Swiftboating: a highly evolved communications campaign strategy involving enormous expenditures—by insulated front groups—on television ads containing audacious attacks sure to be covered by the news media.
Swiftingboating: an ad hominem attack against a public figure, coordinated by an independent or pseudo-independent group, usually resulting in a benefit to an established political force. Specifically, this form of attack is controversial, easily repeatable and difficult to verify or disprove because it is generally based on personal feelings or recollections.
The presidential election of 2004 was the first election following the September 11 terrorist attacks and the advent of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. History strongly favors incumbent presidents in times of war, and the democrat candidate needed to defeat President George W. Bush in order to take over the White House.
By the beginning of March 2004, John Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, had unofficially won the nomination of the Democratic National Party. The Kerry campaign began to sell the decorated war hero as a strong wartime leader, and the Democratic convention in July 2003 centered on his military service to the United States. The Democrats hoped their strategy of painting Kerry as a wartime veteran would force a comparison to President Bush, who had avoided conflict in Vietnam by serving stateside.
The cornerstone of the Kerry campaign was shaken when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth burst onto the scene, creating a media storm of questions about the legitimacy of Kerry’s medals and his service in Vietnam. Kerry’s campaign was unable to recover from the blow, and President Bush won reelection in November.
• Decorated Naval veteran
– 2 Purple Hearts
– Silver Star
– Bronze Star
• Well educated
– Attended Yale, prestigious undergraduate college
– Graduated from Boston College Law School
• Well traveled
– son of a career foreign service officer, spent a lot of time abroad
• Lieutenant Governor, elected 1982
• United States Senator, elected 1984
• Served on Foreign Relations Committee for over 19 years
• Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs
• Leader in East Asian and Pacific affairs
• Author of The New War (1999), which studied America’s security entering the twenty-first century.
• Assistance of former Clinton campaign staffers
• Anti-war activist following return from Vietnam
– Evidence in video/audio
• Inconsistent on issues
• Non-cohesive campaign publicity team
• Did not perform well when presenting the ideas of others, especially if he did not believe in them.
• Band of Brothers:
– a group of veterans who had served with Kerry in Vietnam.
– These men in support of Kerry were mostly blue-collar workers.
• Assurance from C-SPAN that rules prohibited the use of the Senate testimonial videos in political advertising.
• Endorsement of Max Cleland
• CBS report claiming to have obtained long-lost records of Bush’s superior officer in the Texas Air National Guard complaining that Bush had shirked his duty.
• Active member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
• The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a Special Purpose Political Action Committee.
– Group claims Kerry is misrepresenting his service record, and the service of his unit, and immediately released a letter signed by more than 220 Swift Boat veterans. Among the signers is Kerry’s entire chain of command.
• The New York Times found that wealthy Texans who are strong supporters of the Bush administration were large donors to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
• A 1980 study on the attitudes of Vietnam veterans found that 91 percent of those who fought in the war were “glad they served their country,” and 74 percent “enjoyed their time in the military.”
• Persuasive advertisements and articles against him
2.1 John F. Kerry
John Forbes Kerry was born into a prominent family in 1943. As the son of a career foreign service officer, Kerry spent large portions of his childhood abroad. After graduating from Yale University, John Kerry went on to serve two tours of duty in Vietnam. For his second tour, Kerry volunteered to serve on a Swift boat, which was one of the most dangerous assignments of the war. He was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Combat V, and three purple hearts. His tour lasted four months.
After returning home, Kerry began a vocal anti-war activist. In April 1971, he testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and asked “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” Kerry also founded the organization, Vietnam Veterans of America, and was active with the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. In one protesting incident, Kerry threw his military decorations, along with medals of other servicemen, on the steps of the capital.
In February 2004, military historian, Mackubin Thomas Owens, criticized Kerry for his involvement in the “Winter Soldier Investigation.” This collection of interviews, which details atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, has been considered so extreme that even noted critics of the war have discounted it. Kerry used the interviews as the basis of his arguments in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Kerry went on to graduate from Boston College Law School and to work as a prosecutor in Massachusetts.2 In 1982, he was elected Lieutenant Governor, and in 1984, he was elected to the United States Senate, a position he has held since.
