updated 8/27/2004 12:44:18 PM ET 2004-08-27T16:44:18

Guests: Steve Gardner, Larry Thurlow, Robert Sam Anson, Ian Williams, Kate Zernike, Larry Rivers, Douglas Brinkley


DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST:  The swift boat controversy.  The war of words over John Kerry‘s Vietnam service intensifies.


BOB DOLE (R-KS), FORMER SENATOR:  Some days he‘s proud.  Other days, he‘s denouncing his service.

MAX CLELAND (D-GA), FORMER SENATOR:  These scurrilous attacks on John Kerry‘s credibility in war are false.


NORVILLE:  So what is the truth behind John Kerry‘s war record?  Did he betray his band of brothers when he opposed the war at home?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bring home, bring our brothers home!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bring home, bring our brothers home!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bring home, bring our brothers home!


NORVILLE:  Tonight: Why, almost 30 years later, is the Vietnam war still a political and emotional lightning rod?




ANNOUNCER:  From studio 3K in Rockefeller Center, Deborah Norville.

NORVILLE:  And good evening, everybody.  What John Kerry did or didn‘t do more than 35 years ago in Vietnam continues to dominate the current presidential campaign.  Television ads by a group calling itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth accuse Kerry of lying about his war record.  Mr. Kerry has accused President Bush of being behind the ad campaign and engaging in smears and lies.  The White House denies that.  And today President Bush promised to take legal action to limit political ads by outside groups.

Meantime, Vietnam remains front and center in the 2004 race for the presidency, and candidate Kerry continues to be dogged by attacks on his record, something he was asked about today at a town hall meeting in Minnesota.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE:  All the guys who were with me on my boat, all the guys who were with me in the specific action where they could see it and do it, absolutely document what I said.  As you‘ve seen in the last few days, you‘re now learning about the lie that‘s been put out there and how it‘s been put out there.  The United States Navy 35 years ago, when it was fresh, did its own documentation.  Those documents stand.  And I‘m absolutely telling you the God‘s honest truth.


NORVILLE:  Our question tonight: Why is the Vietnam war such a lightning rod in the 2004 presidential election?  Joining me to talk about this, Steve Gardner, who was on Senator Kerry‘s swift boat back in 1969.  Also with us, his fellow Vietnam veteran, Larry Thurlow, who commanded another swift boat alongside John Kerry and his comrades on the day in question.  Both men have appeared in the ads attacking Mr. Kerry‘s war record.  Also part of our discussion tonight, Robert Sam Anson.  He covered the Vietnam war for “Time” magazine and was captured by the North Vietnamese.  He now covers politics for “The New York Observer.”  Thank you all for being with us.

And Mr. Gardner, I want to start with you first.  What do you specifically remember about that day in March of 1969?

STEVE GARDNER, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH:  I wasn‘t on the boat in March of 1969.

NORVILLE:  You were a part of John Kerry‘s team, were you not?

GARDNER:  I was a crew on the PCF-44 boat.

NORVILLE:  And what do you remember about the day that has been so hotly debated in these ads?  It was February.  Forgive me.

GARDNER:  Again, when you‘re talking—if you want to talk about Christmas in Cambodia, we‘ve already proven John Kerry to be a liar about that.  If you want to talk about the sampan incident that he was involved in, that he was a liar about that.  And we‘ve already proven that on his first Purple Heart, he lied.

NORVILLE:  Mr. Gardner, I‘m trying to find out, were on the swift boat commanded by John Kerry?  You were not?

GARDNER:  I absolutely was, yes.  I was on the PCF-44 for two months and two weeks of his tour of duty.

NORVILLE:  But it was not the time of the incident that is so hotly debated right now?

GARDNER:  If you‘re talking about the Bronze Star incident, no.  Larry Thurlow is the man.

NORVILLE:  And you talk about the Christmas in Cambodia, 1968.  That is the one question mark that seems to continue to be one that‘s dogging Senator Kerry.  He has said that he was on the Cambodian border on Christmas of 1968.  He also said that President Nixon was president at that time.  Lyndon Johnson would have been at that time.  Were you all anywhere close to Cambodia?

GARDNER:  Well, let‘s clarify what you just said.  John Kerry had already admitted that he was not in Cambodia when he was—on Christmas of 1968.  He was setting in the city of Sa Dec, which is a small town 50-some miles from the Cambodian border.  Now, that‘s in his words out of his diary.

NORVILLE:  There‘s an ad that just came out on the Internet today that talks about this.  Let‘s take a look at it.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  I spent more time on John Kerry‘s boat than any other crew member.  John Kerry hasn‘t been honest.  He has been deceitful.  John Kerry claims that he spent Christmas in 1968 in Cambodia, and that is categorically a lie.  Not in December, not in January.  We were never in Cambodia on a secret mission, ever.


