WASHINGTON — Democrat Barack Obama rejected a retired general's suggestion that Republican John McCain's military experience didn't necessarily qualify him to be president, as GOP surrogates lined up to label the remarks indecent and disrespectful.
A day after retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, now an Obama supporter, discussed McCain's experience as a Navy pilot and prisoner of war in Vietnam on a Sunday talk show, his remarks set off the pattern that has become familiar from innumerable earlier flaps over surrogate remarks during the presidential election year: The candidates, Obama and McCain, took the high road while the bare-knuckled language was left to their surrogates.
At a news conference here Monday, McCain himself said of Clark's comment, "That kind of thing is unnecessary" and distracts from real pocketbook issues voters care about.
About the same time, Obama told an audience in Independence, Mo., that McCain had "endured physical torment in service to our country" and "no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides."
The latest dustup began on CBS's "Face the Nation." Clark, the former supreme commander of NATO under Bill Clinton, said McCain's military service was not the same as executive experience.
"In the matters of national security policy making, it's a matter of understanding risk," Clark said "It's a matter of gauging your opponents, and it's a matter of being held accountable. John McCain's never done any of that in his official positions. I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in the armed forces, as a prisoner of war.
"He has been a voice on the Senate Armed Services Committee and he has traveled all over the world, but he hasn't held executive responsibility," Clark said. "That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded — that wasn't a wartime squadron."
Clark has said as much before, but drew little notice. CBS moderator Bob Schieffer cited Clark's earlier remarks and noted that Obama hadn't had those experiences either nor had he ridden in a fighter plane and been shot down. "Well, I don't think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president," Clark replied.Video: Clark: Riding in a fighter plane not a qualification
At least five Republican senators and retired military officers — four on a conference call arranged by the McCain campaign — cried foul Monday, particularly over Clark's last line.
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"I was utterly shocked," Sen. John Warner, R-Va., told the conference call, " ... that he would in such a disrespectful way attack one of his fellow career military officers."
"Beyond comprehension ... further erosion of our nation's political discourse," said former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., in a written statement.
"Complete silliness," retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Carl Smith said on the call.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Orson Swindle said Clark was "denigrating the character and the experience and the integrity and the performance" of McCain.
"A very indecent thing," said retired Air Force Col. Bud Day.
Day's appearance on the conference call spawned a new round of broadsides as the Democratic National Committee rushed to point out that Day had appeared in the so-called Swift Boat TV ads that cast aspersions during the 2004 election on the medals that Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry earned in Vietnam. Committee spokesman Damien LaVera said that McCain himself had called the Swift Boat ads "dishonest and dishonorable."
By comparison with these exchanges, the candidates were positively high-minded. Besides Obama's personal remarks disdaining criticism of McCain's military service, the campaign's spokesman, Bill Burton said, "Sen. Obama honors and respects Sen. McCain's service, and of course he rejects yesterday's statement by Gen. Clark."
McCain himself said, "If that's the kind of campaign Sen. Obama and his surrogates and supporters want to engage in, I understand that. But it doesn't reduce the price of gas by one penny. It doesn't achieve our energy independence or make it come any closer. Doesn't make any American stay in their home who's at risk of losing it today. And it certainly doesn't do anything to address the challenges Americans have in keeping their jobs, homes and supporting their families."
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