Shields and Kristol Discuss Kerry’s War Record
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Kristol: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and William Kristol of the Weekly Standard. David Brooks is on vacation. The rising war over John Kerry’s Vietnam War record, Bill. Is Kerry right to blame the attacks on President Bush?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: No. I don’t think he’s right to blame the attacks on his fellow veterans who didn’t like him in Vietnam, particularly didn’t like him after he called… after they think he called some of them war criminals in 1971 in his famous testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and to produce this book, John O’Neill who was on last night, no, they’re not stooges of the Bush campaign.
JIM LEHRER: Not stooges of the Bush campaign?
MARK SHIELDS: Of course they are, Jim. I mean, the problem with smear campaigns is that too often they work. All we have to see – and there’s a modus operandi here. We’ve seen it before in Bush campaigns; we saw it in 1988, we saw it in ’92, we saw in 2000 against John McCain.
And this isn’t just the fingerprints of the Bush-Cheney campaign, or the footprints; it’s the DNA. I mean, it’s the funding of it, the people involved in it were involved in McCain; they use exactly the same example to go after the person just as they did with John McCain in 2000.
They said John McCain was short tempered, didn’t have a presidential temperament. Scott McClellan today said John Kerry’s angry, Mark Rosco, the campaign chairman said he was wild eyed. I mean….
JIM LEHRER: Kerry was in his complaint yesterday and charge against President Bush?
MARK SHIELDS: This is a pattern, Jim. It’s a pattern – I mean, let’s be very frank about it. Thirty-one years ago, thirty-three years ago, John O’Neill appeared in several of the same stages with John Kerry, never was there a whisper, never was there a mention about John Kerry’s performance in Vietnam. Never was there a mention made even though Charlie Coalson and the Nixon White House wanted to discredit Kerry at the time — never was there a mention made that any of Kerry’s medals were not earned. Now –
JIM LEHRER: The charge was about what he said in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly right.
JIM LEHRER: We’ll get back to that in a minute, but what about what Mark says, that the DNA of the Bush campaign is there.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: It’s just not true. It’s not true. This is not anonymous rumors. These are not mysterious ads popping up from nowhere. These are people stepping forward, volunteering to appear on every television show in the country, speaking into the camera on these ads, putting their names and reputation behind them. Some of them have been hurt because it turns throughout have been inconsistencies.
Some of the charges have I think held up quite well and they’re willing to debate these charges against anyone. I think you found this last night against people who know a lot about it; it’s really unfair, Mark. You’re really slandering someone like John O’Neill who is a perfectly decent man who strongly believes….
MARK SHIELDS: I’ll be happy to take on John O’Neill…. Where was John O’Neill –
WILLIAM KRISTOL: The Kerry campaign won’t, though. If you asked the Kerry campaign to put someone up, another Vietnam vet to go up against John O’Neill, they won’t put him up.
MARK SHIELDS: John Kerry has said to George Bush, you want to make Vietnam this… let’s debate it.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: John Kerry’s problem is not with George Bush. John Kerry’s problem is with his fellow Vietnam vets.
MARK SHIELDS: Bill….
WILLIAM KRISTOL: John Kerry began this campaign by… Vietnam has been central to John Kerry’s campaign. He and his band of brothers, some of them, stood behind him on the stage at the Democratic National Convention. It is perfectly fair for others of that band of brothers, the majority, frankly of Coastal Division 11 and Coastal Division 14 to say we don’t have a high opinion of John Kerry.
MARK SHIELDS: Let’s get one thing straight, Bill, everybody who served in John Kerry’s boat under his command save one has stood with him.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: How many people is that, Mark? Nine.
MARK SHIELDS: Of the 12 people, 11 of them stand with him.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: And most of his fellow commanders and most of the people on the other boats don’t stand with him. And the people who – in the chain of command –
MARK SHIELDS: There’s a great irony here.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: This is a factual question.
JIM LEHRER: One at a time, please.
MARK SHIELDS: You’ve got great irony here. You’ve got John Kerry, people who didn’t serve with John Kerry saying they did serve with John Kerry in the boat and people who weren’t even there who, according to other eyewitnesses were up to three miles away, up to 600 yards away saying they were there. With George Bush, we can’t find anybody who did serve with him.
