Wednesday, September 01, 2004

The effectiveness of the SBVT campaign

Tens of millions of dollars in paid advertising have been spent on this Presidential election. But John Kerry's campaign seems to have been hit especially hard by the relatively low budget campaign conducted by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (SBVT). Perhaps Kerry created this vulnerability by making his four and one half months of military service in Vietnam the centerpiece in his campaign. The event the Kerry campaign boasted about the most supposedly occurred on March 13, 1969, became known to television watchers as the "Rassmann rescue" and the "No man left behind" talking point.

The Kerry campaign told the American people a number of versions of the Rassmann rescue. But all of the early versions told the story of Jim Rassmann falling out of a swift boat and then being fired at by Vietcong from both banks of that river. According to the Kerry campaign, all swift boats fled the scene and Rassmann understandably believed he was going to be captured or killed by the Vietcong. Then, the story goes, John Kerry directed his swift boat back in the midst of enemy fire and then risked death to pull Jim Rassmann into his swift boat.

Why is this story so central to the Kerry campaign's current troubles? Because the Kerry campaign has been forced to acknowledge, in response to criticisms and scrutiny applied by the SBVT, that this story isn't true in many important respects.

The commanders of the other swift boats denied that their boats had ever fled the scene. These commanders say that since there was no enemy fire and swift boat PCF-3 was heavily damaged by an underwater mine, their attention was directed at rescuing the crewmen aboard PCF-3 and John Kerry's boat, PCF-94, was the only boat to initially flee the scene.

The current debate has focused on whether there was enemy fire, since without such enemy fire John Kerry's rescue of Jim Rassmann would be considered much less heroic. But to some extent, this debate over the presence or absence of enemy fire obscures the fact that Kerry's "No man left behind" slogan became obsolete once his campaign admitted that the other boats did not flee the scene. As Larry Thurlow, commander of one of the swift boats on March 13th, said, "If no boats fled the scene, how could there be 'No man left behind.'"

While other details surrounding the controversy over John Kerry's four and one half months in Vietnam might be worthy of investigation and debate, the SBVT has already successfully removed the most effective rhetorical symbol of Kerry heroism from the Kerry campaign's arsenal. That's why the Kerry campaign is struggling for another voice as the election approaches.