Rick Wilking  /  Reuters
Sen. John Edwards
updated 9/30/2004 11:33:30 AM ET 2004-09-30T15:33:30

Sen. John Edwards talked to MSNBC's Don Imus about the upcoming presidential and vice presidential debates. Imus also asks Edwards why the president was given authority to go to war, despite missteps in Afghanistan.

DON IMUS, HOST:  Here’s the Democratic nominee for vice president, Senator John Edwards. Good morning, Senator Edwards.

JOHN EDWARDS, VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE:  Good morning, Don.  How are you doing?

IMUS:  I’m fine, sir.  How are you?

EDWARDS:  I’m fine. You’ve been whining a lot this morning.

IMUS:  Well, you know, that’s just—came in in a bad mood. So, are you still running?

EDWARDS:  Jogging, you mean?  Exercising?

IMUS:  Yes.  I have a picture here of you—a pretty attractive photograph of you on the cover of “Runner’s World.”

EDWARDS:  Yes.  And somebody told me you said I hadn’t run a real marathon.

IMUS:  Well, you haven’t run New York or Boston, have you?

EDWARDS:  No. Are those the only marathons in the country?

IMUS:  Well, no, but the marathons you run are treadmill marathons.

(LAUGHTER)

I mean, Oprah Winfrey ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS:  Listen, if it’s 26 miles, it counts.

IMUS:  Senator Kerry says he ran the Boston Marathon in the ‘70s, but he can’t recall his time and there’s no record of it. And my question is, a guy runs one marathon in his life and he can’t remember the time, and I was talking to my sportswriter friend Mike Lupica and he said, “Are we looking at a Boston Marathon Veterans for Truth ad situation here?”

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS:  Well, they’ve used everything else, they might as well use that too.  

IMUS:  In the current issue of Rolling Stone, in which you’re interviewed, they observe, as have many others, Senator Edwards, that the traditional role of the vice presidential candidate is to play— and this is their phrase—“the pitbull, allowing his boss, in this case Senator Kerry, to remain above the fray.”  And to this point, that’s a role that you have not played or if you have, the perception is that you have not.

EDWARDS:  I think, actually, I have. I’m not sure I’d use the word “pitbull,” but I’ve been out here every day making this case about how George Bush and Dick Cheney have messed up our country, and all damage that they’ve done not just here, but abroad. And I think that’s just a powerful case, it’s a case that has to be made.  It’s one that I’ve been making and I think making very strongly.

IMUS:  Well, for example, Senator Kennedy said the other day that the Bush administration’s obsession with Iraq has made this country more vulnerable to a nuclear attack by terrorists, which is pretty strong.  Do you agree with that?

EDWARDS:  I do.

IMUS:  Oh, you do?

EDWARDS:  I do.

IMUS:  How so?

EDWARDS:  Well, because if you look— It certainly made us more vulnerable to the possibility of a nuclear attack.  And the reason is because what happened—if you look at this thing, sort of, big picture, after we were attacked on September 11th, they went into Afghanistan, which was the right thing to do, but very quickly became focused on Iraq.

The result of that was they didn’t finish Afghanistan, also made a huge mistake by not using our forces to get bin Laden at Tora Bora.

And by focusing on Iraq and diverting resources from Afghanistan, not only did we move away from Afghanistan, but during this same period of time, Iran was moving forward with its nuclear weapons program, North Korea was moving forward with its nuclear weapons program.

Because of our need for troops in Iraq, they’ve now taken troops off the Korean Peninsula, plan to take more off, which makes us very vulnerable there.

So there’s no question that Iran and North Korea have moved forward and become a bigger threat for America during the time this focus has been on Iraq.

I mean, remember, Bush is the one who said, “axis of evil, North Korea, Iran, Iraq.”  Well, we invaded the country that didn’t have nuclear weapons and the other two have gone forward with their nuclear weapons program during the same time.

IMUS:  When did you all realize that they were not doing a proper job in Afghanistan?

EDWARDS:    Early on.  I don’t remember the exact date. But it became pretty clear early on that what they had planned for was the military operation of getting rid of the Taliban.  They had not done the work to make sure that you could secure the country.

I mean, if you look at what’s happening there, they’ve gone right back to their heroin and opium trade; they produce 75 percent of the world’s opium.  All that’s ever been really secure is right around Kabul, which means the country—big chunks of the country are going right back in the hands of the old drug lords and warlords, which means it can be a haven for terrorists, again, which is what we were trying to stop, aside from the fact that they were protecting bin Laden.

