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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Snubbing Wounded Troops?

A McCain TV spot falsely insinuates that Obama canceled his visit because "the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras."


A new McCain ad says 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."

McCain's facts are literally true, but his insinuation – that the visit was canceled because of the press ban or the desire for gym time – is false. In fact, Obama visited wounded troops earlier – without cameras or press – both in the U.S. and Iraq. And his gym workouts are a daily routine.

The Obama campaign canceled the visit with wounded troops at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Obama says, when he learned that the Pentagon would not allow him to bring along a retired Air Force major general who is serving as a foreign policy adviser to the campaign. Obama says that "triggered then a concern that maybe our visit was going to be perceived as political."


Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign released this ad July 26 and said it would run in "key states."

[TET ]

McCain 2008 Ad: "Troops"

Announcer: Barack Obama never held a single Senate hearing on Afghanistan. He hadn't been to Iraq in years. He voted against funding our troops.

And now, he made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras.

John McCain is always there for our troops. McCain. Country first.

John McCain: I'm John McCain and I approve this message.[/TET]

Trading the Troops for the Gym?

The ad says Obama "made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops." The announcer then goes on to say that it "seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras," implying that's the reason Obama canceled the visit.

It's a fact that Obama canceled a visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center at the last minute after planning it for weeks. And it's a fact that reporters and their cameras would not have been allowed to accompany him. Furthermore, Obama probably did go to the gym that day, as he does practically every day. So the bare facts stated in the ad are true, but they don't support McCain's insinuation.

We can't read minds and so are in no position to know Obama's motives, or McCain's for that matter. It's unlikely, however, that the absence of press coverage would have been a factor in Obama's decision, as the ad implies. Obama says he never planned to take reporters on the Landstuhl visit, and Department of Defense rules prohibited him from taking reporters on previous visits he made with wounded troops.

Reporters were not allowed to accompany him when he visited wounded troops at Walter Reed Medical Center on June 28. The small "protective pool" of reporters that routinely accompanies him was told by Obama's staff to remain outside, in the van, according to a reporter covering the campaign. Similarly, Obama visited wounded troops in Baghdad earlier in his overseas trip, but he did so without reporters and "without a lot of fanfare, just to say 'Thanks'," according to Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who accompanied Obama.

It's true Obama made time for at least one workout while he was in Germany. And he has been known to dedicate more than a few minutes to his exercise regimen. Two reporters who cover Obama, and who were on this trip, tell us that the candidate works out every day, and sometimes twice a day. However, the video of Obama playing basketball featured in McCain's ad is from his time in Kuwait, not Germany.

What Happened and When?

The military's stated policy is to avoid "[a]ny activity that may be reasonably viewed as directly or indirectly associating the [Department of Defense] with a partisan political activity." Members of Congress are allowed to be photographed with the troops and appear with them while serving as public officials, but not as political candidates. When Obama was in Kuwait and Iraq, he was traveling without reporters or campaign staff and visited military installations as part of a congressional delegation that included Sen. Reed and Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Hagel said afterward, on CBS' "Face the Nation" July 27: "We saw troops everywhere we went on the congressional delegation. We went out of our way to see those troops."

But Hagel and Reed dropped off after the delegation visited the Middle East, and the European leg of Obama's trip was a campaign trip, not an official one. Even so, Obama planned to leave reporters behind for a visit to Landstuhl, according to a press briefing by campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs. Gibbs said reporters would have been left behind, though there "may have been" a pool report afterward. Since reporters would not be allowed inside the hospital, any pool reports would have noted only the fact of Obama's coming and going, with no photographs, as was the case with Obama's June 28 visit to Walter Reed. Here's part of the transcript of Gibbs' briefing:

Q: Did it not occur to anybody that this might be viewed as a political stop?

Gibbs: We had taken some of that into consideration, but we believed that it could be done in a way that would not create, it would not be created or seen as a campaign stop.

Q: The schedule was for this plane, with us in it, to fly to Ramstein. By the way we were expected to pay for the flight, what were you suppose to do with the entourage then?

Gibbs: You would have stayed on the plane.

Q: We would have stayed on the plane, would there have been any pool report?

Gibbs: There may have been, I don’t know if we ever came to a decision on that.

Obama "More than Welcome"
At first, it seemed the Obama camp was blaming the Pentagon for the cancellation. Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan Scott Gration, an Obama adviser who had planned to accompany him to Landstuhl, issued a statement saying, "We learned from the Pentagon last night that the visit would be viewed instead as … a campaign event."  That prompted a response from Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, who said, "Sen. Obama is more than welcome to visit Landstuhl or any other military hospital around the world. … But he has to do so, just as any other senator has to do so, in his official capacity. It is not acceptable to do so as a candidate." Los Angeles Times reporters Michael Finnegan and Peter Spiegel went on to quote Morrell as saying, "In an election year … I don’t believe that any candidate is allowed to visit a DOD facility with press."

Gibbs, and later Obama himself, then confirmed that it was the Obama campaign and not the Pentagon that decided to scrub the visit. Obama told the press that he had never planned to take reporters inside: "We were treating it the same way we treat a visit to Walter Reed … without any fanfare whatsoever." And he said the discovery that Gration would not be allowed to come prompted the cancellation.

Obama: And we got notice that [Gration] would be treated as a campaign person, and it would therefore be perceived as political because he had endorsed my candidacy but he wasn’t on the Senate staff. That triggered then a concern that maybe our visit was going to be perceived as political.

We note here that Obama might still have gone on the visit, leaving Gration behind and accompanied only by Secret Service security. But with or without Gration, there would have been no news reporters or news photographers to record the visit.

An Ad Re-Run

The McCain ad repeats the claim that Obama has not held "a single hearing on Afghanistan." As we've already noted, both candidates have less-than-stellar records when it comes to attending Senate hearings on Afghanistan. The ad also repeats the misleading statement that Obama "voted against funding our troops."  As we've noted before, Obama voted in favor of funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan all but once since he was sworn in.

Footnote: McCain's campaign repeated its allegation again today, issuing a statement in the name of retired Army helicopter pilot and McCain campaign surrogate Michael J. Durant, saying Obama's visit "was canceled after it became clear that campaign staff, and the traveling press corps, would not be allowed to accompany Senator Obama." (Emphasis added.) As we've already noted, no cameras or press were planned.

–by Emi Kolawole and Brooks Jackson


"Today on the presidential campaign trail." The Associated Press, 29 June 2008.

Department of Defense. Political Activities by Members of the Armed Forces. Washington: GPO, 2008.

Finnegan, Michael and Peter Spiegel. Obama's cancellation of a military hospital visit leaves unanswered questions. 25 July 2008. The Los Angeles Times: Top of the Ticket, 28 July 2008.

Miklaszewski, Jim. Gration and the Landstuhl Controversy. 25 July 2008. MSNBC First Read Blog, 28 July 2008.