Transcription – Chris LaCivita Interview

Q: I want to ask you this. McCain-Feingold was new for 2004, made 2004 different. Anything else that made 2004 different? The rise of the internet, or anything else that comes to mind?

LACIVITA: Well, we were at war. [00:22:00] I mean, Iraqi Freedom started in 2003. We were in year one of a 10 year conflict. You know, we were in Afghanistan, you know, we were in — and so, you know, it was — we were in a reelection campaign, not for President of the United States, we were in an election campaign for commander-in-chief. And…

Q: In 2004, really the first effort to draw attention to John Kerry’s Vietnam record was by the Kerry campaign.


Q: And in this book that came out of a post-election conference at the University of Pennsylvania, a Democratic — a Kerry campaign ad [00:23:00] called “Heart” where he’s got Vietnam veterans like Del Sandusky saying the decisions that he made saved our lives. And then, Jim Rassman, “When he pulled me out of the river, he risked his life to save mine.” My point being that this was something that Kerry thought was going to — was working for him. The Swift Boat response–start with the equivalent of Genesis 1:1. I mean, how does this come into being? And then, how do you get involved?

LACIVITA: So, back in May of 2004, Admiral Hoffmann, Roy Hoffmann, who was the commanding officer of the Swift Boat detachment that Kerry belonged to, started calling some of his [00:24:00] former men and said, “You know, we have to stop John Kerry.” Now in May, I was heavily engaged in primaries, US Senate primaries in Illinois and Colorado and other places, and, you know, I didn’t even — the Swift Boats didn’t register for me.

Q: You were a Senate guy, right?

LACIVITA: Yeah, yeah. I mean that’s predominantly what I’d been doing up to that point in time. And so, and I had always heard that there was some controversy over John Kerry’s military record, but I’d never really spent a whole lot of time delving into it. But in May, the — you know, there was a group of the Swifties, held a press conference here in Washington at the National Press Club, and they, you know, they had a lot of press show up. But they didn’t get any [00:25:00] press coverage. I mean, The New York Times wrote a one, maybe two paragraph story on page A-22, and basically couched the story from the standpoint of Nixonian dirty tricks and, you know, I mean it wasn’t reporting, it was an opinion piece. And so —

Q: What did they —

LACIVITA: Well, they basically came out and said “Look, you know, we have some problems with John Kerry’s claims.” What happened was, there was a book written by —

Q: Douglas Brinkley.

LACIVITA: Doug Brinkley. And I — you know, for the life of me, I can’t remember the name of the book.

Q: Tour of Duty.

LACIVITA: Tour of Duty, thank you. And I’ve said this and, you know, it’s been 10 years, so forgive me. But — and I’ve said this, and I still hold this belief. Doug Brinkley started it. [00:26:00] He started it. That book pissed these guys off. Because what was written in that — it’s all coming back to me — what was written in that book was a glorification of, you know, John Kerry the soldier. And these men objected greatly to what they read, and the way things were characterized, and it wasn’t just based on what Kerry said when he came home. You know, the press wanted to say oh, well, you know, they don’t like him because he said all these horrible things about veterans when he came home. He cast these wide general aspersions on all veterans and claimed that they were all murderers, or — and whatever.

Q: Based on their conduct in Vietnam.

LACIVITA: Based on their conduct in Vietnam, correct.

Q: (inaudible). [00:27:00] This was in ’71 I think.

