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.
On Friday, a company called First Run Features is slated to debut a documentary about Kerry and his Swift boat crewmates, "Brothers in Arms," in a New York theater. Director Paul Alexander, who calls it "a very sympathetic portrait," said that no one was interested when he finished it last Christmas but that the recent controversy has given it a boost. He said the film will be sold as a DVD and could reach theaters around the country.
In the conference call, Baker said he thought that former senator Robert J. Dole's critical comments Sunday about Kerry's medals were inappropriate and that Dole had no "business" judging the injuries for which Kerry received three Purple Hearts. "John Kerry is lucky to be alive today," Baker said. "The fourth Purple Heart could have been an AK-47 through his heart."
McCann said that he tried to stay out of politics but that when he saw that the Swift boat group had identified him on its Web site as being "neutral" on Kerry without asking him, he was furious. Kerry's commendation record "has stood for 35 years and suddenly you've got people coming forward saying, 'Well, I've had second thoughts about this,' " McCann said. "That is dishonoring not only John Kerry, it is dishonoring all veterans."
In anticipation of the airing of the group's ad attacking Kerry's antiwar efforts, the Kerry campaign has launched a new ad, calling the Swift boat commercials "smears and lies" and accusing the Bush operation of using the same tactic it used against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2000 GOP primaries.
In response, the Bush campaign yesterday sent letters to 27 television stations in 11 cities in the battleground states of Ohio, Wisconsin and West Virginia that called the Kerry campaign ad "false and libelous" for its contention that Bush was illegally coordinating with the Swift boat group. The letter did not ask the stations to ban the ad.
Rick Lipps, general manager of WNWO-TV, the NBC affiliate in Toledo, said TV stations were caught in the crossfire between the campaigns. Although he had not seen the Bush campaign's complaint as of late yesterday, Lipps said his station "tries to do its homework" by asking all political advertisers to verify advertising claims. "There isn't much way to take it further than that," he said.
The president's comments yesterday were similar to those he made on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Aug. 12, when King asked him if he would denounce the anti-Kerry ad. "Well, I haven't seen the ad, but what I do condemn is these unregulated soft-money expenditures by very wealthy people," Bush said.
Privately, Bush aides said they felt under no pressure to change their position on the Swift boat ads because the controversy seems to be hurting Kerry more than Bush. But they are irritated that the media have been taking seriously the Kerry complaint to the Federal Election Commission. The complaint, filed yesterday, accuses the Bush campaign of breaking election law by coordinating the ads with the independent group. The Bush aides are determined not to give Kerry an opening by criticizing Swift Boat Veterans for Truth directly.
Questioned after Bush's remarks, White House press secretary Scott McClellan repeatedly declined to criticize the content of the Swift boat ads. "Senator Kerry wants to have it both ways," by selectively calling on Bush to condemn one group's ads, McClellan said. "Senator Kerry can help put an end to all of this by joining us in calling for a stop to all of these ads."
Dole yesterday went back on CNN, where he had made his critical remarks the previous day, to say that he had received a call from Kerry. "I said, 'John, I didn't mean to offend you,' " Dole said. "But I said, 'You know, when you continue to attack George Bush . . . you know, George Bush is my guy.' . . . The final words were 'John, I wish you good luck up to a point.' "
Milbank reported from Crawford, Tex. Staff writers Paul Farhi and Howard Kurtz in Washington contributed to this report.