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