Bush's war on truth

The president insists on distorting John Kerry's words. But a simple check of the record exposes his con game.

By Eric Boehlert
Published March 18, 2004 4:13PM (EST)

The Bush campaign is twisting the meaning of a quote from Sen. John Kerry to the breaking point, making it clear that the president and his supporters will not allow facts to get in their way. Speaking yesterday at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif., Vice President Dick Cheney declared that Sen. John "has given us ample doubts about his judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on matters of national security." Cheney's money line in defining the supposedly weak-on-security Democratic candidate was this: "Senator Kerry has questioned whether the war on terror is really a war at all. Recently he said, and I quote, 'I don't want to use that terminology.'"

Cheney first debuted the zinger at a South Dakota fundraiser on March 8: "Several days ago, Senator Kerry said he wasn't even comfortable calling this a war. He said, 'I don't want to use that terminology.'" President Bush chimed in the same day at a Texas fundraiser: "Just the other day my opponent indicated that he's not comfortable using the word 'war' to describe the struggle we're in. He said, 'I don't want to use that terminology.'"

On March 13, at another Republican fundraiser in Kentucky, Cheney repeated the allegation: "On one side, we have the Democratic nominee, who is uncomfortable with the idea we are at war. Quote, 'I don't want to use that terminology,' he said last week." Then Cheney repeated the claim again in California on Wednesday.

But the accusation doesn't jibe with Kerry's recent tough rhetoric. For instance, on Feb. 28 at UCLA, in a speech on national security, Kerry spoke about "the war on terror." On March 3, the Kansas City Star reported that Kerry, in remarks in Washington, D.C., had vowed to "fight the war on terrorism." This week the Los Angeles Times quoted him campaigning in West Virginia: "When it comes to protecting the security of our nation and to winning the war on terror, America is unified."

So where did this I-won't-call-it-a-war-on-terror quote come from? On March 5, Kerry gave a foreign policy-oriented interview to the New York Times aboard an airplane. Extended portions of the interview were printed in the paper, as a sidebar to a news story. At one point Kerry was addressing the big picture regarding "the war on terror," a phrase he used repeatedly during the interview. He said, "The combination of economic, the economic bleakness, the devastation, within countries that are potentially explosive, where you have very large young populations of uneducated people ripe for the pickings of radicalism, is a much bigger challenge than the world as yet has been willing to grapple with." Kerry concluded, "The final victory in the war on terror depends on a victory in the war of ideas, much more than the war on the battlefield. And the war -- not the war, I don't want to use that terminology. The engagement of economies, the economic transformation, the transformation to modernity of a whole bunch of countries that have been avoiding the future. And that future's coming at us like it or not, in the context of terror, and in the context of failed states, and dysfunctional economies, and all that goes with that."

There's not a college freshman in America who would read that passage and suggest Kerry is reluctant to call the struggle against terrorism a "war." That's simply not what he said. His point was obvious -- the war on terror, or "the war on the battlefield," is intricately connected with the war of ideas (economics, modernity, religious fanaticism).

Kerry's phrase about not wanting to "use that [war] terminology" had nothing to do with Sept. 11, al-Qaida, Madrid or Baghdad. It was Kerry's clarification to reporters of the distinction between the war on the battlefield and the battle over ideas. But the Bush campaign is trying to transform the utterance into a false ideological dividing line.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the cut-and-paste ruse is being promoted by Bush's tools in the conservative media. Writing for the Wall Street Journal opinion Web site last week, James Taranto cited Bush's use of the "terminology" quote and insisted, "Bush's criticisms of Kerry are based on hard facts."

Better check again.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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2004 Elections Dick Cheney George W. Bush John F. Kerry