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THE SHAPE OF CAMPAIGN 04 (PART 2)! Kerry’s accuser remembered it wrong. But so what? The Globe didn’t tell you:


NOT TOO SWIFT: Ironically, they call themselves “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth,” but some don’t seem to be all that swift—and they don’t really seem all that truthful. Yesterday, they met in DC to swear that John Kerry simply isn’t fit to be president. But here’s how one angry swift boat vet described something he found ironic:

ELLIOTT: The second irony is, in 1971...he claimed that the 500,000 men in Vietnam in combat were all villains. There were no heroes. In 2004, one hero from the Vietnam War has appeared running for president.
That is, of course, a buffoon’s account of what Kerry actually said way back then. But that’s what former lieutenant commander George Elliott had to say at yesterday’s session. Get ready to hear much more of this sort of thing as these men-who-are-angry-but-not-all-that-swift continue to vent against Kerry. (Elliott publicly praised Kerry in 1996 when Kerry was running for the Senate.)

And be careful when you read Wilgoren’s account in today’s New York Times. Today, she sets aside her principal worry—Who makes Kerry’s peanut butter sandwiches?—to zero in on another key question: How did Kerry get that wound back in December 1968? Today, we look at the way this foolish story has been covered by the press in the past few weeks (see below). But yesterday, the vets brought forward a brand new accuser. Here is Wilgoren’s account:

WILGOREN (pgh 2): The group cited a document from a doctor who said that in December 1968 he treated the wound for which Mr. Kerry received the first of his three Purple Hearts and that it probably resulted from an accident, not hostile fire.

(3) “Some of his crew confided that they did not receive any fire from shore, but that Kerry had fired a mortar round at close range to some rocks on shore,” wrote the doctor, Louis Letson of Scottsboro, Ala., a member of the group. “The crewman thought that the injury was caused by a fragment ricocheting from that mortar round when it struck the rocks. That seemed to fit the injury which I treated.”

Let’s face it—Wilgoren ain’t real swift herself. Within two sentences, she took Letson from a plural accusation (“some of his crew”) to a singular version (“the crewman”) without even seeming to notice. Is “crewman” a typo? We don’t know. But we also don’t know who those “crew members” are—the ones who were confiding in Letson. Only two crewmen accompanied Kerry on the mission in question, according to an April 22 Boston Globe report by Kerry biographer Michael Kranish. And on April 14, Kranish quoted one of the men. He described what happened that night:
KRANISH (4/14/04): At a beach that was known as a crossing area for enemy contraband traffic, Kerry’s crew spotted some people running from a sampan, a flat-bottomed boat, to a nearby shoreline, according to two men serving alongside Kerry that night, William Zaladonis and Patrick Runyon. When the Vietnamese refused to obey a call to stop, Kerry authorized firing to begin.
“I assume they fired back,” Zaladonis recalled in an interview. But neither he nor Runyon saw the source of the shrapnel that lodged in Kerry’s arm.

Does Letson’s account make sense? Zaladonis “assumes” that the ship received fire. So who exactly are “some of the crew”—the people who “confided” in Letson 36 years ago? We don’t know who those crewmen could be. But so what? The exciting new charge was quickly typed and distributed to New York Times readers.

No, Letson’s story may not make sense, if Wilgoren is quoting correctly. But a lot of weak stories about Kerry’s service have been bruited around in the past few weeks—and scribes have swiftly passed them on, without comment, to readers. In fact, we’re getting close to a War Against John as scribes type these shaky accounts. Angry veterans claim ancient memories of Kerry’s troubling conduct—and “liberal” scribes have been eager to help them, even when the tales are flatly inaccurate. Today, we consider the way one tale has been told as we review the unfolding campaign coverage. And we continue to ask an obvious question: How long will we, the American people, put up with the kind of reporting that has made such a joke of our discourse? Four years ago, the press corps’ two-year War Against Gore put the Republican, Bush, in the White House. The coverage is drifting that way once again. How long do we plan to accept it?

The shape of Campaign 04 (part 2)

ANYTHING GOES: On Fox News Watch, five pundits agreed—the press corps was hammering Kerry (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/4/04). And conservative Jim Pinkerton made one thing clear—it wasn’t Rush’s fault:

PINKERTON: Hold on…let’s go back to the people pounding on Kerry. It’s the Boston Globe. It’s the New York Times. These are—this isn’t Rush Limbaugh doing it.
It was two “liberal” papers, the Globe and the Times, who were beating on Kerry, he said. And no one disputed Pinkerton’s statement. Indeed, Cal Thomas said it was “amazing” to see liberal papers trashing Kerry. “Well, so much for liberal bias in the media,” panelist Jane Hall said.

