Behind the Headlines
by Justin Raimondo

May 4, 2001

Will Kerrey wriggle out of it?

The film had barely stopped rolling over at CBS before the Kerrey spin machine started cranking out apologias: "I think this war's not over," warbled Kerrey after the broadcast. "I think they're not going to leave us alone until we're all dead. It's always possible to dig up one more horrible night." But who, pray tell, is "we"? Is he talking only about himself and the members of his SEAL team? 'Fraid not: in classic victimological style, Kerrey has identified with a whole class of people whose plight he would have us believe he represents. The media strategy of Kerrey and his supporters is to convince the American public that an attack on him is an attack on all veterans of the Vietnam war: "In an odd way, we (Vietnam combat veterans) are in a free-fire zone now," he said after the broadcast. But all Vietnam veterans do not stand accused of herding 15-plus unarmed civilians into a clump and mowing them down. All Vietnam veterans are not charged with hauling an old man out of his "hooch" and holding him down while somebody else slit his throat. And now that somebody else – Gerhardt Klann, the most experienced member of Kerrey's SEAL team, and a man Kerrey still refers to as "my dear friend" – is calling Kerrey on it. In confessing to his own part in the massacre, Klann does not hesitate to implicate himself: that what makes these charges so dramatic, and believable.


Kerrey's response to the devastating CBS report is so scripted that you can almost hear his PR flacks prepping him:

FLACK #1: "Now remember, downplay Klann and focus on that Vietnamese woman."

FLACK #2: "Yeah, we're on top of this, so don't worry. Our buddies over at Time got the old lady to say that she didn't see what happened, but only heard it. It won't be too hard to conflate that into 'heard about it.'"

FLACK #1: [Chuckle] "Yeah, that Bill O'Reilly really is not too bright, is he?"

FLACK #2: "Now be nice; he's on our side."


The subtleties of "spin" often depend on the gullibility of reporters and pundits, and some are more susceptible than others. Time merely reported that the woman, Pham Thi Lanh, "told a different story, saying she had not actually seen any execution." But, aside from that single throwaway line, the Time account does not elaborate: at any rate, according to all other news accounts, she saw plenty. In addition, there is another witness, who was a young girl at the time, and witnessed the whole thing. But naturally the testimony of these people must be entirely discounted, even though it matches in practically every detail the story told by Klann: these, after all, are Commies, and therefore everything they have to say is nothing but a Commie lie. But if the Vietnamese government has been coaching Mrs. Lanh, they haven't been doing a very good job of it. She told an Associated Press reporter – who noted that Lanh's "account had several inconsistencies" – that "they spoke a language I didn't understand and they wore helmets and big clothes." This sounds more like the fading memories of an ill-educated old lady than Communist propaganda. In any case, the memories of the other witness, Bui Thi Luom, who was 12 at the time, have not faded. There is much talk of Kerrey's "anguish," but take a look at Luom's. . . .


According to Luom, among the victims that night were her pregnant aunt and her grandmother: "That night I was sleeping inside the shelter. My grandmother woke me up, calling everybody in the shelter to come outside. I counted them – seven men with guns." After Kerrey & Co. had rounded them up and seated them in a circle near the entrance to their dwelling, "One woman started coughing and the American soldier put a gun to her throat. My grandmother told her not to cough or the soldier would kill her." They yanked the girl to her feet: she screamed. "My grandmother turned to help her. I saw her kneel in front of the Americans, pleading for mercy. After that, the soldiers began to shoot." As a kind of farewell gift, they threw an explosive into the shelter before they left.


This morning [Thursday], WorldNetDaily posted my analysis of Killer Kerrey's effort at spin control up alongside O'Reilly's labored effort to cast doubt on the investigative reporting of Gregory Vistica, who broke the story, and CBS News, which gave it a vivid visual element and put the issue front and center. He is honest enough to admit that Kerrey looked "uneasy" – i.e. guilty as hell – while Klann looked "sincere and definite" (in other words: entirely truthful). And then there's the bothersome corroborating testimony of that Vietnamese woman: "But here's where things get very murky." Ah yes, let's haul out the old murk machine, and hope it will blow enough smoke to obscure the facts:

"Former Newsweek reporter Gregory Vistica has been working on the Kerrey story for almost a decade and could not get it published. He finally convinced the [New York] Times [Magazine] and CBS that the accusations against Kerrey and the other SEALS were credible. But it is entirely possible that the Vietnamese authorities knew exactly what Vistica was looking into and briefed the Vietnamese woman before she spoke to CBS, the Times and other members of the American press. Remember, Vietnamese authorities were always present during her interviews."


