Chris Matthews Breaks Ranks, Criticizes Network’s Claim That Sergeant Bergdahl Is Being ‘Swiftboated’

When it comes to being a good liberal soldier, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews doesn’t seem to have gotten the network’s message that the GOP is "swiftboating" Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. Over the past week, MSNBC hosts have maintained that Bergdahl had been swiftboated on five different broadcasts and it seems as though Matthews is sick of the comparison. 

Speaking with Chuck Todd, NBC’s Chief White House Correspondent, Political Director, and host of The Daily Rundown on MSNBC, on the Wednesday June 4, Hardball,  Matthews slapped down the MSNBC “swiftboat” narrative: “Swift-boating is totally misused here. Swift-boating is when you make up stories...” [See video below.] 

Matthews seemed visibly distraught after Chuck Todd argued “ I’ve had a few aides -- and I said this earlier -- refer to this, they didn’t expect the quote, unquote, "swift boating" of Bergdahl, trying to bring back memories of –with John Kerry back in 2004."

Matthews immediately interjected and condemned the “swiftboat” line being being peddled by Todd and his fellow MSNBC hosts: 

Swift-boating is totally misused here. Swift-boating is when you make up stories...and you misconstrue the evidence from -- you don’t like the way that John Kerry opposed the Vietnam war after he got back and turned it into an attack on his service over there -- totally dishonest. These are questions raised about a guy who left post, wrote letters, sent signals...that he was leaving post as a matter of principle, he didn’t believe in the war effort. And we don’t know what’s worse here, but the idea that there’s -- where’s the dishonesty in the portrayal of Bergdahl so far? I haven’t seen it. What’s been misconstrued about him so far?

While Matthews denounced the use of the term “swiftboat”, during the preceding PoliticsNation program that evening, host Al Sharpton triumphantly promoted the idea that Berdahl was being swiftboated: 

We now know a Republican consultant has been helping to fan the flames by arranging media interviews with his fellow soldiers who view Bergdahl in a critical manner. We've seen this before, where GOP operatives arrange the swiftboating of John Kerry. The stakes today are too high to rush to judgment when we don't know all the facts, and GOP lawmakers should know better. They should know better than to play politics with something like this.

At 10pm, fill-in host Ari Melber on The Last Word reached for the charged word “swiftboating” (reviving an element of liberal mythology about the 2004 campaign) to suggest Bergdahl was being unfairly victimized: “We’re going to look at the right-wing playbook for the newly released American POW, a wounded man who isn’t even out of the hospital yet. Swiftboat first; ask questions later....[Bergdahl] is being swiftboated by the reflexive anti-Obama machine.”

During the first two hours of MSNBC’s primetime lineup on June 3, hosts Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes didn’t use the term “swiftboat” directly in their condemnation of conservative criticism of Sergeant Bergdahl, but they both seemed to walk a fine line. Chris Hayes claimed “The right tonight is in full freak-out mode over the circumstances of the success or return of the only prisoner of the war in Afghanistan, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl....In the conservative media, Bowe Bergdahl is being lambasted as a deserter, and a traitor. The Drudge Report today blasting the former POW as a rat with a question mark.”

Rachel Maddow seemed to have similar sentiments: “As the country celebrated the return of America's only prisoner of war from the war in Afghanistan, the right decided to condemn the President for getting the soldier freed, and then to condemn the soldier himself....On the American right, in Republican politics and conservative media, there apparently is nothing to celebrate in an American prisoner of war coming home after five years."

Chuck Todd used the term when he appeared on NBC’s Today on June 4 in response to host Matt Lauer asking whether or not the Obama Administration was “caught flat-footed” on Bergdahl. Todd retorted “They were caught flatfooted....They did not expect this backlash on Bergdahl himself. I've had a few aides describe it to me as, 'We didn't know that they were going to swiftboat Bergdahl.” 

On Thursday, June 5, Kristen Welker, NBC's White House Correspondent, asked Congressman Peter King (R-NY) as she filled-in for Andrea Mitchell on Andrea Mitchell Reports: "Are Republicans trying to swiftboat Bowe Bergdahl?" Congressman King shot back: "To compare what was apparently done to John Kerry or allegedly done to John Kerry to this, every allegation that's being made by these troops are the people in the field with him. They are the ones we should listen to. These are men who served with him, who felt betrayed by him. No one has a better knowledge than they would have."   

It’s a rare but pleasant surprise when Chris Matthews is the lone liberal MSNBCer to not follow the network’s talking points especially When NBC’s Chief White House Correspondent continues to use the “swiftboat” narrative.

See relevant transcript below. 


