Transcription – Chris LaCivita Interview

Q: So, you know, since we know that we’re not going to reexamine it?

LACIVITA: I think it’s a little bit of both. You know, I know a lot of reporters who politically are left of center, but who do a damn good job of being objective in writing the news. Because they take their trade, [00:35:00] you know, seriously. And they take their role as a fact checker or as a, you know, the fourth estate, if you will, they take it very seriously as a watchdog. And I look for those reporters, because those are reporters — I don’t care what they personally believe, as long as I’m not reading it as news, you know, and we found some reporters like that in 2004.

Q: Give a good one.

LACIVITA: Jim Vandehei of the Washington Post, who’s now with Politico. I mean, you know, there weren’t a lot of people at the Post that would be really interested in sitting down and hearing our guys. And he wanted to hear it. He wanted to hear the story. NBC National, you know, were helpful. I mean the Times, you know, The New York Times was more interested in telling the story of who was behind it, who was behind Swift Boats, and what was their connection, you know, to the president, so they could make this charge. But the guys had come to me and Ginsberg, you know, and I knew Ben was also the [00:36:00] lawyer for the president’s reelect. But, you know, there’s a provision, as there’s always a provision in the law, that exempts the lawyers. And (laughter) you know, it’s amazing how that happens sometimes. But the issue of, you know, because Ben doesn’t make political decisions, and budgetary decisions, he can advise groups that have similar, you know, goals, but because he doesn’t make political recommendations, he can provide legal counsel. So he comes to me and says, “Look you need to meet with two gentlemen who are very involved with — in the Swift Boats. And they’re Vietnam veterans, and because they want to share some insight with you.” And he said, “I don’t understand this stuff, and you’re a combat veteran; maybe you would.” And so, I remember we met with them. I met with John O’Neill and Bill Franke. And John is — you know, he’s a [00:37:00] very distinguished trial lawyer in the state of Texas, Bill Franke is like six foot eight, very imposing man, who, you know, was CEO of a company that did an awful lot of development projects in Vietnam. And these are extremely well off individuals who don’t need to stick their toe into the middle of a political campaign because they’re starving for attention. John O’Neill is actually a Democrat. So I met with these two gentlemen, and John gave me — and we had a brief conversation, about an hour and a half. And they told me things that they firsthand witnessed John Kerry do in Vietnam. And then John said, “But wait, you need to read this transcript.” And it was a transcript for the book, [00:38:00] Unfit for Command.

Q: Which he had written.

LACIVITA: That he — which he had written.

Q: Had it been published yet?

LACIVITA: No, no, it was a transcript.

Q: Manuscript.

LACIVITA: Manuscript, thank you, thank you, thank you. And so I said OK, well let’s get together tomorrow, and I’ll read the manuscript tonight. So I went back to my hotel, drank a lot of coffee, smoked too many cigarettes, and read the whole thing overnight. And just, and some of the things that were in there, you know, some of them I felt were probably — and I had already made the decision that these were two individuals that I could believe. They told me a story about, you know, John Kerry had fired an M79, which is a small — they used to call it the Thumper, it’s a grenade launcher. And it’s a single shot, you know, you break open the barrel and you pop a 40 millimeter grenade [00:39:00] in, and you pop it open, and there was always one of those guys in a squad. But they would always keep that, because that gives you the ability to fire a grenade a little further distance, throw a grenade a little further distance. And that Kerry had thought he had seen an enemy soldier behind, you know, a pile of gravel. So he took a 40 millimeter grenade and took the M79 grenade launcher, and locked and loaded, and at point blank range, shot it at this pile of rocks. And so they’re telling me this, and I’m like, well, why would you do that? I mean first of all, it’s a point detonating fuse, so when it hits, it explodes, and it produces shrapnel. If you’re shooting at point blank range at a pile of rocks, you’re going to get hit with your own shrapnel. And they’re like, “This is how Kerry” — you know, and they’re telling me this story, and I’m completely getting it. Because I mean, I’ve seen people do similarly stupid things. (laughter) And I [00:40:00] was like, “Well, OK, I never knew that.” And so, you know, they were — it was this level of detail that was in the book, and there were some things that were in the book that didn’t stay in the book, and I won’t go into them. But some things that I felt were probably a little hard to believe. Not from the standpoint of — these guys, you know, they witnessed what they witnessed, and they wrote down what other people had witnessed. But I felt much more comfortable with what John and Bill and then it became a wider group of people that I got to know, when they started telling me firsthand, you know, certain things, then those things, you know, and the vast majority of the book stayed intact, and — but, you know, we just tinkered with a couple things and [00:41:00] because at that point, we had made the OK– well they had made the decision– we set up, Ben had already set up the 527. It was already set up, I didn’t have anything to do with that. They set it up —

Q: This is Swift Boat Veterans for Truth?

