The Kerry campaign ratcheted up its defense of the Democrat's military record yesterday, producing three veterans to attest to John F. Kerry's valor in Vietnam while pointing reporters to other veterans who expressed disgust at the attacks on the presidential nominee.
In a conference call with reporters arranged by the campaign, three Navy Swift boat officers who served with Kerry 35 years ago but who said they have not been in touch with him for years defended his service and his bravery. Rich McCann, Jim Russell and Rich Baker said Kerry served honorably and took issue with questions raised by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth about his commendations.
"He was the most aggressive officer in charge of Swift boats," Baker said. "With no disrespect to anyone out there, the whole Swift boat operation took courage and guts every time you stepped on those boats. But John Kerry was one step above the rest of us."
The conference call was part of a Kerry offensive aimed at regaining control of an issue that has been the centerpiece of his presidential bid -- his Vietnam service. The campaign has been roiled by an ad that questions Kerry's valor and accuses him of misrepresenting the facts that led to some of his commendations.
President Bush yesterday repeated his condemnation of unregulated money that he said was "pouring" into the political process. But he stopped short of denouncing the ad by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which is being aired in three battleground states and is funded largely by Republicans.
Bush praised Kerry's military service in Vietnam. "I think Senator Kerry served admirably, and he ought to be proud of his record," he said.
But, pressed several times by reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., about whether he would specifically condemn the ad, Bush would only say: "That means that ad and every other ad. I'm denouncing all the stuff."
In Oshkosh, Wis., Kerry's running mate, John Edwards, blasted Bush for not being more critical of the ad and the claims by the group. "Today, George Bush faced his moment of truth and he failed," said Edwards, who has repeatedly called on the president to denounce the veterans group's ad. "He failed to condemn the specific attacks on John Kerry's military record. We didn't need to hear a politician's answer, but unfortunately that's what we got."
Adm. Roy Hoffmann, a founder of the anti-Kerry group, issued a statement in response to Bush's comment: "It would make no difference if John Kerry were a Republican, Democrat or an Independent, Swift Boat Veterans would still be speaking the truth concerning John Kerry's military service record in Vietnam, his actions after returning home and his lack of qualifications to be the next Commander in Chief."
While getting off to a slow start in responding to the ad, Kerry's campaign is frantically trying to mobilize veterans to speak out. Former senator Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who lost three limbs in Vietnam, spent the weekend in Wisconsin denouncing the Swift boat ads and attacks, and Kerry's crewmates have been fanning out across the country to defend him.
In Pennsylvania, crewmate Del Sandusky said at a news conference that he witnessed the combat missions for which Kerry received Silver and Bronze stars and two of his three Purple Hearts. "He deserved every one of his medals," Sandusky said.
William L. Sweidel, a decorated Korean War veteran who appeared with Sandusky, said later that he voted for both Bushes for president but will support Kerry because of these attacks. "I called the campaign to express outrage. I was disappointed. I was diminished," Sweidel said. "Nobody was talking about how it was hurting all veterans to have them criticize Kerry's medals. The whole system is now suspect based on what these people are saying. It's pernicious."
Phil Butler, who spent eight years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, took issue with suggestions by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that Kerry's antiwar protests caused the POWs to be treated badly. "I lived with two of the POWs who are now in that group -- Mr. [Ken] Courdier and Mr. [Paul] Gallanti -- and I am telling you, they are full of it. We never heard a blooming thing about John Kerry while we were there," said Butler, who contacted the campaign months ago to support Kerry and only recently heard back from Kerry's veterans coordinator, John Hurley.
Butler said that while he was tortured and mistreated until 1969, by the time Kerry was protesting the war and speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 1971, the POWs were better treated.