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Interview With Senator John Kerry

Aired January 23, 2004 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE: He surprised everyone in the Hawkeye State.

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thank you, Iowa, for making me the comeback Kerry.


ANNOUNCER: He's working hard to win New Hampshire.

KERRY: Four hours sleep a night, some all-nighters, a lot of cold pizza, an occasional warm beer, and a lot of Hostess cupcakes. Folks, I feel like I'm back in exam week in college.

ANNOUNCER: The toughest part is still ahead. Today, Senator John Kerry is in the CROSSFIRE, while Wesley Clark is getting help from Hollywood. Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen explain why the four- star general is gaining star support -- today on CROSSFIRE.


ANNOUNCER: Live from the CNN Election Express in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Hello, everybody. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The CNN Election Express today sailed into Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a town that was first settled in 1623, making it the third oldest city in the United States. Of course, back when Bob Novak was a boy, Portsmouth was the hub of the whaling industry. And today, seven would-be Ahabs are here in New Hampshire to fight over the chance to take over the Moby Dick of the GOP, George W. Bush.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Our big catch today is Senator and presidential candidate John Kerry. We have also landed a couple of Hollywood stars who support General Wesley Clark.

But we're the anchors, so we can start with the best little political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert." Howard Dean, trying to rehabilitate himself after his infamous Iowa rant, picked a funny way to do it, listing for David Letterman the top 10 ways to turn things around.

Here was way No. 1.


HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, I don't know, maybe fewer crazy red-faced rants.



NOVAK: One rant was enough. The only sensible explanation of his conduct came from the Reverend Al Sharpton.


AL SHARPTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I wanted to say to Governor Dean, don't be hard on yourself about hooting and hollering. If I had spent the money you did and got 18 percent, I'd still be in Iowa hooting and hollering.



NOVAK: Well, nobody ever claimed Howard Dean is as smart or funny as Al Sharpton.

BEGALA: That was a great line from the debate. Dean's got a lot of work to do to make up for the mistakes that he made in Iowa, not just that -- that rant that night, but the whole collapse that he's had there, which is, I think, is continuing down here in New Hampshire.

NOVAK: The question is, is there a bottom to Howard Dean? Has he hit bottom and going to settle in as No. 2? Or is it down, down, down the escalator for Governor Dean?


BEGALA: Well, he's got a base. The question is, do those voters feel like he let them down?

Speaking of letting us down, Halliburton, Dick Cheney's old company, has for months denied wrongdoing in its lucrative no-bid contract in Iraq. But "The Wall Street Journal" report reports today that Halliburton has confessed that its employees have received kickbacks of as much as $6 million from a Kuwaiti company.

News of the Halliburton kickbacks comes just days after the Pentagon's chief auditor asked the inspector general to investigate charges that Halliburton overcharged the taxpayers $61 million for fuel. Vice President Cheney defended Halliburton earlier this week, saying -- quote -- "They get unfairly maligned simply because of their past association with me."

Although he's the vice president, Mr. Cheney still receives over $150,000 a year from Halliburton, money that I suppose Halliburton thinks is a pretty good investment.

NOVAK: Paul, you're not terribly interested in facts when it comes to Halliburton. But let me acquaint you with a couple of facts.

No. 1, the malefactors you mention from Halliburton were turned in to -- were fired and turned in to the government by Halliburton. They're the ones who informed the government


BEGALA: That's because the Bush administration is not policing them. That's proof that George Bush is not police


NOVAK: Do you mind if I talk while you're


BEGALA: Go ahead.

NOVAK: Well, just let me finish.

They informed the government of this -- of this thing. So don't attack Halliburton. Secondly, the money that Dick Cheney receives is for past services on extended payments, not for anything he is doing now. And you know that. You know that.


BEGALA: Past services, when he was selling oil field equipment to Saddam Hussein. He's a disgrace.

NOVAK: General Wesley Clark plowed new ground for presidential candidates in last night's New Hampshire debate. He kept sneaking peeks at crib notes when asked about abortion.

But he still could not say yes or no when asked about eighth- or, would you believe it, even nine-month abortions. Worse yet was his refusal to condemn leftist propagandist Michael Moore for libeling President Bush as a deserter. Maybe General Wes was auditioning as a replacement for Carville or Begala, not for George W. Bush.

BEGALA: Michael Moore apparently said Bush is a deserter. That's not true. A deserter is someone who leaves during combat. Bush was AWOL. He signed up for a National Guard tour of duty. And a year before it was finished, he stopped showing up. He was AWOL from the Guard for a year. It's a legitimate issue.

