The morning after President Bush questioned his patriotism in a nationally televised interview, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton on Thursday expressed pity for his Republican opponent but left it to his running mate, Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee, to assert that the President's tactics were reminiscent of McCarthy-era red-baiting.
"I felt really sad for Mr. Bush yesterday," the Democratic presidential nominee said as he left Little Rock for Kansas City, where he will spend nearly three days studying for Sunday's presidential debate.
"I mean here we are on our way to a debate about the great issues facing this country and its future and he descended to that level . . . I just think he's apparently desperate."
Bush, interviewed on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Wednesday night, insisted that Clinton should "level" with America about his role in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations in London and about a weeklong visit to Moscow when he was an Oxford University student more than 22 years ago.
"I cannot for the life of me understand mobilizing demonstrations and demonstrating against your own country, no matter how strongly you feel, in a foreign land," Bush told King.
Bush acknowledged that he did not "have the facts" about Clinton's visit to the Soviet Union, which was part of a 40-day vacation break that the governor took during his second year of studies as a Rhodes scholar in England.
Clinton told reporters that while in Moscow he visited the university and tourist locales and had no meetings with government officials or anyone involved in the anti-war movement.
During the presidential campaign, the Arkansas governor has made it clear that he opposed the Vietnam War, but has said he was not a "big organizer" of anti-war activities.
While Clinton delivered a measured response, Gore compared Bush's tactics to those that defined the infamous 1950s hearings led by rabid anti-communist Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
"President Bush wants to make it something like a McCarthy attack in implying some kind of wrongdoing 23 years ago," Gore, a Vietnam veteran, said at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania.
"It's absolutely outrageous. Instead of an October surprise, it's an October surmise," Gore said. "He has invited people to guess that something was wrong . . . but he has no evidence. It's a bunch of baloney."
Clinton demurred when asked if he agreed with Gore's characterization.
"I don't want to get into that, characterizing it," Clinton said. "I just think this election so desperately needs to be about the future. Mr. Bush in his inaugural address had a wonderful phrase about how the Vietnam War cleaves us still and it was time to put it behind us.
"And now, because he's behind, he's tried to raise all the challenges of that time."
In his inaugural address, Bush said: "That war cleaves us still. But friends, that war began in earnest a quarter of a century ago and surely the statute of limitations has been reached. This is a fact: the final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory."
Clinton's comments in an impromptu news conference at Little Rock's airport were likely the last extensive remarks he will make for several days. The candidate, who has grown increasingly hoarse recently, is under doctor's orders to rest his voice before the debate.
Still noticeably hoarse Thursday, Clinton in Little Rock outlined his overseas anti-war activities and his vacation break from Oxford over the 1969-70 holidays.
Clinton said the only anti-Vietnam War protest he organized while attending Oxford was a "teach-in" at the University of London.
"That's the only thing that I ever helped to put together," he said.
He also said he had taken part in an anti-war protest at the American embassy in London during the same period in 1969.
His account varied somewhat with a description he offered in a December, 1969, letter from England to the director of an Arkansas ROTC program that Clinton had temporarily promised to join.
In the letter to Col. Eugene Holmes, Clinton said he had worked in the Washington office of the Vietnam Moratorium, an anti-war group, and then went to England "to organize the Americans here for demonstrations Oct. 15 and Nov. 16."
Clinton said he disagreed with Bush's contention that it was wrong to take part in overseas protests about America's war policies.
"I don't accept that, no," he said.
As for his trip to Europe and the Soviet Union, Clinton said he paid his own way.
"I mostly was just a tourist," Clinton said. "I stayed in the National hotel, as I remember, and I toured around the city. I went out to the university there."
Through his press secretary, Dee Dee Myers, Clinton later said he recalled meeting another American tourist--a chicken farmer from Washington state who told Clinton he was one of a group of Americans in the Soviet Union to seek information about Vietnam POWs and MIAs.
The tourist, whom Clinton met in the hotel's elevator, said his son had been shot down over North Vietnam and that his group needed to find someone to translate Russian, French and English.
Clinton referred the man to the girlfriend of a fellow Rhodes scholar. The woman, whom Clinton had met at a university in Moscow, was multilingual.
According to the Arkansas governor, he socialized on his trip with students and American tourists, most of whom were "very much anti-Soviet."
"It was an eventful and interesting week for me," he said.
Clinton's trip rambled through northern Europe, Scandinavia, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which was then under Soviet domination. After leaving Moscow, Clinton stayed in Czechoslovakia with a family active in a movement to liberalize that nation's government, the governor said.
"They were the most pro-American, anti-communist group of people I was ever around," he said. "That's the first glimmering I had when I was there that some day communism would collapse in eastern Europe."