The Blog

It's Not 'Swift Boating' If It's True

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign represented a singularly awful chapter in American politics. Let's not pretend every time a candidate has to answer uncomfortable questions about his past that the Swift Boat Vets are riding again.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Outlining the growing controversy about the timeline of Mitt Romney's Bain Capital career, CNN's Jim Acosta recently asked the candidate if he believed he was "being swift-boated in this campaign." Later that same evening, reporting on Anderson Cooper 360, CNN's Tom Forman forged a tighter connection, suggesting "Republican analysts fear Mitt Romney could become the second politician from Massachusetts swift boated out of the presidency."

Here's how Forman described the Swift Boat affair [emphasis added]:

FORMAN: He's talking about the Swift Boat campaign, in which President Bush's challenger John Kerry was demonized over what his campaign considered an attribute. His decorated service as a soldier in Vietnam. The Swift Boat ads, backed by a group of pro-Bush veterans, questioned the Democratic challenger's conduct in the war, his anti-war activities later and his patriotism.

Kerry was slow to respond and never very effective in refuting their claims even though his critics offered little in the way of proof. He lost the election of course. And for many Democrats, swift-boating became a catch-all term for any unfair, untrue, personal assault on a candidate.

Trying to tie contemporary questions about Romney's Bain past with an infamous GOP smear campaign is an exercise in false equivalency. "The Swift Boat campaign was completely a lie," Esquires' Charles Pierce recently reminded readers. "Nothing the Swifties said about John Kerry was true." And yet, despite the cavernous gap between the Swift Boat affair and the ongoing Bain story, the comparison continues to gain currency.

The conservative Washington Examiner editorial page on Monday lamented the "Swift-Baining of Mitt Romney." What had the Obama campaign done that was so unfair to the Republican candidate? It had "seized on reports by liberal websites Mother Jones and Talking Points Memo -- and later by the Boston Globe -- citing Securities and Exchange Commission filings that listed Romney as the CEO of Bain after he was said to have left for the Olympics."

Quoting news outlets that cite government documents regarding Romney's employment record now constitutes a smear campaign?

Let's stipulate this fact going forward: A candidate having his résumé or biography examined during the course of a presidential campaign does not constitute being "swift boated." Enthusiastic "vetting" of candidates' backgrounds is a routine aspect of general elections.

The distinguishing feature of a Swift Boat smear campaign, of course, was that virtually every single war-era allegation made against Kerry's military service proved to be false, leaving the assumption that the entire point of the coordinated, deep-pocketed attack was to purposefully spread as manly lies as possible. And not just small fibs, but truly unconscionable lies about a serviceman's record during the unpopular Vietnam War.

That's what being Swift Boated is about. Prior to 2004, modern campaigns had never seen anything like it. And in the two White House campaigns that have unfolded since, nothing has approached the radical brand of prevarication that epitomized the lowly Republican attacks on Kerry.

By contrast, there's no dispute regarding the fact that 2002 SEC documents indicate that Romney was listed as Bain's chairman, managing director and CEO years after he claimed to have left the company. The only debate is regarding what that means. Romney suggests the titles were symbolic and that he had no influence over the management of the company during those three years. Skeptics suggest it's not likely that a company's president, managing director and CEO would remain permanently out of the business' loop for three years (while still drawing a salary).

Either way, the dispute hardly rises to the level of a smear campaign, let alone a Swift Boat-like assault on Romney's honor. Note that government documents support the claims about Romney's ongoing links to Bain until 2002, whereas government documents in 2004 routinely undercut right-wing fabrications about Romney's war record.

Meanwhile, this clumsy Swirt Boat comparison remains in play. From the New York Times:

Conservatives have lit up talk radio programs across the country, worrying whether Mr. Romney's business record has been ''Swift Boated,'' referring to attacks waged against Senator John Kerry's military record in 2004.

So conservatives fret Romney's being "Swift Boated," yet conservatives insist to this day there was nothing unethical about what Swift Boat veterans did to Kerry.

Previously, from Michelle Malkin:

A reminder to conservatives: "Swift-Boating" does not equal smearing. Swift-Boating means exposing hard truths about corrupt Democrats.

From Rush Limbaugh:

[Swift Boat Veterans] were right on the money, and nobody has disproven anything they claimed in any of their ads, statements, written commentaries, or anything of the sort.

In truth, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign represented a singularly awful chapter in American politics. Let's not pretend every time a candidate has to answer uncomfortable questions about his past that the Swift Boat Vets are riding again.

Crossposted at County Fair, a Media Matters for America blog.