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Jewish World Review August 30, 2004 / 13 Elul, 5764

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All hat and no Cambodia | The Swiftvets controversy continues to rumble and roil for the simple reason that Sen. John Kerry and his campaign have committed the cardinal sin of muddling the matter. Consider a longstanding Kerry claim – that he spent Christmas, 1968, in Cambodia.

Over the years, the candidate and his campaign have produced at least eight versions of the story.

• The first appeared in 1979 when the future senator provided a somewhat surreal account in a letter to the Boston Herald (see text below). Likening the trip to a scene out of Apocalypse Now, Kerry described sitting on his boat as Vietnamese celebrants detonated fireworks, forcing him and his comrades to scramble for safety. He also described very precise coordinates – five miles into Cambodian territory.

• By 1986, the story had taken on a less jocular and more ominous feel: The young Swift Boat leader had to dodge not only fireworks, but also hostile fire from Cambodian and Khmer Rouge fighters. The placid, mildly comic first version had given way to something more colorful and deadly. “I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. I remember what it was like to be shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians, and have the President of the United States telling the American people that I was not there; the troops were not in Cambodia. I have that memory which is seared – seared – in me.”

• Young John Kerry, like many fighters, kept a diary of his experience at war. He let historian Douglas Brinkley see portions of the journal for use in Brinkley’s book, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, which turned into yet another account. This time Kerry describes Christmas eve spent aboard a boat 55 miles from Cambodia, reading and writing a letter to his mother and father.

• When confronted with that version, Kerry staffers hemmed a bit before asserting that their man could have, might have, could plausibly have made his way on Christmas into Cambodia.

• After sympathetic crew members confessed not only to having no experience in Cambodia but to having spent that Christmas with Lt. Kerry, the Kerry campaign suggested that the senator could have confused details (despite the “seared … seared” recollection in 1986), merely going “near” Cambodia at Christmas and moving over the border into Cambodia at some later juncture.

• A slightly different and geographically amusing account came from a staffer who suggested that Kerry had traveled “between” the Cambodian and Vietnamese border. As Joshua Muravchik noted in a devastating Washington Post op-ed piece, “There is no between; there is a border.”

• That produced a more concrete account: Kerry, the campaign said, actually traveled three or four times in January and February of 1969 to Cambodia. Historian Douglas Brinkley offered this account, only to find himself grasping at straws when Team Kerry produced account number 7.

• An official statement from the Kerry campaign announced that the Democratic presidential nominee “on one occasion crossed into Cambodia.” Gone is the Christmas date; gone are the recollections of hostile fire from three sides. In its place is a gauzy nothing.

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• Yet, Brinkley himself offers a final bit of refutation in the form of Kerry’s Vietnam diary. Here is the relevant portion: “The banks of the [Rach Giant Thanh River] whistled by as we churned out mile after mile at full speed. On my left were occasional open fields that allowed us a clear view into Cambodia. At some points, the border was only fifty yards away and it then would meander out to several hundred or even as much as a thousand yards away, always making one wonder what lay on the other side.” As Muravchik notes, “His curiosity was never satisfied, because this entry was from Kerry’s final mission.”

There may be other versions, but this is enough to make the point: John Kerry long ago made up a story about Cambodia at Christmas, and the tale became more implausible with each new embellishment. Nobody much cared about inconsistencies when he was running for smaller offices, but the magnifying glass becomes far more discerning and powerful for people seeking the presidency. Now, the campaign offers only a foggy memory – and Kerry, a hat, which he says the anonymous CIA operative handed him.

This does not rule out the possibility that young John Kerry conveyed a covert agent across the Cambodian border – but infinitely variable accounts of the trip make even his supporters queasy, and make it much more difficult to dismiss the Swifties as a bunch of malevolent liars.

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