As a senator, Kerry has served on the Foreign Relations Committee for over 19 years.2 He has also served as chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, and has established himself as a leader in East Asian and Pacific affairs. In 1998, Kerry authored a book, The New War, which studied America’s security entering the twenty-first century.
2.2 John Kerry 2004 Presidential Campaign
From the start, some members of Kerry’s team worried that the candidate’s former position as an anti-war activist could come back to upset the campaign. In particular, they feared that portions of his testimony in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee could be potentially used to produce attack ads. So, in the summer of 2003, the cable network, C-SPAN, was asked to not release old videos which showed Kerry fuming over war crimes and atrocities. C-SPAN assured them that rules prohibited the use of the videos in political advertising.
The Kerry campaign assembled a group of veterans who had served with the candidate in the Mekong Delta to travel the country courting the veteran vote. The men became known as Kerry’s “Band of Brothers,” and consisted mostly of blue-collar workers who helped to humanize Kerry who is often perceived as an East Coast elitist. An early campaign goal was to have Veterans for Kerry groups active in every state.
2.3 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
In 1971, the Dick Cavett Show aired a war debate between John Kerry and John O’Neill, both of whom had served as Swift boat commanders in Vietnam. Decades later, O’Neill was again approached by the media—this time to comment about his debate with now presidential hopeful, John Kerry. With the desire to inform the American public of the truth behind Kerry’s military service, O’Neill joined together with Admiral Roy Hoffmann, who had commanded a unit in Vietnam. On May 4, 2004, the formation of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was announced.
The group—a Special Purpose Political Action Committee—was registered as a 527 organization.9 This allowed the Swifties to raise and spend an unlimited amount of money as long as their efforts were not coordinated with a political party or a candidate.12 The group claimed Kerry was misrepresenting his service record, and the service of his unit, and immediately released a letter signed by more than 220 Swift boat veterans. Among the signers was Kerry’s entire chain of command.
The New York Times found that wealthy Texans who are strong supporters of the Bush administration were large donors to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
A 1980 study on the attitudes of Vietnam veterans found that 91 percent of those who fought in the war were “glad they served their country,” and 74 percent “enjoyed their time in the military.”
3.1 John Kerry Campaign Objectives
By March 2, 2004, John Kerry had unofficially secured the nomination of the Democratic National Party. As the clear frontrunner for the party, the objective of the Kerry campaign was to defeat the incumbent, President George W. Bush, and win the election for president in November 2004.
The messages coming out of the Kerry campaign headquarters were to include:
“Stronger, safer, more secure America.”
“We have to get back to dreaming again.”
3.2 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Objectives
The objectives of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth included:
To discuss Kerry’s war crime charges
To discuss Kerry’s record
To request that Kerry authorize the Department of Defense to release the original and complete files relating to his military service.
4.1 John Kerry Campaign Tactics:
Media consultant, Bob Shrum, and campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, believed that the advertisements run by the Swift Vets had no affect on persuadable voters, but only on voters who were already confirmed Republicans. They believed that attacking back would only support the message of the Swifties. They also hoped to avoid negative campaigning, which is not perceived favorably by potential voters.
In August 2004, well-known liberal talking head, Susan Estrich, was booked on Hannity & Colmes to talk about the Swifties advertisements.18 When she called the Kerry campaign headquarters, she was shocked to find that there were no talking points prepared.
§ Counter-press conference with Gen. Wesley Clark.
o Swift boat veterans canceled their press conference
Bob Shrum and his partner, Tad Devine, wanted to save funds for a media blitz in late October, and because of a campaign-finance regulations, this left little money to fight the Swifties advertisements that ran in August. Nonetheless, in late August, the campaign came to the realization that something must be done to combat the accusations of the Swifties. A small media purchase was made, however this proved not to be enough.
§ Cooperation with major daily newspapers.
In an attempt to disprove the Swifties, documents were provided to The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.
§ Max Cleland endorsement.
Former Clinton White House press secretary, Joe Lockhart, was brought onboard in August to support floundering communications director, Stephanie Cutter. He created the plan to send Max Cleland, a former senator from Georgia and a veteran who lost three limbs in the Vietnam War, to the gates of Bush’s ranch in Texas. In his wheelchair, Cleland delivered a letter asking Bush to renounce the Swifties. Polls were not affected.