NOVAK: It's never been -- that's never been proved on the AWOL.


NOVAK: AWOL, of course, is a crime and could be brought before a court-martial. That's never been the case. But he is not a deserter. And for General Clark, who knows what a deserter is... (BELL RINGING)

NOVAK: ... to sit there and not say that's wrong is disgraceful.

BEGALA: Well, he was AWOL. And that's a bigger disgrace.

Well, in a new interview with National Public Radio, Vice President Dick Cheney says there is -- quote -- "overwhelming evidence" -- unquote -- of a link between al Qaeda and Iraq, even though Secretary of State Colin Powell says there's no proof of a close connection. Mr. Cheney also alleged that two trailers that were found in Iraq are -- quote -- "conclusive evidence" -- unquote -- of Saddam's biological weapons program.

But chief U.S. weapons inspector David Kay has said, no, that's not the case. Mr. Kay says -- quote -- "We have not yet been able to corroborate the existence of a mobile biological weapons production effort" -- unquote. Look, somebody's got to give the vice president what my friend Don Imus calls a checkup from the neck up. The man needs help.

NOVAK: Well, if you had read the article carefully, Paul, you'd know that the weapons search is still a work in progress. It's going on. They've got a new weapons inspector.

I think it's an embarrassment that they haven't found any weapons of mass destruction. But it's not over. And get off Dick Cheney's back.


NOVAK: It's really getting sickening.

BEGALA: I've not yet begun.

Well, John Kerry is No. 1 here in the polls in New Hampshire, having surged from a 30-point deficit to a 12-point lead in just a matter of a few weeks. We'll hear from the candidate himself, John Kerry, next.

And also, the stars are coming out for General Wesley Clark. Later on in the program, we will find out why award-winning actors Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen are supporting the former general.

Stay with us.

ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala, Carlson and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to the live Washington audience, call 202-994-8CNN or e-mail us at Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.


NOVAK: Senator John Kerry is up to 34 percent in the latest CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup tracking poll in New Hampshire. That's a nearly 10-point gain since the Iowa caucuses brought Senator Kerry's presidential campaign out of intensive care, with the help of the good Dr. Dean.

As Howard Dean knows, what comes up can come down pretty fast. But unlike the good doctor, Senator Kerry figured he could keep his lead and his cool long enough to step into the CROSSFIRE.

We talked with him this afternoon after a Kerry rally in Manchester.


BEGALA: Let me begin with the news of the day. "The Wall Street Journal" reports that Halliburton has admitted that two employees there accepted $6 million in kickbacks. Meanwhile, the top Pentagon auditor is asking the inspector general to investigate allegations of $61 million of overcharging.

First, what's your response to the news? And, second, do you have a plan to try to control allegations of profiteering by contractors in Iraq?

KERRY: Absolutely.

And you don't give no-bid contracts. That's where it begins, No. 1. No. 2, there's a licensing in this administration of an irresponsibility, if you will. If you give a no-bid contract and people believe that, because the vice president of the United States has a linkage to the company, they somehow have this kind of ongoing immunity, it extends the powerful interests' ability to do what they want to do.

And that's exactly what I think people feel about Washington today. This is an extension of the lack of accountability.

NOVAK: Senator Kerry, at last night's debate, General Clark was asked about a statement made in his presence by Michael Moore that President Bush is a -- was a deserter.

In the absence -- and General Clark said he didn't know anything about that, but he didn't know one way or the other.


NOVAK: In the absence of any -- any allegations to that effect, what do you think of calling the president of the United States a deserter? Or do you have some information that that is accurate?

KERRY: No, obviously, I don't. I think it's over-the-top language, Bob. And I think that's not what my campaign is about.

My campaign is about the American people. It's about bringing our country together, not dividing it, and trying to find a way to make it more fair. We need to put people back to work. We need health care for all Americans. We've got an education system in crisis. And we've got a president who's giving tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, rather than investing in and facing up to those choices, as well as being fiscally responsible. BEGALA: But you've talked a lot about your experiences in Vietnam, had a rally today with several Vietnam veterans. Why not raise the questions about George W. Bush's service?

In truth, your hometown paper, "The Boston Globe..."

KERRY: Well...

BEGALA: ... has reported in great detail that there's not a scrap of evidence that, for a year, that he ever showed up for his National Guard duty. He'd been transferred to the Alabama National Guard.

KERRY: Right.

BEGALA: He never showed up. It's certainly not desertion. But it's certainly not fulfillment of one's obligation. It was your hometown paper. I mean, you must be familiar with


KERRY: Paul, that's not -- that's not the ground I want to fight this campaign on.

