John McCain 2000: The Swiftboaters' First Mission

If you're really, really cynical, why not turn a record of honorable record of military service and dedication to America into a liability!
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This piece originally appeared on The Patriot Project

Imagine that it's 1997, and you're a strategist trying to figure out how to get George W. Bush, of all people, into the White House. Your candidate's record is, to put it mildly, not so great: he had been elected Governor of Texas in 1994 and before that ... well ... never mind. His term as government is marked by cronyism and corruption, and if elected to the nation's highest office it promises to be more of the same.

If you're going to win this you will need to mask your candidate's record and agenda. You need a strategy that turns your opponent's advantages into disadvantages, and, most important, that distracts everyone from your own candidate's awful record. And to accomplish this you need a team that is willing and cynical enough to do what it is going to take to sell your guy. Bush's top strategist Karl Rove learned his licks alongside Lee Atwater. Rove and Atwater went back a long ways,

Back in 1972, the 22-year-old Rove was a candidate for chairman of the College Republicans. The rambunctious Atwater was his Southern regional coordinator.

What kind of campaign schooling did Rove receive? In 1981 Atwater, then a Reagan strategist, said in an interview,

You start out in 1954 by saying, 'Nigger, nigger, nigger.' By 1968 you can't say 'nigger' - that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff.

In 1988, Atwater ran Bush's father's campaign against Michael Dukakis,

During the election, a number of false rumors were reported in the media about Dukakis, including the claim by Idaho Republican Senator Steve Symms that Dukakis's wife Kitty had burned an American flag to protest the Vietnam War, as well as the claim that Dukakis himself had been treated for a mental illness.

Rove's own background follows a similarly questionable ethical path,

Rove's first foray into politics involved gaining entry to the office of Alan Dixon--a candidate for state treasurer in Illinois in 1970--stealing some campaign stationery and printing and distributing a fake invitation to Dixon's campaign headquarters, promising "free beer, free food, girls, and a good time."

Later, working for Nixon's "dirty tricks" team,

...Rove infiltrated Democratic organizations on behalf of Nixon's infamous 1972 campaign. Rove's formidable talents came to the attention of George Bush Senior, then incoming Republican National Committee chairman, and the rest is history.

Finally, in Texas,

In 1986, Rove, by then in Texas, announced that his office had been bugged by Democrats during a gubernatorial race. The accusation, which spurred an FBI investigation, never panned out, leading some critics to charge that Rove had bugged his own phone.

So you've got your Rove on. Next, you line up your operatives - people like Tom Synhorst and Ralph Reed. If you've got a stinker to sell, it's a good idea turn to the very best at selling real stinkers. Tobacco marketers were so good that they could convince people to kill themselves with your product and hand over their money to you in the process!

Before moving into political consulting, Tom Synhorst had been employed by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company coordinating RJR's "grassroots" efforts. Later he had worked on George W Bush's 1994 campaign for Governor of Texas. Mother Jones, in 1996's groundbreaking story Tobacco Dole,

Synhorst ... illustrate[s] an important aspect of the tobacco industry's survival plan: Create grassroots front groups to make pro-tobacco legislation handed down by state and national politicians appear to be the public's will. These groups, many posing as "anti-tax" organizations, are key to the tobacco industry's efforts to win over the anti-big government segment of the electorate.

Known as the "Johnny Appleseed of Astroturf," Synhorst founded the firm Direct Connect, Inc., or DCI in 1988. DCI continued to work for tobacco companies as well as political campaigns and the NRA, specializing in "strategic message development and delivery," and using Astroturf methods to make it appear to members of Congress that there was popular support for their positions.

Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition (and now implicated as part of the Abramoff lobbying/corruption ring) is a help, because at some point you want to get your candidate in front of the leaders and followers of the theocratic Right - and especially get their machine behind you. Reed was probably helpful in facilitating a relationship between Bush and the Council for National Policy. (See here, here, here, here and here.)

And if you want to mask Reed's involvement, just "park" him at Enron and Microsoft. (see also) According to CNN,

The White House acknowledged Friday that in 1997, as George W. Bush was deciding whether to run for president, his senior political adviser Karl Rove recommended GOP strategist Ralph Reed for a consulting job with Enron Corp. Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, went to work for Enron as a strategist, making from $10,000 to $20,000 a month, according to The New York Times.

After you've got your operative ducks in a row there's those pesky primaries to get through (ask Joe Lieberman about that). In the primaries you face John McCain, an experienced Senator, a man perceived as a military hero who had spent five years as a POW, and as an honest "straight talker." If you are a strategist for George W. Bush, of all people, how do you go up against that?

And then following the primaries you still have the general election where you'll be up against Al Gore, the most involved Vice President in history, coming from four years of peace and prosperity, a former seminary student, Vietnam veteran, with one of the strongest records of any Senator.

But one of the advantages you have for the coming campaign is... almost all the money in the world.

Turning McCain's record into a liability - how they did it.

If you're really, really cynical, why not turn a record of honorable record of military service and dedication to America into a liability!

... Bush surrogates (several later involved in the Kerry swiftboating effort) skillfully turned McCain's service record against him (thereby deflecting questions about Bush's own service record.) They planted stories that the torture McCain suffered as a POW had brought about mental instability, including rumors that he had been programmed as a "Manchurian candidate" who "collaborated with the enemy." No longer could McCain use the fact that he had endured torture as evidence of dedication to serving his country.

And as explained in Patriot Project's Did Paul Galanti Sell His Medals,

In the 2000 South Carolina Presidential primary Bush surrogates circulated stories that McCain's five years as a POW had made him "mentally unstable," gave him a "loose screw," that he "committed treason while a POW" and "came home and forgot us." The stories also called McCain "the fag candidate," called his wife a drug addict, said McCain "chose to sire children without marriage" and had "a black child" (the actual wording of that last smear from the flyers and e-mails that circulated is not printable here).