But no one—no one—should be surprised if the Globe and the Times are beating up Kerry. During Campaign 2000, the two papers endlessly battered Gore, often engaging in journalistic malpractice—in conduct that should have gotten folks fired. Meanwhile, Times reporter Frank Bruni pandered to Bush as few major journalists ever have done. Many pundits express surprise when the Globe and the Times go after Dem Hopefuls. But the Globe and the Times both savaged Gore all through the wars of Campaign 2000. Today’s question: How are the two “liberal” dailies performing as Campaign 04 takes its shape?

To answer that question, let’s turn to Michael Kranish, reporting on Kerry for the Globe. In particular, let’s look at what Kranish did when a Vietnam veteran said that Kerry should not have received his first Purple Heart. Deftly, Kranish set the scene in an April 14 Globe report:

KRANISH (4/14/04): A review by the Globe of Kerry’s war record in preparation for a forthcoming book, “John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography,” found that the young Navy officer acted heroically under fire, in one case saving the life of an Army lieutenant. But the examination also found that Kerry’s commanding officer at the time questioned Kerry’s first Purple Heart, which he earned for a wound received just two weeks after arriving in Vietnam.

“He had a little scratch on his forearm, and he was holding a piece of shrapnel,” recalled Kerry’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Grant Hibbard. “People in the office were saying, ‘I don’t think we got any fire,’ and there is a guy holding a little piece of shrapnel in his palm.” Hibbard said he couldn’t be certain whether Kerry actually came under fire on Dec. 2, 1968, the date in question and that is why he said he asked Kerry questions about the matter.

According to Hibbard, Kerry just had “a little scratch,” and may not even have come under fire. As he continued, he explained how Kerry got that award:
KRANISH (continuing directly): But Kerry persisted and, to his own “chagrin,” Hibbard said, he dropped the matter. “I do remember some questions, some correspondence about it,” Hibbard said. “I finally said, ‘OK, if that’s what happened…do whatever you want.’ After that, I don’t know what happened. Obviously, he got it, I don’t know how.”
Faced with Kerry’s grim persistence, Hibbard gave in, to his own chagrin. That’s what Boston Globe readers saw on the morning on April 14.

But Kranish’s story is full of holes. He presents the kind of shaky “reporting” that, over the course of two long years, made a sick joke out of Campaign 2000. Hibbard’s ancient memory was factually inaccurate, and Kranish knew that when this story was filed. But he also knew one other thing. He knew not to tell his paper’s readers how shaky this tale really was.

For starters, consider Kranish’s key assertion. The Globe “found that Kerry’s commanding officer at the time questioned Kerry’s first Purple Heart,” the scribe wrote. In fact, Kranish has never presented any evidence supporting this conclusion. In particular, he has never presented any correspondence (or other record) showing that Hibbard challenged Kerry’s award in real time. Nor has he ever quoted anyone saying that Hibbard did so. What did the Globe’s “examination” really find? It really found that commander Hibbard questions Kerry’s Purple Heart now. Kranish has never presented a bit of evidence to show that Hibbard questioned it then. Did Hibbard “question Kerry’s Purple Heart” at the time? It’s possible, but, despite what Kranish says, the Globe has presented no evidence.

At any rate, Hibbard makes a damaging charge now. But just how accurate is his memory—the memory that stretches back 36 years? Uh-oh! Even as Kranish wrote his report, he knew Hibbard’s memory wasn’t that swift. But Kranish knew how to handle such news. He hid the news from the Globe’s readers.

What was wrong with Hibbard’s memory? As we’ve seen, Hibbard seemed to have a clear recollection of Kerry’s puny wound. “He had a little scratch on his forearm,” he said, showing off his potent memory skills. But uh-oh! Kranish knew that this memory was false. In an April 20 Globe report, Kranish said the Kerry campaign had already shown him “a record verifying that Kerry was treated for the wound and that shrapnel was removed” from his arm. (He had seen the record “earlier this year,” Kranish said. “That document was cited in last week’s story.”) But what does that medical record show? It shows that Kerry was wounded above the elbow—not on the forearm, as Hibbard “recalls.” Among many others, Katharine Seelye quoted the document in the April 21 New York Times:

