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The term swiftboating (also spelled swift-boating or swift boating) is an American neologism used pejoratively 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 then discredited—campaign against 2004 U.S. Presidential candidate John Kerry.
Since the political smear campaign conducted by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against John Kerry, the term "swiftboating" 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 U.S. Navy vessel used during the Vietnam War. During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry's heroism 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.
Conservative commentator Emmett Tyrrell has denounced its repeated negative usage, and says it "is about to join such terms as McCarthyism and McCarthyite" as a "hate term". 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".
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."
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".
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, saying that, "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.