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Jewish World Review August 11, 2004 / 24 Menachem-Av, 5764

Tony Snow

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Not passing judgment — just yet | I haven’t yet jumped on the Swift Boat Veterans issue – or more precisely, I haven’t taken sides because I haven’t yet had time to examine the accusations and replies. It’s a ticklish story: Most of us don’t like to second-guess the service of war veterans. (Ironically, that’s one of the key complaints about young Lt. JG John Kerry – that he badmouthed his comrades after returning home and embarking upon a career as a fledgling politician/war protester). This explains why everybody in the Bush campaign has steered as clear as possible from the matter. There is no political advantage in their openly trying to take political advantage.

Nevertheless, the issue is important because it provides insight into what Sen. Kerry obviously considers his most important qualification for president – the fact that, when tested under fire in Vietnam, he responded with bravery and distinction. If it turns out he didn’t react with exemplary decisiveness and courage, but instead embellished his record in order to “win” medals rather than earn them, the revelations would eviscerate the Kerry campaign and destroy its chief appeal to patriotic sentiment.

One thing seems perfectly obvious for now: After returning home, Kerry made up a silly story about boating to Cambodia on Christmas Day, 1968. Here’s part of his testimony in 1986 on the issue of normalizing relations with Vietnam: “I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared – seared – in me, that says to me, before we send another generation into harm’s way we have a responsibility in the U.S. Senate to go the last step, to make the best effort possible in order to avoid that kind of conflict.”

Kerry on several occasions has cited that 1968 trip – in which he claims to have dropped CIA operatives into Cambodia, knowing that many of them might vanish, unaccounted for, forever – as the turning point in his life and political career; the experience that shoved him from the sidelines and directly into the Big Game. Kerry on other occasions described his fury at President Nixon for denying the existence of any forces or operations in Cambodia.

Now comes the fact check: Three of Kerry’s five Swift Boat colleagues at the time – Steve Gardner, Steven Hatch and Bill Zaldonis – say they were 58 miles from the Cambodian border, in the town of Sa Dec. Kerry elsewhere has written that he spent that Christmas at Sa Dec, writing in his diary.

In addition, it’s unlikely he would have felt rage of President Nixon’s disavowals of American incursions into Cambodia for the simple reason that Nixon wasn’t yet president. He took the oath of office on Jan. 20, 1969.

Then there’s the matter that officers in the chain of command above Kerry argue that patrol boats littered the waters between Sa Dec and Cambodia – and that Kerry would have been apprehended and jailed for trying to wind his way past his fellow American sailors. Nor has anybody produced a single after-action report about the purported secret spy drop in forbidden territory.

Finally, a technical matter: It’s unlikely the Khmer Rouge, which later turned Cambodia into a killing field, would have been blaming away at Kerry & Co. The communist rebels had just begun to form at the time; it would take a few more years for them to ripen into a murderous, despotic, oppressive force under the leadership of Pol Pot.

This by no means confirms other claims made in the new book, “Unfit for Command.” I just got the book, and will begin picking my way through it. A lot of Republicans look upon the book as a silver bullet – something that will bring down the Kerry campaign and spare the White House the trouble of having to revive its so-far lackluster efforts. Don’t believe that for a moment: President Bush will have to prove his stuff on the stump and during debates with Sen. Kerry. Furthermore, it’s worth remembering a time-tested axiom: Never believe anything that seems too good or too bad to be true. Usually, such things are untrue, in whole or part.

But to repeat: I’m not passing judgment either way. I have a lot of reading, researching and interviewing to do. When I’m done, I’ll tell you what I think.

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