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Swiftboating is American political jargon that is used as a strong pejorative description of some kind of attack that the speaker considers unfair or untrue—for example, an ad hominem attack or a smear campaign.

The term comes from the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth (formerly "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," or SBVT) and that group's widely publicized[1] campaign against 2004 US Presidential candidate John Kerry.[2]

Terms like "swiftboating", "Swift Boating", "Swift Boat tactics", etc. were mostly used by people who disapproved of the political tactics of the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth. It is now in mainstream use. Some American conservatives have strongly objected (see below) to the criticism of SBVT implied by such negative usage.


Historical origins

The term 'swift boat' itself refers to a class of US Navy vessel used during the Vietnam War. In 2004, a political 527 organization called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (later called Swift Vets and POWs for Truth or SVPT), composed of Vietnam veterans who served on swift boats, formed with the intent of opposing the presidential candidacy of John Kerry. Kerry himself had served for four months as a swift boat commander in Vietnam. The group produced a series of television ads and a bestselling book[3] that challenged Kerry's military record and criticized his subsequent antiwar activities as a member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. The unsubstantiated charges against Kerry by the SVPT gave rise to the term 'swiftboating' to describe political tactics that are essentially synonymous with a 'smear campaign'.[4][5][6]

Examples of usage

  • In a 2005 column "The Swift Boating of Cindy Sheehan," Frank Rich offered such synonyms for the term as "character assassination" and "smear." Rich's use of the term implied a special connection to attacks on someone's military record: "Character assassination is the Karl Rove tactic of choice, eagerly mimicked by his media surrogates, whenever the White House is confronted by a critic who challenges it on matters of war. The Swift Boating is especially vicious if the critic has more battle scars than a president who connived to serve stateside and a vice president who had "other priorities" during Vietnam."[7]
  • Also in 2005, Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly took note of this usage of the term: "Sympathetic newspaper columnists are putting forth that Cindy is being smeared by people like me. They call it the "Swiftboating" of Cindy Sheehan." The article makes no objection to this usage of "swiftboating" to allege an unfair attack on someone's character. O'Reilly calls the claim itself "catchy but misleading", saying "All we did was tell the truth about Ms. Sheehan's radical politics and radical pals. That's it! We didn't impugn her character or criticize her Iraq war dissent."[8]
  • Also in 2005, a Slate article by John Dickerson used "Swift-boat" as a pejorative verb to imply that an attack by John Kerry on President George W. Bush had been dishonest: "Kerry Swift-boats Bush.... Like most clever feints in Washington, it's also not entirely honest." This usage is notable because of its implied criticism of SBVT at the same time that it shares their political stance—that is, attacking Kerry on behalf of Bush.[9]
  • In a 2006 op-ed "Swift Boating the Planet," Paul Krugman used the term to describe repeated use of a chart Krugman labels "a fraud" and what he calls "smears" against climatologist James Hansen. Defining the term in relation to the group from which it takes its name, Krugman stated, "There's a concise way to describe what happened to Dr. Hansen: he was Swift-boated. John Kerry, a genuine war hero, didn't realize that he could successfully be portrayed as a coward."[11]
  • The Boston Globe in 2006 quoted Senator Edward M. Kennedy describing recent events in the Massachusetts governor's race as "gutter politics" and "the politics of fear and smear," adding "Make no mistake about it, this is swiftboating." The article noted that another Democratic politician had described the same events as "a Swift Boat style of attack."[12]
  • The Associated Press in 2006 quoted Wal-Mart critics claiming the company's newest effort "a name-calling, nastily aggressive little website," adding that "The company's latest move comes right out of the Swift Boat playbook."[13]
  • In 2007, Lee Iacocca wrote "Karl Rove tried to "Swift-boat" Murtha. Swift-boating is the new term used to describe a dirty campaign that tries to paint a war hero as unpatriotic." [1]
  • In the May 19, 2007 edition, The Economist wrote, in regard to Senator Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, "It is impossible to imagine her being 'swiftboated' like Mr Kerry. The Clintons have always regarded politics as a continuation of war by other means, and Mrs Clinton is an even tougher fighter than her husband."[15]
  • In February 2008, Republican Strategist Greg Mueller said "The New York Times is trying to swift-boat McCain." He elaborated further by saying "It was a poor and revealing attempt by The New York Times to try and smear McCain."[16]
  • In a June 12, 2008 article in Time magazine, Michael Kinsley wrote: "Swift-boating's essence is a particular kind of dishonesty, or rather a particular combination of shadowy dishonesties. It usually involves a complex web of facts, many of which may even be true. It exploits its own complexity and the reluctance of the media to adjudicate factual disputes. No matter how thoroughly a charge may be discredited, enough taint remains to support an argument. The fundamental dishonesty is the suggestion that the issue, whatever it is, really matters." [17]
  • On September 10, 2008 Barack Obama accused Republicans of "swift boat politics". [18]
  • During the 2008 campaign, Slate Magazine has run a series of columns in the "Trailhead Blog" entitled "Swift Boat Watch."[20] In these articles, the authors rate advertisements for veracity by assigning a number of Swift Boats. The number of Swift Boats is proportional with the number of false accusations made in the advertisement. Ads critical of both the democratic ticket and the republican ticket have been evaluated.
  • On December 7, 2009, Time magazine ran an article on the Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident, comparing the attacks on climate scientists to swiftboating: "Skeptics of global warming, who have long considered climate change a fraud, refer to the incident as "Climategate," with obvious intimations of scandal and cover-up. Advocates of action on warming call it "Swifthack," a reference to the 2004 character attacks on presidential candidate Senator John Kerry by the group then known as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — in other words, an invented scandal propagated by conservatives and the media that does nothing to change the scientific case for climate change."[21]

