updated 8/25/2004 11:48:19 AM ET 2004-08-25T15:48:19

Guests: Jack Burkman, Flavia Colgan, Merrie Spaeth

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST:  Tonight‘s top headline, the swift boat assault intensifies.  The “Real Deal,” the vets‘ attack against John Kerry have only just begun. 

Welcome to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY where no passport is required and only common sense is allowed. 

John Kerry rolls up his sleeves to cut short the swift boat controversy, as the Democratic nominee actually calls vets who are challenging his war record.  Is it a sign of strong leadership or political desperation?  We‘ll debate it. 

Then, is veteran media consultant Merrie Spaeth at the center of a vast right-wing conspiracy to use vets‘ ads to sink John Kerry?  “The New York Times” says she is.  Tonight, we‘re going to get the “Real Deal” from Spaeth herself. 

ANNOUNCER:  From the press room, to the courtroom, to the halls of Congress, Joe Scarborough has seen it all.  Welcome to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, welcome to the show.  I‘m Joe Scarborough.  Thanks for being here tonight.

Now, in politics, as in life, timing is everything.  It‘s time for tonight‘s “Real Deal.” 

In the 2000 presidential election, George W. Bush lost up to four percentage points during the campaign‘s final weekend after a Gore supporter leaked a 20-year-old drunk driving charge against the Republican candidate.  You know, pollsters would later say that the timing of that attack may have cost George Bush the popular vote and almost cost him the White House. 

Now, eight years earlier, independent prosecutor Lawrence Walsh filed indictments against Iran-Contra figures in hopes of swaying Bush Sr.‘s election against Bill Clinton.  At the time of the politically motivated indictments, Bush has pulled within one point of Bill Clinton.  But Walsh‘s last-minute political hit job buried 41‘s reelection efforts for good.

And, you know, sometimes an attack can backfire when it drags on too long.  Bush the elder‘s decision in 1988 to paint Michael Dukakis as a sworn enemy of the Pledge of Allegiance was one example of political excess, as we viewers were forced to watch the GOP candidate visit every flag factory between New England and San Diego, 16 years earlier.  The only question is when the swift boat controversy is going to play itself out and begin backfiring against the very forces who want to see John Kerry defeated this fall. 

Now, expect to see media stories filling your local newspapers in the coming days suggesting that this story is already dead, now this despite the fact that both the media and candidate John Kerry spent several weeks discussing the National Guard controversy surrounding George Bush throughout most of February.  But that was then and this is now.  And right now, John Kerry has gone on the attack publicly and privately he‘s calling swift boat vets to challenge their accounts. 

Now, this is the sort of in-your-face approach that always has to be displayed when a candidate‘s honor has been called into question.  A good rule to remember in political mud-slinging is this.  He who doesn‘t deny admits.  And John Kerry is finally out front denying these charges and that‘s good news for a campaign that‘s seen some rocky days over the past two weeks. 

And that‘s tonight‘s “Real Deal.” 

Now, today, the second in a series of ads from Swift Boat Vets For Truth, we‘re going to be talking about all of that and the latest in this fast-moving story with MSNBC analysts Patrick Buchanan and Lawrence O‘Donnell.

Gentlemen, first things first.  Let‘s take a look at the new ad. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH AD)

JOHN KERRY, VIETNAM VETERAN:  They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating. 

KERRY:  Randomly shot at civilians. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  And it hurt me more than any physical wounds I had. 

KERRY:  Cut off limbs, blown up bodies. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That was part of the torture was to sign a statement that you had committed war crimes. 

KERRY:  Razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I and many of comrades in North Vietnam in the prison camps took torture to avoid saying.  It demoralized us. 

KERRY:  Crimes committed on a day-to-day basis. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He betrayed us in the past.  How could we be loyal to him now? 

KERRY:  Ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  He dishonored his country and more importantly the people he served with.  He just sold them out.

NARRATOR:  Swift Boat Veterans For Truth is responsible for the content of this advertisement. 

(END VIDEO CLIP) 

SCARBOROUGH:  Lawrence O‘Donnell, if that ad were run against my campaign, it would scare the heck out of me.  How bad is it for John Kerry? 

LAWRENCE O‘DONNELL, MSNBC SR. POLITICAL ANALYST:  Well, it‘s not bad for anyone who actually understands the history of it. 

John Kerry was speaking to a position that not long after his testimony became the overwhelming attitude of the American people.  And, by the way, the part that‘s cut out which has been played in some places—

Chris Matthews used it the other day—the preceding text, where John Kerry explains that he was at a meeting with a group of veterans who were telling their stories, and that these were the stories that they were telling to him, is a crucial element of what he‘s testifying to. 

He is not testifying to what he saw.  And at no time is he...

SCARBOROUGH:  Lawrence, what was the name of that group?  What was the name of that group? 

