INDEPENDENCE — Flanked by American flags, Barack Obama forcefully defended his patriotism Monday against anyone who would challenge it, declaring he wouldn’t stand still for persistent loyalty rumors aimed at sinking his presidential campaign.
However, he was forced to interrupt his Fourth of July week event — at Harry Truman’s old home in Independence — to respond to Republican rival John McCain’s complaint that it was actually Obama and his campaign who were wrongly questioning the importance of McCain’s military service.
McCain said that “that kind of thing is unnecessary,” and the Obama camp agreed.
Obama praised McCain’s service, and the Democratic candidate’s spokesman rejected Sunday’s remarks from a prominent supporter, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who said McCain’s years as a Vietnam War fighter pilot and prisoner of war did not necessarily qualify him to be commander in chief.
As for his own patriotism, Obama said he chose Monday’s topic in part because of questions raised during the presidential race so far, even though he had always considered his love of country a given, in fact his inspiration for running for office.
“I have found, for the first time, my patriotism challenged — at times as a result of my own carelessness, more often as a result of the desire by some to score political points and raise fears about who I am and what I stand for,” he said before a crowd of a few hundred people at the Truman Memorial Building.
“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.
Obama plans to spend all week in the run-up to Friday’s July Fourth holiday focusing on American values — choosing a different theme each day and traveling to a mix of battleground states, including Missouri, Ohio and Colorado, and traditional Republican strongholds such as North Dakota and Montana.
He is also beginning his first television advertising campaign of the general election season — all part of an attempt to define the first-term Illinois senator before Republicans do it for him.
Questions about his patriotism were raised during the Democratic nomination fight, and Obama started wearing a flag pin on his lapel in May in one attempt to answer them. Earlier in the campaign, when critics questioned why he didn’t wear the pin — as many male politicians do — he said he had stopped after the 2001 terrorist attacks because he felt it had replaced “true patriotism” for some public officials.
Later, the pin on his lapel started showing up again. It was there Monday.
Other efforts to undermine his candidacy have included suggestions that he refuses to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance — an allegation his campaign has answered by linking his Web site to a C-SPAN video of Obama leading the pledge with his hand over his heart as he presides over the Senate.
As for the latest controversy involving McCain, Obama didn’t explicitly mention Clark’s weekend remarks, but he attempted to distance himself from them.
Patriotism “must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice,” he said. “For those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country — no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary. ... And let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides.”
The comment drew loud applause.
Separately, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said, “As he’s said many times before, Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain’s service, and of course he rejects yesterday’s statement by General Clark.” A campaign spokeswoman said praise for McCain was always planned to be a part of the speech — and that it took on particular resonance because of Clark’s comment.
At a news conference in Harrisburg, Pa., McCain was asked about Clark’s comments.
“I think that that kind of thing is unnecessary,” McCain said. “I’m proud of my record of service, I have plenty of friends, leaders who will attest to that.
“The important thing is if that’s the kind of campaign Senator Obama and his surrogates and supporters want to engage in, I understand that. But it doesn’t reduce the price of gas by one penny. It doesn’t achieve our energy independence or make it come any closer. Doesn’t make any American stay in their home who’s at risk of losing it today. And it certainly doesn’t do anything to address the challenges Americans have in keeping their jobs, homes and supporting their families.”
Obama used words and images to argue his own born-in-the-USA bona fides. He described one of his earliest memories, sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders to watch astronauts come ashore in Hawaii, and recalled his grandmother’s stories about working on a bomber assembly line during World War II. While living in Indonesia, he said his mother would read the first lines of the Declaration of Independence.
For the Missouri crowd, he quoted a favorite native son — Mark Twain — and drew a standing ovation.
“Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it,” he repeated Twain’s quote. “We may hope that our leaders and our government stand up for our ideals, and there are many times in our history when that’s occurred. But when our laws, our leaders or our government are out of alignment with our ideals, then the dissent of ordinary Americans may prove to be one of the truest expression of patriotism.”