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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 5 of 16 -- The group debated strategy: Should it focus on Kerry's assertions that US soldiers had committed atrocities? Or should it go after his combat record, raising questions about whether he deserved his medals and three Purple Hearts?

Spaeth and others believed the group should focus its attacks on Kerry's antiwar efforts. Michael Bernique, who had gone on missions with Kerry, argued that he had acted courageously in combat. But others were adamant about going after his combat record.

O'Neill and Hoffmann had heard reports questioning whether Kerry deserved his first Purple Heart, given for a wound that Kerry's commanding officer had compared to a rose-thorn prick. They also entertained suspicions from veterans about Kerry's medals -- one a Bronze Star, the other a Silver Star. "We got very disquieting e-mails about what he had done in Vietnam," O'Neill said.

The O'Neill faction also argued that poking holes in Kerry's combat record would attract fresh media attention.

When the group decided to focus on Kerry's combat record as well as his antiwar activities, Bernique and several others objected and dropped out.

Kerry knew he needed to extend an olive branch to the many veterans still enraged over his 1971 assertions that fellow soldiers participated in mutilations, gang rapes, and the burning of villages. In April, Kerry went on NBC's "Meet the Press" and confessed that his accusations had been "a little bit over the top."

But if Kerry thought his mea culpa could tamp down 33-year-old flames of anger, he was wrong. On May 4, the swift boat vets convened a news conference in Washington to question Kerry's fitness as commander in chief. "This is not a political issue," said Hoffmann. "It is a matter of his judgment, truthfulness, reliability, loyalty, and trust -- all absolute tenets of command."

A phalanx of television cameras recorded the event, but the news conference didn't attract nearly as much publicity as the group hoped. What helped Kerry most was a change in headlines: The veterans' attack on Kerry was overshadowed by an unfolding scandal in a Baghdad prison that was about to knock the Bush campaign off course.

The failure of the swift boat veterans to gain traction lulled the Kerry campaign into a false sense of security. In fact, O'Neill was quietly preparing for a more intensive assault.

Opportunities missed
The Abu Ghraib prison scandal suddenly put Bush back on the defensive.

Images of American soldiers laughing as naked Iraqi prisoners were tied, hooded, attached to electrodes, and forced into sexual positions unleashed a wave of anti-American fervor abroad and self-doubt at home. A year and a half earlier, some officials had predicted America would be greeted as a liberator of Iraq. Now, US troops were gaining a reputation as occupiers, and a handful were grossly abusive.   Continued...

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