And I'm very proud of my service. I'm glad that I got the experience I got. And I'm proud of the friendships I have from it. But a lot of us decided many years ago not to make the other choices people made an issue. It was a very complicated time. It was a very difficult time. What I want to talk about now is the future, how we bring the country together over a war that has been bum-rushed at the American people.

Their -- the president did not do, I think, the diplomacy that the United States of America deserves, that the world deserves, before you take a nation to war. There's no graver decision that a president makes. And when the international community is sending you every signal in the world, slow down, let's do this in a responsible way, a president ought to listen. This president didn't.

And now the American people are over $200 billion out of pocket. Our American soldiers are more exposed than they ought to be, because they are not sharing the risk. It's the wrong way to take a nation to war. It was the right thing to do to stand up to Saddam Hussein, but he's done it in the wrong way.

NOVAK: Senator, the first time I met you, over 30 years ago, you came to Washington as a young war hero who was protesting against the war. It was brought up last night that you threw away your medals.

KERRY: I actually threw away my ribbons, not my medals, yes.

NOVAK: Your medals -- those ribbons means a lot. Your courage and intrepid behavior was an inspiration.


NOVAK: Those ribbons and medals mean a lot to a lot of us.

KERRY: Yes, they do.

NOVAK: Everybody makes mistakes. Do you think that that was a mistake, as a young man who felt that deeply?

KERRY: No, Bob, it was not a mistake. It was a very heartfelt and painful expression, symbol, if you will, of the anger that a lot of veterans felt.

And it was the only way to sort of get the nation's attention and sort of shake the nation and say, hey, look, this is what's happening. I'm proud of what I did in Vietnam personally. I'm proud of the men I served with. I'm proud of what I did to earn those. But, on the other hand, it was a way of saying to the nation, stop, look, and listen. And I think it did that.

I will tell you, it was a very difficult thing for everybody to do. There was great emotion in that ceremony. Those vets were crying. They were angry. But it really teaches you a great lesson about the consequences of the decisions you make about going to war. I remain proud of my service. And I said it then. I said then, I'm prepared to go to war again to defend my nation, but it's got to be with all of the nation coming to the sense that -- or the vast majority of the nation coming to the sense, this is really the last resort and this is what we have to do.

And that's how wars ought to be engaged in.

BEGALA: Well, let me ask you about the current war in Iraq.

The vice president of the United States, one of the chief architects of our policy in Iraq, gave an interview to National Public Radio in which he claims that there is strong ties between al Qaeda and Iraq and that the trailers that were found in Iraq were, in fact, proof of biological weapons. How do you respond to those -- those two assertions from the vice president?

KERRY: Paul, I don't know where the vice president is coming from on that. I mean, you can have an opinion, but you can't make up facts.

The fact is that his own inspector found otherwise. Secretary of State Colin Powell has said otherwise publicly. And when the administration came to us in order to get the authority, they acknowledged there was no smoking-gun, open connection of al Qaeda to Saddam Hussein.

They were given their authority based on the weapons of mass destruction. That's the only rationale that Colin Powell left standing before the Foreign Relations Committee. That's what the president said he would do. And he misled the American people. And we are going to hold him accountable for it.

BEGALA: Is -- is Dick Cheney misleading the American people now?

KERRY: I believe that is not a factual statement.


BEGALA: Senator John Kerry shortly after a rally this afternoon in Manchester with his fellow veterans.

One of his opponents, also a veteran, General Wesley Clark, is getting an awful lot of support from celebrities. So, next, we'll talk to actor Ted Danson and his wife, fellow actor Mary Steenburgen, about why they're campaigning for the four-star general.

Stay with us.


BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE, live from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Howard Dean's once enormous lead here in the Granite State has dissolved faster than a Britney Spears marriage. That has given both John Edwards and Wesley Clark a chance to even perhaps catch up or overtake the former Vermont governor. So, the general has brought in some big guns from Hollywood.

Stepping into the CROSSFIRE from Manchester, New Hampshire, where they're campaigning, are actor Ted Danson and his wife, Mary Steenburgen.

Good to see you both.


NOVAK: Ms. Steenburgen, I'm just dying to know if you agree with your candidate, General Clark, that the president of the United States is a deserter? Desertion is one of the most heinous crimes. It's a felony. You put people in prison. Do you think -- do you think -- do you agree with that?

STEENBURGEN: Well, I don't agree with the spin you just put on it.

If I understand correctly, it was Michael Moore that said that, not Wesley Clark. And I would also say that, if being critical of an administration was a crime, I don't know what you would have had to do during the Clinton administration. So -- so, you know, I think you better keep it straight who said what.

