WASHINGTON – Euphoric after a big election victory, the organizers of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference say it's only fitting to pay tribute to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search) for helping to stop Sen. John Kerry's presidential bid.
"These guys could have just gone on with their lives but they felt strongly that John Kerry's record was being misrepresented," said Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union (search), chief sponsor of CPAC, which is giving the veterans the "Courage Under Fire" award during the annual Ronald Reagan banquet in Washington, D.C., on Friday.
"We thought this sort of example of citizens stepping forward under adverse conditions should be recognized," Lessner added. "They are impressive."
Former Georgia Sen. Zell Miller (search), the Democrat credited with giving one of the most memorable speeches in favor of President Bush at the Republican National Convention this summer, will present the award to Adm. Roy Hoffman (search) (Ret.), founder and chairman of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, or "Swifties" as they are affectionately called in the CPAC press release and by their fans, raised more than $27 million near the end of the presidential campaign and ran television ads denouncing Kerry as dishonest about his service in the Vietnam War and for his testimony before Congress against the war when he returned in 1971.
The ads, coupled with the media and Internet blitz surrounding the ads, are largely credited with crippling Kerry's message in the final months of the campaign.
"For a second time, the Swift Boat Veterans stepped up to serve their country honorably and courageously by telling the truth about John Kerry's tour of duty in Vietnam," said ACU President David Keene. "Despite vilification, character assassination and the hostility of the elite media, these veterans dared to tell a side of the story that the American people otherwise would not have heard."
But not everyone thinks the veterans behaved honorably nor are they surprised that this annual conservative confab, which boasts speakers like Vice President Dick Cheney, White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and nine Republican senators, is honoring the group.
"This is a fairly cynical recognition of the fact that their dirty tactics helped and worked to elect their candidate," said Joe Conason, investigative editor for American Prospect magazine and author of "Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth."
Conason was referring to the fact that the Swift Boat Veterans received big money donations from Bush contributors. The Bush campaign adamantly denied it had anything to do with the group.
Bob J. Perry (search), a long-time donor to conservative causes who has given $5.2 million to Texas Republicans and political action committees since 2000, as well as Bush's presidential campaigns, gave the SBVT $200,000 in seed money and reportedly up to $3 million for television ads.
Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens (search), a Bush fund-raiser, also backed the veterans' ads with $2.5 million of his own money. He later gave $250,000 for Bush's inaugural celebrations.
Critics have contended all along that the Swift Boat Veterans were working hand-in-glove with Republican Party operatives. Kerry's campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, in an August letter to her counterpart in the Bush campaign, Ken Mehlman, now chairman of the Republican National Committee, provided a chart with the alleged connections. Featured prominently is Swift Boat Veterans public relations consultant Merrie Spaeth, a long-time Texas GOP activist and Republican media strategist.
The PR firm hired to get out SBVT's message was Creative Response Concepts (search), a well-known Republican firm that is now working with Republican groups to prepare for the fight over future Supreme Court nominations. The law firm hired by the Swift Boat Veterans also had connections to Bush. Attorney Ben Ginsberg (search) was forced to resign as a consultant to the Bush campaign when it was revealed he had advised the group.
"Everybody who was involved in a significant way with the Swift Boat Veterans were Republican or Republican activists in their communities. The idea that they weren't is about as true as anything else they've ever said, which is nothing," said Conason.
But Hoffman told FOXNews.com that the group was conceived completely independently from any Republican influence. The folks they worked with subsequent to their founding might have been Republicans, but the veterans' goal was not to elect George W. Bush.
"I wouldn't know Karl Rove from apple butter," said Hoffman, who said he got about 80 Vietnam veterans together before meeting John O'Neill (search), author of the anti-Kerry book "Unfit for Command." It was at their first meeting in Texas that they met Spaeth, he said.
"We have Democrats in our organization — obviously they are conservative Democrats — but we have made a concerted effort to avoid any connection, if only to deny the Democratic Party a direct tie to Republicans in any way."
Hoffman said he is "honored" to receive the award from CPAC, and feels comfortable about it because it is a conservative group, not necessarily a GOP-sponsored one. He said he turned down several invitations to speak at inaugural events.
O'Neill was feted at the November Restoration Weekend, which is hosted by conservative David Horowitz's Center for Popular Culture (search). He was also named "Man of the Year" by the center's FrontPageMag.com.
"It's always a good time to do the right thing and it's the right thing to honor the Swift Boat Vets," said long-time conservative activist Richard Viguerie. "CPAC did what the Republicans didn't have the courage to do."