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Transcript: Kerry Answers Questions at Press Conference

FDCH E-Media
Tuesday, September 21, 2004; 5:35 PM

Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry answered reporters' questions at a news conference in Jacksonville, Fla.

KERRY: Let me just make a quick statement, if I can, and then, obviously, I'll be delighted to answer some questions.

First of all, this is the first chance I've been able to get back here to Florida because of the weather situation over the past weeks, and while I've been here by satellite TV and I've been able to communicate with families, I want to take the opportunity to personally share with everybody how deeply all of America feels about the difficulties people have been putting up with. 

The loss of life, which is beyond difficulty, it's torn families apart. The economy has been hurt. And people have been just trying to survive. 

And when I was here a few weeks ago, I met with a number of those families, and I was impressed by their pluck, their spirit. But on the other hand, there are a lot of folks in need, a lot of folks who are hurting. 

One of the things that impressed me the most was the incredible community spirit, the coming together of the National Guard, FEMA, the local folks, all pulling together to try to help each other and build community and rebuild community. 

And I think, you know, this is not an issue about Democrats or Republicans. Everybody in the nation, all Americans are going to help Florida. We care about what's happened. And we're going to try to help people rebuild as rapidly as possible. 

And what we've seen in the spirit of Florida is the best of our country, and we're grateful to people for their example. 

Secondly, we've sort of entered a new phase of the campaign, I believe. And it's a time when Americans deserve a debate on the real issues that are facing the country. 

KERRY: Yesterday, you heard me speak about Iraq, and I laid out what I believe are the critical choices that we face, immediately with urgency, in order to be able to be successful. 

The United States must be successful. I laid out a plan which I believe could help us be successful. 

But I'm also going to laying out other plans, as I have throughout the campaign. Over the course of the last four years, 5 million Americans have lost their health care. And under George Bush, the health care premiums have gone up some $3,500. Countless families are finding it harder and harder to afford to be able to pay for health care. Children have lost their health care under this president. And this president has continually turned away, without a plan over four years, while the American health care system has been under the most extraordinary stress in its history, and while more Americans than ever before in American history have had no health care at all. 

I have a plan to provide health care to all Americans, to children, immediately, to help lower the costs in the premiums for those who have it today, and to help the private sector, to be able to make it more affordable. 

And contrary to President Bush and his campaign statements, it is not a government plan. It allows every American to choose their doctor, every American to choose their plan. In fact, it provides a broader choice for health care than you have today. And there's no new bureaucracy; it cleans up bureaucracy and get rid of waste. 

Finally, as I said in my speech yesterday, Iraq is in crisis, and the president needs to live in the world of reality, not in a world of fantasy spin. 

At the United Nations today, the president failed to level with the world's leaders. Moments after Kofi Annan, the secretary general, talked about the difficulties in Iraq, the president of the United States stood before a stony-faced body and barely talked about the realities at all of Iraq. 

KERRY: After lecturing them, instead of leading them to understand how we are all together with a stake in the outcome of Iraq, I believe the president missed an opportunity of enormous importance for our nation and for the world. He does not have the credibility to lead the world. And he did not and will not offer the leadership in order to do what we need to do to protect our troops, to be successful, and win the war on terror in an effective way. 

I believe, as I set out yesterday, we need a fundamentally different approach in order to be successful in Iraq. We need to get other nations to join us. Even if they won't accept risky operations, there are other operations which would facilitate our ability to be able to manage this situation. We need not to stay the course, but the change the course so we can be successful. And the urgency grows with every single day.

I'll be happy to answer any questions.

QUESTION: Senator, the president continues to quote you as saying that the world would better off with Saddam Hussein (OFF-MIKE)

KERRY: The world be better off, excuse me?

QUESTION: He said that you said the world would be better off if Saddam Hussein was not sitting in a prison cell.

KERRY: What I have always said is that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. 

KERRY: The question is how you do it.