And when McCain responded by asking whether this kind of smear campaign showed that voters should think twice about trusting Bush, saying Bush was "twisting the truth like Clinton," Rove was able to turn that against McCain¸ by accusing McCain of "going negative." Unlike Rove and Bush, McCain hadn't understood the value of attacking with surrogates.

This information was passed using flyers, e-mails, word-of-mouth and "push polls." As McCain's campaign manager, Richard H. Davis, later wrote in his article about what happened, The anatomy of a smear campaign that,

Anonymous opponents used "push polling" to suggest that McCain's Bangladeshi born daughter was his own, illegitimate black child. In push polling, a voter gets a call, ostensibly from a polling company, asking which candidate the voter supports. In this case, if the "pollster" determined that the person was a McCain supporter, he made statements designed to create doubt about the senator.

But other Bush surrogates threw smoke into the air, accusing the media of making up the whole story

Thursday night ABC, CBS and NBC all featured full stories about John McCain's indignation over "push polling" by the Bush campaign -- based solely on the second-hand recitation by a mother about a phone call her 14-year-old son supposedly received tagging McCain a "fraud" and a "liar."

While all the stories included denials from the Bush campaign that they made any such calls, by making the allegation the basis of their campaign story of the night, only ABC ran a second story on another subject (see item #2 below), the networks served the agenda of the McCain campaign.


Synhorst's firm specialized in push-polling. According to a Feb. 11, 2000 Washington Post story,

[Bush campaign spokesman Ari] Fleischer said the advocacy calls were being made by the firm of Feathers, Hodges, Larson and Synhorst, a Phoenix-based company that has worked extensively for the Bush campaign to identify and turn out voters in key states.

Reed also had his own background in nasty, smearing push polling. According to Josh Marshall,

Back in 1996 Reed was the one who helped save Bob Dole in Iowa by orchestrating a campaign of so-called "push-polls" attacking rival candidate Steve Forbes for, among other things, tolerating his father's "alternative lifestyle."

Reed's frequent partner in "astroturf" work is Tom Synhorst. Let's run through some of his exploits in the "astroturf" biz. Synhorst's main shop is Direct Connect Inc., DCI. DCI did the "astroturf" work for the 'Health Benefits Coalition,' trying to kill the Health Care Bill of Rights back in 1998 (Nat. Journal July 11, '98); DCI also spearheaded various efforts by the tobacco industry and the NRA; it also helped set up Americans for Competitive Technology and Americans for Technology Leadership, two Microsoft front groups agitating against the Justice Department's antitrust suit.

(Remember that Reed working for Microsoft at the same time as he was employed as a Bush campaign strategist.)

And finally, let's bring in the Wyly Brothers. The Wyly Brothers ran their own smear-McCain operation. According to the Dallas Morning News,

During Mr. Bush's 2000 primary fight with John McCain, the [Wyly] brothers backed a $2.5 million television ad campaign praising Mr. Bush's environmental record in Texas and attacking Mr. McCain's Senate votes. Until that point, it was Mr. Bush whose record had come under fire from environmental groups.The ad's sponsor was identified only as "Republicans for Clean Air," a new group at the time...

So what is up with McCain today, turning around and joining up with the very foes who smeared him in 2000?

From the Dallas News story,

Earlier this year, the Wylys' relationship with Mr. McCain took a surprising turn. They each sent $10,000 checks to his political action committee and were set to co-sponsor a Dallas fundraiser on his behalf.

And from ABC's April 23, 06 story, Gearing Up for '08? McCain Befriends Old Enemies,

Also co-chairing the [McCain] event are Rob Allyn, a Texas PR man who was paid $46,000 to produce the Wylys' "Republicans for Clean Air" ads, and businessmen Albert Huddleston and Harold Simmons, who gave $100,000 and $3 million respectively to the controversial independent group, "Swift Vets & POWs for Truth." McCain called "dishonest and dishonorable" the "Swift Vets" group's 2004 campaign ads that helped sink the presidential chances of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

... Also co-chairing the event are Rob Allyn, a Texas PR man who was paid $46,000 to produce the Wylys' "Republicans for Clean Air" ads, and businessmen Albert Huddleston and Harold Simmons, who gave $100,000 and $3 million respectively to the controversial independent group, "Swift Vets & POWs for Truth." McCain called "dishonest and dishonorable" the "Swift Vets" group's 2004 campaign ads that helped sink the presidential chances of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

... McCain has been criticized by many liberals and pundits in recent weeks for agreeing to speak on May 13 at Liberty University, the school founded by Christian conservative Rev. Jerry Falwell, who McCain in 2000 labeled "an agent of intolerance." McCain told NBC's Tim Russert earlier this month that he no longer held that opinion."The, quote, 'Christian Right' has a major role to play in the Republican Party," McCain said. "One reason is because they're so active, and their followers are."

Interestingly the Wyly Brothers may have gotten the money to smear McCain from Texas taxpayers, with Bush's help. But that's a story for later...

John Dean, in the preface to his book Conservatives Without Conscience, writes,

How do people - particularly those who have never put their life on the line fot their country - engage in, or condone, attacks on Senator John McCain's life-defining experiences as a Vietnam POW or question Senator Ma Cleland's courage in building a new life after his loss of three limbs in Vietnam? What causes them to dispute Senator John Kerry's valor during voluntary combat duty in Vietnam or to contest Representative Jack Murtha's war record in Vietnam? ... These questions have clear answers. ... In fact, these people cannot be trusted to exercise the powers of government responsibly.

The Patriot Project is working to expose the front groups, their funding, their connections and their tactics.

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