- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2000

MILWAUKEE Vice President Al Gore yesterday became the first major presidential candidate to skip the American Legion's national convention, drawing the ire of veterans and the group's national commander.
"I cannot express to you how disappointed I am that you will not hear the Democratic presidential nominee," National Commander Alan G. Lance told 7,000 veterans and auxiliary members at their 82nd annual convention. "You deserve better than that."
Mr. Gore, aware that some of the more than 3 million Legion members have criticized the administration for eroding military readiness, instead chose to deliver an economic speech in Cleveland. His rival, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, did speak to the Legion convention yesterday.
Both the Democratic and Republican candidates addressed the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention last month.
Mr. Bush did not refer directly to Mr. Gore's absence. But he accused the administration of depleting the U.S. armed forces with too many overseas deployments and not enough resources.
The Republican presidential nominee also dismissed Mr. Gore's claim that Mr. Bush was "running down the military" by calling attention to low morale and strained readiness.
"Let's get something straight," said Mr. Bush, donning the cap of his American Legion Post 77 in Houston. "These are not criticisms of the military. They're criticisms of the current commander in chief and the vice president."
Bush spokesman Karen Hughes said aboard the candidate's plane that Mr. Gore ducked the event because Legion members "share Governor Bush's concerns about the lack of readiness of the United States military."
Many veterans in the audience were clearly offended by Mr. Gore's perceived snub.
"I think he should be ashamed of himself," said Jeri Greenwell, a Legion auxiliary member from Bethel, Maine. "The veterans deserve to hear from everyone."
Said her husband, Jerry, "It will not be forgotten."
John Pelligrini, a World War II Army veteran from Anaconda, Mont., said he was "disappointed" that Mr. Gore skipped the event.
"I think it was the wrong move on his part," Mr. Pelligrini said.
Mr. Lance said presidential candidates since 1920 "have recognized the importance of sharing their views on the issues that concern America with America's veterans those who invested body and soul defending their right to speak."
He said he invited Mr. Gore on May 23 and Aug. 2 to speak at the convention this week.
"Although his staff had more than three months to put the American Legion national convention on the vice president's schedule … they did not do so, and we have been notified that the vice president has a 'scheduling conflict,' " Mr. Lance said. "In the entire history of the American Legion, this has never happened before."
The Gore campaign offered to send a subordinate, but Mr. Lance said to applause and cheers in the convention hall that he refused the offer.
"The world's largest veterans organization deserves to hear directly from the man himself," Mr. Lance said. "It is Albert Gore who is running for president of the United States, not a substitute."
Mr. Lance noted that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton addressed the group in 1992 amid criticism that he had been a draft-dodger during the Vietnam War. "That was a genuine ordeal by fire before this audience, yet he was warmly received," he said.
He added to laughter, "Even President Bush was applauded and forgiven when he declared that September 7 was the 50th anniversary of Pearl Harbor." The anniversary of the attack is Dec. 7.
Mr. Bush told the group that his campaign has formed a national veterans committee that includes former Democratic Rep. Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi and retired Gen. Charles C. Krulak, former commandant of the Marine Corps.
The Texas governor said he will streamline the disability-claims process for veterans and assemble a task force to improve their health care.
As Mr. Bush was addressing the American Legion, his running mate, Richard B. Cheney, was sounding similar themes before the cadets at Valley Forge Military Academy, a private military school outside Philadelphia.
"As strong as it is, as powerful as it is, the military is in its own way very fragile," Mr. Cheney said.
"When they are supported, when they have the training they need, the equipment they need, and the clear direction they need, they can accomplish any mission we give them … take any of these away, take any of it for granted, and all of it can begin to unravel."
Sean Scully in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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