By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
A few months ago, just as John Kerry began to dominate the Democratic presidential primary races, John O'Neill lay in bed at Houston's Methodist Hospital, recovering from surgery he'd undergone to donate a kidney to his wife, Anne. It's rare that a husband can successfully donate organs to his wife, but the O'Neills were lucky, and he was eager to do it, even though it meant an operation that would leave him weak and sickly. Anne soon regained enough strength to be released from the hospital. O'Neill's convalescence wasn't so smooth.
"It took me a long time to get out of the hospital," O'Neill says. "About three or four weeks--at least three weeks and a long time to recover after that...My wife actually visited me two or three times in the hospital, even though she was the one getting the transplant."
There wasn't much to do then except lie there, maybe read a book or watch television. One day he flipped on the news, and there was Kerry smiling back at him. The Massachusetts senator had just won another primary and was on his way to earning his party's presidential nomination. It made O'Neill sick, or sicker than he had been.
"I looked up, and I saw Kerry on the television monitor in a brown leather [bomber's] jacket, with some caption below the deal," O'Neill recalls. "I thought it was the Iowa [caucus], but I was later told it was probably the Wisconsin primary. But I was shocked, to tell you the truth. Of course, none of us wore brown leather jackets in Vietnam, because it was 90 degrees. It was political theater. I had never anticipated that Kerry could actually be nominated by the Democratic Party."
The mutual dislike between O'Neill and Kerry took root more than 30 years ago. In 1971, O'Neill and Kerry were decorated war veterans in their mid-20s. Both had been lieutenants junior grade in the Navy and had commanded swift boats--small, fast patrol crafts that policed the muddy rivers of Vietnam. But that's where the similarities ended.
Kerry returned from Southeast Asia with a thick mop of hair and a determination to join the anti-war effort. Before long he had affiliated himself with a group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), one of the nation's most outspoken and politically active anti-war organizations. He was everything VVAW was looking for--young, handsome, bright and willing to speak out. He quickly became the face of the movement and testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971, famously posing the question: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" During his testimony, Kerry also accused the U.S. military of war crimes through the use of free-fire zones, carpet bombing and search-and-destroy missions. He referenced the "winter soldier investigation" that the VVAW had commissioned earlier that year in Detroit, stating that veterans had told him stories of rape and torture "in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan."
O'Neill was Kerry's negative image. He was a Naval Academy graduate from San Antonio with a close-cropped haircut and a firm belief that Kerry was unfairly slandering Vietnam veterans. "I think there were good and sound reasons that you could argue either side of the war in Vietnam," O'Neill says. "My problem came with criminalizing the people who were there. I thought that was really wrong.
"Of course, there were war crimes in Vietnam. There are crimes right here in Houston. But I knew that wasn't the general pattern of what was happening. We'd see what the Vietcong would do, guys with their heads blown off, and to portray them as freedom fighters and us as criminals seemed to me to be a pretty amazing way to set the world upside down."
O'Neill hooked up with a rival group--Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace--and essentially became the anti-Kerry. He toured the country giving speeches that detailed why he thought Kerry's accusations were a compilation of overstatements and outright lies. He met with President Richard Nixon--Kerry's most powerful antagonist--and later spoke on Nixon's behalf at the 1972 Republican National Convention, even though, O'Neill notes, he told Nixon the first time they met that he voted for Hubert Humphrey in '68. Over that period, O'Neill continually challenged Kerry to debate. Though Kerry turned down offers to meet O'Neill on NBC and 60 Minutes, the pair finally faced off on The Dick Cavett Show. It was a momentous clash of different-minded intellectuals, full of vitriol from both parties. (Kerry went to Yale; O'Neill, after graduating from the Naval Academy, attended the University of Texas Law School, where he finished first in his class.)
That was the first and most notable time John O'Neill was cast opposite John Kerry. More debates would follow, and as Kerry popped into the public consciousness afterward, whether because of a speech or a political race, O'Neill was often contacted by someone asking him to speak in opposition.
"I never got involved. I wasn't interested in it," O'Neill says. "The first time I was ever called was 1984 and then again in 1990--I remember the calls distinctly. I thought a lot about it, and I just decided that it was better to let everything go and forget about it."