updated 8/24/2004 10:13:02 AM ET 2004-08-24T14:13:02

Guests: Dennis Prager, Tom Oliphant, Terry Holt, Steve Elmendorf, Doug Schoen

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST:  Tonight‘s top headline, the swift boat ads are center stage in the battle for the White House.  The “Real Deal,” it‘s time for John Kerry to fire a shot across Bush‘s bow. 

Welcome to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY, where no passport is required and only common sense is allowed. 

The Kerry campaign calls on the president to denounce ads that question John Kerry‘s Vietnam War service.  Bush says he wants to do away with all soft money ads.  But is that good enough for the Kerry camp?  We are going to be asking them.  Meanwhile, Swift Vets For Truth say their ads aren‘t going anywhere.  Will their campaign sink John Kerry‘s White House hopes? 

Then, this isn‘t the first time John O‘Neill and John Kerry have faced off on Vietnam.  Award-winning journalist Thomas Oliphant covered their first showdown in the ‘70s and he is here with his take on who is really telling the truth. 

Plus, who is John Kerry and what is his plan for the country?  We are going to be taking a closer look at that later on. 

ANNOUNCER:  From the press room, to the courtroom, to the halls of Congress, Joe Scarborough has seen it all.  Welcome to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, this is Joe Scarborough.  Welcome to our show.  We‘re live from Pensacola, Florida, by the way, home of the fastest man in the world. 

Anyway, will the swift boat brawl be this campaign‘s defining moment? 

It‘s time for tonight‘s “Real Deal.” 

Now, every four years, historians sift through the wreckage that makes up a presidential campaign, and they try to pick the election‘s defining moment, you know, that event that made the difference for the winner or doomed the loser.  In 1960, of course, the Kennedy-Nixon debate was that season‘s political defining moment.  It seems that, as always, youth and vigor beat flop sweat going away.

In 1964, it was Barry Goldwater‘s embrace of extremism.  Remember when he said that extremism in defense of liberty was no vice?  Well, Americans thought it was.  In 1968, of course, there were the Chicago protests that helped undo Hubert Humphrey‘s campaign.  In 1988, the Dukakis tank ride and so many other things.  And in 2004, some are already suggesting that John Kerry‘s clumsy handling of the swift boat controversy could be the defining issue of this campaign. 

But I am not one of those people.  However, if I were a Kerry supporter, I would be very concerned about the senator‘s campaign and how it has bobbled this routine pop-up.  Think about it for a second.  Your candidate went to Vietnam.  Your candidate won a Silver Star.  Your candidate won a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts.  Your guy was called a bona fide war hero by the United States Department of Navy, while your opponent was somewhere during Vietnam, but nobody is exactly sure where that was. 

And despite this veritable political feast that has been laid before your candidate‘s campaign team, they have been beaten over the head now for the past few weeks on war service, of all things.  What am I missing here?  Is this the same John Kerry campaign who stormed to victory in Iowa with an amazing comeback that was almost Clintonian in nature?  Or is it the John Kerry who from time to time makes Michael Dukakis‘ 1988 campaign look ruthlessly efficient?

Just as Democrats always make themselves feel better by talking about just how stupid we Republicans are, Republicans usually go behind closed doors and laugh about how clueless Democrats are when it comes to campaigning.  Nothing feels better to a Karl Rove or Lee Atwater than to carve up some Ivy League elitist who is weak on defense, soft on crime, and liberal on taxes. 

Now, what made John Kerry‘s candidacy so daunting for Republican strategists was the fact that the Massachusetts senator had a war record and he seemed tough enough to punch back when he was hit.  But the events of the past week have some Republicans thinking that maybe they overestimated John Kerry.  Maybe his campaign is filled with the same Northeast liberals who just don‘t understand how to win in the rough-and-tumble of presidential politics. 

Now, I believe John Kerry proved he had what it takes to fight and win in Iowa.  And as Harold Macmillan said, in politics, a week is a lifetime.  But if that‘s the case, then John Kerry only has 10 lifetimes left, and it‘s time he starts making the most of them, or else he is going to find himself commiserating with Michael Dukakis sometime later this fall. 

And that‘s tonight‘s “Real Deal.” 

So, are the swift boat ads really hurting John Kerry‘s campaign that badly? 

