INDEPENDENCE, Missouri (Reuters) - Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama rejected questions about his patriotism on Monday even as he drew fire for a supporter’s attack on Republican rival John McCain’s military record.
Obama kicked off the week leading up to the July 4 Independence Day celebration with a broad-ranging speech extolling American virtues. He said questions about patriotism were a poisonous remnant of the 1960s culture wars.
The Illinois senator also took another step to heal party divisions, speaking to former President Bill Clinton for about 20 minutes by telephone from Kansas City just days after campaigning for the first time with defeated rival Hillary Clinton, the former first lady.
The former president raised questions last week about how committed he was to Obama’s success when he delivered a speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and barely mentioned the Democratic presidential contender.
The Obama campaign described Monday’s conversation as terrific and said the Illinois senator asked Clinton to campaign for him, which the former president appeared excited to do.
“He has always believed that Bill Clinton is one of this nation’s great leaders and most brilliant minds, and looks forward to seeing him on the campaign trail and receiving his counsel in the months to come,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton said.
In a clear sign the patriotism issue is a worry for the campaign, Obama said in a speech at the Harry Truman presidential library in Missouri that he would not sit back and watch his love of country questioned by political rivals.
“I will never question the patriotism of others in this campaign. And I will not stand idly by when I hear others question mine,” he said.
As Obama spoke, however, a firestorm was brewing over weekend comments by an Obama backer, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, sometimes mentioned as a potential vice presidential running mate in the November election.
Clark said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday that McCain’s military service record was overblown since he did not make major combat decisions. McCain spent 5 1/2 years in a Vietnam prison camp after his fighter plane was shot down over Hanoi.
“I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president,” Clark said.
Obama distanced himself from the remark without mentioning Clark by name. A spokesman, Bill Burton, said Obama rejects Clark’s comments.
“No one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides. We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period,” Obama said.
But McCain campaign advisers seized on the remark as evidence to support their contention that while Obama preaches a civil message, he is willing to engage in cutthroat tactics.
They organized a conference call with some of McCain’s colleagues in the military to defend his honor.
“They’re playing politics,” said Orson Swindle, who was in the POW camp with McCain. “It’s not good. Senator Obama apparently is permitting it, and that’s very disappointing.”
McCain said the controversy should not distract from the important election issues.
“If that’s the kind of campaign that Senator Obama and his surrogates and his supporters want to engage, I understand that. But it doesn’t reduce the price of a gallon of gas by one penny. It doesn’t achieve our energy independence ... (and) it doesn’t help an American stay in their home,” McCain told reporters in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black U.S. president, will face McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, in November’s election for the White House.
Obama has battled persistent criticism about his failure to wear a flag pin on his lapel, viewed as a symbol of patriotism for some U.S. politicians. He often wears one now.
He also has been the target of Internet rumors about his willingness to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and his wife, Michelle, has been criticized for a remark she said was taken out of context about feeling proud of her country.
(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland; editing by David Wiessler)
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