** UPDATE BELOW **
Despite heavy criticism, Gen. Wesley Clark is standing by his statement this weekend that Sen. John MCain's military experience doesn't qualify him to be commander-in-chief.
"I certainly honor his service as a prisoner of war," Clark said of McCain on Sunday. "But he hasn't held executive responsibility. That large squadron in the Navy that he commanded -- that wasn't a wartime squadron. He hasn't been there and ordered the bombs to fall."
That statement from Clark has come under withering criticism from McCain's campaign and was rejected by Sen. Barack Obama, both of whom (along with the media) distorted Clark's words by painting them as an attack on McCain's military service. (Notably, several U.S. veterans, including Iraq vet and VoteVets.org chairman Jon Soltz, and Lt. Gen. Robert Gard Jr. have come to Clark's defense.)
This evening, Clark issued a statement reiterating his respect for McCain's "courage and commitment to our country," as well as his belief that McCain's judgment on crucial national security issues has been deeply flawed:
"There are many important issues in this Presidential election, clearly one of the most important issues is national security and keeping the American people safe. In my opinion, protecting the American people is the most important duty of our next President. I have made comments in the past about John McCain's service and I want to reiterate them in order be crystal clear. As I have said before I honor John McCain's service as a prisoner of war and a Vietnam Veteran. He was a hero to me and to hundreds of thousands and millions of others in Armed Forces as a prisoner of war. I would never dishonor the service of someone who chose to wear the uniform for our nation.
"John McCain is running his campaign on his experience and how his experience would benefit him and our nation as President. That experience shows courage and commitment to our country - but it doesn't include executive experience wrestling with national policy or go-to-war decisions. And in this area his judgment has been flawed - he not only supported going into a war we didn't have to fight in Iraq, but has time and again undervalued other, non-military elements of national power that must be used effectively to protect America But as an American and former military officer I will not back down if I believe someone doesn't have sound judgment when it comes to our nation's most critical issues."
UPDATE: Via HuffPost's Sam Stein, Clark appeared tonight on MSNBC's Verdict with Dan Abrams:
Clark stood by his comments late Monday night on MSNBC, apologizing only for detracting from the "bigger issues."
"I honor John McCain's character," said Clark. "As I said in the show he's been on of my heroes for a long time. He's been over to my house. This is about the qualifications to be president. It is also about the nature of politics today that a comment can be taken out of context so much to create a hullaboo."
Clark stressed that when he initially suggested that McCain's time in Vietnam did not -- by itself -- qualify him to be president, he was speaking as his own agent and not on behalf of Barack Obama's campaign. In addition, he pointed some of the spotlight on the fact that one of McCain's surrogates in batting back the criticism was Bud Day, a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth organization that McCain once criticized.
"I think language of this type and this part of the discussion shouldn't be part of the campaign," he said. "I reject the idea that you take something like this and Swift Boat it all out of proportion."
Asked repeatedly by Abrams whether he was sorry for his statement, Clark did not offer an apology. He even playfully hinted that his remark couldn't have been all-too-controversial as it was first stated by CBS Face the Nation hoest Bob Schieffer: "It was a great line," he said, "I didn't make it up. It was given to me by the interviewer."
But Clark's appearance was clearly an effort to clarify the message that his earlier remark sent. And in the process, he threw in some lines of support for his candidate of choice: Obama.
"I think anybody who serves in uniform who serves their country in wartime and has gone through the hardships like John McCain should be honored for their character and courage," said Clark. "I think people look for character and courage in their pres, but I don't think you' have to have been at war to have shown character and courage. I think you can see that in other candidates. I think you can see that in Barack Obama's life."