LACIVITA: When he testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, right. And so, you know, they raped, killed, tortured, murdered, you know, etc., etc. And of course, that was plenty to mobilize veterans, Vietnam veterans, you know, but we had — the American public had exorcised its Vietnam demons in 1991, in 1992, in the first Gulf War. I mean, that was the breaking — I mean, that was the put it behind us and consider it part of history, and you know, the American public had gone through this 20 year period of time where I mean, I’m not a sociologist, but they have gone through this point in time where, you know, American servicemen weren’t looked up to in any capacity, [00:28:00] there weren’t nearly the amount of charities or organizations, anything done for veterans. It was done in large part because of the characterizations that they suffered from. Kerry was one of those people who helped create those characterizations, in my opinion, that became part of the American psyche, and then at the end of the first Gulf War, then I think things started changing from the standpoint of how we looked at our veterans, and Kerry knew that. So Kerry then tried to wrap himself in this aura of, you know, I’m — you know, I’m a military man, we’re a country at war, I can be a commander-in-chief. So, and I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But those were very important — those were some very important decisions that the Kerry campaign had made. But one of those ways — they made a calculus. They made a calculus, they’ve made some decisions. I’m running for president in a — and of course, now granted, [00:29:00] I wasn’t in the room when they were doing this, but I can only imagine, having made similar calculations for political candidates at varying levels, you go through and say, how do you position your guy? What’s my guy’s story? What’s the narrative we want to create? What are we facing, how do we go in? And, you know, you’re a country at war, and you have a combat — by all accounts, an impressive combat record, of course you’re going to — and you’re a politician, of course you’re going to try and utilize that. And of course, every campaign has a book written about it. You know, presidential campaign, somebody’s writing a book. And so Brinkley’s book really glorified, I think, a lot of the things that happened in Vietnam, and tried to reshape John Kerry, and retell the Kerry story, [00:30:00] and the Swifties just were — I mean that set them off, that was the catalyst.

Q: So why, as people are trying to make sense of this, Kerry had his fellow veterans from the war talking about — backing up his version of his heroism. And the Swift Boat veterans who formed this organization have an entirely different take. Is this a matter of fact, or is it a matter of opinion, or a matter of different people witnessing different things? I mean, did you feel like the Swift Boat veterans were telling the truth, and the pro-Kerry veterans were lying, or mistaken, or?

LACIVITA: I — there were two people, two or three people, who were on Kerry’s boat [00:31:00] who backed up John Kerry’s, you know, story. Or various stories. We had — I had one gentleman who was on Kerry’s boat, a gentleman named Steve Gardner, and then I had every other Swift Boat captain who was at the same level that Kerry was, a captain, and their crews in their — in his platoon and in his company I guess you would — of boats, including the entire staff, command staff, from the admiral on down. So people who — so I had people who were not only there with John Kerry, and not only did I have people who served alongside John Kerry, but I also had people who were in charge of John Kerry. [00:32:00] So we had the — there were folks that ran the entire gamut, who all had similar stories that, you know, that they would share. But they had come to me — I guess you want me to talk about, you know, the infancy. So it was funny, I was doing some stuff for Progress for America, and I got a phone call from Ben Ginsberg who would represent me; you know, every political consultant needs a political lawyer at some point. And so, and I’ve done things with Ben, and Ben came to me and said “Hey, I want to introduce you to a couple gentlemen you may find interesting. They have a story that probably needs to be told and, you know, you’re probably better equipped to understand what they’re talking about.”

Q: Did he feel like, or did you feel like one of the reasons that the initial announcement, the initial press conference didn’t resonate was that they really didn’t know [00:33:00] how to package this, or how to present it?

LACIVITA: Yeah, I think that’s — no, I think the reason why it didn’t get he coverage it got was because people didn’t want to tell the story.

Q: In the press?

LACIVITA: In the press. I mean, they just flat out dismissed these guys as kooks and whacks, and you know, and they just, they made a judgment. They made a judgment based on what they were hearing, and at that point in time, it wouldn’t make a difference what these guys did.

Q: But if this group had come to you before they did that initial event, you or some other professional, would they have made a more effective presentation (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)?

LACIVITA: They never would have done a press conference. Because I never rely and would never rely on the national media to carry my message.

Q: Because?

LACIVITA: There’s a filter. There’s — they have a filter. The national media imposes a filter, what — the first filter you encounter is the editor, [00:34:00] I mean, is the writer. The second filter is the editor. And the third — you know, and then you’ve got a headline writer, and you have all these people who have a — who weren’t there, who are supposed to report, but there’s — I mean, we’ve lost reporting. And I — look, I work very well with the media all over the country, and all the big papers. But on an issue like this, you don’t rely on the media to get your message out.

Q: You think — are you talking about —

LACIVITA: I just didn’t think we would get a fair shake.

Q: Are you talking about an ideological bias that is the filter or is it just wait a minute, we all know that John Kerry was a war hero before he became a war objector.

LACIVITA: Right, right.