WASHINGTON — Kicking off a week of Independence Day campaigning, the two leading presidential candidates turned Monday toward themes of patriotism and military experience, with whispers of the 2004 Swift boat veterans' controversy.
Democrat Barack Obama, who didn't serve in the military and opposes the Iraq war, delivered a speech defending his vision of patriotism. He said that today's debate over patriotism was rooted in simplistic caricatures from the 1960s culture wars, and he defined patriotism instead as "loyalty to America's ideals."
However, in his remarks at President Harry Truman's hometown of Independence, Mo., Obama diverted briefly from his sweeping rhetoric to criticize a challenge to presumptive Republican nominee John McCain's credentials made Sunday by one of his campaign's surrogate spokesmen.
Retired Gen. Wes Clark, in a television appearance, suggested that McCain isn't qualified to be president. As for McCain's military experience — he's a Vietnam veteran who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war after his plane was shot down — Clark said that getting shot down in a plane didn't qualify one to be president.
Obama distanced himself from the comment.
"I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign," he said Monday. "And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine. ... For those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country, no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary."
Meanwhile, McCain's campaign organized a conference call for several supporters to bash Clark and, by extension, Obama.
McCain's supporters included retired Air Force Col. George E. "Bud" Day, a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. That group attempted to discredit 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's Vietnam War record. Its efforts spawned a verb, "Swift-boating," which politicians use to describe smear campaigns against them.
Kerry condemned the McCain campaign's use of Day against Obama and called on the Arizona senator to condemn Day's participation, as McCain had condemned the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.
McCain, for his part, brushed off Clark's comments as unhelpful, though he implied that the general might have had Obama's blessing.
"If that's the kind of campaign that Senator Obama and his surrogates and his supporters want to engage, I understand that," McCain said in Harrisburg, Pa. "But it doesn't reduce the price of a gallon of gas by one penny. It doesn't achieve energy independence" or in the midst of a foreclosure crisis "help an American stay in their home."
Turning back from the daily sniping, Obama concentrated most of his patriotism address on a high-minded appeal for Americans to come together for the good of the country behind the nation's ideals, with a readiness to sacrifice and serve.
"In the end," the Illinois senator said, what "best describes patriotism in my mind" is love for and faith in the American people, because all that America is results from "the energy and imagination of the American people; their toil, drive, struggle, restlessness, humor and quiet heroism.
"That is the liberty we defend ... that is the equality we seek ... that is the community we strive to build."