighting made it inevitable that he'd get hurt. Frankly, he was lucky he didn't get wounded much more seriously, or killed. Maybe he was hoping for Purple Hearts. Most men were. Maybe, in his heart, he wanted out of there and he saw Purple Hearts as a route to salvation. If so, then he was taking the bait laid out by the military.
The truth of Kerry's Vietnam record is not whether or not it is the record of a coward. It's outrageous to call him that. The true question is, does it suggest that he's reckless under pressure That question, of course, is not being asked.
John is a superb lawyer, and he is using his lawyer's skill with the language to make a false argument. Unfortunately, while law can prepare a man well for politics, taking this type of legal skill into the political area is irresponsible and, frankly, reveals the sort of 'win at any cost' moral decadence that we see to much of in modern American politics.
John's ad is meant to give the impression that the veterans who appear actually rode in the same Swiftboat that Kerry commanded while he was its commander, or were in his immediate area and saw what happened. In fact, this is not true. John is using the words "served with" in the same tricky way that Bill Clinton used the definition of the word "is" while being questioned about Monica Lewinsky. They served with Kerry only in the sense that they were in the same general type of unit in the same war.
Unfortunately, the American people are way too innocent for inhabitants of what should be a mature republic, and many of them appear to be accepting John's ads at face value. In the states where they have run, Kerry is being hurt by the Swiftboat ads at the polls. The fact that what is, essentially, a lie would be used like this in a political campaign is a shame. The fact that it would work is an even greater one.
The fact that it would be done by an old friend who I know to possess a noble spirit and a marvelous mind makes my heart ache. If men of honor like John O'Neill are willing to stoop to such acts as this for their causes, then it means to me that our republic is in real trouble.
I have heard, also, that some Republicans in Texas are thinking that John O'Neill might run for the Senate when Kay Bailey Hutchinson retires, and I very much fear that he is doing what he is doing to get that Senate seat, without regard to the moral implications of his own acts.
I wonder, though, if he could really become conservative enough, and close enough to the religious right, to satisfy the Texas Republican Party Its last convention was more like a religious revival than a political convention. In Texas, the Republican Party is the political arm of the Christian Right. But John was not a religious person at all as a young man. Indeed, when I spoke to him briefly a couple of years ago, he was no more religious than he had been before.
If he suddenly emerges as a Christian-approved candidate, speaking all the right pieties, I am going to feel very sorry indeed, because I know that it will be like George H. W. Bush's Christianization, a purely political act. (I think that the current president, at least, is fairly sincere in his beliefs, the first president since Carter with a genuine religious faith.)
The President has said that he does not believe that John Kerry has misrepresented his war record. Other Texas Republican friends have told me that the White House views John O'Neill with concern, as a sort of loose cannon, who is drawing attention to Kerry's war record and thus, also, to the President's far less stellar one.
As I watch the old United States sink into the past, and see this dreadful new country emerging, a soulless conglomeration of giant corporations and dead-end jobs, run by politicians who do not care to be honest as long as what they do helps them, I really do wonder where we have gone wrong. Dwight Eisenhower would be rolling in his grave to see what the Grand Old Party has become, a shill not for business, but for a very special and very unamerican type of business, the giant corporation.
The Democrats have given us nothing but more hoary old leftist economic ideas, while the Republicans have completely abandoned their party's historic defense of the smallholder and individual freedom in favor of a false "free market agenda" that actually places most of the power and far too much of the wealth into the hands of a few big corporations.
The Democrats are the party of big government. The Republicans are the party of big business. Not much choice there, in my opinion, which is why I'm politically neutral. And, no, I'm neither a libertarian or a socialist. I have the misfortune to be a centrist--you remember that, it's what most of your parents and grandparents were. A centrist uses government and business to balance each other, and never loses sight of the goal of the American republic: a productive economic life in an atmosphere of freedom for the INDIVIDUAL.
My good old friend, much beloved in youth, has signed on with the big business boys, in my opinion, to lie for them. I know that "lie" is a strong word, and I do not use it lightly. As a writer, words have a whole different meaning for me than they do for a lawyer. I see them as living things, magically powerful, and I see the public use of them as an act requiring the greatest personal integrity.