With me now is Doug Schoen.  He‘s a Democratic pollster who has done polling for both Bill and Hillary Clinton‘s campaigns.  He‘s also the author of “On the Campaign Trail: The Long Road of Presidential Politics, 1860 to 2004.” 

Doug, thanks so much for being with us. 

I want to start by reading you something that “The Washington Post” wrote this weekend.  They said the national Annenberg election survey found that more than half the voters questioned had seen or heard of this ad, often on cable news shows.  Most distressing to the Kerry camp, the survey found that 44 percent of independent voters consider the ad very or somewhat believable.

Doug, what does that mean to John Kerry‘s campaign right now? 

DOUG SCHOEN, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER:  Well, it means two things, first, that voters are focusing to a much greater extent than Kerry would like on swift boats, rather than the issues that Bush is vulnerable on, the war in Iraq, the economy, the direction the country is going in.  That in and of itself is bad, and with the constant back and forth on swift boats, John Kerry is not able to get his positive message out in the aftermath of the convention. 

SCARBOROUGH:  So, Doug, are you saying that as long as we are having a debate on this swift boat ad, on these swift boats ads, it doesn‘t matter who is winning that debate or losing that debate?  In the end, you think John Kerry is the loser?

SCHOEN:  I think John Kerry is getting off message, and in that sense, it obviously doesn‘t help his campaign.  I think he has done the right thing now, coming back with an ad attacking George Bush for smearing John McCain and for engaging in the same politics now, because, in politics, as you well know, unless you respond to attacks, they stick.  And I think John Kerry understands that, and given the numbers that we have seen nationally, once he gets back on message and talks about the issues, the issue will recede in importance. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Now, let‘s talk about one poll that came out.  A poll released Friday shows that John Kerry‘s support among veterans has slipped since the Democrats‘ convention. 

Just three weeks ago, vets supported Kerry and Bush equally.  But Friday‘s numbers show this.  They show that George Bush is well ahead, with 55 percent of the support of veterans, to just 37 percent for John Kerry.

What does he have to do, John Kerry, to get these votes back? 

SCHOEN:  I think he has got to do two things.  I think he think he has got to, one, attack Bush in the way that I suggested, but second, do what you suggested at the outset.  He has got to talk about his record, talk about how proud he is of his service, but also talk about his entire service and his entire record and the fact that he has got an alternative set of policies from the Bush administration on foreign policy and the economy.

That will get ordinary voters, as well as veterans, back, and I think right now, we have seen only very, very slight slippage nationally.  And I think you are right.  I don‘t think this is going to be the defining moment in the campaign for Kerry. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, thanks so much, Doug Schoen.  We greatly appreciate you being with us tonight. 

Now, there‘s been a lot of back and forth between the campaigns today. 

With us now to talk about it, national spokesperson for the Bush campaign Terry Holt.  And we also have Kerry senior adviser Steve Elmendorf.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us tonight. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Terry Holt, the new swift boat ad is out. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Terry Holt, it‘s going to be out tomorrow, obviously. 

Let‘s you take a quick look at it. 


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  They had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads. 

JOE PONDER, VIETNAM VETERAN:  The accusations that John Kerry made against the veterans who served in Vietnam was just devastating. 

PAUL GALANTI, VIETNAM VETERAN:  John Kerry gave the enemy for free what I and many of my comrades in North Vietnam in the prison camps took torture to avoid saying.  It demoralized us.  It dishonored his country, and more importantly, the people he served with.  He just sold them out. 


SCARBOROUGH:  He sold them out, very tough talk. 

Terry Holt, will George Bush demand tomorrow that the swift boat ad—vets take that ad off the air? 

HOLT:  Well, this is their spot.  We can‘t tell them what to do any more than we can tell Oscar Mayer or McDonald‘s what to do with their spots. 

I think what I would like to go back to is, six months ago, when we were talking about these 527s on your show and we were calling for action on them at that time, because, as everyone saw, there was a flood of millions of dollars coming into the political system, and the fact of the matter is, it all benefited John Kerry until this one very small buy, and then John Kerry cries foul. 

Ultimately, I find it fascinating.  You have been here before, Joe.  You know when you get involved in a political quagmire, as I think the Kerry campaign is, it‘s safe to say, you attack someone.  You attack the president in this case, and that‘s what they have done.  I think, as you might know, we are on TV today talking about tax relief for the middle class, talking about strengthening our intelligence-gathering capabilities in this country.  You know, we are having a debate about the issues.  John Kerry is just not participating. 

SCARBOROUGH:  But, Terry, on these ads, John McCain has come out and

specifically attacked these two swift boat


HOLT:  And the president today...

SCARBOROUGH:  Now, no, hold on a second, Terry.  The president has been generally condemning 527s.  And you are correct.  He has been doing that over the past six months to a year, but he has never come out and specifically condemned the content of these swift boat ads.  Why not? 

HOLT:  But the president has said many times—and, in fact, I don‘t think I have ever said anything otherwise but that we think—that we won‘t question John Kerry‘s service in the military, his service in Vietnam.  The president says that every time he gets asked this question, as does everyone from the Bush-Cheney campaign and the supporters of the president.  So I think that this is kind of a red herring.

SCARBOROUGH:  So it should be easy for him just to say, I condemn these ads.  It should be easy for him, then, to say, I condemn the contents of this ad. 


HOLT:  I understand what you are saying, Joe, but what happens is the condemnation doesn‘t just cover this spot, but the whole range of the activities that‘s happening and about half of the 527s.

We want to talk about tax relief for the middle class, about the intelligence-gathering capabilities of this country.  That‘s what we are focusing on.  This is a tiny little spot.  It‘s a problem for John Kerry, but it‘s one for him to resolve in a debate that these folks are going to have.  And I think for us, it‘s just important to remind people that the president is a better commander in chief and more capable and has better judgment on the range of issues, on the record in the Senate, and that‘s what our campaign is focused on. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Steve Elmendorf, you know, the Democrats obviously, the John Kerry campaign has been criticizing this ad and criticizing the $500,000 that‘s been put in by a Texas-Bush supporter.  And yet you and I both know that, over the past year, John Kerry‘s closest supporters have spent almost $63 million in independent ads. 

Isn‘t it somewhat hypocritical for your campaign to come forward now and say, how dare these Republicans spend $500,000 on these 527 ads? 

STEVE ELMENDORF, POLITICAL DIRECTOR, KERRY CAMPAIGN:  Well, there‘s a big difference, Joe.  This ad is a smear, and it‘s been put together by the same people who smeared John McCain. 


ELMENDORF:  The Bush campaign was involved. 

SCARBOROUGH:  One at a time. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Hold on a second. 

ELMENDORF:  Terry, let me talk. 

When MoveOn put on an ad that questioned George Bush‘s lack of service in Vietnam, John Kerry denounced it within 24 hours.  Why won‘t George Bush denounce the content of this ad?  Why can he stand up and say he thinks John Kerry‘s service is honorable?  If he thinks it‘s honorable, he should denounce this ad. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Stop for a second.  Stop for a second. 

I have got to follow up, because, Steve, as you know, when John Kerry came out and denounced that ad, that same day, he also sent out Wes Clark and Stansfield Turner to go out and criticize the president for dodging the draft. 

ELMENDORF:  When MoveOn put an ad on that had Adolf Hitler in it, we attacked it.  When this ad went up questioning George Bush‘s service, we attacked it.  George Bush ought to denounce this ad, and I don‘t understand why he won‘t, because it‘s a pattern.  These are the same people that smeared John McCain four years ago, and they are smearing John Kerry now. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Steve, stay with me.  Terry, stay with me, because we have got a lot more coming up in a minute.

And a little bit later, we are going to be talking to award-winning journalist Tom Oliphant.  This is a guy who has covered John Kerry since 1970.  And he is here to help us answer many questions that so many Americans are asking tonight. 

So don‘t go away.  We‘ll be right back.


SCARBOROUGH:  We have got the national spokesmen for George Bush and John Kerry here debating more on the swift vet ads. 

That‘s in just a second when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns.


SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, welcome back to the show. 

We have Terry Holt with us and Steve Elmendorf, two very able spokesmen for their campaigns. 

Terry, I want to go to you first.  I want to play you the latest John Kerry campaign ad that was released responding to the Swift Vet ads.  Take a listen. 


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  I‘m John Kerry and I approved this message. 