NORVILLE:  Robert Sam Anson, you‘ve covered this war and you‘ve been covering the dispute about the war 35 years later.  This does seem to be the question mark that still remains.  John Kerry misspoke?  John Kerry misremembered?  Some say John Kerry lied.

ROBERT SAM ANSON, COVERED VIETNAM WAR:  Well, I was there 35 years ago, too.  And it‘s a long time ago, but the naval records are quite clear about what happened that day.  The crewmen, 10 out of 11 of them—Stephen Gardner (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 11th you talk to, by his own admission was not present for any one of these incidents in which Kerry was wounded or was later decorated for service.  Yet he is the continual source for a lot of this stuff and has passed it on to others.

NORVILLE:  Another source, of course, is Mr. Thurlow, who was on another boat that was in the same vicinity.  Mr. Thurlow, what do you remember about that day?

LARRY THURLOW, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH:  Specifically, what I remember about that day is starting on a mission before sunrise, going into the Bay Hop (ph) river, four boats at that time, the fifth boat not quite ready to go, going up the Bay Hop, turning up a smaller canal, going to a VC village.  We had a mobile strike force embarked that is commanded by two U.S. Army special forces officers, Jim Rassmann being the junior of those two.  And we go to this village.  We had one of the mobile strike force members killed by a booby trap.  We kind of hunkered down there.  The strike force leaders decide whether to try to make contact or not, decided not to.  Just before we leave, John Kerry throws a grenade into some rice that‘s there to destroy it and is accidentally—has rice pellets go into his posterior.  And then we go back to the boats.  John doesn‘t even mention anything about it at the time.

NORVILLE:  How do you know he threw a grenade?  Did you see him throw the grenade, sir?

THURLOW:  I was there on the beach with him, and we had gone into this small village.  Yes, I had been there with him, and...

NORVILLE:  Did you see him throw the grenade?

THURLOW:  No, but I later heard him say that he had tossed the grenade there and that...

NORVILLE:  Did anyone see him throw the grenade?

THURLOW:  Well, it depends which account you want to use.  His account in the authorized autobiography by Douglas Brinkley says that he was there with two strike force members who threw grenades, caught him by surprise, and the ensuing blast accidentally wounded him.  In a later account, Jim Rassmann‘s account, is the two of them were there together, they both threw grenades.  Jim dived for cover.  Lieutenant Kerry was a little too slow and, according to Jim, was covered by thousands of grains of rice.  And they both laughed uproariously about it.  And I believe the final quote was, “a bond was formed.”

NORVILLE:  Robert Sam Anson?

ANSON:  Yes.  That‘s not why he was awarded that medal.  What happened

·         that was one thing that happened that day.  Later in the evening, when Mr. Thurlow had been knocked off his boat by a mine explosion—and we had his radar officer talking about it today, countering Mr. Thurlow, who has been saying that there was no fire on the river that night.  That is contradicted by Naval records.  And today, his—also a Bronze-Star-winning member of his crew, who doesn‘t like John Kerry one bit, contradicted him and said there was plenty of fire that night.  And Kerry was wounded when he was thrown backwards by a blast, and it hurt his arm.  And that‘s just before he picked Rassmann up out of the water.  And that‘s why he won the Bronze Star (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

NORVILLE:  The dispute seems to be whether there was a lot of gunfire.  And Mr. Thurlow, as you know, you also were awarded a Bronze Star on that day.  And as Mr. Anson mentioned, the other Bronze Star that was awarded that day was to a gentleman who rescued you when you were knocked off the boat on which you were located in the confusion of all of this.  And he received a Bronze Star.  And in the documents, it mentions the hail of gunfire.  In fact, it very specifically talks about, “from an exposed position and with complete disregard for his person.”  Mr. Lambert‘s “coolness, professionalism and courage under fire” was commended as he was given the Bronze Star for his actions that day.

Do you not remember the gunfire, or is that another mistake in the Navy records?

THURLOW:  No, I don‘t think it‘s a mistake, in the sense that the records will show that.  What happened was the 3 boat was, in fact, mine.  Immediately, when this happened, the 23 boat, the 51 boat, the one I commanded, put a tremendous volley of gunfire on the bank on the left side of the river, just in case there was an ambush in conjunction with the mine incident.  It became apparent rather rapidly that there was no return fire.

The 23 boat went to pick up two guys who‘d been blown off the 3 boat.  I directed my boat to go directly to the 3 boat. jumped on and started administering aid to those wounded on there, and later to go ahead and try to keep the thing from sinking, which eventually, we successfully did.

NORVILLE:  But there was gunfire...

THURLOW:  I fell off...

NORVILLE:  I mean, there‘s photographic...

THURLOW:  Certainly, we...

NORVILLE:  ... evidence of your boat with bullet holes in it.