And what the president needs to begin to do is address the realities of Iraq. The president keeps wanting to debate fiction or hypotheticals rather than debate the reality of what's on the ground.

As I said in my speech yesterday: The American troops are under increased pressure. As Prime Minister Allawi said himself, terrorists are pouring across the border. But we don't have the border security. 

The president has not denied one of the facts that I laid out yesterday. Are there 210,000 Iraqi forces? Are there 95,000? Are there 5,000? This administration has not leveled with the American people, step by step. They have not shown the American people the candor and the leadership necessary to be able to deal with this situation. 

So the president really has no credibility at this point. And he has no credibility with foreign leaders who hear him come before them and talk as if everything is going well. And they see that we can't even protect the people on the ground for the election.

We need to deal with the truth and with reality, as I said in my speech yesterday. And I will continue to ask Americans to look at this and to assess the truth.

I have a plan to make America safer. I have a plan to be successful in Iraq. But it requires urgency. And I've laid out a plan each step of the way over the last two years. But this president each time has chosen, he has chosen to move in a unilateral way, to move without the help of other people, to make this a riskier and tougher and move expensive operation.

The management of this war has been both arrogant, lacking in candor and incompetent. And we need to change the course.


KERRY: I don't know what the law, the legalities are that he's referring to. I don't know.


KERRY: Well, let me say this to all of you: That underscores what I am saying. If the leader of the United Nations is at odds with the legality and we're not working at getting over that hurdle and brining people to the table, as I said in my speech yesterday, it's imperative to be able to build international cooperation.

Kofi Annan offered the help of the United Nations months ago. This president chose to go the other way, to leave them at side. And then he desperately sort of wandered back to try to pull them in at the last moment. And he has done nothing to get the resolution that was passed actually implemented. That's why I believe we need new leadership, new credibility. I think this president has lost credibility with the international community. 


KERRY: No, I have one position on Iraq, one position. What they should be confused about is what President Bush has done where he actually says to Americans that if there were no imminent threat, no weapons of mass destruction, no connection to Al Qaida, all of which had been proven to be true, the 9/11 Commission has shown the president wasn't truthful. His own weapons inspectors have shown the president wasn't truthful. 

And the president says even though that's true, he would still have taken America to war. Now, I believe there was a better way. And I've said that consistently from day one. And I believe the president needs to answer the questions of the American people. 

Why are the Iraqi security forces not what they ought to be? Why are they not what they what you said they were, Mr. President? Why are terrorists pouring across the border into Iraq? 

KERRY: Why are our troops facing more terrorists today than they ever were before? And even Secretary Powell has admitted that, that Iraq has become the magnet for terrorists. 

Why are our troops without the allies that they need so that they are bearing 90 percent of the costs? This is not the grand alliance the president promised America. 

The president wants to shift the topic, and I'm not going to let him shift topic. This is about President Bush and his decisions and his choices and his unwillingness, as I said in my speech yesterday, to live in a world of reality. And American lives are on the line as a consequence of that. 


KERRY: Look. The vote for the authority was the correct vote. I've said that throughout this campaign. Never questioned it. It was the correct vote because we needed to hold Saddam Hussein accountable for weapons. That's what America believed. 

But this president made a series of decisions after that that broke his promises both to the American people and to the Congress. He didn't take the time to do the hard work of diplomacy and show the wisdom and the judgment that a president needs to show as to how you bring other nations to our side. He didn't exhaust the remedies of inspections so that you either found out that there were no weapons of mass destruction, or you found that you really had to proceed with the world at your side. Either way, we would have been better off. 

And finally, he did not go to war as a last resort. He did not. And Americans now understand that. 

KERRY: So my vote was a vote to do this the right way. And had I been president, we would have done this the right way. This president chose, personally, each time to spurn the United Nations, to spurn the help of other people, to make this more expensive to the American people, not to tell the truth. 

He didn't tell America this would cost $200 billion. He didn't tell America that we'd have 135,000, 140,000 troops in there a year and a half later. He didn't tell America or the Congress that they didn't have the weapons and so forth, even some of the weapons that they promoted as an administration, not the ones that were individually shown.

So I think the president needs to get to the world of reality, and he needs to deal with the fact that American troops are on the line today. And I want those troops given the best support possible. I want to win. And the way to win is to get the world at our side and to strengthen the training, to strengthen the reconstruction and to make sure that we've done the work to have an election, as I said in my speech yesterday. I laid out step for step, as I have previously, and the president has chosen each time to avoid the possibility of those steps. 


KERRY: If you take the steps that I said yesterday, which evidently the president has already started not to, because today he didn't talk reality to the United Nations, you can have those elections. Sure. But the president -- unless you make Iraq more secure and live up to what the United Nations needs in order to be able to deliver, it's going to be very difficult. 

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) if the world is better off with Saddam gone, how did that square with the comment last night with David Letterman, that knowing what you now know, you wouldn't have gone to war? 

KERRY: Because, for several reasons. First of all, it's obvious, if he is gone, the world is better off without him. 

KERRY: Everybody understands that. He's a brutal dictator. And as I said yesterday in my speech, he deserves his own special place in hell.

But that doesn't mean that you go to war in an irresponsible way that puts America at greater risk. That doesn't mean you should take your eye off the ball, which was Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida, and rush to war just to get rid of him.

Are we better off without him? Sure. But what they've done is, as I said in my speech yesterday, they have replaced a dictator with chaos, and chaos in a way that puts America and Iraqis at much greater risk. 

I believe there was a more responsible way to do it. If you don't have weapons of mass destruction, believe me, Saddam Hussein is a very different person. That's what kept him in power. And I believe Saddam Hussein would not be in power. 

This president avoided approaching this in responsible ways, and it's a tragedy. He now has an opportunity to lead and pull this together, but he seems to be in denial. He doesn't want to admit what even Prime Minister Allawi admitted yesterday. Terrorists are pouring across the border, ladies and gentlemen. That's what the prime minister of Iraq said. 

And I believe that more than just Americans should be bearing the burden of getting and achieving this success. 


KERRY: I'll tell you why, I'll tell you exactly why. Because the vote for authorization is interpreted by a lot of people as a vote to go to war. But if you read it, and if you think about what it gave the president, it gave the president what he said: America will speak with one voice. Those are the words of the president. 

And in Cincinnati, the president said war is not inevitable. In Cincinnati, the president said we will plan carefully, we will go with our allies. He laid out a series of his own standards. 

Now, the vote to go to war gave the president judgment, presidential judgment. 

KERRY: It wasn't a vote to go that day. It was a vote to go through the process of going to the U.N., building the allies and then making a judgment of whether we had to go. The president made his own judgment.

Now, we supported him in that judgment because he was going to war. But the fact is, no one could have imagined back then that they would discard their own state department's 11 volumes of plan for what to do, that they would not guard the borders, that they would not guard the ammunition dumps, that they would disband the Army, that they would not keep a civil service structure in place, that they would not provide the electricity and provide the jobs and the services.

This has been incompetently handled, mismanaged every step of the way. The people who gave them good advice, as I said in my speech yesterday, they were fired or they retired. 

And this president hitched his wagon to the idealogues. And we are paying a price for that today. 

I believe there was a better judgment to make. And I said so all along. Every one of you throughout this knows I have said, there was a right way to do this and a wrong way to do it. And the president, every step of the way, has chosen the wrong way.


KERRY: I have a better plan for America. And that's what this campaign is about. You know, if I paid attention to polls, I wouldn't have gotten up in the morning last December. Polls don't mean anything to me now. This is a very close race. Everybody in America knows it. And these are the moments when Americans are going to make judgments.

Yesterday, I laid out a plan for how we can be successful in Iraq. That's leadership.

In Fulton, Missouri, I laid out a plan for how we could be successful. That's leadership.

At the Brookings Institute, a year ago, I laid out a plan . That's leadership.

The president slowly moves to little pieces of it later and later. I believe I've shown more leadership in the course of this than the president. I believe I have a better plan to run a more effective war on terror, and the president needs to start to live in a world of reality. 

KERRY: The president cannot deny that they have not achieved what they said they've achieved. They've misled the American people. 

Secretary Rumsfeld stands up and says we got 210,000 Iraqi forces. And then he admits that they have 50 percent less than that, 95,000. 

But then the truth comes out, and it says they only have 5,000. 

I believe I can do a better job of telling the truth to the American people and of providing real choices that protect America and make us safer. 

And those troops on the ground in Iraq deserve a president who tells the truth and responds to it appropriately by building the kind of support that helps them out. 

You have no idea how many young troops I've met in the rope lines along the way around the country who have come back to me and said to me, "Senator, we need to do this better. We need to do this differently. We need your help." 

I'm going to lead those troops successfully. We have to be successful. And I have a better plan to be successful than the president. 


KERRY: No. You don't just stand up in front of folks in the midst of sort of a running-through-all-the-issues speech and pretend that that's the way you lead people to the table. You have to engage, I said, in a summit. You ought to pull those people to the table and come out with a unified agreement as to what you're going to do to send a message to those wavering Iraqis who are sitting on the fence, unsure of which way this may go.

KERRY: And they need to see the world at our side. I believe the president is not engaged in that kind of diplomacy and symmetry. And I'm not alone in that. Senator Dick Lugar, Senator Chuck Hagel, other Republicans believe that our policy is in trouble and needs to be changed.

So this is not a partisan statement in the course of this campaign. This is a consistent statement I've made all along. I think we need stronger leadership in order to bring people to the table. You're going to have to assign specific roles, not just shoot a few words around, a paragraph of a general speech. It's much more serious than that. 

QUESTION: (inaudible)

KERRY: I did, actually. I said that the president needed the -- I didn't just say the president. I said America needs to draw a line in the sand and we need to kick him out of there if necessary. My vote, as I've said many times, at that point in time was based on the fact that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then Colin Powell, had reservations about whether or not we were ready and the country was divided 50-50. 

And I said I thought we needed a little more time to be able to work through the diplomacy so that you exhausted those remedies, in the way that I similarly said in my New York Times editorial that I wrote about Iraq. I'm particularly sensitive, as somebody who saw what happens when you lose support, to building as much support as possible for sending young Americans to war. I think that's the job of a president. 

And in my impression 50-50 and a rush was not the way to go. I thought we could use a few more months, and that's what I said at the time. But there was no doubt in my mind that if push came to shove, we needed to kick him out of Kuwait, we would. And I said the minute that shooting starts, I'm in 100 percent support of doing what we do.

QUESTION: Well, based on what you said about the resolution this time, you were in fact denying...

KERRY: No, here's what...

QUESTION: (inaudible)

KERRY: No, I disagree with that, respectfully.

KERRY: This time, we had a difference of 7.5 years, during which time, as you'll recall, Ambassador Butler and UNSCOM found a great number of weapons. And we were actually destroying those weapons. 

The United States was in possession of knowledge in the course of those seven years that we weren't in possession of back in 1991, at least publicly. And the result was that I thought the president needed that authority in order to be able to absolutely get the inspectors in, to go through the process of building the support. 

That's exactly what I said throughout that period of time. But that's not the debate. That's the debate the president wants to have now. 

The debate now is whether or not you have a plan to win and whether or not you are facing the realities on the ground in Iraq. Iraq was not the war on terror the day that the president decided to go. The war on terror was Al Qaida, Osama bin Laden, and Afghanistan. And he took his eye off that ball, transferred troops out from under General Frank, even before he had permission of the Congress, and began to do the build-up for Iraq. 

And that has been, as I said yesterday in my speech, an enormous diversion from the war on terror, and it has in fact, in my judgment and the judgment of many, many experts, made America less safe. There are more incidents of terrorism around the world. There are more incidences of terror against our troops in Iraq. There are, as Prime Minister Allawi said, millions -- you know -- millions -- there are people pouring, terrorists pouring over the borders. 

The borders are not secure. We don't have the troops and the people to make them secure. So our people become at greater risk. I don't think -- I think the president -- every single one of those issues were foreseeable, and they were warned, and this president chose not to take the steps to make our troops safer. 

QUESTION: Senator, you know you talk a lot about the Iraqi war and all that's what this whole press conference has been about, but the thing that you'll be (inaudible). What are your plans for dealing with the accumulated debt of the last (inaudible)? 

KERRY; We are. And I've dealt with it previously. In 1985 when I came to the United States Senate, I broke with my party and was one of the first three Democrats to push the legislation plan for a balanced budget which was signed by Ronald Reagan.

In 1993 and in 1997, I voted both times and was one of the leaders in the effort to achieve a balanced budget with President Clinton. We did it. We did it. We balanced the budget. And we paid down the debt of our country for two years in a row.

We left President Bush with a $5.6 trillion surplus and with the strongest economy in modern American history. And he now has reversed that by almost a full -- depending on the numbers, where you get them from, $8 trillion to $10 trillion, and the debt is growing and we have the biggest deficits in American history. 

I have a plan to cut the deficit in half in my first four years and to begin to put us back into the fiscal footing, responsibility, pay as you go, as we were in the 1990s. And that is part of my plan.


KERRY: Not if my plans are put in place. If I am president, we are going to succeed, and I've said that. And I laid out yesterday in my speech a very specific set of steps. And I made it clear: We must succeed.

We must succeed for the war on terror. We must succeed for our troops who've put their lives on the line. We must succeed for the future. 

And the reason I'm so I think concerned, as other Americans are, is that this president is not taking the steps necessary. Look at the training. Are the Iraqi forces trained? They're even misleading America on the number of forces. 

Are the police officers trained? Do we have other countries involved in the training to the level that we ought to, since this is a war? We're at war. Our troops are dying. People are being beheaded.

KERRY: And we've got countries that the president doesn't even bother to talk to to say we've got to have your help. We need to be training people more rapidly. If you need to put some people on an airplane in Iraq and fly them to another country and train them there, that's what we should be doing, because of the urgency.

We need to have those elections. It is vital to be able to transfer what is perceived as an American occupation into a legitimacy of the government. What they transferred to the government is sovereignty, but without the ability to be able to deliver the services and the security of the country. So until you have that security and that ability, we're caught in a vicious cycle which was foreseeable, which this president has not realistically dealt with. 

And I believe that it is critical that in these next hours, these next days, we have to change. The reconstruction has to take place so you deliver services to people. You've got to start putting Iraqis to work. You've got to begin to be able to deliver the elections, which means protection. Not one country has yet stepped up and put one troop on the ground to help protect the U.N. electorate and the president hasn't led to get them to do so. 

This is his job. He's the president today. And Iraq is becoming more and more of a mess every single day. Every step of the way I have laid out a plan for what the president might do in the alternative, and they sort of inch towards it or do a little piece of it, but they don't embrace what really has to be done to face the realities on the ground in Iraq. 

I want us to be successful. I think we have to be successful. And yesterday in my speech I laid out a plan for that success. It requires those four components: getting our allies to help us with respect to the security; getting our allies even to take on training roles, increase the training; get the reconstruction; guarantee the elections. 

None of these are currently on the track they need to be under the leadership of the president, who keeps denying, who won't even acknowledge to Americans what his own intelligence estimates are telling him and who hasn't yet been able to correct one fact that we put on yesterday about the state in Iraq. 

All they want to do is debate hypotheticals. America deserves more than a hypothetical debate. It deserves real leadership to protect our troops and to win in Iraq. Thank you all very much. 

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