Kerry tries to counter impact of Vietnam War criticism
August 20, 2004
WASHINGTON – Democrats labored to deflect attacks on John Kerry’s war record with fresh television ads touting his fitness for national command on Friday as the White House accused the Massachusetts senator of “losing his cool” over claims he lied to win military medals in Vietnam.
“John Kerry is a fighter and he doesn’t tolerate lies from others,” spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter shot back at President Bush’s spokesman.
Undeterred, the anti-Kerry group that provoked the furor distributed a second commercial to the news media and said it would begin airing the ad next week in Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Mexico. The ad intersperses clips of a youthful Kerry talking about war atrocities during an appearance before Congress in 1971 with images of veterans condemning his testimony.
The intense late-August maneuvering highlighted the closeness of the race for the White House and came as polls offered the first hint that the questioning of Kerry’s medal-winning service in the Vietnam War – allegations that he strongly condemned this week as lies – were taking a political toll.
One poll found that more than half the voters questioned had seen or heard of an ad by Swift Boat Veterans For Truth that accuses Kerry of lying about events that earned him five medals in Vietnam a generation ago. The University of Pennsylvania’s National Annenberg Election Survey also found that 44 percent of self-described independent voters found the ad very or somewhat believable.
Separately, a CBS poll found a sharp drop in Kerry’s support among veterans since the end of the Democratic Convention. Kerry’s campaign scripted the convention, which ended three weeks ago, to establish him as a battle-tested veteran ready to assume command in an era of terrorism. Polls after the convention indicated he had made considerable progress toward that goal, and several veterans who served with him have campaigned alongside him.
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In a commercial that officials said was filmed on Thursday, the Democratic Party showed retired Air Force General Merrill A. McPeak saying he had endorsed Bush four years ago but was backing Kerry now.
“Nothing is more important to me than protecting America,” says McPeak, a fighter pilot in Vietnam who rose to become Air Force chief of staff during the first Persian Gulf War in 1991.
“John Kerry has the strength and common sense we need in a commander in chief,” he says in the ad.
That message is sharply at odds with the image portrayed in the anti-Kerry ad – the one the Massachusetts senator denounced on Thursday when he said Bush was relying on front groups to “do his dirty work.”
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said several times that the senator’s Thursday comments showed he had lost his cool, a suggestion that Bush’s rival lacked presidential temperament.
“I do think that Senator Kerry losing his cool should not be an excuse for him to lash out at the president with false and baseless attacks,” the spokesman told reporters in Crawford, Texas.
“We’ve already said we weren’t involved in any way in these ads,” he said. “We’ve made that clear.”
A few hours after he spoke, the Kerry campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission that alleged the group behind the ad was illegally coordinating its efforts with the Bush-Cheney campaign. It cited “recent press reports” and the group’s own statements. The Bush campaign denied the allegation, as did the organization that aired the ad.
But Kerry’s campaign swiftly trumpeted a political flier from Florida advertising a “pro-USA political rally” that appears to show the veterans’ group and the local Bush-Cheney campaign as sponsors.
Campaigns often file complaints with the FEC, but the agency rarely intervenes quickly enough to alter the course of a race.
Cutter sought to turn the argument over presidential readiness back on the White House. “Mr. McClellan needs to understand that John Kerry is not the type of leader who will sit and read ‘My Pet Goat’ to a group of second graders while America is under attack,” she said.
That was a reference to Sept. 11, 2001, when Bush remained in an elementary school classroom for several minutes after being informed by an aide that the World Trade Center had been hit.
Records show that Bob Perry, a Houston homebuilder who is helping to finance the anti-Kerry commercials, was well-enough known to Bush to earn an invitation to visit the then-Texas governor.
“I hope all goes well with you,” Bush wrote in an April 15, 1997, letter. “Should you ever come to Austin, please come by and say hello.” He wrote in response to a letter asking him to veto legislation that would have placed new restrictions on title companies if it had made it out of the Legislature.
McClellan also accused the Kerry campaign of sanctioning the same type of attack ads by outside groups that it is accusing the president of approving.
“I mean, where has the Kerry campaign been for the last year while more than $62 million in funding through these shadowy groups have been used to negatively attack the president?” he asked. Outside groups funded by Bush’s opponents have spent millions on commercials that criticize the president.
The ad that drew Kerry’s angry response on Thursday aired in only three states at a cost of well under $1 million. It features several Vietnam veterans who accuse Kerry of lying about the circumstances surrounding events for which he won his medals. Kerry received three Purple Hearts, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star while in Vietnam.
Even so, the Annenberg survey said “more than half the country has heard about or seen” the commercial – the result of widespread coverage on cable television and talk radio as well as the Internet.