"I don't need any lessons in patriotism from the likes of Tom DeLay"

The text of Kerry's fiery retort to GOP draft dodgers.

Published April 5, 2003 11:47PM (EST)

I don't think it gets better in public life, and certainly not in mine, than to be introduced by my brother, Max Cleland.

We were part of a special band of brothers in the U.S. Senate, Max Cleland, Bob Kerrey at one point, John McCain, Chuck Hagel, Chuck Robb, myself, and I'll tell you seriously that those of you who have served in the military, in particular those of you who've been in combat that share this sentiment with me, it's as close as men who don't throw the word around easily can get to loving another man in the most connected, personal, and extraordinary way, and when I think about Max Cleland saying something about Hemingway and grace under pressure as he just did I think all of you should join me in sharing the sense that this man, who left three limbs on the battlefield in Vietnam for this country, deserves better than what the Republican Party gave him in the last election here in Georgia.

Five months ago here in Georgia, Max Cleland's position on national security, known to all his colleagues, was deliberately distorted, and that was particularly outrageous given the kind of sacrifice and service that he has given this country. There is something very wrong in America when a hero like Max Cleland who has made his contribution is subjected to the worst in American politics. He ought to be in the U.S. Senate today. And let me tell you, every day in the course of my race for the presidency of the United States I will be motivated -- and I ask you to help me be motivated -- to hold them accountable for what they did to Max Cleland.

Max, who talked about grace under pressure, and I just want to share with you that for those of us who got to know him and love him so much in the U.S. Senate, who watched his personal effort each day, for anyone who needs an example not just of grace under pressure, but grace in life itself, I think you would share with me that Max Cleland is an example to every single American and we are grateful for his love of this country, for his patriotism, and for his contribution to all of our lives. Max, thank you, for who you are and what you have done ...

But let me just share today something I feel very strongly about, because today I had the pleasure of having Tom DeLay, Denny Hastert, and a score of other Republicans come out of the woodwork to attack me for speaking out regarding the direction of our country when I spoke up in New Hampshire yesterday.

I think that Max who served with me and many who have served share with me this belief: I don't need any lessons in patriotism or caring about America from the likes of Tom DeLay and the right wing, whose motivations can be questioned ... And the one thing that passed in the mind of those of us who served, who have fought for freedom, and the one thing that all those who are in the Middle East fighting today is the cherished rights of Americans to question and debate the democracy of our nation and to turn this country in the directions that we believe are in the best interests of America. Tom DeLay, hear me loud and clear: I speak out for America, not for politics, and as long as I have air in my lungs I will continue to speak my mind ...

Here in the South -- perhaps more than in any other part of this nation -- service, patriotism, and duty aren't buzzwords. They're a way of life. I believe we need national leadership that sees service that same way -- not as a slogan and rhetoric, but as a cause and a commitment.

Unfortunately, this administration has failed to honor the service of citizens who are doing what's right. After Sept. 11, Americans wanted to contribute and to serve. This administration told them to go shopping. They have cut AmeriCorps when we should be expanding it so every young person has the opportunity to perform national service. But nothing flies in the face of the values of duty and service more than what this administration is doing when it comes to fulfilling our obligation to our troops, our veterans, and their families. We can do better -- and our soldiers deserve no less.

We made a sacred bond with these men and women when we asked them to risk their lives for their country. And this administration has failed to hold up its side of the bargain. Just as we wouldn't think of sending our military into battle without the uniforms and equipment they need, we shouldn't neglect to care for our troops and their families before, during, and after the war. Yet, 20 percent of our Reservists and their families don't have healthcare coverage.

And at the same time that American soldiers are engaged in battle at home, this administration is proposing substantial cuts in federal school aid to children of military families. As we learned the hard way after Vietnam, our duty to our troops doesn't end when the battle is won. Those that put their lives on the line have earned a lifetime of support. And America must live up to that commitment.

Yet, two months ago, this administration announced it would suspend enrollment in the healthcare system of at least 160,000 qualified veterans. And now they want to deny another 230,000 veterans the healthcare they deserve.

And many of the vets already in the system are doing little better. More than 200,000 veterans are waiting six months or more for their first doctor's visit. We need to do much more to deal with this backlog and get the veterans healthcare system ready for the hundreds of thousands of vets who will be returning from Iraq. Yet, this administration says we cannot afford healthcare for veterans because they prefer a massive tax cut that harms economic growth and gives the greatest benefit to those with the least need. Today the Republican majority leader in the House of Representatives announced that -- and I quote -- "Nothing is more important in the face of war than cutting taxes." Let me make this clear: Never in its history has the United States passed a big tax cut in a time of war. We have always believed in shared sacrifice.

And I say to Tom DeLay, one thing I know about America is that in the face of war there are things more important than cutting taxes and it is wrong to reward the wealthiest Americans before we fulfill our solemn obligations to those that have served.

Georgia's brave sons and daughters have borne more than their share of the burdens of battle. Your heroes include soldiers like Chief Warrant Officer Ronald Young Jr. His dream was to be a pilot. And he made it. But when his Apache helicopter went down in Iraq, he was captured and is now being held as a prisoner of war.

Tonight, our thoughts are with all the prisoners and all the families of those held, lost, or fighting -- let us go home and say a prayer that he and all the troops are safe at home soon. But we need to do more than think and pray -- we need to vow that they'll come home to an America that keeps its promise to them, not one that turns its back on those who served.

And let's make sure they come home to an America that is moving forward -- where Democrats are fighting for them and for what's right.

By Salon Staff

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