Wayne Barrett Runs Down Newt Gingrich’s Swift Boat Connections

Newt Gingrich says he felt “Romney-boated” in Iowa. But the former speaker has a complicated history with “Stolen Honor,” writes Wayne Barrett.

Even as Newt Gingrich was claiming he was “Romney-boated” by the negative ads that torpedoed his Iowa campaign last week, he was celebrated in a 30-minute video aired throughout the state by NewsMax, the only news organization to actually air the swift boat documentary Stolen Honor during the 2004 campaign.

It’s just one of countless ironies engulfing Gingrich’s outrage over the ads aimed at him. Asked by a reporter if he felt “swift-boated,” Gingrich replied: “I feel Romney-boated.” Even John O’Neill, the Houston lawyer and former swift boat commander in Vietnam who led the advertising and book attack on 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry, understood that Gingrich was implicitly embracing the critique of that offensive, saying he’d be “ashamed” if Gingrich won the Republican nod. “He has more in common with Kerry than any of the other Republican candidates,” O’Neill told National Review Online, “maybe not in ideology, but in other things that count.”

Christopher Ruddy, the NewsMax CEO who claimed that his pro-Gingrich ad ran 200 times in Iowa media markets, was actually honored for his swift boat role at the “Un-inaugural” held in the First Amendment Room of the National Press Club in January 2005, at the time of the second George W. Bush inauguration. In the closing days of the 2004 campaign, after Sinclair Broadcasting dropped its plan to air the swift boat film, NewsMax did air it on PAX TV, the network, since renamed ION and headquartered in West Palm Beach near NewsMax, that was slated to broadcast the NewsMax-sponsored and Donald Trump-hosted presidential debate this year. That debate was shelved when everyone other than Gingrich and Rick Santorum declined to appear.

Topping off a year of pro-swift boat coverage, NewsMax featured John O’Neill, the spearhead of the swift boat smear campaign, under the headline "Man of Year" in a Dec. 30, 2004 story that recounted the list of conservative vehicles that were anointing him. Ruddy even claimed that NewsMax was “really laying the groundwork” for the swift boat attack on Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry by covering “very assiduously his record in Vietnam and the information about his record that was uncovered by the swift boat guys” early in 2004—before the swift boaters emerged. Ruddy used the success of the swift boat takedown of Kerry to boost NewsMax, saying it was “a sign that we can lay the groundwork for a big story and be influential,” no small achievement for the then five-year-old news service.

Ruddy and billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, the co-owners of NewsMax, became famous as fixtures in the smarmy world of the most vicious anti-Clinton fantasies, with Scaife’s Pittsburgh newspaper publishing Ruddy’s attempts to transform two suicides, White House aide Vince Foster and the ex-wife of an Arkansas state trooper, into Clinton-tied murders. Gingrich also flirted with Foster conspiracy theories even after a Republican special prosecutor investigated and rejected them. Scaife contributed over $7 million to Judicial Watch, the group that filed a formal complaint during the 2004 campaign with the Pentagon demanding an investigation of the three purple hearts, bronze star and silver star Kerry was awarded for his Vietnam valor as a swift boat commander. The Judicial Watch complaint described the swift boat charges as “credible, serious and shocking,” though the Navy inspector general quickly found that the medals had been “properly approved.” Scaife’s Pittsburgh paper had a decade-long blood feud with Teresa Heinz-Kerry, the candidate’s wife and fellow Pennsylvania heir to millions.

The host of the NewsMax commercial for Gingrich was Michael Reagan, the adopted son of the former president and columnist for NewsMax. Working as a rightwing talk-show host in 2004, Reagan featured several of the swift boat vets on his show, including one frequently described as an eyewitness to the events that garnered Kerry’s medals (he wasn’t). Reagan ridiculed Kerry’s service, charging that he’s “been talking about Vietnam longer than he served there” and that “attacks on American troops are nothing new for John Kerry.” Reagan has left three conservative talk show networks in recent years, and is frequently over the top, calling for the murder of “traitors,” even naming one, who he said claimed the 9/11 attack was an inside job (“Shoot them dead. I’ll pay for the bullets”).

