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A conversation with candidate Kerry

Sen. John Kerry talks to Tom Brokaw about the campaign, Iraq, the war on terror, and other issues of the day

Just days before the start of the Democratic National Convention, Sen. John Kerry sat down with Tom Brokaw in Boston.  This is the complete transcript of their conversation.

Tom Brokaw: Senator, at the end of this week in Boston, what will the American people learn about you that will surprise them?

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.: Well, I don't know if it will surprise them, Tom, but they will learn two things primarily. Number one, they'll learn my strength, my loyalty, my passion for our country. They'll learn about me personally as a father.

But equally importantly, or more, they'll learn about my plans to lead America to a better place. We can make this country stronger at home and we can be respected in the world again. And I have a plan to do that. And they'll know that.

Brokaw: There are breaking stories before we get to the convention. Tomorrow, the 9/11 commission will make its report. We've already heard that the commission will say both the Clinton and the Bush administration failed to respond effectively to the threat of terrorism. Does that remove blame for the 9/11 attacks as a campaign issue in this election?

Kerry: Well, I haven't made — I haven't made them an issue. I mean I'm not looking to cast blame. I'm looking to take America to a safer place.

And what I'm running to do … is to offer the leadership that makes our country safer. Now I believe there are things we could have done in the last three years since 9/11, the last two years, we haven't done. And I've laid those out very clearly.

John Edwards and I have a plan to strengthen America's intelligence gathering. I have a plan to rebuild our alliances in the world so that we're once again operating with other countries. I have a plan to be able to strengthen our military. To do the homeland security that we should have done here at home so our ports are more secure, our chemical facilities, our nuclear plants are more secure.

I don't need to go backwards. I want to go forwards. And I think the American people want us to go forwards.

Brokaw: Do you think that there will be … a need for national ID of some kind?

Kerry: It's very possible. I — it's something that's been talked around for a long period of time.

Brokaw: A lot of people think that's an interference with your basic civil liberties. That the government ought not to have — access to your personal life and on file somewhere?

Kerry: Well, it — it ought to be studied and analyzed properly. It depends on what the safeguards are, obviously. But people run around with credit cards that have their photographs on it, passports that have photographs and identification numbers in them and driver's licenses that have photographs on them.

I mean there's enough information — any American who thinks there isn't already this incredible bank of information isn't keeping up with what's happened. I think it's important to protect people's rights and protect civil liberties. And I believe this administration has not struck the right balance between protecting our Constitutional rights in America and making America safe. And that's something that John and I will continue to talk about as we go forward.

Brokaw: Do you think that there ought to be some kind of an intelligence czar over the CIA and the FBI so that agencies work more closely together and more efficiently?

Kerry: Absolutely. I think the word czar is the wrong word. I was thinking about the analogy the other day. It's more like a flag officer in the military or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But you need someone who has budget authority, who has the coordination capacity to bring together all of the various strands of information and all of the various standards and techniques and the personnel so that we are really protecting America to the best of our ability.

I'm convinced that when you have as many watch lists as you have today, some of which are not shared with authorities who have responsibilities for homeland security, we're not protecting America. We can do a better job. I intend to do a better job. And it will begin by having a National Intelligence Director. Yes.

Brokaw: Has it also been a failure of the United States Senate as well in its oversight of those agencies? The FBI and the CIA?

Kerry: Tom, it's the president's job as the chief executive to propose — to make things happen that really administer correctly. That do the job of implementation. It's the president who chooses the CIA director. It's the president who appoints the secretary of defense, secretary of state. Each of them have their own intelligence gathering techniques and processes.

I recommended this a long time ago. Not only did I recommend it a long time ago, but after the president's state of the union message after 9/11 — which was a great message incidentally. I think he deserves great credit for having unified the country. And I give him credit for that.

But I came out of that speech and said, "Unless you give Tom Ridge direct authority, unless you give him a budget, unless you make him responsible for all of these parts, it won't work." For a year and a half, the administration waited and waited and waited and waited. And finally in a time of war, they did what Joe Lieberman and others, Democrats, had been urging them to do.

I think we need leadership that gets ahead of the curve. And I think having a National Director for Intelligence is part of how we strengthen America.

Brokaw: If you're elected and if Sandy Berger clears his name in time, will he have a prominent part in your administration?

Kerry: I have no way — you know, I'm not even getting into the guessing game of who might or might not play a role. We're involved in a campaign. My focus is on every day of this effort to talk to Americans…

Brokaw: Did you know…

Kerry: …getting to know the Americans.

