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Rick Reed, G.O.P. Adman of ‘Swift Boat’ Campaign, Dies at 69


Rick Reed, a Republican promoting executive whose work within the 2004 presidential race tarnished Senator John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, by attacking his record as a Swift boat commander throughout the Vietnam War — giving rise to the term “swift boating” as a synonym for making ad hominem attacks, typically unfair, on a public figure — died on Aug. 17 at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 69.

His daughter Mackey Reed confirmed the death but didn’t provide a cause.

The 2004 ads Mr. Reed helped produce, for a bunch called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, were highly contentious and remain so. Mr. Kerry and his allies, including a lot of those that served with him, disputed the group’s claims that he had lied about his service and had betrayed his country by speaking out against the war later.

Journalists discredited several of the ads, which were a part of a broader effort to challenge Mr. Kerry’s war record that also included a best-selling book. Senator John McCain, a Republican and a former prisoner of war, called them “dishonest and dishonorable.”

Mr. Reed argued that they raised legitimate questions on Mr. Kerry’s fitness to be president. And despite reporting that undermined the accusations, he insisted as recently as last yr, in an interview, that the ads “were never discredited.”

There isn’t any doubt that the Swift Boat campaign hurt Mr. Kerry’s candidacy, said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center on the University of Pennsylvania.

Citing a rolling cross-sectional survey the middle conducted throughout the campaign of the general public’s day by day responses to messages from the candidates and the news media, she said that the ads themselves had little direct effect on voters’ consciousness, but that the wide media attention they attracted did.

“They damaged the perception of Kerry as a powerful leader, especially amongst suburban women,” Professor Jamieson said. Mr. Kerry lost the election to President George W. Bush, whose own lack of combat service largely receded as a difficulty after the emergence of the Swift Boat attacks.

Richard Gardner Reed was born on May 24, 1953, in Wakefield, Mass., to Gardner Chase Reed, a financial adviser, and Priscilla (Swett) Reed. He grew up in Chatham, on Cape Cod.

He graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in 1975 and later earned a master’s degree in public administration from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

He first got involved in Republican politics by doing advance work in Florida for Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful presidential primary run in 1976. He later worked for a consulting firm led by Paul Manafort and Roger Stone, who went on the play key roles within the political rise of Donald J. Trump.

Over the course of Mr. Reed’s profession, his clients included Senators Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, John Warner and George Allen of Virginia, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

“Rick was an exceptional talent and a gifted ad maker,” Mr. Fitzgerald said in a press release provided by Mr. Reed’s family. “In my case, he took a really young, virtual neophyte, and vaulted him right into a U.S. Senate seat.”

Mr. Reed worked on John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000 and, despite the Arizona senator’s anger over the Swift Boat ads in 2004, briefly reunited with him for his 2008 run. He also produced ads for Mr. Trump’s primary campaign in 2016.

Mr. Reed, a part of an old-school breed of political admen who reveled in writing their very own scripts, considered the Republican pollster Arthur Finkelstein, whom he met early in his profession, a mentor.

“He’s not one to necessarily spend a variety of time attempting to curry favor with the party hierarchy,” Mr. Reed said of Mr. Finkelstein in a 2003 interview with Roll Call. “And that shouldn’t be necessarily a foul thing.”

Along with his daughter Mackey, Mr. Reed is survived by his wife, Gayla, whom he met after they worked together for the National Senate Republican Committee; one other daughter, Carly Reed; a son, Gardner; and a sister, Melissa Reed.

In Mr. Reed’s telling, his work with the Swift Boat group was a matter of serendipity. It began with a May 2004 email from an uncle, Adrian Lonsdale, a retired Coast Guard captain who had been one among Mr. Kerry’s commanders in Vietnam and was on his method to Washington for a news conference.

“I said, ‘What’s this about?’” Mr. Reed recalled last yr in an interview with the podcast “First Right.”

Captain Lonsdale, Mr. Reed said, replied that he and “a bunch officers from Vietnam who served together” were coming to “discuss” Mr. Kerry, who had effectively locked up the Democratic nomination to challenge Mr. Bush in that yr’s race.

Mr. Reed went to the news conference, where Captain Lonsdale and others denounced Mr. Kerry, primarily due to a difficulty that had been simmering because the Seventies: his antiwar activism upon returning home after a tour of duty commanding Swift boats — 50-foot aluminum Navy vessels used to patrol Vietnam’s waterways — within the Mekong Delta.

The news conference was calmly attended and generated modest coverage. But Mr. Reed, a longtime partner on the political promoting firm Stevens Reed Curcio & Potholm, was struck by the veterans’ arguments against Mr. Kerry, which also included difficult his honesty about how he had earned a few of his medals.

“I said, ‘Boy, this story has to get out,’” he recalled within the “First Right” interview.

Get out it did.

Several weeks later, Mr. Reed got a call from Chris LaCivita, a Republican political consultant with whom he had worked previously. “I’ve been hired as a general consultant to the Swift Boat group,” Mr. Reed recalled Mr. LaCivita saying. “I believe we’d like to make some ads.”

The primary fruits of that effort, a 60-second spot called “Any Questions?,” featured greater than a dozen Swift boat veterans, most of whom had not ridden directly alongside Mr. Kerry. They were blunt of their attacks.

“If you will have any query about what John Kerry’s fabricated from, just spend three minutes with the lads who served with him,” the ad began. What followed was a litany of condemnations of Mr. Kerry as someone who was “lying about his record,” had “betrayed all his shipmates” and “can’t be trusted.”

With a comparatively modest budget of $500,000, the group, operating as an independent entity, placed the ad in several markets in Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin in early August — after Mr. Kerry had underscored the importance he placed on his war record by saying he was “reporting for duty” on nomination night on the Democratic National Convention.

Partly since it appeared throughout the campaign’s summer doldrums and partly since the Kerry campaign appeared slow to reply, the ad grabbed the eye of network and cable television news outlets, which played it repeatedly as a subject of coverage and commentary. Talk radio and conservative web sites provided additional fuel, increasing the impact of the ad’s message: that Mr. Kerry was to not be trusted on a fundamental selling point — far beyond where it first aired.

Later ads in what became a $19 million campaign, largely financed by wealthy Texans loyal to Mr. Bush, featured attacks on Mr. Kerry from former prisoners of war and their wives. The ads were targeted at a couple of dozen battleground states.

Although Mr. Kerry’s allies joined him in disputing the ads’ content, they acknowledged the effect.

A test of 1,000 voters in 12 battleground states by Public Opinion Strategies found that 75 percent recalled the ads, L. Patrick Devlin, a University of Rhode Island professor, noted in a paper published in American Behavioral Scientist in 2005.

“That,” Bill Knapp, a senior strategist for Mr. Kerry’s campaign told Professor Devlin in a 2004 interview cited within the paper, “is a giant bang for its demagogic buck.”

Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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