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General Tommy Franks Discusses His Republican Convention Address

September 2, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Joining us now is Retired Army General Tommy Franks who just addressed this convention. General, welcome.

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Thanks a lot, sir. It’s great to be with you.

JIM LEHRER: You said this was a time for choice–

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: –and– you chose– made a choice between George W. Bush and John Kerry. Did you — should your choice be interpreted as you looked at both of them and decided that John Kerry wasn’t up to the job or a negative about him or more positive about –

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: The latter case. I think – I think it’s sort of like this discussion – the dots that we’ve had concerning intelligence and the whole WMD thing and Iraq, what I did was I started with a sheet of paper and I started putting dots on this piece of paper and determined the issues that I thought were important to me and my family and all of that.

And then I used them as metrics, and I measured the performance of both candidates against that. And at the end of the day I decided that the right thing for me to do based on my beliefs was to be vocal in support of the president.

JIM LEHRER: Where do you come down on this firestorm over John Kerry in Vietnam? The two phases – the first about what he did in Vietnam as a member of the United States Navy?

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Phase one, as a part of — oh, the discussion of him in Vietnam, I really, I don’t take a stand. I mean, I was in Vietnam during the late 1960′s, and I have an appreciation of the people I associated with over there. I will say that I have confidence in the swift boat guys, the people who are saying what they are saying and have written what they’ve written. So I have confidence in them. I wasn’t there, Jim, to be able to see and judge all of that myself.

The dot that appeared on my piece of paper that I paid attention to, the one I mentioned a minute ago, was the 1971 and beyond dot and, yeah, I do have – I do have a reaction to that. I believe that the business of loyalty to troops and associates and all of that is a very high calling. And some say there’s no higher calling than you know loyalty to the nation. Excuse me, talking too much — than loyalty to nation. And I agree with that.

But as a military guy — and I looked around and I thought about loyalty, and I saw some of the senator’s testimony, as I think a lot of people have seen. And I don’t — my role is not to condemn performance, I just made the decision for myself. Having seen George W. Bush in a cauldron of history over the last few years, I sort of made judgments -

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: — about where I thought the loyalty thing might be and that was a metric for me.

JIM LEHRER: One thing and then Mark and David can jump in here. As somebody who I said when you were speaking or after you spoke, that you were in school, Vietnam, you dropped out of school, joined the army, went to Vietnam, and then you came back, got your education -

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: — and became a career army officer. Does it bother you at all in your history and your career, 37-year career, that John Kerry the guy who volunteered to go into combat is catching the heat and the man you endorsed today did not do that or the vice president – in fact took college deferments?

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Yeah. It doesn’t bother me a bit. Sometimes I’m interested in the fact that service during that era was no issue for the previous eight years, but it has become an issue now. And it’s not an issue with me. Someone asked me, one of your colleagues asked me the other day, well, do you believe military service is like a prerequisite to be – you know, to hold this high office? I thought about that for – I mean, immediately I said, “well, I don’t think so.”

But then I thought about it for a week or ten days or two weeks, and I decided I gave the right answer. I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. I will tell you that I respect the fact that Sen. John Kerry served his country in the military and went to Vietnam. And that’s why I said I take nothing away from the swift boat guys but I don’t take a hand in that argument because I respect the man. He went to Vietnam.

But by the same token I don’t – I don’t have less respect for a man I’ve observed as the commander-in-chief of all American forces during a terribly important period of American history. And so I don’t sort of react to the negative or have the negative view. I support Bush because I see the positive things and from knowing him first personally and having watched him go through that, I just decided that rather than doing this in the quietude of the voting booth, you know, where I just go in and support him, which I would have done, I decided to become vocal about it.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Did they ask — did the campaign ask you to do this? You did this on your own? You volunteered?

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Absolutely. I think perhaps it shocked the campaign a little bit because as I said in my remarks somewhat jokingly, I’m viewed in a lot of places as being a pretty independent guy. And so, no, I was not approached, requested or anything.

You may recall from our days in Iraq, beginning the 19th of March of last year, I had a young man working with me about whom I wrote a good deal in my book, Jim Wilkinson. And Wilkinson is associated with this White House, and so when I decided maybe I wanted to say something, I contacted him and said, you know, if you guys are interested, I mean, I have something to say.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Just so I understand, General, you talk about the swift boat, Kerry served in the swift boat, 13 guys, 12 of them said great skipper, great comrade, trust him, trust him with my life, saved my life, and so forth. But you say you are going to lead with the swift boat guys. Just so I understand –

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Just the balance between the two. You have some number, and I won’t do the math with you, on one side of the argument that say this happened, and on the other side of the argument that, no, this happened. And rather than –

MARK SHIELDS: Even though the ones who were there with him in the same boat –

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I think people were with him on both sides of the equation. And so rather than sort of picking, I’ve decided to not get into the hyperbole of that particular piece. I simply don’t have a view about anything other than a degree of respect for the men who were there with the senator serving — no matter which side they were on of this argument.

