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Senator John F. Kerry waved to a group of photographers at the rim of the Grand Canyon on Aug. 9.
Senator John F. Kerry waved to a group of photographers at the rim of the Grand Canyon on Aug. 9. (Globe Staff Photo / Dina Rudick)

On the trail of Kerry's failed dream

Page 11 of 16 -- "You know immediately when he's pissed at you," said Shaheen. "He gives you a look that goes through you. He sets his jaw. If you try to talk, it seems like he's not listening to you. But he never gets heated; he's the coolest cat in politics."

By Aug. 14, Kerry was mad -- and aides could feel it.

Ten days earlier, an inflammatory book by his Nixon-era foe, O'Neill, had topped a national best-seller list. "Unfit for Command" used mostly unsupported allegations to label Kerry a liar who didn't deserve some or all of his combat medals.

At the same time, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth began airing ads, mostly in swing states, quoting men who said Kerry "has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam," "lied" to get his medals, "is no war hero," and "betrayed all his shipmates."

Kerry wanted to fight back right away, but Shrum and other media advisers cautioned against it, concerned about fanning the flames. "We watched as the story jumped from the Internet, to Fox News, to the other cable networks," said Cahill. "Our concern was we didn't want to help it along by our reaction."

The campaign hoped that the episode would blow over with minimal damage, as it had the previous spring. But this time, there was no prison scandal, or anything else, to swallow the swift boat veterans' crusade. "The August echo chamber was a difficult environment because nothing else was going on," said Thorne.

"The campaign collectively underestimated the effect of the swift boats. It was a collective mistake," recalled Michael Whouley, a longtime Kerry operative. "I think the candidate was probably the most concerned about it. It pissed him off, people attacking his Vietnam service."

Kerry wanted to know what impact the ads were having. Shrum recalled that for days the polls indicated nothing. Then the damage began to show. "As soon as we saw it, we moved," Shrum said.

By then, the damage had been done. A Time magazine poll suggested that Kerry's favorability rating had dropped from 53 percent in early August to 44 percent by late that month. A remarkable 77 percent said they had seen or heard about the ads, with one-third contending that there was some truth to the allegations.

An angry Kerry summoned longtime friend Thomas J. Vallely, a Bostonian and Silver Star recipient, and told him to "find me Billy Rood." William B. Rood had been present during the action that garnered Kerry the Silver Star the swift boat foes were now calling into question. Rood, an editor at the Chicago Tribune, had refused to speak publicly about the action. He took Kerry's call, though he didn't tell the senator what he planned to do.   Continued...

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