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Self-Doubt and Raging Bull

Inside Track

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Editor's Note: Peter Freyne is on vacation this week.

The call came in last week: Peter Freyne had split for an undisclosed beach, and they wanted me to suit up for "Outside Track." I played it off like no big deal, but down deep? There were qualms. Because, let's face it: It's a brutal business, political muckraking. You stick your toe in -- big toe, pinky toe, whichever -- you'll never be clean again.

And, of course, you need the columnist's tools: skin triceratops-thick, nerves like banjo wire, a raccoon's nose for nasty. And you gotta be able to punch, and then keep on punching even after the bell rings. Because, as often as not, the guy with the bell is crooked as a dog's hind leg.

Freyne's got tools. You see him coast down Church Street on that bike of his and, if you squint hard, it's like watching a blurry clip from Raging Bull -- I mean, if Robert De Niro wore the helmet and the biking shorts. And if his legs were fish-belly white. And if De Niro was Irish as all hell.

Anyway, you know what I mean. You see Freyne hunched over that bike and you think: Somebody's going down today.

What do I got for tools? No got. But I figured, if some deal's really outlandishly dirty, any nose can find it. So when I hung up the phone, I started sniffing around.

And guess what? The Swift Boat boys are back, and they're working Vermont.

Swift Boats, Ho! -- I got a call from a guy. Can't say who, but anyway this guy gave some money once to a Southern Republican, an old friend of his. Since then my friend's address has been peddled relentlessly to fire-breathing conservatives. A few weeks back, a fundraising letter shows up in the mail. Signed "John O'Neill, Swift Boat Veteran of Vietnam," the letter is written in support of Greg Parke, whose hat is currently in the ring for Jim Jeffords' Senate seat. With Richie Tarrant sucking up all the media oxygen, Parke's candidacy has been flying well under the radar -- not a bad mixed metaphor for a former Air Force lt. colonel with a few thousand hours in an F-16.

On paper, Parke looks like a solid Republican bet, in the election-tested Dubie-mode: former Falcon Fighter man turned to flying commercial aircraft. Also big on military issues, flags, planes, flight jackets, etc.

So why haven't you heard Parke's name this cycle? Because the guy thinks he's running a primary in southern Mississippi, that's why.

One for-instance. In 2004 it was a House seat Parke was after, and he had this to say about Congressman Bernie Sanders: "I lay the blame for 9/11 right at the feet of Mr. Sanders and people like him that cut our intelligence budget," Parke told WSYB radio host Tim Philbin.

This quote badly freaked Philbin. "Are you saying that the reason why those people are dead is because of Bernie Sanders in Congress?" Philbin asked nervously.

"Indirectly, yes," Parke replied.

How do I know about this weird incident? Parke displays it proudly on his website, under "News." Sure was to me.

But I digress: the fundraising letter. John O'Neill is the über-Swift Boat Vet, the Swift Boat Vet for Truth who's more for truth, apparently, than any other Swift Boat Vet. This is the guy who debated John Kerry on Dick Cavett in 1971. The guy who wrote Unfit for Command. The guy who made that Willie Horton ad seem like an episode of "The Care Bears."

And guess what? Bernie's his new Kerry.

"There was no way I was going to sit idly by as John Kerry tried to become our Commander-in-Chief," O'Neill writes. "Today I am working on a similar mission . . . A mission to stop the most extreme politician in America from winning election to the U.S. Senate."

Most frightening of all, O'Neill warns, is that by seizing on the quirky rules of the Senate, Bernie will "turn into a dangerous liberal wreaking crew [sic]."

Nothing makes my blood run colder than a wreaking crew. Especially one wreaking, or crewing, liberally.

Social Security Must Die -- One other interesting connection. When Bush won in 2004, the Swift Boat machine didn't fade away. No, no: Their advisors and media people morphed into a group put together by USA Next to smear the AARP, when the seniors group stood firmly in the way of Bush's Social Security privatization push.

And wouldn't you know, on Parke's website, Bush's "private accounts" concept appears pretty much verbatim, distortions included. Someone forgot to tell Parke that Americans roundly rejected Bush's private accounts, consistently opting for less drastic changes to the highly popular program.

Come to think of it, someone forgot to tell him that Americans don't like 9/11 invoked for political gain.

But come to think again, what does Parke care? He's got John O'Neill's "strongest possible endorsement."

Cool, as Freyne would say.

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