O'Reilly somehow fails to inform his readers that Newsweek spiked the story – not because what Vistica reported was untrue, but because Kerrey dropped out of the race for the White House and no longer represented a threat to Bill Clinton. But what really leaps out at any journalist in the above quotation is the clear implication that Vistica was somehow in league with the Vietnamese government to get Kerrey. For unless Vistica first briefed the Vietnamese authorities, letting them in on all the details of Klann's testimony, and carefully coordinated every detail with Pham Thi Lanh, the scenario described by O'Reilly makes no sense. The unadmitted premise smuggled into O'Reilly's argument is revealed by the curious weakness of his punchline: so what if the Vietnamese authorities were always present at Vistica's interviews with Pham Thi Lanh? It wouldn't have mattered unless Vistica filled them in on what else he knew. Is this what O'Reilly really means to say?


That Time story uses the words "ambiguous," "ambiguity," and "ambivalence" – and various derivatives – no less than five times, and the theme that plays throughout is the old "fog of war" wafting through the story of Kerrey's "anguish" and "pain" like a thick layer of murk. Think of it – this cloud of smoke – as the journalistic equivalent of air pollution, like the gray film that hovers over Los Angeles in summertime, obscuring the view and making the eyes water. The murk machine is working overtime, and they've just begun. By the time they're done, the stark facts will be so completely covered up that we'll forget all about the accusations, and start working on an "investigation" of Kerrey's accusers. This is the direction that Kerrey and his cronies are pushing the story: a perfectly logical development in the age of Clinton.


Kerrey himself started the process by whining to the Lincoln [Nebraska] Star-Journal that he found it "odd" that CBS failed to report Klann's statement to Vistica that he wouldn't cooperate if "a 1999 incident in which he was stopped by a trooper for alcohol-related reasons" was mentioned in the New York Times Magazine piece. "They ignored it because it interrupts or interferes with their story," said Kerrey. But why is it relevant? In true Clintonian style, Kerrey's campaign to whitewash – or, rather, graywash – his war crimes is becoming a campaign of character assassination. During the impeachment brouhaha, Kerrey called Clinton "an unusually good liar": now that Bill has a lot of free time, the two of them might get together and compare notes. No doubt Kerrey could use a few pointers from the master.


The newspaper my good friend Lew Rockwell calls the War Street Journal is already busily impugning the motives of Kerrey's accusers, following up the Commie plot angle with an article by Claudia Rosett demanding to know "When will Dan Rather hold communists to account?" The murk machine is spinning crazily, at this point, furiously spewing out clouds of ink like an angry squid:

"Surely this Dan Rather standard of in-depth inquiry shouldn't stop with unearthing tales of Mr. Kerrey's Navy SEAL squad and the Vietnamese villagers they killed in a war zone 32 years ago. Step aside, Mr. Kerrey. In the course of its long struggle with communism, Asia has racked up a mighty list of folks in far greater need of an invitation to unburden themselves on prime-time television."


Before we even talk about what Kerrey is alleged to have done, we have to preface it with a long, detailed excursion into the war crimes of the other side: not only the Vietnamese, mind you, but the North Koreans and the Chinese. And please don't forget to contrast this with the glorious vision of 'democracy" that supposedly flourishes on Taiwan. Then and only then are we supposed to even bring up the uncomfortable fact that a former US Senator – and perhaps future presidential candidate – stands credibly accused of horrible war crimes. But wasn't it the Wall Street Journal, during the cold war, that always inveighed against the "leftist" sin of "moral equivalence"? I guess it's okay in this instance, since we're trying to justify American war crimes. "It is a large disservice to both Americans and Asians to apply civilized standards only to our own compatriots," avers Rosett. "Communism is a system that has poisoned every society where it has ever been tried. Just take a look at the misery and anger still welling up in the former Soviet Union." We are very far afield from the question of Kerrey's guilt or innocence: and that is precisely where Kerrey's spin-doctors want us to be.


Will someone kindly explain to Ms. Rosett why we insist on applying "civilized standards" in America in spite of the lack of such standards elsewhere? Or is she implying – without quite daring to say it – that such standards are impossibly high when dealing with a country as "uncivilized" as Vietnam? What would, indeed, be a disservice of a very large order to Americans and Asians alike would be to sweep the whole thing under the rug, as O'Reilly, Rosett, and the rest of Kerrey's amen corner would like. As we used to say during the Vietnam war era: "The whole world is watching" – especially in Asia. Will the Americans look the other way as one of their leaders is accused of wantonly slaughtering Asians? To do so would strike a blow at America's interests in the region: it would delight her foes, and bewilder her friends – emboldening the former, and endangering the latter. And so it comes down to this: Kerrey's interests versus the national interest. Does anyone want to take bets on whose interests will win out in the end? My hopes are with Bui Thi Luom – but my money is on Kerrey.

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