CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush on Monday criticized a commercial that accused John Kerry of inflating his own Vietnam War record, more than a week after the ad stopped running, and said broadcast attacks by outside groups have no place in the race for the White House.
“I think they’re bad for the system,” added Bush, who had ignored calls to condemn the ad while it was on the air.
Democrats criticized the president’s remarks at the same time they worked to limit the political damage from the ad, which they denounce as a smear sanctioned by Bush and his high command.
“The moment of truth came and went, and the president still couldn’t bring himself to do the right thing,” Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards said in a statement. “We need a president with the strength and integrity to say when something is wrong.”
“Too little, too late,” added party chairman Terry McAuliffe.
Campaign surrogates worked throughout the day to rebut the claims made by Kerry’s detractors.
WWII veteran Dole weighs in
“The fourth Purple Heart could have been an AK-47 through his heart,” said Rich Baker, who served on a Swift Boat in Vietnam at the same time as Kerry. He was referring to weekend comments by former Republican Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas — grievously wounded in World War II — that Kerry had won three Purple Hearts “and never bled that I know of.”
Dole told CNN’s “Late Edition” Sunday that he warned Kerry months ago about going “too far” and that the Democrat may have himself to blame for the current situation, in which polls show him losing support among veterans.
“One day he’s saying that we were shooting civilians, cutting off their ears, cutting off their heads, throwing away his medals or his ribbons,” Dole said. “The next day he’s standing there, ‘I want to be president because I’m a Vietnam veteran.’ Maybe he should apologize to all the other 2.5 million veterans who served. He wasn’t the only one in Vietnam.”
Kerry vindicated by other vets
Other Swift Boat veterans came forward over the weekend to verify the events that Kerry’s detractors have challenged.
In a conference call with reporters arranged by aides to the Democratic presidential candidate, Navy Swift Boat officers Rich McCann, Jim Russell and Rich Baker said Kerry acted honorably and bravely and was well-qualified to be the nation’s commander in chief.
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“He was the most aggressive officer in charge of Swift Boats,” Baker said.
Additionally, crewmate Del Sandusky said at a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa., that he personally witnessed the battle action for which Kerry received Silver and Bronze stars and two of his three Purple Hearts.
“He deserved every one of his medals,” Sandusky, a retired computer repairman who drove Kerry’s boat for nearly three months.
“I was there when he got wounded,” he said. “I saw the blood. I don’t care what Dole said.”
No proof, Kerry accuser admits
One of Kerry’s accusers acknowledged he had no documentary proof for his allegation that Kerry fabricated reports in an incident for which the Massachusetts senator received a Bronze Star. The reports say Kerry was under enemy fire when he rescued a fellow crewman.
“I do not have a single document,” Van Odell said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I have the fact that I wasn’t wounded in that 5,000 meters of fire that he wrote about. ... There was no enemy fire from either bank.” He said he had seven eyewitness backing up his version of events. Other witnesses say there was enemy fire at the time Kerry made the rescue.
The controversy over the ad aired by Swift Boat Veterans For Truth has roiled the race for the White House during what is customarily a quiet summer interlude between political conventions.
While attacking the ad, Democrats have also said privately that Kerry and his campaign were slow to recognize the potential danger in the attack. The four-term Massachusetts senator, who came home from Vietnam with five medals, has made his wartime service a cornerstone of his challenge to the president.
New ad to run Tuesday
Sean McCabe, a spokesman for the veterans group, said the ad that questioned Kerry’s record ran in three states for a week and stopped on Aug. 12. The organization intends to begin airing a second commercial on Tuesday in three other states. That spot intersperses clips of a youthful Kerry talking about war atrocities during an appearance before Congress in 1971 with images of members of the swift boat group condemning his testimony.
Asked about the issue, Bush said, “I think Sen. Kerry served admirably and he ought to be proud of his record. But the question is who is best to lead the country in the war on terror? Who can handle the responsibilities of the commander in chief? Who’s got a clear vision of the risks that the country faces?”
Bush criticized the groups’ first commercial and all other outside group attack ads — many of which have targeted his own re-election.
“That means that ad, every other ad,” he said. “I can’t be more plain about it. And I wish — I hope my opponent joins me in saying — condemning these activities of the 527s. It’s — I think they’re bad for the system. That’s why I signed the bill, McCain-Feingold.”
Bush targeted by 527s
Bush’s comment about 527s was a reference to independent groups that raise money in unlimited amounts. The so-called McCain-Feingold bill, a campaign finance overhaul bill which Bush signed reluctantly earlier in his term, banned the political parties from raising such funds.
While Kerry and Democrats have demanded that Bush condemn the attack on his war record, the president has been targeted by an estimated $60 million in commercials by outside groups since the campaign began.
Kerry has declined to call for an end to those ads, which helped him at a time when he did not have the funds to compete with Bush’ campaign advertising budget.
At the same time, Kerry’s aides and campaign argue heatedly that the commercial that challenged Kerry’s war record was demonstrably false — and fit a GOP pattern. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was subjected to a similar attack four years ago during the campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, they said, and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland’s patriotism impugned in a re-election race he lost two years ago.
A Vietnam prisoner of war for six years, McCain lost the South Carolina Republican primary in 2000 after Bush supporters accused him of opposing legislation to help military veterans. McCain never recovered from that primary loss.
Cleland came home from the war a triple amputee.
“This can’t be tolerated,” said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who participated in a campaign conference call during the day.
The Bush campaign denies any involvement with the group.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.