updated 1/30/2004 12:06:09 PM ET 2004-01-30T17:06:09

Democratic presidential contender Wesley Clark on Friday criticized rival John Kerry for failing to take responsibility for comments he said Kerry made about affirmative action.

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“When you make a mistake you ought to fess up to it, take responsibility for it, and correct it,” Clark said while visiting historically black Benedict College. “We need leadership that will take responsibility in this country, and I’m very disturbed that John did not do that.”

In a candidate debate Thursday night, moderator Tom Brokaw of NBC News asked Kerry about reservations he said the senator had expressed in the 1990s concerning affirmative action. Brokaw quoted Kerry as having described the policy as representing a culture of dependency.

Kerry responded that he had been describing what critics of affirmative action had said and then contended he had agreed with President Clinton and others who wanted to “mend it, not end it.”

Kerry: 'I've always supported it'
“There were a great many questions in the country about how it was being implemented. We wanted to keep it,” Kerry said. “I’ve always supported it.”

Clark read the debate exchange to the college audience on Friday and said he was bothered that Kerry had not acknowledged he had made a mistake.

“He should acknowledge what he said in the past and take responsibility for it because that’s the kind of leadership we need,” Clark said.

“I’m very strong on that program because we worked it and made it work in the United States Armed Forces,” said Clark, a retired four-star general.

In October, Kerry warned that a majority of Supreme Court justices appointed by President Bush could lead to restrictions on affirmative action and other social policies.

“If I am elected president, I will appoint justices with a broad understanding of American life today without drawing from any ideology, for the sake of ideology, people who have a commitment to diversity, fairness and equality,” he said.

In a conference call with reporters on Friday, Kerry was asked about his experiences with race but not about the issue of affirmative action. He said his Senate staff is about 20 percent minority and that he had supported the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“I’ve been involved throughout my career in advancing the cause of civil rights,” Kerry said.

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