O‘DONNELL:  Vietnam Veterans Against the War. 

SCARBOROUGH:  No, no, no, I mean the group that was telling John Kerry what they had seen over in Vietnam. 

O‘DONNELL:  I‘m sorry, Joe. 

(CROSSTALK)

PAT BUCHANAN, NBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  It was Winter Soldier. 

O‘DONNELL:  I‘m having a little sound trouble on your question, Joe.   

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, I was just saying, wasn‘t that group Winter Soldiers? 

BUCHANAN:  Yes, it was. 

O‘DONNELL:  Yes, it was.  Yes. 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  Go ahead. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Go ahead.

O‘DONNELL:  And these are—these were soldiers who had extremely grim experiences in Vietnam.  Many of them had experiences that they were ashamed of.  Many of them did things that they didn‘t realize they were doing at the time. 

Some of them, for example, in the destroying of villages, were carrying out an actual official policy that only later they realized was something that maybe they shouldn‘t have been doing, or that was against international agreements to do that sort of thing.  So there was—there was an awakening that was going on among veterans, among a lot of veterans.  There was certainly a huge awakening that was going on among troops on the ground in Vietnam. 

I was reading letters from troops at that time back home about how things were not the way they thought they were and they were not the way they were told they were going to be.  And so Kerry—that testimony was part of Kerry‘s awakening.  And no one ever at the time proved that there was anything inaccurate in his testimony.  And you have to also remember that that testimony was given after the United States government then headed by Richard Nixon had prosecuted war criminals for their conduct in Vietnam. 

Court-martial testimony was already on the record, prosecutions carried out by the United States government, by the United States military against military operators in Vietnam for their conduct there.  And Kerry was drawing on that information also. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Pat Buchanan, I‘m going to ask you the same question.  How devastating is this ad for John Kerry? 

BUCHANAN:  It‘s terribly devastating. 

You have got prisoners of war who under torture refused to say the propaganda lies that John Kerry gave credence to in testimony for free before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Kerry was giving aid and comfort to the enemy at that point, just as he did when he went to Paris and met secretly with Madame Binh, Viet Cong representatives. 

Let me talk about Vietnam Veterans Against the War, because I am somewhat familiar with them.  You see that guy sitting beside John Kerry on “Meet the Press”?  His name is Al Hubbard.  He said he‘s a Vietnam vet, a pilot, and he got shot on the way into Danang.  He‘s a fraud and a phony.  There‘s no evidence he was ever in Danang, was ever decorated for it. 

The guy later became a communist.  He was over in Paris meeting with a communist.  He came to that famous Kansas City meeting, Joe.  If people know the facts and all these facts get out there, I think they will say, at least in the middle of America, you cannot have as commander in chief a man who slimed the comrades and soldiers he left behind. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, I‘m talking to both you guys, and I‘m struck.  We‘ve been on several panels together, talked a good bit.  You all have great respect for each other.  On most issues, you can find common ground. 

But I‘m struck tonight, Lawrence O‘Donnell, you‘re saying what John Kerry said in 1971 is part of the official record. 

Pat Buchanan, I wrote down the word “lies.”  You said what he‘s saying are lies. 

(CROSSTALK) 

SCARBOROUGH:  Where does the truth lie? 

BUCHANAN:  All right, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, let me tell you, they were a group up there, 150 of them up in Detroit.  “Detroit News” did a study of them; 11 of them had never even served in the military. 

They came in there.  There was no questioning or cross-examination. 

They got up there.  They fed these cock-and-bull stories.  And some of them

·         I would guess some of them were true.  But the truth is, John Kerry did not record a single atrocity apparently in his journal that he kept over there, his diary.  He did not complain to any officer about an atrocity while he was there.  He was back for two years before he said these occurred.  It was only when he got up before the United States Senate that suddenly all these horrors Kerry knew about and gave credence to, even though he cited a lot of these top Vietnam Veterans Against the War. 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  This was a very common post-combat experience for people coming back from Vietnam.  And I knew a lot of them.  Believe me, I was way, way, way too afraid and luckily just a little bit too young to have to go into service over there. 

I was—my draft number came up literally on the week before President Nixon ended the draft, but I‘m telling you, nothing could have gotten me over there.  Everybody who avoided service in Vietnam who was of combat age was desperately afraid to be there, because we knew this was a war unlike any other war.  It was already America‘s longest war.  It was a jungle war unlike anything we‘d ever been involved with, with an enemy we absolutely could not identify.

And the atrocities that John Kerry spoke to were things that he considered—that were the official policies, Pat.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  Wait a minute.  I‘m older than you.  Look, I was a little kid.  I was working—going down to the playground when the vets came back when World War II.  And they told me what they did to the Japanese on Guadalcanal.  I know things like this were done. 