NARRATOR:  American soldiers are fighting in Iraq.  Families struggle to afford health care, jobs heading overseas.  Instead of solutions, George Bush‘s campaign supports a front group attacking John Kerry‘s military record, attacks called smears, lies.  Senator McCain calls them dishonest.  Bush smeared John McCain four years ago.  Now he is doing it to John Kerry.  George Bush, denounce the smear.  Get back to the issues.  America deserves better. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Terry Holt, your campaign has specifically been accused of violating federal campaign laws by backing this ad.  Respond. 

HOLT:  It‘s a ridiculous statement.  In fact, the script in the spot is false, provably false. 


SCARBOROUGH:  What part? 

HOLT:  Well, that the Bush campaign or the president supports the organization.  And, in fact, they knew better when they wrote the spot.  This is them really I think losing their cool a little bit. 

They understand that there‘s a lot at stake in this election.  And this issue, after ignoring their record, 20 years in the Senate—we have heard absolutely nothing about John Kerry‘s record in the Senate, what he would bring to the table in terms of tax relief or the economy or health care.  His issues are nonexistent.  And so, by focusing on this, it‘s made them a little raw because they don‘t have anything else to run on, and we think we should get back to the issues.

As I said before, we are talking about tax relief.  And we are talking about making the country safer.  We are going to have a convention next week and talk about opportunity and ownership in this country.  You know, this is a problem for Kerry, and I think maybe it is time for them to move on. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Steve Elmendorf, we had “The Washington Post” national political reporter on last night.  And he said there wasn‘t any evidence of a connection between the Bush campaign and the Swift Vets For Truth. 

Take a listen. 


JAMES VANDEHEI, “THE WASHINGTON POST”:  If you look at the new ad that was released today by the Kerry campaign, they talk about how Bush is behind this smear campaign.  Well, there‘s no connection so far that we can show that there‘s a direct link between Bush and this campaign. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Steve, you all have accused George Bush of being behind these ads.  “The Washington Post” says, he is not behind these ads.  Respond. 

ELMENDORF:  Well, there is a Bush campaign official in the first ad who had to resign from the Bush campaign because they were in the ad.  There was a joint rally in your own home state of Florida in Gainesville between the Swift Boat Veterans and the Bush campaign. 

Merrie Spaeth, who did the P.R. for the Wyly brothers attack on John

McCain is doing the P.R. for the Swift Boat Veterans.  Bob Perry, the Texas

contributor who


HOLT:  You are not writing a spy novel.  You are running for president.  Come on, now. 

ELMENDORF:  You go through the list and there is connection after connection to this smear. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, Terry, why don‘t you talk about those?

Let‘s talk, first of all, about that rally in Florida, where you actually had Swift Vet literature being passed out in a Republican headquarters in Central Florida. 

HOLT:  Well, in fact, thank heaven in this country those folks are allowed to do that.  But when you are being sponsored or organized by the Bush-Cheney organization, every piece of paper, everything we do has to have paid for and approved by Bush-Cheney ‘04.  Those flyers did not have that stamped on them anywhere.  These are people doing what they would like to do. 

As for the gentleman we are talking about, this is a veteran Vietnam who spent time in the POW camp and who volunteered at the grassroots level of this campaign.  He did not know that we have a standard in this campaign that has virtually nothing to do with him individually, but that we do not coordinate specifically with 527s and don‘t allow our people to participate in those organizations.

But on top of that, think about the other side.  Jim Jordan, John Kerry‘s old campaign manager, runs one of the biggest 527s in town.  Half of the members of the boards of these organizations are people like Bill Richardson and Harold Ickes.  The other side here, with $63 million behind them, has made quite a business of this 527 stuff. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Steve Elmendorf, let me ask you the final question tonight.  I know you heard my “Real Deal.”  And I find it fascinating that here we are in August.  You have got a guy that has been declared a war hero by the United States Department of Navy for his service in Vietnam, a very unpopular war, and yet here we are, here the entire national media is debating his war service.  How do you get this story behind you and get back on message with the issues that John Kerry believes are the most important issues for America? 

ELMENDORF:  Well, I think, as you said at the beginning of the show, I think there are moments in campaigns that are defining, and I think this is going to be a defining moment of why we are going to win this election, because people, I think, are going to see this smear for what it is and they‘re going to turn on George Bush and Dick Cheney and the negative $100 million campaign they have run against John Kerry.

