More than three years after John Kerry’s bitter defeat, at the dawn of what looks like a far more promising campaign cycle for the Democrats, the party is still haunted by the specter of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Once upon a time, “Swift boat” denoted an obscure military vessel, but thanks to the activities of this group it has come to represent movement conservatism’s penchant for ruthlessly (and effectively) smearing any and all political opponents, from a sitting senator and war hero to an 11-year-old boy with a cranial fracture.
Research by The Nation into Federal Election Commission records of the group’s top twenty donors reveals that they’ve been remarkably active in this cycle, contributing and bundling nearly $200,000 to presidential candidates. This does not bode well. During the last presidential campaign, the wealthy backers of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth–now rebranded as Swift Vets and POWs for Truth–didn’t do their real dirty work until the general election, where as a tax-exempt 527 group they operated outside the restraints of direct campaign contributions. We may wish we were done with the Swift Boaters, but they aren’t done with us.
In 2004 the top twenty donors all gave (with one exception) at least $50,000 to the group. The top three–Houston home builder Bob Perry, Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens and billionaire drugstore impresario and investor Harold Simmons–gave a combined $9.5 million ($4.45 million, $3 million and $2 million, respectively). Calculating the influence of these and the slightly less wealthy Swift Boat donors during this cycle is a touch more complicated than simply adding up their contributions. Each one exerts far more influence as a bundler, given the federal restrictions on individual giving, which limit donors to a maximum of $4,600 per cycle. So The Nation looked not only at the contributions of the donors themselves but also at those of their family members and employees. It’s an imperfect method, since some employees are clearly contributing of their own volition (such as one employee of a Simmons company who gave money to Hillary Clinton), but it gives a rough estimate of who’s backing whom and to what extent.
The most notable recipient of Swift Boat largesse is John McCain, erstwhile front-runner and Stand Up Guy. When the Swift Boat ads were first unleashed, McCain was alone among his Republican colleagues to condemn them. A fellow Vietnam veteran, a good friend of Kerry’s and a former target of smears about his own service, McCain called the ads “dishonest and dishonorable,” a “cheap stunt,” and he urged Bush to condemn them. But in pursuit of the GOP nomination, McCain ditched the mantle of maverick for that of hack, and his once-floundering, possibly rejuvenated campaign has been aided along the way by $61,650 from Swift Boat donors and their associates. “There is such a thing as dirty money,” said Senator Kerry in a statement, after The Nation informed him of McCain’s FEC records. “I’m surprised that the John McCain I knew who was smeared in 2000 and thought so-called Swift Boating was wrong in 2004 would feel comfortable taking their money after seeing the way it was used to hurt the veterans I know he loves.” (McCain’s office did not return calls for comment.)