GOP’s Kirk on defensive after discrepancy in childhood story prompts new honesty questions

By Deanna Bellandi, AP
Saturday, July 24, 2010

GOP’s Kirk on defensive after latest discrepancy

CHICAGO — Since Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk acknowledged embellishing his military record, the slightest discrepancy in his life story prompts another round of news coverage questioning his honesty as he makes a bid for President Barack Obama’s old Senate seat.

The focus this time is a defining story of Kirk’s youth that he tells frequently, about nearly drowning when his sailboat capsized in Lake Michigan when he was 16 years old.

The Chicago Tribune reported Friday that Kirk recently told a boating magazine he watched the sunset from atop his overturned boat 34 years ago, while local news coverage of the rescue said he was pulled from Lake Michigan in the afternoon. Kirk told the Tribune he feared the sun would set and he’d be stuck on the water in the dark.

He was quick Friday to blast the Tribune, which also questioned claims about his ability to swim in 42-degree water and whether his body temperature was gravely low when he was rescued.

“It’s unfortunate that some reporters had a pre-conceived premise that led to a ridiculous story about an event that is indisputable. Voters will see this story for what it is and I will continue to focus on the issues that matter and how I will serve the people of Illinois,” Kirk said in a statement posted on his campaign website.

His Democratic opponent, Illinois treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, was quick to use the latest incident to take a pot shot at Kirk, with his campaign calling it Kirk’s “original fish story.”

“Congressman Kirk apparently can’t tell the truth about anything,” Giannoulias spokesman Matt McGrath said in a statement.

A Naval Reserve officer, Kirk has apologized since news reports surfaced in May that he had exaggerated his military record, including claiming a prestigious award he didn’t get, and that he overstated his service, including serving in the first Gulf War when he didn’t. Kirk has said he was “careless” in describing his military service and background.

He also has acknowledged twice being scolded by the Pentagon for improperly mingling politics with his military duties, something his campaign had flatly denied. And, he has had to weather criticism that he made too much of his past teaching experience that included working as a teacher for a year in England and working in a nursery during his senior year at Cornell University.

Kirk has since largely clammed up about his military service, instead referring reporters to his official military reports to answer questions. But he was happy to recount for a recent issue of Soundings magazine the details of his dramatic boating escapade and rescue in June 1976.

“I decided that I would take one long tack out and one long tack in to make it easy,” Kirk is quoted as saying in a story on their website. “But I capsized a couple of more times and in one of them I lost the centerboard, so I really couldn’t control the boat. I lost the halyard and ended up watching the sunset standing on the upside-down boat with only a ski belt on.”

A local news story of Kirk’s rescue, which he has posted on his campaign website, said he was rescued at 2:52 p.m. Kirk told the Tribune on Friday he didn’t watch the sunset but denied any embellishment.

“As you know, with anything 34 years ago, some memories differ,” he said during a campaign stop in Peoria. He added, “The voters of Illinois are far more interested in what I would do as their senator in 2011 than what happened in June of 1976, when Gerald Ford was president and it was still 20 years before the Internet was created.”

Medical experts the Tribune talked to also doubted Kirk would have been able to swim in 42-degree water in the lake if his body temperature was in the 80s as he said.

A statement from Kirk’s mother on his website says her son’s body temperature was in the 80s. The local newspaper account said Kirk was reported to be suffering from exposure.

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