And they are going to turn to John Kerry because they want to hear someone talk about the economy, talk about the jobs, talk about national security, talk about energy independence, and do the right things. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, thanks a lot, Steve. 

Terry, thank you so much also for being with us tonight.  We greatly appreciate. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Now, for more on the story, including the swift boat ads and “The Washington Post” article I told you about yesterday that does a great job investigating both sides, just visit our Web site at Joe.MSNBC.com.

And joining me now is veteran “Boston Globe” columnist Tom Oliphant. 

He has covered Senator John Kerry since his early days in Washington. 

And, Tom, I got to tell you, I love the hair.  I love the jacket that you wore back then.  I mean, look at that.  Great shot of you. 

TOM OLIPHANT, “THE BOSTON GLOBE”:  Still crazy after all these years. 



OLIPHANT:  Though, I will tell you the difference.  It‘s funny.  Kerry and I have managed to stay skinny as a rail.  John O‘Neill really has put on weight. 

I did a show with him last week, and I was quite surprised, because he was a slight fellow back in 1971. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You are living right.  You are living right. 

Tom, I want to ask you the same question that I asked at the top of the show.  How in the world—you know John Kerry so well.  You have been with this guy since the early 1970s covering him.  Did you ever imagine over the past 30, 35 years that, when John Kerry ran for president, that his military record in Vietnam would be this hotly debated in August as a negative? 

OLIPHANT:  Well, I don‘t know if it‘s a negative or not, Joe, but I not only imagined it.  I expected it, because it has been a regular feature in every race he has ever run. 

SCARBOROUGH:  How did he get around it?  I know 1996 especially, a lot of these same gentlemen that were criticizing him today in 1996 actually were backing him, weren‘t they? 

OLIPHANT:  Well, actually, the history is a lot more rich than that.  It was all over that first fight for Congress in 1972 when he got kicked in the stomach and deserved it, by the way, when he lost. 

It was all over his initial primary for the U.S. Senate in 1984, especially at the end.  It was all over the general election that year.  People tried it.  It happened in 1990, when he didn‘t really have much of a contest, and then it happened for real in 1996.  It has been a regular feature of his political life. 

It sounds anomalous, but I think his opponents are so transfixed by this notion of a Democrat, a liberal, if you will, who has fought in a war, that there is almost an irresistible temptation to pick at that record and try to find something to attack in it.  It happens all the time.  And Kerry‘s response, interestingly, is always the same. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Don‘t you think his response time has been a little slow over the past week or so?  Do you think he should have jumped on this earlier, especially if he has seen it, as you have said, from one campaign to the next? 

OLIPHANT:  As a timing issue, Joe, I don‘t want to—I mean, you have more expertise in these things than I do.  My observation, however, has been that when you want to watch a fight like this is when the counterattack starts. 

Without making any predictions how it‘s going to go, what Kerry is doing now is classic Kerry behavior where his Vietnam experience is concerned.  And there‘s going to be more of this tomorrow, a lot more, not just television advertising, by the way.  And if I interpret what his people are saying, they want this debate to continue. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Oh, really?  Is that because they want—are they going to be more forceful, do you believe, in contrasting what John Kerry did during Vietnam and what George W. Bush did during Vietnam? 

OLIPHANT:  That‘s not my understanding, Joe.  The way I get it is that they want the issue to be whether he is a legitimate recipient of some of the country‘s highest military honors.  And they are perfectly happy to keep right on arguing about it. 

I think the key—a lot of this, it‘s been my experience, anyway, is Kerry personally.  I mean, Vietnam is like a scab in America, and different people for different reasons still pick at it, as we try to heal.  With John Kerry, it‘s a scab for him.  And all I can tell you is that whenever people pick at it—I hate to use his swift boat analogy, but he really does turn the boat into the incoming fire.  That‘s his record, and what he is doing now is just vintage Kerry. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Well, Tom, stay with us. 

You know, I read something that you wrote in “The American Prospect” that I talked to you about before.  I want to talk about that.  I want to talk about the real John Kerry that you have known, that you have covered for the past 35 years. 

And we will do that in a second when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns. 


SCARBOROUGH:  We are going to have more with award-winning journalist Tom Oliphant.  He is going to tell us the Kerry that you should know.  Going to be talking about that in a second.

But, first, let‘s get the latest headlines from the MSNBC News Desk. 


