Rick Reed: He Helped Create One of the Most Memorable Political Ad Campaigns in Recent History

From a Washington Post obit by Harrison Smith headlined “Rick Reed, who crafted Swift boat ads attacking John Kerry, dies at 69”:

Rick Reed, a Republican media strategist who helped create one of the most scathingly memorable ad campaigns in recent history, writing and producing commercials during the 2004 presidential race that accused Sen. John F. Kerry of lying about his Vietnam War record and betraying his former comrades, died at his home in Alexandria, Va.

A longtime partner at the political ad firm Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, Mr. Reed worked on campaigns for numerous Republican candidates, including senators George Allen and John W. Warner of Virginia, Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina and Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois. He also made ads for John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000 and served as a senior media adviser to Donald Trump in 2016, after launching his own consulting company. By then, he was being hailed by Fox News host Tucker Carlson as “the smartest political consultant I know.”

Mr. Reed remained best known for his work with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of about 200 former Navy officers and enlisted sailors who alleged that Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, had embellished his record during the Vietnam War, when he captained Swift boats in the Mekong Delta and was awarded honors including the Silver Star. Among other claims, they asserted that Kerry received his first of three Purple Hearts for a minor, self-inflicted wound, and said that he was unfit to serve as commander in chief because of his statements as an antiwar activist.

Their claims were fiercely disputed by the Kerry campaign and later undermined by news reports, which revealed that some of the men criticizing the senator had previously filed written reports lauding his heroism. Many of the veterans who spoke in the commercials did not serve on the same Swift boats as Kerry, and other veterans questioned the accounts of some who said they did.

Democrats considered the commercials a smear campaign, with Kerry allies arguing that the ads were an especially low blow given that they benefited a candidate — incumbent President George W. Bush — who had not served in Vietnam. “Swiftboating” entered the political lexicon as a term for targeting candidates with unfair attack ads, and the commercials were also criticized by Republicans including McCain, a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, who called the ads “dishonest and dishonorable.”

Mr. Reed insisted the ads were part of a legitimate effort to offer new insight into Kerry’s career, and stood by the veterans who appeared in them. Like many other political analysts, he also believed the commercials played a role in Kerry’s loss to Bush, who won the popular vote by three percentage points. “We rocked the very foundation of his persona and candidacy by saying John Kerry isn’t who he says he is,” he said soon after the election with L. Patrick Devlin, then a media and politics scholar at the University of Rhode Island.

As Mr. Reed told it, he got involved with the Swift boat group by chance, attending the veterans’ inaugural news conference in March 2004 simply because his uncle, Adrian Lonsdale, was a retired Coast Guard captain who happened to be a member. Mr. Reed said he was captivated by their message, and was confused why the news conference didn’t get more media attention. Within a few weeks, he met with political strategist Chris LaCivita to coordinate a television campaign.

“The thing that struck me was that these people were not political people. … You could have produced an ad based on the first press conference,” Mr. Reed told Devlin in the interview. “Their inexperience gave them veracity. These people were the real deal. We wanted them to speak for themselves.”

Mr. Reed filmed many of the veterans telling their stories, leading to a 60-second ad called “Any Questions?” The commercial opened with footage of Kerry’s running mate, John Edwards, saying, “If you have any question about what he’s made of, just spend three minutes with the men who served with him.” It went on to include testimonials from 13 veterans who said Kerry was dishonest, untrustworthy and unfit to lead.

“He dishonored his country,” said one. “He most certainly did.”

The veterans group, later known as Swift Vets and POWs for Truth, had limited money for an advertising campaign and initially spent $500,000 to air the commercial in a few markets in Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin. But over the next several weeks in August, during a typically quiet period between the Democratic and Republican political conventions, the ad drew national media attention, driven by coverage online and on talk radio.

In part, the commercial seemed to take off because national security was already a major issue in the race, with both candidates’ war records under scrutiny. Bush had served stateside and was on the defensive over absences from his National Guard unit during the Vietnam years. Kerry had made his war service and subsequent peace activism a central part of his candidacy; his campaign produced veterans who served with him on the Swift boats, including crewmate Gene Thorson, who dismissed the anti-Kerry claims as “garbage.”

In some quarters, the voices of Thorson and other veterans who defended Kerry’s record were simply drowned out. It took several weeks for Kerry to directly take on Swift Boat Veterans for Truth; by contrast, members of the group were frequently giving interviews, speaking on talk radio hundreds of times and raising $19 million for nine ads that aired on national cable and in 10 battleground states, according to an analysis of the campaign by Devlin.

The controversy surrounding Kerry’s war record was further inflamed by the publication of a best-selling book, “Unfit for Command,” and by the conservative activist group Judicial Watch, which requested a formal review of the candidate’s military decorations. The Navy inspector general found no issues with the awarding of Kerry’s medals, although the claims still resonated with many voters.

Darrell M. West, an authority on elections and a vice president at the Brookings Institution, wrote that “the Swift boat ads ushered in the era of rapid response and never letting an attack go unanswered.” Since then, “every candidate who is attacked has been told by communications experts they need to rebut false charges and respond instantly so that negative information does not stick to the candidate.”

Richard Gardner Reed was born in Wakefield, Mass., and grew up on Cape Cod, in the beach town of Chatham. Mr. Reed graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and later received a master of public administration degree from the Harvard Kennedy School. He launched his political career in Florida, as an advance man on Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign.

By the early 1980s he was working closely with influential Republican pollster Arthur J. Finkelstein, who taught him to “think like a voter, not a consultant, not a candidate.” He was later a deputy director at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, overseeing political activities in a dozen states, and an editor of the White House Bulletin, a politics newsletter.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Reed teamed up with his friend and mentor Greg Stevens, who was perhaps best known for crafting an attack ad that featured Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank. The two men worked together until Stevens’s death in 2007. Two years later, Mr. Reed launched his own firm, Rick Reed Media, making issue advocacy ads in addition to working on political campaigns.

While his daughter Mackey followed him into politics, she became a Democrat, working as an ad strategist at the consulting firm SKDK. She described her father as an “open-minded, even-keeled guy” who offered career guidance even after her political views diverged from his own. “He would always tell me, asking me about one of my candidates, ‘Well, I shouldn’t tell you this, but if I were you, this is what I would do. You remind everyone that he or she is not a liberal elite, they’re just like everyone else.’ ”

“I almost hated to ask him for advice because he was so quick to think of a good idea,” she added. “I didn’t want to be constantly taking his work as my own, pretending that this was my great line, when it was really my Republican dad.”

Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago.

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