WASHINGTON – Against the backdrop of the USS Intrepid, former President George H.W. Bush (search) told an audience of veterans and supporters on Monday that much of the complaints about the war in Iraq by protesters outside the Republican National Convention are hurting the men and women in uniform overseas.
"They say talk is cheap, but the consensus of some of those marching around here [is it] isn't just cheap, but it also has the effect of making the mission of our young men and women much more difficult," Bush, father of President George W. Bush (search) and a World War II veteran.
In a rare public criticism of his son's war detractors, and presumably Democratic-leaning columnists writing about the election, the elder Bush said, "Some people, good Americans, can and do disagree. But some of the commentary, the attacks … go far beyond the pale."
But Bush's analysis remained limited during a tribute to veterans that was much more restrained and less raucous than the veterans' rally staged at the Democratic National Convention in Boston last month. At that event, veterans whipped up the audience and former Sen. Max Cleland (search) disparaged President Bush's service in the National Guard.
Taking place on the flight deck of the USS Intrepid (search) aircraft carrier, which is now docked in New York City and serves as an air and space museum, Monday's tribute featured a seasoned group of veterans and Republicans, including Sen. John Warner (search) of Virginia and Rep. Duncan Hunter (search) of California, chairmen of their respective Armed Services committees.
It also featured some patriotic star power from country music musicians the Gatlin Brothers and actor Rip Torn.
With none of the slams on the opponent exhibited in the Boston rally, Monday's tribute did not mention Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search), but impressed that the president was the best leader in uncertain times, and it would be a mistake not to support him.
"It is absolutely essential that the president be given everything he needs from Congress to fight this global war on terror," said the elder Bush.
"I am proud to serve under the leadership of George W. Bush," said Veterans Administration Secretary Anthony Principi.
Veterans attending the event did not shy away from the 800-pound gorilla on the flight deck — the specter of the 250 "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," a recent book published about Kerry's time in Vietnam and an advertising campaign questioning Kerry's version of his service there. The negative blitz, which followed a Boston convention-inspired perception that Vietnam veterans were backing Kerry en masse, has hurt Kerry in some national polls.
"George Bush has got the predominant support of America's military," including active duty troops and veterans, assured Bill Stein, a Vietnam veteran who now heads the California Veterans for George Bush coalition.
On Monday, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search) unveiled a new ad that questions Kerry's decision to throw his military ribbons away at a 1971 protest. Kerry's authorized biography, "Tour of Duty," says Kerry kept his own combat medals but threw away his ribbons and medals belonging to two other veterans
Kerry's running mate, North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, said Monday such criticism is designed to drag down a combat veteran.
"The reason, though, we're seeing comments about Kerry 30-something years ago is we have a candidate for president, one candidate for president, who served in Vietnam, who put his life on the line, and who carries shrapnel in his body today in his patriotic service for his country," Edwards said.
Stein said his coalition takes no public stand on the Swift Boat controversy, but he personally is disgusted with Kerry's anti-war testimony before Congress in 1971, in which the future senator relayed stories of U.S. soldiers committing gruesome atrocities against Vietnamese civilians.
"Kerry's Achillies' heel here in the veterans' community is that Senate testimony," he said. "You can be opposed to the Vietnam War (search) but you don't call your buddies criminals."
Not all veterans wanted to talk about Swift Boats, and instead chose to concentrate on the care that veterans are receiving from the government. They also wanted to ensure that the thousands of injured soldiers returning from Iraq get proper health care and benefits.
"If you are going to send us off to war, allow our children to be killed, you should at least be taking care of us," said Grant Coats, president of the New York State Council of the Vietnam Veterans of America (search). He and other vets expressed their frustration that the Swift Boat issue was detracting from a real examination of the candidates' records on veterans policy.
"The issue shouldn't be about what happened 35 years ago," said Joe Graham, president of the local council of Vietnam Veterans of America. "It should be about the records, and then, who is better suited in time of war. We here have mixed feelings in the community."