John Kerry comes out swinging

Angry at being called "unfit to serve" by men who didn't, the Democrat finally fights back.

Published September 4, 2004 4:32AM (EDT)

For four days in New York, Republicans mocked John Kerry's military record and questioned his qualifications to be commander in chief. Vice President Dick Cheney described Kerry as a vacillating politician who can't be trusted to keep America safe. Georgia Sen. Zell Miller said that Kerry has encouraged America's "enemies" and would "let Paris decide when America needs defending." Republican delegates sneered at Kerry with the sort of anger Bush fans usually attribute to Democrats: They booed when his name was mentioned, they waved their arms back and forth while chanting "flip-flop," and they wore Band-Aids decorated with Purple Hearts to show that Kerry's war wounds weren't sufficiently serious for them.

Something in there got to John Kerry. For weeks, Democrats have begged their presidential candidate to stand up to the Republican attacks against him. Thursday night, he finally did. At a late-night rally that began just as the Republican Convention ended, Kerry declared: "I'm not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who misled America into Iraq."

It was a head-on attack on Cheney, who obtained five deferments to avoid going to Vietnam, and on Bush, whose service in the Texas Air National Guard has been subjected to a new round of questions this week. It was a strong statement on the faulty intelligence and false statements that led the nation into war in Iraq. And it was just the beginning.

"The vice president called me unfit for office last night," Kerry told thousands of supporters who waited in the darkness to see him in Ohio. "I'm going to leave it to you to decide whether five deferments makes someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of duty."

Although Kerry's late-night rally in Springfield had been planned for several days, the strong push-back on his military record didn't come together until Thursday. A Kerry aide said the candidate's tipping point came Thursday morning, when he saw newspaper headlines saying Cheney had called him "unfit" for office. "That did it for him," the aide said. "That word 'unfit' means something to a veteran."

Kerry offered up his own test for fitness to serve -- and he made it clear that he thinks Bush and Cheney fail it. "Let me tell you what I think makes someone unfit for duty. Misleading our nation into war in Iraq makes you unfit to lead this country. Doing nothing while this nation loses millions of jobs makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting 45 million Americans go without healthcare for four years makes you unfit to lead this nation. Letting the Saudi royal family control the price of oil for Americans makes you unfit to lead this country. Handing out billions of dollars in contracts without a bid to Halliburton while you're still on their payroll makes you unfit to lead this country.

"That, my friends, is the record of George Bush and Dick Cheney, and that only begins to scratch the surface. This president has misled American workers and misled the American people."

When Republicans saw advance excerpts from Kerry's speech, they immediately did what Republicans do: They said the Democrats were angry. Appearing on CNN, first brother Marvin Bush said of Kerry: "He's got a very thin skin, this guy." Tucker Carlson talked dismissively of Kerry's "personal pique." But for Democrats growing increasingly worried that their presidential candidate would allow himself to be wimpified like Michael Dukakis did in 1988, the midnight speech was a welcome sign that the Kerry campaign might finally be awakening from its summer slumber.

And for once, the Kerry campaign played it perfectly. The campaign distributed excerpts from the speech Thursday evening, just as the final session of the Republican Convention was about to begin. In an instant, the TV pundits' agenda for the night was changed. Happy talk about Bush's acceptance speech disappeared, trumped by Kerry's defense of himself and his attack on Bush's dishonest rush to war. "He's on the right path now," Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich told Salon just after Kerry finished speaking. Kucinich seemed thrilled with Kerry's new approach. "What you saw here was the beginning of his victory. Mark the date."

"This is a busy night in politics," Wolf Blitzer told viewers just before Bush's speech. "Not only will the president be speaking, but John Kerry will be speaking too."

Bush's speech suddenly seemed almost irrelevant. He came on after Kerry's comments were reported, but he had no response to them. And just after Bush spoke, when TV coverage would normally be focused on analysis of Bush's speech, Kerry was on live from Springfield. Kerry said that the Republican Convention was rife with "anger and distortion." He was right on both counts. When Zell Miller wasn't ranting like a crazy man about the lack of "statesmen" in America today -- and then suggesting that he might challenge "Hardball's" Chris Matthews to a duel for disagreeing with him -- other Republican speakers were fudging and fabricating stories about Kerry's record and other matters big and small.

"We've had insults, we've had anger from Republicans," Kerry said. "And I'll tell you why ... They can't talk about their record because it is a record of failure, so all they do is attack." Kerry said he had four words to say about Bush's convention speech: "All hat, no cattle." And -- in a move Democratic strategists have long suggested -- Kerry used the Bush administration's misrepresentations about Iraq as a base for arguing that the administration has misled American on other policy issues, too.

"He's misled American workers -- he told them his economic plan would create 6 million jobs. The truth is, we've lost nearly 1.8 million jobs since George W. Bush took office ... For four years, George Bush has misled America's families -- saying he had a healthcare plan for America. The truth is he's done nothing as 5 million Americans have lost their healthcare, pushing the total number to 45 million people without coverage nationwide."

