Bush lawyer quits over vets' ads

Attorney has been adviser to both GOP campaign, anti-Kerry organization

August 26, 2004|By Rick Pearson | Rick Pearson,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

CRAWFORD, Texas - The top lawyer for President Bush's re-election bid announced his resignation yesterday after acknowledging he provided legal advice to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a Republican-backed group airing ads attacking John Kerry's service in Vietnam and his anti-war activities after he returned home.

Despite Benjamin Ginsberg's resignation, he and the Bush campaign maintained there was no illegal coordination of activities with the Swift boat group.

Ginsberg and the campaign contended that the Kerry campaign is receiving help from several campaign attorneys and staffers with ties to Democratic-aligned groups.

Ginsberg, the leader of the 2000 Bush recount legal effort, said he did not tell the Bush campaign of his work for the Swift boat group until Tuesday. He said he left the campaign to prevent his presence from becoming a distraction.

"What a lawyer cannot do is become a distraction," Ginsberg told CNN. "I would never get in the way and distract from the forward-looking message that [Bush] has for this country, which is what the Kerry campaign's smear machine is trying to do."

Ginsberg's involvement with the Swift boat group caught the Bush campaign by surprise, sources said, and it could create perception problems for a presidential re-election organization that for weeks had stressed it had no ties to the controversial veterans group.

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said that even though Ginsberg did not appear to violate election laws by advising both the Bush campaign and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the mere appearance presented a problem.

"The resignation underscores a serious problem of perception," Noble said.

The Kerry campaign, which a day earlier had vowed to move on to debate issues, quickly sought to take advantage of perceived damage to Bush's credibility on the ad issue and try to place the president on the defensive heading into next week's Republican National Convention.

Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the Democratic presidential campaign would not relent until Bush directly responded to the commercials.

As news of Ginsberg's resignation broke, the Kerry campaign attempted to force a showdown under a hot noonday Texas sun on the road outside Bush's Prairie Chapel Ranch.

Former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, a triple amputee from wounds suffered in Vietnam, tried to deliver a letter from nine Democratic senators who are veterans that called on Bush to renounce the ads.

Sent to Texas by the Kerry campaign, Cleland was joined by Jim Rassmann, the retired Special Forces officer whom Kerry pulled from the Bay Hap River in March 1969.

Cleland pushed his wheelchair around the checkpoint as Bush aides, a Texas state trooper and a Secret Service police officer scurried to avoid accepting the letter.

Instead, the Bush campaign sent out Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a statewide elected Republican and Vietnam veteran, to accept it.

Patterson, who was wearing his VFW Post 4395 hat and a tie with shotgun shells, repeatedly asked Cleland for the letter and said he had his own letter for Cleland to give to Kerry. But Cleland ignored Patterson and returned to his car.

Patterson's letter, signed by him and six other veterans, accused Kerry of trying to "have it both ways."

"You can't build your convention and much of your campaign around your service in Vietnam, and then try to say that only those veterans who agree with you have a right to speak up," the letter said.

Later, Cleland told reporters Bush was trying to "cover up" his record as president through the ad flap.

"We want George Bush to put up or shut up. We want George Bush to stand up, come to the plate and say this is wrong, that an attack on the valorous service of a fellow American is wrong and he is behind it and his campaign is behind it," Cleland said.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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