By Thomas Oliphant, Globe Staff August 22, 2004
I HAVE VIVID memories of John E. O'Neill's first incarnation as an attack dog trained to go after John Kerry more than 33 years ago, using techniques that are quite familiar as he goes about the same task today. Like Kerry, he was a lot younger then, fresh from the war that still raged in Vietnam and still raged here as well. But then as now he was playing a carefully obscured role that made it nearly impossible to consider him an independent human being.
As The New York Times reported last week, O'Neill had been selected by Richard Nixon's White House to counter the profound impact that Vietnam Veterans Against the War were having on public opinion in the spring of 1971. As the Times also reported, Nixon's political henchman, Chuck Colson, had specifically recruited the Navy lieutenant, like Kerry a swift boat commander in the war, to debate the antiwar movement's freshest star on Dick Cavett's television program.
Those facts, however, only scratch the surface of a put-up-job that resonates today as President Bush tries to campaign against someone who has the military credentials and background he lacks. The more complete truth is that O'Neill was recruited to front for something the Nixon White House was experienced in creating out of thin air -- "citizens" groups that supported various embattled administration policies.
O'Neill was not just O'Neill. He was presented to a disbelieving press corps as the spokesman for something called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace. In those days, Nixon was much too intelligent to set up a dummy operation of "veterans" in favor of the war; back then people were dying and killing on behalf of "peace with honor." Representing this letter-head operation, O'Neill was recruited not just for the Cavett show, but to debate Kerry in other forums and to make appearances on Nixon's behalf. He got pep talks directly from Nixon, who had a fixation with Kerry's appeal.
What gets short-shrift these days is that Nixon also wanted to bend heaven and earth to find some aspect of Kerry's Vietnam service -- anything -- that could be used to discredit him. In fact, much of what we call today the politics of personal destruction was pioneered by Nixon's White House. He had a firm control of a fearful government in those pre-Watergate days -- and he used it.
His navy secretary back then was an elegant fellow from Virginia, who today is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. John Warner's people found nothing to whet Nixon's appetite in 1971, and Warner says today (in the spirit of a more outspokenly disdainful John McCain) that Kerry deserved his medals and that the process by which they were awarded was beyond reproach. That just happens to be the reason that the Nixon people put all their eggs in the basket of creating a political force (O'Neill) to try to counter Kerry's appeal.
Read all of Thomas Oliphant's column here: