M. Charles Bakst: Kerry is Right to Assail Bush

Columnsist M. Charles Bakst of the Providence Journal takes an interesting look at John Kerry’s speech last Monday at Brown University. His column is peppered with some bits of a phone interview he did with Kerry the following day. One comment that Bakst made led me believe that he may not have been paying attention last year. At another point it seemed that he attepting to catch Kerry off guard in his interview… Kerry wasn’t buying it.

M. Charles Bakst: Kerry is right to assail Bush
Sunday, September 25, 2005

When Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, ripped George Bush apart in a blistering speech at Brown University on Monday, students loved it and I found it a welcome thunderclap.

Kerry seized on Mr. Bush’s Hurricane Katrina performance as fresh, illuminating evidence of an incompetent administration that has celebrated politics and spin while ignoring expert advice, miring the country in war, turning its back on problems of poverty and class, and favoring the rich.

Kerry was harsher and more focused than at any time I can remember from the last campaign, and you had to wonder what it might mean for a possible repeat bid in 2008. But, in any case, it was a speech in tune with the moment.

Kerry said in a Tuesday telephone interview that the moment demanded a tough speech, even though his concession remarks last fall called for national healing.

“It’s a time to get this country on the right track,” Kerry told me.

He said he held out his hand after the election but “never — not once” heard back from the White House on following through on unity.

Now, he said, “It would be irresponsible of me to be silent.”

A few weeks ago, he said, he visited Iraq. When he flew out, the plane carried a young soldier’s flag-draped coffin. Kerry said it reminded him of an obligation he felt when he came home years ago from the Vietnam war and continues to feel today: “Just tell it like it is.”

So there he was at Brown on Monday.

“This is the Katrina administration,” he declared angrily.

“It has consistently squandered time, tax dollars, political capital, and even risked American lives on sideshow adventures: A war of choice in Iraq against someone who had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11; a full-scale presidential assault on Social Security when everyone knows the real crisis is in health care — Medicare and Medicaid. And that’s before you even get to willful denial on global warming; avoidance on competitiveness; complicity in the loss and refusal of health care to millions of Americans.”

The speech spoke to me because, amid the horror and toll of Katrina in these past weeks, on the heels of so much else, it occurred to me that I had never heard so much talk about a president’s incompetence.

In speaking with Kerry, I mentioned Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. Those presidents displayed some calamitous failings and misjudgments. But no one accused them of lacking ability.

“Correct,” Kerry said.

In echoes of his Brown message, he said of the Bush crowd, “They know how to campaign, how to do politics. That’s what it’s been all the time. But certain problems don’t lend themselves to that — Iraq, for one, and Katrina, for another. Katrina sort of tore away the spin mask and laid bare the consequences of their choices.”

I said the speech reminded me of a line reported in Newsweek magazine’s detailed behind-the-scenes look back on the campaign last November. A passage refers to Mr. Bush’s rising in the polls after a mid-April press conference. According to Newsweek, “Kerry was baffled. He said with a sigh to one top staffer, ‘I can’t believe I’m losing to this idiot.’ ”

Kerry told me, “I don’t believe I said that. I don’t recall it.” He said polls at the time showed him in front, or tied, or, if trailing, extremely close.

Several publicly reported polls from that general period showed Mr. Bush with slight leads; given margins of error, Kerry may have been ahead.

In any event, Newsweek contributing editor Eleanor Clift tells me that someone close to Kerry related the quote to her. “I’m confident the quote is accurate,” she says.

Assistant managing editor Evan Thomas, who wove together the material for the special edition, tells me that Kerry, in disputing some points when the issue was published, did not complain about that quote.

I asked Kerry if he indeed sees Mr. Bush as an idiot. “No. I think of him as a person that’s turned his back on real issues and choices and as someone who has stubbornly refused to listen to advice and move in a constructive, bipartisan way to solve problems.”

Incidentally, although Kerry assailed Republican Bush’s handling of Katrina, he did not assess the performances of Louisiana’s governor and New Orleans’ mayor, both Democrats. In my book, they also were inadequate. “There’s plenty of fault to find at all levels,” Kerry told me. But he said the federal government has the most resources.

Kerry is mulling an ’08 White House run, but won’t talk much about it. When a student at Brown asked him to look back on ’04, he wasn’t interested in dwelling on that either.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who hasn’t said she’s running, leads in early polls for the ’08 nomination.

AT BROWN, I asked Kerry’s brother, Cameron, a close adviser, if he senses much demand in the party for an ’08 Kerry bid. He said, “I think there’s certainly demand for somebody who’s going to stand up to the administration and articulate a set of values and principles about community and taking care of people and government being involved in those things, and a real hunger for that.”

Now, on Tuesday, Senator Kerry said he was “proud” of his ’04 race and insisted the loss does not eat away at him:

“I’m energized. . . . You keep fighting and you don’t stop.”

I thought he had had a good shot because he had a united party, the Iraq war was dragging, and the economy was sputtering. But Kerry said the economy wasn’t dire and that the “one overpowering issue” was the war on terror, which Mr. Bush coupled with Iraq and, in Kerry’s words, “used very adroitly to scare people.”

Kerry said voters embraced his themes of social progress and equity, notes he sounded again at Brown. But he said the message was drowned out by international issues. “At that point in time, Americans believed there was a connection between Iraq and 9/11. Now there has been a very significant shift.”

Kerry repeatedly urged students to get involved and mobilize public opinion, the way activists did on the environment in the 1970s, and earlier during Vietnam and on civil rights.

Like him, I am 61, and those images are vivid in my mind, but, of course, they are from times before today’s students were born. “It’s a piece of history to them, but it is history with a consequence,” Kerry told me. “These are intelligent people who are studying history, and they’re at one of America’s great universities.”

The important thing, he said, is to realize that presidents or other politicians don’t have a monopoly on making things happen, that citizens, even one individual like a Rosa Parks, can spark change.

Kerry’s speech was part of a lecture series in memory of Brown alumnus Frank Licht, a Rhode Island governor.

At the head of the line to get in the Salomon Center I met Tiffany Donnelly, a senior from Kentucky, who said she voted for Kerry. Why? “Because he wasn’t Bush.”

Donnelly attributed Mr. Bush’s victory to his “Christian facade.” She said, “I’m a Christian and I don’t at all think that my values are in line with him. I think that Jesus taught about helping the poor and about showing love to your brothers and sisters and not casting judgment.”

Brown President Ruth Simmons told me she thinks Kerry’s main problem in 2004 was the Iraq situation “and the conviction, rightly or wrongly, among many Americans that in times of difficulty you stick with the leader.”

She added, “I try to insist that our students really look hard at all the issues, at every side, and they challenge themselves to be fully informed. I’d like the same for the American population — no less for them!”

The audience included former Lt. Gov. Richard Licht, Frank’s nephew and Kerry’s ’04 Rhode Island chairman. When I asked if he wants Kerry to run in ’08, Licht said the senator has to decide for himself.

So, if Kerry phones for input, Licht will just tell him to make up his own mind and hang up?

“I’d sit down and talk to him and give him my advice. But I’m not giving it to you.”

On Monday night, a fundraiser at the University Club for Kerry’s political action committee brought in more than $50,000, according to Rick McAuliffe, the Rhode Island consultant and lobbyist who chaired the event.

McAuliffe wants Kerry to try for president again in ’08. He says Kerry ran a “very good” campaign under “difficult” circumstances.

ON THE OTHER hand, Mark Weiner, who was Kerry’s Rhode Island finance chairman, already is committed to Hillary Clinton, if she runs. He’s a longtime friend of hers and her husband. As for whether he sees much demand for Kerry, Weiner says, “I don’t think anybody’s focusing on that.” He says Democrats are concentrating on the 2006 elections.

This is consistent with what Kerry says. When I asked the senator how he’d respond to those who say he had his chance and now it’s Hillary Clinton’s or someone else’s turn in 2008, he replied, “I don’t say anything about that right now. It’s too early. . . . I’m fighting about 2006.”

In between the speech and the fundraiser, Kerry stopped at McAuliffe’s office at 408 Broadway. McAuliffe recalls, “He says, ‘Come on, let’s go have a beer. Anything close?’ ” So McAuliffe and Weiner took him to nearby Julian’s.

Kerry said he drank dark ale. “I had a great time,” he said.

M. Charles Bakst, The Journal’s political columnist, can be reached by e-mail at mbakst [at] projo.com

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About Pamela Leavey

Pamela Leavey is the Editor in Chief, Owner/Publisher of The Democratic Daily as well as a freelance writer and photographer. Pamela holds a certificate in Contemporary Communications from UMass Lowell, a Journalism Certificate from UMass Amherst and a B.A. in Creative Writing and Digital Age Communications from UMass Amherst UWW.
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33 Responses to M. Charles Bakst: Kerry is Right to Assail Bush

  1. Indie Liberal says:

    It’s interesting that McAwful wants Kerry to try again after he and the DLC supposedly told him not to respond to the Swift Boat Liars, and allowed zero Bush bashing during the convention last summer.

    Meanwhile on a lot of liberal sites/blogs, word has it that Gore is emerging as a top 2008 candidate and that he’ll present an Anti-War plattform. I know a lot of people are not impressed with Hillary (or Bill) right now, but I don’t have issues with none of them.

    It’s also good that Kerry is staying focus on 2006, shouldn’t we all?

  2. Indie Liberal

    Different McAuliffe: Rick McAuliffe, not Terry. Not sure if they are related.

  3. florida dem says:

    There are those on blogs like DKos who want Gore to run but I don’t think he is. When he was on Leno recently to talk about his new network he pretty much announced he wouldn’t. Except for the needless gotcha moment, it wasn’t bad article. Nice to see a current Kerry interview in print.

  4. Florida Dem

    There seems to be a ground swell of folks wanting him to. I don’t see it happening myself.

  5. Indie Liberal says:

    Pam and FD,

    I think it’s because he fought in 2000 and according to lefties spoken out against the Iraq war.

  6. Indie Liberal says:

    Indie Liberal Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    What does that mean? Have I been banned?

  7. Marjorie G says:

    Many people involved in politics see the big picture, but our activists insist on blaming Kerry. I hear that Dean was a Rainbow Push event this weekend with Jesse Jackson blaming Kerry, and he just sat there. I don’t hear the unity and adulthood we need as a group to succeed.

    As much as we all needed to be at the Peace March, hard to hear, as I did, about drowning all Democrats. From the bus down, then on the Metro. Should anyone think of leaving their strong GOP party identity, why would they, if we think we’re so rudderless and clueless?

    Dave and I enjoyed being there with older Kerrycrats, and doing our bit. I didn’t get to see Cindy this weekend, but I did last weekend, and she will be at a Peace Fair next month when I table for electrion reform.

    I’ll send a few quotes and images soon.

  8. Marjorie G says:

    Indie, happens to me all the time, and don’t know why. A glitch, I think.

  9. Indie

    No… there’s a word that keeps getting comments hung up in the mod que, I took it out. Hopefully it will help!

  10. Marjorie G says:

    How Freudian, above I meant to say other Kerrycrats, not older Kerrycrats, like moi.

  11. Indie Liberal says:

    No problem Pam. 🙂

  12. Indie Liberal says:

    Marjorie G Says:

    September 25th, 2005 at 7:45 pm
    Many people involved in politics see the big picture, but our activists insist on blaming Kerry. I hear that Dean was a Rainbow Push event this weekend with Jesse Jackson blaming Kerry, and he just sat there. I don’t hear the unity and adulthood we need as a group to succeed.

    I wonder if Jesse is still bitter at Kerry over the concession? What’s up with him anyway? I know some blacks turned on him after the love child/affair scandal came out. I like Rev. Al more. He tells it like it is (i.e. DNC convention).

    Excellent post Marjorie. 🙂

  13. Marjorie

    I had a conversation with my friend Mario who was at the PDA meeting today in DC. Big conversation on staying on message and more unity, so I was told. Mario knows my feelings on the propensity of the PDA to attack JK. When they do I call him and blast the PDA!

  14. Teresa says:

    They know not and can’t help thenselves. These rather unattractive men are unbearably envious of Kerry and they lack confidence. It matters not. Kerry always beats them in any competition and they know it. Let them be the children they are. It won’t make a whit of difference.

