John Leo

Some people wondered how long the major media would be willing to ignore the Christmas-in-Cambodia story. Well, the answer is in: at least 10 or 11 days. I first noticed the story August 6 on Glenn Reynolds?s Instapundit.com blog. Soon it was all over the Internet, the conservative press, talk radio, and some cable shows. But the networks, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and other major media didn?t run the story. Some papers, like the Kansas City Star, got protests from readers on what appeared to be a news blackout. Finally, after an agonizingly slow response from the Kerry campaign, big media took account of the issue, muffling and burying the story they didn?t want to carry in the first place.

The story is simple and by now well known. For 25 years John Kerry has said repeatedly that on Christmas or Christmas Eve of 1968 he took his swift boat into Cambodia on a covert and illegal mission. He said he got shot at by Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge and Cambodians or by ?our South Vietnamese allies who were drunk and celebrating Christmas.? In 1979, Kerry wrote a piece for the Boston Herald noting that ?the absurdity of almost being killed by our own allies in a country in which President Nixon claimed there were no American troops was very real.? Kerry was wrong about Nixon, who was not yet president at the time -- a minor and unimportant slip -- but he said the memory of the Cambodian Christmas ?is seared -- seared into me.?

The anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth book, Unfit for Command, argued that Kerry had never been in Cambodia. That charge was easily challenged as partisan. But a book supportive of Kerry and written with his help, Douglas Brinkley?s Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War, said Kerry was on patrol 50 miles from the Cambodia border on Christmas Eve 1968 and spent Christmas Day writing journal entries back at his base. As the Washington Times argued in an editorial, all living commanders in Kerry?s chain of command denied that Kerry had been in Cambodia, and three of Kerry?s swift boat crew denied they or their boat had been in Cambodia during Christmas 1968. Two others refused comment.

Like the issue of President Bush?s National Guard service, the Cambodian Christmas story is important only for the light it may shed on a candidate?s mind and character. But unlike the Bush story, Kerry?s Cambodian story set off no media frenzy. Glenn Reynolds wrote of the big media: ?They?re damaging themselves as more and more people notice that they?re ignoring it.? Boston Globe reporter Anne Kornblut was asked to comment on the Cambodian Christmas story on Meet the Press. She blew off the question, possibly because her paper hadn?t yet bothered to report the story.
 
When the Los Angeles Times finally decided to notice the story, it had an obvious problem: How should it report news it had ignored for 11 days? Simple: Lump it in with Kerry?s other Vietnam controversies in a long, boring, and indecisive report (?what actually happened about 35 years ago along the remote southern coast of Vietnam remains murky?). And high up in the story, let readers know that the Times thinks the issue is old, irrelevant, and narrowly partisan (?the [anti-Kerry] ad, the book and the people behind them have become staples of conservative talk shows and Internet sites?). Of course, one reason it was a ?staple? of conservative media is that the major news media ignored it.
 
The Times did come up with one nugget of information: An archived Navy report said Kerry?s boat destroyed a junk on a beach on Christmas Eve. A coordinate used by the military fixed the site at 40 to 50 miles south of the Cambodian border. This information seemed damaging to Kerry, but the Times helpfully pointed out that the junk incident occurred so early in the day (7 a.m.) that Kerry had plenty of time to take his boat over the Cambodian border before nightfall. Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan offered a slightly different explanation -- Kerry was on or near the Cambodian border on Christmas. This seems like a smooth way of withdrawing the Christmas-in-Cambodia claim.

This is odd. Previously, Kerry was very specific -- it was definitely Christmas or Christmas Eve and he was 5 miles inside Cambodia, not at or near the border. The event was ?seared? into his memory. Perhaps Kerry is vague because he was on a secret mission, but if it was so secret, why did he spend 25 years talking about it? Perhaps the Christmas in Cambodia was just a self-dramatizing touch that Kerry made up and never expected to get called on. He has said he was heading upriver like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. An interesting story. It isn?t too late for a big-time media outlet to grow curious about it.


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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