Look, my brother served in Vietnam.  I lost three of my high school classmates in there.  These guys, the Vietnam veterans in the swift boats, they‘ve come back to say this is a lie.  Joe, look at one example.  You know that fish weir in the middle of that river.  The American boats, why didn‘t they, if it‘s Genghis Khan, drive right through it?  They both went around it, putting their patrols at risk to avoid taking out some Vietnamese fishnets. 

These swift boat vets are the most authentic guys in this campaign.  I believe they‘re men of honor.  I believe there are some occasions where both Kerry‘s guys and they are right, but there are some where there‘s clear cases of conflict. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Lawrence O‘Donnell...

O‘DONNELL:  By the way, there is one point of agreement here with Pat and I.  I didn‘t get to speak to it clearly, but I do think this latest ad is an extremely effective ad, because, of course, the people it‘s targeted at, the undecided, relatively uninformed voters, are not going to be capable of providing context to it in their own heads when they‘re watching it.  I think it‘s a very effective ad. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And that‘s really the next question I was going to ask you, Lawrence.  Of course, you are on one side of the political fence, Patrick Buchanan on the other side of the political fence.  Well, we‘re not sure exactly where Patrick Buchanan‘s fence lies right now. 

BUCHANAN:  I‘m not sure either. 

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  But I would guess, though, probably you all are not undecided voters. 

The question, Lawrence, is, how does this play in West Virginia?  How does it play in central and western Pennsylvania?  How does it play in central and south Florida?  How will this play where it‘s really going to make a difference in the undecided states? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, the ad itself is actually going to play very negatively to Kerry obviously in exactly those locations. 

However, it‘s very important to note that as we‘ve been yelling about this story for going deep into our third to fourth week here, since the first swift boat ad came out, John Kerry is still leading in Zogby‘s battleground state polls.  He‘s leading 14 states to two states.  So we have not seen any overall polling effect whatsoever from these ads. 

What we believe we‘ve seen is a possible loss of veteran support for Kerry in some of those states, but the overall numbers don‘t show a single state switching as a result of this particular piece of the campaign. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  I have to agree, I saw the Zogby poll.  And Larry is exactly right.  Kerry slipped a little bit, but he‘s still leading in 14 of 16 of them.

But this is a very dramatic ad.  But let me be critical of the president, quite frankly, and of the Kerry campaign.  Kerry comes out last week and says, they‘re going to challenge my record, bring it on.  On Saturday, John Edwards said, Mr. President, tell them to stop.  You know, they were running away from this thing, those fellows were.

But I do believe this.  I think these guys are real.  They‘re authentic.  They‘re not wonks.  They‘re not beltway consultants and strategists and spin-meisters and these people.  I think these Vietnam vets are real.  That‘s why I think you get out in rural America, you play those ads and I think they will really hit home. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, gentlemen, stay with us. 

We‘ll be right back in a minute. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  John Kerry picks up the phone and calls swift boat vets that are critical of him and also Bob Dole.  Is it an act of desperation or a show of strong leadership?  We‘ll be debating that when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  We‘re back with Pat Buchanan, Lawrence O‘Donnell. 

Lawrence, let me go to you first.  What did you think of John Kerry picking up the phone, calling the swift boat vets himself personally and challenging their accounts? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, he‘s picked up the phone and called swift boat vets who haven‘t been involved in the story yet.  And every one of them have come out in support of the Kerry position.

You know, when these kind of stories erupt, you want to watch which ways the dominoes start to fall after the first round of stories.  And in this second round of treatment of this story, all the dominoes are falling toward John Kerry.  There aren‘t more veterans coming out against Kerry.  What‘s happening is, the—that every major newspaper that‘s looking into this and asking the John O‘Neill team questions, those stories are starting to fall apart in real serious detail on every level. 

And then you have new veterans coming out in support of Kerry.  For example, an editor of “The Chicago Tribune” this weekend wrote an extremely moving story about his experience one day in battle with John Kerry.  And imagine if that story had come out of the other way, Joe.  Just imagine if that story had been, here‘s why I think Kerry is unfit for command.  There‘s been nothing additive against Kerry since the O‘Neill book came out.

And what‘s happened with the O‘Neill book itself is, as it gets

subject to journalistic standards, which I‘ve been asking for all the way

along since it came out, when “The Washington Post” looks into it, when

“The New York Times” looks into it, when they actually ask the questions,

they find out that the book does not hold up on a single one of its

examinations of the Kerry medals.  The two medals and the three Purple

Hearts all hold up according to any journalistic standards used in

examining

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Now, Pat, you‘ve read this book and you say every time you read it, you get more angry.  Respond to what Lawrence just said. 

BUCHANAN:  Well, the first thing is that there‘s no doubt that over the weekend this fellow from “The Chicago Tribune” was helpful.

