John Kerry: The Rolling Stone Interview

Preparing for his second debate with George Bush, the Democratic candidate is relaxed but wearing his game face

john kerry 2004
Albert Watson
John Kerry on the cover of Rolling Stone.
By |

For two Days in October, the John Kerry campaign came to a brief stop at a hotel and conference center on the high-plains sprawl of suburban Denver, where the candidate holed up with his staff and prepared for his second debate with George Bush. While the traveling press idled over endless buffets in one of the hotel dining rooms, Kerry and his closest advisers sequestered themselves behind closed doors, getting ready for the next night's crucial events.

The morning's calm was broken when Kerry's press advisers began circulating word the candidate would soon be making a statement about the war in Iraq, a canny move to seize control of the day's news cycle, which was already full of bad news for President Bush: A government-commissioned report had concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction; Paul Bremer, until recently his chief administrator in Iraq, had been quoted as saying that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been done with too few troops; and Donald Rumsfeld had conceded that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. The press was herded out to a field in front of the hotel, chosen for its view of the mountains in the distance. When Kerry emerged, he was wearing his presidential blue suit, and with little fanfare or preamble he ripped into Bush with icy efficiency, saying how in light of the morning's news it was now clear that George Bush and Dick Cheney "may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq." After some questions from reporters, he disappeared, projecting the attitude that he had more important things to do.

A few minutes later, we were ushered up to Kerry's suite, where the candidate was tucking into a huge lunch. Gone was the crisp blue suit. He'd changed into khakis and running shoes and had dropped the formal manner. By the door stood a battered guitar case. Through an open door, one could see a framed picture of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, on a bedside table. For the hour that we spoke with Kerry, he was conversational and forthright, relaxed but clearly wearing his game face.

You were tough out there today.

Well, I should be tough on him. This is an amazing moment in American history – where a president of the United States is finding the rationale for invading another country after the fact.

The president has now given twenty-four reasons for going to war. Why do you think we really invaded Iraq?

Well, I think you've heard all the reasons. I can't psychoanalyze them. They were driven by ideology; they were driven by a fixation on Saddam Hussein. They took their eye off of Osama bin Laden and the real war on terror, and the consequences for our country are gigantic: $200 billion, and counting; the loss of credibility and prestige in the world; the loss of alliances that we need to be helping us. The American people are paying a very, very bitter price for their bad judgment – no matter what the cause is.

Did you walk out of the first debate with the sense that you'd won?

You can't ever tell. We're the last people to ask – the people on the stage. It's always tricky how people see it on TV. But I felt good, like I'd done the things I came to do, and I felt confident about the message.

How do you assess Bush's performance?

You don't have time to do that. I was listening very carefully and focusing on what I wanted to share with America, and it's pretty intensive process of focusing.

The Bush administration says it's a certainty there will be more terrorist attacks. Is this a scare tactic?

They are privy to more intelligence and more analysis than I am. But I have had briefings, and I am deeply concerned about the potential of another attack. I think there's much more we can and should do to protect ourselves.

What has Bush failed to do to protect us?

The list of things undone by this president to make America safer is staggering. The 9/11 Commission report contains a full list of what a creative, proactive leadership should have done by itself – rather than resist the 9/11 Commission, as they did.

On homeland security they've talked a good game, and not implemented or acted. Ninety-five percent of the containers that come into our country don't get inspected. Bridges and tunnels don't have the security and escape routes that ought to have been put in place. On planes, the baggage is X-rayed but not the cargo holds. It's absurd. Firehouses are understaffed. Police officers are being cut from the streets of America – not added.

There are chemical, biological and nuclear plants around the country that don't have the protection that they ought to. The president actually gave in to the chemical industry and folded, instead of doing what was necessary for some of the chemical-plant protection.

Now, can any president guarantee the absence of any attack? The answer is no. I mean, if someone wants to blow themselves up, they can pretty much find a way to do it and hurt somebody. The question is: Are you doing all that's possible to protect against the greatest catastrophe? And there this administration has clearly failed.

Why do you think they've dropped the ball on this issue?

I think Senator Richard Lugar summed it up. He said their administration of the reconstruction funds has been incompetent, and I think their administration of the Homeland Security department has been incompetent.

What do you think of the color-coded terror alerts the Department of Homeland Security issues?

I think Americans, sadly, laugh at it. They don't know what to do.

Will you continue that program?

No, I'm going to find some more thoughtful way of alerting America. If we have to alert America, I think the most important thing to do is alert law enforcement more effectively across the country. Law enforcement doesn't have even a single, unified watch list yet. They still have separate watch lists, with different names and different people. This is the single, simplest, most important thing the Department of Homeland Security was supposed to do, and they haven't done it.

Doesn't it seem the threat level gets raised at key moments during the campaign?

Yeah. But you know what? I'm not going to question motivations that I can't …

Who's the enemy in the "War on Terror"?

Americans should have no doubts that there is a real enemy out there, one who wants to wreak destruction. And that enemy is a conglomeration of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and radical, extreme – mostly Muslim – fundamentalist groups that want to create a radical Islamic state. These groups want to take over the perceived-to-be-moderate governments of the region, radicalize the populations and have a dominant presence, throughout the Middle East and parts of Europe. I mean, it is real, and it is a serious challenge to us.

Bush says, "They hate our freedoms and resent our democracy." Do you think their motives are so simple?

I think it's more complicated than that. There is a lot about us they don't like, but they believe that these moderate regimes in the Middle East have sold out. They are attacking the Saudi royal family, as they are attacking Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan, because those leaders deal with the West and have a sense of engagement in the world.

There is also power involved. They're preaching a very different kind of power – through the madrasas and otherwise – to populations that are impoverished and un-educated, and disenfranchised in their countries. And they're offering them someone to hate.

Do you think it's directed at the United States?

It is now. Look, there's no negotiating with these guys. They don't hold territory; they don't have a kingdom; they don't have a government; they don't have a guiding philosophy – they just hate. They hate what they are not. And they want everything to be what they are, and they want that kind of control.

They certainly view their struggle as a holy war. Do you think the White House does, as well?

You have to ask the White House. But, certainly, George Bush has described it like that, occasionally.

As a war between two fundamentalisms?

I think you're looking at a war right now against people who attacked the United States of America. And it is appropriate, and was appropriate, for us to invade Afghanistan and to go after Al Qaeda, and I'm glad we did. What I regret is that George Bush didn't do the job. When he had Osama bin Laden cornered in the mountains, he didn't do what was available to him – which was use the best-trained military in the world to go after bin Laden and kill him or capture him. He turned to Afghan warlords and outsourced the job to them. I think that was a terrible judgment by the president.

What are the parallels between Iraq and Vietnam?

Right now there is one parallel that's very disturbing, and that is the leadership in Washington has not told the truth to the American people. Unless this president begins to change direction, and recognize his mistakes, and get the policy right in Iraq, he could create a whole lot more parallels. But it doesn't have to be. And that's what I'm trying to offer America right now – a realistic way to get our troops home, with honor, by achieving our goals but by sharing the burden and risk.

I am convinced that we can do that, because the rest of the world has a stake in the outcome. A failed Iraq is not in the interests of Arab states, and it's not in the interests of the European states – but they're absent from the kind of effort necessary to prevent that from happening. That's where leadership is going to be necessary.

That's the difference that I intend to make, and that I must make – for the sake of our country. To make ourselves safe in the long term, we're going to have to rebuild relationships and re-establish American credibility. Bush's mistakes don't have to become America's misfortune for the long term, and it's my job to undo his mistakes and turn this into a success.

If you send troops into Iraq, how will you be able to tell them they're not risking their lives for a mistake?

Because I'm going to make it a success, 'cause we're going to win. We're going to do what we need to do to get this job done. And I'm committed to doing that – and I know how to do it. I'll put a foreign-policy team together that talks the truth to the American people.

What do you mean when you say you know how to do it?

I've spent thirty-five years dealing with these kinds of issues. When I came back from fighting in a war, I fought against the war here in America. As a senator, I led the fight to stop Ronald Reagan's illegal war in Central America. I helped expose Oliver North and Manuel Noriega. I've been at this for a long time. You know, I led the initial efforts to change our policy on the Philippines – which ultimately resulted in the elections, and became part of the process that helped get rid of Marcos.

I negotiated personally with the prime minister of Cambodia, to get accountability for the killing fields of the Pol Pot regime. I've negotiated with the Vietnamese to let me and John McCain in and put American forces on the ground to resolve the POW-MIA issue. I've spent twenty years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; I've been chairman of the Narcotics Terrorism Subcommittee. I have five times the experience George Bush does in dealing with these issues, and I know that I can get this done.

What is America's role in the world? What are you going to tell the world about the United States right now?

We are going to live up to American values in our foreign policy. Rather than building a new set of nuclear weapons, like President Bush is, we're going to lead the world in containing nuclear weapons – with a whole new protocol for tracking and dealing with precursor chemicals and with nuclear fissionable materials. We're not going to wait to intervene in places like Liberia or Darfur, where another genocide is taking place.

An America that is not just there for its own goals and ends. We're going to re-engage with our Latin American neighbors in a positive way – unlike this administration. We're going to implement the global AIDS initiative that I wrote four years ago, that this administration is still dawdling with. We're going to offer the moral leadership with respect to environmental catastrophes that are staring us in the face. We're going to go back to the table on global warming. We're going to deal with poverty and disease in the less-developed nations in a more effective way. Those things will help to bring nations to our side. That will make us more effective in the war on terror and make our country safer.

If you're elected, what would be your number-one environmental priority?

Number one is global warming.

How bad do you think that is? How real?

Very serious. The science is real.

Do you have a time frame for dealing with it?

Well, we can't meet the 1990 standards that we set, because we're too far beyond it now. So we're going to have to sit down with our scientists and our businesses and see what's feasible. But I intend to set America on the course of energy independence – hopefully within ten years. And we're going to accelerate our research and development into alternative and renewable fuels.

We're going to greatly encourage the use of more fuel-efficient vehicles. We're not going to mandate them – we're going to offer people choices that make sense economically. So we're going to give a big tax credit for people who purchase a fuel-efficient vehicle.

Al Gore says the era of the internal-combustion engine is ending. Do you see that? And how can we get beyond that?

I wouldn't make that kind of a bold pronouncement. I respect Al Gore's work on that stuff a lot. I mean, we're going to be drilling oil and natural gas for forty or fifty years to come, at least. But I've laid out a very aggressive energy policy. We're going to move rapidly to be independent of Mideast oil and reduce our fossil-fuel base as fast as we can. I'm going to create the incentives that excite the research and development. We're going to create a race for the new sources of energy – whatever they may be.

How do you face the opposition of the oil and auto companies?

Let me tell you something: As gas prices go up, and fuel hits sixty bucks a barrel, I'm going to have a lot of allies. This does not have to be combative and confrontational. I'm going to reach out to the companies and offer them a very significant helping hand in the retooling and transformational costs.

I want American workers working; I want American cars made in America; I want American cars to be able to be sold anywhere in the world. I want to lead the world in these technologies. So I want these companies part of the solution – not the problem. I think we can get there – I really believe that.

How big a priority is that for you?

Huge. Creating jobs is one of the top five priorities of my administration. First of all, make America safe, and deal with nuclear proliferation and the global confrontation. Second, we have to create jobs and be fiscally responsible – so that we're creating the framework for America to be strong at home.

Third, we have to have a system that provides health care for all Americans, and I have a plan to do that. Fourth, we're going to have education that works for everybody – that lifts people up. Ongoing adult education – a system that works. And fifth, we're going to have an environmental policy that leaves this planet to our kids in better shape than we got it from our parents.

That's it – that's the agenda.

Why has environmental policy disappeared from the radar this election cycle?

I don't think it has.

But why do we hear so little about it?

Well, you have Iraq blowing up on the front pages of newspapers every day. But every speech I make, wherever I go, I talk about energy independence. I've talked about energy independence every single day of this campaign.

Will you communicate to the American people the size of the crisis we face?

I'm doing it in the course of this campaign. I'm already talking about it – and I will as president. Look: I'm a person who has always believed that you tell people the truth and they'll make reasonable decisions. Truth is powerful.

This administration disrespects the truth, because they have a different credo. The truth unfortunately works against their interests, because their interests are in keeping power and in making money. And so they feed the drug industry, and they feed the oil industry, and they feed the big power companies.

And that's the difference between us. I'm fighting for the middle class – he's fighting for a tax cut for people who earn more than $200,000 a year. He won't raise the minimum wage – I'm going to raise the minimum wage. He won't give people extended unemployment benefits – I will. He cut job training – I'm going to restore job training. He's made it more expensive for kids to go to college – I'm going to raise the Pell grants and the Perkins loans. He gave the drug industry a windfall profit of $139 billion – while he was shutting down the ability of people to bring drugs in from Canada and shutting down Medicare's ability to negotiate a lower price for drugs. That's wrong – morally and economically.

People say this is the most important election of our lifetime – do you agree?

I believe it is. And I want your readers to stop in their tracks and consider what's at stake for them. Because not enough people connect the things they hate, or feel or want, to the power of their vote. And they've got to be willing to go out and work in these next couple of weeks.

How do you yourself feel? What burden does it place on you?

You know, I've been in public life all my life – with one brief exception, when I was a lawyer and started a small business. I accept the weight, but I don't feel it. I've lived out so much frustration over the last few years that this is a liberating experience for me. I feel excited by it. I feel energized by it. I welcome it. And I just want other people to understand what's at stake here.

I mean, the next president may appoint three of four justices to the Supreme Court. The rights of Americans may be affected for the rest of our lives by what happens on November 2nd: whether or not we're going to have equal opportunity; whether we fight against discrimination; whether we're going to have equal pay for women; whether we protect women's right to choose; whether we're going to have a country in which people can grow up and live out the full measure of citizenship.

Why do you think you'd be a good president?

Because I'm a good executive, I'm a good leader, and I know what we have to do. I'm tough, I'm strong, I'm decisive. I know exactly what this country needs to do to move forward. All my life I've never shied away from standing up and telling people what I think, and what I think is true – and I've taken the consequences of it. I'm even hearing about what I said in 1971.

What have you learned about yourself in this campaign?

That the intrusiveness is greater than I thought it would be. And there are parts of me that dislike that more than I thought I would, but it's something I have to put up with in order to achieve what I want to get done. I always knew that I was tough enough to do it; I always knew there'd be tough moments and I'd be tested – because everybody is tested on the road to the presidency. But I think the intensity of it is greater than I could imagine. It is, actually, beyond description. you have to experience it to know what that is.

How did you feel when you first saw those Swift-boat ads?

Disappointed – a sense of bitter disappointment. That people will stoop to those depths of lying – for their personal reasons.

Did you get angry at Bush personally?

Look, I know politics is tough, and I don't spend a lot of time worrying about what they do to me. But I do worry, and I am angry, about what they do to the American people. That's what this race is about. It's not about me. I can take it – I don't care. I've been in worse things. I was on those boats – I got shot at. I can handle it.

What I worry about is that they lie to America. What I worry about is that they tell the middle class, "We're giving you a tax cut," and the top one percent of America gets more than eighty percent of the rest of the people. I worry that they are unwilling to do anything about the 5 million Americans who have lost their health care.

I worry that there are twenty-eight states in America where you can't go fishing and eat the fish, because of the quality of the water. I worry that they've gotten us into a war where young kids are dying, and they haven't done what's responsible to protect them. That's what I worry about. The rest of it is small pickings.

You don't get angry when Bush outright lies about you?

No, I don't get angry at it. I think it's sort of pathetic.

Were you surprised by how the Swift-boat thing blew up?

I was surprised that the media, even when they knew it was lies, continued to cover it and treat it as entertainment.

Looking back, do you think you handled it correctly?

I think so. Look, when people hold up something that's a complete and total lie, it takes a few days to show people and convince them. We did. They've been completely discredited.

How do you stay normal during a campaign?

Eat a hearty meal.

How do you stay fit?

I'm not. I'm in the worst shape I've been in in a few years. I'm not getting enough exercise.

You were criticized for wearing a windsurfing outfit.

It shows how pathetic and diversionary they are. They can't talk about having created jobs for America; they can't talk about giving people health care; they can't talk about having protected America and made it safer.

Did anyone say, "Senator, you shouldn't be wearing windsurfing clothes"?

Yeah, a few people said …

And you said, Fuck it?

You're damn right, I said, "I'm going to be who I am" – I think people care about authenticity. There are much bigger issues.

What do you think of Karl Rove? Is he an evil genius?

I don't know him. I've met him once. I'll tell you November 3rd.

What do you think of the Vote for Change concerts that Bruce Springsteen organized?

I haven't been able to go. I'm jealous of everybody who is. It's separate from us – they've done it by themselves. But I'm obviously elated. His music has been the theme song of our campaign from Day One. To have him out there is both a privilege and exciting. I hope it has an impact on the outcome.

Who are your favorite rock & roll artists?

Oh, gosh. I'm, you know, a huge Rolling Stones fan; Beatles fan. One of the most cherished photographs in my life is a picture of me with John Lennon – who I met back in 1971 at an anti-war rally. But I love a lot of different performers.

Do you have a favorite Beatles song – or Stones song?

I love "Satisfaction" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Brown Sugar." I love "Imagine" and "Yesterday."

You're a greatest-hits kind of guy.

My favorite album is Abbey RoadI love "Hey Jude." I also like folk music. I like some classical. I love guitar. Oh, God. I mean, you know – Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Buffett …

OK – enough. Let's talk about movies quickly. Of the Vietnam movies you've seen, what's the most accurate? And your favorite?

The most powerful Vietnam movie, to me, was The Deer Hunter, which was more about what happened to the folks who went, and about their relationships … and about what happened to this small-town community. I thought it was a brilliant movie, because the metaphor of Russian roulette was an incredible way of capturing the fatalism about it all: the sense that things were out of your control. And it really talked to what happened to the folks who went. So I thought it was a very, very powerful movie. Also, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Coming Home, Born on the Fourth of July – those are powerful too.

How about Apocalypse Now? Was that what it was like going up river, on those boats?

That's exactly how it was, man. Sitting in that river, waiting for someone to shoot you – but the later part of the movie, after the point where they get to the bridge, then everything becomes a little psychedelic. That got a little distant from me.

Finally, if you were to look back over eight years of a Kerry presidency, what would you hope would be said about it?

That it always told the truth to the American people, that it always fought for average folks. And that we raised the quality of life in America and made America safer. I want to be the president who gets health care done for Americans. I want to be the president who helps to fix our schools and end this separate-and-unequal school system we have in America. And I want to be the president who re-establishes America's reputation in the world – which is part of making us safer. There's a huge opportunity here to really lift our country up, and that's what I want to do.

This story is from the November 11th, 2004 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 961: November 11, 2004
x