Renewing a debate that raged through much of the 2004 presidential race, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) on Friday accepted Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens' offer to pay $1 million to anyone who can disprove allegations by veterans who disparaged Kerry's Vietnam War record.
Kerry and his top aides said that failing to respond more quickly and aggressively to the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" had been a mistake, and they attributed the Democrat's narrow loss to President Bush, in part, to the attacks.
Kerry said Friday that he would no longer let such challenges go unanswered.
"I welcome the opportunity to prove that you are a man of your word and that the so-called 'Swift Boat Veterans for Truth' lied," Kerry wrote to Pickens. "While I am prepared to show they lied on allegation after allegation, you have generously offered to pay one million dollars for just one thing that can be proven false. I am prepared to prove the lie beyond any reasonable doubt."
Pickens was one of the principal financial backers of television ads that alleged Kerry had lied about his war experiences, didn't deserve his medals and had betrayed soldiers with his vehement protests after the war. The Texas billionaire, a prominent supporter of Bush and other Republicans, made his $1-million challenge at a Nov. 6 dinner in Washington sponsored by the American Spectator magazine.
Kerry said in an interview that he only learned of Pickens' gambit this week, in an e-mail from a friend.
When the allegations against Kerry surfaced in 2004, a Los Angeles Times review of Vietnam-era public records generally supported the view put forth by Kerry and his crew mates -- that he had acted courageously and came by his Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts honestly.
All but one of the surviving veterans who served with him on the two patrol boats Kerry commanded in the remote southern coast region of Vietnam supported the view of him as a hero. Critics had offered sometimes inconsistent and contradictory accounts, The Times found. But the paper also concluded that Kerry had left himself open to criticism by giving subtly varied accounts over the years of his Vietnam service.
Since the 2004 campaign, Kerry and other Democrats have come to label what they believe are unwarranted political attacks as "Swift boating." Even President Clinton, in defending his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) last week, compared her presidential opponents' barbs as "Swift boat"-style attacks.
In his letter to Pickens, Kerry suggested that they hash the truth out in a public forum in either Dallas or Massachusetts. The four-term senator said he would have Pickens pay the $1 million to the Paralyzed Veterans of America, an organization that assists troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
By Friday afternoon, Pickens issued a letter of his own, saying he was "open" to Kerry's response but wanted more -- for Kerry to provide his Vietnam journal, his military records, and copies of movies and tapes made during his service.
Pickens also upped the ante: He challenged Kerry to risk his own $1 million, to be paid to the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation, if Kerry "cannot prove anything in the Swift Boat ads to be untrue."
Kerry had left on an overseas trip by the time the counterproposal was delivered. "It appears that Mr. Pickens is backing off his original challenge," responded Kerry aide David Wade. "Sen. Kerry took Mr. Pickens as a man of his word who, when he talks the talk, is willing to walk the walk."
When questions about Kerry's service first surfaced in May 2004, Democratic operatives saw the matter as an inconsequential diversion. But they later concluded that the allegations had undermined a central premise of the senator's candidacy -- that he was a brave veteran prepared to lead America in a time of war.
The verbal jousting with Pickens may have been prompted by the senator's remarks to a Boston-area chamber of commerce on the morning of Nov. 6. In that appearance, Kerry said he was now much better prepared to respond to attacks on his Navy record.
One published report said Kerry told the business group that he had a "documented portfolio that frankly puts their lies in such a total light of absurdity and indecency that -- should they ever rear their ugly heads again -- we have every single 'T' crossed and 'I' dotted, and I welcome that in a sense."