For four days, Sen. John McCain and his allies have accused Sen. Barack Obama of snubbing injured soldiers by canceling a visit to a military hospital because he could not take reporters with him, despite no evidence that the charge is true.
The attacks are part of a newly aggressive McCain operation to portray the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee as a craven politician more interested in his image than in ailing soldiers, a senior McCain adviser said. They come despite repeated pledges by the Republican that he will never question his rival's patriotism.
McCain's allegation is that Obama planned to take a media entourage, including TV cameras, to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany during his week-long foreign trip, but canceled when he learned he could not do so. “I know that, according to reports, that he wanted to bring media people and cameras and his campaign staffers,” McCain said on the “Larry King Live” show Monday night.
The Obama campaign denies that was why he called off the visit. There is no evidence that he planned to take anyone to the American hospital other than a military adviser, whose status as a campaign staff member sparked last-minute concern among Pentagon officials that the visit would be an improper political event.
“Absolutely, unequivocally wrong,” Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mail after McCain's comments to Larry King.
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said again Tuesday that the Republican's version of events is correct.
“It is safe to say that, according to press reports, Barack Obama avoided, skipped, canceled the visit because of those reasons,” he said. “We're not making a leap here.”
Asked repeatedly for the reports, Bounds gave three examples. None alleged Obama had wanted to take members of the media to the hospital.
The McCain campaign has produced a TV commercial that says that while in Germany, Obama “made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras.” The commercial shows Obama shooting a basketball – an event that happened earlier in the trip on a stopover in Kuwait, where the Democrat spoke to troops in a gym before grabbing a ball and taking a single shot. The military released the video footage.
A reconstruction of the circumstances of Obama's decision not to visit Landstuhl, based on first-hand reporting from the trip, shows that his campaign never contemplated taking the media with him.
The first indication reporters got that Obama was planning, or had planned, to visit the hospital came Thursday morning, shortly after the entourage arrived in Berlin. On the seats of the media bus were schedules for his stop in Germany. The final entry – a Friday morning departure – indicated his plane would fly from Berlin to Ramstein Air Base.
When a reporter asked spokeswoman Linda Douglass that morning about the trip to Ramstein, she said that the trip had been considered but that Obama was not going to go. At that point, the campaign provided no other information.
Overnight, the Obama team issued two statements, one from senior campaign official Robert Gibbs and the other from retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, an Obama foreign policy adviser who was on the trip.
Gibbs' statement said the hospital visit, on the internal schedule for several weeks, was canceled because Obama decided it would be inappropriate to go there as part of a trip paid for by his campaign. Gration said the Pentagon had told the campaign the visit would be seen as political.
Those two statements, while not inconsistent, did not clarify whether the visit was canceled in reaction to Pentagon concerns or because of worries about appearances. They also opened Obama's camp to charges that it was offering slightly different reasons at different times.
Gibbs said Tuesday that the campaign had planned to inform the traveling media members sometime on the morning of the flight to Ramstein that Obama was intending to visit the hospital but had made no plans to take reporters, including even the small, protective press pool that now accompanies him most places.
Reporters, he said, probably would have been able to get off the plane but not leave an air base facility close by. “We had made absolutely no arrangements to transport the press to the hospital,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, en route from Berlin to Paris, Gibbs briefed reporters traveling with Obama. He noted that the candidate had visited wounded soldiers several weeks earlier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and at a combat support hospital in Iraq earlier in the week – without reporters.
On Saturday in London, Obama addressed the controversy. He said Pentagon concerns about Gration's status triggered the decision not to visit Landstuhl.