And I think this is a case where both sides may be right.  The issue is, was that boat in the Bronze Star incident when Kerry took off up the thing and the boat blew up on the other side of the river, were they taking fire?  Were they under fire?  Now, the guys rescued in the three boat says, no, we weren‘t under fire.  We‘re pulling guys off this boat.  We had all been shot, but nobody was shot.  Nobody was killed.  No windows were blown out of the boat. 

Kerry‘s guy, Rassmann, he is underwater.  He‘s coming up.  He‘s hearing World War IV on the other side because the Americans are shooting.  He thinks there‘s firing.  So I think you‘ve got honest differences there. 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  It turns out that Kerry‘s biggest critic of the day got a

Bronze Star

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  One at a time, gentlemen.

SCARBOROUGH:  Let me finish this. 

On the Cambodia issue, Kerry has been proven to be a total and complete fraud.  He said he‘s in there on Christmas Eve, Vietnamese shooting at him, Khmer Rouge shooting at him, went back in several times.  Nixon is lying. 

Nobody on Kerry‘s boat affirms that.  Nobody—every commander says he‘s wrong.  Everybody said he never went in there.  Kerry‘s campaign has backed away from that, Joe, the same way they backed away from the fact that he wasn‘t at Kansas City, when he was. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Lawrence.

O‘DONNELL:  It‘s absolutely true that John Kerry and the Kerry campaign do not have a definitive answer about was Kerry in Vietnam on one night in 1968?

However, what‘s very important for everybody out there who hasn‘t read the O‘Neill book to notice in this television debate over the last few days, it has all come down to this one night in Cambodia.  They‘ve given up on every single attack avenue on each one of the Purple hearts and on each one of the medals, because those awards clearly have survived every examination, except John O‘Neill‘s, which is a fraudulent examination, as all the newspapers have shown. 

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  All right, let me answer that. 

First, the first Purple Heart was given for Kerry when he fired the grenade and it hit the rocks and he got the shard in his arm.  No one has ever said Kerry was fired at that night.  So it was a self-inflicted wound.  And it may justify a Purple Heart.

O‘DONNELL:  Which is a perfectly damned good award.

BUCHANAN:  But nine days later, we now know from his journal he said he‘s never been under fire.  So if there‘s no enemy combat, it‘s questionable. 

But there are other things here.  One of them, let me mention one, the sampan incident.  You and I, Joe, had on that fellow Gardner.  He‘s in the gun tub.  The sampan goes by the boat at night.  Kerry fails to alert him.  He opens up with his .50-caliber.  He blows the guy off the boat.  He shoots a little boy dead.  And he gets on the boat and there‘s a woman screaming and hysterical with a baby, OK?

The after-action report says, five Viet Cong killed, two captured.  Commendation comes up the line for John Kerry, intrepid action.  Now here‘s a guy, Gardner, was on the gun doing the killing.  He‘s ashamed of it.  He‘s ashamed of it.  He was there. 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  Gardner wasn‘t there. 

BUCHANAN:  Gardner was on the gun in the sampan incident.  You‘re talking about the Bronze Star. 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  Steve Gardner has said on MSNBC and elsewhere that he was not present for a single incident from which Kerry was given an award. 

BUCHANAN:  I‘m talking about the sampan incident, Larry.  No award was given.  Kerry got a commendation up the line.  Five Viet Cong dead, two captured.  Here‘s a guy the says, I shot a boy to death.  I blew a guy off a boat and we captured a woman and a baby.  And who did the after-action report?  That‘s what I want to know. 

And we ought to get Gardner on to talk about that, Joe, because that is a crucial incident and it‘s right there in John O‘Neill‘s book.  That‘s where I got it. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Larry, I want to read for you—and I‘ll give you a chance to respond to that, also.  We don‘t want to throw too much on you at one time. 

But, obviously, Bob Dole made a lot of news this week.  He weighed in on John Kerry.  And he said this—quote—“One day he‘s saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons.  The next day he‘s standing there saying, ‘I want to be president because I‘m a Vietnam veteran.‘  Maybe he should apologize to all the other 2. 5 million veterans who served.  He wasn‘t the only one in Vietnam.  And here‘s, you know, a good guy, a good friend.  I respect his record, but three Purple Hearts and never bled, that I know of.  I mean, they‘re all superficial wounds.  Three Purple Hearts and you‘re out.”

Lawrence, obviously, it‘s one thing if unknown swift boat vets get out there with an ax to grind because of what he said in 1971.  Does Bob Dole coming out and making that sort of statement elevate this to a higher level? 

O‘DONNELL:  Well, you know, there was a great piece in “The New York Times” today about how we constantly repeat these things that are false in our programming. 