SEELYE (4/21/04): [Kerry aide Martin] Meehan offered a “Sick Call Treatment Record” from Mr. Kerry’s personal medical files with these handwritten notes from someone who treated to him on Dec. 3, 1968, at the naval support center at Cam Ranh Bay:
“Shrapnel in left arm above elbow. Shrapnel removed and appl bacitracin dressing. Ret to Duty.”
As the record shows, shrapnel was removed from Kerry’s arm “above the elbow.” Hibbard’s ancient “memory” is faulty—and Kranish knew that all along. But so what? Knowing that Hibbard’s memory was wrong, he let Hibbard vent all the same:
KRANISH (4/14/04): Thirty-six years later, Hibbard, reached at his retirement home in Florida, said he can still recall Kerry’s wound, and that it resembled a scrape from a fingernail. “I’ve had thorns from a rose that were worse,” said Hibbard, a registered Republican who said he was undecided on the 2004 presidential race.
Pitiful, isn’t it? Thirty-six years later, Kranish knew that Hibbard could not “still recall Kerry’s wound.” But so what? He let the angry old man blow off steam, mocking the severity of Kerry’s “fingernail scrape.” As Kranish knew (but didn’t say), the “scrape” didn’t appear on Kerry’s forearm at all—and required removal of shrapnel.

For the record, one more problem with Hibbard’s story surfaced on April 21. On that day, Kerry posted more than 140 pages of military records on his campaign Web site. According to Seelye, the records “showed uniformly positive evaluations from his commanders.” And guess what? Even Hibbard gave Kerry the highest possible marks—just two weeks after the troubling incident which he described to the Globe!

SEELYE (4/22/04): Even a commander who, 36 years after the fact, questioned a Purple Heart awarded to Mr. Kerry in 1968, recorded no reservations at the time. The officer, Grant W. Hibbard…told The Boston Globe last week that the wound for which Mr. Kerry won his first Purple Heart was no more than a small scratch.

But there was nothing negative about Mr. Kerry in an evaluation that Mr. Hibbard wrote two weeks after that incident.

For the most part, Mr. Hibbard wrote, Mr. Kerry was under his command for too short a time to evaluate him fully. Of 16 categories for rating, including professional knowledge, moral courage and loyalty, Mr. Hibbard checked “not observed” in 12. Mr. Hibbard gave Mr. Kerry the highest rating of “one of the top few” in three categories—initiative, cooperation and personal behavior. He gave Mr. Kerry the second-best rating, “above the majority,” in military bearing. Reached Wednesday at his retirement home in Florida, Mr. Hibbard said he had no comment.

In the Globe, Kranish had recorded Hibbard’s complaints about Kerry’s troubling conduct. Hibbard had complained about the way Kerry “persisted” in his quest for the Heart; to his own “chagrin,” the commander relented (see above). But how amazing! Just two weeks after this troubling incident, Hibbard had to evaluate Kerry—and he gave him the highest possible marks for “cooperation” and “personal behavior!” Does it sound like Hibbard was really aggrieved? Or does it sound like he may be a phony old hack—the kind of fellow whose shaky reports are normally kept out of print?

Yesterday, Hibbard was there in D.C. with the “Swift Boat Veterans,” venting again about Troubling Kerry. Tomorrow, we’ll review the way the rest of the press has dealt with Hibbard’s shaky complaints. Hibbard’s memory ain’t all that swift—but major papers just don’t want to say so. “Well, so much for liberal bias in the media,” panelist Hall sagely said.

TOMORROW: Propping up Hibbard

PURPLE HAZE: By the way, just how hazy is Hibbard’s “memory?” On April 15, the UPI’s Stephen Crump reported an interview with the fearless commander. “Hibbard does not remember that Kerry received medical attention of any kind,” Crump wrote. This “memory,” of course, is flatly wrong too. But so what? When it comes to Kerry-accusers, the Boston Globe—and the rest of the press—give a free rein. More tomorrow.

SURPRISED EVERY TIME: Pinkerton expressed surprise when he saw the Globe trashing Kerry. But in fact, the Globe trashed Gore throughout Campaign 2000, often in the most egregious ways, and the paper has trashed Kerry for years, sometimes in ways little short of astonishing. More on the Globe’s past conduct tomorrow. But isn’t it time for major scribes to drop the shock at this paper’s strange conduct? Shall we quote her one more time? “So much for liberal bias,” Hall said.