Kerry fights fire with fire

In a flaming speech to a firefighters convention, the Democratic candidate finally lashes back at the "lies" and "dirty work" of the Bush campaign.

By Salon Staff
Published August 19, 2004 5:03PM (EDT)

Editor's note: After weeks of taking fire from Republican Vietnam veterans who have alleged that he has embellished his war record, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry finally shot back Thursday at his critics. In a fiery speech to the International Association of Fire Fighters convention in Boston, Kerry ripped into President Bush for allowing front groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which is funded by Bush donors, to do his dirty work.

If he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: 'Bring it on,'" declared Kerry to loud cheers.

Kerrys combative response came as a big relief to Democratic supporters who have been urging him to answer the Republican attacks and to take the fight to Bush. Frustrated by the Kerry campaigns hesitancy, independent groups like MoveOn have jumped into the fray, running their own TV ads comparing Kerrys heroic Vietnam service to Bushs spotty military record in a "champagne unit" of the Air National Guard.

Below is an edited transcript of Kerry's speech.

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Aug. 19, 2004  |  It's been a long journey to this moment. Since I entered this race a year and a half ago, Ive traveled from one end of this country to the other -- from great cities to the great Southwest, from the flag-draped front porches of Main Street America to the small family farms that dot the Midwest. Im proud that weve made this great journey together.

All of you here today stood with me right from the beginning -- and you never left my side. In those long days in Iowa, you were there. In those cold days in New Hampshire, you were there. When the polls were down, and they counted us out, you never gave up hope. And today, wherever I go, I look up, and the first thing I see are those gold and black T-shirts, and those gold and black signs -- and I know that once again, my friends are by my side.

Through these long months, you have shown what we always knew was true: Firefighters never give up. Firefighters never leave a brother or sister behind. And no matter how tough it gets, firefighters can take the heat.

These are the values you live by, day in and day out, when you kiss your families goodbye, and head to the station  knowing full well that with the sound of an alarm, you might be called into harms way. I know what thats like. And more than thirty years ago, I learned an important lesson -- when youre under attack, the best thing to do is turn your boat into the attacker. Thats what I intend to do today.

Over the last week or so, a group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth has been attacking me. Of course, this group isnt interested in the truth -- and theyre not telling the truth. They didnt even exist until I won the nomination for president.

But heres what you really need to know about them. Theyre funded by hundreds of thousands of dollars from a Republican contributor out of Texas. Theyre a front for the Bush campaign. And the fact that the President wont denounce what theyre up to tells you everything you need to know -- he wants them to do his dirty work.

Thirty years ago, official Navy reports documented my service in Vietnam and awarded me the Silver Star, the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. Thirty years ago, this was the plain truth. It still is. And I still carry the shrapnel in my leg from a wound in Vietnam.

As firefighters you risk your lives every day. You know what its like to see the truth in the moment. Youre proud of what youve done -- and so am I.

Of course, the President keeps telling people he would never question my service to our country. Instead, he watches as a Republican-funded attack group does just that. Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: "Bring it on."

Im not going to let anyone question my commitment to defending America -- then, now, or ever. And Im not going to let anyone attack the sacrifice and courage of the men who saw battle with me.

And let me make this commitment today: their lies about my record will not stop me from fighting for jobs, health care, and our security -- the issues that really matter to the American people.

The situation in Iraq is a mess. That is the Presidents responsibility and he owes the American people an answer.

America is on track to lose more jobs than its gained under George Bush and he supports a tax code that rewards companies for shipping jobs overseas. He owes the American people an answer.

Health care costs have exploded out of control. The President has done nothing and he owes the American people an answer.

The middle class is paying a bigger share of Americas tax burden. The President needs to answer to the American people why that is fair.

Unfortunately, those in the White House are coming from a different place than you and I. They see things a little differently than you and I. They tell us that today, when it comes to the issues that matter most, were getting the job done.

Well, just saying the job is getting done doesnt make it so. My friends, let me tell you when the job will be done.

The job will be done when every firehouse in America has the firefighters and the equipment they need to protect our communities. Right now, two-thirds of firehouses are understaffed, and were not spending one dime to fund the SAFER Act. The job will be done when all our firefighters have the resources to fight the war on terror here at home. Right now, in too many places, your budgets are being cut to cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans.

