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Thursday, September 02, 2004

Preserving Lee Cearnal's op-ed

Houston Chronicle special projects editor (and Vietnam veteran) Lee Cearnal's splendid August 16th op-ed that I blogged about here has already disappeared from the Chron's website.  Because I believe that in its entirety, that op-ed is relevant to the question of how well or poorly the media is covering the SwiftVets vs. Kerry debate, as well as to the underlying political debate, and hence within the "fair use" doctrine of copyright law, I'm reproducing it here — on a nonprofit basis purely to further the public interest in these important issues — from Google's cached version, before the op-ed disappears from the internet altogether.  If the Chronicle's excellent outside counsel have a different view as to whether the "fair use" doctrine permits this and they want to discuss that subject with me, they can find me via the "about Beldar" link at the top right and follow the link there for my office contact information.  (And before they call, they might want to look at this link too, so we can talk about how to educate their client on the difference between the Supreme Court refusing to hear a case and affirming it unanimously.)


Where's my colleagues' interest in Kerry's war records?

Even when he's caught in a lie, media aren't scrutinizing him same way they did Bush


The same news media that demanded George W. Bush release his National Guard records — and went over them with a microscope — have shown an appalling lack of interest in John Kerry's military service. And as it turns out, there are far more legitimate questions about the latter than the former.

Kerry has made his four months and 11 days in Vietnam the central theme of his presidential campaign. This is entirely understandable given his 20 years as the Senate's leading dove. He needs the cover that Vietnam can give him.

Just last week, one of his more fatuous claims came a cropper. Beginning in 1979, with an op-ed for the Boston Herald, Kerry has claimed repeatedly that he spent Christmas Eve of 1968 on a secret — and illegal — mission in Cambodia aboard his swift boat.

"On more than one occasion, I, like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, took my patrol boat into Cambodia. In fact, I remember spending Christmas Day of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas. The absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real. But nowhere in Apocalypse Now did I sense that kind of absurdity."

He repeated the story again in 1986, on the Senate floor: "I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the president of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared — seared — in me."

He added a fantastic detail in a 2003 Washington Post profile: "A close associate hints: There's a secret compartment in Kerry's briefcase. He carries the black attaché everywhere. Asked about it on several occasions, Kerry brushed it aside. Finally, trapped in an interview, he exhaled and clicked open his case.

"'Who told you?' he demanded as he reached inside. 'My friends don't know about this.'

"The hat was a little mildewy. The green camouflage was fading, the seams fraying.

" 'My good luck hat,' Kerry said, happy to see it. 'Given to me by a CIA guy as we went in for a special mission in Cambodia.'

"Kerry put on the hat, pulling the brim over his forehead. His blue button-down shirt and tie clashed with the camouflage. He pointed his finger and raised his thumb, creating an imaginary gun. He looked silly, yet suddenly his campaign message was clear: Citizen-soldier. Linking patriotism to public service. It wasn't complex after all; it was Kerry.

"He smiled and aimed his finger: 'Pow.'"

This story was repeated early this year, in the fawning biography written by a Boston Globe reporter. Problem is, it's not true. His own crewmates say they were not in Cambodia on Christmas Eve. Even Kerry's own diary entry for that day says he was at his base in Sa Dec, 55 miles from the Cambodian border. In his biography of Kerry, Douglas Brinkly quoted the relevant passage: "Visions of sugarplums really do dance through your head and you think of stockings and snow and roast chestnuts and fires with birch logs and all that is good and warm and real. It's Christmas Eve."

With their man caught in a lie, Kerry's handlers last week floated a new version — he was near Cambodia.

"During John Kerry's service in Vietnam, many times he was on or near the Cambodian border and on one occasion crossed into Cambodia at the request of members of a special operations group operating out of Ha Tien.

"On Dec. 24, 1968, Lt. John Kerry and his crew were on patrol in the watery borders between Vietnam and Cambodia deep in enemy territory. In the early afternoon, Kerry's boat, PCF-44, was at Sa Dec and then headed north to the Cambodian border. There, Kerry and his crew along with two other boats were ambushed, taking fire from both sides of the river, and after the firefight were fired upon again. Later that evening during their night patrol they came under friendly fire. . . .

"Kerry's was not the only United States riverboat to respond and inadvertently or responsibly cross the border. In fact, it was this reality that led President Nixon to later invade Cambodia itself in 1970."

This won't fly either.

"Watery borders between Vietnam and Cambodia?" The Mekong River does not form a border between Vietnam and Cambodia.

"Inadvertently?" Strange, considering that his memory of that Christmas Eve 1968 was "seared" into his memory — including the fact that Nixon was lying about U.S. forces' presence there, even though Nixon didn't even take office until mid-January.

There is no evidence whatsoever that Kerry ventured into Cambodia during his abbreviated tour in Vietnam. No orders, no after-action reports, no confirmation from others, nothing.

To have been caught in Cambodia would have been an international embarrassment and a court-martial offense. The border was clearly marked with warnings signs and patrolled by a PT boat to ensure that no allied boats crossed it. (Yes, allied special-ops forces were operating in Cambodia. But they were not inserted there by something as obvious and slow-moving as a swift boat. They were ferried in by helicopter.)

