The 15 Election Lessons of Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth

By Weymouth D. Symmes

Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth (Swift Vets) was created in 2004 by former Swift boat sailors and former Prisoners of War from the Vietnam War as a 527 organization to provide facts to the American people about the war service and subsequent anti-war activities of Senator John Kerry (who was running for President of the United States against President George W. Bush). By all accounts Swift Vets was extraordinarily effective in delivering the message, despite media hostility and attacks from the left. Many pundits (and the Kerry campaign) credited the group with the defeat of John Kerry.
       Swift Vets was an inspirational story of how a group of war veterans, lacking money, power, and influence, and composed of average citizens from all over the United States, was able to have such a major impact on the political course of this nation. In this most crucial time in America, there are important lessons to be learned from our experiences as citizens attempt to reassert themselves in the face of a federal government increasingly abusive of the powers it has amassed over the preceding one hundred years.
       Early in 2004, respected historian Douglas Brinkley came out with a book titled Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War.1 It is not possible to know Brinkley’s motivation in writing the book, but one suspects he had an idea of being a Ted Sorensen, chronicling Kerry’s exploits as Sorensen had provided intellectual heft for John F. Kennedy. Unfortunately, Brinkley had as his subject a liar, who had embellished, distorted and lied about his short time in Vietnam to provide his credentials to be Commander in Chief, and to justify his anti-war activities. For a military historian, Brinkley had little understanding of the ethos of war, and didn’t heed Dwight David Eisenhower’s dictum: “The only unforgivable sin in war is not doing your duty.” Brinkley was put in the uncomfortable position of defending what he must have known at heart: John Kerry was not a truthful man.  

Lesson #1: Make absolutely certain your source of information is truthful before you cite it. Following untruthful candidates and disseminating untruths severely damages your credibility.

Had there been no Tour of Duty there would have been no Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth. The book exposed to former Swift boat sailors John Kerry’s “heroics” in Vietnam. Kerry received a Bronze Star under circumstances which other participants that day remembered totally differently, and the three Purple Hearts he received were obtained under questionable circumstances. His anti-war activities, which included consorting with the likes of Jane Fonda; throwing away medal/ribbons; lying about what he had seen in Vietnam; and meeting with the North Vietnamese delegation at the Paris Peace Talks, were considered treasonous by many Vietnam veterans.2
      For the reasons stated above many Swift boat sailors felt that Kerry was unfit to be Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. As a result, several Swifties held an organizational meeting in Dallas, Texas, on April 6, 2004. The meeting was arranged by John O’Neill, a Houston trail lawyer and former Swiftie who had debated John Kerry on the Dick Cavett Show in 1971; and hosted by Merrie Spaeth, who had been Ronald Reagan’s Director for Local Media Relations in the White House. John O’Neill was there at considerable sacrifice, as he had recently donated a kidney to his wife, Anne, who was very ill; Merrie had lost her husband to a heart attack three months before hosting the meeting.
       Also attending the meeting were Jug Burkett, whose book Stolen Valor How the Vietnam Generation was Robbed of its Heroes and its History 3 had restored honor to Vietnam veterans by exposing the lies of the anti-war left and the “heroics” of the false warriors; Rear Admiral Roy F. Hoffmann, U.S. Navy, retired (Kerry’s task force commander in Vietnam); Captain Charley Plumly, U.S. Navy, retired, Hoffmann’s Chief of Staff in Vietnam; Michael Bernique, a legendary figure among the Swifties for his run up “Bernique’s Creek” in 1968 in Vietnam; Bill Franke, Swift boat O in C, and later Operations and Tactical Commander of a task group in Vietnam; this author, who had served on Bill Franke’s crew in Vietnam; and Swift boat O in Cs Andy Horne, a Galveston, Texas lawyer, and Bill Lannom, business owner from Grinnell, Iowa.
       The meeting lasted twelve hours, with Merrie leading the discussions. 4 The group was divided over whether to go after Kerry’s Vietnam record, his anti-war activities, or both. Ultimately the group decided both had to be exposed to the American people, because if Kerry could run as a war hero it would provide him cover for his treasonous anti-war activities. As Merrie came to realize the group was serious about inserting itself into presidential politics, she warned us about how vicious a presidential election could be. Personal attacks and worse would be the consequence of our taking a stand. Secondly, realizing our sincerity, Merrie spent considerable time teaching us to deal with what was almost certain to be a hostile media. We would be held to a higher standard by the media. And so, she gave us:

Lesson #2: Learn how to deal with hostile media/interviews. Never repeat a negative question back to a hostile interviewer in your answer. If you don’t want to answer the hostile question, answer the question you want to answer. You only owe the interviewer the truth, nothing more. Avoid saying things that could be adverse to your message. One or two poor choices of words can totally obliterate your message. And the old adage: Don’t send out anything you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the “New York Times” is still true. 5

As the meeting drew to a conclusion one of the last decisions was what to call our fledgling group. Merrie stood before a blackboard and asked us what we were about. “Swift boats” one of us replied. “Veterans” another said. “The truth about John Kerry” another replied. And so our group became “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.”

Lesson # 3: Always tell the truth—if your position is not truthful you are taking the wrong position.

After our Dallas meeting we decided that we would need to organize as a 527 organization, to provide legal standing for our group. As such, we came under the onerous burden of McCain-Feingold, 2002 legislation that was an egregious assault on free speech. The Act came with massive reporting and timeline requirements, and restricted what constituted “political speech.” The Act restricted us to “issue advocacy” only, and allowed no coordination with any political party. McCain-Feingold was clearly designed to protect politicians from criticism.

Lesson #4: When Republicans do business with the likes of Russ Feingold (a far left legislator), or Teddy Kennedy (another far left figure) as President Bush did in “No Child Left Behind, it advances the Democrats’ agenda of ever increasing government spending and control. With the exception of the F.D. Roosevelt and Johnson administrations, many expansive federal government programs have been Republican initiatives.

We next set up an organizational structure with a Steering Committee composed of former Swifties who had attended the Dallas meeting and hired Susan Arceneaux of Political Compliance services to handle our compliance and accounting. Admiral Roy Hoffmann chaired Swift Vets; John O’Neill was co-chair; Bill Franke was in charge of Operations; and this author was the treasurer/compliance. Admiral Hoffmann and the Steering Committee provided strong, disciplined leadership throughout the 2004 campaign.

Lesson #5: Strong leadership is essential to the success of any organization.

We somewhat naively thought that by exposing the truth about John Kerry’s service and anti-war activities the national mainstream media would vigorously pursue his record based on our knowledge and experience of him and his record. Merrie Spaeth had warned us that the press would tear us apart, but that we would be very believable. She also warned us how serious the toll would be for us and our families, as we were going before a hostile national media and accusing a candidate for President of the United States of lying and betraying his fellow Swifties, by extension all Vietnam Veterans, and ultimately all veterans.
       On May 4, 2004 Swifties held a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The room was packed, with media fighting for space. John O’Neill and Admiral Hoffmann conducted the meeting with a backdrop of a photo of 20 Swift boat Officers in Vietnam and a Vietnam Veterans against the War poster. Eighteen Swifties spoke, including all of John Kerry’s chain of command in Vietnam (with the exception of Admiral Zumwalt, who had passed away). By the time the Swifties were finished with the devastating testimony it was clear they had exposed a major scandal regarding John Kerry.
      Shockingly, the press conference was met by almost total silence from the mainstream media. CBS was the only news organization to cover the event and they did it as a hatchet job on some of the Swifties for supporting Kerry in 1996 against war atrocity charges. One major wire service reporter later admitted to John O’Neill that he wasn’t going to report on the press conference, even though he knew it to be true, “Because he knew it would help Bush.” One CNN reporter wanted to report the story but was shot down by the network. The only coverage of the press conference was provided by Sean Hannity, the Wall Street Journal, web sources and C-SPAN (which aired the entire press conference). After the press conference the Swifties realized that the media would not present the evidence to the American people and realized we would have to do it ourselves.