Look, I love Bob Dole.  He‘s a friend of mine.  I worked with him in the Senate years ago.  And I don‘t think it‘s fair to him for us to repeat the part of his quote that he knows is completely false.  He makes a very good political analysis, but then he gets into this thing about John Kerry never bled, which is not true, and Bob knows that.  And he gets into the thing about, these were fake Purple Hearts.  He knows that‘s not true and he says that two of them were awarded on the same day. 

He now knows that all of that is false.  And yet we can‘t stop ourselves from constantly repeating the things that Bob Dole said that were wrong.  The interesting thing he said is, how does a war protester, which is really what John Kerry became politically after the war, how does a war protester then run as a war hero?  And I think that‘s a very critical point.

And I think now is the time for John Kerry, especially with this ad

out that the swift boat people have showing him to be a war protester, he‘s

got to explain now why he was a war protester, why he was trying to save

lives when he got back from this war to prevent other Americans from having

to go to it and get the people who were in it out of it as fast as

possible.  He‘s got to show

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Hold on. 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  He has to show where the honor was in his peace activities, as well as his war activities. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Pat, hold on one second. 

We have talked about Bob Dole.  We‘re going to have Bob Dole on tomorrow night.  He‘s going to get a chance to speak for himself.  I talked to him earlier today.  Certainly, on the phone with me, he sounded like he was still standing by what he said. 

O‘DONNELL:  He won‘t say it again.

SCARBOROUGH:  But we‘ll see if he‘ll say it tomorrow. 

You know, Lawrence, you say he‘s a friend of yours.  And then when he‘s talking about John Kerry, he says he‘s a friend of John‘s.  A lot of friends in Washington. 

O‘DONNELL:  Senate friends, Joe.  Senate friends.

SCARBOROUGH:  Senate friends.  Exactly. 

Now, Pat, I actually did talk to Steve Gardner earlier and he said that John Kerry lied more than once to earn one of his medals.  Let me play you what he said. 

BUCHANAN:  OK.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE GARDNER, SERVED ON JOHN KERRY‘S SWIFT BOAT:  The very essence of John Kerry is exactly what he did on the first three instances that we have put him to bed on.  He‘s lied.  He‘s lied continuously through his entire service.  And I have proven, along with my crew mates, that in three separate instances that he was involved in, that he categorically lied.  You can‘t get around it. 

They‘ve already told you right here, ah, that was a self-inflicted wound on his first Purple Heart, yet John Kerry says, oh no, no, I got shot at and I got shot.  Well, that‘s not true.  He said it in his book.  In every one of these instances, John Kerry has told the truth on himself.  Now, I‘m sorry, but I spent the most time in Vietnam with him and I saw the John Kerry that is now being exposed. 

So, if you want to talk about the crews of it, let‘s talk about the fact that the two medals that he claims that he did have been disputed from front to back, top to bottom.  Now, you‘ve got a crew sitting over there that‘s been with him.  Yes, they certainly have and you haven‘t heard me say a biased thing about any one of them. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BUCHANAN:  Pat, if he wasn‘t with John Kerry on any of these instances where John Kerry was awarded his medals, then how can he say that John Kerry was lying about the events that led to the Purple Hearts or the Bronze Star or the Silver Star? 

(CROSSTALK)

O‘DONNELL:  That‘s the standard.  That‘s exactly the standard of proof that John O‘Neill and these guys are using. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Yes, I was asking Patrick. 

Go ahead, Patrick.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN:  The question was for me, Larry.  The question was for me, Larry. 

Look, Gardner was at the sampan incident, where no medal was awarded, where he said something of a massacre occurred and it was reported as this glorious victory.  Now, I don‘t think that it‘s demonstrably proven that John Kerry lied on that first medal.  I do think this.  There is a question about the Bronze—or the Bronze Star incident.  Where did Kerry shed blood from the wound in his fanny?  Did it come from him and the boys throwing the grenades into the rice that went all over them or was there a real explosion under John Kerry‘s boat and how would an explosion under the boat get shrapnel in his butt? 

That‘s what Steve Gardner wants to know. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, well, we‘ll leave it there. 

Gentlemen, thanks a lot for being with us.

We‘ll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Tonight, we have a SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY exclusive with Merrie Spaeth, who “The New York Times” says has a link between the Bush campaign and the Swift Vets For Truth.  Her side of the story.  And we‘ll check whether there is a link when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns. 

But, first, let‘s get the latest headlines from the MSNBC News Desk. 

(NEWS BREAK)

ANNOUNCER:  From the press room, to the courtroom, to the halls of Congress, Joe Scarborough has seen it all.  Welcome back to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.

SCARBOROUGH:  Welcome back. 

As you know, we‘ve been talking about the swift boat vets‘ ad.  It‘s a matter of he said/he said.  So let‘s look at the political ramifications and see how both campaigns are using this controversy. 

We‘re joined right now by political analyst Jack Burkman and Flavia Colgan. 

