Republicans Weren't Always Above Attacking A Veteran's War Record

GOP officials encouraged efforts to sink John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid.

WASHINGTON -- Republican Party officials and presidential hopefuls have stood in near universal opposition against Donald Trump's comment that Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, was no hero. But many in the GOP had no trouble questioning the military record of another Vietnam War veteran, Secretary of State John Kerry.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was one of several 2016 GOP presidential candidates to condemn Trump's "slanderous attacks." He tweeted on Saturday that "all our veterans - particularly POWs have earned our respect and admiration." But Bush didn't object to such attacks in 2005, when he praised Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of veterans that had helped torpedo Kerry's 2004 presidential bid by running television ads slurring his service record in Vietnam.

"As someone who truly understands the risk of standing up for something, I simply cannot express in words how much I value their willingness to stand up against John Kerry," Bush wrote in a January 2005 letter to Col. George Day, one of the group's members. 

Bush also rejected the notion that the attacks were unfair during a 2004 interview. "I don't think [their allegations] are a smear," he told radio host Sean Hannity. "In fact, what ought to happen is, there ought to be fact checks. Every ad that goes out ought to be looked at by the press in an objective way, and people can make their own determination whether they're accurate or not." 

Kerry's opponent in the 2004 White House race was, of course, Jeb's brother George.

A Jeb Bush spokesman told CNN this week that his letter to Day was "not in any way analogous" to Trump's comments regarding McCain.

Kerry earned several awards for his service in Vietnam, including a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Combat V, and three Purple Hearts. Critics charged that Kerry lied about his war wounds, but such allegations were contradicted by official military records.

The effort to tarnish Kerry's service reached such a feeding frenzy in the weeks before the 2004 election that even the GOP's 1996 presidential nominee, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, joined in the fray. Dole, a World War II veteran, went on CNN and directly called into question Kerry's record:

"With three Purple Hearts, he never bled that I know of. And they're all superficial wounds."

Dole apologized for the remark the next day after a personal call from Kerry, saying that before taping the interview, "maybe I should have stayed longer for brunch somewhere."

But the apology came perhaps too little, too late, as then-Texas governor and current presidential candidate Rick Perry picked up the baton. Perry, who over the weekend called on Trump to withdraw from the race, said in 2004 that Kerry ought to release his military records because "a lot of questions” remained unanswered.

"When a person like Bob Dole asks the question ... lay your records out. It's pretty hard to argue that about Bob Dole's Purple Heart," Perry said.

A week later, at the Republican National Convention in New York, party delegates mocked Kerry by applying bandages on their faces and various other body parts with Purple Hearts drawn on them. The bandages also read, "It was just a self-inflicted scratch, but you see I got a Purple Heart for it."

At the time, leading GOP officials, including the George W. Bush campaign, sought to distance themselves from the bandage mockery. But they resisted disassociating themselves from the Swift Boat ads entirely, arguing instead that Kerry's anti-war activism after he came home from Vietnam reflected negatively on American troops.