THURLOW:  Yes.  That was from the day before.  We‘d been in a different area.  We‘d also been mined that day.  We came under fire.  The very man that is credited with pulling me out of the water that day, which he did do, was wounded that particular day.  One of those bullet holes that went through my boat went through the gun tub (ph) he was in and wounded him in his arm, in fact.

NORVILLE:  Do you dispute Admiral Zumwalt, who talked about the hail of bullets and the bravery that was exhibited by you and many of the men on those swift boats that day?

THURLOW:  No, I certainly...

NORVILLE:  Do you dispute a man as decorated as he?

THURLOW:  No, I don‘t dispute that at all.  Let‘s go to the source of why all this was said.  When this incident happened, and after the fact, there was one what we then called a situation report filed, or now referred is to often as an after-action report.  That report was filed by John Kerry.  Keep in mind that when the mine went off under the 3 boat...

NORVILLE:  How do you know that, sir?  Because the report in question has initials that are not JFK, which are the initials of John Kerry.  They‘re the initial KJW, and the Navy says that those initials were put on that report by the person at headquarters who was in receipt of that document.

THURLOW:  Yes, I‘m sure that‘s correct.  He acknowledged receipt by putting those initials on it.  The reason I‘m so sure it‘s John Kerry‘s report is because keep in mind that the action that day was the 3 boat being mined.  Now, the story that John Kerry tells, of course, is he comes back through 5,000 meters of heavy automatic and semiautomatic weapons fire, small arms fire, from both banks, and in this hail of bullets, rescues Jim Rassmann, who‘d fallen off his boat earlier as he left the area.

Now, the reason I‘m sure that John Kerry wrote that report is the entire report is from the point of view of the 94 boat, his boat.  What happened to the 3 boat and everything else that happened that day is basically just mentioned in passing.

NORVILLE:  And yet awards were given to those.  Robert Sam Anson, respond to this.

ANSON:  Well, we have the squadron thing that was dug up two days ago, and these reports are customarily written by the commander in operational command that night, and that was Mr. Thurlow, not John Kerry.  Mr. Thurlow was in operational command that night, and Mr. Thurlow, unfortunately—you know, in his—the citation for Mr. Thurlow‘s Bronze Star, it says he was behaving while bullets whistled around him.  First of all, he said that he hadn‘t read it, then that he had lost it 20 years ago.  “The Washington Post” wanted to get a copy of it from the Pentagon.  He wouldn‘t authorize it.  Then they managed to get a copy with the Freedom of Information Act.  And when that was presented to him, he said that John Kerry lied about this and that he would give up his Bronze Star because it wasn‘t true.

NORVILLE:  We‘re going to stop on that note, but there‘s much more to continue with.  My guests will be back more with me in just a moment.

ANNOUNCER:  Still to come...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bring home, bring our brothers home!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bring home, bring our brothers home!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Bring home, bring our brothers home!


ANNOUNCER:  ... three decades after Vietnam, why does the war continue to touch a raw nerve among politicians and voters?


KERRY:  I didn‘t make it controversial.  The war and the times were.


ANNOUNCER:  Vietnam, a political lightning rod, when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns.



KERRY:  I‘m John Kerry, and I‘m reporting for duty!


NORVILLE:  That, of course, John Kerry at the recent Democratic convention.

Back with my guests, two Vietnam veterans who‘ve appeared in the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads attacking Senator Kerry‘s war record, Steve Gardner and Larry Thurlow, along with Robert Sam Anson, who covered the Vietnam war for “Time” magazine.  And also joining us now is Ian Williams.  He‘s the author of “Deserter: Bush‘s War on Military Families, Veterans and His Past.”  And as the title would indicate, he sees the ad controversy a little bit differently than our two veterans do.

Gentlemen, how much did it bug you—Mr. Gardner, I‘ll start with you

·         when John Kerry saluted as he stood out there and said “Reporting for duty”?

GARDNER:  Well, I think that‘s rather apropos right now.  John Kerry still owes us 247 days of service in Vietnam now, by his own words, telling us that he was a self-inflicted wound on his first Purple Heart.  That means he only has two of them now.  So I would expect him to be headed back to Vietnam immediately.

NORVILLE:  Ian Williams, I wonder—I didn‘t serve in Vietnam.  I wasn‘t old enough to pay a lot of attention to Vietnam.  But gosh knows, we‘ve all learned a lot about it with these ads.  And I wonder if much of the angst about John Kerry‘s war service really has to do with the statements he made when he came back.

IAN WILLIAMS, AUTHOR, “DESERTER”:  Well, it‘s all to do with it...

NORVILLE:  ... to the Senate committee.

WILLIAMS:  ... isn‘t it.  I mean, what your guests are testifying inadvertently is that they saw John Kerry in Vietnam.  And if John Kerry owes 247 days to Vietnam, how much does George W. Bush owe, who took six years in the National Guard in preference to going to Vietnam...

GARDNER:  George Bush is not the issue, sir.

