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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Bush Lawyer Tied to Anti-Kerry Group Quits

Benjamin Ginsberg defends his work for the Swift boat veterans. Near president's ranch, old soldiers with letters of protest square off.

August 26, 2004|Edwin Chen and Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writers

CRAWFORD, Texas — A top lawyer for President Bush's campaign resigned Wednesday, a day after revealing that he had provided legal advice to a group of Vietnam veterans questioning the combat record and antiwar activity of Sen. John F. Kerry.

But the departure of Benjamin Ginsberg was unlikely to end the acrimonious debate over television advertising by outside groups.

Joined by White House and Bush campaign officials, Ginsberg stepped aside as the campaign's national counsel with a swipe at Democrats and their supporters, saying that they had engaged in similar activities.

Ginsberg told Bush in a letter that he thought his work for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was "appropriate and legal," but that he did not want to become a distraction to the campaign.

"One thing a lawyer can't allow is to let themselves be a distortion. So I stood down," Ginsberg said in an interview.

Not until Tuesday, he said, did he tell the campaign that he had been working for the anti-Kerry group, which he referred to as "the Swifties."

For more than a week, the presidential race has been engulfed in a dispute over charges by the Swift boat group. The independent organization said Kerry lied about his experiences in Vietnam to get medals, and that he betrayed fellow servicemen with his antiwar activities and statements.

The Kerry campaign pounced on Ginsberg's resignation, saying it proved a connection to the Bush campaign -- a link anti-Kerry veterans and the Bush campaign denied.

Some key players and donors to the Swift boat group are longtime allies of Bush and his political advisor, Karl Rove. One veteran featured in a Swift boat ad resigned from the Bush campaign after it was learned that he was a member of the president's veterans steering committee.

But the revelation of Ginsberg's direct involvement moved the controversy into Bush's campaign headquarters.

Federal law prohibits a candidate's campaign organization and independent groups from coordinating activities.

On Wednesday, the Bush campaign and supporters continued to deny involvement with the Swift boat group. However, they embraced one of the organization's central themes: Kerry's antiwar record.

When the Democratic camp sent an entourage of veterans -- including former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.) -- to Crawford on Wednesday to deliver a letter to the president, the Bush campaign organized its own group of veterans to greet them.

"You can't build your convention and much of your campaign around your service in Vietnam, and then try to say that only those veterans who agree with you have a right to speak up," the pro-Bush veterans said in a letter to Kerry. "There is no double standard for our right to free speech. We all earned it."

The letter, presented under the Bush-Cheney campaign letterhead, was signed by Texas State Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, three members of Congress and four other Bush supporters.

Cleland refused to accept the letter. In remarks later to reporters, he denounced the president, accusing the Swift boat veterans of mounting "scurrilous attacks" and charging that "George Bush is behind it."

The letter that Cleland tried to deliver urged the president to renounce the Swift boat ad campaign against the Democratic presidential nominee. Cleland was turned away on a dusty road near the ranch by Secret Service agents and Texas state troopers.

Kerry, campaigning in Philadelphia and Green Bay, Wis., tried to steer the focus to domestic matters even as he ramped up the Vietnam issue on television.

His campaign launched a new ad that included 4-year-old footage of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) scolding Bush for appearing with critics who accused McCain of "abandoning" prisoners of war in Vietnam. The 60-second spot, titled "Shame," shows McCain, a former POW, rebuking Bush during their spirited race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.

During a debate moderated by CNN's Larry King, McCain looked Bush in the eye and told him that he "should be ashamed."

The new Kerry ad concludes with the on-screen message: "Four years ago it was John McCain. This year, they're smearing John Kerry. George Bush, denounce the smear."

The campaign's use of the old McCain footage could be problematic. A close McCain associate said the senator planned to object to the use of his image in the ad. McCain is supporting the president.

"His feeling is that the voters don't care about what happened in Vietnam 35 years ago or what happened in the Republican primaries four years ago," said the advisor, explaining McCain's position.

Meanwhile, as Ginsberg departed Wednesday, he made no apologies for his work on behalf of the Swift boat group.

"I am proud to have given legal advice to American military veterans and others who wish to add their views to the political debate," he wrote to the president.

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