And, my friends, the job will be done when we stop opening firehouses in Baghdad while closing them down here in the United States of America.

For four years, we've heard a lot of talk about values. But values are not just words. They're what we live by. They're about the choices we make, the causes we champion, and the people we fight for.

Let me tell you about my values. The way I see it, all of you are full-time heroes, and you deserve nothing less than Americas full-time support.

Thats why, for 19 years in the Senate, Ive fought for better equipment and training, for tracking technology and workplace protections. I sponsored the Federal Presumptive Disability legislation, because when federal firefighters get sick because of their job, they deserve our help. And Ive fought for collective bargaining for all employees  including federal employees  and Ill take on anyone who tries to take it away.

And thats just the beginning. When John Edwards and I are in the White House, were going to fund the FIRE Act and the SAFER Act. Were going to create the Father Mychal Judge fund to hire 100,000 new firefighters all across America. And were going to be an Administration that stands with labor. Let us never forget that every single one of the firefighters who went up the stairs of those burning towers, and through the doors of that warehouse in Worcester  all of them were members of organized labor. They believed in the right to organizethe right to overtime paythe right to have a Secretary of Labor who comes from labor. And we do too. Those are our values, and were going to live and lead by them every day that were in the White House. And thats how were going to get the job done.

Finally, were going to really get the job done by creating an economy that works for you and your families, where when you work hard, you can pay your bills and create a better life for your children.

Right now, middle class Americans are being squeezed like never before. In the last three years, weve lost 1.8 million private sector jobs. And the new jobs being created pay $9,000 less than the ones weve lost. At the same time, gas prices are up, childcare costs are up, tuition is up, and family income has fallen $1,500. As a result, today, weve got people working two jobs, three jobs, just to get by. Thats not the American way.

To make matters worse, health care costs are through the roof. The average American family has seen their premiums increase by more than $2,600 in just the last three years. And I know that some of you have seen the results at the bargaining table, where you win an increase in wages only to see it disappear to pay for health care.

This is bad news for our families and even worse news for our economy. Studies show that rising costs have forced many employers -- especially those in industries that pay high wages -- to slow their hiring. And many have begun hiring more part-time and temporary workers, who often dont get health insurance at all. So were losing good jobs and replacing them with ones that just dont pay the bills.

When Im President, America will stop being the only advanced country that doesnt understand that health care is not a privilege for the elected or the connected or the wealthy -- but a right for all Americans. John Edwards and I have a plan to reduce health care costs and turn our economy around. Were going to provide tax credits to make health insurance more affordable. And were going to let all Americans buy into the same plan available to members of Congress. In total, well cut the average familys premium by $1,000.

The issues Ive been talking about today -- these arent Republican issues or Democratic issues. Theyre American values. And frankly, it doesnt make one bit of difference to me what party you belong to or who youve voted for in the past. Thats not what this election is about.

This election is about building an America thats stronger at home and respected around the world. Where families sleep soundly at night knowing you have what you need to do your jobs. An America where we once again honor those who serve our communities and protect our families.

Theres a simple rule you follow in every fire you fight: You never go in alone -- you always have a brother or sister by your side. Well, today, I want you to know that come next January, you will have a brother in the White House who stands with you every hour of every day. I will be a president who goes into the Oval Office every morning knowing that my job is to help you do yours. I will work my heart out for you, and I will never let you down.

But once again, I cant get there without your help. In the closing weeks of this campaign, Im going to be traveling all across this country, talking to Americans about our values and our vision for the future. And I need you to do the same. I need you to go back to your states and knock on every door, make every call, and register every voter you can. Tell people about who we are, what we stand for, and what were going to do for America. And on election day, you make sure that every single person youve reached goes to the polls and makes their voice heard. In a race like this, we cant afford to lose a single vote.

This isnt going to be easy, but firefighters are no strangers to tough challenges. I know that working together, we can take back America for its heroes. We can reach for the next dream. We can look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is there. The sun is rising. Our best days are still to come. Thank you, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

Salon Staff

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