Flavia, let‘s start with you.

You and I have talked about this.  John Kerry may not have responded as quickly as he should have the first couple of weeks of this controversy, but how is he doing right now and is he doing enough to turn this controversy around and actually possibly have it backfire on the anti-Kerry forces who are trying to damage his presidential campaign? 

FLAVIA COLGAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST:  Joe, I think that the campaign was caught a little flat-footed on this, but I think that they‘re doing a great job, one, on the local level. 

Although we might not see it on cable news, in my home state of Pennsylvania, a battleground, they had Del, one of his swift boat mates, and local veterans and local politicians who served in Vietnam out on the steps of the Capitol in four or five different areas doing a series of press conferences, getting a lot of great local news coverage.  So we have got to think about how this is playing in the battleground states.  I think he‘s doing a great job there.

I do think that they have to start tying this a little bit more to Bush.  The whole Ginsberg incident that happened today is a potential boon for them. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Talk about that. 

COLGAN:  Ginsberg, of course, is, as you know, Joe, a lawyer for President Bush in his reelection campaign.

And he just admitted today that he has been advising the swift boat campaign.  Now, legal ethics aside, that combined with Cordier, which of course is not quite as strong as Ginsberg—he was on the steering committee vets Bush reelection campaign.  So I think they have to tie it back to Bush.

I also think that they have to begin reminding voters that this is sort of a play from the same playbook looking back to 2000 at John McCain and what he did to Max Cleland.

SCARBOROUGH:  Right. 

COLGAN:  So I think they have to show a pattern and also show the difference between how Kerry has handled this situation when it‘s happened to him.  When the MoveOn ad came out that he didn‘t think was appropriate, he came out immediately and denounced it. 

When McCain asked him to come out against the ad that MoveOn had about the National Guard service, where there is legitimate questions, he also came out and condemned it, whereas Bush has been sort of taking his time. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Flavia, we have got to go on to Jack. 

Jack Burkman, there‘s a real possibility that this ad either now or down the road could backfire and actually hurt the Bush campaign.  At what point do you think that could happen? 

JACK BURKMAN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST:  Well, it‘s hard to say. 

You have to remember, see this in a broader context.  I think John Kerry has suffered and will continue to suffer.  I mean, the polls don‘t reflect it yet, but cable news is running with it.  There‘s a reason for that.  The issue is rating.  That means the public has an interest in it.  I think it will continue. 

John Kerry has set the table, Joe.  He chose to run a campaign on national security issues, which I thought was stupid.  And then at the convention, he chose...

SCARBOROUGH:  Why was that stupid?  Why was that stupid?  We‘re in the post-9/11 era, Jack.

(CROSSTALK)

BURKMAN:  But he can‘t beat Republicans on their home turf.  It‘s the most audacious gamble by a Democratic candidate in 30 years or more.  He‘s trying to beat the Republicans.  It‘s like trying to beat the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.  It‘s hard to do.

In some sense, it‘s a high mountain.  I almost admire him for trying.  But then at his convention, he doubled down.  It‘s like he‘s at the blackjack table and drew an 11.  He said, I‘ll double that.  I want to talk only about my Vietnam service. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But, Jack, hold on a second now, Jack.

BURKMAN:  Yes. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You and I both know, though, that the public is fickle.  If people in swing states like Flavia was talking about in Pennsylvania, in West Virginia, in Ohio, think that the Bush campaign was behind this ad, and that‘s what the Kerry camp is trying to do, they‘re trying to connect the dots, then all of a sudden, they‘re going to make John Kerry, who is not the most sympathetic figure, look like a victim.  And that, as you and I both know, could end up hurting George Bush. 

BURKMAN:  Well, it depends on how the average person comes to view these swift boat veterans. 

I think by and large, they have advanced the debate in a credible way.  Look, their recollections aren‘t perfect.  Nobody‘s recollection after 35 years is perfect.  I frankly see no reason the president should—politics aside—politically, yes, I think he‘s wise to distance himself.  Morally, philosophically, I see no reason he should distance himself.  John Kerry has opened the door in so direct, in so flamboyant a way.  This is a very legitimate part of the national debate.  I think the public wants to hear it and hear more of it. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right. 

Flavia, earlier tonight, I asked a man who‘s releasing a documentary about John Kerry about the men who actually served with Kerry and if the new swift vet ads reflected the attitudes of the men he interviewed.  This is what he said. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL ALEXANDER, DIRECTOR, “BROTHERS IN ARMS”:  No, Joe.  And it also doesn‘t sound at all like the veterans who served with Kerry directly in Vietnam.

And I mean, the crew of the 94, for example, my film really focuses on the 94 swift boat, which was the last swift boat that Kerry commanded while he was in Vietnam in early 1969.  And I‘ve interviewed the entire crew.  I‘ve interviewed Kerry.  And this was done well before this controversy erupted.  The film was done around the end of last year.  And so the portrait that they paint to a man is significantly different than the portrait that the O‘Neill swift boat group is describing now. 

