Kerry Shifts Focus From Vietnam to Iraq

Times Staff Writer

While matters stemming from the Vietnam War remained the central focus of the presidential campaign today, Sen. John F. Kerry sought to shift attention to Iraq and the U.S. economy.

The Democratic presidential nominee invoked new reports on the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal as he criticized the Bush administration’s overall handling of the war there.

Renewing his call for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign, Kerry said the reports failed to assign “civilian accountability” for the prisoner scandal.

“For any person who has ever served in the military, we all know what chain of command means,” Kerry told labor union supporters at a campaign forum on jobs. “We know what accountability and responsibility mean, and it’s not just the little person at the bottom who ought to pay the price of responsibility.”

He added: “The buck doesn’t stop at the Pentagon.”

Kerry used the new reports on the prison scandal — one by Army Gen. George R. Fay, the other by an independent panel led by former Defense Secretary James R. Schlesinger — to argue that he could keep America safer than President Bush has.

“I will make America a country that once again restores its respect and influence in the world so we’re not creating terrorists out there, we’re not in a situation where people are recruited because of Abu Ghraib or something else,” Kerry said.

Asked by a supporter what he should tell a son serving overseas in the Air Force when he asks why he’s there, Kerry told him to tell the young man he was “serving the ultimate cause of trying to help America to fight terror and to be able to stand up for democracy.”

In nearly 90 minutes of remarks at the morning campaign forum, Kerry made only passing reference to the swirling Vietnam controversies. He said he recalled “from my years of service what happens” when U.S. troops are sent to battle by leaders who fail to ensure “the greatest possibilities of success.”

But two of Kerry’s labor supporters brought up the matter.

“I think it’s shameful, the attacks upon your service and the attacks upon Jim’s story,” Larry Healy of the United Food and Commercial Workers union told Kerry, referring to former Green Beret lieutenant Jim Rassmann, who credits the senator with saving his life in Vietnam.

“It’s just horrible,” Healy said.

He thanked Kerry for agreeing to serve in Vietnam combat zones when he enlisted in the Navy. Healy took an apparent swipe at Vice President Dick Cheney, who avoided military service during the Vietnam War through draft deferments.

“I want to thank you for your leadership in choosing to command a Swift Boat rather than saying, ‘I have more important things to do and I want five deferments,’” Healy told the Massachusetts senator.

In introducing Kerry at the forum, Pat Eiding, president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, also defended Kerry, who has battled unsubstantiated charges by a veterans group that he won war medals by lying about combat wounds.

“He went across the ocean, and he fought a war for us, and he did it with honor,” Eiding told Kerry’s cheering supporters at a Steamfitters Local 420 training center.

The forum’s focus was Kerry’s economic plan.

“This is the worst jobs economy, worst jobs presidency we’ve had since the Great Depression and Herbert Hoover,” Kerry said.

The candidate, dressed in shirt sleeves and pacing back and forth across a stage surrounded by several hundred union supporters, took questions from the crowd.

Responding to Elba Nieves, 40, a Philadelphia ribbon-factory machine operator who said she was laid off this month without notice and must support three children, Kerry touted his proposals to cut the cost of healthcare.

“No mother of three children should be struggling to know that those kids are going to have healthcare, and that she’s going to be able to have healthcare, in this country,” he said. “Nobody. None.”

Kerry also poked fun at Republicans who push for “an inheritance tax reduction and then give it a great big label.”

“Call it the death tax, and people go, ‘Oh gosh,’” Kerry said. “You know, they play games with the names, but it’s really the same old thing. It’s called inheritance.”

Naming Bill Gates, David Rockefeller and Warren Buffett as rich men who oppose cutting the tax, Kerry said: “Guess what, you can still leave plenty of money to your kids so they can be screwed up for a lifetime. It’s not that hard, folks.”

From Philadelphia, Kerry flew to Green Bay, Wis., where he was planning a “front porch” gathering with voters to talk about his economic plans.