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Sunday, August 22, 2004

New York Times > Debate Over Anti-Kerry Ad Continues on Sunday Talk Shows

August 22, 2004


he debate over John Kerry's Vietnam record showed no sign of abating this morning as a member of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group running advertisements attacking Mr. Kerry's record, denied involvement with the Republican Party while Democrats called on the president to stop the advertisements.

"Our message is our message, and no one tells us what to say," Van Odell, a member of Swift boat veterans group, said on the Fox News program "Fox News Sunday."

For the past several weeks the group has run television advertisements stating that Mr. Kerry, who was awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam, "has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam." In one advertisement, Mr. Odell says that Mr. Kerry "lied to get his Bronze Star."

John Hurley, the national director of Veterans for Kerry, also speaking on "Fox News Sunday," called the Swift boat veterans group "a Republican smear campaign."

Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called the advertisements "disgusting" and a "despicable attack" on the CBS News program "Face the Nation."

"The same effort was made by some Republicans with Bush against John McCain four years ago," Mr. Levin said. "It was resented then. It's resented now by the American people. And I would hope President Bush would listen to John McCain and tell those folks, get those ads off the air. It is not right."

Earlier this month Mr. McCain condemned an advertisement accusing Mr. Kerry of lying about his Vietnam War record and called on President Bush to condemn the advertisement as well.

Jennifer Millerwise, the deputy communications director for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said on CNN's "Inside Politics Sunday" that the president has condemned all of the group's 27 ads.

"The president's position is very clear on John Kerry's service," she said. "He said it's honorable. We've never questioned his service and we never will."

But Debra DeShong, a spokeswoman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign, said: "President Bush twice now was asked directly, will you condemn this Swift boat ad. And you know what his answer was? He looked into the camera, shrugged, smirked and walked away."

While campaigning today in McAdenville, N.C., Senator John Edwards said that Mr. Kerry "put his life on the line for his country."

"This is a moment of truth for President Bush," Mr. Edwards said. "I said that yesterday and in the 24 hours that has passed since, we haven't heard anything from President Bush. Mr. President, the clock is running. The American people deserve to hear from you and they deserve to hear from you that these ads should come down."

With the United States at war, both presidential candidates find themselves having to defend the choices they made in the Vietnam era. Mr. Kerry, who has made his service in Vietnam a large part of his campaign, finds his record being closely scrutinized. And Mr. Bush, who served in the Texas Air National Guard, has had to deny accusations that he relied on his family's connections to escape combat.

On Friday, Mr. Kerry asked the Federal Election Commission to force the group to withdraw the advertisements, a move that some say is an indication that the advertisements are hurting his campaign.

Ken Mehlman, the Bush-Cheney campaign manager, said Mr. Kerry's charge was "entirely baseless."

"We've actually sent a letter to the Federal Election Commission, which the Kerry campaign had contacted, asking them to look into this," he said on "Fox News Sunday." "We've told them to dismiss the complaint that the Kerry campaign has put forward. There is absolutely no connection between the Bush campaign and this organization."

Mr. Mehlman continued: "Our president from the beginning has praised Senator Kerry's service in Vietnam. I can't think of a campaign in history where the campaign has so strongly praised the opponent's service in Vietnam."

On Saturday, retired Col. Kenneth Cordier, a Vietnam veteran and a member of Mr. Bush's steering committee to help reach out to veterans, resigned from the committee over his appearance in one of the commercials. Mr. Cordier was also a Bush supporter in the 2000 election.

In his television interview today Mr. Odell was asked about apparently contradictory statements by a member of the group, George Elliott. Mr. Odell was shown an advertisement in which Mr. Elliott says that Mr. Kerry has not been truthful about what happened in Vietnam. Mr. Odell was then shown an October 1996 campaign video for Mr. Kerry in which Mr. Elliott praises him.

"The fact that he chased an armed enemy down is not something to be looked down upon, but it was an act of courage," Mr. Elliott says in the earlier video.

Mr. Odell was also shown statements by another member of the group, Adrian L. Lonsdale, who in an advertisement says Mr. Kerry "lacks the capacity to lead." In a 1996 news conference, Mr. Lonsdale spoke of the "bravado and courage of the young officers that ran the Swift boats," and said that "Senator Kerry was no exception."

"He was among the finest of those Swift boat drivers," Mr. Lonsdale said.

When asked to explain the apparent contradictions, Mr. Odell said that Mr. Elliott and Mr. Lonsdale were defending Mr. Kerry "against lies that he was a war criminal."

Mr. Odell did not elaborate on the tapes, saying that he did not want to speak for the other veterans. But he did say that the members of veterans group all have the same opinion when it comes to John Kerry.

"All of us agree that he's not fit to be commander-in-chief," Mr. Odell said.

Among the group's accusations is that Mr. Kerry was not in Cambodia at Christmas in 1968, as he declared in a statement to the Senate in 1986.

Mr. Hurley, the national director of Veterans for Kerry, said it was difficult to determine whether Mr. Kerry was near or in Cambodia, on or after Christmas. "There's no sign that says `Welcome to Cambodia,' " Mr. Hurley said.

Mr. Hurley emphasized that this election should not be about where Mr. Kerry was on a single night 35 years ago. "We could ask similar questions of President Bush," Mr. Hurley said.

Members of the Swift boat veterans group also contend that Mr. Kerry's Bronze Star citation is inaccurate in stating that the event unfolded under enemy fire.

According to the citation, on March 13, 1969, Mr. Kerry turned a Swift boat around to rescue one of his compatriots, Jim Rassman, who had fallen into the water while the boat was under enemy fire. Mr. Rassman, who says he is a Republican, has been describing the incident in support of Mr. Kerry's campaign since the Iowa caucuses in January.

But Mr. Odell said this morning that "there was no enemy fire."

To make matters murkier, the recommendation for Mr. Kerry to receive a Bronze Star was signed by George Elliott, now a member of the veterans group that is disputing the validity of the citation.

Mr. Odell said that Mr. Kerry wrote the spot reports that led to the citation. When asked if he has any documents from 1969 to prove this, Mr. Odell said he did not.

Support for Mr. Kerry recently arrived in the form of a 1,750 first-person article by William B. Rood, a Chicago Tribune editor who served in Vietnam alongside Mr. Kerry. The article, which was published on the Tribune's Web site on Saturday in its newspaper today, disputes the attacks on Mr. Kerry's war record and breaks Mr. Rood's 35-year silence about his experience in Vietnam.

While the Bush administration asserts that the veterans group has no links to its administration, there remain numerous connections between the group's members and the Bush family, as well as Texas political figures and to President Bush's chief political aide, Karl Rove.

According to Texans for Public Justice, a nonpartisan group that tracks political donations, Bob J. Perry is the top donor to Republicans in the state. He is also a longtime associate of Mr. Rove and gave $200,000 to the group.

"I'm thankful that Bob Perry gave us that seed money to get started, but he's not the biggest contributor," Mr. Odell said. "The biggest contributor right now is the American people. We were getting about $20,000 a day in donations. When Kerry came out against us and said he was going to land his boat, that first day we got over $100,000 and Friday we got $260,000."

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