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For Kerry critic O'Neill, the feelings run deep

HOUSTON -- With puffy eyes and a tired smile, veteran John E. O'Neill sank into a chair in his office conference room earlier this week looking more like an overworked lawyer than a political firebrand. But his comments left no doubt: O'Neill is helping run what is arguably the most aggressive outside campaign to defeat Senator John F. Kerry thus far in the presidential election cycle.

Kerry challenges critics over his Vietnam War record. A9

"He is unfit to be commander in chief," O'Neill, 58, said in an interview in his sleek downtown law firm.

Asked his opinion of the Democratic nominee, O'Neill paused, then turned his thoughts back to the day more than three decades ago when he first heard Kerry contend that war crimes were being committed in Vietnam.

"I resent deeply what he did in 1971," O'Neill said.

So outraged was O'Neill, who served in the same swift boat division as Kerry, that he put himself forward as the conservative rebuke to young antiwar activist, squaring off in public debates over the activities of US troops and the justness of the war itself.

Today, as a leader of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that accuses Kerry of lying about his war record, O'Neill has blossomed into the darling of the conservative movement again.

Democrats dismiss O'Neill as a "hatchet man" and point to his Texas Republican connections and to the backing he received from the Nixon administration three decades ago as evidence his motives are partisan. While O'Neill does have Republican connections and was considered for appointment to the federal bench by former President George H. W. Bush, the Houston lawyer said he has supported Democrats and independent politicians and is interested only in preventing Kerry from becoming president, not in President Bush's reelection.

A close Democratic associate in Houston, Gerry Birnberg, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party, said he believes O'Neill when he says that he voted for Al Gore in 2000 -- despite O'Neill's social and professional relationships with leading Republican figures in Texas, including Houston real estate mogul Bob Perry, who has given $200,000 to the swift boat campaign.

"I do not personally believe that John O'Neill is an evil person who is doing this for political purposes, per se, though I think some of the other folks are," said Birnberg, who said he has known O'Neill for at least 20 years. "He's doing it out of a personal animus to Kerry that is the residual of the Vietnam debate."

O'Neill is coauthor of "Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry," a book that accuses Kerry of lying to obtain his medals.

All but one of Kerry's crewmates, however, are supportive of Kerry and have defended his actions in Vietnam; the other crewmate, Stephen Gardner, is a member of O'Neill's anti-Kerry group. In recent days, a number of sailors who served on boats alongside Kerry have announced publicly that they support Kerry's version of events.

William Rood, who served on a swift boat alongside Kerry on the day Kerry won the Silver Star, wrote in the Chicago Tribune last weekend that O'Neill and his group are telling "untrue stories."

Kerry campaign officials do not dispute that O'Neill harbors a grudge against the Democratic nominee, but they see the swift boat movement as much larger and more sinister.

"The more the facts come out about what O'Neill is doing, the more people realize this is just politics," said Stephanie Cutter, spokeswoman for the Kerry campaign. "It has nothing to do with what happened 30 years ago."

Yet, for O'Neill, there is reason to believe it does.

O'Neill did not know Kerry in Vietnam but followed Kerry as commander of Swift Boat No. 94. Like Kerry, he emerged a decorated hero, winning two Bronze Stars. A graduate of the Naval Academy and originally from San Antonio, O'Neill was furious over Kerry's postwar contention that soldiers were torturing civilians in Vietnam.

It was an appearance by O'Neill at a press conference that caught the attention of the Nixon White House, which was eager to silence the outspoken veteran from Massachusetts. In June of 1971, just two months after Kerry's high-profile testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, O'Neill was invited to meet with Nixon in the Oval Office. What was supposed to be a brief encounter evolved into an hourlong discussion about undermining Kerry, with Nixon encouraging O'Neill to stand firm in his cause.

Two weeks later, O'Neill squared off with Kerry on "The Dick Cavett Show."

Visibly angry at Kerry, O'Neill lit into his opponent.

"Mr. Kerry is the type of person who lives and survives only on war-weariness and fears of the American people," O'Neill said on the show. "This is the same little man who on nationwide television in April spoke of, quote, 'crimes committed on a day-to-day basis, with the full awareness of officers at all levels of command,' who was quoted in a prominent news magazine in May as saying, 'War crimes in Vietnam are the rule, not the exception.' "

As the war and debate over the war waned, O'Neill faded into the private sector, moved to Houston, establishing a successful career in commercial litigation, and raised a family (his children are now 25 and 22). He built solid Republican credentials -- first as a speaker at the 1972 Republican nominating convention for Nixon, then in 1974 as a clerk for then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist of the Supreme Court.

O'Neill's extensive Republican connections have both fueled accusations that he is coordinating his efforts with the Bush administration and helped him build an infrastructure for the swift boat group. One of his law partners was Harold "Tex" Lezar, who ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor of Texas in 1994, the year George W. Bush was first elected governor; Lezar's widow, Merrie Spaeth, has given public relations advice to the veterans.

"I think you can tie it straight to the Republican machine," Representative Gene Green, the Democrat who represents Texas's 29th District in Houston, said of the swift boat group and O'Neill. Although Green said he and O'Neill never crossed paths when both practiced law in Houston, Green said his congressional opponent in 1992, a Republican, was supported by both O'Neill and close associates of the Bush family.

O'Neill is firm in his insistence that he is not doing the Bush administration's bidding; he said he voted for Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996, Gore in 2000, and had hoped to support John Edwards, Democrat of North Carolina, in the current race. At the same time, O'Neill said he rarely spoke about Kerry over the decades; his own children were not aware that he had been on "The Dick Cavett Show" until this year, he said.

Birnberg, his Democratic friend in Houston, disagrees with O'Neill over his activities to discredit Kerry and described their politics as "diametrically opposed, in some respects."

But as a friend, the Democratic county chairman said he does not question O'Neill's motives.

"He has told me on a couple of occasions that he believes George Bush is an empty suit who is not competent to be elected president," Birnberg said. It is just that O'Neill is "so hung up with John Kerry," he said.

Anne E. Kornblut can be reached at 

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