WILLIAMS:  ... and didn‘t turn up—George Bush is the issue because why are veterans not...

GARDNER:  No, he‘s not the issue!

WILLIAMS:  ... barking (ph) about him?


WILLIAMS:  Why are you disgusted with John Kerry but not disgusted with the candidate whose minions have put up the money for your advert?

GARDNER:  Has nothing to do with George Bush!

WILLIAMS:  It has everything to do with George Bush.


GARDNER:  ... has nothing to do with George Bush.

WILLIAMS:  Are you telling me...

GARDNER:  We‘re talking about...

WILLIAMS:  ... that for 30 years...

GARDNER:  ... the character of John Kerry...

WILLIAMS:  ... you‘ve nursed these memories, and suddenly...

GARDNER:  ... and John Kerry alone!

WILLIAMS:  ... you remember them now, in the throes of an election?

NORVILLE:  Hold on a second.  I want to—I want to play the ad that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have been putting on television.  And this is an ad that really got the debate started.  Take a look.


KERRY:  ... personally raped, cut off the ears, cut off heads...

JOE PONDER, WOUNDED, NOV. 1968:  The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating.

KERRY:  ... randomly shot at civilians...

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

KERRY:  ... cut off limbs, blown up bodies...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That was part of 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 my comrades in North Vietnam in the prison camps took torture to avoid saying.


NORVILLE:  Now, again, because a lot of people have seen that ad, they haven‘t necessarily seen the entire testimony that John Kerry was referring to.  So we want to take a chunk of time here and play it for you, so you at home can listen for yourself and hear exactly what John Kerry said to the Senate committee in 1971.


KERRY:  Several months ago in Detroit, we had an investigation at which over 150 honorably discharged and many very highly decorated veterans testified to war crimes committed in Southeast Asia.  Not isolated incidents, but crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command.

It‘s impossible to describe to you exactly what did happen in Detroit, the emotions in the room, the feelings of the men who were reliving their experiences in Vietnam.  But they did.  They relived the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do.  They told the stories of times that that they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, raised villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan...


NORVILLE:  And that was the testimony that Senator Kerry, then John Kerry, civilian, made to the Senate committee.  We heard him relating the stories that were told to him at this confab in Detroit.  Robert Sam Anson...

ANSON:  I was present in the room when he made that testimony, actually.

NORVILLE:  Were his remarks edited out of context unfairly?

ANSON:  I think they clearly were because he was quoting people.  He wasn‘t saying—first of all, he wasn‘t saying this himself.  And he also accused himself of doing things inadvertently that amounted to war crimes.  And he certainly wasn‘t accusing the swift boat people that he was with of war crimes.

GARDNER:  John Kerry absolutely did that!

NORVILLE:  Please let him finish.  Please let him finish.

ANSON:  And he wasn‘t accusing all veterans in Vietnam of war crimes. 

Look, I went up to My Lai in the aftermath of the massacre, and I saw other things, and I had veterans—not just veterans, but guys—nice American kids, while I was in Vietnam, had no trouble talking to me about this kind of stuff, about how they had done this or they had seen that.  It is common knowledge.

And to deny that these—the whole war was an atrocity, and some people did behave—an awful lot of people, frankly, did behave badly.  He was just reporting what he had heard and also what he had seen, in terms of (UNINTELLIGIBLE)  But he wasn‘t accusing only swift boat guys.

NORVILLE:  And yet, Larry Thurlow, I know there are many, many veterans who served in Vietnam who take offense at those remarks, even though they may not have been directed at them personally.  Can you can explain why?

THURLOW:  Well, first of all, I don‘t see how anybody can say they weren‘t directed at us personally.  And here‘s one of the things you‘ve got to keep in mind.  He puts this statement in here—and I‘m going to paraphrase—virtually forced to do this by our country.  Every single one of us over there had a moral compass, and most of us had one that was much higher than that.  Our country did not force us to do anything over there.

I know, in my case, everybody in my division was a volunteer.  I know that was an exception, but I do know that the people that went over there, those who had the highest moral character, that represents most of the people in this country, never were involved in those things.  If they saw those things, with the exception of a few, very few rogue outfits, reported it to the proper authorities.  It was the jobs of officers like myself and John Kerry, if we had to, to take charge of an incident like that with force of arms, even, if we needed to, then to charge these people appropriately and let the military charge them accordingly.

NORVILLE:  But Mr. Kerry isn‘t suggesting that he personally saw any of that.  He was relating what he had been told at a gathering of veterans, many of them who‘d been highly decorated, such as yourself, in Detroit earlier that year.

THURLOW:  That‘s what he said.  That makes his testimony hearsay, then, I think.  And that goes to the heart of what our detractors are trying to say now.  And the fact of the matter is that I really believe John Kerry said that not because he cared a whit about anybody that was left behind in Vietnam, the Vietnamese people that he was reporting were treated like this.  We‘re talking about a man who was trying to gain the spotlight for a fledgling political career at the time.