MSNBC

Hardball with Chris Matthews

June 4, 2014

7:00 p.m. Eastern 

CHRIS MATTHEWS: Good evening. I’m Chris Matthews in Washington. “Let Me Start” tonight with the new, startling video of Sergeant Bergdahl being handed over by the Taliban. Since Saturday, we’ve watched a deteriorating picture of the deal that led to his release. In rolling out the news, the White House painted a happy picture of American victory, something of a celebration. Our soldier, basking in the glory of honorable and distinctive service, was coming home to what looked to be a justified price. “A national hero” one Republican member of Congress called him. In exchange, we were told five Taliban prisoners were being sent to what was described as a house arrest in Qatar. They would have no communication with their fellow warriors in the Afghan war front. They would be out of action, completely out of the fighting for at least a year.

Today, Wednesday, the deal is less joyous, of course. There are huge questions about the soldier we are getting home. Was he loyal to the country? Did he desert? Did we cut too loose a deal with the enemy to get him back? Did we let the Taliban regain some of its top military commanders to prepare for a final assault on Kabul? Did we create a firing squad, if you will, against our own troops who will be left behind to guard our embassy over there and provide other support a year from now, when these five Johnnys come marching home. And are they even now engaged in war planning as they assemble in the Taliban headquarters in Doha?

Chuck Todd is political director for NBC News and Chief White House correspondent. He’s the host of The Daily Rundown here on MSNBC. And Clarence Page is a columnist for “The Chicago Tribune.” First, let’s start with those dramatic videos released today of Bergdahl’s handoff by the Taliban to American special forces. Bergdahl is shown here sitting in the back of a pickup truck, talking to the Taliban escorts while waiting for Americans arrive. Eventually, American special forces do arrive by helicopter. Bergdahl and his Taliban escort move toward them. You can see the Americans briefly shaking hands with the Taliban people, and then taking Bergdahl back to the helicopter. The Americans frisk him, load him onto the helicopter, then they take off. It all takes about a minute on the ground there.

Anyway, Chuck, you’ve got a lot of things to do tonight, so I’m going to get your thoughts here now. Did the White House anticipate today, last Saturday? Did they know how the picture would deteriorate, the picture we have of Bergdahl as a loyal American, or not, the picture we have of these Taliban detainees as dangerous or not? How’s the picture changed, or has it?

CHUCK TODD: Well, look, they thought five days later, if there was going to be a robust debate, if this was going to be a political firestorm, they figured it would almost be solely focused on the decision to release these five members of the Taliban back into, you know, the house arrest in Qatar, or whatever you want to call it, that that would be the firestorm, that that would be the debate, that that would -- there would be a back-and-forth. They did not anticipate the focus on Bergdahl himself.

They knew the back story, but there was an assumption that they had, given, you know, perhaps some of the bipartisan calls for trying to find Bergdahl that were coming from Capitol Hill, doing whatever it took, to a certain degree, to get Bergdahl back into U.S. hands -- that there wouldn’t be this public outcry against him. They also, obviously, didn’t do their homework on this front. They thought there would be some members of the military, people that knew Bergdahl, that served with Bergdahl, that would stand up for him.

They have been surprised that, basically, nobody that’s served with him is standing up for him, and anybody that did serve with him that has chosen to speak out has been critical of either Bergdahl’s service or raised questions about how he disappeared from -- how he might have ended up in Taliban hands. And in fact, the political infighting -- I’ve had a few aides -- and I said this earlier -- refer to this, they didn’t expect the quote, unquote, "swift boating" of Bergdahl, trying to bring back memories of --

MATTHEWS: Well, wait a minute!

TODD: -- the whole political fight --

MATTHEWS: Wait a minute!

TODD: -- with John Kerry back in 2004 --

MATTHEWS: Swift-boating of John Kerry was a dishonest --

TODD: I think it’s rough language, but --

MATTHEWS: -- PR campaign.

TODD: Right.

MATTHEWS: No, no! Swift-boating is totally misused here. Swift-boating is when you make up stories --

TODD: Right.

MATTHEWS: -- and you misconstrue the evidence from -- you don’t like the way that John Kerry opposed the Vietnam war after he got back and turned it into an attack on his service over there -- totally dishonest. These are questions raised about a guy who left post, wrote letters, sent signals --

TODD: Right.

MATTHEWS: -- that he was leaving post as a matter of principle, he didn’t believe in the war effort. And we don’t know what’s worse here, but the idea that there’s -- where’s the dishonesty in the portrayal of Bergdahl so far? I haven’t seen it. What’s been misconstrued about him so far?

TODD: Well --

MATTHEWS: I know there’s questions raised. I have --

TODD: Hey, I -- you’re --

MATTHEWS: -- those questions. Most Americans do.

TODD: This is not -- Chris, I understand. This is not my portrayal. I’m simply reporting to you how the White House is viewing this. Now, there is a part of the White House that thinks, Hey -- and you’ve heard it from defense officials -- give Bergdahl time to tell his side of the story.

MATTHEWS: Yes.

TODD: And they believe, at a minimum, that it’s been unfair that Bergdahl hasn’t been able to give his side of the story, that we don’t know his version of events, of the circumstances that got him into the hands of the Taliban. And that’s why they are calling this a swift boat, that it’s a one-sided version of events.

Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer
Jeffrey Meyer is a News Analyst at the Media Research Center.