I HAVE VIVID memories of John E. O'Neill's first incarnation as an attack dog trained to go after John Kerry more than 33 years ago, using techniques that are quite familiar as he goes about the same task today. Like Kerry, he was a lot younger then, fresh from the war that still raged in Vietnam and still raged here as well. But then as now he was playing a carefully obscured role that made it nearly impossible to consider him an independent human being.
As The New York Times reported last week, O'Neill had been selected by Richard Nixon's White House to counter the profound impact that Vietnam Veterans Against the War were having on public opinion in the spring of 1971. As the Times also reported, Nixon's political henchman, Chuck Colson, had specifically recruited the Navy lieutenant, like Kerry a swift boat commander in the war, to debate the antiwar movement's freshest star on Dick Cavett's television program.
Those facts, however, only scratch the surface of a put-up-job that resonates today as President Bush tries to campaign against someone who has the military credentials and background he lacks. The more complete truth is that O'Neill was recruited to front for something the Nixon White House was experienced in creating out of thin air -- "citizens" groups that supported various embattled administration policies.
O'Neill was not just O'Neill. He was presented to a disbelieving press corps as the spokesman for something called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace. In those days, Nixon was much too intelligent to set up a dummy operation of "veterans" in favor of the war; back then people were dying and killing on behalf of "peace with honor." Representing this letter-head operation, O'Neill was recruited not just for the Cavett show, but to debate Kerry in other forums and to make appearances on Nixon's behalf. He got pep talks directly from Nixon, who had a fixation with Kerry's appeal.
What gets short-shrift these days is that Nixon also wanted to bend heaven and earth to find some aspect of Kerry's Vietnam service -- anything -- that could be used to discredit him. In fact, much of what we call today the politics of personal destruction was pioneered by Nixon's White House. He had a firm control of a fearful government in those pre-Watergate days -- and he used it.
His navy secretary back then was an elegant fellow from Virginia, who today is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. John Warner's people found nothing to whet Nixon's appetite in 1971, and Warner says today (in the spirit of a more outspokenly disdainful John McCain) that Kerry deserved his medals and that the process by which they were awarded was beyond reproach. That just happens to be the reason that the Nixon people put all their eggs in the basket of creating a political force (O'Neill) to try to counter Kerry's appeal.
The White House tired of the attempt rather quickly, and O'Neill was given the goodie of some publicity at Nixon's re-nomination convention in 1972, but he basically retreated home to Texas and a legal career that put him in the middle of the same Republican big shot society that nurtured the political careers of both Bushes.
The big difference between what did and did not happen in 1971 and what is happening today involves the press. With no evidence that could withstand a laugh test, there was no point 33 years ago in spreading a smear. Today, thanks to the emergence of cable TV and a decline in standards, it is much easier to put muck in play, which is what has happened with Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace's 2004 counterpart, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Discerning voters will notice that the more reputable organs of the national press have not cast doubt on Kerry's Vietnam service. That is because political attacks on it don't pass the smell test. We are influenced by eyewitnesses, not by people whose stories keep changing or are contradicted by official records. We are used to arguments over things like war records, but the burden of proof is with the accuser and Kerry's accusers cannot shoulder it with the credible evidence required of credible stories.
But there's another way in now. Raise some Bush buddy Texas money, create a TV ad, hire a right-wing loony to put together a smear book, and cable TV producers desperate for shouting matches are happy to oblige. The result then gets recycled into the serious press because "questions" have been raised about Kerry's record that couldn't survive a minute under traditional standards.
Kerry may have been nicked some at the margins by all this while he was responding via surrogates the last few weeks. Raising the profile of the smear, as well as confronting it directly and putting it at Bush's door, is overdue in the view of some Democratic Party operatives, a risk in the view of others. My own guess is that the higher the profile of this mess the more it looks like the smear it is, and the more it risks boomeranging on the president.
As happened to O'Neill in 1971, the best counter to him today is the serious press attention that his group fears most.
Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.