ANNOUNCER:  From the press room, to the courtroom, to the halls of Congress, Joe Scarborough has seen it all.  Welcome back to SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.

SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, welcome back to the show. 

I am talking, of course, to award-winning journalist Tom Oliphant, who has covered John Kerry for over 30 years. 

Now, Tom, you wrote about the Nixon administration‘s relationship with John O‘Neill.  And, of course, O‘Neill is the author of “Unfit For Command.”  But he first debated Kerry more than 30 years ago. 

And this is what you wrote—quote—“O‘Neill was recruited not just for the Cavett show, but to debate Kerry in other forums and to make appearances on Nixon‘s behalf.  He got pep talks directly from Nixon, who had a fixation with Kerry‘s appeal.”

So, Tom, why do you believe that Nixon then used this guy and some Republicans are now going back to the well and using him again? 

OLIPHANT:  Well, you know, the actual originator of this campaign was the retired admiral who had commanded all of these swift boat units in Vietnam at the time, a fellow by the name of Roy Hoffman.

But the first person he went to was John O‘Neill, who, of course, has this history.  To an extent, you know—I remember those debates as if they were yesterday, Joe.  And they are the exact opposite, believe it or not, of this shouting match that I don‘t think you like any more than I do.  This was an argument about whether there should be a specific date for an American withdrawal from Vietnam or whether there was a reason to keep the war going. 

It wasn‘t of the quality, say, of the teach-ins around America in the mid-1960s, but I actually found their joint appearances not only entertaining, but informative.  O‘Neill was a very intelligent and articulate defender of the Nixon administration‘s policies in the war, and Kerry was an extremely articulate opponent of them.  And I saw them maybe three or four times together and O‘Neill once or twice just on his own.  By the way, I remember a press conference where O‘Neill went out of his way to say that he was not raising a single question about Kerry‘s service in Vietnam, which he assumed had been honorable. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Have you lost some respect for Mr. O‘Neill since this latest debate started taking root the past couple weeks? 

OLIPHANT:  Well, no, because, I mean, I work the boring side of the street, Joe, and I try to avoid the highly personal side. 

What I said to him in a joint appearance we had last week on PBS was that I thought the accusations that his book makes and some of the fellows he has recruited for his organization made don‘t meet minimal journalistic standards for proving a point, and that one reason this thing has existed until last week, really, as a kind of below-the-radar talk show, cable tabloid story was that, in the national press, the accusations had not met really minimal journalistic standards for credibility. 

He is a pleasant guy, and, again, not just on Dick Cavett, which is the stuff that you see played over and over again, but in these joint appearances.  I remember one in particular before the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Philadelphia, and I think an honest or objective observer of those debates would, A, call them extremely good entertainment, and, B, have scored them pretty even. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Tom, I was talking about an “American Prospect” article that you wrote.  It says “The Kerry You Should Know.”  A lot of people still are scratching their heads, saying, who is John Kerry?  What makes him tick?  How about answering that question? 

OLIPHANT:  Remember, everybody who is trying to be elected president for the first time is something of a mystery.

But if I could just pick one thing, Joe, it wouldn‘t be Vietnam, despite all this noise we keep having.  I think the most important thing is an answer to the question of how did he get to this national stage.  And the funny thing is, the key event, as far as I am concerned, was getting clobbered in that first House race of his in 1972. 

A lot of people don‘t know this, but it took him 10 years from that defeat to be elected to an office I am sure you would never have run for, Joe, lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. 


OLIPHANT:  And, in between, there was three years of law school, about three years running a very large prosecutor‘s office in suburban Boston, and then a couple of years as a boutique law firm partner, before he finally made it to elective office.

And the point that I draw from that experience of his is that his root in politics has actually had very little to do with his pedigree, the prep schools, the family money, Yale, and, as it turned out, Vietnam.  He came up the ladder.  And in the Senate, kind of like John Kennedy over a much longer period of time, he hasn‘t particularly distinguished himself, so much as he has taken the openings there were there for him.  And, as a result, he has arrived on the national stage not as some kind of shooting star or meteor.

He has gotten here one rung at a time, kind of like a lot of people who come up the slow, hard way in politics.  And I always respect—one thing I always respected him for was after that initial punch in the jaw, he went back and did it the hard way. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, isn‘t that interesting?  You could say the same thing about Bill Clinton. 