NORVILLE:  I want to put that aside for a second.  You‘re familiar, all of you, with the editorial that was in “The Chicago Tribune” recently by William Rood, who was the other swift boat captain.  There were three.  One died in combat.  Two have come back.  John Kerry is one, William Rood is the other.  He‘s never spoken publicly.  And he said he did so in great part because he was concerned about the backlash to veterans.  And there are two-and-a-half million Vietnam veterans in this country.  And for many of them, as Mr. Rood expressed in his editorial, quote, “Their version of events has splashed doubt on all of us,” meaning the swift boat veterans.  “This is hurting crewmen who are not public figures and who deserve to be honored for what they did.”

Are men in Vietnam—men who served in Vietnam not owed an apology for all of this?  Mr. Gardner, you‘ve been a part of these ads.  Do you worry that you‘ve hurt your fellow veterans by bring up this very painful period in their lives?

GARDNER:  Absolutely not.  What I look at is the very essence of what John Kerry is.  He‘s a liar, a charlatan and a fraud.  In three particular instances now, we have proven that he lied and lied decisively, and then told the truth on himself in his own book.

NORVILLE:  I‘ll let Mr. Williams...

GARDNER:  I do not want that man in the position of a commander-in-chief...

NORVILLE:  We figured that out.

GARDNER:  ... because he doesn‘t have the honor or...

NORVILLE:  Let Mr. Williams answer before...

GARDNER:  ... the integrity...

NORVILLE:  ... we have to go to a break.

WILLIAMS:  This comes to this partisan point again.  Why is it that here we have a controversial testimony on John Kerry did or didn‘t do.  He was in Vietnam.  George W. Bush was not in Vietnam.  He has lied about volunteering to go to Vietnam.  He ticked a box saying he didn‘t want to go to Vietnam.  He disappeared from duty for a year while he was doing his National Guard duty.

NORVILLE:  But this was all hotly debated...

WILLIAMS:  But this is OK with these guys.

NORVILLE:  This was all debated, in fairness to that argument, last spring, up one side and down the other  And there are gaps in that story, just as there are questions about this one.

Take a short break.  More in a moment.


KERRY:  Some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger.  It was honest, but it was in anger.  I think some soldiers were angry at me for that.  And I understand that and I regret that because I love them.  But the words were honest...




WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  During the Vietnam War, many young men, including the current president, the vice president and me, could have gone to Vietnam and didn‘t.  John Kerry came from a privileged background.  He could have avoided going, too, but instead, he said, send me. 


NORVILLE:  Former President Bill Clinton at the Democratic Convention linking himself for the first time with George Bush and Dick Cheney as men who stood by while others in their generation went to war. 

Back with my guests, Vietnam veterans Steve Gardner and Larry Thurlow, journalist Robert Sam Anson, and author Ian Williams. 

I wonder, 35 years later, I marvel, really, that the Vietnam War has been such a campaign issue. 

Robert Sam Anson, you can explain that? 

ANSON:  I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is the only war Americans ever lost.  And that sting runs very, very deep.  John Kerry has lived a very good life since leaving Vietnam.  I think frankly that his bravery...

GARDNER:  That‘s for sure. 

ANSON:  His bravery after he came home was just as great, if not more so, than it was when he was in Vietnam.  There‘s a lot to be jealous about John Kerry about.

But, basically, I think this has to do with replaying the war.  The war is replayed a lot, and the POW business about—there are still black flags.  You are not forgotten.  And there have been endless investigations, but there is nobody is left to remember.  It goes on and on and on. 


NORVILLE:  Larry Thurlow, would you agree with that, that there‘s still a sense of unfinished business about Vietnam and that is what makes it relevant even in this campaign? 

THURLOW:  Well, I think, if you refer to unfinished business, I think many veterans that served there felt like that if in general the politicians of the day had stayed the course and allowed the military to take action, we could have had a military victory and a democratic government would have been installed in the south. 

I have no idea how good it would have been or how long it would have lasted, but the fact of that matter is that the chance to pursue the war as a military effort was basically taken away.  And, yes, we did lose that war.  Yes, that rankles.  But the truth of the matter is, those that served, the people I personally knew, served with great valor for the most important and gave it all they had. 

NORVILLE:  Do you argue, Ian Williams, that the men who served in Vietnam did so and did not have valor?  I don‘t know that that is really part of the debate here. 

WILLIAMS:  It‘s not really part of the Bush administration.

Kerry has said that they were strong and that they were valiant.  So did Bill Clinton.  And what really happened here was, this was made an issue, first of all, because George W. Bush is presenting himself as a military commander, commander in chief.  There is serious doubt about his credentials for that, of course, because I go into in my book.


WILLIAMS:  But Kerry came back.  Kerry, I think, stepped into an ambush by making this a Vietnam issue. 