As to the truth of this tale, there is only Kerry's word, which the press seems quite willing to take, to the extent of not reporting on the controversy at all. It is not a trivial matter. Kerry has pimped the story repeatedly in an effort to paint himself as a stand-up eyewitness to events that were both illegal and, in his view, immoral.

And that's not the only issue that reporters are curiously incurious about. At least one of Kerry's Purple Hearts has been challenged by his unit's medical officer, who notes that the wound was barely visible and was treated with a Band-Aid. Some questions should also be asked about his Silver Star: Should shooting a wounded, fleeing Viet Cong in the back — as justifiable as it was as an act of war — be worthy of the nation's third-highest award for courage?

To those of you who say such questions are unseemly, consider that John Kerry's principal claim on the presidency is that he served four months and 11 days in Vietnam. OK, fine. Let's examine the records — all the records, which, unlike Bush and contrary to popular perception, Kerry has not released — and have a debate. We would be if it were George W. Bush. The media would see to it.

Cearnal is the special projects editor at the Chronicle. A former Marine helicopter pilot, he served in Vietnam from mid-1968 through mid-1969. Readers may e-mail him at [email protected].


Update (Sun Sep 5 @ 11:30am):  Some folks who've graciously linked to this post have drawn an inference I didn't intend and that would be incorrect.  The Houston Chronicle, like the NYT and many other newspapers, puts its articles into a subscription-only archive after a certain number of days.  As far as I know, that's what happened to this one.  I didn't mean to suggest that the Chron pulled it off their website prematurely because the rest of the editorial staff disagreed with Mr. Cearnal's opinions (although they probably do).

Posted by Beldar at 02:05 AM in Law (2006 & earlier), Mainstream Media, Politics (2006 & earlier), SwiftVets | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Preserving Lee Cearnal's op-ed and sent a trackback ping are listed here:

» Fabulous Op-Ed on Christmas in Cambodia from Patterico's Pontifications

Tracked on Sep 2, 2004 7:58:43 PM

» Why the Astrodome Hotel is a terrible idea from blogHOUSTON

Tracked on Oct 17, 2004 12:31:45 PM


(1) danny made the following comment | Sep 2, 2004 3:42:47 AM | Permalink

The next step of the blogosphere is to find a way to put enough pressure on msm to do something like this.

How do we do it?

(2) Steven Jens made the following comment | Sep 2, 2004 4:49:34 AM | Permalink

I'm pretty solidly on the right -- more libertarian than conservative, but hawkish, and by no means in the middle. Nonetheless, I've generally been skeptical of claims of enormous liberal bias in the press.

I understand that reporters are generally very liberal. Once I even overheard a couple of reporters from the Boston Globe complaining that an editor had requested "balance" in an environmentalist story. "Would he have requested balance in a child-abuse case?" asked one of them.

But I've tended to assume that most of them try to be fair. Their perception is colored by their liberal mindset, sure, and the biggest names (New York Times, Washington Post, the broadcast television networks) are colored by an east-coast urban mindset (which is liberal, especially culturally). But I have generally assumed bias to be unintentional and minor.

My opinion of the press has not been genuflective, mind you. I have read too many newspaper accounts of events I have witnessed to believe that reports are wholesale retellings of reality. I have been misquoted myself -- to be honest, reporters have usually improved on my statements, but sometimes they have changed my meaning -- and I understand that quotation marks don't signify a verbatim quote unless the original was in writing. But I have not generally considered these distortions to be partisan or ideological so much as simplifying and dramatizing.

But, as the first paragraph of the op-ed points out, the difference between the media treatment of the Bush AWOL story -- an allegation with very little evidence behind it, which was contradicted by Bush's honorable discharge even before he released further records -- and the media treatment of the SwiftVets -- ignoring them, then laughing at them, then fighting them -- is substantial and inexplicable. I would love an explanation of why the Bush controversy was more newsworthy than the Kerry controversy. I can't come up with one myself.

Now, some of the SwiftVets allegations amount to conflicting testimony, and can never be proven beyond the credibility of witnesses (Beldar, I'd like to add, has done a fine job of sorting out the various accounts and other evidence, and I hope he has still been able to devote some time to his law practice). And as a resident of Massachusetts who wishes to see my junior Senator lose this race, I would like to see the debate move toward his Senate record, which I consider more relevant and less foggy.

But even if my opinion of Kerry hasn't changed a great deal in the last month -- do people allege that he is self-serving? And that there is gambling at Rick's? -- my opinion of the press has dropped. It has not left much of a crater, as it did not fall from a great height, but it did make an unpleasant thud when it hit bottom.

(3) AMac made the following comment | Sep 2, 2004 11:35:34 AM | Permalink

Cearnal's editorial and Jens' comments immediately above. Both eloquent. Beldar, you have put together a worthwhile and useful web-log. Thanks

(4) dennisw made the following comment | Sep 2, 2004 9:32:01 PM | Permalink


(5) Pat Curley made the following comment | Sep 2, 2004 10:54:01 PM | Permalink

The Christmas in Cambodia story was the second this year that the media tried very hard to ignore. The other story was Kerry's attendance at a VVAW meeting where the assassination of US Senators was discussed. There were incredible parallels between the two stories; the way they dribbled out over time, the way the first mainstream paper to break the story was the KC Star (both articles were written by Scott Cannon), the way the NY Times managed to bury the story deep in an article on a tangentially related subject, the way the Kerry campaign tried to stonewall hoping that the story would go away.

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