Transcription – Chris LaCivita Interview

Q: So talk about that, because here they are running this very positive, heart tugging ad, and your ads are much more critical. By the way, I don’t think of negative as a harsh word. You know, my colleague John Geer at Vanderbilt wrote a book called In Defense of Negative Advertising.

LACIVITA: That’s a great book. (laughter)

Q: He makes a very strong case for the value (overlapping dialogue; inaudible).

LACIVITA: Right. Well it’s — I mean, if you [01:17:00] compared what we do now to what they did, you know, in the 1800s, I mean it’s child’s play, I mean.

Q: So, talk about your conversations with Brian McCabe, or —


Q: — more generally with PFA.

LACIVITA: Well with — it was — our focus was, I mean we had our mission, and, you know, our — my job was to ensure that — I mean I had a lot of different hats I had to wear. But it was to provide strategic direction, and some of the tactical aspects of politics, bringing that expertise to the table. But to keep this Swift Boat operation as organically Swift Boat and as organically — as legitimately Swift Boat as possible. I mean, we wanted a political organization that wasn’t political, if that makes any sense. I mean I remember Admiral Hoffmann saying one day, he says, “Well, damn it, I’m timing this guy,” and the cusses like a sailor started with him, [01:18:00] that phrase, but he — I remember he said one day, we’re on a conference call, and he said, “Well, I’m tired of all these damn people saying that we’re doing this to elect Bush. I’m not trying to get Bush elected. I just want to — I just — you know, the people need to know the truth about John Kerry.” He says, “Chris, if you think it’s smart, I’ll go up and trash the President of the United States on TV tomorrow.” And I remember going, “You know Admiral, that’s not really necessary.” (laughter) You know, he wanted to make it clear that, “I wasn’t doing this for Bush.” And I’m like, no, no, no, no, no, you do not have to do that. That’s — appreciate it, great idea, you know, maybe we’ll do it another time, but we’re not going to do it this — and I remember John O’Neill and Bill Franke just going, “You see what we’re dealing with?” And the admiral was, you know, but my job was to provide that guidance, and the tactical aspects of it. But these guys were the messengers, and I had to keep it as, you know, them as possible. And that was the focus, and I think that what made it so much more [01:19:00] genuine and effective. PFA was helpful, just from the standpoint of the fundraising aspect. They had, you know, the fundraising mechanism nationally that we just piggybacked on, quite frankly. I mean —

Q: Meaning what?

LACIVITA: We had some fundraisers, and I would give them an — I never went — there’s only one or two fundraising meetings I ever went to. I didn’t have to really deal with all of that. I — Brian McCabe would flip it to one of his fundraising folks, and they’d sit down with guys in California or whoever, and they would write us a check, and I mean, because we were receiving checks from, at that point — you know, it wasn’t just the low dollar donors and the original seed money. But then we were getting — you know, [Joe] Ricketts gave us 25 grand, and you know, there were people from all over the country.

Q: Who’s Ricketts?

LACIVITA: Oh, I think he’s part of the ownership team of the Cubs, and the guy — the Spanos family, I think, that are tied in with the — they — with the Chargers, San Diego Chargers [01:20:00] gave us a good bit of money, millions. So I mean, a lot of the fundraising activity was, we just piggybacked and worked with PFA on that. And they were much more institutional. And coming from that organization, I knew what they had to offer from a fundraising standpoint.

Q: Did you coordinate your advertising messages with them at all, discuss it with them at all? Because it sure worked out (inaudible).

LACIVITA: We talked, I think, you know, occasionally. But those were our calls. I mean, it was — it probably– I remember one conversation we had toward the end, where we made a concerted — I was on the phone with a couple of the guys from PFA, and I told them, I said I’m going to go up and be in Pennsylvania. And they’re like, “What the hell are you going to do Pennsylvania for?” I said, “It’s a head fake.” I said, “We’re going to drop, if we drop a half a million dollars or a quarter of a million dollars in [01:21:00] the Philadelphia TV market, they’re going to go, ‘oh crap,’ and they’re going to spend a quarter of a million dollars” —

Q: They meaning?

LACIVITA: The Kerry campaign. Or one of their affiliated groups. And if they do that, then they’re not going to spend the money in Florida. So we did stuff like that. And those are the kinds of things that we discussed. Like I remember they — but you understand this, that, you know, in twenty-first century politics, everything strategy and the states that you’re playing in, I mean everybody knows. Everybody knows what the battleground states are, and everybody knows it’s Ohio, and it’s Florida, and it’s what method did you use? And that you used to communicate your message, and what area, and so there’s not a whole lot of secrets left out there anymore in terms of, you know.

Q: Yeah, I asked you earlier about the Kerry campaign’s response to this. And you said [01:22:00] I think maybe with some appreciation for their situation, they didn’t want to draw attention to this, they were hoping it would go away. And you talked about how you were doing things to keep it from going away.


Q: What would their best response have been, once they realized that this wasn’t going to go away?

LACIVITA: That’s a great question. And I know I’ve been asked it before, and I don’t think I’ve ever been able to really give it justice in terms of a proper response. I guess the question is this. Was their mistake in not responding, or was their mistake in helping make it an issue? And what I mean by that is, I seem to think that they made the wrong political calculus on the front end about how to package John Kerry, as opposed to how they didn’t respond, [01:23:00] did or did not respond once all hell broke loose. They made a decision that they were going to use John Kerry’s military record as a positive, that they were going to use that as a, you know, a weapon. And they underestimated the animosity, I think the breadth of it, of what John Kerry said and actually did in-country that, I don’t think they understood it. I also don’t think that, in terms of the response — so I think on the front end, the biggest mistakes were made from my — in my opinion, on the front end, in packaging it the way they packaged it. Now they’ll say, “Well, I mean, you know, everything was true, so why wouldn’t we do that?” But they underestimated, you know, the fallout of [01:24:00] some of the accusations.

Q: Well, you know, some Republicans I’ve interviewed have said even apart from that, they thought it was a mistake to focus on Kerry’s Vietnam record, because it was a story about ancient history for most voters. In other words, apart from whether that record was accurate or not, it wasn’t going to resonate, even if it were — even if people believed it. So you’re introducing another element here, which was it was a more controversial record.

LACIVITA: They didn’t understand the controversy of it because they didn’t do the proper research.

Q: Well, you know, and isn’t it the case that in Kerry’s ’96 reelect in Massachusetts against Bill Weld, a pretty serious challenger, that this issue had come up and been easily disposed of, in terms of, you know, resonating with voters in that year.

LACIVITA: Correct. Yeah, but that’s Massachusetts. [01:25:00] I mean, you’re running for President of the United States, you have the South, you have the Heartland, I mean not every state is the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Q: I think that gave them maybe a false sense of assurance.

LACIVITA: Completely gave them a false sense of assurance. And the manner in which — and understand that what Governor Weld went after was what John Kerry said. It was not what John Kerry did in theater. They never saw that coming, because they never spent the time investigating that stuff. I mean, when you’re running for the President of the United States, you’d better know everything inside — your team best know every potential controversy, and then extrapolate that out, and game it out, and see how it plays out. And I don’t think they did that, because I don’t think they really understood that. That in order to go home early, if you got three Purple Hearts, you could get discharged early and sent home, no matter how you got them. And then that was part of the [01:26:00] claim. And again, they’re very sensational claims, gaming the decorations aspect of the United States military is not an easy thing to do. Which is what these guys said that they were doing.