Swift Boats: Political Distraction or Dynamite?

This is a partial transcript from "The O'Reilly Factor," August 24, 2004 that has been edited for clarity.

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BILL O’REILLY, HOST: John Kerry (search) strikes back. Assaulted by swift boats, under pressure in the polls, the senator talked back today here in New York City.


SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Bush campaign and its allies have turned to the tactics of fear and smear because they can't talk about jobs, health care, energy independence and rebuilding our alliances. They can't or they refuse to talk about the real issues that matter to the American people.


O'REILLY: And joining us now from Washington is Chuck Todd, the editor in chief of "Hotline,” a political daily journal.

Do you believe the senator is handling the Swift Boat controversy correctly?

CHUCK TODD, “THE HOTLINE” EDITOR: I don't. I think that it was too little too late. They have come at this with the candidate's time and the candidate's words in a national campaign are incredibly important. And they're incredibly potent. And when you choose to use them is almost sort of how an entire campaign can get decided.

Had John Kerry himself come out within 24 hours of the swift boats — mind you, we're on day 20 of the unveiling of these swift boat ads. Had John Kerry come out within 24, 48 hours, I think we would be on another topic 20 days later. It would have been an intense, heated, rhetorical fight for about a week. And then we would have dropped this and gone through August. And the page would have been turned long ago. And John Kerry wouldn't have had to use this speech today in New York City, which I believe he would have wanted to use to completely lay out an agenda that would have been used to compare to President Bush's (search) upcoming convention and instead use it again to defend his barbarism.

O'REILLY: OK, but is it wise for the senator to blame Bush for the Swift Boat ads when Bush comes out and says, “I don't like the ad, I want all these ads out of here and I respect the senator's service in Vietnam.”

He called it noble, President Bush did. And he should be proud of it. Now when Bush does that and then Kerry starts to blame him for the ad, I don't know if that helps Kerry or not.

TODD: I agree. I think the initial mistake was in the first 48 hours, back on August 4th and 5th.

O'REILLY: No, I've got that, but what if he says...

TODD: So now everything has been rolling mistake after mistake.

O'REILLY: But now he's blaming Bush, but Bush has said quite directly he doesn't like this kind of tactic. So, I'm saying to myself why doesn't Kerry then do something else? Now what else that would be, I don't know. He's got a problem with the Cambodia stuff. He's got some individual problems there.

I think he's exacerbating the problem. I don't think he's making it worse because he couldn't make it worse. And I think the problem will disappear next week because I don't think you'll see it in the Republican Convention (search).

TODD: Right.

O'REILLY: I don't think you see it there. And then after the Republican Convention, you'll debate what Bush did. And then you're into the debate season. And I don't think you're going to see it in the debate, do you?

TODD: No, I'll put it this way: I think this controversy has been strong enough. I actually think that at the first debate, Bush will get a question about National Guard service. Kerry will get a question about Vietnam service, because it has been so much a part of the conversation for a significant period of time.

O'REILLY: But those questions are not going to be confrontational questions...

TODD: Right.

O'REILLY: ...because they're not going to be controversial questions because those moderators...

TODD: Absolutely, right.

O'REILLY: ...they don't do confrontational questions. They're going to be knocking them right out of the park because they know it's coming.

So I think this controversy goes away. But I'm trying to figure out here what Kerry thinks he can gain by attacking Bush on the issue. See, if it were me, I would basically say, “Look, I stand behind my service. I did X, Y, and Z, and that's it.”

Because I have to deal with this stuff all the time, as you know. I get attacked 24/7.

Why would I blame somebody who might not be at fault here? Because I don’t think Bush knew anything about these ads myself.

TODD: I think the culture of the media now, the look and all these allegations — and John Kerry was a victim of this himself — when the whole allegation that he had had an affair, when Matt Drudge put up this stuff that turned out not to be true. It turned out to just be somebody who was...

O'REILLY: Kerry handled that pretty well.

TODD: Well and why? Because he did it directly and he did it quickly. You know, that's the difference between the Swift Boat stuff is that they thought that John McCain's printed quote in an Associated Press story was going to be enough to kill this stuff.

O'REILLY: Yes, I don't know why they thought that with all the ideological radio programs and television programs...

TODD: Right.

O'REILLY: But I'm going to submit to you, Mr. Todd, that even if he had come out 48, 24 hours after, that the ideologues, the right-wing ideologues, would have run with the story because the book was coming out. And they're using this as a sledgehammer on Kerry. So I don't know if it would have vanished as you think it would have.

TODD: Well, but they would have run with the story — they were going to run with the story no matter what — but if Kerry hit back and he borrowed a phrase from Bill Clinton who used to say when you hit back, you hit back harder.

O'REILLY: You go at National Guard. You go 250 of these guys...

TODD: Bill, you go right at the National Guard stuff.

O'REILLY: Really?

TODD: I know it's a low blow. Look, winning is the only thing here.

O'REILLY: I got it. So you're telling me, Mr. Todd, that you would have said to Kerry, “You go out there and attack Bush's Guard service?”

Because again, he's trying to link Bush into this ad. And to me, you've got to have proof to do that.

TODD: It's the culture. Look, we saw the culture of the media. You're guilty until you prove yourself innocent. But Kerry sat here and has tried for 20 days to prove himself innocent. Instead, you got to turn the tables and force Bush on the defensive. And then you might get an ugly, evenhanded eight to 10 days of the story.

O'REILLY: Really? I don't think so.

TODD: Well...

O'REILLY: I think Kerry should have basically got out there, said, “Look, it's bogus, it's political. I'm going to ignore it and I'm going to talk about the issues.”

That's what I would have done.

TODD: Yes, but the problem is the ads were still running. And they were still running in key states.

O'REILLY: Yes, but Mr. Todd, the anti-Bush ads have been running for a year. And they've done their defamation.

TODD: That's right.

O'REILLY: You know? So there you go. All right, we appreciate your point of view. Thanks very much.

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