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The CPAC Files: Zell Miller and the Swift Boat Vets (Updated)

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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.

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Tracked: June 29, 2006 4:51 AM
Excerpt: Tonight was a great night. The Reagan Banquet was a great event. I was sitting at a table with Robin Burke, Adam Doverspike, and La Shawn Barber... This was truly a night to remember. Zell Miller was to present The...


If O'Neill is a Republican, how come he says he voted Democrat in the past? I think Kerry was a lot too much to swallow. Character is charater and these men saw up close what Kerry was (and still is) and did the right affiliation be damned.

People can belong to one party but occasionally vote for the other party's candidate. There have been a lot of claims and counterclaims on blogs and in the MSM regarding O'Neill's affiliation and motives. I went to the blogger breakfast and the awards ceremony in part to see what, if anything, meeting him and other Swiftie leaders might reveal.

Sifting through the evidence and allegations, I do think O'Neill is at the least a political conservative. I'll leave the definition of formal party affiliation to others to debate.

But my point is that after meeting them I came away convinced that in their own minds, O'Neill, Franke and Hoffman deeply opposed Kerry for reasons that have primarily to do with military values, not political ones. I didn't go into my time at CPAC with that as a foregone conclusion.

Perhaps I'm importing my own experience as a baby boomer into this -- but then, it was their experiences during the Vietnam era that brought the 260+ Swifties together and I suspect it was the experiences of a lot of ordinary people during that time that caused them to thrust ten and twenty dollar bills at O'Neill when they saw him in public places.

I have no definitive way to sift through some of the claims and counterclaims made by and against the Swift Boat Vets, although a long association with our military gives me some familiarity with procedures and a deeper familiarity with the values and code of honor that are central to those who make this their life work.

O'Neill's father was an Admiral, which means he grew up steeped in the culture of the professional military -- a fact I didn't realize until this week. If you didn't watch as returning soldiers and sailors and marines, many of them drafted, were spat upon or had things thrown at them, or had angry antiwar demonstrators scream "baby killer!" at them when they came home from Vietnam, it might be hard to give credence to the idea that the Swifties acted to defend miltary (rather than simply partisan) values they care deeply about.

But if you did, and if you spent a little time one on one with O'Neill and Franke, with no cameras rolling, their body language, passion and vulnerability might be convincing. At least it was for me.

Robin, thank you so much for you coverage of CPAC. I am following every word, and I find it deeply fascinating.

I think sometimes the way we are made leaves us without a choice of action. Surely it would have been much easier for O'Neil and Franke to look the other other way, perhaps think it was someone else's obligation to fulfill.

I don't really think they had a choice. It was their nature. And their nurture (the military culture).

Robin, how's the Guyana punch at CPAC this year?

The crowd at CPAC's Thursday night banquet, held at D.C.'s Ronald Reagan Building, was full of right-wing stars. Among those seated at the long presidential table at the head of the room were Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, Dore Gold, foreign policy advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and NRA president Kayne Robinson. Vice President Dick Cheney, a regular CPAC speaker, gave the keynote address. California Rep. Chris Cox had the honor of introducing him, and he took the opportunity to mock the Democrats whose hatred of America led them to get Iraq so horribly wrong.

"America's Operation Iraqi Freedom is still producing shock and awe, this time among the blame-America-first crowd," he crowed. Then he said, "We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq." Apparently, most of the hundreds of people in attendance already knew about these remarkable, hitherto-unreported discoveries, because no one gasped at this startling revelation.

Swallow hard for us OK?

Davebo apparently doesn't read carefully, as he seems to have missed several clues. I wasn't at the Thursday banquet so I don't know what was said there.

The fact that I'm blogging a CPAC event doesn't mean I necessarily agree with all (or even most) of what's said here. (UDATE: In this post I report it as I saw it. See my recap post above for comments on it.) Nor is it possible to be at all the events. Davebo hasn't bothered to provide a link to the source for his quote, though, and since I need to be elsewhere right now I don't intend to google it for myself at the moment.

[JK: To understand this comment and what happened next, see the post Bad News on a Good News Saturday Posting it publicly here was the wrong thing to do.]

Questionable choice for Good News Saturday. On the one hand, there are positive values of military culture the Swift Vets are defending, and they defended the truth as they saw it despite opposition (haven't read the book, so can't go beyond that).

The problem is, this post (and to some extent) are inevitably about Kerry, and that angle is not positive. It's a rehash of the 2004 election, and I wasn't really a big fan of that whole episode even at the time.

Note the qualifications for good news postings here, especially #3. This one fails the test - can we move it to Firday at 11:59 or to Sunday?

Gotta go...

Firday? Joe, are you going Viking on us?

I think this is a positive posting, about essentially doing the right thing! OK, i do admit to being a huge Spike Lee fan. ;)

IMHO, the Swift Vets followed their Code of Honor, altho it would have been much more comfortable for them to not do so.


This is a Friday story. I finished writing it at 1:30 Saturday AM here in DC, then updated it when I woke up. I changed the time to signal that there was more than a line or two of new material.

I agree that it isn't one of our usual Saturday posts.

General Abrams was Army Chief of Staff from 1972-1974. I don't believe he had anything to do with the Air Force.

As in the Abrams tank, of course.

I did know that and should have put in a (sic) -- the 'USAF' came from the Admiral. You know how it is when you're Navy - all those Army / Army Air Corps guys look alike (heh).

More seriously, Adm. Hoffman is getting up in years and early on in his talk he had a moment where he appeared either to be confused or to be overcome by emotion (he appeared to be trying to remember/say Reagan's name). That passed, and for the rest of his talk this elderly man of short stature was focused and very powerful. He did, however, give Abrams to the Air Force .....

The Chris Cox quote was reported in Salon. Well, the Republicans do boast of creating their own reality.

Original dates and times for the above comments:
#1 from Judith L. Miley on February 19, 2005 12:14 PM
#2 from Robin Burk on February 19, 2005 12:40 PM
#3 from jinnderella on February 19, 2005 02:19 PM
#4 from Davebo on February 19, 2005 03:54 PM
#5 from Robin Burk on February 19, 2005 04:09 PM
#6 from Joe Katzman on February 19, 2005 05:33 PM
#7 from jinnderella on February 19, 2005 05:47 PM
#8 from Robin Burk on February 19, 2005 05:54 PM
#9 from Andrew on February 19, 2005 06:58 PM
#10 from Robin Burk on February 19, 2005 07:03 PM
#11 from Andrew J. Lazarus on February 19, 2005 07:52 PM

"Then he said, "We continue to discover biological and chemical weapons and facilities to make them inside Iraq." Apparently, most of the hundreds of people in attendance already knew about these remarkable, hitherto-unreported discoveries, because no one gasped at this startling revelation.

Swallow hard for us OK?"

There's nothing false in that statement. We found cans of sarin gas, 2 tons of uranium, MIGs buried in the sand, we found laboratories and testing facilities, and more. All this was in the Kay Report and the Duelfur Report, and also reported in the MSM when they were discovered. You must have been busy reading The Nation or Counterpunch . . .

I'm not fond of Henry Hyde, but Norm Coleman, Dore Gold, and Dick Cheney I would go hear any time. I'm a liberal who voted for Clinton twice and Gore in 2000.

So pick your lower jaw up off the floor, oh sheltered lefty. It's a big complicated world out here.

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