Who Is John O'Neill? Was Nixon Behind His Attacks on Kerry in 1971?

Roundup: Media's Take

Michael Dobbs, in the Washington Post (Aug. 28, 2004):

...White House records show that Nixon and his advisers were so concerned about Kerry they immediately began looking around for other Vietnam veterans who would counter his popular appeal. One they came up with was O'Neill, described by Colson in a memo as "a very attractive dedicated young man -- short hair, very square, very patriotic." Haldeman told Nixon that O'Neill ("a great little sharp-looking guy") was not "as eloquent as Kerry" but was "more believable."

O'Neill, who had returned from Vietnam in June 1970, belonged to a group called Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace, identified by Colson in a memo to Nixon as "an organization specifically set up to counter Kerry." He started making the rounds of the TV studios, delighting the White House with his fiery denunciations of Kerry and support for Nixon's Vietnamization policy.

After one such appearance, on June 6, Colson talked enthusiastically to Nixon about "this boy O'Neill," saying, "You'd just be proud of him." In conversations with Colson, Nixon referred to O'Neill as "your young man."

Colson, who now heads an organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries, declined to be interviewed, explaining through an aide that he did not want to be drawn into the current campaign. But he confirmed the accuracy of a quotation in the Dec. 2, 2002, New Yorker magazine in which he said that Nixon aides had "formed" Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace as "a counterfoil" to Kerry and did everything they could to boost the group.

In an interview this week, O'Neill denied that Vietnam Veterans for a Just Peace was a front organization for the White House. He said the group got started "a little bit before Colson knew who we were" and received support from Democrats as well as Republicans.

"They were probably thrilled with what we were doing," said O'Neill, referring to Nixon and his aides. "But to say that they were using us implies that they were getting us to accomplish something we did not want to accomplish, which is not true. We were doing things we wanted to do."

By mid-June, according to a White House memo, O'Neill was beginning to feel "very discouraged" about his reception on TV. He had been booed by a hostile crowd on the Cavett show and wanted "to go home to Texas and get away from the eastern establishment." Colson urged Nixon to see O'Neill to boost his spirits.

Their June 16 meeting in the Oval Office was scheduled for 10 minutes, but Nixon was so engrossed in the conversation that it lasted 45 minutes. Pacing behind his desk, Nixon tried to encourage O'Neill by citing his own effort to prosecute State Department official Alger Hiss as a Soviet spy in 1948, an event that was pivotal to Nixon's political career. "Don't worry about being on the winning side," he told O'Neill. "Only worry about doing what is right."

According to a Colson memo, an awestruck O'Neill left the Oval Office saying "he had just been with the most magnificent man he had ever met in his life." ("Totally untrue," O'Neill says now.) Colson also quoted O'Neill as promising to "spend every waking moment campaigning for Richard Nixon."

White House memos show that Colson was working behind the scenes to push for a Kerry-O'Neill debate on nationwide television. "Let's destroy this young demagogue before he becomes another Ralph Nader," he wrote, referring to Kerry.

Kerry finally accepted a challenge from O'Neill to appear with him on Cavett's show on ABC on June 30. From today's perspective, their debate seems gloriously old-fashioned. Instead of boiling down their points to 15-second sound bites, the network gave the two veterans 90 minutes to talk about the burning issue of the day, interrupted only by Cavett reading ads for Calgon Bath Oil Beads ("Leaves you radiant and refreshed!").

The debate ended without a decisive victory for either side. O'Neill accused Kerry of "the big lie," arguing that he had "murdered" the reputations of 21/2 million service members by accusing them of war crimes. Dressed in a well-cut blue suit, Kerry told the audience he had personally participated in "search-and-destroy missions in which the houses of noncombatants were burned to the ground" and asked O'Neill if he had ever "burned a village."

"No, I never burned a village," replied O'Neill, who was wearing his only suit, a blue-and-white seersucker, with matching white socks.

After a cameo role at the 1972 Republican National Convention, when he was one of several Democrats nominating Nixon for president, O'Neill dropped out of politics, attending law school and then clerking for then-Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist at the Supreme Court. He later became a successful lawyer in Houston. It was not until the his old adversary locked up the Democratic nomination for president that he reentered the public stage....

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