BEGALA: Ted Danson, let me ask you, you've been politically active for a while, but Wesley Clark has not been. One Democrat told me that Wes Clark, for him, was not just a blind date, but a mail- order bride, somebody he had no idea what he was going to look like until he married him. Do you really know a lot about this general before you endorsed him?

TED DANSON, ACTOR: My wife, Mary, introduced me to him. They were both on the commission to choose White House fellows for eight years together. So, they got to know each other quite well.

Mary's mother and Wes Clark's mother worked together in a bank in Little Rock, Arkansas, for many years together. So they do have a history. I was introduced to Wes and to Gert Clark by Mary about five or six years ago. And ever since I met him, I just felt -- I trusted him. I thought that he, for 30 years, 34 years, has been -- his only goal is to serve this country. And I think that is still his only goal, is to serve you and me. And I think he's very practical and very bright.

NOVAK: Mr. Danson, Governor Dean was on the "Letterman" show last night listing 10 ways in which his candidacy could be revived. And he mentioned your name in one of the ways.

Let's listen to it and maybe then you can explain to me what he's talking about.


HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can't give specifics yet, but it involves Ted Danson.



NOVAK: What does that mean?

DANSON: I don't know, but I like it. I have no idea, but it sounds right.


BEGALA: It sounds right to me.

Mary, how do you answer critics, principally on the kook right, who say that actors and artists like yourself and your husband shouldn't be getting involved in politics or telling other people about their political views? How do you respond to that?

STEENBURGEN: Well, I think that -- that it's true that we should be careful what we say. I think that we need to look hard at our beliefs and be responsible about how we speak out.

But I speak out as a citizen. I spoke out before I became a so- called famous person. And I wasn't going to suspend my citizenship and my voice because I became famous. I try to be more judicious about what I say because of that. And, in the end, I don't tell anyone who to vote for. But I can talk about somebody that I know. And I came to New Hampshire to talk about a man that I know well.

NOVAK: I wondered, Ms. Steenburgen, if it's a matter of actors, such as you and your husband, feeling that General Clark is a kindred soul, because he's obviously reading lines that somebody else prepares for him, just as you do when you go before the cameras. Is that a fair analysis? STEENBURGEN: Well, it's not fair today, Bob. I'm -- there's -- there's no script here. I'm just speaking from the heart.

And I've traveled with him and watched him do the same. So, if he glanced at some notes last night, you can make what you want of that. But I don't think he's the first one to ever do that.

NOVAK: Mary -- Mary Steenburgen, thank...

DANSON: I also don't think you become a four...

NOVAK: Mary Steenburgen, thank you very much.

DANSON: I don't think


NOVAK: And thank you, Ted Danson. We appreciate it.

If you're running for president, should your television rely on something more than just rabbit ears? Next, the role of cable television -- God bless cable television -- in the campaign for president.


BEGALA: There is the CNN Election Express, anchored securely just off the waters here at Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Well, in an interview, Howard Dean and his wife, Dr. Judy Dean, discussed their TV viewing habits. Mrs. Dean told ABC's "Primetime Thursday" that she had not seen her husband's blowup in Iowa Monday night, because -- quote -- "I don't watch TV that much" -- unquote. And Howard Dean himself volunteered -- quote -- "I never watch the cable television shows."

Great. So voters now have a chance to replace a president who doesn't read the papers with one who doesn't watch cable news. A little free advice, Governor. President Bush has already cornered the market on ignorance. How about staying informed?

NOVAK: You know, Paul, that is a pseudointellectual thing about this fancy, woodsy Vermonters: Oh, well, we never watch television. We're just too good for that.

I watch television all the time. It informs me. It enriches my life. And I'd rather watch television than talk to most of the people I know.

BEGALA: Well...


BEGALA: I think they feel the same way, Bob.

But there was a recent study that came out that said cable news -- not to flack for our network -- but cable news provides more information to more Americans than any other source, except local TV. And we're fixing to catch and pass local TV. So if Howard Dean or anybody else wants to know what real Americans are seeing


NOVAK: And, also, people like that are bad for our -- are bad for our bankrolls.


BEGALA: They are. I'm not sure quite what he meant to get -- it may be just a self-preservation thing.


BEGALA: Because he has had a rough time of it on cable, because he's given us these great shots of the Dean scream and so forth.

NOVAK: Well, cable news loves Dean, even if Dean doesn't like cable news.

BEGALA: Well put.


BEGALA: From the left, I'm Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak.

Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE!

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.


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