Harold Simmons Will Be Remembered for Swiftboating and Swiftboating Alone
Brantley Hargrove did a fine job Monday recounting the career of Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, who died last Saturday at 82. But before the ground hardens over him, I just want to make sure we take note of the one and only thing anybody may remember about Mr. Simmons 50 years from now. He bankrolled an episode of character assassination, deceit and lying so vile that its name, swiftboating, has entered the English language as a verb.
People don't remember money. It comes and goes like water. But they do remember the peaks and valleys of history, and the 2004 attack on the Vietnam war record of then presidential candidate John Kerry was a point so low it made its way into the language. Simmons gave $2 million to the Dallas-based team of hacks and liars who tried to turn Kerry's record of personal heroism in combat into a ragged tissue of lies and shame. That will be Simmons' true and enduring legacy.
Republicans in 2004 had a problem. Their candidates, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, had skated out of their only possible exposure to combat on the rich kid ticket, avoiding war through student deferments and assignments in the National Guard. Kerry later opposed the war but only after going to war first, where he saved lives, took wounds and was awarded the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.
All of the allegations brought against Kerry by the team bankrolled by Simmons and Harlan Crow of Dallas have since been thoroughly discredited. Not a single claim stands today. An example is the assertion by Navy veteran Larry Thurlow, who claimed his swift boat was 50 yards from Kerry's boat in the mouth of the Bay Hap River on the day Kerry won his Bronze Star. Thurlow said Kerry lied about rescuing a fellow sailor under enemy fire that day. Thurlow said there was no enemy fire that day and all Kerry did was pull a guy back in who had fallen overboard.
The New York Times reported in August of 2004 that a damage report showed Thurlow's own boat took three bullet holes that day; Thurlow himself was awarded a Bronze Star in the same incident; documentation for Thurlow's Bronze Star included reports of enemy fire; a Viet Cong was killed and five were wounded in the incident. That was only one of an entire fabric of lies published in the swiftboating campaign against John Kerry, all of which have since been refuted.
As full disclosure, I should say that I did not serve in the military and was an anti-Vietnam war protester. I was on a debate team with Kerry when we were kids. He would not remember me. I do remember him. He was a couple years older. How much can you tell about somebody when you're teenagers? But I do remember qualities of leadership and integrity.
Of course politics is a rough game and needs to be. Of course there is mud and blood and will always be. But there are still limits. There is a reason the swiftboat effort against John Kerry is now enshrined in the language. It was a new and shocking low, a vile abandonment of all decency. In his last moments Harold Simmons should have prayed for his name to be utterly forgotten, because if it is remembered at all a half century from now it will be only for his role in the swiftboat attack against John Kerry.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.