By Howard Kurtz
"A defense of the president ought not involve character assassination," he said.
The controversy surfaced Monday when NBC's Geraldo Rivera said he "just got a call from my source very close to President Clinton, who reminded me that there was a controversy in terms of the medals [McHale] won in the armed forces of the United States. He was indeed a, what was it, a Bronze Star winner, but maybe he claimed to something even more honorable than that."
The problem: McHale does not have a Bronze Star and never claimed to have been awarded one, or any higher military honor.
McHale said a White House official called him late yesterday to say that "the president apologized for the attack on my character" and "the president would never have approved this kind of attack. . . . I accepted the apology." Rivera has also apologized.
White House spokesman Joe Lockhart said that "anyone who questions the integrity of Congressman McHale is no friend of the president's. While we may disagree with Congressman McHale's assessment of the current situation, no one here questions his integrity. . . . The White House will not tolerate comments like these."
After learning of the charge on "Rivera Live," McHale faxed his military biography to Rivera with a letter saying that "your source . . . obviously provided false information" and "abused your trust."
On his CNBC show Tuesday, Rivera recounted his charge that McHale had "falsely claimed to be a Medal of Honor winner," adding: "I apologize, Mr. McHale, if either my reference to the Medal of Honor or the Bronze Star was inaccurate. But . . . apparently there has been some very real controversy over your claims about your military service."
McHale is a longtime Marine who rose to the rank of major and, while in the reserves, volunteered for duty in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War. In 1992, when he unseated then-Rep. Don Ritter (R), veterans allied with Ritter charged that McHale had exaggerated his role in the war and was a liaison officer, not the commander of a security unit. But other Marines said he had shared leadership duties; no mention was made of medals.
McHale called the effort to discredit him "dishonorable," saying, "It's consistent with the pattern of personal criticism that emanates from this White House when a person . . . voices opposition to the president."
Asked if Rivera should have checked the allegation, CNBC spokesman George Jamison said, "The comment was clearly attributed, and in fact there was a controversy." Rivera has consistently defended Clinton and denounced independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
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