Political drama unfolds as letter carriers fail to deliver
Kerry, Bush camps weigh in on ad controversy
CRAWFORD, Texas (CNN) -- Representatives of both political parties Wednesday converged on Crawford Middle School in attempts to deliver messages -- in letter form -- about a campaign that is critical of the military record of Sen. John Kerry.
Though neither letter wound up in the hands of its intended recipient, their bearers delivered their messages to dozens of members of the news media who served as the audience for the political theater.
The drama began unfolding Tuesday, when former Sen. Max Cleland made plans to fly to the presidential ranch to hand-deliver a letter to President Bush asking him to condemn commercials by the group that calls itself Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Upon his arrival at the ranch, Cleland -- who lost both legs and an arm during the Vietnam War -- was met by Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, himself a Vietnam veteran.
Patterson said Bush had asked him to accept the letter from Cleland. But the Georgia Democrat refused to hand it over. Instead, he said he wanted to deliver the letter personally to Bush or, barring that, to a member of the Secret Service. When he succeeded at neither, Cleland took the message to the news media.
"These scurrilous attacks on John Kerry's credibility in war, courage and valor are false and George Bush is behind it," he said. "That's why I tried to deliver a letter to the president's home and hand it either to him or one of his aides."
The letter was signed by nine members of the U.S. Senate, all of them veterans, including a Medal of Honor recipient. (Text of letter)
"The question is: Where is George Bush's honor? The question is: Where is his shame to attack a fellow veteran who has distinguished himself in combat?" Cleland asked.
"If the president of the U.S. does not stick up for veterans who distinguish themselves in war," he asked, "who will he stick up for?"
Cleland called the campaign by the veterans' group "a campaign of character assassination" and accused the Bush campaign of being involved in it.
"We want George Bush to put up or shut up," Cleland said. "Stand up to the plate and say, 'This is wrong. An attack on valorous service of a fellow American is wrong.' And he's behind it, and his campaign is behind it."
Also Wednesday, Rep. John Dingell, D-Michigan, called for a Justice Department investigation into the possible connection between ads run by the swift boat group and the president's re-election campaign.
In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Dingell said the ties between the two groups "suggest a possible violation of the coordination regulations set forth [in federal law]."
Though Bush has said Kerry "served admirably" in Vietnam, the commander-in-chief has not condemned the commercials.
Instead, he has called for such tax-exempt organizations, such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the liberal group MoveOn and others, to stop airing political ads.
The groups are known as 527s after the federal provision that makes them tax-exempt and allows them to accept unlimited donations. (Bush urges Kerry to condemn 527s)
Cleland was accompanied by Lt. Jim Rassmann, a former Green Beret who has credited Kerry with risking his life in order to save Rassmann's.
"All he [Bush] needs to do is make one statement: that this is all fabricated," said Rassmann, who ridiculed the swift boat group's campaign, which has questioned -- without offering corroborative evidence -- the actions of Kerry 35 years ago.
"I had bullets flying around me, and now they're telling me I'm a liar," Rassmann said. "I'm not a liar. I know it when a bullet comes near me. I know it when the crack over my head and the splashes in the water are just exactly what I say they are."
Cleland then departed with his letter in hand, leaving Patterson -- who served in Vietnam for six months in 1971 -- holding his own undelivered letter addressed to Kerry.
That letter, signed by eight Republicans -- including two Medal of Honor recipients -- welcomed Kerry's representative to Texas.
"We honor all our veterans, all (of) whom have worn the uniform and served our country," it said.
The letter accuses Kerry of basing his campaign on his Vietnam service but then criticizing Vietnam veterans who support Bush.
"You can't have it both ways," the letter says. (Text of letter)
"We are veterans too -- and proud to support President Bush. He's been a strong leader, with a record of outstanding support for our veterans and for our troops in combat. He's made sure that our troops in combat have the equipment and support they need to accomplish their mission."
The letter also says that many veterans are troubled by Kerry's vote against $87 billion for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and comments he made more than 30 years ago about alleged atrocities in Vietnam, for which Kerry has never apologized.
The letter went on to say that Bush has "praised the service of all who served our country, including your service in Vietnam."
In a written statement, the Bush campaign said Kerry has "demonstrated his willingness to exploit the war on terror for political purposes when he voted against funds for our troops during the Democratic primaries. He demonstrated it when he spoke in favor of troop redeployment and then attacked the president for announcing troop deployment two years later. He demonstrated it by taking both sides on the war in Iraq. Today's political attack is just the latest example of John Kerry's willingness to say whatever he believes will benefit him politically."
Kerry has said he favored a different version of the $87 billion bill that included funding for troops, one that would have rolled back tax cuts to help pay for it.
He still defends his criticism of the Vietnam war, but now says that his comments about atrocities were over the top.
About the swift boat veterans' campaign, Patterson said, "I think there's fact-checking under way. But the point is the swift boat folks have a right to their piece."
He said he had hoped to invite Cleland to join him at the town coffee shop for a hamburger, but Cleland rebuffed his attempts at communication.
"He's quite mobile," Patterson said of the veteran, who uses a wheelchair.
Cleland's letter asks Bush to "recognize this blatant attempt at character assassination, and publicly condemn it."
Bush has called for tax-exempt organizations such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth to stop airing political ads.
At the ranch Wednesday, Bush was working on his convention speech, White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters.
"Senator Kerry says that he wants to talk about the issues," McClellan said. "Today's political stunt is an interesting way of showing it. If Senator Kerry were serious about focusing on the issues, he would join the president in calling for a stop to all these ads by these shadowy groups."
He added, "It appears that Senator Kerry is just trying to divert attention from his out-of-the-mainstream record and his out-of-the-mainstream views. I think that's what you're seeing more of today."
But Cleland's letter says that the type of ads -- 527s -- is irrelevant. "Our outrage over these advertisements and tactics has nothing to do with the tax code or campaign finance reform efforts of this nation," it says. "Our pain from seeing these slanderous attacks stems from something much more fundamental, that if one veteran's record is called into question, the service of all American veterans is questioned." (Kerry alleges 'fear and smear' tactics)
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