No voter born since 1960 is really worried about this issue.  This is old people reliving an old war.  And we‘re contemporary as well.  But that is what it is for most people out there.  But it does come down to this issue of integrity.  And Kerry is being attacked not because of what he did in Vietnam, but because he opposed it afterwards.  George W. Bush skipped Vietnam.


WILLIAMS:  And supported the war, which is why these guys are working on his campaign.


NORVILLE:  The time is limited.  I want to give Steve Gardner a chance to talk, because while we see you attack John Kerry in these ads, we don‘t hear you speaking equally vigorously in favor of George Bush. 

GARDNER:  The very essence of the reason why we‘re sitting here right now has nothing whatsoever to do with George Bush. 

And why is it that every time we bring the integrity and the character of John Kerry to the front where it needs to be answered to, everybody wants to slam George Bush?  I don‘t understand that.  All we ask and all we‘ve ever asked is for somebody to step up to the plate and tell the truth.  Now we‘ve caught John Kerry in three major lies. 

This is an officer of the United States government that has committed perjury.  That is actually—you can take him to jail for that. 

NORVILLE:  All right, Robert Anson, let me give you the last word on this. 

ANSON:  Sure.

I would like to say that, overwhelmingly, the majority of men who were in Vietnam, certainly all the men I came into contact during my year‘s tour, were terrific guys and they were doing their best.  And not everybody, in fact, a small minority, committed atrocities.  And I‘m sure that Lieutenant Thurlow—in fact, everything I‘ve heard about him is, he was a terrifically capable officer. 

But that was then and this is now.  And the war, let‘s just put it over with.  And it‘s not about the men that were there.  It was about why we sent them there in the first place. 

NORVILLE:  All right, we‘ll let that be the last word. 

Steve Gardner, Larry Thurlow, thank you both for being with us. 

Robert Sam Anson, Ian Williams, our thanks to you as well.

When we come back, the swift boat ads may be about John Kerry‘s war record, but are they damaging to him or damaging to President Bush?  We‘ll get into that in a moment.


QUESTION:  Do you think Senator Kerry lied about his war record? 

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I think Senator Kerry served admirably.  And he ought to be proud of his record.  But the question is who is best to lead the country in the war on terror.  Who can handle the responsibilities of the commander in chief? 



NORVILLE:  Those swift boat ads are having ripple effects for President Bush and John Kerry, but which candidate are they hurting the most? 

Stick around.



SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Of course, the president keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country.  Instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that.  Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here‘s my answer.  Bring it on. 


NORVILLE:  John Kerry says bring it on and that‘s exactly what those swift boat political ads have done, for better or worse.  It‘s brought on all kinds of questions about his service in Vietnam, brought it to the front of the presidential campaign. 

Continuing our discussion now, we‘re joined by NBC News analyst and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who is also an authorized biography of John Kerry.  Larry Rivers is the former national commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars.  And “New York Times” national correspondent Kate Zernike wrote an article about the web of connections of all the people behind those swift boat ads. 

Kate, I wonder, did John Kerry sort of bring this on himself when he said bring it on?  And it‘s kind of like Gary Hart saying, see if you can find anything.  Well, we‘ll look.


Certainly, he started at the convention, I‘m John Kerry reporting for duty.  He made this a centerpiece of his campaign.  People have a right to question—people have a right to look into his service.  But by the same token, I think we have a right to look into the allegations that the swift boat vets are making. 

NORVILLE:  Which is what the press has done.  And, fortunately, the Navy keeps pretty good records.  So once you are able to get into the files, you can see what did and didn‘t happen. 

ZERNIKE:  Right.  Absolutely. 

NORVILLE:  And there is a big dispute, Kate, about whether the facts as in the records are accurate or the facts as recollected are accurate.  How do you square all this?

ZERNIKE:  Well, I think you have to look at where the balance is.

If everyone was recollecting one thing and the records said something else, we might say, well, maybe the records are wrong.  But the fact is, the eyewitness accounts really do support what the Navy record has to say. 

NORVILLE:  And, Douglas, when you look at the impact that this is having on John Kerry‘s campaign, initially, the polls showed that he took a hit, but now some are saying that it‘s actually swung the other way because the bigger question is the political connections and the intrigue that is part of the campaign, which totally gets away from the issue.  Is it hurting him? 

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, NBC ANALYST:  It‘s unclear right now.  I think we‘ll know in September. 

I think this has been some assorted weeks in August.  “The New York Times” coverage has been superb.  And there‘s been some great print journalism.  But it‘s a season where allegations and misnomers and things that are not facts are being brought to the table. 

What you have to rely on is the military record of John Kerry.  And it proves overwhelmingly that he earned his Bronze Star, Three Purple Hearts and Silver Star.  And I think that Vince Lombardi used to say that in order to defeat your enemy, you have got to go at their strongest point.  And I think John Kerry‘s strongest point was his military service.  And that‘s what the White House is going after. 