So—and it‘s very fundamental, Joe.  They‘re down to whether or not there was enemy fire that was being exchanged that they were enduring on the March 23 incident.  This is really basic stuff that we‘re dealing with.  Who‘s telling the truth?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Flavia, what‘s so fascinating about this political situation is, I think it‘s dangerous for Republicans to attack John Kerry, a Vietnam vet, highly decorated Vietnam vet, just like I think it may be dangerous for John Kerry to attack these 260 Vietnam vets, a lot of them prisoner of war people. 

How do you go after POWs, how do you go after Vietnam vets and not risk offending a large segment of the veteran population itself? 

COLGAN:  Well, Joe, I think that you bring up a good point and one thing that I think the Bush campaign should be leery of.

And that is that every time the Vietnam issue does come up, a picture is shown of John Kerry with a chestful of medals.  And regardless of he said/he said, which, contrary to—I disagree with Jack in that he feels that these people are credible.  Every day that goes by, there are Naval records, citations, eyewitness accounts, that really go in contrary to their testimonials.

But I think that it brings up questions about where was George Bush and where was he getting his dental examinations or not.  And so I think that it plays to one of Kerry‘s strengths.  And Jack did bring up a great point in terms of Kerry has put a tremendous amount of his campaign on this issue.  And I think that‘s that‘s what‘s scaring the Republicans. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  And you think he did that purposefully? 

COLGAN:  Absolutely. 

SCARBOROUGH:  So you think he did it purposefully?

COLGAN:  In a post-9/11 era...

SCARBOROUGH:  Right. 

COLGAN:  In a post-9/11 era, with what we‘re facing, I think it‘s important for the American public to know that John Kerry could be a commander in chief that they could be proud of. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Final question, Flavia.  Do you believe when people go to the voting booths the first Tuesday in November, they‘re going to give a hoot, I will say, about what John Kerry did in Vietnam or what George W.  Bush did in the National Guard in Alabama?  Do you think that‘s going to change a single vote this fall? 

COLGAN:  Polls don‘t reflect that, Joe.  And that‘s why I think it‘s important for the Kerry campaign to also keep emphasizing the rising health care costs and the lack of job creation, because I think, when you look at Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, those are the bread-and-butter issues that people are worrying about.  And that‘s what‘s affecting families all across this nation, so I don‘t think it will be. 

SCARBOROUGH:  I agree with you.  I agree with you, Flavia.

And I‘ve been saying health care is the single issue that matters the most to middle-class workers in Ohio, in West Virginia, in Pennsylvania.  And those states are going to swing this election.  It ain‘t Iraq and I don‘t think it‘s what happened in Vietnam 30 years ago either. 

Well, Flavia, Jack, thanks a lot for being with us.  We greatly appreciate it. 

Now, coming up, “The New York Times”‘ today had a 3,500-word essay trying to connect the dots between the swift vet ads and the Bush administration.  We‘re going to be talking to the person that “The New York Times” put at the center of its so-called conspiracy.  And we‘re going to find out if she‘s really taking orders from George Bush and Karl Rove. 

ANNOUNCER:  Tonight‘s SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY challenge, what percentage of Americans served or have served in the military?  Is it, A, 10 percent, B, 17 percent, or, C, 21 percent?

The answer coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ANNOUNCER:  In tonight‘s SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY challenge, we asked, what percentage of Americans served or have served in the military?  The answer is A.  Roughly 10 percent of America‘s population of 294 million have served.

Now back to Joe.

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, welcome back.

My next guest is listed by “The New York Times” in an organizational

chart as the key player in what they called the web of connections between

the Bush administration and the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, a group led

by John O‘Neill. 

Public relations executive Merrie Spaeth joins me now. 

Merrie, thanks a lot for being with us tonight. 

MERRIE SPAETH, CORPORATE COMMUNICATIONS SPECIALIST:  Well, my pleasure. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Obviously, you have been at the center of discussion and debate over the past several weeks regarding your connections between the Bush campaign and this swift boat group.  Are you the conduit through which information passes from George Bush‘s campaign and goes to the swift boat ad vets? 

SPAETH:  Well, first of all, the premise is wrong.  There is no connection with the Bush campaign.

Neither I nor anybody else talks to them or coordinates with them.  The swiftees are entirely independent.  They are unique in my experience in how they formed themselves spontaneously.  There are Republicans and Democrats in the book.  And I think it is insulting to them, to these honorable men, to say that they are somehow connected with a political campaign. 

If you listen to their words, Admiral Hoffman, who is their chairman, really said it best.  He said, this is not a political issue.  It‘s about John Kerry‘s integrity, loyalty, trustworthiness, all fundamental tenets of command. 