JIM LEHRER: All right. We’ll get to that in a minute. The issue… you believe this is a legitimate issue to raise because John Kerry has made such a big deal of his service in Vietnam?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Absolutely. I mean, I think the swift vets are entitled to say “wait a second, we now think… now that we’ve seen the after-action reports” which they had not seen in the ’70s and ’80s, they were made public in the last year, we think John Kerry has hyped some of his activities to get these medals; that we do know John Kerry said he was in Cambodia on the Senate floor in 1986, he had a searing memory of being in Cambodia on Christmas Eve in 1968 and he was not; the Kerry camp has now conceded that.
The vets were right to say, wait a second, we were part of that unit and John Kerry is not telling the truth. But I think in general… I mean, some of these things… many of these things will remain forever disputed and my personal judgment having actually read the book, Mark, and looked at this in some detail is that it’s a mixed bag but that John Kerry’s service in Vietnam remains impressive in many ways, though the swift vets have some legitimate criticisms.
JIM LEHRER: The issue… I’ll ask you the same question I just asked Bill. Did John Kerry by emphasizing his record in Vietnam essentially issue a challenge if you don’t… in other words, did he make it an issue himself?
MARK SHIELDS: There’s no question that John Kerry’s biography was central to his campaign and the fact that what you have Jim is you have two men seeking the White House; they’re both products of prominent New England families. They both went to private boarding schools. They both went to a prestigious university. One of them volunteered three times – three times to go and fight for his country. The other didn’t. As Bill Clinton said so eloquently at the convention during Vietnam there was a chance to serve; there was a chance not to serve.
As President Clinton said, the vice president chose not to serve, I chose not to go to Vietnam and so did the president. John Kerry said “send me.” And I just think that what you have is you have John McCain saying “this is dishonest and dishonorable.” And I think that goes right to the heart of it because John McCain has been victimized by this before. He was victimized in the New York primary; he was victimized in the South Carolina primary. It’s exactly same people underwriting it and working on it –
JIM LEHRER: Bill?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: The new ad that the swift boat vets have released which is the clips of Kerry speaking before the Senate committee and two POW’s saying when he was saying that Americans were committing war crimes we were being tortured to say this by the North Vietnamese, one of those POW’s was a huge McCain supporter in 2000.
This is not like the attack on John McCain. And with all due respect, Mark, John McCain did not choose to run on his biography. John Kerry chose to run on four and a half months of his biography; nothing about his 20-year senate career; nothing in his convention speech about his 1971 testimony. He staked an awful lot on these band of brothers will testify to my integrity, to my leadership, to my courage. It is legitimate for others of that band of brothers to say “wait a second.”
MARK SHIELDS: Bill, let’s be very blunt about it, this whole thing. That ad is a fraud.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: This new ad?
MARK SHIELDS: The new ad. John Kerry is… what they did is John Kerry is saying in the testimony, if you go back and read the testimony, John Kerry is saying “this was what was testified at by the winter soldiers in Detroit. This is their testimony. This is what they said.” And what they simply dropped out was “this is what they said.”
WILLIAM KRISTOL: He utterly associates himself with that.
MARK SHIELDS: No, no, he said “this is what they testified. This is what 150 American soldiers testified to in Detroit.” And that’s what he’s testified; that’s what he said.
JIM LEHRER: Having cleared that up, let me go to… does this now make George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard during Vietnam fair game?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Absolutely and it always was, and you know, when Moveon.org – and other Democratic-leaning independent groups — raised that issue very aggressively several months ago, the media quite properly looked into it.
And I’m willing — you know, I’m not a big defender of George W. Bush’s service there. He goofed off in the Air National Guard. People have to make their own decisions about how important this is in voting for president in 2004.
And I think a huge majority of Americans won’t care much about how much Bush goofed off or whether Kerry inflated his reports to get medals way back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
I do think, I would just say, his testimony in ’71 could become a little more relevant. But basically I’m dubious that any of this will lead anyone to change their votes. But absolutely, when someone runs for president, his public record is fair game.
JIM LEHRER: Do you — how do you feel about it yourself? Do you think not only is it fair game, do you think it’s relevant?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I think what Kerry later said about it and his desire to just trade off his service in Vietnam and not to come… I think not to confront what he said two years later when he came back and led the Vietnam veterans against the war raises important questions.