NORVILLE:  And yet, Larry Rivers, in the process, there are a lot of people who served in Vietnam who are being forced to relive their experiences because of the discussions on programs like this and every other TV show out there.  Is this hurtful to them? 

LARRY RIVERS, VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS:  Deborah, I think it is.  And that‘s why I‘ve tried to get involved, because I really believe the ones of us that served in Vietnam and did so with honor and have gotten on with our lives and put this war behind us have been forced to relive all these things that boils down to a little more, quite frankly, than a fight between sailors. 

NORVILLE:  As you know, Max Cleland went down to Crawford, Texas, yesterday and tried to hand deliver a letter to President Bush.  And this is part of what he had to say when he was in process of trying to make that delivery. 


MAX CLELAND (D), FORMER U.S. SENATOR:  These scurrilous attacks on John Kerry‘s credibility in war, his courage, his valor are false.  And George Bush is behind it.  That‘s why I tried to deliver a letter at the president‘s home and hand it to either him or one of his aides.  But that was unsuccessful. 


NORVILLE:  And that‘s a big question:  Was George Bush behind the Swift Boat For Truth ad? 

Kate, you did a pretty lengthy piece in “The Times” over the weekend and looked at the web of connections, which one could argue eventually lead close to George Bush, if not directly.  What did you find?

ZERNIKE:  I think they lead close.  Obviously, we don‘t have any evidence that George Bush is sitting in the White House telling the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth what they should put in their ads. 

What we have is, as you said, a web of connections.  It‘s a web of Texas donors, who are the biggest donors in Texas, also happen to be the people who gave the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth their seed money, which allowed them to put these ads on the air.  These are the same people who have supporters of Bush for a number of years. 

And the other day, of course, we had Benjamin Ginsberg, who is the president‘s top campaign lawyer, resign because he was also doing work for the swift boat group. 

NORVILLE:  But, in all fairness, there are similar connection on the Democratic side between MoveOn.org and people who have worked for that organization and then for the Democratic Committee or Kerry campaign people who have gone to some of these other advocacy groups. 

ZERNIKE:  Absolutely. 

NORVILLE:  So this seems to be the way politics is done today. 

ZERNIKE:  Yes.  It probably is.

I think the difference that people keep missing with the swift boat group is they‘ve leveled a really serious accusation.  In their book, they call John Kerry a baby killer.  There‘s nothing in the Navy record to say that John Kerry is a baby killer.  When you raise a charge like that, you have to expect that it is going to be looked into. 

NORVILLE:  When we come back, Douglas Brinkley, the next question is going to be for you, and is, is John Kerry finally get riled?  Because he looked pretty angry at that town meeting in Minnesota.

We‘ll be back, more with my guests in just a moment.


KERRY:  Thirty years ago, official Navy reports and every person there documented my service in Vietnam and awarded me the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts; 30 years ago, this was the plain truth.  It still is.  And I still carry the shrapnel in my leg from the wound in Vietnam.



NORVILLE:  We‘re continuing our look at the swift boat ad campaign against John Kerry. 

Douglas Brinkley, you wrote the book on John Kerry, literally.  It looked like today he finally got riled about some of these ads that were out there.  Am I mistaken? 

BRINKLEY:  I think all these ads should have been pulled.  And I think eventually they are just going to die after the Republican Convention.

But I think the big issue that we have to face is, can Kerry take this controversy and use it in his favor by connecting it to the war in Iraq?  In Vietnam, we lost over 55,000 Americans.  We had 130,000 wounded.  Look how Iraq‘s divided our country over 600 some deaths. 


BRINKLEY:  And I think in the coming weeks


NORVILLE:  It‘s actually over 900 deaths.  It‘s actually over 900 7,000 wounded. 

BRINKLEY:  Right.  Yes.  And so I think that‘s going to be one of the questions, can this have a contemporary ring or is it just about the baby boomers arguing about Vietnam?

NORVILLE:  You know, it‘s funny. 

This whole megillah got created because when they did the campaign finance reform, the McCain-Feingold bill, they got rid of soft money and 527s came up, which could be issue oriented.  And even the president has come through and said, maybe this isn‘t a good idea.  Here‘s what he said about this. 


BUSH:  I don‘t think we ought to have 527s.  I can‘t be more plain about it.  I wish—I hope my opponent joins me in saying—condemning these activities of the 527s.  I think they‘re bad for the system.  That‘s why I signed the bill, McCain-Feingold.


NORVILLE:  McCain-Feingold actually created the 527s, so we sort of...

ZERNIKE:  Got ourselves into this. 


ZERNIKE:  I think the question is—we‘re at a really fine line now.  Those groups are not supposed to specifically advocate or against one candidate. 

I think we‘re at a really fine line now where clearly this is about John Kerry. 