OLIPHANT:  Absolutely. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Who lost his first race for Congress in Arkansas. 

OLIPHANT:  Look, I know that longevity and incumbency are not popular words in the vocabulary of politics today, but I am one of these people who thinks the long, hard way sometimes is a good way to form a person. 

Now, you know, you can argue that Kerry is a cautious politician, not a bold one.  But, on the other hand, you could probably make a case that the times we are living in would benefit from a leader who perhaps is more interested in seeking consensus than having some grand ideological victory. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, Tom, thanks a lot.  We appreciate you being with us tonight. 

OLIPHANT:  My pleasure. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, if you will, stick around, because we are going to be continuing to talk about John Kerry, the swift boat ads, and much more when SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY returns. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Hey, we are back talking about John Kerry with journalist Thomas Oliphant.  We also have with us tonight “Boston Herald” columnist and MSNBC contributor Mike Barnicle and syndicated radio talk show host Dennis Prager.

Mike Barnicle, let‘s start by talking about the most important thing.  It looks like the Boston Red Sox are going to put themselves in the position again to break our hearts.  Devastating.  I think—I really think they are going to do it.  They are going to get me believing again, and then lose. 

MIKE BARNICLE, NBC ANALYST:  Well, my heart has already been broken tonight, Joe, because I know that Oliphant gave away that sport coat that he was wearing in 1970.


SCARBOROUGH:  Well, I want to ask you the same thing I asked Tom.  Did you ever imagine, when John Kerry ran for president, that we would actually be debating his war record in August? 

BARNICLE:  You know, as Tom indicated earlier—and like Tommy, I have covered John Kerry for a number of years—it didn‘t surprise me that it came up this time, because it has come up in each and every time that he has been on the ballot.

But the level and the depth of the obsession with it has surprised me.  That we are now down apparently to how deep were the wounds, how many liters of blood did he expend, that has surprised me.

SCARBOROUGH:  You surprised that Bob Dole came out yesterday and really took a swipe at somebody that he called his friend? 

BARNICLE:  Yes, that kind of surprised me, but I suppose that nothing in an election year, given the low level of our politics recently, nothing really should surprise us, huh? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Dennis Prager, I want to ask you if you fear that these attacks eventually could backfire on the Bush campaign? 

DENNIS PRAGER, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST:  There‘s no telling the future on this.  I am tempted, as someone supporting the president, to say they won‘t backfire.  I don‘t know.  I don‘t predict the American people‘s reaction.

But if I may answer your first question, the obsession—and I ask the other two gentlemen if they would comment—to be fair here, isn‘t the obsession entirely the doing of John Kerry?  That‘s all he talks about.  I covered for my radio show the Democratic Convention in Boston.  That‘s all he talks about.  There is no John Kerry from Vietnam to his acceptance speech.  The man doesn‘t exist.  He has no record. 

So if he is obsessed with Vietnam, if that‘s all he talks about, isn‘t it fair to talk about it?  There‘s nothing else to talk about the man. 

BARNICLE:  Well, I‘ll take a crack at that, Joe. 

Certainly, it‘s fair to talk about it, seeing that John Kerry has raised it numerous times.  There‘s no doubt about that.  It‘s been a pivotal point in his election campaign.  It‘s been a pivotal point in his life.  But to say that you don‘t hear him talk about anything else indicates that we are all part of this chattering cable world so obsessed with this one issue.  If you go out on the stump...

PRAGER:  Lost the sound. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Lost Mike Barnicle. 

Tom Oliphant, let me have you respond to that. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Do you think John Kerry may have made a—made a mistake by just talking about Vietnam? 

OLIPHANT:  I know where my longtime pal Mike Barnicle was going, so I could almost like finish the sentence. 


SCARBOROUGH:  OK.  Go ahead. 

OLIPHANT:  Obviously, this has been a much richer campaign than that, particularly away from the kind of atmosphere we are in right now. 

The best example would be just before he and John Edwards came out of nowhere in Iowa in January.  But I think you can all—if you travel around the country and cover the campaign, you wouldn‘t notice this thing, except in prime-time viewing hours on cable, very much, until the last week.  So there‘s much more to this campaign than just that.  And there will be much more to this campaign than that. 