Brokaw: Did you know that he was under investigation?

Kerry: I didn't have a clue. Not a clue.

Brokaw: He didn't share that with you?

Kerry: I didn't have a clue.

Brokaw: Let me ask you about Iraq. The insurgents obviously are going after the interim government and the idea of sovereignty. If this interim government comes to the United States and says, "Look, we're in danger of being toppled here. We're going to need more American troops on the ground in Iraq," would you support that idea?

Kerry: Not in a vacuum. Not all by itself without doing the other things necessary that this president should have done to protect our troops in Iraq. And to maximize the opportunity for success.

This president, I believe, has lost credibility, sadly, with too many players that are important to making this a successful long-term effort, at least cost. At least cost in lives. At least cost in dollars to the American people. So I would — want to make sure that we're doing this in a way that just doesn't feed a dark hole.

Brokaw: What are the circumstances…

Kerry: …and that means…

Brokaw: …that there would be — more American troops acceptable to you in Iraq?

Kerry: Tom, that's I think the wrong way to come at the question. The question is how do we maximize the ability to succeed in not having a failed state in Iraq. And the way to maximize that is to bring other nations to the table who have a stake in the outcome.

The Arab countries, for instance, have a vital stake in not having a failed Iraq as their neighbor. But they're not at the table in a sufficient way. The European countries have a vital stake in not having a failed Iraq on their doorstep. But too many of them are absent from the table.

And one of the principal reasons why is the failure of this president to do this — the hard work of diplomacy that brings people to your side. That exhausts the available remedies so you maximize America's ability to succeed. That's what I will do. I will do the hard work because we need to have a success, obviously.

Brokaw: Senator, with all due respect, I've talked to a lot of European leaders and officials of the United Nations. They're resistance to getting involved is firm and deep and it doesn't have to do just with George Bush. What makes you think that they'll be more responsive to you as president than they would be to George Bush who went to NATO and asked for help and got less than a full loaf?

Kerry: Everybody who has been part of this effort over the last years… who's had any kind of engagement with those countries, Tom, will tell you that this administration has not invited them in a way that gives them the prospect of success and shares with them the responsibility for decision-making.

Essentially, it's been a, "Hey, come on in. We want you to help us. But by the way, we're going to make sure Halliburton and our companies are doing the reconstruction. And we're going to make sure that we're the ones calling the shots on everything that happens."

That is not an invitation to people to share in this kind of global effort. I am convinced, from people who've traveled abroad, colleagues of mine, talk to Senator Biden, talk to other colleagues who've traveled abroad. And they'll tell you there is a different equation that could be put in place. And I am basing it on my knowledge of 20 years of working with these countries and on the imperatives of what is at stake in the region.

Brokaw: As you know, the United States has no better friend in the region than King Abdullah of Jordan. And he told me recently that now there is hostility toward not just the American government but the American people. And the root of it all, the root of terrorism, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And he says, "That's what not clearly understood in this country." And yet you and President Bush fully support Ariel Sharon's policies in Gaza.

Kerry: The policy that Ariel Sharon announced in Gaza is the policy that in effect was arrived at in the negotiations and agreed to by all parties. And people who are claiming that the adoption of that policy is somehow a road block to the ability to make peace are really frankly once again exploiting the issues in the region.

That is not the recognition with respect to right of return. Right of return has always been a non-starter in any negotiation whatsoever. And the fact is that the annexation of territory… was agreed to in the last negotiations.  The Palestinians know it and the Arab community knows it.

What is missing is a Palestinian entity that can actually deliver peace. And you saw the riots in the streets the other day as people are rising up against Arafat's own failed leadership.

Now I believe that I know this region well enough and I know the players well enough — I know King Abdullah, I know Crown Prince Abdullah. I know President Mubarak and others. I believe that with the right engagement by the United States, restoring our sense of — honest broker, and getting back to the table in an engaged way.

And also dealing with Iraq more effectively. Iraq also makes the political equation exceedingly difficult for any of those countries. I will change the politics of the region. And I will do it not just with strength, with the military ability.

I will do it in the power of our ideals. Will all the tools in our arsenal. And I will make America safer in doing it. And I believe we can bring peace to the Middle East.

Brokaw: You once described the new Israel security fence as a barrier to peace. The United Nations General Assembly now has voted 150 to six against the idea of that fence. But you've changed your position on the fence?

Kerry: That's actually not what I said in the speech. What I said is it should not become a barrier to peace.

