5 senators ask Bush to apologize for remarks on McCain, veterans

Bipartisan group served in Vietnam

February 05, 2000|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Five senators who saw combat in Vietnam -- four of them Democrats -- called on George W. Bush yesterday to apologize to Sen. John McCain after a Bush campaign surrogate charged that McCain had "forgotten" veterans and opposed legislation on their behalf.

The five veterans -- Democrats Max Cleland of Georgia, Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and Charles S. Robb of Virginia, together with Republican Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- said Bush should apologize and disassociate himself from J. Thomas Burch Jr., chairman of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition.

Of the five, only Hagel is supporting the McCain campaign.

At a campaign rally Thursday in South Carolina, Burch lashed out at the Arizona senator, a Vietnam veteran who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war, saying he has opposed legislation vital to veterans.

"He had the power to help these guys," Burch said. "He came home. He forgot us."

The five senators told the Texas governor that that assertion was "absolutely false" and pointed to McCain's "courageous efforts" on POW/MIA affairs. They also called McCain "a real leader on veterans' issues."

"We are familiar with the intensity of political campaigns, but we believe it is inappropriate to associate yourself with those who would impugn John McCain's character and so maliciously distort his record," they wrote. "We hope you will publicly disassociate yourself from these efforts, and apologize to Sen. McCain for Mr. Burch's misguided statements made on your behalf."

Scott McClellan, a Bush spokesman, dismissed the call for an apology and noted that during the event, Bush had said McCain "is clearly a war hero."

"This shows the McCain campaign is worried about the level of support Governor Bush is receiving from veterans," McClellan said.

The senator's office said McCain co-sponsored the Agent Orange Act in 1991, which provided aid to those exposed to the defoliant during Vietnam and also was a co-chairman of a Gulf War Syndrome task force that led to $1 billion in benefits for those sickened by the mysterious illnesses.

"I'm a lucky man to have my good friends, and none better than the men I served with in Vietnam," McCain said. "Their friendship is all I need in my life and more than compensates for the temporary irritations of baseless attacks by apparently desperate political campaigns."

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