The Washington Post continues its mixed record on the Swift Boat ad campaign. While I think the prominence the paper gives to the stories provides credibility to the campaign, the headline writers and reporters have cast doubt on the group’s veracity.

Last Saturday’s paper had two front page stories on the controversy. The first outlined the group’s bitterness over Kerry’s anti-war activities.

But while the group appears to be rooted in Republican politics and big money, several veterans who signed the letter said in interviews yesterday that they are casually into politics and generally are not convinced that Kerry is lying, but they do not like the candidate because of his polarizing speeches in the 1970s.

James Zumwalt, who attended the group’s first news conference in May, said he joined the group solely to set the record straight about the allegations of war crimes included in “Tour of Duty,” a Douglas Brinkley book about Kerry’s Vietnam service. Now, Zumwalt says, “I kind of have mixed feelings” about the tone of the group’s attacks. “I would not try to question the awards given to him or his service.”

Indeed, Kerry’s anti-war activities seem to drive most of the 250 who signed the anti-Kerry petition.

Unlike casual participants, the most committed members say they are driven by desire to expose Kerry as a fraud who doctored his record to win medals and an early release from Vietnam. But they are a minority in the larger group.

So what we learn is that most of the group doesn’t think he’s lying about his record, yet that aspect of the group dominates the coverage.

The second article is nothing short of a free advertisement for the ad decrying Kerry’s anti-Vietnam War activities. The ad was to begin airing Saturday. At least the Dems are getting better at sound bite hardball.

David Wade, a Kerry spokesman, responded in kind: “Maybe if George Bush had seen combat up close his hired-gun mouthpiece wouldn’t be so flip.” Not to be outdone, Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said, “Mr. McClellan needs to understand that John Kerry is not the type of leader who will sit and read ‘My Pet Goat’ to a group of second-graders while America is under attack.” On Sept. 11, 2001, Bush remained in a Florida classroom for several minutes after learning that planes had flown into the World Trade Center.

Though it was the least read of the week paper, two front page stories seems over the top.

Sunday we got a top of the front page story saying both camps provide incomplete accounts. It reads like another piece where the reporter contorts himself to prove he’s balanced.

An investigation by The Washington Post into what happened that day suggests that both sides have withheld information from the public record and provided an incomplete, and sometimes inaccurate, picture of what took place.

Give credit to the writer for following that with “But although Kerry’s accusers have succeeded in raising doubts about his war record, they have failed to come up with sufficient evidence to prove him a liar.”

Then comes Monday. The Post decides news of the Kerry ad attacking the lies of the Swift Boat group should appear on page 2. So after a weekend of three front page stories, the response is inside the paper. The article does reveal a key Bush camp tactic: intimidation.

The Bush campaign announced it will be sending a letter to television stations Monday, stating: “The Bush-Cheney campaign flatly rejects this baseless allegation of illegal coordination between Bush-Cheney ’04 and a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The ad running on your station contains this false and libelous charge.”

Today, The Post has another front page article with a headline – and story tenor – favorable to Kerry.

I’m still wondering if there were ever a group of 250 people out of a possible hundreds of thousands (in this case, veterans of Vietnam) who were able to have such an impact when their credibility is so severely challenged and they offer no proof other than hearsay.

Note the four stories from Saturday through today were reported by six different reporters. That seems a lot of manpower on this story.

Update: The American Prospect skewers The Post

And guess who says this:

It’s long been obvious that the war will decide the election.

Only now it looks like Vietnam, not Iraq.

How did we get to the point where the election has been hijacked by a debate over whether John Kerry’s wounds were bad enough, and his bravery sufficient, in a jungle war 35 years ago?

I blame the media. (Why not? It’s my column.)

The Swift Boat Veterans have a right to purchase air time and make their case, and they’ve done a remarkable job, from their point of view, with a lousy half-million-dollar ad buy in three states.

But the media, which can’t get enough of Vietnam, picked up the issue and ran with it on a hundred cable finger-pointing shows — without having the slightest idea whether it was true. Without that echo-chamber effect, this dinky little ad would have sunk without a trace.