Friendly fire

Veterans get dragged into the war between GOP candidates John McCain and George W. Bush.

Topics: George W. Bush, Republican Party, Democratic Party, John McCain, R-Ariz.

Outside Gene’s Fine Foods Wednesday stand four proud veterans eating four dead chickens. They are supporting the presidential campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and are eager to tell me why.

“John McCain is a Vietnam veteran and a good man, God bless him,” says Adrian Cronauer, upon whom the Robin Williams role in the film “Good Morning, Vietnam” was based. “But George W. Bush would make a better commander in chief, and he has the best chance of defeating Al Gore.”

Off to the side stands aged former Marine Gen. Ray Davis, chairman of the Korean War Veterans Memorial. “Bush did more for veterans than ever’s been done in the state of Texas,” Davis says. But for Davis, the choice of Bush comes down to the difference in zip codes between the two candidates. “I’m a Vietnam veteran,” he says grimly. “That war was a disaster because of political leadership. To me, Washington let us down. And anyone from Washington let us down.”

That McCain was in a prisoner of war camp in Hanoi for five and a half years of that war means little to Davis — he simply doesn’t want a commander in chief who comes from the Washington culture.

South Carolina is home to an estimated 400,000 veterans, so Bush and McCain’s mad dash for these votes is understandable. As Bush travels around the state, he asks his traveling “Veterans for Bush” team to stand and be honored with applause. That Cronauer lives in Virginia, and Davis in Georgia, doesn’t seem to matter. Nor that Bush doesn’t seem to know the name of supporter John Baker — Bush stumbled over identifying the Medal of Honor recipient from Columbia, S.C., — who’s often at hand as well. Bush, a National Guardsman during that era, is eager to at least try to compete with McCain’s military cred.

Perhaps too eager. Fresh off his New Hampshire primary loss, Bush held a veterans-related rally in Sumter, S.C., where he was introduced by J. Thomas Burch Jr. Standing on the dais with Bush, Burch said McCain “had the power to help the veterans,” but instead he “came home [from Vietnam] and forgot us.”

Immediately, the McCain camp returned fire. The campaign released a list of the dozens of legislative efforts McCain has made on behalf of veterans, including laws pertaining to controversial issues like Agent Orange and Gulf War Syndrome, and an investigation into POW/MIAs.

Then the five Vietnam veterans in the Senate — Max Cleland, D-Ga., Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., John Kerry, D-Mass., Chuck Robb, D-Va. and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., four Democrats and a McCain supporter — fired off a letter to Bush calling on him to “publicly disassociate” himself from the “false” allegations.

“We believe it is inappropriate to associate yourself with those who would impugn John McCain’s character and so maliciously distort his record on these critical issues,” the letter said.

Other letters followed, from seven other former POWs who served with McCain, from South Carolina legislators and so on.

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Bush refused to do so, however, responding that Burch was “entitled to his opinion.”

On Tuesday, Medal of Honor recipient Michael Thornton, a former Navy SEAL and McCain supporter — born and raised in Spartanburg, S.C., and now a Texan — confronted Bush on the campus of North Greenville College. Bush still didn’t back down.

Fueled by half a tank of outrage and another half of good ol’ fashioned politics, a small band of “Veterans for McCain” have thus been following Bush around the state, protesting Burch’s comments and Bush’s refusal to repudiate them. Outside a Bush event Wednesday evening at a National Guard Armory in Gaffney, I spoke to a few of them, including Thornton.

“I flew in because I was outraged by the statement Thomas Burch made,” Thornton says. “I told [Bush] he needed to apologize. He said John McCain was a great American and a great veteran — but he doesn’t control what Burch says. But the man was standing up on the platform, elbow to elbow with him! He shook his hand!”

What did Thornton say to Bush after that?

“I said, ‘Yessir, but you should be responsible. You should say, “This is not true,” or apologize.’ He said, ‘Well, I have no control over what people say.’ And I said, ‘Sir, your father wouldn’t have stood for that and you shouldn’t either.’ And after that, he just didn’t say nothing.”

Another “Veteran for McCain” chirped in. “Here’s a guy [Burch] who trashed George’s father!” shouted Col. Philip Butler, an Army veteran who was once chief of staff at Fort Jackson, S.C.

Butler said he couldn’t believe Bush would associate himself with a man who was — according to the letter to Bush from the five Senate Vietnam combat veterans — “a leading critic of President Reagan’s and your father’s policies on POW/MIA issues.”

And in 1988, the veterans group Burch chairs, the National Vietnam Veterans Coalition, slammed then-Vice President George Bush for selecting a National Guardsman, Dan Quayle, as his running mate.

“We believe Bush and his people are sandbagging on the Quayle issue,” said NVVC’s then-vice chairman, Jerry Kiley, to the Associated Press in 1988. “The issue is how he got in [to the Guard]. By doing that, Quayle bumped somebody off that list, and it’s likely the person he bumped went to Vietnam. But what makes this worse is here’s a hawk, a man clamoring to send our boys into battle but who did not have the courage of his own convictions to go himself.”

That was NVVC’s position in 1988. And that, of course, was long before Bush’s son — a National Guardsman who also managed to avoid serving in Vietnam — decided that Burch was an endorsement that could help him get in good with South Carolina veterans.

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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