The day Sen. John Kerry accepted the Democratic presidential nomination at the 2004 party convention, he marched onto the stage as Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender" blasted from the speakers. "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty," said the Vietnam veteran. He saluted and set about trying to convince voters he would be a strong wartime president.
But by putting his Vietnam record front and center, Kerry invited his opponents to revisit a treacherous period of American history. A few weeks after the speech, a group of Vietnam veterans backed by Houston developer Bob Perry ran a series of attack ads that helped torpedo Kerry's presidential bid.
Calling themselves the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, they claimed that Kerry lied about actions in Vietnam that earned him medals. The group—which had no official tie to the Bush campaign—also said Kerry dishonored troops with his 1971 Senate testimony alleging American atrocities in Vietnam. The commercials drove home Kerry's break with many Vietnam-era soldiers and, among undecided voters who knew little about Kerry, raised questions about his record.
Initially, few ads were placed, and they got scant attention, but as soon as the Drudge Report, Fox News, and other media heard about them, the ads quickly dominated election coverage. In the age of the 24-hour cable news cycle, "things got viral very quickly," says Allan Lichtman, a political history professor at American University.
Fact check. Within weeks, news organizations, including the New York Times, said that the group's claims about Kerry's medals had little or no merit (his opposition to the war proved more problematic). "The allegations were bogus, but that didn't matter," says Lichtman. "The public isn't out there fact-checking."
But Kerry didn't refute the charges immediately. Tad Devine, a senior campaign adviser, blames the decision to accept public funding, a move that prohibited the campaign from raising additional private funds. Cash spent rebutting the Swift Boat ads would have meant less for fighting Bush. Once the story ballooned, Kerry defended his record by rounding up a group of supportive veterans and launching counter-ads. But the damage was done.
In 2006, the Federal Election Commission found that some of the ads had violated election laws, and the group settled with the agency for about $300,000. The Swift Boat group is no longer active, but Perry, who poured $4.5 million into the organization, continues to be a player. A supporter of the Mitt Romney campaign, Perry gave $200,000 to the Club for Growth, which is running ads against candidate Mike Huckabee.