A question of credibility

Robert Novak
Posted: Aug 16, 2004 12:00 AM

 WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The passionate debate over John Kerry's war record has become a question of credibility. Who is accurately portraying what the Democratic presidential candidate did in Vietnam 35 years ago? Kerry designated advocate Lanny Davis has posed a simple test of who was aboard a small boat with the future senator during his baptism of fire.

 On Dec. 2, 1968, Lt. (j.g.) Kerry saw his first action aboard a small boat called a skimmer or Boston whaler, resulting in the first of three Purple Hearts. Two crewmen, among the veterans who stood with Kerry on the podium in Boston, say only three men were aboard. John O'Neill, Kerry's fellow officer, critic and co-author of the newly published "Unfit for Command,? contends a future admiral who is critical of Kerry also was on the boat.

 How many men squeezed into the whaler may seem irrelevant to the dispute over Kerry's war record. But Washington super-lawyer Davis contends nobody in a boat with Kerry when he was wounded has joined veterans opposing him. He poses this as a test of whether O'Neill's book is a tissue of lies intended to destroy a presidential candidate.

 When television producers ask Kerry headquarters to discuss this controversy, they have been sending out Davis rather one of the candidate's swift boat comrades. At Yale long ago, he admired fellow undergrad Kerry from afar as an orator and future leader. Now, outraged by the attack on Kerry's war record, Davis volunteered to help.

 The campaign accepted, and he jumped in -- too early. Bill Clinton's calm advocate became a shouter for Kerry who accused critics of being liars. Davis was not ready last Monday when the Kerry campaign placed him on Fox's "Hannity and Colmes" program. He had not yet read O'Neill's book, and mixed up an attack on one target: Louis Letson, a former Navy doctor who is quoted in the book as saying the wound was trivial and probably self-inflicted from a ricocheting grenade shell.

 On that program, Davis bought into the statement that Kerry was treated by "another doctor, J.C. Carreon.? "This Letson guy never signed a single sheet of paper,? Davis said. Actually, the now deceased Carreon was a medic who, according to Letson, bandaged Kerry's wound and routinely signed routine medical reports such as Kerry's. I contacted Letson, a retired family doctor, at his home in Scottsboro, Ala. He told me he remembered taking care of Kerry's wound, which was "only a scratch,? and also recalled the enlisted men, with some amusement, describing Kerry as promising he would "come out of the war as the next JFK.?

 By the time Davis appeared on CNN's "Crossfire" on Thursday, he had read the book and changed his emphasis. Davis was appearing for the first time on television next to O'Neill. He hammered home the point that nobody who ever had been in the same boat with Kerry has criticized his war service. O'Neill reiterated his contention in the book that Lt. William Schachte (later a rear admiral) was aboard the small whaler as Kerry's training officer and "witnessed Kerry, with an M-79 (grenade launcher), fire and wound himself.? Davis interrupted, shouting, "That was a false statement.?

 At Davis' suggestion, I telephoned the two of Kerry's crew members who said they were on the whaler that night: Patrick Runyon and William Zaldonis. Each said they did not know whether there was enemy fire and did not know how Kerry was wounded. But each said he was certain that they alone were in the boat with Kerry, and did not even know Schachte. When I called O'Neill, he told me Schachte was sure he was aboard the whaler and would speak out later.

 Lanny Davis is a clever lawyer trying to reduce multiple charges against his client to one simple issue where, so far, he has the witnesses and his adversaries do not. Davis is also a decent human being who told me he thought he went over the line shouting at O'Neill and that "there is a difference here of conceptions.? That's better than simply crying liar in a fight John Kerry brought on himself.