Lesson # 6: Mainstream media journalists overwhelmingly vote for Democrats and will almost always be hostile to conservative and Republican messages.

On June 10 we had $60,000 in income and $50,000 in expenses. By July 15 we had raised $125,000, followed by $100,000 from Texas businessman Bob Perry. Shortly thereafter Swift Vets hired Washington attorney Ben Ginsberg. Ginsberg had played a major role in the 2000 Florida recount. He was George Bush’s personal attorney and was the national attorney for the Bush campaign. A media feeding frenzy resulted when the media got wind of Ginsberg’s dual roles with Swift Vets and the Bush campaign (despite the fact Kerry campaign personnel routinely rotated between liberal 527s and the campaign). In what must have been a difficult decision, Ginsberg resigned from the Bush campaign and remained counsel for Swift Vets through 2004 and beyond.
       On July 23 Swift Vets launched the web site, which led to a financial crisis for the group as credit card donations from individual citizens overwhelmed the site and bank limits for the group. As word got out demand from talk radio and later television exploded. Between July 24 and September 2 Swifties did over 200 regional and national radio and television shows, including Laura Ingraham, Mike Gallagher, Mike Reagan, Mark Furman, Janet Parshall, NPR, BBC, Judicial Watch, Michael Savage, Jerry Doyle, Bill O’Reilly, Tony Snow, Hannity and Colmes, Wolf Blitzer, Larry Elder, and Rush Limbaugh. Of equal importance, many of the Swifties were interviewed by their local media, including television, radio and newspapers.

Lesson #7: National media is important, but you can have as much or more influence and impact at the local level, because that’s where most people get their news.

From July 26-29 in Boston, Massachusetts, the Democrats held their National Convention. Their keynote speaker was an obscure (deservedly so) U.S. Senate candidate from Illinois, Barack Obama. The convention selected John Kerry and John Edwards [!] to head their ticket for president and vice president respectively. The convention hall was festooned with photos of Kerry in combat gear. Kerry’s strategy was to highlight his combat record as his path to the presidency. Members of his Swift crews from PCFs 44 & 94 were on stage with him, as was former Swift boat Officer in Charge Wade Sanders [who later served a 37 month jail sentence for Internet pedophilia]. Also on stage was Jim Rassmann, who spent less than two days aboard Kerry’s boat. John Kerry strode across the stage, snapped off a salute and said, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty.”

Lesson # 8: Character in a candidate (and life) is not only important, it’s everything. Often candidates are supported as long as they “think right” or hold the politically correct views, regardless of their character.

As the money poured in it allowed the Swift Vets to hire outside consultants and experts (in our case DCI Group; CRC (Creative Response Concepts) and Stevens, Reed, Curcio & Potholm for our other media and ads.

Lesson # 9: Maintain strict control of your message and finances.

We had daily 9:00 A.M. meeting with our web master and our media advisors. From August 5-12 our first ad ran in three small markets. It cost $25,000 and has been called one of the most effective ever. The now famous ad began with a John Edwards clip: “If you have any questions about what John Kerry is made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him.” Edwards’ comment was then followed by men from the press conference who had actually served with him: Lou Letson: “I know John Kerry is lying about his first Purple Heart because I treated him for that injury”; Van Odell: “John Kerry lied to get his Bronze Star, I know, I was there, I saw what happened”; Bob Elder: “John Kerry is no war hero”; and so it went. 6 The ad was predictably slammed by the left-wing mainstream media and pundits. They received all the cover they needed from an unlikely source: U.S. Senator John McCain. McCain, unaware of the facts and in support of the opponent of his president, made the statement, “I deplore this kind of politics. I think the ad is dishonest and dishonorable.” McCain was quoted for the rest of the campaign (even after his fellow POWs joined Swift Vets) by the media to attempt to discredit Swift Vets for Truth.

