John O’Neill commanded the same Swift boat during the Vietnam War that John Kerry did. One of 254 Swift boat veterans who holds a negative view of the Democratic presidential candidate, O’Neill is co-author of the current best-seller Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry (Regnery Publishing). To learn more about this group of highly-decorated veterans, visit SwiftVets.com.
John O’Neill is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. He earned a Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Texas Law School. He was law clerk in 1974 for Justice William Rehnquist at the United States Supreme Court, one of the highest honors any law clerk can have. For three decades he has been a successful lawyer in Houston, Texas.
The silver-haired Kerry spokesman on veterans issues referred to in this interview, John Hurley, served in Vietnam in the U.S. Army, not the U.S. Navy, and has never been on a Swift boat. Hurley met Kerry when both were activist leaders and comrades in Jane Fonda-funded Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Hurley was also on the campaign staff of former Congressman Robert Drinan (D.-Massachusetts), an outspoken supporter of the Soviet-backed, Fidel Castro-backed Sandinista Marxists in Nicaragua. Senator John Kerry was also a strong supporter of the Sandinistas and he traveled to Managua in 1985 to provide public relations support for their Communist leader Daniel Ortega. (Days after Kerry embraced him, Ortega flew to Moscow to affirm his allegiance to the Soviet Union.)
This interview below was done by FrontPage Magazine Contributing Editor Lowell Ponte on Saturday, August 21, 2004 on his national radio talk show on Liberty Broadcasting.
FPM: John, you’ve witnessed the politics of the Clinton Administration. You know what now happens when anybody criticizes a prominent Democrat in the United States. He immediately becomes a target for this well-organized hit-and-smear, kill-the-messenger machine the Democrats have developed. I watched Chris Matthews foaming at the mouth trying to crucify you, asking you questions, cutting off your answers and then accusing you of not answering. Is this what you expected?
O’Neill: Yes, I really did, Lowell. It’s a shame. The problem they have is when you study the book Unfit For Command, the conclusions in the book are really difficult to assail. It’s pretty obvious that they’re the truth. And so, rather than attack the conclusions and the facts, what they try to do is attack the messenger. I didn’t mind so much Chris Matthews attacking me, but bitterly resented Chris Matthews’ treatment of Larry Thurlow, probably the greatest hero we ever had in swift boats. And I also thought that he acted like a clod in attacking Michelle Malkin, who defended us on his show and throwing her off. I think he should be ashamed of himself.
FPM: Well, he clearly should be. But he is a classic Democrat partisan, and frankly, to be fair to Matthews, Rick Kaplan was named the head of MSNBC a few months ago, so Matthews’ boss is someone who routinely used to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom with the Clintons. He is a far-left partisan, and this is the guy who runs MSNBC now.
O’Neill: I can tell you after what I saw on the Chris Matthews show, it’s not a place I’d ever go to anymore to pick up information or to get to the truth.
FPM: You’re a U.S. Naval Academy graduate, something leftist interviewers somehow go out of their way not to mention, and you commanded the same Swift boat as John Kerry, although not at the same time he was there.
O’Neill: That’s exactly right. Kerry bailed out of Vietnam after three months of combat, and one other month. Four months. In a strange sort of way I guess you could say I’m the guy who finished off his tour because I’m actually the guy who took over the swift boat PC94 that he would have otherwise been on. I actually finished up and served a whole year, as did everybody else in this swift boat division. Everybody else except Kerry.
FPM: We’ve been hearing that most members of “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” were not on Kerry’s boat itself, but on other boats. My impression is that they operate like a wolf pack. They operate very close together, sometimes only 10 or l5 yards apart, so the fact that you’re not on Kerry’s boat may not mean anymore than you were on a different airplane in a squadron of airplanes sent out to attack something.
O’Neill: Exactly right, Lowell. The officers on these boats, for example, all slept together in a common bunk room. On a normal night the enlisted guys did too. There were a few times that they might sleep apart on their boat. But most of the time they’d be at the Mother Ship. The boats operate in packs of two to six boats, much closer than airplanes, usually 10-15 yards apart. Everybody knew what was going on. The interesting thing about this is, in contrast to Kerry’s crew, some of whom only knew him as little as 6 days, most of the people in these other boats, particularly the officers and commanding officers, had a chance to see him for longer periods of time, up to 3 months.
