Kerry continues attack on Bush military record

Questions service history after the White House disparages defense stance

April 28, 2004|By Matea Gold and Mark Z. Barabak | Matea Gold and Mark Z. Barabak,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CLEVELAND - Signaling a shift in tactics, Sen. John F. Kerry yesterday aggressively challenged whether President Bush completed his National Guard service during the Vietnam War, hammering at an issue he had declined to pursue earlier in the campaign.

The presumptive Democratic nominee, a decorated Vietnam veteran, questioned the service of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, telling the Dayton Daily News that the administration is disparaging his national security credentials because they lack their own military record.

"I think a lot of veterans are going to be very angry at a president who can't account for his own service in the National Guard, and a vice president who got every deferment in the world and decided he had better things to do, criticizing somebody who fought for their country and served," Kerry told the newspaper.

For the second day in a row, Kerry raised questions about Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard - an issue the Massachusetts senator said in mid-February that he would not bring up.

But after fielding a new round of attacks from Republicans about his record on defense, Kerry's campaign released a list of nine "unanswered" questions yesterday, demanding that Bush prove that he fulfilled his obligation to the military.

"If they're going to attack me, and they're going to start accusing me of something, then I'm going to demand a level of accountability from them that I think ought to be forthcoming," Kerry said last night during an appearance on MSNBC's "Hardball with Chris Matthews."

In February, amid Democratic accusations that Bush was absent without leave from the Guard, the White House released reams of documents that aides said accounted for his entire military file. But the records did not resolve the question of whether Bush served all his required time during a temporary assignment in Alabama, and later at his air base in Texas.

During a conference call yesterday arranged by the Kerry campaign, fellow Vietnam veteran and former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland accused Bush of shirking his duty.

"When you compared John Kerry's voluntary service overseas, in war, in combat, and decorated for that service, it does not compare at all with George Bush never ever leaving the shores of Texas and actually becoming somewhat of a National Guard drop-out in Alabama," Cleland said.

Bush campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Devenish responded by pointing to Kerry's votes against weapons programs being used in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"John Kerry has not detailed a credible alternative to President Bush's decisive leadership in the War on Terror and his record on defense and security measures raises serious questions about his judgment," Devenish said in a statement. "Instead of explaining his record, John Kerry has turned to political attacks on the president."

The multi-front attack by the Kerry campaign underscored the odd and troubling predicament facing the candidate - that despite his credentials as a decorated veteran, the candidate has been put on the defensive over his service in Vietnam, his subsequent anti-war activities and his votes on military matters.

On Monday, Kerry was confronted with footage from a 1971 television interview which renewed questions about whether he ever claimed he threw away his own war medals during an anti-war protest at the U.S. Capitol that year.

Some analysts suggested that the Bush campaign has attacked Kerry's record aggressively to distract attention from the recent explosion of violence in Iraq. Saturday marks the one-year anniversary of the president's appearance on an aircraft carrier under the banner "Mission Accomplished" to declare the end to major combat there.

Times staff writers James Rainey in Youngstown and Susannah Rosenblatt in Los Angeles contributed to this article. Gold reported from Cleveland, Barabak from San Francisco. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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