WASHINGTON -- Democratic nominee Bill Clinton yesterday called President Bush's assault on his patriotism a "sad" and "apparently desperate" attempt to hold onto the White House, but the challenger felt compelled to offer new details of his trip to Moscow during the Vietnam War.
Mr. Clinton was responding to Mr. Bush's thinly veiled charge during a television appearance Wednesday night that there was something inappropriate, or worse, about a trip Mr. Clinton took to Moscow as a student. The president also suggested that Mr. Clinton's participation in demonstrations against the U.S. government while he was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England was disloyal and "wrong."
Mr. Bush's remarks represented a sharp escalation in a steadily building effort by the Republicans to raise questions about whether the Arkansas governor can be trusted with the country's national security. The Democrat has been portrayed as a manipulator incapable of telling the truth and tarred with some of the strongest innuendo of disloyalty since the 1950s era of Sen. BTC Joseph McCarthy. A Bush campaign official said that in private some campaign aides jokingly were referring to him as "Red Willie."
Bush campaign officials insist that they are not challenging Mr. Clinton's patriotism but his credibility.
"It is a pathological pattern of deception," said Bush official Mary Matalin.
But Democrats, some political analysts and several of Mr. Clinton's fellow Rhodes scholars, who said they also took vacation trips to the Soviet Union as part of their overall program of study, leapt to his defense.
"It is called McCarthyism," charged Sen. Bill Bradley, a New Jersey Democrat. To President Bush, he said, "Have you no sense of decency, sir?," repeating the famous retort of Army counsel Joseph N. Welch to McCarthy during Senate hearings in 1954.
The Democratic nominee chalked up Mr. Bush's comments to an "apparently desperate" climate in a campaign that can't seem to crack Mr. Clinton's solid lead of as much as 16 percentage points in the polls.
"I felt really sorry for Mr. Bush yesterday," Mr. Clinton told reporters during a news conference. "Here we are on the way to a debate about the great issues facing the country, and he descends to that level."
"His campaign has sunk to a new level," he said of the president. "I think it's sad."
Even so, in the wake of Mr. Bush's demand that he "level with the American people," the Democratic nominee came forth with further explanations of his activities two decades ago at Oxford.
Mr. Clinton told reporters yesterday that he traveled to Moscow at his own expense during a break from his classes during the winter of 1969.
He recalled his five-day stay in the heart of what was then the Soviet Union as an "eventful, interesting week for me doing the things you would expect someone to do who'd never been to Russia before."
Mr. Clinton said that he visited Moscow University and discovered that the students there were opposed to the Communist government even then. He said he also met other American tourists in Moscow.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Clinton later told reporters that the Democratic nominee also recalled a chance meeting with an American who was part of a group trying to get information about prisoners of war. The Soviet Union was then supporting North Vietnam in its war against U.S.-backed South Vietnam.
Mr. Clinton put the group in touch with his contacts at Moscow University for help in getting an interpreter, said Dee Dee Meyers, the Clinton spokeswoman.
Four fellow Rhodes scholars from the period, each of whom knew Mr. Clinton, told The Sun yesterday that it was common, and encouraged, for members of the group to travel through Europe. As many as a quarter of the scholars visited the Soviet Union, said Robert B. Reich, now a political economist at Harvard and a key Clinton adviser.
"It was very much a part of the idea of a Rhodes scholarship," said Time magazine columnist Strobe Talbott, a friend of the Democratic nominee who traveled to the Soviet Union himself. "It was part of the franchise, to see interesting places.
David A. Keene, a former Bush campaign manager who sent a letter to Russian President Boris Yeltsin asking him to release any KGB information on Mr. Clinton's trip, turned out to be a better defense witness for Mr. Clinton than an ally of Mr. Bush.
Mr. Keene, then a law school student at the University of Wisconsin, said that he and two friends had also traveled to the Soviet Union for a holiday in 1968 and found the Russians eager to accommodate them.
"I don't question his trip, just his mind when he says he doesn't remember what he did there," Mr. Keene said.
Mr. Clinton also offered recollections yesterday from his visit to Czechoslovakia on the same trip.
"I went there because I played basketball at Oxford with a boy from Czechoslovakia" and stayed with his parents, he said. "The Czechs were certainly anti-Soviet. They were the most anti-Communist people around."