IMUS:  Based on your assessment, then, and Senator Kerry’s and others, that they had screwed up Afghanistan, why’d you all vote to give them the authority to go into Iraq and screw that up?

EDWARDS:  I think it was the right thing to do—and I would have wanted Kerry to have the same authority if he had been president—for the president to have the authority to go to the U.N., to make sure that the weapons inspectors got back in, to not allow Saddam to just ignore the rest of the world in terms of allowing weapons inspections to take place.  I think that was the right thing to do. But we didn’t give Bush authority to screw this thing up the way he has.

IMUS:  No, I understand that.

EDWARDS:  I mean, he’s made an incredible mess out of this.

IMUS:  But he had just demonstrated that he screwed up Afghanistan and I don’t understand, and many other Americans don’t understand. By the way, I’m supporting you guys.  It’s becoming more difficult.

EDWARDS:  Are you actually going to vote for us?

IMUS:  Yes, I am, at this point.  You know, Why are you looking at me like that?  (to his co-host)

MCCORD:  Well, why “at this point”?  You keep filling in that caveat.

IMUS:  Yes, I am going to vote for Senator Kerry and Senator Edwards...

MCCORD:  That’s more like it.

IMUS:  ... barring some, you know, meltdown at the debate or something.

(LAUGHTER)

I’m in the foxhole with you, Senator.

EDWARDS:  Good.  We want you there. But I want you there without all the whining.  I want you to be with us if you’re with us, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

IMUS:  Well, I understand that, sir. But my point is that—and I think it’s a good one, and you were even asked this in Rolling Stone—if they’ve just demonstrated that they couldn’t complete the mission in Afghanistan, and then we turn around and give them the authority to go into Iraq—and I know we want them to go in the right way, and you certainly couldn’t anticipate that they were going to, in your judgment, screw it up. But my point is, based on what they had just done, why would you give them the authority to do it again after what they did?

EDWARDS:  Because the president had to have the authority to deal with what Saddam was doing.  It was just that simple. And, remember, this was pretty early on in the Afghanistan thing.  That doesn’t mean that I didn’t believe they were already making mistakes in Afghanistan.  That is true.  I did believe that.  But I thought the president had to have that authority.

And one of the things—in fact, if you just give me a second to say another word about this...

IMUS:  You have all the time you need.

EDWARDS:  You know, this vice president, Cheney, said in 1992, 1992 when he was asked, he was being pushed then why they didn’t finish the job in Iraq, why didn’t they get Saddam at the time.  And he talked about the enormous danger and risk of getting bogged down in Iraq, of having to govern the country, of the casualties that would be incurred. And to use language some of these people that have used against John, you know, "he was against getting bogged down in Iraq before he was for it.  He was against it then, now he’s for it."

And these guys clearly did not have any kind of plan for what they were going to do once we got through the military operation.  And that’s what all of us are seeing the consequences of right now.

IMUS:  Well, my view, and that of a lot of Americans, is there was no reason, none, to go to war in Iraq.  And I don’t understand why you think there was.

EDWARDS:  My belief was—and I believed this at the time, it’s not just what I think now—what my belief was is that Saddam Hussein was ignoring his responsibilities, he kicked out the weapons inspectors, there was no way to know what he was doing and it was important to confront that danger.  And the president had to have the authority to do that.  That did not mean that the president had to rush into this war.  It did not mean that we shouldn’t have had the weapons inspectors back there.  It did not mean we shouldn’t have had others with us when we did it.  All these things that he has made a mess out of are his responsibility.  I mean, that’s what he should have done.  But he didn’t do it.

And the president has to do this stuff, Don.  He’s the one with the responsibility for doing it.

IMUS:  But there was...

EDWARDS:  By the way, I want to be clear with you.  I’m not arguing that knowing everything we know today, that he didn’t have weapons, that there’s no connection to 9/11, that there’s no serious connection to Al Qaida, that this invasion is what should have been done.  I’m not saying that. I’m just saying whoever the president was at that time had to have the authority to deal with Saddam and that’s what this was about.

IMUS:  Back to this inviting the terrorist nuclear attack, the vice president implied that were Senator Kerry and you elected that I’m paraphrasing the vice president—well, you know what he said--President Bush and Vice President Cheney, that electing them would invite a terrorist nuclear attack?

EDWARDS:  No, of course not.

IMUS:  Well, that’s what Senator Kennedy seemed to be saying.

EDWARDS:  That’s certainly not what I was saying.  That’s why I asked you a minute ago, because I had not heard what Senator Kennedy said, the business about the terrorists being at the end.

