From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones
ZANESVILLE, Ohio -- "Inartful" was the word Obama used Tuesday to characterize remarks Gen. Wes Clark made over the weekend and subsequently about McCain's military service.
VIDEO: NBC's Andrea Mitchell talks with John McCain supporter Carly Fiorina about the Wesley Clark controversy.
He also spoke about the telephone conversation he held with former President Bill Clinton yesterday while on a trip to Missouri.
At a press conference, the Illinois senator was asked what he thought about Clark's comments, which seemed to downplay the significance of McCain's military service -- he was shot down and held as a POW for five and-a-half years during the Vietnam War -- and whether he felt they were similar to the Swift Boat ads used to attack John Kerry in 2004.
"I don't think that Gen. Clark, you know, had the same intent as the Swiftboat ads that we saw four years ago; I reject that analogy," he said, before adding that he had said many times that McCain's deserved honor and respect for his service to the country. "Now I have differences with him on policy, and I will vigorously debate a lot of the decisions he's made when it comes to national security that have weakened our capacity to meet the threats and challenges of the 21st century. But that certainly doesn't detract from his past service to America."
He did not answer the first part of the question directly and later Obama, who said he had not spoken with Clark, seemed to bristle when asked why he had not talked with him and whether he felt the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO owed McCain an apology, suggesting voters had more pressing matters on their minds.
"I guess my question is why, given all the vast numbers of things that we've got to work on, that that would be a top priority of mine?" he said. "I think that, you know, right now we're here to talk about how we can make sure that kids in Zanesville and across Ohio get the kind of support that they need and communities that are impoverished can start to rebuild. I'm happy to have all sorts of conversations about how we deal with Iraq and what happens with Iran, but the fact that somebody on a cable show or on a news show like Gen. Clark said something that was inartful about Sen. McCain I don't think is probably the thing that is keeping Ohioans up at night."
*** UPDATE *** To that, the McCain campaign responded this way: "Apparently Barack Obama now thinks that smear attacks on John McCain's military service are fair game. One day after earning praise for rejecting Gen. Clark's attacks, Sen. Obama clarified that his remarks had been written months before and were not even aimed at Gen. Clark. After repudiating his own repudiation, he went on to ask why an apology to Sen. McCain from Gen. Clark would even be a priority. All Barack Obama has to do is tell his campaign surrogates to stop criticizing John McCain's record of service and this discussion would be over. Apparently his campaign has no intention of doing so. The McCain campaign will not sit idly by and let these ongoing attacks go unanswered."
Obama again reiterated his strong desire to have Bill Clinton campaign for him and said the pair had not dwelled on some of the negative back and forth of the primary campaign during their talk.
"I absolutely want Bill Clinton campaigning for me," he said. "We had a great conversation. He is one of the most gifted public officials of our generation and you know has been one of the most successful presidents that we've had in my lifetime so I want his active involvement, his active participation."
More: "We did not belabor the primary season. I think what we both acknowledged is that when you're in a tough primary battle, you say things that you know, afterwards you may end up thinking, ah, it might have been a little intemperate. But that's the nature of political campaigns. We are absolutely united in wanting to make sure that Democrats succeed both in Congress and in the White House in November and that we can move an agenda forward that's actually going to help the people in Ohio."
Obama said he would have to campaign more in this part of Ohio to win the support of voters that have not been strong supporters of Democrats in past elections or of him during the primary election, and he responded to a vague question about how to dispel rumors about him by saying they were "bogus and false and everybody has repeatedly said they're bogus and false. I think everybody knows the answers to these questions. They're just not true."
He also talked about the economy, the home foreclosure crisis, gas prices, renegotiating NAFTA and other issues during the roughly 35-minute press conference.
The presumptive Democratic nominee spoke with reporters after touring the East Side Community Ministry here. He began by announcing that, as president, he would create a new Office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives that would be a critical part of his administration but that would function differently than the faith-based office set up by President George W. Bush under whom he said such programs had not met their potential.
"Support for social services to the poor and the needy have been consistently under-funded, rather than promoting the cause of all faith-based organizations, former officials in the Office have described how it was used to promote partisan interests," he said. "As a result, the smaller congregations and community groups that were supposed to be empowered ended up getting short-changed."
Obama said faith-based organizations would not be allowed to use federal money to proselytize, could not discriminate on the basis of faith and could only use taxpayer dollars on secular programs and initiatives. He also said they should not be able to discriminate in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation.
"In terms of hiring, I believe that Title 7 and state and local laws apply to faith-based organizations that are taking federal funds to provide services," Obama said. "Now right now we have not passed a nondiscrimination act at the federal level that applies to sexual orientation. But there are states that have such laws in place, Illinois being one of them and in those circumstances I would expect state laws to be observed as well."
During the press conference he did not answer directly whether he would create a new cabinet level position to deal with faith-based initiatives, but that he wanted the person heading up the office to have a direct line to him and to coordinate with cabinet officers.