Robin Burk is accredited to this year's Conservative Political Action Conference as a member of the Winds of Change.NET team. She's covering CPAC as a private citizen and maybe a "citizen journalist" (if she could figure out what that means), as an academic studying new media trends, and as an ordinary voter interested in national & international affairs. Robin is not affiliated with the organizations who sponsor CPAC.
Note: I posted this late on Friday. Here's a restored version. I have more to say about what I observed at the award ceremony last night for the Swift Boat Vets, especially what I observed about the attendees packed into the main floor of the event.
Tonight as I headed toward the elevator to the reception before dinner I found myself once again talking with John O'Neill of the Swift Boat vets. A while back I read (and then forgot) that O'Neill had just donated a kidney to his wife when John Kerry won the Iowa caucuses and he had to decide whether to speak out about Kerry and Vietnam. Meeting Mrs. O'Neill tonight brought that back to mind. What a year she has had! In addition to the surgery and the Swift Boat Vets campaign, there were two household moves and a law firm merger.
I know a lot of military wives like her. They seldom make the news and they seldom complain. They manage household moves, provide emotional support and hold things together while spouses are deployed. There's a reason the military services always recognize spouses (wives or husbands) along with the service members at promotions and farewell ceremonies. It's not lip service, it's a heartfelt recognition of an important contribution.
Mrs. O'Neill wasn't mentioned when Sen. Zell Miller presented this year's Courage Under Fire award to the Swift Boat Vets and the POWs for Truth, but I'm pretty sure the Swifties are grateful for her courage and support nonetheless.
Watching O'Neill and Bill Franke, I was struck by how grateful they themselves are to all the people who responded with support when they spoke out. O'Neill was the public face of the group and Franke was the indispensable operations guy. I wondered, on the way down to CPAC, what impression I'd come away with once I'd met them in person.
I was, actually, impressed by O'Neill and Franke and I was surprisingly moved by them. Watching and listening to them convinced me that these are men who really did not relish a fight for its own sake or for partisan advantage. They simply, and deeply and unequivocably, believe that John Kerry is not fit to command the U.S. military. They are gratified and relieved at the support they got, but I suspect they would have pressed on without it until election day.
Franke repeated a story he told at the blogger breakfast - that after the first Swiftie ad aired in a few markets and on the Internet, people came up to John O'Neill in airports or wherever he travelled, thanking him and pressing ten or twenty dollars into his hand. When the Swiftie website opened, 168,000 people donated money in the first 60 days, most of it in small amounts. The Swifties struck a deep chord in much of the electorate.
I took a lot of notes during the award speeches, but I think I'll just mention one other thing of note. In addition to O'Neill and Franke, Rear Admiral Roy Hoffman was present. Hoffman was the catalyst for the Swift Vets and POW groups. Franke, who's a pretty big hulking guy (6'4" or so, at a guess), unabashedly said of Hoffman that all of the Swift vets love and cherish the man. It didn't seem to be a casual statement.
Hoffman was scathing in his description of Kerry as an officer in Vietnam. He was there 4 months and 14 days and he thought he was an expert on the place. He detested authority, detested anyone over him. He was a loose cannon. He refused orders.
Admiral Hoffman spoke warmly of men he called "two great leaders", USAF (sic) Gen. Creighton Adams and Vice Adm. Elmo Zumwalt. They stood for dignity ... so long as you did your job you could count on them 100%. He contrasted that with Kerry, whose boat (he said) fled when its partner boat on patrol was ambushed.
Hoffman ended by remembering those who died in that war and then issued an impassioned challenge to those who call the Swifties and POWs discredited: Come up with one false detail in what we've written or said, in public or private.
Loyalty to those above and below you in the chain of command. Honesty. Courage. These are values that are pretty central to those in uniform. Hoffman and the other vets were invoking them in their campaign against Kerry.
In presenting the Courage Under Fire award tonight, Zell Miller praised the 260+ men who disrupted their lives to speak up last year:
It was the Swift Boat Vets who called a lie a lie, took the heat, endured the scorn.
John O'Neill is a Republican (I believe. See the comments below. - rkb). He clerked for Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist as a young lawyer. Other Swifties are probably Republicans too, although a number of them have publicly said they are Democrats. Elections being what they are, it's reasonable to wonder about motives for something like the Swift Boat Vets effort last year.
My sense is that the Kerry issue wasn't about party politics for the Swifties, though. These are men who give every evidence of believing deeply that Kerry is not fit to command and they acted on that belief.
It would appear a fair number of other people agreed.
UPDATE: Please see my comments below. Saying that O'Neill and Franke appear to be acting out of military rather than partisan motivation is not the same thing as saying that their claims are all factual. That's a separate question.
UPDATE: Matt Margolis has audio for Miller and O'Neill. By the way, there was some lively political debate at our blogger table while we waited for the main speakers to arrive. Money quote, LaShawn Barber to me: You really aren't a conservative, are you? Not on a fair number of issues, anyway. At an event like CPAC, it's impossible to talk about issues without labels, though, so for this weekend I guess I'm a centrist with moderate libertarian leanings. Or something.