A newly disclosed tape of a 1971 television appearance by Democratic presidential hopeful John F. Kerry triggered new scrutiny Monday of the accounts he has given for his discarding of medals at a Vietnam War protest.
The Massachusetts senator dismissed the matter as “a phony controversy” fanned by President Bush’s reelection campaign. But the videotape prompted Republicans to question Kerry’s explanations for what he did at an April 1971 Washington antiwar protest.
Kerry said there was nothing inconsistent in his accounts.
“I have been accurate precisely about what took place,” he said Monday on ABC News’ “Good Morning America.”
At the time, Kerry was a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. A highly decorated former Navy swift-boat commander in Vietnam, he was part of a group that cast aside their medals and ribbons at an antiwar protest on April 23, 1971.
In a Nov. 6, 1971, interview on Washington, D.C., television station WRC, Kerry left the impression that he had tossed out his own war medals in a show of solidarity with other angry veterans.
When Kerry told the interviewer that veterans had thrown their medals over the fence “to give them back to their country,” she asked him, “How many did you give back, John?”
“I gave back, I can’t remember, six, seven, eight, nine,” Kerry responded.
“Well, you were awarded the Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts,” she reminded him.
“Well, and above that, I gave back my others,” he said.
In recent interviews with The Times and other news organizations, Kerry has said he actually tossed his ribbons over the fence, but not his medals. He said he returned later to discard the medals of two other veterans at their request.
In the ABC interview Monday, Kerry said there was “no distinction” between medals and ribbons in the military.
“Back then, you know, ribbons, medals were absolutely interchangeable,” he said.
But Republicans seized on Kerry’s 1971 remarks to reinforce two of the Bush campaign’s central arguments: that his word cannot be trusted, and that his national security credentials are lacking.
“The problem is not what John Kerry did or didn’t do 30 years ago; it’s what he’s saying today, which once again turns out to be wrong,” Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said in a statement.
Bush advisor Karen Hughes told CNN on Sunday that Kerry “only pretended” to throw away his medals.
“Now, I can understand if, out of conscience, you take a principled stand, and you would decide that you were so opposed to this that you would actually throw your medals, but to pretend to do so, I think that’s very revealing,” she said.
In Massachusetts, political rivals have cast Kerry as a hypocrite for discarding the medals of other veterans but not his own.
In 1985, Kerry told the Washington Post that he had not wanted to throw his medals away. “It’s such a personal thing,” he said. “They’re my medals. I’ll do what I want with them.”
But 11 years later, he told the Boston Globe that he had not discarded his own medals because he “didn’t have time to go home and get them.”
To University of Massachusetts political scientist Lou DiNatale, the explanations appeared to be “classic Kerry -- all that parsing that allows him maximum maneuverability.”
“The guy has been an opportunistic idealist all his life,” he said.
Kerry sought to deflect questions on his medals Monday by saying Bush had yet to explain “whether he showed up for duty” in the Alabama National Guard during the Vietnam War.
Bush campaign spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said Kerry had resorted to “a venomous political attack because he is having difficulty explaining his confusing contradictions.”
Times staff writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.