"The truth has a force of its own"

In a Salon interview, John Kerry talks about Iraq, his "personal" decision on a running mate and the "craven, petty, childish and destructive" politics of his opponents.

By Tim Grieve

Published May 28, 2004 9:56PM (EDT)

Outside, the motorcade is a noisy rumble of motorcycle engines and squad-car sirens, a roaring spectacle that stops traffic and pulls folks out of their homes to see what's coming by. Inside the Secret Service's black Chevy Suburban, it's almost impossibly quiet. Two armed agents ride up front, the back flash of red and blue emergency lights illuminating their faces. The press secretary sits alone in the back, thumbing e-mails into his Blackberry. John Kerry is in the middle, waving now and then to well-wishers who can't see him through the SUV's dark-tinted, bulletproof glass.

Kerry knows what it's like to be invisible.

Over the course of the last month, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has spoken out forcefully against the administration's disastrous adventure in Iraq. Kerry has accused the president of rushing to war, of failing to build alliances, of alienating America's allies and of misleading America's citizens. But the New York Times wonders why he's being so cautious, and the Los Angeles Times asks why he isn't doing more.

As Kerry turns away from the window and starts to talk, it's hard to know exactly what the media would have him say that he isn't saying now. The Bush administration's "arrogance" has "cost Americans billions of dollars and too many lives," Kerry says. Its deceptions about the war may have taken an even greater toll. Kerry says the White House lacks "any credibility" at home or abroad; indeed, the Bush administration has misled the nation so often now that Kerry says he has no way to know whether the new terror threats John Ashcroft revealed this week represent legitimate national security concerns or simply a political ploy aimed at propping up a foundering president.

Kerry launched an 11-day "focus" on national security issues Thursday morning in Seattle, where he delivered a speech in which he called on the United States to enter a new era of alliance building even as it preserves the right to strike -- preemptively and unilaterally -- when necessary to prevent a terrorist attack. By Thursday evening he was in Green Bay, where he promised a crowd of veterans and military families that he would "never send troops into harm's way without sending enough troops to get the job done and without a plan to win the peace."

Media second-guessing notwithstanding, Kerry's message is starting to break through. Big crowds embraced him in Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin this week -- thousands stood in the rain to see him on the Seattle waterfront. Fundraisers in Oregon and Washington beat the Kerry camp's expectations, and the Seattle event, which brought in an estimated $2.2 million, is believed to have set a record. National polls are giving the first signs that Kerry may finally be edging ahead of Bush, whose public approval ratings have never been worse. Perhaps more encouraging for Kerry is that he's edging out Bush in the battleground states.

Kerry talked with Salon Thursday night as his motorcade traveled through Green Bay, where he was to campaign Friday before returning to Washington, D.C., for Saturday's dedication of the World War II Memorial.

At the beginning of May, the New York Times all but declared your candidacy dead. Now the polls -- and the crowds you've drawn this week -- seem to suggest you're very much alive. Has the tipping point come?

Well, we're five months away still, and that's a long time in politics. We'll just keep working day to day. You don't take anything for granted. You've got to go out and meet people and talk to them and ask for their votes and give them a reason why.

Do you have the sense that things are starting to change?

Yeah. There's a lot of energy, a tremendous amount of energy. I think people are beginning to wake up and feel the broken promises of this administration. On Iraq, on security, on schools, on healthcare, on jobs -- they haven't paid attention. They haven't been there for the working people.

You gave a major national security speech in Seattle this morning, but you didn't talk a lot about your specific plan for Iraq. Your staff suggested that you'd done that before and maybe didn't feel the need to do that again today. Do you need to do more to get your plan in front of the public, or is this an issue where you've decided to stay away and let Bush suffer on his own?

It's not a question of staying away. I speak about it every day. I think it's just a question of how much you can fit in one speech. I made it very clear that they've had a bad foreign policy, that they've broken our alliances, that we shouldn't go to war just because they want to go to war and that they haven't done what they need to for the troops. And I will. It's pretty clear.

What's the best outcome the United States can reasonably hope for in Iraq now? Is there any hope left of achieving the vision Bush set out for the mission?

There is, if he [would do] it properly, if the president leads and does what's necessary. But I think he's made it far, far more complicated than it had to be -- far more risky and tenuous -- and it's entirely possible that they won't be able to do it.

Is the only real solution -- the only way to get the world community fully involved -- a change in administrations here?

I think it's going to take a new president to clear the air, to turn over a new chapter for America, to renew our relationships with the level of trust that's necessary. I don't think this administration has any credibility left.

What's the administration's credibility with you now? Attorney General John Ashcroft issued warnings this week of possible terrorist attacks over the summer. Did something in the back of your mind say, "Gee, I wonder if this is related to the campaign?" or did you assume immediately that the warnings were legitimate?