Lesson #10: Don’t say dumb things that your opponent can use against you. One or two words or a sentence can be devastating to your efforts. Even the most capable media personalities are not immune; think of Rush Limbaugh recently elevating a non-entity to celebrity status with a very poor choice of words.

On August 4, 2004, Unfit for Command by John O’Neill and Jerry Corsi went to number two on Amazon and then went on to become a national bestseller. Soon some booksellers were boycotting the book by leaving them packed in boxes in the storeroom. By August 11 the web site was experiencing more traffic than either or The top day for was on August 20, with about 230,000 visitors. Money began to pour in and Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth eventually took in 145,000 donations on line (the average donation for all donors was $65). Swift Vets eventually raised $26 million between August and Election Day from Internet, mail and large donations (including $2.5 million from T. Boone Pickens and $2 million apiece from Bob Perry and Harold Simmons.
       It was a political perfect storm: Overwhelming Internet traffic; ads gone viral (for free); a best-selling book; overwhelming veteran support (veterans and their families felt they were finally getting to have their say against the anti-war movement); extensive exposure on talk radio, television, blogs; a resentful mainstream media forced to cover the issues; and an inept Kerry attack response which only ended up drawing attention to the Swift Vets group.

Lesson # 11: Do everything you can do to get the mainstream media to deal with your message and/or ignore it; either is effective.

Participation in Swift Vets came at a high personal cost for many of the group’s participants. They became radioactive in some segments of their communities; they received death threats; vicious e-mails and phone calls; one Swiftie had a private investigator lurking around his house; two Swifties lost their jobs; John O’Neill’s home was picketed during his daughter’s wedding (and John also received a death threat so concerning the FBI was called in).

Lesson #12: If you aren’t taking flak, you’re not over the target. 7

On August 17, 2004 Kerry received the coup d’gras: Many Vietnam Prisoners of War joined with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to oppose the candidacy of John Kerry at a Key Bridge Marriott meeting in Washington, D.C. It was a defining moment for the Swifties, who revered the POWs as the true heroes of the Vietnam War. The initial contact was made by POWs Paul Galante, Ken Cordier and Jim Warner. The group was led by POW and Medal of Honor recipient Col. Bud Day, who said,

I began getting concerned messages from the POWs [about Kerry’s campaign]. It became real clear that we needed an alliance with the Swift boaters. I’ve been in a lot of trials and courtrooms and I’ve dealt with a lot of people. You get to the point where you have an almost gut feeling for truth and integrity. I had the feeling the Swifties were absolutely, totally on the level. I never had an untoward comment by any POW about joining Swift Vets—never, ever.

Lesson #13: Understand the difference between Idols of Production, those heroes who actually accomplish something—historical figures who do great deeds and carry out great projects; and Idols of Consumption, who don’t actually accomplish anything other than being a celebrity. Their status comes from fantasy, not reality. America is plagued by Idols of Consumption. Find, follow and support true Idols of Production. 8

Other than a rather pathetic effort by Ted Koppel, who sent a television crew to Vietnam to find former enemies to bolster Kerry and discredit Swift Vets, the media largely attempted to ignore Swift Vets as the campaign wound down. John Kerry couldn’t respond effectively, because his only counter was to completely release his military records or attack.  He could not release his military records because they would almost certainly reveal that he had received a less than honorable discharge, which had been upgraded to honorable during the Carter administration. And attacking Swift Vets was problematical, because the POWs, true heroes, were largely unassailable. Plus, the Kerry campaign was mostly caught off guard, because they had believed Kerry about his military service. Meanwhile, Swift Vets began to run ads featuring Swifties and the POWs. 9 The veterans’ vote began to move solidly away from Kerry. On November 2, 2004, George Bush defeated John Kerry for president.
      After the election Swift Vets was relentlessly pursued by the federal government in the form of the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), which alleged that Swift Vets had engaged in “electioneering” in favor of George Bush, and that Swift Vets had coordinated their activities with the Bush campaign. To bolster its case the FEC subpoenaed over one million pages of the group’s documents, and Swift Vets ended up paying over one million dollars in legal fees to ensure its activities were legal during the campaign, and to defend itself after the election. As former chairman of the FEC, Bradley Smith, said, “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth isn’t being punished for making errors in filing papers. They’re being punished for criticizing politicians. Big money did not drown out the votes of average Americans—it allowed them to be heard. In what other country can ordinary citizens have such a profound political effect?”

