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McCain Defends Kerry Vietnam Record

Republican Sen. John McCain (search), a former prisoner of war in Vietnam, called an ad criticizing John Kerry's (search) military service "dishonest and dishonorable" and urged the White House on Thursday to condemn it as well.

The White House declined.

"It was the same kind of deal that was pulled on me," McCain said in an interview with The Associated Press, comparing the anti-Kerry ad to tactics in his bitter Republican primary fight with President Bush (search).

The 60-second ad features Vietnam veterans who accuse the Democratic presidential nominee of lying about his decorated Vietnam War (search) record and betraying his fellow veterans by later opposing the conflict.

"When the chips were down, you could not count on John Kerry," one of the veterans, Larry Thurlow, says in the ad. Thurlow didn't serve on Kerry's swiftboat, but says he witnessed the events that led to Kerry winning a Bronze Star (search) and the last of his three Purple Hearts. Kerry's crewmates support the candidate and call him a hero.

The ad, scheduled to air in a few markets in Ohio, West Virginia and Wisconsin, was produced by Stevens, Reed, Curcio and Potham, the same team that produced McCain's ads in 2000.

"I wish they hadn't done it," McCain said of his former advisers. "I don't know if they knew all the facts."

Asked if the White House knew about the ad or helped find financing for it, McCain said, "I hope not, but I don't know. But I think the Bush campaign should specifically condemn the ad."

McCain, chairman of Bush's campaign in Arizona, later said the Bush campaign has denied any involvement and added, "I can't believe the president would pull such a cheap stunt."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to condemn the ad. He did denounce the proliferation of spending by independent groups, such as the anti-Kerry veterans organization, that are playing on both sides of the political fence.

"The president thought he got rid of this unregulated soft money when he signed the bipartisan campaign finance reform into law," McClellan said. A chief sponsor of that bill, which Bush initially opposed, was McCain.

In 2000, Bush's supporters sponsored a rumor campaign against McCain in the South Carolina primary, helping Bush win the primary and the nomination. McCain's supporters have never forgiven the Bush team.

McCain said that's all in the past to him, but he's speaking out against the anti-Kerry ad because "it reopens all the old wounds of the Vietnam War, which I spent the last 35 years trying to heal."

"I deplore this kind of politics," McCain said. "I think the ad is dishonest and dishonorable. As it is, none of these individuals served on the boat [Kerry] commanded. Many of his crew have testified to his courage under fire. I think John Kerry served honorably in Vietnam. I think George Bush served honorably in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War."

Retired Adm. Roy Hoffmann, head of the Swift Boat group, said they respected McCain's "right to express his opinion and we hope he extends to us the same respect and courtesy, particularly since we served with John Kerry, we knew him well and Sen. McCain did not."

McCain himself spent more than five years in a Vietnam prisoner of war camp. A bona fide war hero, McCain, like Kerry, used his war record as the foundation of his presidential campaign.

The Kerry campaign has denounced the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, saying none of the men in the ad served on the boat that Kerry commanded. Three veterans on Kerry's boat that day -- Jim Rassmann, who says Kerry saved his life, Gene Thorson and Del Sandusky, the driver on Kerry's boat, said the group was lying.

They say Kerry was injured, and Rassmann called the group's account "pure fabrication."

The general counsel for the Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee sent television stations a letter asking them not to run the ad because it is "an inflammatory, outrageous lie" by people purporting to have served with Kerry.

Hoffmann said none of the 13 veterans in the commercial served on Kerry's boat but rather were in other swiftboats within 50 yards of Kerry's. The group claims that there was no gunfire on the day Kerry pulled Rassmann from a muddy river in the Mekong Delta and that Kerry's arm was not wounded, as he has claimed.