This is probably why the visitors landed in my lap. Who or whatever they are, they knew that I would feel obligated to tell what I had seen and that, while I might not tell it right, at least I would never lie. Rather than keep that important event to myself and stay a part of the mainstream, I came forward with my truth and consigned myself to the margins of our intellectual and political life, an outsider, easily scorned and dismissed.
But I have at least retained my personal integrity, which I will die with. I would rather have that, any day, that any power earned by a lie.
What a damning testament it is against our decadent age that one of two old friends would come forward with what is probably one of the most important truths in the history of this species, and be marginalized for it and made a figure of fun, while the other comes forward with a lie and is made a hero for it, likely to be granted great power and heaped with honors.
On Sunday, August 22, another person who was actually on Swiftboats with John Kerry spoke out, and the result for John O'Neill is devastating. Chicago Tribune editor William B. Rood, who has never before spoken about his experiences in Vietnam, offered an account of the action that won Kerry the Silver Star. He commanded one of the Swiftboats that was actually part of the action along with Kerry's and he personally saw what happened firsthand.
After repudiating my old friend's version of the story in general, he becomes specific. "John O'Neill, author of a highly critical account of Kerry's Vietnam service, describes a man Kerry chased as a "teenager in a loincloth." I have no idea how old the gunner Kerry chased that day was, but both Leeds and I recall that he was a grown man, dressed in the kind of garb the VC usually wore."
"The man Kerry chased was not the "lone" attacker at that site, as O'Neill suggests. There were others who fled. There was also firing from the tree line well behind the spider holes and at one point, from the opposite riverbank as well."
There is every reason to believe that the Swiftboat ads are a lie, I am sorry to say. I know that John is telling his lie, at least in part, out of a good heart. He hates Kerry for what he perceives as attacks on the Vietnam soldiers, but he is also lying out of ambition, I fear, and that is an ugly thing to see. He should have done what he did on the Dick Cavett show, which was to attack Kerry for his statements after the war, not for his war record. Instead, he has made a foolish and sinister misstep. I don't call it a mistake because mistakes are not made with so much care and attention. John has created anti-Kerry propaganda, pure and simple. It is cynical and it is evil, and it is very far from the sort of fair play we Americans teach our children and hope to see in one another.
And it is light-years from what the honorable, wonderful John O'Neill I once knew would have done. His was one of the most morally impeccable and intellectually honest spirits I ever knew. How terrible that this has happened to him--that he has chosen this dark road. How can he have forgotten the code of our fathers and our teachers at Central: the end never justifies the means if the means are dishonorable. A man IS his honor, and the basis of honor is truth.
Kerry can be criticized for the way he handled himself after the war, and the American people deserve to know exactly what he said and did in his opposition years, because this has a bearing on his candidacy. but we're not hearing that. The reason we aren't is because O'Neill and his friends know that a majority of Americans supported Kerry's position on the war, and that it is still unpopular. So they have chosen to try to undercut a record that Mr. Kerry appears to have won in blood--his own. In so doing, they have left their own honor in the mud.
The President has not yet repudiated the Swiftboat ads. If he does not, then he attaches himself, morally, to a dishonorable act. John McCain was quick to speak out against them, and right to do so. Bob Dole's defense of them is as fallacious as the ads themselves.
But John O'Neill and the President are friends. The President expects to win in November, and he's probably going to. In part, it will be because of John and his ads...and because the American people were willing to believe them. And the President is likely to reward his propagandist either with an important appointment, or with support in a Senate race.
In other words, John will have gained power by lying. In a strong, moral nation, that could not happen. The people would reject the lies and make quick work of him. Instead, he will be honored.
On the other hand, John O'Neill is an excellent man, but even the most excellent among us have weaknesses. John's is his zeal to protect what he loves, and he loves the men who suffered with him in that awful war. A laudable spirit and a dear old friend has gone down the wrong road, though. A lie is a lie, no matter how noble the cause in which it is told.
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