The Silent Coup: James Carville, a well-known democratic member of the media-political institution was a harsh critic of the Kerry campaign, and was largely behind the move to replace Cutter and Cahill with Lockhart. At one point, he threatened to go Meet the Press the following day “and tell the truth about how bad it is” if control wasn’t ceded to Lockhart. With Lockhart in control, daily meeting were held, at which top staffers were asked, “What headline do we want and how do we go about getting it?”
§ The Kerry campaign made several miscalculations and missteps.
o Band of Brothers talk-show circuit.
· This tactic was not implemented, as the men proved to be too difficult to assemble in August.
o People were persuaded not to speak on behalf of John Kerry, including: vice presidential candidate, John Edwards; daughter, Vanessa Kerry; first wife, Julia Thorne.
o Communications Director, Stephanie Cutter, was “considered too slow and too controlling, not nimble or clever.”
· She had poor relations with members of the media and coworkers. Not all of Cutter’s moves were misguided, as she was trying to bring some of the successful communications strategies of the Republicans to the “notoriously loose-lipped and leaky” Democratic camp. Despite her inadequacies, Kerry was slow to fire Cutter, or her boss, Mary Beth Cahill, because it would fuel the flames that there was disorder in his staff.
To Scutter: verb, taken from email address; to try to control or to dominate; to f---something up.
4.2 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth Tactics:
§ Press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on May 4, 2004.
A few days before the press conference, a release was put out, igniting the attention of major media outlets. In order to prepare the Swifties for their debut, they were trained to limit the use of military jargon that the public wouldn’t understand, and to stay on message.At the press conference, each Swiftie introduced himself and made a personal statement about why he was speaking out about John Kerry. Messages of the day included: He is unfit to be commander in chief. We served with him. We were there. We were on those rivers. His entire chain of command is here today to say this man cannot be trusted.
§ Press conferences were later held in Ohio, Florida, and Iowa.
§ Regional newspaper and radio talk shows.
The Swifties gained recognition and garnered attention by heavily frequenting regional talk shows. When mainstream media could no longer ignore the brewing story, they were forced to repeat the arguments of the Swifties. This only spurred more interest, leading to national news coverage.
Following a media blitz in August, the Swifties returned to a regional focus in September. Local veterans often conducted the interviews, which led to headlines such as “Local Swift Boat Vet…” or “Native Son Speaks Out Against Kerry.” These headlines were accompanied with long, front-page articles. The absence of a Kerry Staffer in most small towns allowed the Swifties to effectively get their message out to the voting public.
John O’Neill had the following to say on the regional focus of the Swifties’ communications strategy:
In Vietnam, when the POWs were held in the Hanoi Hilton their guards
wouldn’t let them talk to each other. So they devised a tap code to get
around their guards. We started saying, “What we need is some kind of tap
code, some way of getting our message out and around the mainline media,
past the three major networks and the New York Times.” So we developed
a strategy to do that.
§ Advertisements. $19 million was allocated to television advertisements.
o 1st Round: Kerry lied to win his medals
o 2nd Round: Kerry betrayed his Swift Boat mates by calling them war criminals
· The ads, which were produced by Stevens, Reed Curcio & Potholm, ran in key battleground states.12 The advertisements received little attention by traditional media, however the advertisements ran over and over on cable networks such as Fox, CNN and MSNBC.5 A complaint filed by the Kerry campaign with the FCC, requesting that the ad be taken from the air, also led to increased media circulation.
§ Unfit for Command by John O’Neill.
o Released in 2004, this book by Swiftie leader heralds the arguments made by the Swifties about Kerry’s service record.
4.3 President Bush’s Turn
In September 2004, CBS’s 60 Minute II claimed “to have obtained long-lost records of George W. Bush’s superior officer in the Texas Air National Guard complaining that Bush had shirked his duty.” At first it seemed that the tides were about to turn, and instead of Kerry defending his service in Vietnam, the president was going to have to explain his attendance record while serving stateside during the Vietnam War. The Bush team proved much more apt at defending against such charges. Immediately after the segment aired, a blogger questioned the validity of the documents. This was followed up with questions as to whether or not CBS was working on behalf of the Democratic party. The answers to these questions proved irrelevant, however, because attention had successfully been diverted away from the president’s service.