MARK SHIELDS: Okay. And you yourself being a bronze star, silver star, purple hearts, I mean, you don’t think those are passed out like –.

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Well, I say — in fact in my book, I made a comment to my father when I came back from Vietnam, he was commenting on — I was putting my medals on my uniform about to go to my next duty assignment, and my dad made some comment about well, you have a lot of medals. And I made a comment to him, well, they pass them out in Cracker Jack boxes. And my dad looked at me and said, I don’t really think they pass them out in Cracker Jack boxes, and so on the one hand, there are many of us who received awards in Vietnam who would self-deprecate and say don’t make that big a deal out of it.

And I think a lot of Americans would do that. And so I don’t take a hand on either side of the thing. We were all there together. And, like I said today, what I care about in this election season is looking at my friends and looking at men and women who returned from Vietnam, and telling them something we should have told them as a country a long time ago. And I mean, you know the semper fi thing. Look at them and say welcome home — because so many Americans didn’t get that welcome home when they came back from Vietnam.

When I look at Sen. John Kerry and I tell, John Kerry, welcome home. Thanks for having served our country, and then if I want to pick a bone with him, to use the West Texas parlance, I’ll pick the bone relative to what we’ve seen since he left the military or since he came back from Vietnam. And that’s where I –

MARK SHIELDS: Just — do you consider it an act of patriotism for a warrior who has served to come back and object to a war that ended up with Vietnam as a communist nation and 58,000 American dead?

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Let me say that comments that do not add to the situation of the people who are continuing to serve, I do not receive favorably. I did not react well to what I saw the now senator do when he came back from Vietnam. I did not react well to that because on the one hand, I can give Sen. Kerry credit for having stood up against a war he believed was unjust. I would give him credit for that. Ain’t this a great country? It’s a right that the senator had to do that.

When one crosses over the line and begins to describe in detail and the conduct of people for whom he was responsible as a leader, men in uniform with whom he worked, then that’s the piece that I react badly to. And so I actually do see the positive and the negative of all of that, and what I think is most Americans are actually able to sort this for themselves and look at things that have happened later during the life of Sen. John Kerry and not become quite as fixated on this period as we may all be. Sorry for the long answer.

DAVID BROOKS: — which may be illegal in this election year to actually talk about something that has happened in the last 30 years. But you’ve just come back – or not just – but you’ve come back from running that war. One of the things that’s bugged me about this convention is it’s sort have been abstracted from the events of the past year, we’ve talked about the need to go to war but really the conduct of the war and the mores of the war have not really been talked about.

And a lot of things are going on. And it seems to me some of our efforts in Iraq have been put on hold during this political season. There are cities like Fallujah and other cities that have really become sanctuaries for terror. You know, you’re an independent man. Is that a problem that we don’t seem to be acting in an election year against these places?

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: I don’t share your view that things have been put on hold. I think what happens in the case of any wartime environment or any post-conflict period and that actually is where we are historically speaking in the sweep of history, you will find that when we identify a place like Fallujah as being a really, really tough place and the center for a lot of terrorist-sponsored activity in that country, then one says, how should we deal with that?

Well, during this year, you mentioned, the decision was taken to get the Iraqis into Fallujah, and to surround Fallujah, and assist the Iraqis in solving this essentially Iraqi problem. A lot of people have asked me, well, don’t you think it would be better to just put the Americans in there and let’s just clean this thing out? A lot of people ask that. And I have thought a lot about it. That is a point of view. On the other hand, if we believe that eventually the Iraqis are going to have to solve Iraq’s problems, then why not build a model now that shows in a tough circumstance how the Iraqis will go about solving that problem while we continue to help them build their capability. So I think the model is okay.

Then I go to Najaf and the issue with Sadr and all of that. Well, that sure hasn’t been placed on hold. That thing sort of looked like a vice that became tighter and tighter around the holy shrines there. And, once again, I had friends, I mean, these are not reporters, just friends, who said, well, General, don’t you think we ought to just get in there and get with that?

And I have always said, this is not — America is not a third world country. We actually do have a set of values and standards and approaches. And Americans have never gone into foreign countries and into holy sites and destroyed them and that sort of thing. So things like Abu Ghraib notwithstanding, I mean, we have people in the military who make mistakes but in this particular case, the Americans did the right thing by standing back from Najaf and having the Iraqis solve that problem for themselves. These are tough times in Iraq. And it’s going to be another two, three, four years before this thing actually calms down. That’s my view.

JIM LEHRER: General, we have to leave it there. Thank you, and I know you have to go, but thank you so much for coming by.

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS: Thanks. It’s great to be with you every time, Jim. I enjoy talking to you.

JIM LEHRER: Thanks a lot, General. Thanks a lot.