In 1971, when Kerry emerged as the articulate and telegenic leader of Vietnam veterans trying to end the lengthy conflict, the Nixon White House offered up O'Neill as "the un-Kerry."
A clean-cut Naval Academy honor graduate from San Antonio, O'Neill had earned two Bronze Stars as, like Kerry, a Swift Boat skipper in "Coastal Division II," better known as the Mekong Delta. O'Neill, in fact, once commanded PCF 94, the same Swift Boat that had previously been under Kerry's command.
O'Neill was incensed by Kerry's anti-war activities, particularly his claims that American troops in Vietnam had committed wholesale atrocities. His criticism of Kerry eventually came to the attention of Nixon White House counsel Charles Colson, and he became the centerpiece of Colson's attempt to discredit Kerry.
"Let's destroy this young demagogue before he becomes a Ralph Nader," Colson wrote in one of the White House memos about recruiting O'Neill to challenge Kerry.
Nixon himself became part of the effort, meeting with O'Neill for an hour in the Oval Office.
O'Neill has spent 30 years of his life in pursuit of John Kerry, apparently going insane in the process. Ahab would have understood.
And now he serves George Bush.
These manuevers worked against Bill Clinton -- in part because Clinton did have things to hide (mostly his sex life, though it's usually assumed Hilary's early stock options earnings were a form of bribe). They worked against John McCain.
Rove's calculations presumably run this way:
1. Minimum gain: Reduce ability to attack GWB's lackadaisacal approach to his draft-dodging national service stint. (I don't personally care that GWB dodged the draft, I'd have done it too. I would have thought Al Gore and John Kerry were a bit crazy to go into that war. It does make Bush's uber-macho-patriot act somewhat even more annoying.)
2. Maximum gain: Do a "Clinton" and trash Kerry.
3. Risk: Energize Kerry's base and make the media more aggressive than they've been.
Kerry can't dirty his hands with O'Neill, but the media should show some spine and investigate a bit. I suspect they'll find O'Neill has quite an interesting history.