HOUSTON — Thirty-three years ago, fresh from combat in Vietnam, John O'Neill parted his hair neatly, put on his only suit, stared into a television camera and made it clear how much he detested John Kerry. Not Democrats. Not liberals. John Kerry.
"This man," O'Neill said during a 1971 debate with Kerry on "The Dick Cavett Show," "has attempted the murder of the reputations of 2.5 million of us, including the 55,000 dead in Vietnam."
President Nixon had recruited O'Neill to counter Kerry, who had come home from Vietnam convinced that the war was a military and moral mistake. Much of the nation was starting to agree with that assessment, and in O'Neill, Nixon found an articulate spokesman for his policies.
Today, O'Neill, a high-dollar attorney in Houston with two grown children and an admirable golf handicap, is back on the national stage. After disappearing from the public eye for three decades, he has emerged as a chief architect of an attack on the military credentials of Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee.
The effort has had a surprising effect on the campaign; a Los Angeles Times poll this week showed that O'Neill's organization, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has eroded Kerry's support by questioning whether he deserved his war medals.
The Swift boat group has run ads that claim Kerry lied about the military service that earned him several combat medals. Numerous questions have been raised about the group's honesty and credibility. O'Neill, who has been accused of inconsistencies, has acted as a spokesman for the group, provided it with critical legal advice and written a book about Kerry titled "Unfit for Command."
In an hourlong interview this week, the 58-year-old O'Neill sought to distance himself from the Republican Party operatives and partisans who have been linked to the campaign against Kerry. Wearing a monogrammed shirt, he spoke in his firm's swank, 18th-floor offices overlooking City Hall and decorated with paintings of Venice, Italy.
He portrayed himself as a political independent -- a Reagan Democrat, he said, if he had to have a label. Although he typically supports GOP candidates, he says, he voted for Democrat Al Gore in 2000. And although the "Swifties" have agreed to focus on Kerry and not to discuss President Bush, O'Neill made it clear he is no great fan of the president, whom he has described to several friends as an "empty suit."
He has become, effectively, a single-issue voter in this election, akin to an otherwise liberal Roman Catholic who cannot bring himself to vote for a pro-choice candidate. O'Neill's single issue is simple: He despises Kerry. Whether Bush benefits from the campaign, he said, is a distant concern.
"I know everybody thinks politics is the most important thing in the world," O'Neill said. "But it's not."
After Kerry returned from Vietnam, he famously asked a Senate committee: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" His purpose, Kerry said then and says today, was to call for an end to the war, not to indict those who fought it.
O'Neill, however, felt that Kerry had impugned the integrity of every soldier who had fought in Southeast Asia. The son of a Navy admiral and the grandson of a naval academy instructor, O'Neill had been taught since he was young to support U.S. troops -- no matter who sent them to fight, no matter the circumstances of the war. Kerry, he said, violated an unspoken military creed.
O'Neill had been asked to publicly resurrect those concerns several times during Kerry's rise to prominence, but he had always declined, saying that it wasn't worth revisiting a painful period of his life to intervene in a Senate race. But when it became clear that Kerry had become a serious contender for the presidency, O'Neill was persuaded to speak up because he "couldn't stomach" the idea of Kerry being commander in chief.
O'Neill said he believed, in hindsight, that legitimate questions were raised about the war. He said that some who voiced concerns -- such as Al Gore Sr., a Tennessee senator who jeopardized his career by announcing his opposition -- were brave and even patriotic. But O'Neill did not believe Kerry was brave. He said Kerry was an opportunist who used Vietnam to advance his political ambitions.
"I've lived a happy life, sure, but at least 15 of my friends died there," O'Neill said. "What I'm dealing with is a set of values that are above and beyond politics. And if following the truth -- coming forward -- elects Bush, we can accept that."
Some of O'Neill's closest friends are among those who question his crusade. But they say it is merely a reflection of his tenacity.