Brokaw: Do you think it is?

Kerry: Based on — based on the question of where its lines might be drawn. And that was the — this administration's policy also, incidentally. The Bush administration objected to some of the locations.

I've always said Israel has a right to build a fence to provide for its security. And I believe it does. And it is appropriate in the absence of any legitimate entity with which to negotiate to protect the security of the people of Israel.

That's what the Prime Minister was doing. So I think the location was a legitimate question. And I think the administration itself raised those issues.

Brokaw: We've learned a lot more about Iran as a result of the 9/11 commission as well. That while it may not have had a role in 9/11 attacks, it certainly was associating with al-Qaida operatives…

Kerry: Right.

Brokaw: …in moving through that part of the world. There's strong evidence that Iran is in pursuit of a nuclear weapon at some stage. There's also strong evidence that it's now meddling in Iraq. So was President Bush wrong to characterize it as part of the Axis of Evil? Iran?

Kerry: I think that the term Axis of Evil is a misapplied term, frankly. Historically and in terms of the president. Iran is a problem. Iran in fact was a greater problem than Iraq at the time that the president started the war in Iraq. North Korea was a greater problem than Iraq at that time the president started the war in Iraq.

I believe this administration has ignored some of the things we could have done with respect to Iran. Look at what the British, French and Germans did with respect to their initiative. The United States should be leading that initiative, Tom.

The United States of America should have long ago offered the following deal. If Iran is serious about not pursuing nuclear weapons, we'll supply you with the nuclear power and we'll contain the nuclear material that's created as a result. And therefore you get your power if it's really only for peaceful purposes. We also could have pursued a far more aggressive and thoughtful counter-proliferation effort on nuclear and chemical and biological weapons internationally than this administration has.

So I believe the president took the license given him in Afghanistan to fight al-Qaida. And frankly has ignored some of the most critical challenges to the security of our country. I will provide a greater security — to the United States by pursuing more aggressively those opportunities than this administration has.

Brokaw: Obviously the United States has an enormous investment, short-term and long-term in the Middle East. If you're elected president, will you go to that part of the world and convene some kind of an extraordinary summit of the Arab nations and put additional pressure on them to reform politically and economically?

Kerry: At the appropriate time and the appropriate ways. I have laid out a greater Middle Eastern initiative, Tom, which I think it's critical for our country to pursue. As I said a moment ago, we have to pursue all of the arsenals — all of the tools that are in our arsenal.

That includes economic engagements. We haven't been sufficiently economically engaged. It includes other ways of moving them.

I will do what is necessary — to move the Middle East to a very different place. And I believe I have a plan to do that. And I hope I get the opportunity to do it.

Brokaw: Let me ask you about outsourcing. Its obviously going to be a big domestic issue in this campaign. You're an internationalist. You portray yourself as a free trader. Most economists say it is a fixed part of free trade in this global economy. What is your honest, fixed opinion about outsourcing of American jobs?

Kerry: My honest, fixed opinion is exactly what I've told business people and exactly what I've told UAW workers in the union hall. Outsourcing will occur. And America is going to compete abroad.

But Tom, the question is whether we're gonna create a cushion for those people affected with health care, job training, with ongoing adult education. And most importantly, are we going to stop the nonsense of actually having incentives in our tax code that reward a company for taking jobs overseas?

At least you ought to have neutrality in the marketplace. And what I'm going to do is end the rewards. I'm gonna end the loopholes. I'm going to have not — I'm not going to reward non-economic transactions.

I'm going to reward the creation of jobs here in America. And I'm going to fight for a fair playing field for the American worker to compete on.

Brokaw: Both the Economic Union and the World Trade Organization believe that the United States should sharply cut back farm subsidies in this country because they're unfair to third world countries who cannot compete with American agriculture. In the Kerry administration, would you seriously consider cutting back on farm subsides?

Kerry: I would like to change the structure of our subsidies, which incidentally are unbelievably weighted towards large business versus small family farmers. I want small family farmers to be helped. Legitimate farmers.

And I will approach the question, internationally, of the overall subsidy structure. We need to look at it. We're going to have to show leadership to deal it.

Brokaw: But both in terms of farm subsidies and outsourcing of jobs, isn't that an attempt to level the playing field around the world? And isn't that in the long-term best interest of the United States to give other countries the opportunity to have the kind of wealth, individually and collectively, that America has?

Kerry: Sure. But it has to be done in a fair way, Tom. I mean what's happened today is the relationship in trade is out of whack. We've got people who close their markets to us.