Objections to term

The use of this term as a pejorative has caused objections from conservatives who object to the implied criticism of the Swift Vets and POWs for Truth.[22] At least one conservative commentator has denounced its repeated negative usage as "a hate term."[23] A group formed for the purpose of opposing John Murtha's reelection to Congress, Vets for the Truth, posts at its website a definition of "swiftboating" as "exposing the lies, deceit and fraud of self-glorifying public officials or candidates for office who exaggerate their military service by lying about their feats of heroism and combat wounds." [24]

In a 2006 Veteran's Day interview, John O'Neill, spokesman for Swift Vets and POWs for Truth commented on the term's usage: "I think that's a word [swiftboating] 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 [saying] Be good little children or the Swiftboats will get you!... that has never particularly worried me...[25]

A number of Swift Boat veterans have expressed regret and dismay that the term "Swift boat" has come to represent a political attack.[26]

See also

Media usage

  • 7 October 2006. "Kennedy Decries Healey's 'Swiftboating' of Patrick" Glenn Johnson, AP via Boston Globe.[27]
  • 2 October 2006. "The Democrats' Anxiety Closet" Jed Babbin in The American Spectator.[28]
  • 13 July 2006. "How Much Is That Admiral In The Window?" James Boyce in the Huffington Blog alleges that Republicans are planning to swiftboat Iraq War veterans who are running for Congress, like Jim Webb, Joe Sestak and Tammy Duckworth.[29]
  • 21 August 2005. "Swift Boating Cindy Sheehan," Frank Rich in the New York Times[7]
  • 22 August 2005. O'Reilly Factor, Fox News: "The 'Swiftboating' of Cindy Sheehan, that is the subject of this evening's 'Talking Points Memo'."[8]
  • 9 November 2005. "VT: Columnist Says O'Neill Aiming To Use "Swift Boat" Tactics On Sanders," The Frontrunner (via LexisNexis)
  • 18 November 2005. "Murtha Stirs Policy Debate," Fox News: A 'Swift-Boating' of Murtha?[30]
  • 19 November 2005. "Kerry rap GOP actions as 'shameful,' 'Swift-boating' moves," Worcester (MA) Telegram & GazetteMcGovern (via LexisNexis)
  • 22 November 2005. "Does Bush really seek a new tone?" Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN): "Whether it was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in 2000, former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., in 2002, former counterintelligence official Richard Clarke or the Swift Boating of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., in 2004, the no-holds-barred tactic was to go right at the opponent's strength and seek to destroy it." (via LexisNexis)
  • 1 December 2005. "Kerry Swift-Boats Bush," Slate Magazine[31]
  • 1 December 2005. "Coulter's Swift Boat-style smear of Vietnam veteran Murtha"[32]
  • 1 June 2006. "Swiftboating has become a hate term," R. Emmett Tyrrell on CNN Politics[23]
  • 10 October 2007. "The Swift-Boating of Graeme Frost." Time Magazine.[33]
  • 19 November 2007. "The fact is, I am tired of this word 'swiftboat' being used as a pejorative, because when we talk about the Swift Boat Vets for Truth, these are brave American heroes, and the only thing they did was point out that John Kerry ... they said his story is inaccurate, and they told their story." Sean Hannity, Hannity & Colmes.[34]


