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Posted by on Jul 4, 2008 in At TMV | 27 comments

Is General Wesley Clark a “Swiftboater”?

Happy Fourth of July.

I actually got a head-start on the holiday because I read the July 4 issue of that great military newspaper, the Stars and Stripes, on July 3. You see, because of the time difference, the Middle East edition of the Stars and Stripes is published around 2 PM Central Standard Time, in effect “the day before.“

In the July 4 issue there is an opinion piece, “In foot-in-mouth contest, Clark is swiftest,” by Jay Ambrose, in which Ambrose takes retired Gen. Wesley Clark to task for remarks he made about John McCain. Ambrose quotes Clark saying, “riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down” is no qualification to be president. Ambrose continues, “ and the immediate accusation was that he was guilty of “swift boating.”

First, let’s put Clark’s remarks in context.

In a question-and answer session with Bob Schieffer on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Clark praised McCain‘s service and sacrifice as a prisoner of war: “I certainly honor [McCain’s] service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war,” and on his service in the Senate: “He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he has traveled all over the world,” but, Clark continued, “he hasn’t held executive responsibility” “That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded — that wasn’t a wartime squadron.”

Actually, back in March, in a conference call with reporters, Clark did a much better job of articulating his criticism of McCain and of putting his views in context. He then said: “Everybody admires John McCain’s service as a fighter pilot, his courage as a prisoner of war. There’s no issue there. He’s a great man and an honorable man. But having served as a fighter pilot — and I know my experience as a company commander in Vietnam — that doesn’t prepare you to be commander in chief in terms of dealing with the national strategic issues that are involved. It may give you a feeling for what the troops are going through in the process, but it doesn’t give you the experience first hand of the national strategic issues.”

Second, as to the accusation that Clark “was guilty of ‘swift boating.’ I say “hogwash,“ because that is patently ridiculous and because I am not aware of any “immediate accusation that [Clark] was guilty of ‘swift boating’” in any serious media.

I say it is a patently ridiculous accusation–and I will add disingenuous and manufactured–for the following reasons:

1. General Clark’s remarks by no stretch of the (objective) imagination rise to the level of the despicable tactics used by those who conducted the defamatory media blitz against John Kerry four years ago and, as a result, gave the term “swift boating” such an odious connotation.

2. Democrats would not use such a term to characterize the remarks of a fellow Democrat, especially those of a distiguished retired General.

3. Republicans and Conservatives are trying to put that heinous episode behind them, and–as Ambrose himself would agree–attempting to reclaim the good name “Swift Boat,“ and would not themselves continue to perpetuate its odious connotation by using it to characterize Clark’s remarks.

Finally, a reason for Ambrose to use such a term to describe Clark’s remarks, might have been to be able to launch into a discourse against what he calls “Disgrace Number Two” which, according to him is “the use of the word ‘swift boating‘ to describe mendacious slurs on a political candidate.”

After first–pardon the expression–swift boating General Clark’s military record, Ambrose quotes from a June 30 New York Times article (“Veterans Long to Reclaim the Name ‘Swift Boat’”): “’Swift boat’ has become the synonym for the nastiest of campaign smears.” He then says, “But the real smear is against the honorable Vietnam veterans of swift boat service who raised serious, responsible allegations against Democratic nominee John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.”

Ambrose then goes on to rehash, and to try to justify, many of the same accusations that made “Swift Boat “ “the “synonym for the nastiest of campaign smears“ to begin with.

Glaringly absent from Ambrose‘s primer on “Swift boating” is the following, still from the same New York Times article:

By the association’s count, about 3,600 men served aboard Swift boats in Vietnam, 600 officers and 3,000 enlisted. About 200 signed the letter that became the basis of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign in 2004. In advertisements, a best-selling book and extensive news media appearances, they accused Mr. Kerry of fabricating exploits to win his military decorations and a discharge just four months into a yearlong tour.


Navy documents contradicted many of their accusations, but the claims undermined what Democrats had hoped would be Mr. Kerry’s strength. Regardless of what they thought of Mr. Kerry, many Swift boat veterans objected to the attacks. “It was unconscionable,” said Stan Collier, who served as an officer in charge on a boat based in Qui Nhon. “I thought those boys struck a new low.”

And, continuing with Stan Collier:

Mr. Collier considers himself a conservative and did not agree with Mr. Kerry’s politics, but he voted for him to protest the Swift boat campaign. “We’ve all been attributed to the sleaziness that those guys assigned to Kerry,” he said. “I think we’ve all been demeaned.”

I do agree with Ambrose on one thing. It is a shame that a name associated with so many brave veterans–especially the ones who had nothing to do with the attack on Senator Kerry–has become a political pejorative, and that these heroes should get their good name back. Especially, as the Times says, “the good names of the men not lucky enough to come home alive.”

As I wrote in “Ex-Swift Boaters’ Donations and the ‘Swiftboating’ Connotation”:

It is hoped that more and more of these heroes will come forward to disassociate themselves from the group that has brought them so much grief. Harlan Ullman, a Swift boat driver in Vietnam and a Pentagon consultant has written: “It is time to ban a word that is at once offensive, demeaning and obscene both to and for anyone serving in the naval profession. That word is ‘Swiftboating.’”


…as Americans get to know more and more about those 3,400 brave people who did not participate in the besmirching of good men and women for purely political reasons, the quicker the original shine will be returned to the name Swift boaters.

Note: The Stars and Stripes Ambrose Opinion piece was not available on the web. The same article, titled “Jay Ambrose: ‘Swiftboating’ term unjustly used to single out campaign smears” appears in the Naples Daily News.