I just have no way to measure it. Instead of feeling absolutely confident, I have no way of measuring it.

And you should feel absolutely confident.

I should feel absolutely confident.

According to recent polls, more than 50 percent of the American public now believes that the war in Iraq has not been worth the cost. Do you agree with that assessment?

I've always believed that the president went to war in a way that was mistaken, that he led us too rapidly into war, without sharing the cost, without sharing the risk, without building a true international coalition. He broke his promises about going as a last resort. I think that was a mistake. There was a right way to hold Saddam Hussein accountable and a wrong way. He chose the wrong way.

But you voted in October 2002 to give Bush the authority to use force in Iraq. Was that vote a mistake?

No. My vote was the right vote. If I had been president, I would have wanted that authority to leverage the behavior that we needed. But I would have used it so differently than the way George Bush did.

Would there have been a war in Iraq if you had been president?

I can't tell you that. If Saddam Hussein hadn't disarmed and all the world had decided that he was not living up to the standards, who knows? You can't answer that hypothetical. But I can tell you this. I would never have rushed the process in a way that undoes the meaning of going to war "as a last resort."

And that's what you thought you were authorizing -- war as a last resort?

Absolutely. You know, we got a set of promises: We're going to build an international coalition, we're going to exhaust the remedies of the U.N., respect that process and go to war as a last resort. Well, we didn't.

And not only [did we] not go to war as a last resort, they didn't even make the plans for winning the peace. They disregarded them. They disregarded [U.S. Army General Eric] Shinseki's advice, disregarded Colin Powell's advice, disregarded the State Department's plan. The arrogance of this administration has cost Americans billions of dollars and too many lives.

The argument that the administration disregarded and disrespected the military seems to resonate strongly with the people who come to see you.

Well, the truth is the truth. The truth has a force of its own. I'm just going out there and telling the truth.

Are the media letting you get your version of the truth out there? Are you frustrated with what Bush would call "the filter"?

I don't have any way to measure it. I haven't seen enough of it or felt enough of it. I think people are beginning to look at this thing with a great deal of focus.

The campaign or the war?

The war, and the war's consequences, and the campaign because the campaign has a direct impact on it.

Al Gore and Ralph Nader have both spoken recently about the consequences of this war -- particularly, the consequences that should be suffered by those who orchestrated the war. Gore has called for the resignation of Bush's entire Iraq team. Nader has called for the impeachment of Bush himself. Do you believe there should be consequences for the architects of the war, above and beyond the possibility that their leader may not be reelected?

Under normal circumstances, for some people, the answer is yes. I called for Rumsfeld's resignation months ago over his miscalculations. But I'm running for president to replace all of them. And the fastest way to deal with it is to do that.

Are you surprised that the Rumsfeld issue has disappeared so quickly? There were calls for his resignation, and then -- almost overnight -- there was nothing.

I'm not surprised, but it doesn't make any difference to me. I called for it five months ago, and it was off the table until the prison problem. I think the impact is sinking in for the American people, and I think the American people will hopefully opt for a forced resignation.

The Bush campaign has spent some $80 million on television advertisements, most of them negative spots attacking you. The president has mocked you as a flip-flopper, and his surrogates are out there attacking you every day. Do you ever find yourself in disbelief over the way you and your record have been treated?

I find it about as craven, petty, childish and destructive in terms of America's hopes in politics as anything I've ever seen.

When you were first thinking of entering the race, did it occur to you that the Bush campaign would use your Vietnam record as a campaign issue? You must have thought, knowing the difference between your record and the president's, that at least the question of service in Vietnam would be off the table for them.

No, no, no. No, I knew what they do. I knew they'd try to do anything. I saw what they did to John McCain and I saw what they did to Max Cleland. So, you know, we were ready, and I think we beat them back. And the more they want to bring it up, the happier I am. I'm happy to go anywhere in the nation with Dick Cheney and George Bush and have a debate about what they did and what I did during that period of time. Let's have that debate.

The Republicans did it to McCain again last week, when House Speaker Dennis Hastert suggested that McCain didn't really know what sacrifice meant. I would have thought that rank-and-file Republicans would have been outraged, that they would have called for Hastert to resign or at least apologize. But it didn't happen.

There is a kind of turnoff factor-slash-powerlessness that people know exists until the day they get to walk into a voting booth. So I think they just process it, put it in the ledger. And as we get into September and October, I think you'll see that it will bubble up to the surface.

How do you break through all that? How do you keep people from just throwing up their hands and saying, "Well, both sides are lying about everything"?

