Sandwiched between the sharp attacks of two Republican presidential candidates, Vice President Gore today told thousands of fellow veterans that his commitment to the military is a "personal and moral standard to bear."
At the American Legion's 81st annual convention, Gore promised he would fight for military pay raises, full accounting of missing POWs and honor guards for the funeral of every veteran.
"You have this ironclad commitment from me: As long as I am in a position to do something about it, America will be the strongest force for peace and freedom in the entire world," he said to warm applause.
The vice president touted his political record, reminding the veterans that he voted for the Persian Gulf War in 1991, co-founded the Vietnam-era Veterans Caucus and pressed last month for an extra $1 billion for veterans' health care. "You did not delay in answering your country's call; your country, in turn, should never make you wait," he told more than 3,000 members of the nation's largest wartime veterans group.
But Gore was not without competition here. On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said both President Clinton and the GOP-led Congress should be held responsible for declining military budgets, "an all-consuming addiction to pork-barrel spending" on unneeded bases and an inconsistent foreign policy. "Experience counts," he said, "and in an administration with so few in its upper echelons who wore the nation's uniform, the inattention to our military and our veterans, while inexcusable and dangerous, is sadly not surprising."
As Gore walked off the stage, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) then lambasted the administration for "eight years of neglect" of military needs. Putting the blame squarely on Clinton and Gore, he said the record number of military families on food stamps is "deplorable," Pentagon health care is an "embarrassment" and desecration of the American flag "unspeakable."
"Bad leadership affects morale," said Hatch, who did not serve in the military but moved the crowd of aging soldiers with the story of his older brother Jess returning from World War II in a body bag.
During a week in which Gore is attempting to score points with his proposal to provide health insurance to every child by 2005, McCain and Hatch rebuked him for neglecting the care of America's soldiers. "Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the health care delivery system in our country--about pending legislation that is being called the 'patients' bill of rights,' " McCain said. "It is a vital issue of enormous importance to our country. But what about a 'veterans' bill of rights?' "
As he opens a two-week tour promoting his new book about three generations of McCain Navy men, the former Vietnam prisoner of war is counting on the support of military men and women. He has worked to recruit many of the 138,000 veterans and active personnel in New Hampshire and the 450,000 in South Carolina. "There is a great eagerness among veterans to put one of their own in the White House," said McCain spokesman Howard Opinsky.
While veterans said they were happy to hear Gore speak their language, it might be difficult for him to overcome the ill will many feel toward the president.
"We're a little closer to McCain because of what he went through," said Keith Truax, who served 22 years in the Navy. Edward Phillips Jr., an Air Force veteran whose Air Force son is struggling to pay his bills on a military salary, said Gore's speech was "good as long as he meant what he said. . . . I imagine I'll go with [Texas Gov.] George Bush; Clinton's hurting Gore."
From the earliest days of the 1992 presidential campaign, when questions arose over Clinton's draft record, many veterans have voiced disdain for the Democratic team. Policies ranging from gays in the military to cutbacks at VA hospitals have exacerbated those tensions.
Today, Gore attempted to repair some of the damage, reiterating administration support for the first-in-a-decade increases in the Pentagon budget. "I have always known what you know," he said, "that nothing we do for our veterans after the battle is going to matter if we don't back them up while they're in the trenches and on the front lines fighting for us."
Sporting the navy "peak hat" of his American Legion Post in Tennessee, Gore reminisced about his military uncles and his own days as an Army journalist in Vietnam. Pointing to Robert Dalabar of Seattle, who met Gore at aviation training in 1969, he recalled how the pair would "commandeer jeeps on down days" in Vietnam. "Some of the greatest times of my whole life were times spent with my buddies in the Army," he added.
Despite the warm reception and his three decades in public office, Gore could have a ways to go in winning over the veterans' vote. As he strode on stage, Butch L. Miller, national commander of the American Legion, announced: "The vice president of the United States, Alan Gore Jr."