Winter in Cambodia?

Michael Barone

8/23/2004 12:00:00 AM - Michael Barone

This month, the Kerry campaign abandoned one claim that John Kerry had made for years about his Vietnam War service and put another into question.
 
The claim that has been dropped: that Kerry was in Cambodia at Christmastime in 1968. In a 1979 review of the movie "Apocalypse Now" in the Boston Herald, Kerry wrote, "I remember spending Christmas Eve of 1968 five miles across the Cambodian border being shot at by our Vietnamese allies." In a 1986 speech on the Senate floor, Kerry said: "I remember Christmas of 1968 sitting on a gunboat in Cambodia. ... I have that memory which is seared -- seared -- in me."

 In a 1992 interview with States News Service, Kerry claimed, "On Christmas Eve of 1968, I was on a gunboat in a firefight that wasn't supposed to be taking place." That year, he also told The Associated Press, "Everybody was over there (in Cambodia). Nobody thought twice about it."

 These are vivid statements full of colorful detail -- South Vietnamese soldiers shooting off guns to celebrate Christmas. But, as Emily Litella used to say on "Saturday Night Live," "Never mind."

 Historian Douglas Brinkley's best-selling "Tour of Duty," based partly on Kerry's wartime journals, places Kerry on Christmas 1968 in Sa Dec, 50 miles from Cambodia. On Aug. 11, Kerry spokesman Michael Meehan said Kerry's boat was "in the watery borders between Vietnam and Cambodia" on Christmas Eve. That's far from an endorsement of Kerry's oft-told stories.

 "He was mistaken about Christmas in Cambodia," Brinkley told London's Daily Telegraph last week. But he "went into Cambodian waters three or four times in January and February 1969 on clandestine missions. ... He was a ferry master, a drop-off guy, but it was dangerous as hell. Kerry carries a hat which he was given by one CIA operative." Indeed, Kerry showed the hat to a Washington Post reporter last year. Similarly, in 2000 Kerry told U.S. News' Kevin Whitelaw that he had run guns into Cambodia.

 The Kerry camp has provided no documentation of Kerry's missions to Cambodia. Meehan says that's not surprising because the missions were secret. Perhaps. But none of Kerry's boat mates, most of whom support him, corroborate his story, and the one boat mate who opposes him flatly denies it. Retired Adm. Roy Hoffman, commander of the swift boats during Kerry's four months in Vietnam, insists that no swift boats went into Cambodia. Hoffman is, to be sure, a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which opposes Kerry and sponsored the anti-Kerry book "Unfit for Command." But there is nothing on the record except Kerry's word to prove him wrong.

 There is public documentation of other secret missions to Cambodia in 1968-69. In most, if not all, cases it seems that agents and special ops were flown into Cambodia by helicopter. If boats were used, the Navy had available smaller, quieter craft than swift boats. That makes Kerry's story seem implausible, but it could still be true. If he made public the journals he provided to Brinkley, there might be more evidence that could be checked.

 On the Christmas story (which even the pro-Kerry New York Times admits Kerry has not "put to rest"), perhaps Kerry was just confused about dates, or perhaps he convinced himself that an untrue story was true, as people sometimes do, and had no intent to mislead. A more unsettling possibility is that he consciously leapt the bounds of truth to make his experience seem more spectacular or to score political points. Those are not the sort of things most people want in a president.

 Will Kerry's evidently untrue statements about Christmas in Cambodia raise doubts about his as-yet-uncorroborated stories about later Cambodian missions? Will they undermine his credibility and bolster the charges of his swift boat critics? Not clear.

 Most of Kerry's boat mates testify to his heroism; most of those serving on other swift boats in the unit take a different view. So far as I know, all served honorably and are entitled to respectful attention -- some may have political motives, in both directions. Battlefield memories inevitably and understandably differ. But character counts in presidents, and some of Kerry's statements over the years -- not all, but some -- count against his character.