John Kerry Secretary of State Nomination: How 2004 is Haunting Him


Let's hope T. Boone Pickens still has a million dollars.

President Obama's nomination of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to take over the State Department looks to be turning up a few old faces from the former Navy officer's distant — and not so long ago — past.

That's right: the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are back. "Teachers, farmers, businessmen, ministers, and community leaders," as the commercial went, are presumably going to once again interrupt all those various occupations to drag John Kerry's name through the mud. In an interview with Sean Hannity in November, Kerry's old nemesis John O'Neill said he plans to get back into the spotlight with a new round of bashing away at the senator’s Vietnam record.

Meanwhile, Republicans have expressed support for Kerry's Secretary of State nomination (Former Senator Scott Brown (R-Mass.) is the likeliest candidate to fill a vacated Massachusetts senate seat). That support presumably explains the group's lower profile today than in 2004.

You have to take O'Neill at his word when he claims to be politically uninvested. Despite having a heavily partisan record, the target of O'Neill's concern isn't the Democrats or Foggy Bottom, but the man himself, John Kerry.

The two famously met for a debate in 1971 on the Dick Cavett Show. In that appearance, Kerry, representing his group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, sat down with a pugnacious O'Neill, speaking for Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace. From the outset, it was clear that the O'Neill's grievance was against Kerry for betraying, in his eyes, their fellow servicemen.

On April 22, 1971, a recently discharged John Kerry testified in front of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. His message was a cross-section of the many various reasons for ending the war, but among his more salacious claims was a portrayal of an amoral, toxic decay among the American troops:

"At times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war, and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country."

Many returning vets were outraged to see a politicking Brahmin recast their entire campaign into a vast My Lai. A backlash immediately fomented, headed up by an articulate, 25-year old O'Neill. A few days later, VVJP was founded. The group and its spokesman caught the attention of the Nixon administration, eager to discredit the careering Kerry. It was Nixon himself who persuaded O'Neill to appear on the Cavett program. Hardly the impartial truth-seeker advertised in 2004. The angle of having served together was not brought up in that debate, as the two had not served together: both belonged to the Coastal Division 11, but at different times.

Thirty three years later, O'Neill was commissioned to reprise his role once again, and this time he had $25,080,796 from various Republican donors to operate with. A book was written, a press barrage ensued, and many, many more attacks on Kerry were made, spread, debunked, and defended.

O'Neill may see this as his last chance to avenge the anger he felt in 1971. Kerry is likely not going to ascend to any greater political height than Secretary of State. Popular history has generally come to accept a view of the Vietnam War not far off from the one portrayed in that testimony — that it was a loss of innocence for American militarism and a harmful reorientation of priorities that was prosecuted poorly.

The country also seems to be deeply ambivalent about Kerry himself, a marrow-deep politician of the shiniest, slickest, most privileged order. There's not much character assassination left to do.