Lesson #14: Average citizens can have a profound effect on the course this country takes.

Swift Vets agreed to settle with the FEC for a $300,000 fine, to end the harassment and to avoid a costly legal fight that would have led to the Supreme Court. Besides, the Swift Vets had another purpose in mind. Wishing to honor our leader, Admiral Hoffmann, and wishing to provide support for currently serving military members bearing great burdens with the War on Terror, SBVFT donated $1.1 million to the Admiral Roy F. Hoffmann Foundation ( The Hoffmann Foundation had initially been funded with a donation of over one million dollars from John O’Neill, which represented his share of the royalties from the best-selling Unfit for Command. Boone Pickens later donated an additional two million dollars. The Hoffmann Foundation ended up paying out over 97 per cent of the money donated to severely wounded veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—500 grants totaling $4,000,000.

Lesson #15: We need to stop looking to politics and politicians to “solve” our problems. America needs to return to taking care of individuals and families in our own states and communities and stop turning to the federal government to support what we should be doing ourselves.

We are at a critical time in America. We are divided as a nation, our federal and many state governments are in financial peril and we are no longer providing sufficient jobs to maintain our standard of living. We also have cultural problems and a federal government that sees no limits to its power. We have reached a point where we will either continue down the path to the soft tyranny of European-style socialism, or return to the emphasis on individualism and personal responsibility that made this country great. Every citizen can make a difference—and the times demand we all step forward and restore what has previously made America the shining city on the hill. As President Ronald Reagan said, “You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for future generations this, the last best hope of man on earth, or we will sentence them to the first step into a thousand years of darkness. If we fail, at least let those future generations say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that can be done.”   

       1. Brinkley, Douglas. Tour of Duty. New York: William Morrow, 2004.
       2. For the full story of John Kerry in Vietnam, his anti-war activities, and the formation and activities of Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth, consult: O’Neill, John E. and Jerome R. Corsi, Unfit for Command, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2004; Symmes, Weymouth D. This is Latch The Story of Rear Admiral Roy F. Hoffmann. Missoula, Montana: Pictorial Histories Publishing Company, Inc., 2007; Swett, Scott and Tim Ziegler, To Set the Record Straight. New American Media Publishing, LLC, 2008; and .
       3. Burkett, B.G. and Whitley, Glenna.  Stolen Valor.  Dallas, Texas: Verity Press, Inc., 1998.
       4. Bill Franke has likened getting Swifties on the same page to herding cats. 5. Merrie is well known for her “Bimbo Awards,” which every month exposes the dumb things people say and do when dealing with the media.
       5. All the ads run by Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth may be viewed at
       6. Merrie is well known for her “Bimbo Awards,” which every month exposes the dumb things people say and do when dealing with the media.  
       7. Thanks to Scott Swett for the quote.
       8. See Don Graham’s excellent biography on Audie Murphy, No Name on the Bullet, for an expanded discussion of this concept.
       9. One Paul Galante quote in an ad:  “John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I and many of my comrades in the North Vietnam prison camps took torture to avoid saying.”   Bud Day said, “The issue is trust.  Can anyone trust John Kerry?”



Copyright © 2013 by Weymouth D. Symmes