NORVILLE:  And yet, by the same token, there have been plenty of ads, Larry Rivers, that MoveOn.org has put out there and others that clearly take a pro-Democratic view.  Is this a horse that‘s gotten out of the barn that is not going to be pulled back? 

RIVERS:  Well, I certainly am not opposed to free speech.  I think everybody has right to say what they want. 

I think the American people are smart, though, and I think a lot of these ads say a lot more about the people that have produced them than they do about the people they‘re aimed at. 

And, Deborah, I‘m quite pleased that John Kerry has made being a Vietnam vet a centerpiece of his campaign.  I‘m proud of his service.  I think he served his country honorably and would do so if he were president. 

NORVILLE:  A cynic might say that one reason there‘s been so much discussion about these swift boat ads and the Vietnam service or lack of service depending on where you are sitting is it‘s easier to get into a debate about this than it is to talk about poverty in this country, about jobs or job creation, about those kind of things. 

Douglas Brinkley, is this a commonly used evasion tactic? 

BRINKLEY:  Well, I think there‘s been a track record. 

You saw Bush do this to McCain.  You saw what happened to Max Cleland in Georgia.  Vietnam is so controversial that what you did in it, if you have a record in Vietnam, like John Kerry, and then protested it, you are vulnerable.  In a sense, Kerry took a big gamble by—at the Democratic Convention putting his military record, with the reporting for duty as the centerpiece.

And it‘s only natural that there is going to be a rip-down effect.  What I object to are the distortions and lies by two of your guests, Larry Thurlow and Steven Gardner, which are been—inaccurate.  All the serious know they‘re inaccurate.  Yet the circus goes on about this story until the Republican Convention and the media will jump on a new big story.  And this will be a footnote in the history of our times.


Kate, whatever that new big story is, you at “The New York Times” will probably be the person covering it.  What do you predict the next issue is going to be?  Because this one very well may die a death pretty soon. 

ZERNIKE:  Well, as you noted, the next hurdle in Iraq or the next big milestone is when we have 1,000 deaths.  I think that it is going to be a really difficult moment and it could be in the next couple of weeks, from what we‘re seeing.

NORVILLE:  All right.  We‘ll let that be the last word, not a very happy one, that it is. 

Kate, we thank you very much for being with us from “The New York Times.”  All of you, thank you so much for being with us, Douglas Brinkley, Larry Rivers as well. 

RIVERS:  Thank you, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  When we come back, a lot of you were touched by our interview last night with Private 1st Class J.R. Martinez, who was severely wounded in Iraq.  We‘ll share some of what you had to say right after this. 


NORVILLE:  We have gotten so many e-mails from many of you about my guest last night, Private 1st Class J.R. Martinez. 

If you weren‘t watching, he is a young man from my hometown, from Dalton, Georgia, who was burned on more than 40 percent of his body after his Humvee ran over a land mine in Iraq.  He has turned personal tragedy into an opportunity to help others. 

Betty Jones from Dalton, Georgia, writes in to say: “What an inspiration this young man is.  My daughter Ashley went to Dalton High with him and has nothing but good things to say.  Thank you so much for giving our hometown hero the recognition he deserves.”

Violeta Meza, also from Dalton, says she sent to school with J.R. and she says: “He, J.R., always had a great personality.  As a matter of fact, he is just the same, just a little bit better.  He has matured a lot.  We all appreciate his bravery and we all love him and will always respect him and be there for him.”

Brittney Edwards writes in, saying: “I know now that beauty comes from within.”           

And, finally, Sara Grady wrote and said: “What a wonderful young man.  Our country should be proud, as well as grateful, that young men and women like him are protecting our freedom.”

We were happy to have chance to tell J.R.‘s story.  If you have got a story you think we ought to be sharing, let us know.  We want to hear from you.  Just send us an e-mail, along with ideas or comments to us.  The address is NORVILLE@MSNBC.com.  Some of your e-mails are posted up on our Web page.  That is NORVILLE.MSNBC.com, which is the same place you can sign up for our newsletter. 

That‘s our program for tonight.  Thanks for watching.  I‘m Deborah Norville. 

Coming up tomorrow night, the Republican National Convention starts Monday right here in New York City.  And, tomorrow, I will be joined by our all-star panel of Quayle, Carter, Ford once again.  It‘s our ace team, the sons and daughters of presidents, vice presidents, and presidential candidates, all of whom have their own unique view on the convention and the campaigns.  Plus, we will check out the pollsters, who is ahead, who is behind, what issues are resonating, and what is going on with those swift boat ads.  How is it affecting both of the campaigns?  We will check all that out, all things political coming up tomorrow night. 

And coming up next, it‘s “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.”  Tonight, a look at the connection between the political parties and those 527 ad campaigns.  “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY” is next. 

Thanks for watching.  We‘ll see you tomorrow. 


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