SCARBOROUGH:  So, Merrie, what is your connection with the swift boat vets? 

SPAETH:  Well, I was privileged to meet them last winter as they formed themselves spontaneously when Senator Kerry became the presumptive nominee.  I was happily running my corporate communications training and strategy company.

And several of them asked me, because this is what I‘m known for, what does our story sound like?  How can we effectively get our message to the American public?  And I told them what I tell all my clients.  Be truthful.  Simplify your message.  Only tell the truth.  I say, you always tell the truth, because, in a pinch, you can remember it.  But I think that the swiftees have been very effective in helping the American public understand what‘s really a very complex issue and why it‘s important today. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Now, your husband, your late husband, ran on the ticket with George W. Bush in the 1994 Texas gubernatorial race.  And I understand he was also a partner, a law partner, of John O‘Neill‘s.  That‘s an awfully tight connection.  Can you understand how “The New York Times” and how Democrats and the Kerry campaign might think that something has been going on there? 

SPAETH:  No. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Between you and the swift boat vets and also George W.

Bush? 

SPAETH:  Absolutely not.  I mean, my late husband was also a partner of Steve Sussmate (ph), one of the world‘s best and wealthiest trial lawyers.  That doesn‘t mean the trial lawyers are directing this.

And, in Texas—this shows you a bunch of New Yorkers are writing about Texas politics.  In Texas, the lieutenant governor runs separately from the governor.  And the sitting lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, was a very good friend and sponsor of then Governor Bush.  And we ran our own—our own campaign.  I like to say you don‘t know true debt until you run a losing statewide campaign in Texas.

But this is typical of the Kerry campaign.  They pick out these little things and they twist them around, so they sound plausible to people who don‘t take the time to learn the truth.  It‘s really not that hard. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Let‘s talk about the John McCain campaign in 2000. 

SPAETH:  Yes, let‘s talk about it. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  OK. 

Well, John McCain, as you know, was visibly upset about the smear tactics that he felt he was a victim of during the South Carolina primary in 2000.  And this is what he had to say. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  Really went over the line.  Governor Bush had an event.  And he paid for it and standing—he stood next to a spokesman for a fringe veterans group.  That fringe veteran said that John McCain had abandoned the veterans.  I don‘t know how—if you can understand this, George, but that really hurts.  That really hurts. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCARBOROUGH:  “The New York Times” says that you‘ve been involved with the swift boat vets.  “The New York Times” also said that you were the spokesperson for that fringe veteran group that also smeared John McCain.  Is that true? 

SPAETH:  No, absolutely, positively not.  I run a corporate firm.  We‘ve been in business for 17 years.  I am—I‘m astounded that they would say things like that and even more astounded that journalists wouldn‘t take the time to go check it out. 

SCARBOROUGH:  What‘s the real story, then? 

SPAETH:  Well, you have to go ask the people who put on the ads in South Carolina.  The guy who put on the ads in New York has come forward, sent a letter to “The Times,” and tried to clarify the record.  But the idea that the Kerry campaign can repeat things that aren‘t true, it‘s very disturbing to me. 

(CROSSTALK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Did you have no connection with the McCain ads in South Carolina in 2000? 

SPAETH:  None.  None.  Zero.  What‘s lower than zero?  Nothing. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You didn‘t act as a spokesperson for one day, for one minute, for one second? 

SPAETH:  No.  No. 

I‘ll give you an example, though, of how the Kerry-Edwards campaign twists things.  When the swift boat vets had their first press conference, very important, because they were presenting themselves to the American public for the first time, and the Kerry people tried to discredit anybody who was associated with them.  And for me to be associated with the swift boat vets is an enormous privilege, because they have served their country so well.

SCARBOROUGH:  All right. 

SPAETH:  So they told “The Post” that I was on the White House Web site.  And they printed that.  “The Post” printed that.  And I called them up and said I‘m on the White House Web site?  And the reporter said, yes, that‘s what they told me.  Well, it‘s the White House Fellows Web site.  The White House Fellows program is a scholarship program.  It‘s the difference, as Mark Twain said, between lightning and lightning bug. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right.  Merrie, we are going to have to leave it there. 

SPAETH:  Thank you. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Thank you so much for being with us tonight. 

SPAETH:  Thank you so much.  Thanks for giving me the chance.

SCARBOROUGH:  We greatly appreciate it.

SPAETH:  OK.

SCARBOROUGH:  OK.  Thanks.  Bye.

We‘ll be right back in a second.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCARBOROUGH:  Tomorrow night, two former senators, two men who served their country in combat, two very different takes on the swift boat controversy, Bob Dole and Bob Kerrey tomorrow night in SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY for a show you can‘t afford to miss. 

Until then, have a great night. 

END   

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