NEW YORK – White House strategist Karl Rove (search) said Wednesday that Sen. John Kerry (search) had tarnished the records of fellow Vietnam veterans with his anti-war protests, prompting a blistering response from the Democrat's campaign.
"Who in the hell is Karl Rove, talking about John Kerry's war record?" asked retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak (search). Another Kerry backer called on President Bush's top political adviser to resign.
Rove created a campaign stir when he told The Associated Press that he didn't appreciate Kerry's congressional testimony 33 years ago condemning the actions of some U.S. soldiers upon Kerry's return from the Vietnam War.
"It was a period of intense feeling on both sides for and against the war, but I think that was painting with far too broad a brush to tarnish the records and service of people who were defending our country and fighting communism and doing what they thought was right," Rove said during the 30-minute session with AP reporters and editors.
Testifying in 1971 to Congress on behalf of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Kerry detailed atrocities he said were committed by U.S. troops in Vietnam, including rapes, beheadings and random killings of civilians. Kerry said at the time he was referring to incidents witnessed by other veterans, and has since said he regrets some of the language he used.
Rove, who said he had an uncle who served in the war, said voters should decide whether the testimony was relevant to the campaign.
"I do know that John Kerry has said, `Judge me by my record' and spent a lot of time talking about his service in Vietnam, which we ought to honor," Rove said. "There are not going to be ads and such by the Bush campaign about this, but it's something that the American people have a right to take into consideration."
McPeak said voters should also consider the fact that Rove received a student deferment when he graduated from high school in 1969. Democrats also note Vice President Dick Cheney's five Vietnam-era deferments.
Kerry aides, ordered by their boss to respond to virtually every attack on his military record, hastily arranged a conference call with two prominent veterans, former Sens. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., and Max Cleland (search), D-Ga., who accused Rove of coordinating with a GOP-leaning group of veterans that has been attacking Kerry's combat record and later anti-war activities.
Cleland noted that two Bush campaign aides resigned when their ties to the group were revealed. He said Rove should, too.
In the AP interview, Rove strongly denied that he is linked to the group. "Those guys ought to stop drinking from the swamp. The fevers are getting to them," he said.
Rove also said Kerry "served with valor" in Vietnam.
A Bush campaign spokesman, Steve Schmidt, noted that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a former Vietnam prisoner of war, has defended Kerry's war record while saying his 1971 testimony was a legitimate issue.
Pointing to Kerry's anti-war testimony is one of many ways the White House hopes to undercut his credibility as a potential commander in chief. The Democrat made his combat record the centerpiece of his nominating convention in Boston, to the virtual exclusion of his economic agenda or a detailed plan to end the war in Iraq - two issues troubling Bush's candidacy.
The same group attacking Kerry's war record, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search), is airing a commercial critical of Kerry's 1971 testimony.
In the interview, Rove also lashed out at liberal filmmaker Michael Moore for predicting a Bush defeat. "Michael Moore is known for wild flights of fantasy and delusion, and that's another one," he said. "I have no interest in meeting, seeing, hearing, talking, reading, being in the presence of the man."
Rove compared the U.S. war on terrorism to the decades-old conflict in Northern Ireland.
"This is going to be more like the conflict in Northern Ireland, where the Brits fought terrorism, and there's no sort of peace accord with Al Qaeda saying, 'We surrender,'" Rove said.