Gingrich’s presidential campaign is cochaired by former Georgia Democratic senator Zell Miller, who delivered the nominating speech for George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican National Convention and presented the Charlton Heston Courage under Fire award to the three prime movers behind the swift boat ad campaign and book at the February 2005 CPAC banquet, the annual gathering of major conservative organizations. Miller said the swift boaters “taught us all about passion, about dedication, about toughness of character, about love of country” when they “called a lie a lie” and savaged Kerry’s Vietnam record. Miller presented the vets with a flintlock rifle at the ceremony in Washington, and another speaker explained that this old-fashioned musket was used because D.C. gun laws prevented them from giving them the Remington semi-automatic shotguns each would privately receive, exact replicas of the assault weapon Kerry had brandished in West Virginia to claim he was a second amendment supporter.

Craig Shirley, who handled public relations for Stolen Honor, is now an adviser to the Gingrich campaign, orchestrating his efforts to get on the Virginia ballot, and writing an authorized biography of the speaker. Kellyanne Conway, who is now doing polling for the Gingrich campaign, has worked in the past with Creative Response Concepts, which promoted both the swift boat film and the book, Unfit to Command, published by CRC client Regnery, also the publisher of some Gingrich books. She appeared on CNN’s Crossfire in 2004 and defended the ad campaign with comments like: “Are we actually calling these people who put their lives on the line for all of us dishonorable?” Conway went out of her way to argue that the Bush campaign had nothing to do with the swift boat ads even though the counsel to the campaign, Ben Ginsberg, was also advising the boaters—precisely the kind of connections that Gingrich is now using to contend that Romney is behind the Iowa attack on him.

Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who has joined with his wife to give $5,000 to Gingrich’s current campaign and was a major donor to Gingrich’s GOPAC and American Solutions committees before his presidential run, was the second largest contributor to the swift boat campaign, kicking in $3 million. He donated almost as much to a similar effort to smear Barack Obama in 2008, financing ads linking Obama to 60s radical Bill Ayers.

Citizens United, which also bought $250,000 in pro Gingrich ads in Iowa, shared the same fundraising website producer with the swift boat group. David Bossie, who runs the organization that won the Supreme Court case that opened the floodgates for the “independent” super PACs that buried Gingrich, placed a 30-second spot right before the Iowa caucus ostensibly promoting a 2009 movie that he and the Gingriches produced about Ronald Reagan. “It’s for movie sales,” a Bossie spokesman explained.

Bossie, who worked for Gingrich when he was speaker and was fired when his attempted smear of Hillary Clinton “embarrassed” the House (as Newt put it then), did a movie during the 2004 campaign that featured O’Neill. “I love them,” Bossie said later to an interviewer who credited him with helping to create the swifties. “I would love to be associated with them. I did support them and I did help them on the fringes. But I don’t want to be seen as taking credit for things I didn’t do, because they deserve a lot of the credit. They called out John Kerry.”

Even Newt himself was at least a half-hearted supporter of the swift boat line. When he appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show as a Fox analyst in August 2004, Gingrich seemed to take both sides of the argument. He said there were “always two or three versions of the same story” with Kerry. “If your record is muddled and confused, you’ve got to clarify it,” Gingrich argued. He depicted the swift boaters as “a kind of conservative movement’s answer” to Michael Moore, and when O’Reilly, who was an early critic of the campaign, said he didn’t want either, Gingrich said: “I don’t blame you.”

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But on the Sean Hannity show, where every swift boat allegation sailed on smooth waters, Gingrich said: “This country is not going to elect as commander in chief a man who lies about young Americans in uniform, talks with the enemy without his government’s knowledge, comes back home and further lies about the American people.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Kellyanne Conway had worked for Creative Response Concepts.

Research assistance was provided by Emily Atkin, Clarissa Leon, Nicole Marsh, and Kyle Roerink.