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April 24, 2004
Phoenix Project Finally Makes the NY Times

After weeks of allowing Thomas Lipscomb and the New York Daily Sun to stand alone, the New York Times has finally decided to consider the notion that a presidential candidate once participated in assassination debates is news. David Halbfinger reviews the Phoenix Project in the much larger context of John Kerry's anti-war protest career but winds up, much like Candy Crowley's CNN piece yesterday, drifts towards apologetics rather than reporting (via Power Line). It starts off promising, though, raising questions about the Kerry campaigns attempts to pressure witnesses to stay silent or renounce their earlier statements:

When questions were raised last month about whether a 27-year-old John Kerry had attended a Kansas City meeting of Vietnam Veterans Against the War where the assassination of senators was discussed, the Kerry presidential campaign went into action.

It accepted the resignation of a campaign volunteer in Florida, Scott Camil, the member of the antiwar group who raised the idea in November 1971 of killing politicians who backed the war. The campaign pressed other veterans who were in Kansas City, Mo., 33 years ago to re-examine their hazy memories while assuring them that Mr. Kerry was sure he had not been there.

John Musgrave, a disabled ex-marine from Baldwin City, Kan., who told The Kansas City Star that Mr. Kerry was at the meeting, said he got a call from John Hurley, the Kerry campaign's veterans coordinator.

"He said, `I'd like you to refresh your memory,' " Mr. Musgrave, 55, recounted in an interview, confirming an account he had given to The New York Sun. "He said it twice. `And call that reporter back and say you were mistaken about John Kerry being there.' "

Halbfinger moves from there to a lengthy and rather dull recitation of Kerry's path from combat veteran to radical activist to politician, a journey which really should generate more interest than Halbfinger's narrative provides. Along the way, Halbfinger tweaks the truth to provide subtle assists to Kerry:

And when Mr. Kerry appeared on "Meet the Press" last weekend, he disavowed his own remarks on the same program in April 1971, when he said he and thousands of other soldiers had committed "atrocities."

That is a categorical falsehood. The only thing Kerry disavowed was the word "atrocities", but not the allegations themselves. After Tim Russert read off a laundry list of war crimes that Kerry alleged were routine activities by American troops in Vietnam -- which he somehow gleaned by serving on a boat during two tours -- Kerry reiterated that he believed most of the stories were true, as I noted at the time:

MR. RUSSERT: But, Senator, when you testified before the Senate, you talked about some of the hearings you had observed at the winter soldiers meeting and you said that people had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and on and on. A lot of those stories have been discredited, and in hindsight was your testimony...

SEN. KERRY: Actually, a lot of them have been documented.

MR. RUSSERT: So you stand by that?

SEN. KERRY: A lot of those stories have been documented.

Hardly a ringing renouncement of his 1971 allegations, Kerry instead argued that his point back in 1971 was directed at the government, not the individual rapists and murderers that Americans became when they landed on the shores of Vietnam. Veterans can decide for themselves if they buy that explanation; so far, a number of them have come out publicly and said they don't.

Halbfinger continues, painting Kerry as the lone voice of reason within the VVAW and trying his best to put the best possible face on his membership in the radical group. If you don't think the VVAW was radical, this excerpt should make you reconsider:

In the year and a half that Mr. Kerry belonged to the group, it was loosely structured and had its share of revolutionaries and provocateurs including many secretly working for law enforcement who pushed the writings of Chairman Mao and talked of tossing grenades, though they seldom did worse than toss bags of chicken droppings at the Pentagon.

The clean-shaven, shorter-haired, neatly dressed Mr. Kerry, dozens of veterans recalled in interviews, had little patience for any of that. He was almost always the most conservative man in the room.

"He was working in the system, and he wanted to stay in the system," said Al Hubbard, now 68 and ailing, who was one of the group's leaders and said it was the first time he had spoken to a reporter in more than 30 years. "He had his own personal agenda. I think he was just kind of doing dress rehearsals for public office."

Being the most conservative man in a room full of Maoists and terrorists isn't that terrible difficult to achieve. Besides, if Kerry were really any kind of conservative at all, why would he have remained in a group of people who espoused Communism and terrorism? Nor was his dalliance with Communists limited to the group. Halbfinger reviews his aggressive and private contacts with Viet Cong and North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris, whom he now acknowledges were likely trying to exploit him to manipulate the American media.

The Phoenix Project doesn't come up again until almost the end of the article, despite having been the lede. Halbfinger questions whether Kerry actually was around for the discussion itself, but allows the Kerry campaign's attempts to claim his complete absence from the Kansas City meeting to be a memory issue, even though Halbfinger claims that Kerry and VVAW leader Al Hubbard had a "showdown" at the meeting over Hubbard's qualifications.

Halbfinger's piece provides a few more details than the excellent work of Thomas Lipscomb, but doesn't advance the story so much as it fills in some of the margins. Why didn't Halbfinger challenge Kerry more on his participation in a meeting where assassination plans were discussed, instead of allowing him off the hook by saying, "I don't recall"? Why not ask him how he came to join an extremist group populated by Maoists and grenade-tossers when he supposedly believed in democratic principles?

Halbfinger could have asked him these and other challenging questions, but chose instead to allow the Kerry campaign to spin the events through his writing. At least the Times has finally acknowledged the existence of the Phoenix Project, and perhaps others will find the courage that Halbfinger and the New York Times lacked.

UPDATE: Tom Maguire has some thoughts on the reporting accuracy about John Kerry's service time. Read his entire post.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 24, 2004 10:21 AM

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