The term swiftboating (also swift-boating or swift boating) is a pejorative American neologism used to describe an unfair or untrue political attack. The term is derived from the name of the organization "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" (SBVT, later the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth) because of their widely publicized—and later discredited—campaign against 2004 U.S. presidential candidate John Kerry.
Since the political smear campaign that the group conducted against Kerry, the term has come into common use to refer to a harsh attack by a political opponent that is dishonest, personal, and unfair. The Swift Boat Veterans and media pundits objected to this use of the term to define a smear campaign.
The term "Swift Boat" itself refers to a class of United States Navy vessel used during the Vietnam War. During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry's heroism came under fire as a Swift Boat commander in Vietnam was a centerpiece of his campaign. A number of Vietnam veterans who had served on Swift Boats formed a 527 organization called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (later renamed Swift Vets and POWs for Truth or SVPT) with the intent of discrediting his military record and attacking his subsequent antiwar activities as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The group produced a series of television ads and a bestselling book, Unfit for Command. The unsubstantiated charges against Kerry by the SVPT gave rise to the term "swiftboating" as a synonym for "the nastiest of campaign smears", "a slimy political attack", and, for many, "ugly, unprincipled slander". As the purpose of a tax-exempt 527 organization is "to focus on the issues" rather than "attack or defend a specific candidate", the SBVT was fined by the Federal Election Commission in 2004 for specifically attacking Kerry instead of focusing on political issues.
Charges of "swiftboating" were made by supporters of both major candidates in the 2012 presidential election. Republican Party strategists compared attacks on Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital to swiftboating: "It's very clear they are trying to re-create and take a page out for the 2004 Bush campaign." The term was also used by a representative of Barack Obama's re-election campaign to describe the documentary film Dishonorable Disclosures and an associated ad campaign released by the Special Operations OPSEC Education Fund on the topic of the death of Osama bin Laden.
Conservative objections and use
In 2006, conservative commentator Emmett Tyrrell denounced its repeated negative usage, saying it "is about to join such terms as McCarthyism and McCarthyite" as a "hate term." In a 2006 interview, John O'Neill, spokesman for Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, commented on the term's usage by "parts of the mainstream media" as a "baseless smear against somebody's personal character": "I don't feel as bad about that as you do. That's a word people will use for however they want to. I have always thought that having left wingers go to bed at night, and put their little children to bed and say "be good little children or the Swiftboats will get you"—(laughs) and so that has never particularly worried me. And I'm not so sure that I'm that sad. Maybe what it really means is tell the truth, don't demean our troops, or you can be sure somebody like the Swift Boats are gonna be right out after you. And maybe that's how the Democratic party has cleaned up its act in the last year or so. And I don't mean cleaned up its act on everything, I mean at least not insulted our soldiers directly. Except for Kerry and Murtha."
The New York Times reported in 2008 that many Swift Boat veterans, "especially those who had nothing to do with the group that attacked Senator John Kerry’s military record in the 2004 election—want their good name back, and the good names of the men not lucky enough to come home alive", expressed regret and dismay that the term "swift boat" has come to represent a political attack and "political chicanery" against a member of a different party. Other conservatives have used the term in its common pejorative context, including Republican strategist Greg Mueller, who is quoted in Politico as saying, "The New York Times is trying to swift-boat McCain.... Certainly, the Times cannot complain about a negative general election campaign, since they fired the first shot. It was a poor and revealing attempt by The New York Times to try and smear McCain". Republican Newt Gingrich, putting his own twist on the neologism at a presidential campaign stop on January 1, 2012, said he felt he was being "Romney-boated" by the barrage of negative ads run against him. "I probably should have responded faster and more aggressively. If somebody spent $3.5 million lying about you, you have some obligation to come back and set the record straight. Fox News Radio host John Gibson has written a book titled How the Left Swiftboated America, in which he defines swiftboating as "the political trick of claiming to expose truth while in fact lying", and "used as a verb, came to mean just that: undermining character and credibility, no matter whether the charges are accurate." Gibson attributes the origin and definition of the word to "the left".
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conducted August 9–16, 2004
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In recent elections, the patriotism and good names of Democratic war hero candidates, from John Kerry to Max Cleland, had been impugned so successfully that a neologism for such smears—to 'swift boat'—was coined out of the assault on Kerry.
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- Elizabeth Bumiller (August 26, 2004). "The 2004 Campaign: Vietnam Record; Lawyer for Bush Quits Over Links to Kerry's Foes". The New York Times. p. A1.
a veterans group that has leveled unsubstantiated attacks on Senator John Kerry's Vietnam War record in a book and on the air.
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Swift-boating The name given by Democrats ...
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- Wickham, Henry P., Jr. (April 20, 2008). "Redefining 'Swiftboating' and Rewriting History". American Thinker.
The term deserves the positive connotation of 'whistle-blowing.'
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- Trip Gabriel (January 1, 2012). "Gingrich Says He's Been 'Romney-Boated'". The New York Times.
- Gibson, John (2009). How the Left Swiftboated America: The Liberal Media Conspiracy to Make You Think George Bush was the Worst President in History. HarperCollins. p. vii-viii. ISBN 0-06-179289-6.