LACIVITA: Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, John and Bill had already set it up, they had already put $50,000 of their own money into it. And Ben had already established it as a 527, they just needed somebody to — a political consultant, somebody — you know, if they’re going to play in this world, then they need, you know, professional guidance. So.

Q: At some point, Ben Ginsberg, not for political reasons I think, but for other reasons, resigns as counsel, right?

LACIVITA: To the Bush campaign.

Q: To the Bush campaign? He stayed on as counsel for Swift Boats?

LACIVITA: Yes, yes. Correct, yeah, he stayed with us.

Q: Because the Bush campaign didn’t like (inaudible)?

LACIVITA: I don’t know. I mean I can —

Q: Back to your story.

LACIVITA: — I can only imagine (laughter) the phone calls that went on. [00:42:00] And Ben paid a price for that. I mean, he was our counsel, and then he became a pundit on MSNBC. I still give him hell about that. But he — yeah, so he’d come to us, the group had already been formed, and they needed to, OK, how do we get this story out there? Because we tried it with a press conference, it didn’t work.

Q: When was this?

LACIVITA: This was in early June.

Q: Shortly after the press conference.

LACIVITA: Yeah, it was — yeah, the press conference, I believe was on 4 May, and so this was probably, you know, maybe a month later. And so it took us about, you know, it took — and maybe it was even later, in middle June. I remember because the way — there’s a couple things I remember from a timing standpoint, because I was getting ready to go on vacation, because I always disappear around July 4th. You know, I head to the beach and just chill, and that’s my time to [00:43:00] decompress, in the middle of a cycle. And I remember it because while I was at the beach, I was writing copy and ad ideas, and the hard drive on my computer died. And I remember being at my vacation home in the beaches in South Carolina, and spending a whole day on the phone with some guy in India trying to explain to him how the hell to fix my computer, and he finally gave up and said, “I’m shipping you a new one.” And the next morning, at my vacation home, I had a brand new computer, and then I didn’t know how to transfer — I mean it was just a wreck. But I was able to get all my stuff back. But I remember it because when I got home, I had to leave the beach early because we had a meeting at the Key Bridge Marriott, where we were bringing in all the Swifties, and then we did our first photo shoot, our first film shoot. [00:44:00] But basically, in the earlier conversations with John and Bill, it was like look, we’re going to have to run an ad campaign, because they’re not going to be able to — they’re going to, if we try to do a press conference, we’re relying on the press to carry your message, that’s going to be a mistake, number one. Number two, we’re going to have to put it on TV. And here’s what people don’t realize. Getting an ad on TV is not hard. Keeping an ad on TV, in the context of a political campaign, and you’re a thirdparty group, is not easy. Because a — I mean, it’s become easier as TV stations grow accustomed to the sheer volumes of money that they receive, but TV stations are under no obligation to run a third-party TV ad. They have to run campaign ads from the campaigns. But a third-party group, they don’t have to run their ads. And when they do run them, we pay the same level of advertising that Coke, Pepsi, McDonald’s, [00:45:00] everybody else pays. So, and because of that, they are — we’re under a much tougher set of rules in terms of facts. And you have to be able to verify every single claim made in an ad, or the John Kerry for President campaign’s lawyers are going to come in, scare the hell out of some local TV station, and get the ad pulled. And then if you get an ad pulled, then you have a whole new set of problems, because then your group starts losing credibility. So, our strategy was get an ad up and keeping it up was going to be our focus. So, and we utilized a little bit of talk radio to ensure that our ad stayed up. We were communicating with Rush [00:46:00] Limbaugh about a TV station in Toledo that was threatening to yank our ad, and he went nuts, and started telling everybody call that TV station who’s — they’re trying to suppress, and so they called — I mean, and that — those are things that were happening when the first ad went up. But we had made the decision, I brought on Rick Reed, who is a very well known ad guy, Republican ad guy, whose uncle is actually one of the Swift Boat vets, Admiral Lonsdale, who had the distinction of being the only Coast Guardsman that was a Swift Boater. And he actually lived in Massachusetts. But, so because of his connection to Adrian [Lonsdale], and because Rick is a good friend of mine and I could trust him, and he does great ads visually and has a very keen eye, so I brought him in, and so he and I coproduced and did everything together on the ads. But we had made the decision and the recommendation that [00:47:00] we needed to do an ad campaign. And we received some initial seed money of like $30,000 to put together a full day shoot with as many people as possible. We made the decision that we would do this in the voice of the men themselves, instead of a studio spot, because individuals carrying the message for you who have a real-life story who were there tend to be a lot more credible in the political context. Normal people. So we made that decision, and there wasn’t — you know, there wasn’t a whole lot of writing involved. There’s writing in some of our later ads, but the first ad, and then the second ad, which Rick produced with Kerry at the —

Q: The Senate.

LACIVITA: The Senate hearing, you know, used — the two things we decided to do. We would use their [00:48:00] own words against them, and we would use firsthand accounts of the Swifties themselves. And so, we did that, and we knew we had to carry that narrative.