Sunday, Aug. 10, 2008 | 2 a.m.
In Today's Sun
Sen. John McCain, speaking to disabled veterans Saturday in Las Vegas, attacked his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, for his foreign policy record, while also proposing a program that would allow veterans to acquire health care at private hospitals and not just through the Veterans Affairs Department.
The veterans, at Bally’s for their national convention, gave him a tepid reception, especially considering McCain’s life story. The Arizona senator was a Navy pilot shot down over Vietnam, tortured and held as a prisoner of war for 5 1/2 years.
Just one of 14 veterans interviewed by the Sun after his speech said he is a certain McCain voter, and the nonpartisan group’s legislative director expressed concerns about McCain’s proposed “Veterans’ Care Access Card.”
But as with most presidential campaign events, the intended audience was not the veterans in the hall but television viewers. McCain used the opportunity to hammer Obama on his opposition to the 2007 surge of U.S. troops in Iraq.
McCain said Obama “can’t quite bring himself to admit his own failure in judgment. Instead, he commits the greater error of insisting that even in hindsight, he would oppose the surge. Even in retrospect, he would choose the path of retreat and failure for America over the path of success and victory.
“Behind all of these claims and positions by Senator Obama lies the ambition to be president,” McCain said. “What’s missing is the judgment to be commander in chief.”
McCain said Obama had tried to “legislate failure” in Iraq.
Obama has said that he showed good judgment by opposing the war in the first place. The Iraqi government recently endorsed Obama’s proposal to withdraw troops.
In setting forth an agenda for veterans, McCain said he would make sure Congress approves the VA health care budget on schedule. “But I will say that every increase in funding must be matched by increases in accountability, both at the VA and in Congress.”
Legislation appropriating money for veterans is often tardy, bogged down in the legislative process and loaded with extra spending on unrelated matters.
McCain said he would veto veterans legislation that contains unrelated pork barrel spending. The money saved could be used for veterans benefits, he said.
To help veterans who live far from VA hospitals or need specialized care the VA can’t provide, McCain proposed giving low-income veterans and those who incurred injury during their service a card they could use at private hospitals. The proposal is not an attempt to privatize the VA, as critics have alleged, but rather, an effort to improve care and access to it, he said.
Joe Violanti, legislative director of the Disabled American Veterans, a nonpartisan organization, said the proposal would increase costs because private hospitals are more expensive. The increased cost could lead to further rationing of care, he said.
McCain closed with stirring words: “I have had the good fortune to know personally a great many brave and selfless patriots who sacrificed and shed blood to defend America. But I have known none braver or better than those who do so today. They are our inspiration, as I suspect all of you were once theirs. And I pray to a loving God that he bless and protect them.”
John Von Schlicher, 87, of Florida, said he will support McCain. Schlicher sharply criticized the Democratic-controlled Congress for not funding VA hospitals. (Spending on veterans benefits will increase 11 percent this year.)
Other veterans, such as James Jewett and Jay Johnson of Texas, expressed misgivings about McCain using the occasion to attack his opponent so fiercely.
Duke Hendershot, a double amputee retired Marine who served in Vietnam, supported McCain’s run for president in 2000 but is undecided this year.
“John just isn’t the same as he used to be. He’s not his own man,” said Hendershot, who lives in San Antonio, Texas. “A lot of that has to do with how he’s wanted this job so bad for so long that he’s tied himself to President Bush.”
He said McCain’s embrace of Bush, whom Hendershot called a “draft-dodging coward,” is even more perplexing because of the rivalry between the two candidates during the 2000 campaign.
Hendershot also criticized McCain for taking swipes at Obama in his speech. “He should have been talking about veterans issues, not his opponent,” he said.
By contrast, he praised Obama for keeping his remarks tightly focused on veterans. The Democrat gave taped remarks via video.
Sun reporter Brian Eckhouse contributed to this story.