FPM: The establishment, liberal media likes to tell us the people who were actually the crew on Kerry’s own boat have remained loyal to him and they knew him better than anyone.
O’Neill: First, they didn’t know him better than anyone, by a long shot. The two guys he had speak for him at the Democratic Convention were Jim Rassmann , who he knew for 2 days in Vietnam and David Alston, who he apparently knew for about six days in Vietnam. That contrasts with any number of people who worked with him day after day in Vietnam. This is truthfully a story that got made up by Washington lawyers that is really laughable to all the guys in our squadron and to most military people. It’s just ridiculous to think people in a Swift boat squadron don’t know each other. It’s like claiming that you have to be in the same tank to know the guys in a tank company, or in the same plane to know the guys in a plane squadron.
FPM: No, in this case it’s people like Chris Matthews who are in the tank with John Kerry…a different kind of tank, of course.
O’Neill: I don’t remember seeing him over there, and I’m not sure we would have wanted him based on what I saw.
FPM: Kerry’s chief spokesman for veterans on these shows seems to be someone from the Army who has never been on a Swift boat in his life. We’re talking about John Hurley.
O’Neill: That’s absolutely true, Lowell. It’s either John Hurley, or often they’re just Washington lawyers. Often they have Lanny Davis…
FPM: As opposed to Hurley, who is a Boston lawyer.
O’Neill: Yes. Hurley is a Boston lawyer who was in an engineering battalion in Vietnam and actually claimed that his own engineering battalion, in the book Tour of Duty, engaged in atrocities. He was hunted down by Tom Purdue (sp?) from that same engineering battalion and admitted that they had not engaged in atrocities, apologized to Purdue, and these words about atrocities are supposed to be removed from the next version of Kerry’s book Tour.
FPM: It’s interesting how history can be rewritten. Of course most people understand, who have read Tour of Duty, that actually, and correct me if I’m wrong, Douglas Brinkley, who is a historian in Louisiana and used to have a fairly good reputation, signed an agreement that in effect Kerry would have final edit of this book, meaning it’s really Kerry’s autobiography, written by somebody else. It deliberately omits anything Kerry did not want there.
O’Neill: Exactly right, Lowell. For example - you can pick a million examples in the book – the book is wildly inaccurate – Herodotus would not have been proud of this book. The one I think is short, funny, and easy to understand, is that for about a week or two Kerry used the call sign “Square Jaw.” So Brinkley has that fact in the book. For almost all the time Kerry was in Vietnam he used the call sign “Boston Strangler.” There’s absolutely no reference to that in the book, and the whole book is like that. It’s a very one-sided, dishonest book in my judgment.
FPM: Your book is full of specifics. The first thing that fascinates me about your book is the logic. I love that old liberal and debater’s adage: “If you can win on the facts, debate the facts; if you can win on the logic, debate the logic; if you can’t win on either the facts or the logic then try to smear the other guy.” Apparently they can’t win on the facts of the logic. So they’re trying to smear you.
O’Neill: What they’re really trying to do, sort of, is give ground, admit the points in the book are true, minimize them, and then sort of pick here or there where they can fight. For example, I think that they uniformly admit now that the story he told for 35 years on the floor of the Senate and everywhere else, and described as “the turning point of his life” – that he had spent Christmas and Christmas Eve illegally in Cambodia – they’ve admitted that was a fabrication. Now, they don’t say it like that, but they admit he made it up. Instead they say, “Some other time he may have been in Cambodia.” But they don’t identify when.
FPM: And that he was on a “secret mission” that cannot be documented in any way. But one of the examples, not just of fact that you deal with, but of logic, their current mode of attack apparently is to say you are “funded” by George W. Bush and Carl Rove and the Republicans. You are really doing their “dirty work,” in effect acting as puppets for them, but just in political logical terms, if Bush had a choice he would not fight on what is supposedly Kerry’s strong ground – the ground where Kerry may emerge looking like more of a hero. He would rather right on Kerry’s pathetic record of failure over 20 years in the U.S. Senate, wouldn’t he?
