BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is away. I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week, the firestorm ignited by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in ads and interviews blazes on, spreading from cable news to the nation's most respected newspapers, fueled by a steady stream of what we in the media like to call "developments." At first, the Swift boat veterans had the stage to themselves. On television they made their claims opposite critics and surrogates enlisted by the Kerry campaign, while the anchors sat back in a stunning display of irresponsibility, disguised as impartiality. Finally, after doubts had been firmly lodged in the minds of some voters, the major newspapers and the Kerry campaign weighed in, the candidate spoke, and counter ads were crafted. But those ads took an interesting turn, attacking the tactics, rather than the charges. The chief weapon employed in those ads: Arizona Republican and former Vietnam Prisoner of War, Senator John McCain. [TAPE OF KERRY AD PLAYS]
JOHN KERRY: I'm John Kerry, and I approve this message. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
ANNOUNCER: American soldiers are fighting in Iraq. Families struggle to afford health care. Jobs heading overseas. Instead of solutions, George Bush's campaign supports a front group attacking John Kerry's military record --attacks called smears, lies. Senator McCain calls them dishonest. Bush smeared John McCain four years ago. Now he's doing it to John Kerry. George Bush: denounce the smear. Get back to the issues. America deserves better.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Along with the ad referencing McCain, on the Kerry website you can also find this clip from a Larry King Show during the last campaign. The Kerry people added the ominous chord, but the words are McCain's, and they sting.
JOHN McCAIN: Let me tell you what really went over the line. Governor Bush had a, had a -- event, and he paid for it, and standing -- and stood next to a spokesman for a fringe veteran's group. That fringe veteran said that John McCain had "abandoned" the veterans. Now, I don't know how you - if you can understand this, George, but that really hurts.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah.
JOHN McCAIN: That, that really hurts. And so-- five United States Senators, Vietnam veterans, heroes -some of 'em really incredible heroes - wrote George a letter and said apologize.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah. Let me-- [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
JOHN McCAIN: You should, you should-- you should be ashamed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: McCain condemns the Swift boat ads, even as he stumps for President Bush, but it's impossible to tell how he feels about his role as political football, seen in one place castigating candidate Bush on TV in 2000, and in another, hugging him on the campaign trail today. In Thursday's New York Times, McCain said that he would, once again, express his displeasure over the ads, this time personally to Bush, but he also asked the Kerry campaign to stop airing the spots that reference his 2000 primary scraps with Bush. The campaign promptly complied. In fact, it may be the promptest action the Kerry campaign has taken so far. We called Chad Clanton, a senior campaign advisor in the Kerry War Room, to ask about the timing.
CHAD CLANTON: Well, I think the real turning point was when the Washington Post had a front page story the same day that Kerry went out, and it proved one of the central critics in this effort, Mr. Thurlow, that the charges he had been making were completely false, and once it hit the mainstream press like that, we immediately pounced on it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How did the Washington Post get hold of that story? Did that come from researchers in the war room?
CHAD CLANTON: It came from people [LAUGHS] -- eyewitnesses had been coming forward around the country who were there, that have spoken up about John Kerry's courage under fire--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And they certainly would have brought that information to the attention of the Kerry campaign, and I assume from that point the war room would have distributed it to the mainstream media, like the Washington Post.
CHAD CLANTON: Absolutely. We've gotten lots of people contacting us that just said look -- put me in the press, put me on the radio, I've got to speak out about this.