Kerry battles criticism over anti-war protests

Democrat dismisses flap over medals, challenges Bush's service in Guard

April 27, 2004|By Jill Zuckman and Jeff Zeleny | Jill Zuckman and Jeff Zeleny,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CANONSBURG, Pa. - Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry scolded the White House for criticizing his protest of the Vietnam War and said yesterday that President Bush "owes America an explanation" about whether he lived up to his own wartime obligations a generation ago.

"I've fought for my country. I know what it means to defend my nation," Kerry said in a television interview. "This president can't even prove he actually showed up for duty in the National Guard."

As Republicans opened a weeklong, $10 million campaign designed to portray Kerry as weak on defense, Vice President Dick Cheney used a Missouri speech to question whether the Massachusetts senator was fit to serve as president in a time of war. The daylong exchange of attacks, both personal and political, underscored the bitter intensity of the presidential campaign.

Hoping to talk about the economy in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, Kerry instead found himself forcefully defending his military record as he sought to resolve questions about the anti-war protests he led after returning home from Vietnam. His comments yesterday also were fueled by Bush adviser Karen Hughes, who criticized Kerry in a weekend interview about whether he discarded his Navy medals to protest the war 33 years ago.

"If George Bush wants to ask me questions about that through his surrogates, he owes America an explanation about whether or not he showed up for duty in the National Guard," Kerry told NBC News.

"I'm not going to stand around and let them play games," he said.

Through the opening months of his campaign, Kerry had deflected questions about Bush's service in the National Guard and said he would not make it a campaign issue. Yesterday, Kerry refused to apologize for fighting back, noting he had also promised Democrats through out the primary season that he would not allow Republicans to divert attention from the issues by throwing mud.

The White House released records this year to show that Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 and transferred to the Alabama Guard four years later. It remains unclear how often Bush reported for duty after his transfer to the Alabama unit.

A generation after the Vietnam War ended, the bitterness from that era has penetrated a presidential campaign that is being contested against the backdrop of a new war.

The latest example came yesterday when ABC News and The New York Times unearthed a 1971 television interview that showed Kerry saying he had discarded his medals and ribbons to protest the war. Previously, Kerry has insisted he had only tossed his ribbons - cloth symbols of the honors - and actual medals from two veterans who were unable to attend the protest at the U.S. Capitol.

Kerry asserted yesterday that the question of whether he threw his medals or ribbons over a fence while protesting the war is a nonissue.

But Republicans say the discrepancy speaks to Kerry's credibility. "This is another example of John Kerry saying one thing and doing another," said Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt.

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