What I know is true is that Iran and North Korea have moved forward with their nuclear weapons program.  This president has basically ceded the responsibility for dealing with Iran to the Europeans and with the North Koreans to the Chinese, which is a huge mistake because they create such a threat to America and it creates a much more serious nuclear threat to America.  And I believe—I do believe that’s true.

So, no, I wouldn’t say—was I saying what Cheney said, is that what you’re asking?

IMUS:  Yes.

EDWARDS:  No, absolutely not.

IMUS:  OK.  Because there’s a front page story in the Washington Post this morning suggesting—maybe they’re talking more about Senator Kerry adopting the language of the Bush-Cheney axis, but maybe not.

EDWARDS:  No.  I think what Cheney said was outrageous.

IMUS:  If on January 20th Senator Kerry is sworn in and, I don’t know, changes his mind or whatever and you become president, what would you do in Iraq as President Edwards?

EDWARDS:  I think the most important thing to do is to speed up the training of the Iraqis to provide their own security.  It’s going way too slow. We’ve also got to get this reconstruction speeded up, because what’s happening is they don’t see any benefits of what’s happening— the electricity, the water.  A lot of money has been appropriated, it’s not being used.  This is whatr countries who can participate, who I think would participate if we had a new president with the credibility to get them involved. I think those are the things that need to be done.

IMUS:  I had a bunch of people on my staff—and who are all pretty incompetent, by the way—and the MSNBC staff, go through everything that you said during the primary process to see if we could find something horrible that you had said about Senator Kerry.

EDWARDS:  Yes.  I bet you did.

IMUS:  And we couldn’t find anything.  But at some point...

EDWARDS:  You couldn’t find anything?

IMUS:  Not really, no.  Other than you came from a working-class thing and the implication was that he didn’t, which is fine. But at some point, there was a point where you thought you’d make a better president than he did.  When did you decide that that was not the case, or have you?

EDWARDS:  I think that John Kerry will make a great president.

IMUS:  No, but that doesn’t answer the question.

EDWARDS:  I know it doesn’t answer the question.

(LAUGHTER)

IMUS:  Why wouldn’t you want to do that?

(LAUGHTER)

EDWARDS: What, are you like Russert now? 

IMUS:  Hardly. Boy, he looks angry, doesn’t he?  Man, I’m glad he is not one of the moderators. Who’s moderating your debate?

EDWARDS:  Gwen Ifill.

IMUS:  She is no pushover, either, by the way.

EDWARDS:  No.  She’s tough.

IMUS:  You’ve just talked about getting our allies involved and Senator Kerry specified, and you did in Rolling Stone, France, Germany, Russia in this reconstruction effort.  Why would these countries, for whatever reason—I understand they have this civil war in their backyard, but it wouldn’t be the first one they had— why would they want to send their construction workers to Iraq to be beheaded?

EDWARDS:  That is a good question. I think, first of all, to get them involved they’re going to have to believe that they’re not just involved in sending troops or not just involved in sending reconstruction workers; they’re going to actually be involved in deciding what’s going to happen.  In other words, they’re going to be in the decision making; they’re not just going to be told by America what’s going to happen.

I don’t think it’s an easy sell.  I wouldn’t say that.  I think it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be difficult to get them involved, because of this hole Bush has put us in.  But I do think, especially if we do the other things that I talked about, I think there is a real possibility of getting that accomplished.

IMUS:  What’s the ultimate goal there in a Kerry-Edwards administration for Iraq?  To create this democracy that—this idiotic plan that the Bush administration has and all these neocons and this big world view they have, or just as Senator Kerry seems to be suggesting with his four-year plan—as I pointed out to him, it would be a four-year plan barring some scandal in his administration— I just can’t take all this that that seriously, I guess I should.  I love my country and you guys. 

EDWARDS:  What was that?

(LAUGHTER)

IMUS:  I don’t know.  I’m not in a good mood today.  My wife didn’t pack my lunch and I’m just—and you guys are behind and they’re making fun of me and they’re making fun of Senator Kerry’s tan and I’m irritable.  Everybody on the program supports President Bush except me.

EDWARDS:  So, was there a question in there somewhere?

IMUS:  Somewhere, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

And my question is, what is—is the goal to create this democracy in Iraq in a Kerry-Edwards administration, or simply to get our troops out of there and leave it in not as big a mess as it is now?

EDWARDS:  Well, if I can use my words instead of yours, I think the goal is for it to be stable, for it to be relatively secure, and for the Iraqis to be governing themselves I would hope with at least a pluralistic government.  And we would be hopeful that they would be moving toward democracy.  But I think that’s the basic goal.