O’Neill: The truth is we don’t know. That’s not a calculation that’s entered into it. I’ve heard Dick Morris say that we’re probably hurting the Republican campaign, or that he thought we would. For us it’s a deeply personal matter. It goes way beyond politics. We lost 55 guys over there. I had 15 friends that died over there, and they were good guys. So this is a huge part of our life, the year we spent over there. A lot of the 60 people in our group got wounded over there and it really goes beyond politics. The lies he told about our unit, and the lies he told about his service in our unit, to us are very profound, independent of any political consideration. From those we think he would be a terrible Commander-In-Chief. But our object isn’t to try and get George Bush elected, or anybody else. It’s simply to educate the American People on this guy in areas we know a lot about: which is his service in Vietnam and his life after that.
FPM: The New York Times alleged this week that because your law firm had worked for the company in Texas that was founded by a prominent Republican, who may or may not have been there at the time you worked for them, therefore you are Republican-connected. But I have heard it said that you voted for Ross Perot.
O’Neill: I voted twice for Ross Perot and I voted for Al Gore. I could make a better case that I’m a Democrat. I’d be happy if I was a Republican. The truth is I’m just a “nothing,” I mean I just pick individual people. Our firm has more Democrats than Republicans. The charge is crazy. I have done large-scale commercial litigation. We represent a company called Falcon Seaboard. One of the guys there, some four or six years later would become involved in politics and run for Lt. Governor, many years after we represented the company. This is one of the pieces of “proof” in The New York Times. Another thing they have is that I have a partner who was a Republican and ran for office 10 years ago. The problem with that is they don’t identify their charge. He’s been dead for seven months, long before any of this began. A third claim is I’m a Republican because a law partner of mine – keep in mind we have l2 or l4 of them – used to be married, until 4 years ago, to a woman, Harriet O’Neill, not related to me, who was on the Texas Supreme Court. But he divorced her 4 years ago. That’s what they’ve got. It shouldn’t be in the green sheet.
FPM: I am old enough to remember when Democrats would denounce this sort of thing by calling it “McCarthyism” or “guilt by association.”
O’Neill: At least that involved trying to accuse someone of being something bad. I would be perfectly happy to acknowledge I was Republican or Democrat if that’s what I was. The other logical problem they have is there are 254 people in our organization. I’m not the chairman of it. I’m just one of the guys in it. I’m not sure where it gets them, even if they get there. The truth is, when you examine my record, I’ve given more money to Democrats, than to Republicans.
FPM: There it is. No evil deed goes unpunished. In my naivete, as someone who was for 15 years a Roving Editor at Reader’s Digest, I’m fascinated that the liberal
establishment media has spent lots of time questioning your motives. But they haven’t shown any interest at all in scrutinizing the motives of the members of Kerry’s “Band of Brothers” who seem to have so much money that they can just take endless time away from work, travel with him and apparently stay in $1,000 a night, first-class hotel rooms.
O’Neill: Yes. What we know is none of them liked Kerry when they first got back from Vietnam. They said that he “turned their stomach,” he betrayed them, and the like. We all shared a common belief about what Kerry had done at one point. It’s apparent that in the last two years Kerry made an extensive effort to simply recruit the guys in his boat, and has done so. Why or what his arrangement with them is I don’t know. We haven’t attacked them. They are always surrounded by handlers, and when they let them speak, the Kerry campaign and Kerry get into terrible trouble. They tell the truth, at least some of them time. Recently for example, Del Sandusky disclosed that on the “no man left behind” incident, that far from all the boats fleeing and Kerry coming back, all the boats stayed and Kerry fled. That was not the story they actually wanted to tell and of course reveals that the story concluding the Democratic Convention was a complete lie.
FPM: I think Kerry now has had to acknowledge that there is at least some element of truth in the fact that he left and then came back.
O’Neill: He says he was half a mile to a mile away. The three-boat had been blown out of the water, was disabled, had swimmers in the water. All the other boats went to the three-boat to save it. Finally, Kerry came back. It wasn’t “no man left behind.” It was “one man left.” I can tell you at least once in Vietnam, and probably twice, that if I had been with somebody like Kerry, and they had left our boat in the circumstances we were in I wouldn’t be talking to you. There’d be a lot of good people not here today.
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