MEDFORD, Ore., May 28 -- Embattled Rep. Wes Cooley, whose personal life and military record have come under intense scrutiny in recent months, blasted back Tuesday at what he called 'character assassination' by the 'liberal media.' Cooley, R-Ore., held an hourlong news conference in his home district to blame the media for his recent problems. 'This is character assassination,' Cooley said, illustrating charges of sensationalism by holding up a copy of the National Enquirer. 'This is being done by the liberal media.' 'The media is spending an awful lot of money because they are scrubbing me to the bone.' Cooley, a freshman swept into office by the 1994 Republican landslide, has been dogged by questions about his military record, marriage and widow's benefits his wife, Rosemary, allegedly collected after their wedding. Cooley has asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to investigate claims that his wife may have wrongfully collected veterans benefits. Published reports indicated that Rosemary Cooley, whose Marine Corps husband died in a plane crash in 1965, continued to collect widow's benefits after she married Cooley. Federal law calls for such benefits to end when the widowed spouse remarries. Oregon newspapers said that benefits ended at the end of 1993, but Cooley has refused to say exactly when he and his wife were married. He said at the news conference that he would not answer questions about his marriage until after the VA inquiry was completed. A reporter challenged Cooley, and presented him with a copy of a document dated Aug. 13, 1992, with his signature on the bottom, stating he was married.
The reporter asked Cooley if it was his signature. 'Yes,' Cooley replied. 'Is it the truth?' Cooley was asked. 'No.' 'Are you a truthful person?' he was then asked. 'Yes.' In addition to reporters, the televised news conference was attended by Cooley's supporters and critics, who offered words of either encouragement or criticism to the Oregon congressman. The news conference was similar in tone to the five-hour meeting with the press held last year by freshman Rep. Enid Waldholtz, R-Utah. Waldholtz denied claims that she knew about or participated in an alleged check kiting scheme run by her husband, Joe Waldholtz. She has since filed for divorce, and has declined to run for a second term in Congress. Cooley, who is running for a second term, has also been dogged by questions that he exaggerated his military past to get elected. Cooley claimed on federal election material that he served in the Special Forces during the Korean War, a claim he said Tuesday he could not yet back up with documentation. He did, however, say that he was a combat demolitionist in Korea. Asked if he could say what he remembered about his service, Cooley replied: 'No, I cannot. Because I just have a problem with this.' Cooley said he remembered 'most things,' including arriving by aircraft in Tokyo. Pressed for further details, he replied: 'I'm not going to do it at this press conference.' The reports about Cooley's past began surfacing after a series of public relations snafus. Cooley publicly denounced a report in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call that Democrats were preparing to bring back former House Speaker Jim Wright to head an ethics panel if they regain control of Congress this year. Wright resigned in the midst of an ethics scandal, and the Roll Call article, dated April 1, was an April Fool's prank. Cooley has also come under fire for allegedly threatening to punch a pregnant reporter from the Oregonian newspaper. The congressman has said that he just threatened to whip her. Some Republicans have privately expressed exasperation over Cooley's handling of the controversies surrounding him. However, Cooley said the chairmen of committees he serves on have been supportive, and he has not received any requests from the Republican leadership to resign.