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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 4 of 16 -- "This is very important," he said. "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it."

Watching on television from Bush headquarters, McKinnon jumped out of his chair. "I just knew, immediately," recalled the onetime Democrat who switched sides after personally bonding with then-Texas Governor George W. Bush. "There was a buzz in the whole place. We knew immediately that it was a big deal.

"We kind of set the trap [with the original ad], and then he walked right into it."

If the Republicans had successfully written the first chapter of Kerry's general election campaign, another group of foes --swift boat veterans from Vietnam -- were conspiring to write the second.

Swift boat veterans attack
On April 4, a group of 10 Vietnam veterans crammed into a second-floor conference room in Dallas and began plotting the downfall of John Kerry. The room was decorated with Parisian watercolors of ostriches and kittens, a design favored by the host of this meeting, Merrie Spaeth, a public relations executive who had once been director of media relations for Reagan.

The original seeds of this meeting lay not with Spaeth, but with two Vietnam veterans whose relationships with Kerry dated back three decades: The first was John O'Neill, a Nixon White House ally who had famously debated Kerry over the Vietnam War on "The Dick Cavett Show" in 1971. The second was Roy Hoffmann, one of Kerry's former commanding officers.

O'Neill, who had donated a kidney to his ailing wife, was at a Texas hospital in early February when he saw campaign footage of Kerry on television and decided the Democrat had to be stopped. He began calling veterans who might also be offended by the prospect of a man who once accused soldiers of "atrocities" becoming the nation's commander in chief. The veterans discussed vague plans to publicize Kerry's antiwar activities.

O'Neill had not served with Kerry, so his knowledge of the candidate's combat action was limited. But Hoffmann had -- and was still steaming over his portrayal in a Kerry-approved biography, "Tour of Duty," by Douglas Brinkley. The book compared Hoffmann to the Robert Duvall character in the movie "Apocalypse Now," who said he loved "the smell of napalm in the morning." Brinkley wrote that swift boat veterans had described Hoffmann as "hotheaded, bloodthirsty, and egomaniacal."

Kerry had tried to head off Hoffmann's anger by calling and offering to ask Brinkley to change the offending passages. But Hoffmann would not be swayed. Mutual disdain for Kerry eventually brought Hoffmann and O'Neill together, and Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that would later blindside the Democrat's campaign, was born.

The April 4 meeting in Dallas stretched to 12 hours, according to accounts from three people who were there, as the group ate barbecue and Tex-Mex and planned a news conference to denounce Kerry as "unfit for command." At one point, the veterans pulled out checkbooks and agreed to donate the first $60,000, with O'Neill offering $25,000. This seemed like a huge sum to many of them, but Spaeth said she told them they could collect much more through a fund-raising appeal -- an effort that netted $20 million.   Continued...

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