LAS CRUCES, New Mexico (CNN) — President Bush wants to work with Sen. John McCain to take legal action against “shadowy” outside groups that have been spending millions of dollars on ads criticizing the president and Democratic rival Sen. John Kerry, the White House said Thursday.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Bush called the GOP senator from Arizona on Thursday morning and said that, if legal action does not work, he wants to pursue legislative action against the groups.
McClellan said McCain told Bush that he thought it was a good idea that the two men work together.
The groups, known as 527s after the federal provision that makes them tax-exempt and allows them to accept unlimited donations, have been at the focus of the presidential campaign in recent weeks because of commercials criticizing Kerry’s record during the Vietnam War.
But the president’s campaign also has complained about groups running anti-Bush commercials.
Both sides have taken their grievances to the Federal Election Commission.
Democrats have urged Bush to condemn ads run by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that accused Kerry of lying to get his three Purple Hearts, Silver Star and Bronze Star during his Vietnam service.
Though Bush has said Kerry “served admirably” in Vietnam, the commander in chief has not condemned the commercials.
Instead, he has called for these groups, such as Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, MoveOn.org and others, to stop airing political ads. (Bush urges Kerry to condemn 527s)
McCain, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, also has urged the president to condemn the ads.
He told The New York Times that he took Bush at his word when he denied any involvement with the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads but said he planned to “express my displeasure” about the situation to the president, the paper reported Thursday.
He also told the Times that he wished the Kerry campaign would not use a commercial that shows McCain criticizing Bush for negative ads against him during the race for the 2000 Republican nomination.
Kerry spokesman David Wade said the Democratic presidential candidate’s campaign would stop running those ads.
On Wednesday, representatives from both political parties converged in Texas after making efforts to deliver competing letters addressing the controversy.
The drama began unfolding Tuesday when former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia made plans to fly to the president’s ranch in Crawford to hand-deliver a letter to Bush asking him to condemn commercials by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Cleland: Attacks ‘scurrilous’
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 to him. 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,” Cleland 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].”
Cleland was accompanied by Lt. Jim Rassmann, a former Green Beret who has credited Kerry with risking his life 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.”
Republican vets: ‘You can’t have it both ways’
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.
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.”