WASHINGTON — If there was one lesson of the 2004 election cycle, it was respond to attacks quickly and directly. In the summer of 2004, John Kerry let a slowly building media campaign against his Vietnam War experience explode into a debacle. From that campaign a new phrase entered the political lexicon: “swift boating.” Now it appears that Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani may have his own “swift boaters.”
Now the International Association of Fire Fighters, the union for professional firefighters with a long history of support for Democratic candidates, is getting into the act with a 13-minute video that is essentially a long attack ad against Giuliani’s support for firefighters when he was mayor of New York. It is buttressed by a comprehensive Web site titled “Rudy Giuliani: Urban Legend.”
Both the video and the Web site were unveiled Wednesday. Simultaneously, the video is being uplinked to YouTube and at least a handful of other Internet video sites like video.google.com.
Campaigning on tragedy
Many firefighters are incensed by Giuliani’s use of 9/11 in his presidential campaign, and they are determined to pierce what they call the “myth of Giuliani,” said Harold Schaitberger, international president of the union.
Schaitberger said in an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball” that union members were offended that Giuliani, who was mayor during the Sept. 11 attacks, is using the tragedy to raise money and create a theme for his presidential campaign, and they claim that he is distorting the truth to do it.
“He’s out and around the country ... trying to sign up our members so he can use them as a backdrop,” Schaitberger said.
The video uses testimonials from a half-dozen firefighters and relatives of firefighters who died in the World Trade Center attack. And while the arguments aren’t completely new, when coupled with the images of rescue workers at the World Trade Center site, the video is powerfully effective and potentially damaging to the Giuliani campaign.
Giuliani criticizes attack as partisan
The Giuliani campaign issued statements pointing to the IAFF’s history of endorsing Democratic candidates and noting Schaitberger’s affiliation with the 2004 Kerry campaign and the Democratic Leadership Council. It quoted a retired New York firefighter saying “firefighters know the difference between politics and leadership.”
And it released a statement from Howard Safir, Giuliani’s fire commissioner and then police commissioner in New York, praising the former mayor’s support for firefighters on and after 9/11. “Firefighters across the country have no greater friend than Rudy Giuliani,” Safir said.
But Schaitberger said the campaign against Giuliani was not driven by politics.
“It’s not about a Republican candidate,” he insisted. “It’s about a candidate trying to build his candidacy on a legend of 9/11.”
Schaitberger acknowledged that with 281,000 members, “our union is politically diversified — it’s a cross-section of our country.” But he maintained that he and the union’s leadership “do speak for our members, and the fact is that our members are more than concerned about the treatment of those who were lost on that day.”
Making their case
The video makes three main arguments against Giuliani:
- The radio system the New York Fire Department used during 9/11 was defective, and firefighters in the towers could not hear two separate evacuation orders.
As a result, 121 firefighters perished when the North Tower fell, but not one police officer died, because police had a working radio system and heard the urgent calls to leave the tower. The video claims that Giuliani and other New York officials knew for many years that the firefighter radio system did not work and that they had the same problems during the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.
- Giuliani drastically scaled back search and recovery efforts at Ground Zero on Nov. 1, 2001, to make way for cleanup crews. The remains of dozens of firefighters had still not been found.
The reason for the “scoop and dump” operation, as the firefighters call it? Gold. The same day Giuliani cut back the search teams, he also announced that more than $230 million in gold and silver bars had been recovered from vaults under the tower. Some firefighters claim the search was always more about gold than it was about bodies.
- For business reasons, Giuliani decided to house the New York Command Center bunker at the 7 World Trade Center building. The command center bunker was never used during that fateful day, and, at 5 p.m. on the evening of 9/11, the 7 WTC tower fell.
Some firefighters question why — of all places — the mayor would put the command and control bunker for emergency operations in the very building complex that was a known terrorist target, given the 1993 bombing of the WTC.
The union label
The professional firefighters union is one of the most politically savvy of the trade unions. It was the first major labor group to jump on Kerry’s bandwagon, and it helped propel his campaign in 2004. The firefighters union has yet to endorse a candidate this year, but it is probably fair to say it will not be endorsing Giuliani. In fact, while most of the other major presidential candidates from both parties addressed the firefighters’ annual convention in March, Giuliani abruptly canceled his speech, fearing an ugly response from the thousands of firefighters gathered in the hall.
The firefighters union claims it put together its video primarily to educate its membership — professional firefighters across the country. But in the age of YouTube and the 24-hour news cycle, a video attack like this is likely to generate a great amount of press.
Given that the union does not have plans to launch a large TV or radio advertising campaign, as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth did in the summer of 2004, will the media be reporting about this video at all? The answer is probably yes, because the game has changed since 2004.
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Success breeds success
Why should candidates or issue groups spend millions on traditional advertising when they can generate hundreds of thousands of hits by simply uploading a video? Take, for example, the Hillary Clinton campaign’s use of a “Sopranos” spoof to unveil a campaign theme song. Simply by making the video and posting it on her campaign Web site, she generated a stunning amount of favorable press and television coverage (not to mention millions of dollars’ worth of free advertising).
A well-done attack video posted on the Internet can have a big effect. Late last year, the United Steelworkers union was locked in a bitter dispute with Goodyear over a new contract. The union made a short attack video highlighting what it said were the hazards of buying tires made by replacement workers.
The 30-second video spot showed a montage of black-and-white photos of auto accidents. As a sport-utility vehicle flips over and careens through the air, a question appears on-screen: “What tires do you plan to buy?”
The video — posted onto YouTube and other video sites — generated thousands of hits and lots of bad press. The result? Goodyear was forced back to the bargaining table.
If a Fortune 200 company like Goodyear can be influenced by bad press from an Internet video, imagine how a presidential campaign would react.
Doug Adams is a political producer for NBC News. Alex Johnson of MSNBC.com contributed to this report.