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September 24, 2004

The Case of the Missing Reverend Alston

David Alston exploded onto the national consciousness at the Democratic National Convention on Monday, July 26, 2004. Of the speeches that evening, his probably drew the most attention.

As other bloggers have noted, we are actually a bit lost in the funhouse when it comes to how all this is being displayed to the world. But a few people I've talked to have said that David Alston's speech received unbelievable praise...
--"The Reverend David Alston," The Stakeholder, Democratic National Campaign Comittee Weblog

Alston was awesome. We need that man on the campaign trail.

I heard Alston on C-Span radio this evening, driving home. He rained down thunder from the sky! I hope the Kerry campaign knows what a treasure it has here...

Rev. Alston was magnificent!
--comments on TalkLeft.com, July 26-27, 2004

Another inspirational moment for me was listening to the Reverend David Alston, who served under Lieutenant John Kerry. He recalled how Lieutenant John Kerry was a brave, caring and decisive leader when he was the captain of his swift boat in Vietnam. He painted a picture of a leader who can be trusted and one who made the right decisions under chaotic circumstances.
--Senator Boxer's Democratic Convention Diary, Monday July 26, 2004

Over the next couple of days there were scattered comments, mostly very positive, then he vanished with scarcely a ripple. How is it that such a clearly effective speaker and a strong supporter of John Kerry is allowed to slip quietly beneath the media waves?

The Democratic National Convention, while Alston's first national spotlight, was not the first occasion he came to the attention of the public in this election cycle.
The John Kerry-Campaign Organization, South Carolina website, which shows as its earliest copyright date 2003, lists Reverend David Alston as a supporter. It's unclear from this when his name was added, but we do know that Kerry was in contact with Alston in 1996, when the Boston Globe ran an article accusing Kerry of being a war criminal.

In early February of 2004, Kerry ran a compaign ad in South Carolina featuring Alston in his role as a Swift Boat Veteran who served with Kerry in Vietnam:

Kerry has blanketed the state with a commercial in which the Rev. David Alston, a black military veteran from Columbia, describes Kerry's cool when the Viet Cong fired on their patrol boat.
--"Edwards bids for S.C. blacks' votes," The News & Observer, February 1, 2004.

Kerry's campaign also has been running a dramatic television commercial in which an African-American former crewmate in Vietnam, the Rev. David Alston, extols Kerry's leadership.
--"Campaign 2004: Black voters play lead role in South Carolina," Post-Gazette, February 3, 2004.

The emphasis in this last story on the black vote is probably key to understanding Alston's intended role in the campaign. A look at the photos chosen for Kerry's "Band of Brothers" on the campaign website makes the point in black and white:
Kerry with other Swift Boat personnel in Vietnam

Kerry's Band of Brothers at DNC

Kerry's 'Band of Brothers,' presented as his crew at the DNC

Alston was meant to play the role of Kerry's close friend and supporter inside the black community. Further support for this is evident in Kerry's Martin Luther King Day speech on January 30, 2003:

I believe we need to reclaim the kind of citizenship. It's a citizenship seared into me 30 years ago when I served with a band of brothers in Vietnam. We were all living together, working together, taking care of each other, kids from Arkansas, Iowa, California, Massachusetts, and a young African American gunner by the name of David Alston, from South Carolina. Color, religion, background, all of it just melted away into an understanding that we were 'Americans.' It shouldn't have to take a war to remind us understand that we're all in this together.
A press release went out on BlackPRWire, "COLEMAN, ALSTON: KERRY/EDWARDS LIFETIME OF STRENGTH AND SERVICE CONNECTS WITH AFRICAN AMERICAN VOTERS," on July 27, 2004 citing Alston:
Reverend David Alston said today during a roundtable discussion at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.

“I have had the honor to serve in combat with John Kerry and I am proud to call him my friend,” said Reverend David Alston. “He has proven his ability to lead under the toughest condition and I am confident he will be a strong Commander-In-Chief.”

And Alston made a very brief cameo appearance on "Hardball with Chris Matthews" that same night:
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: Here with David Alston, who this group heard from earlier, better known perhaps as John Kerry‘s swift boat gunner.

Well, Reverend, first of all, your reaction to President Clinton, his use of scripture, be not afraid.

REV. DAVID ALSTON, KERRY CREW MATE IN VIETNAM: Well, after—following the war in Vietnam, we learned not to be afraid.

John Kerry was a very brave young man at that time and still is today, and we love him. We‘re here today because of the decisive decisions that he made in combat. He‘s a warrior. And we would go back to war with him any day.

WILLIAMS: So that‘s what you would take away from how you got to know this kid from Massachusetts and how it applies to the job of president?

ALSTON: Brian, I just can‘t say enough about John.

John treated us five guys with the utmost respect. We were young, all of us, at that time, very hazardous duty. But he was a loving, caring young man. And he always sought to bring us through the terrible things that we were facing. And I believe today that John Kerry would make the greatest president the United States ever had.

WILLIAMS: Reverend, thank you very much for being with us. It‘s a pleasure to meet you.

ALSTON: Thank you.

I haven't found anything further in the way of campaign appearances so far.

