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Clark defends Kerry’s record, slams Bush

TACOMA -- Wesley K. Clark yesterday hammered President Bush as ''incompetent" and ''indecisive," as he kicked off a raucous outdoor rally for John F. Kerry before the Democratic presidential nominee ceded the political spotlight for the Republican National Convention this week.

Offering a preemptive strike against expected GOP criticism of Kerry, his military record, and his decisiveness, Clark used his stature as a retired Army general and former allied supreme commander of NATO forces in Europe to vouch not only for Kerry during the Vietnam War, but also to argue that he is the most competent leader on domestic and foreign policies.

''Where was George Bush when young men from Arkansas and Texas and Massachusetts were called to serve their country and went to Vietnam?" Clark shouted as Kerry stood next to him before thousands gathered in a parking lot outside the Tacoma Dome. ''Where was George Bush? He wasn't there. I think it's outrageous that the president of the United States can question the medals and the service and the valor of American veterans who have served."

Clark added: ''We say to George Bush, enough is enough. You want to match early records of service? Throw it open to the public. Let's read about your efficiency reports. Let's read about that honorable discharge. Let's show it out there. Let something out. But if you want to talk about what the American people want to talk about, then let's talk about policies."

Bush, who served stateside in the Texas Air National Guard while Clark and Kerry had combat roles in Vietnam, has repeatedly said he honors Kerry's service. Last week he also broke with some veterans who have questioned the Massachusetts senator's five combat awards, declaring he believed Kerry deserved his medals.

Yesterday Bush went farther still, telling an NBC interviewer that Kerry's service was more heroic than his own. Asked whether he thought that he and Kerry ''served on the same level of heroism," Bush replied: ''No, I don't. I think him going to Vietnam was more heroic than my flying fighter jets. He was in harm's way, and I wasn't."

Nonetheless, Democrats blame Bush for being behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has attacked Kerry in interviews and television ads, and he has expressly refused to call on them to stop airing ads questioning his opponent's combat decorations. Instead, the president has urged Kerry to join him in calling for an end to all ad spending by so-called 527 groups such as the swift boat group.

While Kerry refused to speak to reporters last week, ostensibly because his staff did not want him to perpetuate the story, he has raised the issue every day in one form or another as polls indicate voters beginning to blame Bush for the attacks.

Yesterday's speech by Clark, who departed the stage and left the rally immediately after his remarks, guaranteed more coverage as the Republicans convened for their quadrennial convention in New York and Kerry left for a working vacation on Nantucket.

Kerry was then introduced by Jim Rassmann, the former Army Green Beret he rescued during one of the battles now questioned by the anti-Kerry veterans.

Afterward, Kerry spokesman David Wade said of Clark: ''Obviously, he's very angry about these attacks. He does not speak for us, though."

Bush told an audience during a question-and-answer session yesterday in Lima, Ohio, ''I'm proud of my service."

Steve Schmidt, a Bush-Cheney campaign spokesman, labeled Clark's comments ''a flailing, baseless attack that demonstrates the hypocrisy of the Kerry campaign."

Schmidt added: ''John Kerry keeps trying to divide America over the past. John Kerry's hypocrisy, combined with his vacillation and indecision regarding the war on terror, are one reason he has a growing credibility problem with the American people."

The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has also called on Kerry to release all of his military records, which he previously said he could not do because of an exclusivity agreement with historian Douglas Brinkley, who recently wrote ''Tour of Duty," a Kerry biography.

During an interview with The Washington Post published yesterday, Brinkley said he had no objection if Kerry released the records, which include not only Navy documents, but his personal journals.

''I don't mind if John Kerry shows anybody anything," he said. ''If he wants to let anybody in, that's his business. Go bug John Kerry, and leave me alone."

The exclusivity agreement, Brinkley said, simply requires ''that anybody quoting any of the material needs to cite my book."

Clark challenged Republicans who have labeled Kerry a ''flip-flopper" or indecisive.

''George Bush, before 9/11, he didn't care a thing about terrorism; he didn't do enough," Clark said. ''George Bush, he didn't want to strengthen homeland security, . . . then suddenly he's in favor of the Department of Homeland Security. . . . George Bush did everything he could to keep the 9/11 Commission from meeting. He withheld evidence. He tried to withhold witnesses. Now, suddenly, he's in favor of the 9/11 Commission."

Afterward, Kerry made a brief visit to Fort Lewis to visit former Joint Chiefs chairman John Shalikashvili, who has been hospitalized there after suffering a stroke. The former army general has advised Kerry on national security during the campaign.

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. 

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