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Swift Boat Sniping

Tuesday, August 24, 2004; Page A16

WHEN WE FIRST wrote about the ads slamming Democratic nominee John F. Kerry's service in Vietnam, we said that Mr. Kerry's emphasis on his Vietnam experience had made questions about his war record fair game. But we said that ads by the group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had crossed the line in smearing the service that earned Mr. Kerry three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star. Nothing we've seen in the two weeks since has changed that view.

In fact, additional evidence has emerged, in reporting by The Post's Michael Dobbs and in other papers, that further discredits the group's claims. The Post reported that Larry Thurlow, who accused Mr. Kerry of lying about being under enemy fire when he rescued Jim Rassmann, earned a Bronze Star in the same episode -- for his heroism, according to the citation, "despite enemy bullets flying about him." Two crewmen on other boats have also said that Mr. Kerry and his crew mates were being fired on.

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Mr. Kerry's conflicting statements about where and when he was in Cambodia remain troubling. He has backed away from repeated claims that he spent Christmas Eve 1968 in Cambodia, a memory that, he said in a 1986 Senate speech, is "seared -- seared -- in me." This does not undermine Mr. Kerry's military bravery, but it does raise an issue of candor. It's fair to ask whether this is an episode of foggy memory, routine political embroidery or something more. Indeed, the Kerry campaign ought to arrange for the full release of all relevant records from the time. Mr. Kerry granted historian Douglas Brinkley exclusive use of his wartime journals and other writings; the campaign should seek to be freed from that agreement and to make all the material public. Though the ads are being underwritten by longtime Bush partisans, the Kerry campaign's claim of illegal coordination between the Swift boat group and the Bush campaign is unconvincing.

At the same time, the Bush campaign's disingenuous response to the ads -- declining to condemn them but rather calling on all independent "527" groups to cease and desist -- has done no credit to the president, who finally said yesterday that Mr. Kerry "served admirably and he ought to be proud of his record." Resurrecting a tactic wielded against Arizona Sen. John McCain (R) four years ago, Bush surrogates have irresponsibly suggested that Mr. Kerry is dangerously rattled by the controversy, flinging about terms such as "wild-eyed" (Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot) and "losing his cool" (White House press secretary Scott McClellan).

It's remarkable that the current Vietnam debate centers on Mr. Kerry's record. Even if Mr. Bush faithfully fulfilled his National Guard service, he undeniably took steps to avoid the duty for which Mr. Kerry volunteered. Likewise, Vice President Cheney availed himself of five draft deferments.

As we've said since the issue of Mr. Bush's Guard service arose this spring, whatever the two men did more than three decades ago matters less than where they would take the country in the next four years. It's too bad that partisans on both sides -- former senator Bob Dole saying this weekend that "there's got to be some truth to the charges" against Mr. Kerry, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) calling the vice president a "coward" -- have fueled the controversy. The sooner the campaign debate shifts from Swift boats toward substance, the better off voters will be.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company