They manipulate currency. They don't enforce the intellectual property laws. They're playing all kinds of games with child labor and other issues. And we don't stand up for our values and our principle. And we don't fight for the American worker.

I'm going to fight to — to try to level that field a bit. Are we going to trade? Yes, we're going to trade. Yes, I have voted for trade. I think it's important to trade. I want America to compete in the world.

And yes, we have to lift other people's economies. But you do it by enforcing the law properly. This administration has turned its back on the law and abandoned workers in Ohio and Michigan and Wisconsin and other states. And I'm not going to stand by and watch that happen.

Brokaw: Let me talk to you about the tone and the language of this campaign. As you know, the Republicans are making a great deal out of the benefit for you at Radio City Music Hall in which you said the entertainers represented the heart and soul of America. Were you entirely comfortable with the language that was used that night and the behavior of some…

Kerry: No, I was…

Brokaw: … of the…

Kerry: ... uncomfortable with that. And I've said so yesterday. And I think some entertainers stepped over the line, Tom. And that happens. They don't speak for my campaign per se. They speak as individual Americans.

You know that sometimes people choose words that are inappropriate. Some of those words were inappropriate. But let's be clear, John Edwards and I, neither of us have run one negative advertisement in this campaign. Neither against each other nor against our opponents in the primaries. My campaign has run no negative advertising against George Bush.

George Bush has spent 85 to 90 million dollars misleading America about my record. And being negative. I think Americans want a positive campaign. And John Edwards and I are looking forward to taking a positive, optimistic message about our country out to our fellow Americans.

We're going to have a great tour. Coming out of this convention we're going to go listen and talk with and to America. And we're looking forward to that.

Brokaw: Julian Bond, who's the head of the NAACP, said the other day that the Republican party's idea of equality is flying the American flag and what he calls a swastika of a Confederate flag, side by side. Does that make it more difficult for you to attract so called NASCAR dads and other swing voters in America?

Kerry: Well, I hope not. I mean I hope — you know, I think people in America understand that there's an anger in certain people. There's a frustration. I'm feeling it all across the country right now.

People are frustrated. They want real problems dealt with, Tom. People are paying $2,600 more for health care. People are paying more for tuition. They've gone up 35 percent in the last year. But wages are going down. There're a lot of African Americans who are still very angry about having lost the votes in the last election where they were disenfranchised by being just written off the rolls.

So sometimes people choose ways of expressing that anger that doesn't sit well with everybody. I understand that. I'm running for president. I want to be president of all Americans. Republicans, Democrats, Independents.

And so I'm trying to choose language that I think reflects the nature of the role I'm asking Americans to allow me to assume. And I don't agree when we get that kind of anger in our language. We have to stop it.

Brokaw: Two quick questions about Massachusetts. You're a son of Massachusetts running for president. In 1988 another son of Massachusetts left the Democratic convention with a 17 point lead over this President's father and lost in the general election. What did you learn from Michael Dukakis' experience?

Kerry: Well, lots of things. First of all, he came back to Massachusetts and spent three weeks touring the state. I'm not going to do that.

I think secondly Michael will tell you, he'd be the first to tell you, he didn't fight back when he was attacked. From day one, and they've attacked me a lot, I've stood up and fought back. And I think Americans want to know that if they're going to trust you with the presidency and the willingness to fight for them and for our country, you better be willing to fight in the campaign and show them that. I am. I'm ready to do this job, Tom. And that's what I think people will sense at the end of this convention.

Brokaw: It's not just the Democratic convention that's in Boston this weekend. The Yankees and the Red Sox. (laughter)

Kerry: I know.

Brokaw: All right.

Kerry: It's a great rivalry.

Brokaw: Who wins the series?

Kerry: Well, I'm — I'm — well, who do you think. I mean so — hope springs eternal. We always say this could be the year. I'm — I'm obviously betting on the Red Sox.

Brokaw: Is it any kind of an omen for the political season?

Kerry: The only omen that I know of so far is the Redskins game against the Packers on October 31st. And that's an important one.

[Editor’s note:  Among many oddball predictors of presidential elections, it turns out that since 1932, if the Washington Redskins won their last home game prior to Election Day, the White House incumbent won the election while a win or a tie for the visiting team coincided with a win for the challenger.]

Brokaw: Thank you. Senator, thank you very much.

Kerry: Delighted.

Brokaw: Best wishes.

Kerry: Thank you, Tom.