I think we're doing it. I think we're doing very well. If you look at the battleground states, I'm told that we're ahead in every one of them. That's how you break through, by going out and campaigning, talking to real people. I intend to continue to do that. I love going out and meeting people and talking to them, like we did tonight.

You know, we're having more of a conversation than a shouting match. I think that's important. I want to talk to people about real choices. I do not want to run for president and not have used that special moment of opportunity to talk about real things with people. So I'm going to lay it out as it is.

Wednesday night in Seattle, you gave a speech at a fundraiser that was almost Reaganesque. The room was very quiet after your wife, Teresa, spoke. And you talked less about the failings of this administration and more about the need to restore faith and hope in America, the need for this country to serve as an example for the rest of the world. It was a speech -- at least 85 or 90 percent of it -- that a lot of Republicans probably would have liked, if only you hadn't been the one giving it.

I think there's some truth to that. I understand what you're saying. But I think we're breaking through with a lot of them. I can't tell you how many Republicans have come up to me and said, "Can't vote for the guy, gonna vote for you." There's a huge move over of Republicans, and I'm very pleased with that.

The biggest "move over" would be that of John McCain. Is there even a possibility that he will be your vice-presidential pick?

I have just made it as clear as I can that I'm not going to discuss any aspect of this -- process, time, possibilities, hypotheticals. I'm just not going to contribute to any of this. I'm just going to keep it personal.

As you know, the Republican line on you is that you're a "flip-flopper." Do you think the White House really views you that way, or is this just an intellectually dishonest political exercise?

Of course it is. It's not only intellectually dishonest, it's shallow beyond belief. It's exactly what they said about Bill Clinton, it's exactly what they said about Al Gore, it's exactly what they said about John McCain. It is the standard operating approach of Republicans who have nothing to say for themselves, so all they do is try to brand somebody else.

Well, it's not exactly what they did to McCain. Nobody's accused you of having an illegitimate love child.

Not yet. I'm waiting for those. That's probably August or September.

I'll tell you what. What's really so craven about it is that they pick something that they implement badly and screw up, like Iraq or No Child Left Behind or the Patriot Act. And when you point out that they screwed it up, they say that you're "flip-flopping."

But they, on the other hand, break a promise to have no deficit, break a promise not to invade Social Security, break a promise to fund No Child Left Behind, break a promise to introduce the four-pollutant bill and move forward on the environment, break a promise to deal with the real health issues and prescription drugs, break a promise of humility in American foreign policy. I mean, you start running down the list -- I've never seen a grander array of flip-flops. This is the biggest "say one thing, do another" administration in modern history.

So maybe when you voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq, you were agreeing to never raise any questions about how the president used the power he was given.

I didn't sign off on that. This is the biggest "my way or the highway" crowd we've ever had in Washington. They have no interest in legitimate governance. They have all the interest in power, favor, privilege, perks and reelection.

Does Bush understand what's going on here? Does he have the capacity to understand that people change their minds when confronted with new circumstances? Or is he so consumed with consistency, with staying the course, that he can't see that?

You have to go ask him. I'm not making any judgments about him on a personal level. I'm simply talking about the differences we have in terms of policy.

I think it's important to talk about my vision of the country. I'm offering real plans, real options and choices to make American stronger. And they're real. My healthcare plan really does lower the cost of healthcare for Americans. My education plan is going to liberate communities from the burden of special needs and help them afford after-school programs and things they need to do. My foreign policy plan is going to make America stronger in the world and deal with terror more effectively. These are the things Americans want, and that's exactly what I'm going to do.

But how are you going to do that in Iraq? For the guy on the barstool who's watching it all on TV, how do you explain the difference between what you would do in Iraq and what the Bush administration is already trying to do?

I'm going to keep faith with America's honor and our obligation to our troops. I will not allow their contribution to be wasted or in vain. I'm going to stand up for them, and not extend them in some stubborn, inappropriate way. I'm going to bring other countries to the table. You know, we're going to find a resolution that doesn't have this sort of endless exposure to danger, leaving our troops overdeployed, overextended and undersupported.

Is there a unique opportunity in this campaign for Democrats to seize the high ground on national security and foreign policy in a way they haven't for a long time?

Well, look, I think Democrats have always been strong on national security. We had Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy. You know, Bill Clinton was tough on Kosovo, tough in Bosnia, tough in Haiti. I think we have a great record. I'm not going to let the Republicans pretend they're doing something better or have the better ability to do that.

But this is the first time in a long time that a Democrat will lead with that punch.

You bet I'm going to lead with it. I'm not shy about it one iota. I think these guys have made America less safe, and I think I have a plan to make us stronger.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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2004 Elections George W. Bush Iraq War John F. Kerry