This gap remains open. It's both amusing and amazing that a candidate for the party that has depended on and taken for granted the black vote could only offer Alston, and has allowed him to vanish without finding a replacement. I say "could only offer Alston" because of what followed his national appearance on that DNC stage.

The problem was, what Alston so effectively said on the DNC stage was at least partly fabrication. While Alston may have served under Kerry for about a week, he was not present in Kerry's crew in the incident he described, the one which resulted in Kerry's Silver Star award. Riverrat, Captain Ed and others have covered this extensively, compiling timelines from released Navy documents, biographies and media articles and transcripts. They began making their findings public around August 13th, two weeks after the convention, but the launch of the first Swift Veterans for Truth ad on August 4, 2004 probably sounded the dive alarm for Alston and the Kerry campaign. They had to know that the story as told at the DNC, and as had been told in other appearances going back to 2002, as Captain Ed shows in "The Alston Story Goes Back Farther Than First Thought," would not stand up to focused scrutiny.

One of the things that has intrigued me about this story is that Alston was touted as "a minister from Columbia, South Carolina" in most of the stories, but any mention of a specific denomination, or even religion, or a church with which he's affiliated, were missing. Perhaps that is the new norm for Democrats. It's interesting that there is some sort of claim to authority in pointing out someone is a minister, as was the case here, but there is a vagueness in details to avoid offending the sensibilities of others. It took some digging to find reference to more details of Alston's ministry. I finally came across a Charlotte Observer article by Anna Griffin, "Crewmate knew 'great things' in store for Kerry," (which was published on July 27, 2004, of course) that got a bit more specific:

Alston returned to Rock Hill, married and had two sons. He moved to Columbia in 1978 and today works at the Westinghouse nuclear fuel plant in Columbia. He became an ordained Baptist minister five years ago.

"Being down in Vietnam and going through the rivers, I asked God to deliver me. I prayed constantly, `Lord, if you bring me back, I will serve you faithfully,' " Alston said. "I didn't do that. I got into alcohol, and I had some problems. But the good Lord didn't give up on me, and finally he called me to serve."

Alston stayed in sporadic contact with Kerry after the war. Kerry invited him to his first wedding, to Julia Thorne in 1970, and sent Christmas cards to Alston's parents' house. Kerry aides contacted Alston in 1996, after a story in a Boston paper "accusing him of being a killer," Alston said.

"That was just false, and I was happy to tell people that," Alston said. "In Vietnam, killing an enemy soldier meant saving men's lives. It was something that had to be done."

It's amazing to me that a Baptist minister could be party to such a twisting of the truth. But it shouldn't be. All men are sinners, even those saved by grace.

But Reverend Alston should mind his own words: "That was just false, and I was happy to tell people that." When he stood up for John Kerry, and defended him against accusations that he was a war criminal (despite Kerry's own testimony before the U.S. Senate which sure suggested that Kerry himself thought he was), he claims he did so because the accusation was false. Considering what we now know, that Alston went on to join Kerry in a joint lie that they had participated in specific actions together, when in fact they had not, and to imply a much longer record of service together than the documented facts show could have been possible, we have reason to question Alston's motives.

It doesn't seem that falsehood makes him so uncomfortable that he didn't spend a couple of years spinning lies with Kerry.

If Reverend Alston is indeed the Christian that he claims to be, he should be suffering severe pains in the area of his conscience. I will grant that there is a small possibility that there is a truthful explanation for the apparent conflict between his (and Kerry's) story of these events and the facts, but if he is indeed seeking to serve God, speaking truth and not abiding falsehood is part of that service. Reverend Alston should not allow us to continue in our doubts of what is truth when he has the ability to eliminate that doubt. He can confess his own error, if such was the case. Or he can assist us in illuminating the truth by explaining as best as he can, and by signing a release that will open his U.S. Navy records, adding more documentary evidence to what is currently available.

It's also interesting that Kerry thought he could get away with this deception. He had to know that someone would note that Alston could not have been present in the engagement where he was awarded the Silver Star, or that Kerry himself could not have be present in an angagement that took place before he was given command of PCF-94. Clearly, however, Kerry felt that any such notice would come to nothing. The only reasonable explanation for believing the truth would not out is that he believed the major media outlets would shield him. In light of the recent Rathergate events, I can't see how that was an unreasonable assumption.

Where he failed in his calculation was in assuming that the major media would retain its iron grip on the dissemination of information and thus could shield him. He didn't spot the rust on those fingers, nor see the specs of light glimmering through what had become a paper-thin lattice. And so, rather than just sailing bravely in the face of a light blow of conflicting facts, Kerry found himself in a veritable typhoon. As he did at least once in Vietnam, finding heavy seas, he turned tail and hid from the worst. He himself became very difficult to question or interview, and Reverend Alston has effectively disappeared from the public eye.

Oh, Kerry does have enough friends in what remains major media that reporters hungry for a story aren't dogging Alston's steps, but the truth is out here. And far more people than Kerry ever expected have discovered that with a little effort that truth can be found.

It may not be exactly what Fox Mulder meant when he said, "the truth is out there," but with enough voters out here, come November 2, Kerry will be just another folder in the X-Files.

Posted by dan at September 24, 2004 05:33 PM | TrackBack
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