    I don’t think Gore will run. And all this fuss is trying to push away the reality of Kerry’s power. If he decides to run, then everyone else will be out of the game. It’s all so silly. They look ridiculous fighting him. JK towers in every way. I kind of feel sorry for all those guys.

    I rather think JK is destined to be our 44th, but even if he doesn’t run, I think we will have a decent pres next time.

  15. Marjorie G says:

    My big tirade every other minute is how netroots and new organizations are building readership and membership on the same thoughtless emotion we accuse of the GOP. ie-That Peter Dao article of Dems to bash Dems to change them.

    We need everyone on board respectful of the challenges and what was possible last election. We have so much more to do to get real change and trust in us as a party.

    Meanwhile I’m struggling with sending large images.

  16. Teresa says:

    How bout this? An elite bush bashing fest in Aspen:


  17. NativeTexan4Kerry says:

    See, I obviously think Kerry, or anyone is right to assail bush– God knows theres more than enough reason to. But anyone who says that Kerry has JUST been assailing bush and not putting forth posstive ideas is wrong. We should make sure people realize not just that Kerry is right to strongly criticize bush, but that he has done more than any other senator as far as passing and introducing legislation to help people and small businesses effected by Katrina, that he actually went to New Orleans to deliver supplies, and most importantly that in his speeches he does talk of hope and how we can do better. People who say that his speech at Brown was all assailing bush– even though he’s obviously right to do so– can not have read the thing. The most beautiful part was the allusison to Sputnik and Kennedy and how “this is a great country but it can be a greater country.” I dont know why people don’t see that Kerry has been very POSSITIVE as well. But if they dont see it automatically, well then you know what our job is… show them!

  18. KJ says:

    Had a conversation with Pamela yesterday… I didn’t read Peter’s piece with the same eyes as others did, obviously. Must have read it too fast. I thought he was saying to work on connection with other Dems. ??? LOL

    Anyway, I agree with Marjorie, too many new organizations are trying to outdo each other in how fast they can ramp up the rant… against our own. It’s sad to see. As I used to say in the campaign, if I wanted to fight dirty, I’d go join Rove’s team.

    John Kerry is not in the White House. I say, we work through our grief, the anger, denial, etc., get centered, and move forward. The same challenges are in front of us as before… they’re just multiplied a thousand fold. So, we need at least as much energy and hope as we did previously, plus 1000 % more, just to confront what faces us today. It’s damn near overwhelming, but I truly believe, those of us still in the arena were born for this time.

    I just have one request: can we read JK’s article at least once a week? LOL And how about that picture of Ron and Teresa, can we post that again?

    In the meantime, I’ll keep working on narrative. 😉

  19. KJ says:

    Indie, Rev. Al is okay in my book, too. 🙂

  20. KJ says:

    ps. Native, I’ll keep doing my part to “show them,” but there are some people who won’t allow positive comments about Kerry, while comments such as “shoot him in the head” are allowed to stand.

    As with entrenched ‘wingers, I’ll just leave these people to their own delusions. LOL

  21. Todd says:

    Indie Liberal writes: “Meanwhile on a lot of liberal sites/blogs, word has it that Gore is emerging as a top 2008 candidate and that he’ll present an Anti-War plattform.”

    I heard Tim Russert or someone mention that yesterday too. And I can’t remember if it was Brooks, Dowd or Friedman who said this, but basically the feeling is that the war will long be over by 2008, so the idea that Gore will “ride to the rescue” on a anti-war platform is wishful thinking on behalf of the anti-war crowd. Not that he won’t run at all, but I don’t see him running as anti-war because I’m convinced we’ll be out of Iraq long before then. Knowing the Republicans, I’m sure we’ll be out before midterms next November.

    I do, however, get the feeling that Gore will run again, despite saying othewise. Can you imagine the primary debates? Kerry/Clinton/Gore all slugging it out? Interesting theater, to say the least.

  22. Indie Liberal says:

    There is a thread at DU about a documentary about the Kerry campaign staffers that could expose what really happened. If the spin gets out, it could look bad.


  23. Indie Liberal says:

    Couldn’t post the link, but it’s from rawstory:

    September 26, 2005

    Kerry Staffers Brace for New Film

    Lloyd Grove says Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) loyalists “are kicking themselves for cooperating last year with filmmaker Steve Rosenbaum on Inside the Bubble, a potentially devastating behind-the-scenes look at the Massachusetts senator’s failed presidential campaign.”

    “I’m also told that Hillary Clinton partisans are licking their chops to see the film, which ‘could end up being the silver bullet that kills Kerry’s presidential chances for 2008.”

    The film won’t be seen publicly until Thursday, but a press release claims the movie “turns a harsh but deeply revealing mirror on the campaign … a disorganized, contentious, self-absorbed team that thought they could win by ‘not making mistakes,’ and keeping their candidate in the public eye without clarifying a position on anything.”

    Key highlights from those who’ve seen it privately: “Clinton scowling and rolling her eyes over an apparent Kerry gaffe during a presidential debate; Kerry pretending to interview himself and babbling in Italian while waiting for a real interview to begin; Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) cursing at reporters during a campaign stop, and Kerry message guru Robert Shrum confidently declaring a few days before the 2004 election: ‘Zogby just announced who’s gonna win. Us!'”
    Link | Related News | Categories: Media Buzz


  24. Indie Liberal says:

    I like the pic with Ron and Momma T. 🙂

  25. Marjorie G says:

    Why did they agree? All media has been unkind and self-serving, alternative and mainstream, if only to prove they were correct in their original primary choice or vent anger. Oy veh!

  26. florida dem says:

    I know Marjorie. And you know what else? The liberal blogs that choose to ignore the good JK is doing will, of course, be all over this.

  27. Nick says:

    Hillary can lick all she wants. There is no way in hell that woman is getting elected. I’m frankly not even sure she would win blue leaning swing states like Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. What’s more nobody in the blogosphere or even here in the DC Metro area has ever named a state that Hillary might win that Kerry did not. I can name 4 states rihgt off the bat that kerry lost by 2% or less that he could pickup the next time: Iowa, New Mexico, Ohio, Nevada. Again, can anybody anywhere name me one state that Hillary could plausibly win that Kerry did not win in 2004.

  28. Nick says:

    Florida Dem

    I totally agree that the liberal anti-Kerry blogs will be all over this. But always remember, except for Clark’s soloe victory in Oklahoma and Dean sole primary victory in his homestate of Vermont, have these elitist “liberal” anti-Kerry blogs ever delivered a single primary to one of their chosen candidates? I think everyone here knows the answer to that one.

  29. Indie Liberal says:

    I agree florida dem, Nick, and Marjorie.

    It’s kind of like that Gannon story. Kos and every other liberal blog/site was all over that, but chose to ignore Kerry and other visible dems who got stuff done.

  30. Marjorie G says:

    Nick, you know I live and die by your numbers. They give me solace. But we are the only ones with our perspective.

  31. KJ says:

    But, it was a perspective only a relatively few had not so many years ago… 😉

    So there is hope. We can do this. It’s so easy to champion a champion, because his actions speak. Still want to continue work on a narrative, a structure. Haven’t had the time to take on Brook’s “Ahab” comment yet, but oh, was that the wrong story to lay on Kerry!

    Still think some sort of “compare and contrast” approach might work, along the lines of NativeTexan4Kerry comment at 5:19 am.

  32. Ron Chusid says:


    “Again, can anybody anywhere name me one state that Hillary could plausibly win that Kerry did not win in 2004.”

    Not in 2004, but 2008 is a different election and the situation will be different. The old red/blue divide may or may not hold in near the same form as the last two elections. It is far too early to predict how Hillary will do in 2008 (although I do fear her chances would be poorer than the chances of many other Democrats).

  33. Indie Liberal says:

    Somebody raised a good question about this: Will all this expose the fact that the Democratic Party let Kerry down by not having a clear, strong, unified message? I have seen some proof that some Dems (except for the notables i.e. Edwards, Clark, Dean, and CBC) were busy propping themselves up instead of winning the WH.