The way I would put it is this: Kerry’s presenting himself to the voters with his band of brothers who served in Vietnam, Kerry’s real band of brothers were the antiwar… was the antiwar movement. That’s where Kerry is ideologically and politically, and fine. He’s a liberal, he’s anti-war, he’s been dovish on most issues in the last 30 years; he should present himself that way.
JIM LEHRER: Relevant, is this relevant to this campaign?
MARK SHIELDS: Of course it’s relevant. Character is destiny and character is important to American campaigns.
JIM LEHRER: George W. Bush’s record is also relevant?
MARK SHIELDS: George W. Bush’s record, we can’t find George Bush’s record. Nobody served with him, Jim. He was in a phantom outfit, in a phantom organization. I mean, we know he fought the Battle of Amarillo in the Texas Air National Guard and very successfully. But we have no idea where he is. We had….
WILLIAM KRISTOL: If ten people who served with Bush came forward and say “he behaved disgracefully in 1971 in the Air National Guard” and four people said “no, I think he was good,” that would be legitimate news. And that’s exactly what’s happening here.
MARK SHIELDS: But these are not people -
WILLIAM KRISTOL: There are no people… I’m not… I’m a little too young to have gone through this myself and I’m not going to sit here and second guess either Bush or Kerry and I admire Kerry for volunteering and for going to Vietnam, but it is fair for these people to come forward and speak.
JIM LEHRER: Mark, what about the Bush campaign people or Bush supporters say that what Sen. Harkin of Iowa did by calling George W. Bush a coward.
MARK SHIELDS: No Dick Cheney.
JIM LEHRER: Dick Cheney – I’m sorry — Dick Cheney a coward for not going into the military is the same thing that the swift boat people have been accused of doing against Kerry.
MARK SHIELDS: Over the top, I mean, what Harkin did. And let’s be very frank. John Kerry condemned, condemned the Moveon.org ad and disavowed it, said he had nothing to do with it, thought it was wrong to bring up George Bush’s service that way. George Bush is trying to play it both ways.
George Bush basically what he did was normal. Jim, when you run for commander in chief, when you run for president of the United States and everybody does the same thing in the campaign, they talk about veterans, how much they admirer them, how much they appreciate them, how grateful they are, George Bush says what John Kerry did was noble. The service was noble and yet he sees him being savaged by his own supporters, his own supporters and organized by an associate, a close intimate of his principal political guru Karl Rove and at the same time he won’t come out and condemn that.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, Bill?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I don’t think it’s been organized by Karl Rove. I think President Bush is… he is right — why should he condemn other Vietnam vets to support John Kerry? George Bush’s position should be “I honor all those who served their country.” They have a dispute about what happened. This dispute should be debated honestly and forthrightly.
I think he has no obligation to condemn the first ad. And the second ad, the ad released today about Kerry’s testimony is totally fair in my view.
MARK SHIELDS: Check out the whole context, Bill, please.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I have.
JIM LEHRER: Is this going to mean anything? Is this going to help decide this presidential election?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: I don’t know, in all honesty. I mean, you can have big firestorms and they can disappear within two months.
MARK SHIELDS: I think it will be. I think it has to come up in the debates. I’m sure it will. I think it’s central to how somebody handles something like this.
JIM LEHRER: An Annenberg survey out today shows that half the country already knows about these ads and they only ran in three states in a very minor way because everybody… the talk show people and everybody picked them up.
MARK SHIELDS: I’ll tell you where it’s going to be a factor, and that is John McCain, a man for whom I have enormous respect. John McCain has to make a choice. John McCain has become the de facto running mate of George W. Bush. He’s going to speak next Friday at the convention.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that McCain is going to have to do something now?
WILLIAM KRISTOL: No, he has condemned the ad he thought was appropriate. I think you have nothing to condemn in the second ad. And, gain, the dispute is between – is within Kerry’s band of brothers; it’s people who served with John Kerry. John McCain doesn’t know what John Kerry did in Vietnam.
JIM LEHRER: Bill, we have to go. Bill, thank you for filling in for David for the last few weeks.
WILLIAM KRISTOL: Happy to do it.
JIM LEHRER: See you again soon.
Thank you, Mark. I know I’ll see you soon.
MARK SHIELDS: Okay.