  1. ^ "University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg Election Survey". conducted August 9-16, 2004. Retrieved 2007-03-30. 
  2. ^ "The Vets Attack". Newsweek. 2004-11-15. Retrieved 2007-03-30. 
  3. ^ O'Neill, John; Corsi. Unfit for Command. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing. ISBN 0-89526-017-4. 
  4. ^ New York Times The 2004 Campaign: VIETNAM RECORD; Lawyer for Bush Quits Over Links to Kerry's Foes
  5. ^ Manjoo, Farhad. True Enough: learning to live in a post-fact society. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons. pp. 14. ISBN 978-0-470-05010-1. 
  6. ^ PBS Ombudsman
  7. ^ a b Rich, Frank (2005-08-21). "The Swift Boating of Cindy Sheehan". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-06-13. 
  8. ^ a b O'Reilly, Bill (2005-08-22). "The 'Swiftboating' of Cindy Sheehan". FoxNews.,2933,166503,00.html. Retrieved 2007-06-13. 
  9. ^ Dickerson, John (2005-12-03). "Kerry Swift-boats Bush". Slate. Retrieved 2007-06-13. 
  10. ^ Huffington, Arianna (2006-01-16). "The President Needs to Denounce the Swift-Boating of Murtha... Now!". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2007-06-14. 
  11. ^ Krugman, Paul (2006-05-29). "Swift Boating the Planet". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-06-13. 
  12. ^ Johnson, Glen (2006-10-07). "Kennedy decries Healey's 'Swift Boating' of Patrick". Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-06-13. 
  13. ^ Kabel, Marcus (2006-07-18). "Gloves come off as Wal-Mart, critics slam each other on Web". USATODAY. Retrieved 2007-06-13. 
  14. ^ Vargas, Jose Antonia (2007-03-20). "Watching Big Sister". Washington Post. Retrieved 2007-06-13. 
  15. ^ "The candidates: Hillary Clinton, Her latest incarnation, Presidential Front Runner". The Economist. 2007-05-17. Retrieved 2008-02-01. 
  16. ^ Allen, Mike (2008-02-21). "Rush, right rally to McCain". Retrieved 2009-05-18. 
  17. ^ Kinsley, Michael (2008-06-12). "To Swift-Boat or Not to Swift-Boat". Time.,9171,1813974,00.html. Retrieved 2008-06-21. 
  18. ^ CNN: Obama accuses Republicans of 'swift boat politics'
  19. ^ CNN: McCain camp accuses Obama camp of 'Swift Boat-style' attack
  20. ^ "Swift Boat Watch". Slate. 2008-10-06. Retrieved 2008-10-06. 
  21. ^ Waslsh, Bryan (2009-12-07). "Has 'Climategate' Been Overblown?".,8599,1946082,00.html#ixzz0ZQXYG1S6. 
  22. ^ Rosen, Mike (2006-10-26). "Story is none too 'swift'". Rocky Mountain News.,2777,DRMN_23972_5096616,00.html. Retrieved 2007-06-14. 
  23. ^ a b Tyrrell, R. Emmett Jr. (2006-06-04). "Swiftboating has become a hate term". CNN. Retrieved 2007-03-30. 
  24. ^ McMichael, William H. (2006-08-14). "Former SEAL wages campaign to defeat Murtha". Army Times. Retrieved 2007-03-30. 
  25. ^ Moore, John (2006-11-16). "Behind the Scenes: Swift Boat Veterans vs. John Kerry". Useful Fools. Retrieved 2007-11-14. 
  26. ^ Kate Zernike, "Veterans Long to Reclaim the Name 'Swift Boat'", New York Times, June 30, 2008
  27. ^ Johnson, Glen (2006-10-07). "Kennedy decries Healey's "Swiftboating" of Patrick". AP/Boston Globe. Retrieved 2007-06-14. 
  28. ^ Babbin, Jed (2006-10-02). "The Democrats' Anxiety Closet". American Spectator. Retrieved 2007-06-14. 
  29. ^ Boyce, James (2006-07-13). "How Much Is That Admiral In The Window?". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2007-06-16. 
  30. ^ "Murtha Stirs Policy Debate". Fox News. 2005-11-18.,2933,176043,00.html. Retrieved 2007-06-16. 
  31. ^ Dickerson, John (2005-12-02). "Kerry Swift-Boats Bush". Slate. Retrieved 2007-06-16. 
  32. ^ "Coulter's Swift Boat-style smear of Vietnam veteran Murtha". MediaMatters. 2005-12-01. Retrieved 2007-06-16. 
  33. ^ Tumulty, Karen (2007-10-10). "The Swift-Boating of Graeme Frost". TIME Magazine.,8599,1670210,00.html. Retrieved 2007-11-22. 
  34. ^ "Hannity & Colmes: T. Boone Pickens on $1 Million Challenge to Sen. John Kerry". transcript (Fox News). 2007-11-19.,2933,312283,00.html. Retrieved 2007-11-22. 


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