“Swift-boating” is a neologism used pejoratively to describe an unfair or untrue political attack. We started using it during the 2004 presidential campaign when an astro-turf group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, set out to wreck John Kerry’s campaign based on their false claim that he hadn’t earned a purple heart he had received.
Now, Donald Trump has taken on the mantel of swift-boater (to go along with his birtherism) in attacking John McCain’s status as a Vietnam War Hero. In recent televised remarks Trump claimed that McCain was a hero only because he was captured, and Trump said he preferred people who were not captured.
So let’s give you a little background, in case you’ve lived under a rock. McCain served as an attack aircraft pilot flying off aircraft carriers during the Vietnam War. He was shot down, injured in the crash, and captured. He then endured five and a half years as a prisoner of war, including periods of torture. In 1968, he refused a North Vietnamese offer of early release, because it would have meant leaving before other prisoners who had been held longer.
Now there is very little from a policy perspective that I agree with now-Senator McCain on, but that does not mean I do not respect his service, nor appreciate his heroism. No one should be allowed to question those aspects of McCain’s history and character without being dismissed as a lunatic.
It is very telling about the state of Republicans today, and the kind of climate they have created, that Trump’s poll numbers went up when he made these statements. In any sane political party, that would have been enough to end his campaign. The closest Trump ever came to war, with several college deferments, and finally a medical deferment for a bone spur (bless his heart), was his battle with Rosie O’Donnell. But there are those rushing to Trump’s defense. It is astonishing the ignorance and dysfunction within that party.
Trump did try to soften his statement a bit later by trying to somehow claim he was just criticizing McCain for not supporting Veterans. That was not all a part of context of his initial denigration of McCain, let’s be clear about that. He claimed McCain hadn’t voted to improve care at VA Facilities, and that over 1,000 vets had died waiting on service. As usual for a Republican, it wasn’t even close to the truth. A recent study showed there no specific evidence that veterans have died waiting on service. The 1,000 number comes from a study about the number of settlements, over a 10 year period, for veterans who received poor care. McCain, however, has consistently sponsored and voted for legislation to improve VA services, increase spending, and create more accountability.
But this is a common practice for Republicans, and it goes back further than the 2004 campaign. Max Cleland, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Georgia, a recipient of the Silver Star and the Bronze Star for valorous actions in combat in Vietnam, had lost both legs and a forearm in the field. Again, like McCain, Cleland had consistently voted for more funding and improvements to the VA system, and for the military. He was one of 29 Democrats who voted for the Iraq War.
Yet, when Republican Saxby Chambliss ran against Cleland in 2002, and trailing badly, Chambliss launched a campaign strategy to call into question how touch Chambliss was on his support for the military. Chambliss issued a press release decrying Senator Cleland for “breaking his oath to protect and defend the Constitution,” because Cleland had voted for an amendment to the Chemical Weapons Treaty that would allow individuals from “terrorist nations” to be on United Nations weapons inspection teams in Iraq. The vote passed by a majority, 56-44. Fifty-five other senators also voted for the amendment, including Bill Frist, the head of the Republican senate committee, who picked Chambliss to run against Cleland. Chambliss defeated Cleland, another true war hero, by claiming he was “weak on defense.” Let me remind you, this was a man who received both the Silver and Bronze star for valor, not to mention losing both legs and an arm in combat.
It’s a sad state that the preferred attack in this country, when you’ve not bothered to serve yourself, is to attack people who have sacrificed for their very sacrifice. More sad is that fact that it seems to work, and voters buy into it.