SCARBOROUGH:  Dennis Prager. 

PRAGER:  Yes, at the convention itself, that was the primary aim.  That was—the movie was largely about him in Vietnam.  He had his fellow soldiers, seaman, on with him on the stage when he gave his address. 

He report—“My name is John Kerry and I am reporting for duty.”  There is an obsession.  Secondly, the Democrats really started it by constantly attacking President Bush‘s nonrecord or record vis-a-vis the Air National Guard.  So how could the Democrats be angry over this?  It‘s their obsession, and now finally there‘s a response. 


PRAGER:  One other point.  Forgive me.  One other point. 


PRAGER:  The veterans are angry.  And I understand that anger, and it truly has nothing to do with President Bush. 

John Kerry did devote his life as a young man to saying that the soldiers in Vietnam, by and large, were Nazi-like atrocity-mongers.  They are angry about that, and they are now venting that anger that this is the man running for president.  I somehow empathize with those people, even though I myself opposed the war. 



Now, first of all, let me begin by agreeing with the point about Boston, and about frankly other stages in the campaign, particularly a year ago, when Kerry was doing quite poorly.  It‘s a very fair point that he has made this, if not the centerpiece, a centerpiece of his campaign.  What I am not sure about yet and what makes politics so fascinating for me is that, if you think he led with his chin about Vietnam, I think the activities of the last several days, beginning Wednesday night, remind me very much of what I have seen Kerry do time and time again, particularly over the last 22 years. 

And that is almost invite people to go after his record in Vietnam, because what has always mattered to him politically has been his counterattack, and that is what we are seeing now.  There‘s another big phase of it due to start tomorrow.  It interests me right now, just as a political observer, how anxious Kerry is to have this be the centerpiece for as long as it turns out to be the centerpiece of the campaign. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Tom, I want to ask you about the statements made in 1971 by John Kerry in front of the Senate.  You were actually there with him that day.  You were there before he made the speech.  You actually walked with him over before he went in and gave that speech. 

Do you believe—did you understand—Dennis was talking about how a lot of vets were offended by what he said that day.  I live in a Navy town.  I certainly hear it an awful lot down here, too.  Do you think John Kerry should apologize for making those statements about the cutting off of the ears, or do you think he still believes that? 

OLIPHANT:  Well, actually, I am not one of these people who calls on anybody to apologize.  I am not a virgin in politics. 


OLIPHANT:  I don‘t expect it to be nice. 

But let me put it this way.  I had been with this particular group of veterans three months before in Detroit.  I was with them on the National Mall during that demonstration.  The one thing where I would disagree is that I never generalize about Vietnam veterans.  It‘s a fascinating, constantly evolving network of people in this country, and you get the whole gamut of emotions and political feelings when you deal with them. 

The other thing that I would just say is that, on the Mall, you constantly encountered guys, anguished guys, who wanted to tell you not about what they were charging others with, but who wanted to tell you what they had done.  What Kerry was talking about in that testimony was, he was recounting people who had told what they had done and seen with their own eyes. 

If he made a mistake, at least as we have talked about it over and over again these last 30 years, the mistake may have been in not putting this in a broader context of guys trying their best in a hideous situation, and most of whom, of course, didn‘t do that. 

SCARBOROUGH:  Thanks, Tom. 

We‘ll be right back in a minute.




SCARBOROUGH:  Welcome back. 

Dennis Prager, how key is this swift boat controversy going to be going through the Republican Convention and beyond in the fall? 

PRAGER:  Well, they‘re not going to mention it at the convention. 

That‘s obvious.

But I‘ll tell you this.  If a man‘s entire, or nearly entire, resume consists of one thing—namely, I fought in Vietnam for four months; I got three Purple Hearts and an award, and I‘m not going to allow the Navy to release all the records concerning that—I think it‘s fair game for people to say, well, really, if this is all you have to claim the presidency, it‘s fair to investigate.

And given what you said about our Army, we have some anger at you, is what the veterans are saying.  I think it‘s fair. 

SCARBOROUGH:  All right, thanks so much, Dennis Prager.

Tom Oliphant, greatly appreciate you being there. 

And, hopefully, we‘ll get Mike Barnicle back tomorrow night. 

We‘ll see you tomorrow night when we have Merrie Spaeth on SCARBOROUGH


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