WASHINGTON -- For one night only, it will be spitballs and swift boats together on the same stage -- a who's who of Senator John F. Kerry-bashing.
The American Conservative Union yesterday announced it has tapped Senator Zell Miller, Democrat of George, to present the Courage Under Fire award to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth at the Conservative Political Action Conference banquet on Feb. 18.
Miller and the group of Vietnam veterans were behind perhaps the campaign's two fiercest and most memorable attacks on Kerry's presidential bid.
Miller, who is retiring next month, scorched Kerry in a Republican National Convention keynote address in which he suggested that the four-term Massachusetts Democrat had voted to cut so many weapons systems, it seemed he wanted to send the military to war with only spitballs.
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ran ads after the Democratic convention questioning whether Kerry was actually the decorated Vietnam War veteran that he said he was.
''The Swift Boat Veterans performed an invaluable service to America," Miller said in a statement. ''These veterans took a lot of undeserved criticism for daring to speak the truth."
Official military records and statements from swift boat veterans in Navy documents raised questions about their largely unsubstantiated accusations, but the political damage had been done. At a postelection forum Wednesday in Boston, Mary Beth Cahill, Kerry's campaign manager, said she regretted underestimating the impact of the ads.
Roy Hoffmann, the retired Navy rear admiral who founded the Swift Boat Veterans, said he did not know much about Miller but was pleased with the honor. The goal, he said, was to ensure that Kerry did not become commander in chief.
''We achieved our goal," Hoffmann said. ''That was our primary concern, and we are pleased someone recognized the effort, or at least the impact we had on the election."
Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union, said Miller had spoken at a previous banquet and ''lit up the crowd."
Democrats shrugged off the choices of both honorees and presenter.
''It seems fitting that a Republican in Democratic clothing is recognizing the work of Republican agents, namely the smears that the Swift Boat Veterans launched against John Kerry," said Jano Cabrera, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.