updated 4/28/2004 10:38:45 AM ET 2004-04-28T14:38:45

Guests: Betty Groebli, Bestor Cram, David Gergen, Ken Bode, Allan Lichtman

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ANNOUNCER:  DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT.

DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST:  Fallujah under fire.  Explosions and heavy shelling shake Iraq as U.S. Marines go up against Iraqi insurgents.  This as American soldiers face fierce battles on the ground. 

Is this Iraq war, phase 2?

Close call.  A convoy of Marines faces a close call in Ramadi. 

Tonight, a first-hand account of what it‘s like to be caught in the crossfire. 

The Kerry medal controversy.  Does this TV interview hold the truth to the John Kerry medal controversy?  For the first time, we‘ll hear from the TV host who asked the toughest questions. 

BETTY GROEBLI, “VIEWPOINTS” HOST:  How many did you give back, John?

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I gave back, I can‘t remember, 6, 7, 8, 9.

NORVILLE:  Could this interview haunt John Kerry‘s quest for the presidency?  How will voters respond?

Plus, a look how other presidential hopefuls have dealt with uncomfortable issues in their past. 

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES:  I experimented with marijuana a time or two, and I didn‘t like it. 

ANNOUNCER:  From Studio 3-K in Rockefeller Center, Deborah Norville.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NORVILLE:  And good evening. 

Tonight Fallujah is a city under attack by U.S. forces as flames and huge plumes of smoke could be seen in the night sky over the city.  Fighting this heavy has not been seen since the early part of war more than a year ago. 

This is how it unfolded earlier today, as a pool reporter describes the attack by two American AC-130 gunships as they fired on targets in the city after Iraqi insurgents attacked Marine positions. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KARL PENHAUL, U.S. NETWORKS POOL REPORTER:  What we‘re seeing now is about 800 -- south of the Marine position bombarded—AC-130 Specter gunship.  The Specter gunship has been hovering and hit now, for approximately 45 minutes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  The U.S. military says it was firing back on enemy positions in Fallujah that had been firing on Marines for the past two days. 

Now just before this latest round of fighting, U.S. aircraft dropped leaflets on Fallujah, calling on insurgents to surrender, warning that patrols would soon be moving in to arrest them. 

The military also says that its attack on Fallujah does not mean that it is resuming offensive operations. 

With me tonight to talk about the fighting in Fallujah is NBC News military analyst, retired Army General Barry McCaffrey. 

General, good to see you this evening.

GEN. BARRY MCCAFFREY, U.S. ARMY (RET.):  Hi, Deborah.

NORVILLE:  How would you characterize what‘s going on in Fallujah right now?

MCCAFFREY:  It‘s a really mess.  You know, there is no cease-fire.  The Marines tried to break in there with very small ground force for four days, couldn‘t do it.  But were trying sensibly to negotiate what we couldn‘t achieve militarily.

But there has been a constant attack on these Marines.  At company platoon level, it‘s an extremely dangerous situation.  They probably got a couple of thousand people in that city, 300,000 or more folks. 

Heavily armed, machine guns, mortars, missiles, rockets, surface to air missiles.  It‘s going to be a very tough thing to sort out when we eventually either decide to back off and stop threatening them and leave the city to them, or we have to go in and seize the center of the city. 

NORVILLE:  Is leaving the city to them truly an option?  Isn‘t it inevitable that there will have to be some sort of conclusion to this?

MCCAFFREY:  I think the ramifications of not taking back Fallujah, maintaining control in a Sunni Muslim part of the country would be extremely dangerous to our future.  That it might start spinning out of control. 

But you can‘t—in warfare, you either have to go in or get out.  And right now we have a bunch of Marines under intermittent fire.  We‘re having a disastrous public relations impact on this in the rest of Iraq and the Arab world. 

At some point they‘re going to have to empty this city out of non-combatants and go downtown and kill them. 

NORVILLE:  What are they up against?  You said there‘s 2,000 insurgents in Fallujah, a city of 300,000.  How many Marines are truly there to go in and do this operation?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, the last amount that the Marines released was they now had three Marine battalions around the city. 

You know, it‘s half the size of Washington, D.C.  Maybe 70,000 of the citizens have left.  There‘s still a couple hundred thousand people in there.  So rather than letting people back in, one would assume at some point we‘ve got to tell them, come out.  We‘ll give you food, water, shelter.

And then we‘re going to go downtown and not arrest a couple of thousands people with heavy machine guns.  We‘re going to have to go down and fight them in a targeted way and kill them. 

NORVILLE:  General, we‘re looking at video of door to door, house to house combat going on in Fallujah earlier today.  This is exactly the kind of situation that one year ago military analysts such as yourself were saying this is what we want to avoid at all costs. 

MCCAFFREY:  Well, that‘s right.  And you know, we really haven‘t started any major operations in Fallujah, except for the first four days when one Marine battalion tried to get in there. 

If they have to do this, hopefully—although we‘re thin on the ground in Iraq, hopefully we‘ll move in the better part of a division, flood the city at one time, using lots of armor to save U.S. lives, and then isolate with these people are and pinpoint them and kill them. 

But you can‘t fight house-by-house, floor-by-floor.  It‘s too bloody of work and there‘s no sense in doing it. 

NORVILLE:  I mean, this is just awful.  We‘re looking at wounded Marines being pulled through hallways as this house-to-house combat is going on. 

What we‘re going after is Muqtada al-Sadr and those who are loyal to him.  What are you hearing about some reports that have moved on the wires today that certain individuals have been targeted by a shadowy group that is against al-Sadr, that has actually reportedly killed as many as five members of his group?

That there actually may be some movement going on in Fallujah where Iraqis are standing up and trying to take out this guy?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, Deborah, if I could, let me separate these now. 

Fallujah is Sunni Muslim.  It‘s Ba‘athist element.  It‘s foreign fighters. 

It‘s former Republican Guards and it‘s the Marines. 

The fighting with Sadr‘s people on the outskirts of Najaf is Shia Muslim.  And then inside the city we‘re seeing some struggle for power between the dominant clerical leadership, against Sadr, the upstart with his 1,000 or 2,000 or 6,000 armed thugs. 

And I‘m not sure we know how all this is going to come out.  But again, that one‘s politically explosive.  It‘s hard to imagine we will get to a point at which we will go into the city of Najaf, using significant combat operations to kill these people.  I don‘t think we‘re going to do it. 

NORVILLE:  Do you see that as a hopeful sign, that there is some movement going on to take al-Sadr out?

MCCAFFREY:  Yes, I think so.  Look, there are a lot of hopeful signs. 

The Shia didn‘t have a general uprising at the end of the day.  They probably still know they‘ve been liberated, that there‘s $18 billion coming their way.  I think there‘s a good sign. 

We‘ve got this wonderful man, Ambassador John Negroponte, going in as our U.S. representative.  Very politically savvy guy.  Secretary of State Powell will now have the dominant, hopefully, policy voice.

There‘s some good news in the offing, but in the short run, we‘re in a very dangerous, tricky situation.

NORVILLE:  And because it is so tricky, Donald Rumsfeld, defense secretary, had something to say about that today at his press conference.  Let‘s give a listen. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE:  Either you have to deal with the terrorists and the regime remnants with force or else you have to find some way through discussion that they are removed from that city and no longer attempting to terrorize the people of that city and no longer using mosques as places to attack others. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Talking about the attacking.  The attacking that‘s going on this evening in Fallujah is pretty intense.  Let‘s listen to some of the sound effects, as the bombs are falling on that city. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PENHAUL:  Coalition strikes on that area.  The gunships we can‘t hear in the air at this time.  So an indication there that...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Well, it‘s obviously a tense situation.  We haven‘t seen that kind of reporting, really, General, since about a year ago when the war was at its high point. 

Are there going to be enough troops coming into this area in order to deal with the situation?

MCCAFFREY:  Well, the joint commander, coalition commander General Rick Sanchez, a very experienced combat-hardened officer, he‘s got 135,000 troops somewhere in country. 

But to remind all of our viewers now, you know, 25 million Iraqis, a giant nation, the size of California.  A lot of our—some of our allies now pulling out. 

His principal responsibility is seize control of Baghdad and open these supply lines 400 miles back down to Kuwait and the sea.  So there aren‘t a lot of combat forces there to accomplish those missions. 

Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, the center of Sunni Muslim opposition, we‘re going to need to go in there with force or we‘ll suffer setbacks. 

NORVILLE:  All right.  General McCaffrey, as always, we appreciate your insight.  Thanks for being with us. 

MCCAFFREY:  Good to be with you, Deborah. 

ANNOUNCER:  Still ahead, the war in Iraq takes on a new, violent tone. 

A door-to-door combat mission caught on tape. 

DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT is coming right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PENHAUL:  Many, many rounds went into each of those sites.  Talking possibly 20, 25 cannon rounds.  Then the AC-130 gunship has been circling around...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Words of a pool reporter covering the extraordinary pictures from just a few hours ago as a couple of AC-130 gunships from American pounded rebel positions in Fallujah. 

With me now on the videophone is NBC‘s Kevin Sites, who has had his own share of harrowing moments today when the Marine convoy he was traveling in was attacked in Ramadi.  And he joins us now from not too far from Fallujah.

Kevin, first of all, are you OK after that experience today?

KEVIN SITES, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT:  I‘m doing fine, Deborah.  Thank you for asking. 

NORVILLE:  Yes.  We‘ll find out specifics in a second.  But first the situation there in Fallujah.  We‘ve seen some pretty incredible nighttime footage.  Do you have any idea of what has actually been going on in Fallujah, because what we‘ve seen has been at a safe distance?

SITES:  Well, the Marine sources have told me that basically Marines were attacked in their positions in Fallujah.  They had taken defensive positions there.  They were attacked by a sizable insurgent force, and they responded with what they called appropriate force. 

Now from those pictures, Deborah, as you have seen, they have used an AC-130 Spooky gunship.  They call is spooky because it‘s mounted with some really scary weapons systems: 105-millimeter Howitzer, a cannon that fires and creates an incredible amount of damage.  Also a mini gun, I can‘t tell you how many rounds of fire. 

In fact, it was used a few nights ago when I was in Fallujah and apparently, according to the chief of staff of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force there, Colonel Coleman (ph), 30 insurgents were killed when it was used. 

The sound of it is like a machine, just rat-a-tat-tat, and it covers a huge amount of ground.  It‘s a scary sound when you hear it overhead.  It‘s a propeller-driven plane.  So you hear it droning.  It‘s been used in Afghanistan, as well, but it definitely is striking some fear into the hearts of in Fallujah. 

NORVILLE:  Is it your sense that is part of a larger—while this was a defensive operation, according to military officials, a larger offensive movement that‘s about to take place?

SITES:  Well, the Marines tell us time and time again, Deborah, that this is not an offensive action in Fallujah.  They say they‘re simply defending themselves.  They have a right to defend themselves when attacked. 

They said they were attacked tonight at about 10 p.m.  And that this was appropriate force. 

They used the Spooky gunship, the AC-130 as well as mortars and the weapons that they had with them.  They say that the cease-fire is not over, that this is just another insurgent violation.  They said this is the fifth or sixth violation in the last 13 hours. 

NORVILLE:  Well, what kind of cease-fire is it if, you know, fifth or sixth in the last several hours?  I mean, you‘ve got to wonder.  And there is this great deal of speculation that while the cease-fire goes on, the piling of weapons that work, not the rusty ones they‘ve been dumping in the dump trucks, is continuing in the places where these guys are holed up. 

SITES:  Exactly.  Well, Deborah, when you talk to the Marines on the ground here, they just say, “What cease-fire?” 

I was in Fallujah a couple of days ago, and I talked to some Marines that were heading back out to the front lines.  They said that they‘re shot at pretty much on a daily basis. 

So the cease-fire is being held—just up by one side at this point, by the Marines, according to them.  The insurgents don‘t seem to be following it.  Maybe they‘re buying some time. 

The weapons they‘ve turned in, as you said, rusty old weapons, things that barely work.  We‘ve seen some photographs of them.  And basically, the Marines say they‘re dangerous junk.  They wouldn‘t let anybody use them.  And so they‘re happy to destroy them, but they really don‘t amount to much. 

NORVILLE:  It was obviously not dangerous junk you had earlier today when you were part of a Marine convoy that was fired upon closer to Ramadi.  Tell me what happened. 

SITES:  Well, we had just left the Blue Diamond, which is the headquarters for the Marine 1st Division here, and we had only gotten about two miles outside of the gate, Deborah, when we heard a huge explosion.  And the force of it, the concussion, almost pushed the vehicle forward a bit. 

It seemed to have been timed to hit our vehicle.  But the vehicle behind us actually drove into the explosion.  I‘ll let you listen to some of the sights and sounds of it. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  That was us.  (expletive deleted)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Kevin, was anybody hurt when this happened?  We can see how chaotic it was.  The Marines coming to the side of the road, immediately getting into a defensive or offensive position.  They‘re ready to fire.  Anybody get hurt?

SITES:  No, there were no casualties, luckily.  We found out later, Deborah, that the IED, the improvised explosive device, was actually an automobile that had been towed to the side of the road. 

An explosive expert came out to the site, and he determined that three 155-millimeter (UNINTELLIGIBLE) had been actually placed in the artillery shells that had been used time and again in these explosive devices. 

And it exploded upward rather than outward.  The protective device of the armor plated Humvees and actually the Kevlar helmets protected the Marines in an excellent way.  In fact one Marine said that shrapnel bounced off his helmet and basically saved his life.  So we were fairly lucky.

NORVILLE:  Well, you keep your helmet on and keep the rest of the Kevlar on, as well.  Kevin sites, it‘s a scary job that you‘ve got.  Thanks for being with us.

SITES:  Thank you. 

ANNOUNCER:  Coming up, why this John Kerry television interview 30 years ago might have a role in the presidential election.  We‘ll meet the reporter who asked the key question...

GROEBLI:  How many did you give back, John?

ANNOUNCER:  ... when DEBORAH NORVILLE TONIGHT returns. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWSBREAK)

NORVILLE:  A TV interview from 33 years ago is causing a big flap in the presidential race.  At issue, whether John Kerry threw away his Vietnam War medals in April of 1971 during an anti-war protest in Washington.

After serving as a decorated Navy lieutenant in Vietnam, Kerry, as you probably know, became a vocal opponent of the war.  This is what part of Kerry said in that 1971 interview with WRC-TV‘s Betty Groebli. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GROEBLI:  How many did you give back, John?

KERRY:  I gave back, I can‘t remember, six, seven, eight, nine.

GROEBLI:  Well, you were awarded the Bronze Star, Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

KERRY:  Well, above that, and a few others. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Senator Kerry has denied throwing away the medals, saying he threw away his ribbons and that the medals of two other veterans who couldn‘t attend the protest. 

Kerry‘s presidential campaign web site says, quote, “It is right wing fiction” that he threw away his medals. 

And this is what he said earlier tonight in an exclusive interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC‘s HARDBALL.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) 

KERRY:  I didn‘t have my medals with me.  But that wasn‘t the issue.  Lots of veterans didn‘t have them with them.  Your medals and your ribbons are the same thing, fundamentally.  The ribbons are the medals.  They‘re the ribbon that‘s attached to the medal.  You wear them every day and it‘s a symbol of your medals. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  And I‘m joined now for an exclusive interview by the woman who conducted that interview with John Kerry 33 years ago, Betty Groebli.

Ms. Groebli, nice to see you this evening. 

GROEBLI:  Thank you so much.  It‘s so nice to be back on television. 

NORVILLE:  I know.  And you were one of the veterans.  You did a show back in Washington, a local program called “Viewpoints,” and there was this young Navy lieutenant in the height of the anti-war fever who came on to talk about a book. 

What do you remember about John Kerry?

GROEBLI:  I remember him being very—extremely polite and interested, as long as—as well as being interesting.  But there was a dedication about him in his pursuits that was really so evident all the time. 

NORVILLE:  He was there talking about a book that he had just written. 

And I want to play a short clip, a clip from the interview...

GROEBLI:  All right.

NORVILLE:  ... in which you asked him point blank about the very, then controversial act of throwing something over the fence.  Let‘s give a listen. 

GROEBLI:  OK. 

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GROEBLI:  We‘re looking at a picture of a veteran who is throwing his medal away.  This is one of the photographs included in a new book by our guest, John Kerry, former lieutenant.  The book is called “The New Soldier:

Vietnam Veterans Against the War” by John Kerry and David Thorne and George Butler. 

Will you explain this picture, please?

KERRY:  Well, that, Betty, is a picture of one of many veterans who came to Washington last April and decided that the last resort that they had to try and wake the country up and tell it what was happening in Vietnam, as well as what was happening back home to men who were veterans, was to renounce the symbols of the—renounce the symbols which this country gives, which supposedly reinforces all the things that they had done, and that was the medals themselves.  And so they decided to give them back to their country. 

GROEBLI:  Do you think this did any good?

KERRY:  I this it did, yes.  I think it did.  A lot of people are shocked by it.  A lot of people feel that it was the wrong thing to do in terms of showing respect and those things and everything.

But I think that basically it reached the country as the country hasn‘t been reached, in terms of telling them that veterans who came back are against the war. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  Was it controversial to have him on your program back then?

GROEBLI:  Oh, very much so. 

First of all, he‘s very candid and that was refreshing.  And he seemed very smart and aware of what was going on around him.  Also, he seemed like a very caring guy, and that was refreshing, as well. 

NORVILLE:  You know, the gist of the whole controversy today is did he throw his medals over, and you asked him point blank.  Let‘s listen to that. 

GROEBLI:  All right.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GROEBLI:  How many did you give back, John?

KERRY:  I gave back—I can‘t remember.  Six, seven, eight, nine.

GROEBLI:  Well, you were awarded the Bronze Star, a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts.

KERRY:  Well, above that, I gave back others. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  He specifically used the word “medal.”  He said in the interview that we heard earlier this evening that the words were interchangeable. 

Was that something that people focused on back in 1971, ribbon versus medal?

GROEBLI:  I had never heard it discussed before.  I don‘t think—The answer to your question is I don‘t think so. 

NORVILLE:  Well, a gentleman who is with us also this evening who remembers those times very well also is a Vietnam veteran, Bestor Cram.  He took part in the veterans‘ protest back in Washington, D.C., in 1971.  He also threw away some of his own ribbons. 

And sir, it‘s good to have you with us.  Thank you for being here. 

BESTOR CRAM, VIETNAM WAR VETERAN:  Glad to be here. 

NORVILLE:  I think I understand now, after looking at that photograph in the book that John Kerry wrote, where the controversy comes from. 

They talk about throwing medals.  It‘s quite clear in that picture, that individual threw the ribbon that had the medal, medal at the bottom of the ribbon. 

But a lot of people were throwing a lot of different things.  What was that day like?

CRAM:  Well, the day was a very emotional day.  It capped a week that was a rather extraordinary week in America‘s history, in which veterans of a war that was still being fought came to Washington, D.C., and they protested, expressing their dissent about the war that was continuing to take the lives of many American men and women. 

That particular day was an act of symbolic returning of medals that were being returned to the government. 

NORVILLE:  Do you think it‘s fair that this controversy has come up now with John Kerry?  He has certainly made no bones about the fact that he came back a changed man with a new viewpoint after his time in Vietnam.

CRAM:  No.  There is no controversy.  That‘s the thing that‘s so strange about this, is John Kerry has been so open about his military record.  It‘s there for everybody to see, and the manner in which he has both been a patriot in uniform as well as a patriot in dissent following his service is completely public for everybody to see. 

The controversy is—feels to me as if it‘s actually a vicious attack coming to try to in some way undermine some of the credibility of John Kerry as a veteran.  And there is no way in which that is possible.  John Kerry is a very public figure, was a very public figure then.  He made a point of being public and being honest and filled with the integrity of his own conscience, as he expressed himself that day and that entire week. 

NORVILLE:  How do you think this is playing with other Vietnam veterans who served during that time who may or may not have participated in some of the anti-war protests once they returned, but certainly have a vested interest in that period of history? 

CRAM:  Well, I think it plays differently with different folks. 

I think that every veteran has his own sense of what the medal represents and the symbol of it.  And that particular day, each veteran was actually acting very individually.  This was not an event in which everyone took part in.  It was not an event that anybody was forced to take part in.  And each person made a decision with their own feelings about how they wanted to express themselves at the end of day. 

I suspect that there are a number of veterans who may, you know, disagree with the defiant act.  But I would say that probably most Vietnam-era veterans have to agree that there was a problem with that particular war.  It was a mistake and John Kerry brought that to the attention of the nation. 

NORVILLE:  I‘m curious, what happened to all of the ribbons and medals and draft cards and discharge certificate that were thrown over the fence? 

CRAM:  I have no idea.  I‘m assuming that somebody just came and cleaned them up and probably discarded them.  I‘m not certain that the Smithsonian ever collected them as something to be saved for American history.  But I suspect that they all disappeared and nobody knows who‘s was there. 

NORVILLE:  And while you and other veterans did throw your medals and ribbons over the fence or to use the word interchangeably the medals, it doesn‘t take away from the fact that you earned them while you were serving your country in Vietnam. 

Even though you gave up those ribbons, do you still feel the award of

that ribbon, the service that you gave/ 

CRAM:  I think we always have felt the award of that—those set of ribbons and medals that were provided to us in recognition for the service that we gave to our country. 

I think that the returning of the medals was again very much a personal expression of our absolute belief that the war had to be brought to an end. 

NORVILLE:  All right, we‘re going to let that be the last word. 

Bestor Cram, thank you very much for your time. 

And, Betty Groebli, thank you for paving the way for all the ladies in broadcasting.  We appreciate it. 

GROEBLI:  Thank you so much.  It has really been a pleasure.  And we‘ve had a nice day for you guys out here.

NORVILLE:  Thank you. 

Of course, this isn‘t the first time a candidate‘s word or deeds have been brought up during a political race.  When we come back, it seems like running for president just automatically triggers a look into your past at things, no matter how trivial they might be.  President Bush, former President Clinton certainly have had to deal with it. 

We‘ll take a look back after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  This is, I think, an effort by the Republicans to do what they always to.  They did it to John McCain in South Carolina.  They attacked him on an extraordinarily personal level, challenged his patriotism and the quality of his service in prison in Hanoi.  They took on Max Cleland, challenged his commitment to the defense of our nation and his patriotism.

And now they are trying to do it to me and I‘m not going to let them do it. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEWS:  That was John Kerry, who spoke exclusively on “HARDBALL” earlier tonight, talking about the Vietnam medal flap.

Of course, we have seen this before, presidential candidates dealing with controversial issues from their past.  But, at the end of the day, or, more importantly, when it comes time to vote, do these campaign dust-ups really matter? 

For a look back and to help answer the question, how do these things get started in the first place, plus, what is the impact all of this could have on Kerry‘s campaign for the White House, I‘m joined this evening by a man who has advised both Democratic and Republican presidents, David Gergen.  Also with us tonight, political analyst, professor of journalism at DePauw University and a former NBC News correspondent, Ken Bode, and American University history professor Allan Lichtman.

I‘m going to start with you first, David.

How is John Kerry handling this, in your opinion? 

DAVID GERGEN, HARVARD UNIVERSITY:  Well, I think he is handling it as best he can, but I don‘t think he‘s handling it very well. 

And, mainly, he needs somebody else to be dealing with this for him.  He needs some surrogates.  He needs a general or somebody who is from—on the Democratic side who can come out and say, this is nonsense.  He has been dragged into this, these kind of controversies unfortunately because he has almost no surrogate team.  And he gets caught up in the details and it drowns out his voice on the larger national issues. 

And I—so I think while his answers have been fine, I think the very fact he is caught up and pinned down in this controversy is not good news for him. 

NORVILLE:  It‘s funny you say he needs a Democratic general, because, earlier today, Republican Senator John McCain was probably the loudest voice speaking up for him. 

Let‘s give a listen.  Then I want to come back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN ®, ARIZONA:  We‘re fighting a war right now that we need to be fully engaged in, in a bipartisan basis and not fighting one that was 30 years ago.  I believe that President Bush served honorably.  I believe that John Kerry served honorably.  Let‘s get over it.  Let‘s stop it now. 

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NORVILLE:  I have got to tell you, David Gergen, I think a lot of voters are right there where John McCain is.  Enough already.  We know John Kerry went to Vietnam and came back a changed man.  We know that George Bush served in the National Guard.  Let‘s move on to the issues.  How does a campaign take the reins and make that happen? 

GERGEN:  Well, I think we have to understand what‘s happening here.  And that is, I see similarities between this and what happened in the 1988 campaign, when Lee Atwater, who was Karl Rove‘s mentor, was running the Bush campaign against Michael Dukakis.  And there, they dug up the Willie Horton issue.  And they did that through focus groups.

They found that if you presented the facts in the Willie Horton case,

that focus groups flared on that and took it badly.  And I think that they

probably dug up information about this ribbon flap that it doesn‘t sit well

with the voters and they are driving it home.  And if you are the candidate

·         if you are the rival in something like that, you need to put it down quickly.

And John McCain‘s voice obviously helps Kerry, but he needs a barrage of voices coming in to do that.  Otherwise, he is forced to deal with it all by himself.  And, frankly, while his answers have generally been good, he has shown himself to be pretty testy.  And I think the Republicans are making headway against him on two issues. 

I think they‘re making headway on him against whether he is a flip-flopper, whether he tries to have it both ways.  He throws the medals over the fence, but he keeps the medals.  And which way is it and what‘s going on?  And by resurrecting this whole issue...

NORVILLE:  And the other way? 

GERGEN:  And then I think the other part of this is, there is a hardness about John Kerry in this.  He‘s not able to handle—he hasn‘t been to—it‘s so close to him and naturally enough. 

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  Oh, I think I understand that.  Come on.  He was in Vietnam.  That was a humongously trying time of his life.  I can understand the emotion. 

Ken Bode, I want to throw it to you. 

How many campaigns does a politician have to go through until there is a statute of limitations on the issue?  This isn‘t the first campaign John Kerry has dealt with this, nor is it the first time George Bush has run for an elective office and the National Guard time has been brought up.

KEN BODE, JOURNALISM PROFESSOR, DEPAUW UNIVERSITY:  Well, that‘s right.  And I think basically that it‘s not going to go away. 

This war in Vietnam was a crucial test of an entire generation.  If

you look back, Dan Quayle, Al Gore, Dick Cheney, George Bush, all of these

people had a record on Vietnam one way or the other.  And it was a critical

test of all of their characters, how they served or did not serve.  Now, a

minute ago, you said both Kerry and Bush served and sort of made it seem

like an equal measure of service

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  No, I said one was National Guard. 

BODE:  Well, that‘s right.

But the National Guard today is really being called up.  The National Guard in Bush‘s day was a real safe haven from ever having to serve in the war in Vietnam.  And everybody knew that, including George Bush and George Bush‘s his father, who probably helped him get into that National Guard.  So it‘s going to be called up.  And I think it‘s an important test and we‘re going to be talking about it.

I think the problem that the Republicans will have with this is that the longer they talk about the issue, the more the American people are really going to make the comparison between Kerry‘s genuine service in wartime heroically in Vietnam and in the brown waters rivers and George Bush‘s service in the Texas Air National Guard and whether or not he actually ever showed up to serve in Alabama.  And he didn‘t, apparently.

NORVILLE:  So, if you were advising the Republicans, you would advise them to just keep quiet about this military stuff and move on because it ain‘t going to look good for you.

BODE:  No, Deborah, I don‘t advise Republicans or Democrats.  But I do think that these are legitimate issues and the press is going to cover these issues as long as both sides are talking about them.

NORVILLE:  It‘s interesting.  The “Question of the Day” today on MSNBC was about this very issue and Web visitors were asked, do you care about the Kerry medal flap?  Twenty-seven percent said, yes, this was something that mattered, but 73 percent said, no, they didn‘t really care about it. 

Allan, are you surprised by the way the results came out? 

ALLAN LICHTMAN, HISTORY PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY:  I‘m not surprised at all. 

These controversies are as old as our Republic and indeed have affected our most vaunted American heroes.  When Andrew Jackson was running for the presidency in the 1820s, his critics charged him with being too brutal as a commander.  They even published a coffin handbill with black coffins showing the men he allegedly murdered. 

Dwight Eisenhower, one of America‘s greatest heroes, was charged by the right during his presidential campaign in 1952 with policies that let the Soviet Union take over Eastern Europe.  Wars are great emotional flash points and anyone involved in war is inevitably going to be involved in controversy. 

But, in the end, history shows these flaps do not turn or decide presidential elections.  The voters are smarter than that.  They are going to look at the big picture.  They are going to look at the economy.  They are going to look at what‘s happening on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These controversies that seem so explosives in April, I assure you, will not turn the election in November. 

NORVILLE:  We‘re going to take a break. 

When we come back, we‘re going to talk about those issues that will turn the election come November. 

Back in just a moment. 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE: 

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  Back now with former presidential adviser David Gergen, political analyst Ken Bode, and American university history professor Allan Lichtman, talking about whether the issues that become flash news stories will impact on the campaign. 

Bill Clinton was probably the most nimble politician to come through in anyone‘s recent memory.  How was he able to make the many issues that came along in his campaign and then later presidency somehow not stick? 

David?

GERGEN:  Well, I am not sure Bill Clinton would agree with that assessment, that they didn‘t stick.  They eventually did catch up with him.  And people came piling on to him with impeachment proceedings. 

NORVILLE:  Well, “I did not inhale,” that one certainly didn‘t matter during the campaign. 

GERGEN:  Listen, I don‘t agree with this proposition that how you are defined in April doesn‘t matter in October or November. 

This election will very largely depend upon whether jobs come back, how things go in Iraq, and whether we get attacked again by terrorists.  But beyond that, there is issue of likability, how people relate to the candidate.  This is important window in John Kerry‘s campaign, when he is trying to introduce himself to a vast number of Americans who don‘t know who he is. 

And he served nobly in Vietnam.  In my judgment, he served nobly after Vietnam by turning against the war in which he had fought.  But the Republicans have cleverly found a window, a wedge into his record that they are exploiting.  And he is having a hard time dealing with it.  And instead of being the noble hero coming out of Vietnam, they are playing to the other side, which is the flip-flopper and this business of being a little cold and testy.

His remarks on ABC yesterday that got played all day, the little clip afterward when he said, God, they‘re doing the work of the Republican Party, that‘s not where John Kerry wants to be.  He wants to get a message out about jobs.  He wants to get a message out about this deterioration and the violence in Iraq, and where is this war going after all.

But when he gets drowned out and when his personality gets defined this way, it can come back to haunt you in a close election.  That‘s why I think this is important.  The Republicans know what they are doing.  They haven‘t put $60 million, $50 million into advertising on a whim.  They are trying to define him, and they are doing that for a reason. 

They are putting a lot of chips on the table right now, because they realize this is a critical moment in the campaign. 

NORVILLE:  Allan Lichtman, what ought John Kerry ought to be doing in order to define himself the way he wants to be, rather than the way the opposition or the media might be in the coverage? 

BODE:  My advice to candidates always is, John Kerry has got to fire the hucksters, get rid of the ad men, get rid of the pollsters.  He has been around for 20 years.  Be yourself.  Tell the truth.  Don‘t get involved in what I call these little technical truths, medals vs. ribbons.  That is an absolute loser. 

In fact, with these controversies, history shows the way you get into trouble is not what you did in the past, but whether you try to shade the truth or cover it up in the present.  The more forthright, the more straightforward he is, the better off he is going to be.  I agree completely with David Gergen.  You don‘t want to be testy.  You don‘t want to be testy defensive.  You want to put forward the best possible argument you have for your own self.

But I fundamentally disagree in that it‘s too easy to get caught up in these day-to-day controversies months before the election.  Remember, in 1988, George Bush was considered unelectable.  He was the guy who called Dan Rather Barbara on national TV.  He couldn‘t complete a sentence.  He was the guy who reminded every woman of the first boyfriend they ever dumped.  He was 17 points behind in the summer.

And he came on to win.  Why?  Not because of Willie Horton—I predicted that election long before Willie Horton—but because he represented the Reagan administration, which was winning the Cold War, which brought America five years of prosperity.  This election is going to be about those big issues.  And I have one piece of advice to your viewers, keep your eye on the big picture. 

NORVILLE:  Well, Ken, let me ask you, you now wear the professor hat, but wore the journalist hat for a number of years. 

How much easier is it for the media to spend hours ad infinitum talking about the medals controversy than it is to talk about jobs, to talk about prescription drug care, to talk about the economy, to talk about interest rates?  Those are harder stories for the media to get their hands around and harder for them to tell in the interesting way that one must in order for the viewers and readers to stay engaged. 

BODE:  As long as the candidates are talking about this medals controversy, as long as they are talking about relevant difference in service between George W. Bush in Vietnam, the Vietnam era, and John Kerry in the Vietnam era, the press is going to be talking about it.  And I think that‘s fair enough. 

You asked earlier where these things actually matter in the long run.  Well, Clinton‘s “I didn‘t inhale” never did matter because almost everybody else did inhale at the time, including Newt Gingrich.  But Clinton and his women did matter.  As David suggested, it caught up with him in the end.  Clinton did avoid the draft.  He very definitely dodged the draft in his youthful days in college. 

And when he came as president to Washington, he had a testy and difficult relationship with the Pentagon the entire time that he was there.  Dan Quayle will never be defined as anything but somebody who took refuge in the National Guard.  And these things are important, and the press will talk about them.  We were criticized in 2000 when the press brought up the drunken driving arrest of George W. Bush 24 years earlier. 

NORVILLE:  Right. 

BODE:  But it was an important issue to some people, because you can‘t say to someone whose daughter or son or even dog has been hit by a drunk driver that this is not something that the press ought to tell you about and ought to talk about. 

NORVILLE:  Well, and when 16,000 people a year die from drunk driving, it‘s a very important point, indeed. 

We are going to let that be the last word. 

Ken Bode, thanks so much.  Good to see you again.  David Gergen, Allan Lichtman, our thanks to you as well. 

(CROSSTALK)

NORVILLE:  You have heard what my guests have to say, but what do you think about John Kerry and the medals issue?  That‘s next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NORVILLE:  The MSNBC “Question of the Day” asked if you think what John Kerry did with the medals he was awarded for his service in the military matters.  And the responses in our extremely unscientific poll are that overwhelmingly, you say, no, it doesn‘t. 

Donna from Massachusetts writes in: “I don‘t really care what medals he earned or didn‘t earn.  I don‘t really care what he did with them, although throwing them away does show a lack of respect.  What bothers me is his inability to give a straight answer and stick with it.  He keeps changing his stories.”

Bill Corcoran from Chicago says—he is a former corporal in the U.S.  Army.  And he writes in, saying: “Never, never, never again would I serve in the military of this nation after watching what the right-wing media is doing to John Kerry.  You can say Kerry brought it on itself, but the truth of the matter is, the media is destroying this man‘s war record with an unrelenting attack over Kerry tossing his medals over the White House fence over 30 years ago after he returned from the Vietnam War.”

We always like to hear from you, so e-mail us at NORVILLE@MSNBC.com.  And we have been posting some of your e-mails on our Web page, so check that out, too.  It‘s NORVILLE.MSNBC.com.  And while you are there, sign up for our daily newsletter.  That should be interesting. 

That‘s our program for tonight.  Thanks a lot for watching.  Join us tomorrow night.  Joan Rivers will be our guest.  You see her testing the celebrity survival skills on the red carpet, but she has got some pretty interesting survival stories of her own.  Tomorrow night, Joan Rivers joins us.

But now coming up next, Joe Scarborough and “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.”  He‘s got the latest on the Bush-Kerry military record attack.  That‘s all coming up next. 

We‘ll see you tomorrow night.  Thanks for watching. 

END   

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