First Lady Laura Bush also answered questions, and said that she doubted the validity of the documents. Pundits gave this strategic move high marks, noting that the White House appeared to remain out of the controversy, and that the remarks of the first lady “were off the cuff, not part of some clever West Wing strategy.”
5. 1 Evaluation: John Kerry Campaign
The Kerry campaign met the initial Swiftie press conference with talking points that were able to silence any damaging reports from the traditional media. In addition, their cooperation with the major daily newspapers provided the campaign with articles that were largely supportive of John Kerry. This success was minimized, however, because the traditional media proved to be fairly irrelevant producing results in the 2004 campaign.
Perhaps the largest mistake on behalf of the Kerry campaign was the initial silence in the face of a growing storm. CNN Crossfire host and former advisor to President Clinton, Paul Begala, believes Kerry should have said:
Lately you may have seen ads trashing my record in Vietnam. I was there.
I know what happened, and I’m proud of my service. The reason they’re
trashing my record is because they can’t defend their record of trashing
our economy, our health care system, and our respect and reputation around
the world. Those are the issues I’m going to focus on—in this campaign and
as your president. Anything else is just trash talk.
Within the Kerry campaign, there was a lot of finger pointing. Kerry blamed his advisors, since they had cautioned him against fighting back. Advisors and staffers for the candidate largely blamed the media consultants. One democratic strategist said that Shrum and Devine were the wrong men for the job, because coming from the advertising industry, the only understood the air war.
Another downfall of the Kerry campaign was their inability to focus in on key messages. Stan Greenberg, former Clinton pollster, criticized Kerry’s speeches for having “five different themes without any organizing principle.” One explanation for this inconsistency is that Kerry was listening to the advice of too many individuals.
On top of his media consultants, advisors and staff, former members of the Clinton administration—and Clinton himself—weighed in on the communications strategy. Many times when Kerry incorporated their ideas into his speeches, he was unable to sell them, because he didn’t believe in them. Such was the case when Greenberg suggested that Kerry state how the funds directed at the Iraq war should be going towards domestic efforts. Kerry, on the other hand, was willing to spend whatever it took to win in Iraq.
When Kerry stood back from the deluge of advice and decided to be the anti-war candidate, his speeches were much more convincing. Unfortunately for his team, it was too late in the election season to make a successful comeback.
5.2 Evaluation: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth
One True measure of the Swifties’ success is the poll numbers that were used to track the favorability of Kerry and Bush throughout the election. According to CNN/ USA Today/Gallop polls of likely voters, Bush only had a two percent lead over Kerry throughout most of the month of August. By September 13, the margin between the candidates had widened to 14 percent. The Swifties had put a dent in the Kerry campaign, and Bush picked up the slack.
Spaeth Communications, a Dallas public relations firm working for the Swifties, estimated that $9 million would be needed in order to run an effective campaign. When all was said and done, the total amount of money raised was approximately $27 million. The organization’s website contributed enormously, with more than 150,000 individual contributions, amounting to $8 million in internet revenue. According to the Swift Vets Fact Sheet, more than 49,000 Americans contributed over $3.3 million to the organization since the first commercial was aired on Aug. 5, 2004.
Unfit for Command, released on August 12, spent four weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. This gave the opportunity for O’Neill to reach out to the public on his publicity tour. Simultaneously his fellow Swifties went on a media tour in all key swing states. According to O’Neill, there were times when eight or nine people were being interviewed on the same day for talk radio, cable television, and print media.
One survey conducted in West Virginia, a key battleground state, showed that 65 percent of voters had seen the first ad produced by the Swifties. Only 16 percent said the ad made them feel less favorably towards Kerry. Experts believe this number is low when it is taken into consideration that people don’t like to admit that they’re influenced by propaganda.
Another survey, conducted after the election, found that 75 percent of voters in 12 battleground states had seen or heard of the Swifties’ ads and their allegations.
