Senators Cool to McCain ‘Truce’

Posted April 28, 2004 at 6:36pm

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) used the Senate floor to call for an end to discussion of the Vietnam era military service of the major party presidential nominees Wednesday, but colleagues on both sides of the aisle appeared unmoved by his admonitions.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) drew McCain’s ire when he called Vice President Cheney a “chickenhawk” in a floor speech and implied the same was true of President Bush.


What Lautenberg’s office said was intended as a spirited defense of Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry’s (Mass.) Vietnam War record drew a strong rebuke from Vietnam veteran McCain, who called on all Senators to drop discussions of both Kerry and Bush’s military service records.


“The lead chickenhawk against Senator Kerry is the vice president,” said Lautenberg on the Senate floor Wednesday morning, referring to comments Cheney made earlier this week questioning Kerry’s commitment to national defense. “Where was Dick Cheney when [the Vietnam] war was going on?”


Because Cheney received military deferments during the Vietnam era and has been quoted as saying he had “other priorities in the ’60s than military service,” Lautenberg said that qualifies him as a “chickenhawk.”


Pointing to a chart with a cartoon chicken dressed in a military uniform, Lautenberg, who served in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, said, “Anyone who is curious about what a chickenhawk is, I’ve got a definition right here on this placard. … A person enthusiastic about war, provided someone else does the fighting, particularly when that enthusiasm is undimmed by personal experience with war, most emphatically when that lack of experience came in spite of ample opportunity in that person’s youth.


“They shriek like a hawk but they have the backbone of a chicken,” Lautenberg said.


Lautenberg also said Bush “played soldier” on May 1, 2003, when he borrowed a flight suit, flew in a military jet and landed on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare major combat operations in Iraq over in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” Lautenberg went on to imply, as other Democrats have, that Bush was “AWOL,” or absent without official leave, from the Alabama National Guard in the early 1970s.


McCain took exception to Lautenberg’s unusually blunt remarks on the Senate floor, saying it was “pretty rough stuff” to call the president a chickenhawk and chiding the New Jersey Democrat for his “clever” placard.


“We are talking about chickenhawks when the president of the United States, whose solemn responsibility is to be commander in chief of our armed forces and prosecute a conflict authorized by an overwhelming vote in this body? And we are calling him a chickenhawk?” asked McCain.


As he has done on news shows in the past few months, McCain also implored his colleagues to abandon the back and forth over whether Kerry deserved the medals and Purple Hearts he received during his service in Vietnam, as well as questions about whether Bush showed up for National Guard exercises in the 1970s.


“At least, could we declare that the Vietnam war is over? And have a cease-fire? And agree that both candidates … served honorably?” McCain asked on the floor. “Let’s focus our attention on the conflict that’s taking place in Iraq, that is taking American lives as I speak on this floor.”


But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) seemed to disagree with McCain’s assessment.


“Most everything is fair game in a political season,” he said.


Meanwhile, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) blamed the Bush administration for questioning Kerry’s record, which subsequently drew criticism from Kerry on Bush’s National Guard record. Still, he said he might consider a truce on the issue if the president’s advisers would stand down.


“If John McCain feels that strongly, and I know he’s a man of conviction, I hope he’ll call the president,” said Durbin, who was recently named by Kerry a co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee.


McCain, however, said he was unlikely to call either the White House or Kerry on the topic.


“I’m not sure it’s my place to tell either the president or Senator Kerry what to do, but I do think it’s my place to call for a truce in the Senate,” said McCain.


Because Lautenberg had left the floor before McCain began his initial rebuke, Senate Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was left to defend Lautenberg’s remarks.


“My friend from New Jersey … is a war veteran himself. He has a right to speak as we all know, but I am sure he would not have spoken had this not started in some other place,” said Reid, referring to the litany of attacks against Kerry’s service record from both Cheney and presidential adviser Karen Hughes this week.


“I feel like I am in high school now,” said Reid. “Well, they started it.”