Sen. Barack Obama said Monday that he won’t tolerate people challenging his patriotism or his rival’s military service, and Sen. John McCain announced a “truth squad” to combat attacks on his Vietnam service.
The patriotism speech was intended as a major point in the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s weeklong focus on values for the Fourth of July holiday, but any headlines that Mr. Obama would have received for the speech were trumped by his denunciation of retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark‘s attack on Mr. McCain. The day’s events, instead, allowed the Republican to showcase his wartime heroism and long record of service to the United States.
Mr. Obama said patriotism must involve the willingness to sacrifice.
“For those who have fought under the flag of this nation … [and] those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country - no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary,” he said. “No one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides.”
He did not name Gen. Clark, the former NATO commander who had backed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York during the Democratic primary campaign but recently joined the Obama team as a top surrogate, but the message was clear.
On Sunday, Gen. Clark questioned Mr. McCain’s credentials during an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” He first praised Mr. McCain’s service as heroic, but said the Republican’s record in the Navy did not include executive experience.
Host Bob Schieffer countered: “Barack Obama has not had any of those experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down.”
Gen. Clark’s response - “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be president” - sparked an outcry on cable news and blogs.
It also prompted the formation of the McCain “truth squad.”
Team McCain deployed a host of military men to decry Gen. Clark’s remark and to talk about the Republican candidate’s long military service, including his years as a prisoner of war and his postwar record.
Carl Smith, a former Navy pilot who served with Mr. McCain, said the Arizona Republican showed his leadership skills while commanding a Navy flight training squadron in Florida after the war.
As the commanding officer, Mr. McCain helped the squadron to a perfect safety record and earn its first Meritorious Unit Commendation.
“He was that much better than everybody else,” Mr. Smith said. “The credit goes to John McCain and his extraordinary leadership; it’s as simple as that.”
Bud McFarlane, a retired Marine colonel and national security adviser to President Reagan, said Mr. Obama doesn’t have much foreign relations experience, so the attack may have been a deliberate attempt to try to equalize the two candidates.
“It’s not Senator Obama’s fault, and yet he simply hasn’t had the opportunity to have read very much, to have studied very hard, to have engaged with foreign leaders,” he said.
Mr. McCain said “General Clark is not an isolated incident” and that he had no way of knowing whether Mr. Obama was involved in his surrogate’s talking point.
An Obama campaign aide denounced the statement more than 24 hours later, saying, “As he’s said many times before, Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain’s service, and of course he rejects yesterday’s statement by General Clark.”
Late Monday, Gen. Clark issued a statement saying he never dishonored Mr. McCain’s service.
“As I have said before, I honor John McCain’s service as a prisoner of war and a Vietnam Veteran. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in Armed Forces as a prisoner of war. I would never dishonor the service of someone who chose to wear the uniform for our nation.”
In his speech Monday, Mr. Obama said that he and the presumptive Republican nominee love their country and that challenging one’s government should not be considered disloyal.
The speech was designed to squelch any anti-patriotism rumors, including unfounded e-mail claims and the outcry over the Democrat’s not wearing a flag pin, until recently.
“The question of who is - or is not - a patriot all too often poisons our political debates, in ways that divide us rather than bring us together,” he said, adding that he has “always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given” because it led him to public service and a presidential bid.
“Yet … I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged - at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears and doubts about who I am and what I stand for,” he said.
Mr. Obama pledged that he would “never question the patriotism of others in this campaign … and I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine.”
The Illinois Democrat said it is a “national shame” that some failed to honor Vietnam veterans and that today’s “widespread recognition that whether you support this war or oppose it, the sacrifice of our troops is always worthy of honor” is “a change from the ‘60s that’s been very welcome.”
“Surely we can agree that no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism,” Mr. Obama said. But he scolded those on both sides of the Iraq war debate for engaging in politics seemingly “trapped in these old, threadbare arguments.”
Mr. McCain on Monday said that even though they disagree on policy, his rival is an example of “a great American success story” and is “someone who is admired and respected throughout this country and the world.”
Also Monday, Mr. Obama had his first post-primary talk with former President Bill Clinton. An Obama aide described the phone call as “terrific.” A Clinton spokesman said the former president “renewed his offer to do whatever he can to ensure Senator Obama is our next president.”