Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Sen. John Kerry yesterday denied charges that he lied about throwing his war medals away on the steps of the U.S. Capitol during a 1971 antiwar rally.

For years, he’s maintained that he threw away his ribbons and the medals of another soldier — while his medals were in safekeeping at home that day — to protest the Vietnam War. But in a newly unearthed 1971 television interview, Mr. Kerry said he threw his medals away.

“I gave back, I counted them, six, seven, eight, nine,” Mr. Kerry said in a Nov. 6, 1971, interview on Washington’s WRC-TV program “Viewpoints,” when he was a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Asked whether he’d tossed — or given back — the Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts that he had won in four months of combat in Vietnam, Mr. Kerry replied: “Yeah, and above that, I gave back my others.”

Confronted on ABC’s “Good Morning America” about the taped 1971 interview yesterday, Mr. Kerry called it a “phony controversy” and blamed Republicans for “pushing” the idea that he’d thrown his medals away in the first place.

“The fact is I have, I have been accurate precisely about what took place,” Mr. Kerry said yesterday morning. “And I am the one who later made clear exactly what happened.”

But as late as yesterday, Mr. Kerry’s presidential campaign was tinkering with how to word its explanation of Mr. Kerry’s war-medal toss.

In the campaign Web site’s “D-Bunker” section, which aims to set “the record straight” about him, staffers have been updating the section on the “right-wing fiction” that “John Kerry threw away his medals during a Vietnam war protest.”

Last week’s explanation was: “John Kerry is proud of the work he did to end the Vietnam war. … John Kerry threw his ribbons and the medals of two veterans who could not attend the event. …”

Over the weekend, staffers added the clause, “he has been consistent about the facts and symbolism of the medal-returning ceremony.” That whole clause since has been removed from the D-Bunker section.

“Only the Kerry campaign would find it necessary to debunk their own debunker,” said Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

The Kerry campaign declined to comment about the changes on the Web site.

Mr. Kerry also said yesterday the confusion might have arisen because he uses the term “ribbons” and “medals” interchangeably. However, over the years, Mr. Kerry often has made a clear distinction between his medals and his ribbons.

In 1984, for example, he was particular about explaining to union members in his first run for the Senate that he’d only thrown his ribbons away, not his medals. According to a Boston Globe story from that time, he invited a union official to his home to inspect the five medals.

Mr. Kerry and fellow Democrats tried shifting attention away from the medal toss to the military service of President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.

“Here’s the truth,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. “While many, like the vice president, chose not to serve, John Kerry volunteered for Vietnam, risked his life and was honored for his courage.”

“This week’s Republican attack on John Kerry isn’t about throwing medals,” he added. “It’s about throwing mud.”

Republicans said it’s the latest in a string of examples showing that Mr. Kerry will “say anything” to get elected. They pointed to his unsupported claims that he’s been endorsed by foreign leaders who want a new administration in the White House. Also, Mr. Kerry has been confronted lately by varying statements he’s made about whether his family owns any large, gas-guzzling sport-utility vehicles.

“This is indicative of the kind of candidate he is,” Mr. Gillespie said.

“The problem is not what John Kerry did or didn’t do 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s what he’s saying today, which once again turns out to be wrong.”

The whole matter has reminded some of the careful parsing of statements uttered by President Clinton.

“If I had a dollar for every story John Kerry’s changed, I’d be a rich man, too,” said Rep. Sam Johnson, a Texas Republican who spent years in a North Vietnamese POW camp. “Blaming ‘vast right-wing conspiracies’ for his own whoppers is not going to cut it.”

Added Mr. Gillespie: “I don’t think it’s bothersome to people that John Kerry thinks he’s very smart. That’s fine. I think what’s bothersome is he thinks the rest of us are so stupid.”

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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