Pledging to “restore trust and credibility to the White House,” Sen. John Kerry accepted the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday night by promising to defeat terrorism but to “never mislead us into war.”
As he bounded up on the podium at the FleetCenter in Boston, Kerry, 60, the junior senator from Massachusetts, saluted sharply and said, “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty!” He then challenged President Bush on the war in Iraq and told Democratic delegates and a national audience that he would “bring back this nation’s time-honored tradition: The United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to.”
For all four days of the Democratic National Convention, most speakers obeyed party leaders’ instructions to avoid attacks on Bush. But when Kerry took the podium shortly after 10 p.m. ET — wading through the crowd of delegates on the floor to the strains of Bruce Springsteen’s “No Surrender” — he brought with him an indictment charging the administration with abandoning U.S. forces overseas during wartime, misusing the Constitution “for political purposes” and selling out the middle class to wealthy special interests.
After four years of the Bush administration, he said, the task at hand was to “reclaim democracy itself.” He accused Bush and his team of “wrapping themselves in the flag and shutting their eyes and ears to the truth,” declaring: “We are here to affirm that when Americans stand up and speak their minds and say America can do better, that is not a challenge to patriotism; it is the heart and soul of patriotism.”
Kerry a ‘hero’; Bush a ‘fraud’
Throughout the convention, speaker after speaker had reminded delegates of Kerry’s service in Vietnam, a theme that was culminated when he was joined on the podium by several of his former Navy crewmates.
He was introduced by former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia, who lost three limbs in Vietnam. Cleland emotionally described Kerry as “an authentic American hero” who had “never let me down.”
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, whom Kerry defeated for the presidential nomination, made the other half of the Democrats’ military case against Bush. Clark brought the crowd to its feet earlier in the evening with a hard-edged address in which he denounced the president from the perspective of a career soldier.
In particular, Clark accused Bush of acting as though the Republicans had “a monopoly on the best defense of our nation.” By doing so, he said, Bush was “committing a fraud on the American people.”
“Enough is enough,” Clark said. “A safe America — a just America — that’s what we want; that’s what we need.”
‘Help is on the way’
Speaking from the perspective of a decorated veteran, Kerry argued that Bush had cynically led the United States into war in Iraq on false pretenses.
“Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn’t make it so,” Kerry said. “Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn’t make it so. And proclaiming ‘mission accomplished’ certainly doesn’t make it so.”
Kerry accused Bush of letting the military wither even as it was fighting a deadly war thousands of miles away.
“We will add 40,000 active-duty troops, not in Iraq, but to strengthen American forces that are now overstretched, overextended and under pressure,” he said, specifically criticizing the administration for recalling National Guard members and reservists to active duty after they had completed their presumed commitments, a practice he denounced as “the backdoor draft.”
“On my first day in office, I will send a message to every man and woman in our armed forces: You will never be asked to fight a war without a plan to win the peace,” he said.
“To all who serve in our armed forces today, I say: Help is on the way.”
And he had promises for Democrats concerned by what many have characterized as the arrogance of the Bush administration:
“I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war.
“I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws.
“I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders.
“And I will appoint an attorney general who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States.”
Echoes of Clinton
A binding theme throughout was Kerry’s contention that the United States had lost much of its respect around the world by marching into Iraq without significant allied support.
“We need to make America once again a beacon in the world,” Kerry says. “We need to be looked up to and not just feared.”
But even as he denounced the president, Kerry portrayed Democrats as “optimists” who were more interested in looking to the future than to the past. At one point, he addressed Bush directly:
“In the weeks ahead, let’s be optimists, not just opponents. Let’s build unity in the American family, not angry division,” he said. “Let’s honor this nation’s diversity, let’s respect one another and let’s never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States.”
At the same time, Kerry completed the party’s rehabilitation of former President Bill Clinton, who was virtually cast aside four years ago by his own vice president, Al Gore.
Kerry urged Americans to recall the Clinton years, when “we balanced the budget, we paid down the debt, we created 23 million new jobs, we lifted millions out of poverty and we lifted the standard of living for the middle class.”
“We just need to believe in ourselves, and we can do it again,” he said.
Edwards sets up final night
The program all week was carefully calculated to appeal to middle-class swing voters in closely contested states, and in his address, Kerry skipped over some of the more left-leaning positions he had staked out during the primary season.
He never mentioned abortion rights, for example, but he said he made violence against women a priority as a prosecutor. He never mentioned his anti-war activism after he returned from Vietnam, but he said he had bucked many in his party to vote for a balanced budget and had supported funding to hire more police officers on the street.
Kerry also did not address his votes first to authorize the war in Iraq but then not to approve new funding, an omission the Republicans jumped on.
“It’s disappointing that John Kerry’s frank talk stopped with a discussion of his complexities and failed to include an explanation of his inconsistencies and contradictions on the central front in the war on terror,” said Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush campaign.
“John Kerry missed an opportunity to help the American people understand his vote for the war in Iraq based on the same intelligence that the president viewed, his description of himself as an anti-war candidate and his subsequent vote against troops on the front lines. He’s right, America can do better.”
The appeal to swing voters got fully under way Wednesday night, when his running mate, John Edwards, a freshman senator from North Carolina, promised a positive, solutions-filled campaign and offered an extensive but short-on-details program for a Kerry-Edwards administration.
“Between now and November, you — the American people — you can reject the tired, old, hateful, negative, politics of the past,” said Edwards, who was formally nominated for vice president before Kerry spoke Thursday night. “And instead, you can embrace the politics of hope, the politics of what’s possible, because this is America, where everything is possible.”
Edwards promised Wednesday that Kerry would push through a tax break and reform the health care system to lower insurance premiums by as much as $1,000. To cover the rising costs of child care, he promised a tax credit up to $1,000, and he offered a tax break on up to $4,000 in college tuition, an unspecified rise in the minimum wage and a program to reform welfare. But he did not say how such a program would be sold to a Congress likely to remain in Republican hands.
“We had a great time last night, didn’t we?” Edwards asked delegates from Ohio during a round of visits Thursday. “And we’re going to have an even better time tonight when we hear from the next president of the United States.”
Visiting four delegations from battleground states, Edwards said Kerry understood the struggles of middle-class Americans and what they wanted from their leader.
“They want a president who understands the lives of regular people, who understands what it means when they lose a job, who understands if they can’t pay for health care any more, can’t pay for child care anymore,” Edwards told the Ohio delegation. “They’re being squeezed.”
On the road again
Kerry and Edwards leave Friday on a 3,500-mile, coast-to-coast campaign swing through 21 states. After spending the week at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush, too, intends to resume campaigning with a bus tour through battleground states stretching from Pennsylvania to Missouri.
The pre-convention polls showed Kerry even to slightly ahead of Bush, a strong position for a challenger. Whatever sort of surge in support he receives from his convention, Republicans hope to counter next month, when they meet in New York to nominate Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney for re-election.
Bush’s kept up their convention-week criticism of the Kerry-Edwards ticket to the end in terms likely to recur throughout their own convention.
“Everything and anything has been discussed but their record,” former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said of the Democrats, joining a string of Republicans accusing Kerry of trying to obscure a career-long record of liberalism.
After three days of calm in a heavily fortified city, burned a two-faced effigy depicting Bush on one side and Kerry on the other. A demonstrator wearing a black hood was dragged from the crowd and detained by police.