A group of Vietnam prisoners of war featured in a new documentary criticizing John F. Kerry have teamed up with Navy Swift boat veterans in the final days of the presidential campaign to condemn the Democratic nominee's military record and antiwar activities.
The anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has spent more than $10 million trying to discredit Kerry's war record, recently changed its name to Swift Vets and POWs for Truth to bring into its fold dozens of Vietnam prisoners of war opposed to Kerry's candidacy. Many of those POWs are interviewed in the documentary, "Stolen Honor: Wounds that Never Heal."
The documentary -- which is expected to air as early as next week in prime time on the 62 stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. -- has been widely condemned by Democrats and some watchdog groups for its one-sided anti-Kerry message. The Swift boat veterans are helping to promote the documentary.
Combined, the airing of the documentary and the efforts of the Swift Vets group amount a last-minute, multimillion-dollar air and ground campaign vilifying Kerry over the Vietnam War. Their ominous, if highly disputed, message: Kerry dishonored the country by accusing Vietnam veterans of war crimes and atrocities in the early 1970s and therefore cannot be trusted as commander in chief today.
The 40-minute documentary could potentially reach 24 percent of U.S. television households over Sinclair's stations. Only a few of those stations, however, are located in states where the presidential race is close. These locations include Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Tallahassee and Tampa, Fla.; Minneapolis; St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo.; Pittsburgh; and Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, Ohio. Critics say the film amounts to an in-kind contribution to President Bush worth millions of dollars.
Sinclair, which has a history of supporting Bush with money and favorable programming decisions, has offered Kerry time to rebut the charges in the documentary. Kerry has declined.
At the same time, the Swift Vets group yesterday purchased $3 million in airtime for two new ads in New Mexico, Ohio and Colorado, according to William E. Franke, a decorated Vietnam War veteran and spokesman for the group. Two-thirds of the money will be spent in Ohio, a state both parties consider a must-win. The ads condemn Kerry's prominent leadership role in the antiwar protests of the early 1970s. "How can you expect our sons and daughters to follow you when you condemned their fathers and grandfathers?" George "Bud" Day, a POW cellmate of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), asks in one of the new ads.
Franke said the group has raised $17 million, which includes more than $1 million each from T. Boone Pickens and Bob Perry, two Republican donors from Texas. The group has spent $1.2 million to mail anti-Kerry literature to veterans, Franke said.
It is not just the message that overlaps when it comes to the Swift boat group and the people involved in the documentary. Many of the POWs who appear in the documentary, including retired Air Force Col. Kenneth Cordier, also appear in ads financed by the Swift boat veterans. Cordier resigned as a volunteer on the Bush campaign after his links to the anti-Kerry group were revealed.
The POWs approached the Swift boat veterans this summer for help, after seeing how much national attention Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was garnering. The Swift boat veterans invited all of the POWs in the documentary to join, and they did.
"There is no overlap at all" with the producers of the documentary, Franke said. "Obviously it's the same message, and the POWs in it have now joined us."
It is still not clear who financed the $250,000 documentary. Charlie Gerow, president of Quantum Communications, a Harrisburg, Pa.-based public relations and marketing firm that represents the documentary's producer (Carlton Sherwood and Red, White & Blue Productions), says the film was initially financed by "a dozen, maybe 13," veterans from Pennsylvania, but he declined to disclose their names.
The Swift Vets group and the POWs in the film are represented by Creative Response Concepts, a public relations firm that also works for Progress for America, a group that will announce its own $12 million-plus anti-Kerry ad buy next week.
The Swift boat group is widely credited by Republicans and Democrats alike for damaging Kerry's credibility this summer, when it aired statements from veterans who had served in the same naval unit as Kerry in which they contended that he did not deserve many of the war medals he was awarded. Kerry was criticized by many Democrats, including some of his aides, for failing to mount a quick response to the attacks, which were picked up and replayed on cable television for several weeks in August. In a matter of weeks, Kerry's support, especially among veterans, dropped significantly and the Democratic nominee fell behind Bush.
Kerry did not recover in the polls until he responded with a forceful denunciation of the ads. Since then, the Swift boat vets have struggled to grab as much national attention, but they still raised more than $15 million and have run numerous ads bashing Kerry. In New Mexico this week, hardly an hour went by without the Swift boat ads being broadcast.
David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, said the Democratic nominee will not respond to the new round of charges. "We will keep an eye on what they are doing, but we feel this is a widely discredited group who is doing the dirty work of President Bush. . . . They will not set the conversation for this campaign," he said. To defend Kerry, the campaign is running ads with military figures praising Kerry and his war service, Wade said.