The midnight rally marked the beginning of the fall campaign, and for Kerry it didn't come a moment too soon. The summer was not kind to the Democratic ticket. The Kerry campaign ran a successful convention in July, but -- depending on the poll you choose -- they left Boston with either a small bump or no bump at all. And even if Kerry did gain some momentum from the convention, he lost it almost immediately in the sludge-filled waters of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

Kerry was slow to respond to allegations about his service in Vietnam, and by the time he did -- first through surrogates and his own swift boat crewmates, then with a speech last week in New York in which he assailed the Republicans' "fear and smear tactics" -- the story had echoed so long in the media that it was impossible to erase it from voters' minds. The facts and the specific allegations had become unimportant. Questions and doubts had been raised, and the Republicans were working hard to keep them alive. Republican Convention speakers were careful to say that they honored Kerry's military service, and delegates were careful to clap politely for the cameras whenever they did. But off the convention floor, former Sen. Majority Leader Bob Dole and former President George H.W. Bush both vouched for the Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth.

Democrats pushed Kerry to fight back harder. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that Kerry's campaign staff has prepared a draft speech in which Kerry discusses his Vietnam service as part of a larger narrative about his career, one that would include his Vietnam-related work with John McCain in the U.S. Senate. That wasn't the speech that Kerry gave Thursday night, nor was it the speech he gave Wednesday when he flew to Nashville to speak at the American Legion convention.

Instead, in Nashville Kerry amped up his attacks on Bush's handling of Iraq. In turning back to Iraq, Kerry sought to recover from his other August setback. Early in the month, Bush goaded Kerry into saying that, even knowing what he knows today, he still would have voted in October 2002 to give Bush authority to invade Iraq. The concession, which Kerry had made before but without so much attention paid to it, left antiwar Democrats feeling deserted and gave the Republicans yet another tool in their "flip-flop" box. Predictably, Bush spun the statement into something Kerry didn't say: that Bush made the "right decision" to go into Iraq. In his American Legion speech, Kerry fired back: "When the president says we have the same position on Iraq, I have to respectfully disagree ... When it comes to Iraq, it's not that I would have done one thing differently, I would've done almost everything differently." Kerry said he would have kept the focus on Osama bin Laden, that he would given weapons inspectors more time, that he "wouldn't have ignored" senior military advisors, that he would have made sure that the troops were properly equipped, that he would have built a bigger and stronger coalition, and that he would not have "gone to war without a plan to win the peace."

It was a start, but many Democrats still lamented that Kerry walked into Bush's trap in the first place and then didn't work faster to climb out. With all the attention paid to Kerry's war record and Kerry's views on Iraq, the campaign has had a hard time getting out the message it wanted voters to hear: that four years of Bush policies have made America less safe and less prosperous. In an MSNBC column Wednesday, former Howard Dean advisor Joe Trippi complained that the Kerry campaign has been slumbering when it should have been fighting. "If the Dukakis campaign of 1988 taught Democrats anything, it should have taught us that you don't sleep in August. Not against these guys, and not against anyone in this business no matter how formidable the lead. The Kerry campaign should have learned from their close call with the Dean campaign to never sleepwalk or fall into the slumber of overconfidence again. So wake the hell up, damn it!"

The campaign seems to have gotten the message, at least for now. On Thursday morning, Kerry sent his top campaign staff, including campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, to meet with reporters in New York -- both to pre-spin Bush's convention speech and to dampen speculation that a major staff shakeup is in the works. Earlier in the week, the campaign announced that it was adding firepower to its message team. Former Clinton press secretary Joe Lockhart will serve as a senior advisor to Kerry, and another former Clinton hand, Joel Johnson, will take over a rapid-response team that hasn't always been so rapid. The Kerry campaign also announced a new $55 million ad buy this week, with spots focused on swing states and minority voters.

But for undecided voters who aren't paying attention to staff changes and ad strategies, Thursday night's televised rally in Ohio was a clear and visible sign of Kerry's rising. When the Democrats had their convention, Bush waited until the morning after to resume his campaign. Kerry waited just a few minutes. His plane landed in Dayton, Ohio, while Bush was still speaking at Madison Square Garden, and his motorcade pulled into Springfield just after the convention ended.

The Ohio trip is Kerry's 19th visit to the state this year, and he's counting on the stumbling economy here to move voters in his direction. Ohio has lost more than 200,000 jobs since Bush took office. On Friday, the Kerry campaign will start airing a new Ohio-specific television ad that focuses specifically on those job losses and vows that America can do better.

Bush won Ohio by about 3.6 percent of the vote in 2000, and he will fight hard to keep the state in the red column. He campaigned in Ohio earlier this week on the way to the Republican National Convention, and he'll be back Saturday for more -- his 24th trip to the state. And Bush has focused his campaign effort on Ohio even when he isn't here. This week while traveling on Air Force One, the president of the United States granted a 45-minute interview to the publisher of the Columbus Dispatch. And at the Republican's convention, Ohio delegates got first-class treatment all the way: the most convenient hotel, the best seats in Madison Square Garden, and breakfast with Karl Rove.

Al Gore gave up on Ohio a few weeks before the 2000 election, pulling his television ads and focusing his efforts elsewhere. While John Kerry may sometimes be guilty of the same timidity that dogged the Gore campaign, it's clear that he won't make the Ohio mistake again. John and Elizabeth Edwards and Teresa Heinz Kerry will campaign in Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin Friday. John Kerry will remain in Ohio through Saturday, staying close to the president as the Republicans leave New York and take their attacks on the road.

By Tim Grieve

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

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dick Cheney George W. Bush John F. Kerry