James Boyce, an advertising agency executive who served as an unpaid advisor to the Kerry 2004 campaign, said that swiftboating efforts are successful, because “people don’t really pay attention. They hear something on the news, (they assume) there must be something to it.”
Dave Johnson is a fellow at the Commonweal Institute who wrote:
So why does swiftboating work? First, because it is simple, and lays down
a clear good vs. evil, black-and-white narrative that is easily understood by regular people who lead busy lives and don’t have the time and energy it
takes to closely follow the news and track the real facts. And it is smart, professionally crafted, with tons of money available to do the necessary psychological, polling and focus group work that goes into developing messaging that resonates with the public, and getting that messaging into targeted channels with reach.
6. Interview with Merrie Spaeth
Before founding the communications firm, Spaeth Communication, Inc., in 1987, Merrie Spaeth held numerous positions in the communications, business and entertainment industries. She has written for national publications, worked as a producer of ABC’s “20/20” and been honored for her work as a television and film actress. In the 1980s, Spaeth served as the White House media relations director under the Reagan administration. Spaeth coordinated the media efforts of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in the 2004 presidential campaign.
In a phone interview on March 20, 2007, Merrie Spaeth provided the following insight into the campaign:
The main stream media ended up hurting Kerry
If Kerry had immediately addressed the issue and apologized, the whole crisis would have fizzled
When a similar attack was done on JFK he said, “Don’t praise me for being a hero, I was just doing my duty.” (Kerry should have done this)
When John O’Neill confronted Spaeth about Kerry issue she said: “I wouldn’t talk to anyone, particularly the national media, until you have a coherent story.”
The following things were needed before moving forward:
· Organization, mission, leadership, purpose
Ø The first goal was to set the record straight
v Advantage: Swifties were real people
Problem with Kerry’s campaign: “People around Kerry didn’t know anything about the military. They didn’t understand and they also weren’t interested.”
Therefore, the dichotomy of Kerry being a war hero and an anti-war hero was never resolved.
Keys to being a good communicator:
Fast, flexible, person-to-person, sense of humor, quickly refreshed
Ex. Obama: candidate who understands new media. Has a sense of humor: “Let’s face it guys, my presence here is a little unlikely.”
Also be aware: There are a lot of back channels. You have to be able to hear the negative things people are saying about you, however, senators are too often in a position where people tailor what they say to match what they think would make you happy.
Swifties best ways to communicate:
New types of communication: The new electronic media environment, which is web-based, and person-to person communication has implications about how to communicate. It forces you to think differently and there is an increased amount of interactivity.
The website became a self-fundraising mechanism.
· Swifties raised over $24 million for their campaign. The average person contributed $64.
Over the past 15 years, the radio talk show medium has develops. This enables people of like mind to communicate.
One notable lesson learned from the 2004 presidential campaign is the importance of key messages. Political pundits have at times made fun of the Bush camp’s incessant use of talking points, but their message comes across loud and clear. On the other hand, Kerry was inconsistent at best. At worst, the Democratic candidate did not appear to have a message to share.
Another lesson is the necessity of crafting messaging for negative issues that are certain to arise. Kerry is a seasoned politician who had encountered negative questions about his military service in elections leading up to the 2004 campaign. Before the Swifties even waged war on the Kerry campaign, messages should have been prepared to counter any possible questions that might arise in regards to problem areas.
The importance of rapid response teams and the ability to quickly check facts were central to a campaign that saw a huge upsurge in the use of new media sources, such as internet sites and blogs. To successfully compete in a marketplace that is more dominated by the immediate influence of new technology, and less by traditional media outlets, candidates, as well as others, must think creatively about their communications approach.
8. Current Information
The Patriot Project has been founded to expose groups that are guilty of using similar tactics as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in order to smear politicians.1 This group holds the opinion that the Swifties and similar organizations are front groups to political parties and candidates.
An article appearing on the MSNBC website investigates the truths behind the college thesis paper of former first lady and current presidential hopeful, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The paper Clinton wrote on the leftist radical activist, Saul D. Alinsky, had been locked away for the duration of the Clinton White House, and it is now suggested that it is the material for the next generation of Swift boat attack ads.
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