IMUS:  But is it win at any cost or...

EDWARDS:  What does that mean?

IMUS:  Well, I mean, you know, to—I’m not sure I understand the answer. My point is that their goal is to win at any cost, and that means, in the view of Rumsfeld and all these other people, to create this utopian democracy.  And I don’t know that I—maybe I wasn’t paying attention.

EDWARDS:  No.  I think—we’re committed—we’re there.  We’re committed to success.  We think to be successful you have to do things differently than what they’re doing, and basically it’s the things I just talked about.

IMUS:  Time magazine—I actually asked Senator Kerry about this, about this horrible month you all had in August, the Swift boat ads, the Republican convention and Zell Miller.  Boy, he went—he just freaked out, didn’t he?

EDWARDS:  Really.  Really.  Tell me about it.

IMUS:  And we’ve known him for years and he’s—Charles and I—we actually broadcast from the governor’s mansion down there, and he seemed like he was maybe he was on his medication, I’m not sure.  But anyway. The vice president suggesting the stuff we already talked about, inviting another terrorist attack if they elect you guys.

My question, for him and for you, Senator Kerry said, well, he was surprised that the president and the—of his unwillingness to walk away from the various comments.

And my question for him and for you is you had to already know that they were willing to do and say anything.  Look what they did to McCain.  So why were you all so slow to respond to all this stuff, which made it enormously frustrating for people who support you?

EDWARDS:  No, I understand that.

You know, just to be direct about this, I think that if you watch what we’ve been doing in these recent attack ads, everything—all the attacks they’ve lost on John Kerry, we have been responding strongly and forcefully.  When they lie, we say it’s a lie.

And we’re focused on the next 30-some-odd days.  You know, maybe when this election is all over, we’ll go back and start analyzing what happened in July or June or August, but that’s not what I’m thinking about right now.  I’m thinking about making sure we win on Election Day so that you quit whining on the show.

(LAUGHTER)

IMUS:  How important is tomorrow night?

EDWARDS:  It’s important.

IMUS:  Is it huge?

EDWARDS:  It’s important.  I don’t know if it’s huge. 

IMUS:  Well, that’s what these loudmouths all say, Chris Matthews, and Russert and all these...

EDWARDS:  I think it’s important, but I would say also, I think there’s a lot of focus on John, and I understand that— it’s also important for George Bush, because people in this country aren't nearly as dumb and naive as George Bush thinks they are.  You know, he keeps saying things are going well, that there are no mistakes in Iraq.  All people have to do is turn their television on to know what’s going on.  You said it earlier.  Americans are being kidnapped and beheaded, and parts of the country are under the control of insurgents and terrorists blowing into the country from all over the world; over 1,000 Americans have lost their lives there.  People know all these things.

And the question is, is the president finally going to come clean and tell the American people truth about what’s happening in Iraq?  It will be interesting to see whether he keeps trying to say everything is going well, because everybody know that’s not true.

IMUS:  President Bush, even I would admit, is a likable guy, whereas Vice President Cheney is an evil presence on the planet, in my view; even more evil than Al Gore was, if that’s even possible.  When do you debate him?

EDWARDS:  Tuesday.

IMUS:  Are there as many constraints on that debate as there are on this one?

EDWARDS:  Oh, yes, yes, yes.  You know, he got what he wanted.  They wanted, the Bush-Cheney campaign, wanted it to be 90 minutes, sitting at a table, as it was when he debated Lieberman back in 2000.  They got all the things they wanted.  So we’re going to be sitting at a table, to answer your question.

IMUS:  Will you be able to ask each other questions?

EDWARDS:  No.

IMUS:  You can’t?

EDWARDS:  No.  No.  It’s the same—it’s basically the same format.  It’s a question and a two-minute answer, then a 90-second response, and then there’s, like, another minute for back and forth.

IMUS:  Are you up for this?

EDWARDS:  Am I up for it?

IMUS:  Yes.

EDWARDS:  Yes.

IMUS:  I want you to go in there and pretend that he’s just run over—that he was drunk in a car and killed an entire family and you’re representing that family.

EDWARDS:  Oh, I’m ready for this.

IMUS:  I want you to get right in his face.

EDWARDS:  I hear you.

IMUS:  We’re counting on you.

EDWARDS:  I know that.  Not just you.

IMUS:  Don’t go in there grinning and all that.

EDWARDS:  Yes, I know.  This is serious business, I understand that.

IMUS:  You’ve got to win this thing, because I’m going to look like a moron. Good luck, Senator Edwards.

EDWARDS:  Thank you.

IMUS:  Thanks.

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