Bush Attacks Critics of Iraq War at Rally

President Bush used Veterans Day to strike back at critics of the war in Iraq. He told an audience of veterans and military workers in Pennsylvania that his political rivals are sending the wrong message to troops — and the enemy — by questioning the rationale for the war.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Bush used Veterans Day to respond to critics of the war in Iraq. He told an audience of veterans and military workers in Pennsylvania that those who question the original rationale for the war do not remember their history, and they're sending the wrong message to troops and the enemy. NPR's Robert Smith reports from northeastern Pennsylvania.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Rather than spending Veterans Day laying the traditional wreath at Arlington National Cemetery, the president traveled to the Pocono Mountains to rekindle support for the war in Iraq and pump up his sagging approval ratings.

(Soundbite of bus arrivals)

SMITH: At the Tobyhanna Army Depot buses brought in veterans and military personnel from the surrounding towns. Machinist Gary Cooper, who works at the depot, says he knows the president has been having a hard couple of months.

Mr. GARY COOPER (Machinist): I mean, he's been taking a beating, you know. It's been a rough and rocky road--seems like every other day for him. I'm just here to support him. He needs all the help he can get.

(Soundbite of marching band music)

SMITH: Any funk that might be plaguing the Bush administration wasn't on display at the depot. The place was done up like a campaign rally, complete with marching band and inspirational banners. `Strategy for victory' the signs read, although the only new strategy the president unveiled was a political one: taking on his critics.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The stakes in the global war on terror are too high, and the national interest is too important for politicians to throw out false charges.

SMITH: The president accused the Democrats of trying to rewrite history by claiming that the White House twisted intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq War.

Pres. BUSH: These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America's will. As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them.

SMITH: In a deja vu of last year's campaign, the president even singled out John Kerry, noting that the senator and more than 100 other Democrats had voted for the war before they became critics. Kerry shot back with a statement accusing the president of playing politics on a holiday set aside to honor veterans. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid responded that Democrats would continue to ask for a full airing of the facts about prewar intelligence. Still, the president's counterattack played well with the military families who had been handpicked to watch the speech. Dan Murray, an Air Force veteran, says the president is right.

Mr. DAN MURRAY: I think he went in there for good reasons, and I think that we do tend to forget. I think that if we weren't committed, if we weren't going to stick it through to the end, why do we even go at all?

SMITH: Outside the gates of the depot, another group of veterans--those not invited to the speech--stood with giant American flags as a protest to the war. Walter Demerly(ph), who served as an engineer for the Army during the Korean War, says he, too, supported the invasion of Iraq and later felt misled by the president. Demerly wasn't surprised that Mr. Bush would lash out against the Democrats.

Mr. WALTER DEMERLY: Of course, he's going to say that. He's going to defend everything he's said. But that don't mean it's the truth. Seems like you can't believe him anymore. So it's just not right; the whole thing stinks. The system is lousy.

SMITH: But the president didn't get to see the protest. He left the same way he came in: on a military helicopter. Robert Smith, NPR News, Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania.

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