"We do not need to divide America over who served and how." -- John Kerry, Feb. 27, 1992
As his campaign rolls on, Sen. John Kerry sat down the other day for a brief interview about the issues. Sitting on his campaign plane tightly wedged between Vietnam veterans, the senator was at the top of his game and turned in an utterly characteristic performance. The transcript appears here exclusively:
Q: Senator, the Bush administration is advocating significant savings to try to rein in the federal budget. Is that a good idea?
A: This is a phony budget that doesn't make any real tough choices. And let me tell you, I know something about "savings." I saved Jim Rassmann's life in Vietnam. When he fell out of my Swift Boat, I single-handedly pulled him from the water, under fire, in an act that has forevermore stood -- at least in my own supple and quite impressive mind -- as a metaphor for my long career of making sacrifices and tough choices.
Q: Obviously, a key domestic issue this year is health care. Why are you the best candidate on this issue?
A: Look -- health care is very personal for me. The third time I was wounded in Vietnam, as I felt the hot metal coursing through my flesh, I realized then and there that the only solution to America's health care problem was a system that would allow ordinary people to have the same benefits as members of Congress, and give refundable tax credits for 50 percent of the cost of health coverage for small businesses and their employees.
Q: Senator, the Vietnam War is often a subtle undercurrent to your campaign, and some Democrats have been criticizing President Bush for serving in the Texas Air National Guard. Are you making Vietnam an issue?
A: No. I have always said, across my long, distinguished career of public service, that I would never judge the choices of anyone during the Vietnam War. Not those who chose to burn their draft cards. Not those who chose to flee to Canada. Not those who chose to drop acid and commit public sex acts. Not even those cowardly weasels who chose to serve in the National Guard.
When I was maneuvering through the Mekong Delta, and the jungle heat was nearly intolerable, some of my comrades in arms would say, "I hate those cowardly pantywaists who stayed home to serve in the National Guard." And I would say to my men as we dodged incoming fire: "No. No! We are here risking our lives every single hour of every single day in order to defend the freedom and security of even those cowardly weasels back home in the National Guard."
Q: To keep the focus on Vietnam for a moment -- if you don't mind -- after you came home you engaged in antiwar advocacy that has drawn criticism. For instance, you testified before Congress that your fellow servicemen routinely raped, beheaded and tortured people in Vietnam.
A: This is a campaign about the future.
Q: Senator, some critics have attacked you for voting to authorize the Iraq War, then changing your mind and voting against $87 billion to fund the troops and reconstruction.
A: Those critics don't know John Kerry. They don't know how I turned bitterly against the Vietnam War, too. No one in this race -- not John Edwards, not Howard Dean, no one -- has the long, distinguished qualifications I have in terms of changing their opinions about a war.
Q: On a lighter note. Everyone has been talking about the "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl.
A: Well, I'm not the best one to ask. [Chuckles] As you know, for a brief, but significant part of my life, the only wardrobe I had was a khaki uniform and a machine gun at the ready.
Q: Thank you, Senator.
A: Funny you say that. Jim Rassmann told me exactly the same thing.