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MSNBC Hardball Transcript

Location: Cleveland, OH

April 27, 2004 Tuesday

HEADLINE: HARDBALL For April 27, 2004

BYLINE: Chris Matthews; Richard Engel; Ken Allard

GUESTS: John Kerry; Chaka Fattah; Curt Weldon

Marines launch an air strike in Fallujah as talks break down. John Kerry talks about the controversy over his Vietnam War medals and a plan for the future of America.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST: And now we have Senator John McCain's good friend, Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

As a man who was in war, and you were in a war in Vietnam, when you read the papers, like in Fallujah today. You check up during the day, as you've been doing today about what's happening over there with our men, coming back in, trying to retake that city.

What do you think you know that the average guy who hasn't been in a war knows?

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I don't think about that, Chris. What I think about, I just-I mean, I think about the safety and I think about the feelings of those guys right now.

They're-they're in the middle of a kind of hell. And I think it's good for them to know that everybody here in America is thinking about them and hoping and praying for their safety. I mean, it's-they're in a tough business.

MATTHEWS: When you're in combat, and you're facing the enemy every day and you get up, do you have a sense of the politics of that war all the time? Or is it, like in Vietnam-somewhere in the Vietnam experience you decided this war isn't the right war.


MATTHEWS: Tell me about that.

KERRY: Well, it was a gradual process over the course of a number of weeks and months. But when you're in combat or when you're going into a river on a mission and you're doing something like these guys, you're not thinking about that.

You're thinking about your friends. You're thinking about the task, the mission. You're thinking about survival. And you're thinking about getting through.

MATTHEWS: What do those medals mean to you? There's been so much talk about these medals, and nobody's ever asked you what they meant to you. Obviously, winning the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, three Purple Hearts.

You've saved them through thick and thin, through all changes of attitudes about the war. Why are they-what do they mean to you?

KERRY: Well, when you say saved them...

MATTHEWS: You've got them. What do they mean to you?

KERRY: Yes, I've got them. But-well, I'm proud of them. I've said that before. I said that in the beginning. I've never expressed anything except pride for our actions-our, and I mean our boat, our men, the people I served with. I'm proud of our service.

I've said that in the days when I came back from Vietnam, even though things that were happening in larger policy I thought were wrong. And I talked about them.

But I think the way we tried to lead our lives, much of which is captured in Doug Brinkley's book, "Tour of Duty," was both honorable and in the best values and traditions of America. And I'm proud of that.

MATTHEWS: Maybe it's a small distinction, but I think people could figure this out if you helped them. The difference between a medal, that you-that you keep and a ribbon that you might, for a political-to make a political statement in 1971, you might toss at the capital steps.

What's that distinction?

KERRY: Well, there wasn't a distinction at the time, Chris. You know, as I said previously, you know, I didn't have my medals with me. But that wasn't the issue. Lots of veterans didn't have them with them.

Your medals and your ribbons are the same thing, fundamentally. The ribbons are medals. They're-they're the ribbon that you attach to the medal. You wear them every day, and it's a symbol of your medals. It's...

MATTHEWS: So when you see a senior officer, a chairman of the joint chiefs...

KERRY: I know the medals that are...

MATTHEWS: He has a big breast full of these things.

KERRY: Yes. I look at it, and I can see his medals. I know what he won. And the medal, it tells you what medal he has won.

MATTHEWS: Do you think this is a stupid argument that's going on from the other side, attacking you for throwing away what you said, or implied, or allowed the people to imply were medals when in fact they're ribbons?

KERRY: No-there's no question, Chris, about what I did. There never was. I stood up in front of cameras, in front of people, reporters. I think Tom Oliphant (ph) wrote a column today saying he was there. He saw what I did. He wrote about what I did.

People knew-there was no-you know, this is, I think, an effort by the Republicans to do what they always do. They did it to John McCain in South Carolina. They attacked him on an extraordinarily personal level.


KERRY: Challenged his patriotism and the quality of his service in prison in Hanoi.

They took on Max Cleland, challenged his commitment to the defense of our nation and his patriotism.

And now they're trying to do it to me. And I'm not going to let them do it. I'm going to-you know, it seems to me that it-it shows how desperate they are. I mean, they are-here they are, the president of the United States of America, the vice president, in the month of April attacking a not yet even completely nominated nominee personally...


KERRY: ... in the most unbelievable way, spending $70 million, unprecedentedly, to try to rip me apart. And we're still in a head-to-head race.

I'm tell you, Chris, they're running out. They're running out of gas. They're running out of ideas. And I think they're running out of the willingness of the American people to continue to listen.

Americans want a vision of where we're going as a country. Americans want something that's going to put people back to work, like the people we just talked to in Cleveland. They want health care.

And this administration doesn't have a record they can run on. They have a record they have to run away from, and they're doing it by attacking me. That's exactly what happening.

MATTHEWS: But they do have, Senator, a piece of videotape going back 33 years of you talking to a Washington, D.C., reporter, a woman reporter, saying, after she says you threw-you tossed your bronze and your silver...

KERRY: Right.

MATTHEWS: "And beyond that," you said, and you said "other ribbons." You allowed her...

KERRY: I didn't say other ribbons. I said, "And the others."

MATTHEWS: And the others. Well, you allowed-you allowed her to use the word "medals."

KERRY: Well, we all did. We all...

MATTHEWS: But you know they were ribbons.

KERRY: They were-Chris, they were interchangeable. We thought of them as medals.

Stuart Simon (ph) and Senator Simon (ph) asked me a question in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he's a military guy. He looked over at me, at my ribbons, and he said, "What are those medals you're wearing?" That's what he said.

The Navy manual has the listing of medals under the ribbons. I mean, all I can tell you is that we used the terms interchangeably.

This was a couple of months after we'd done what we did in front of everybody. I took the ribbons off, and I threw them away.

But look, I'm the person who announced the distinction later on in life, when I was asked more specifically about what I did.

MATTHEWS: If you-if you...

KERRY: Chris, if I had something to hide, I'd have never done that. I have nothing to hide. I'm proud of what I did. I'm proud that I stood up.

I served my country. I bled for my country. I defended my country. And I decided when I came home I would stand up. And it wasn't popular back then. I've heard people say, oh, this was opportunistic.

I said, "Opportunistic, man? If I wanted to be opportunistic, I would have gone home, sat on my medals and gone to work and done anything else." Standing up there and taking on Richard Nixon and being put on an enemies list and getting a polarized nation that fought tooth and nail over an issue, it was hardly an opportunity.

I did what my conscience told me to do. I'm proud I stood up and fought against it. And I think it is remarkable to me that so many years later the Republicans want to go back and argue about something, particularly when so many of them chose not even to be involved in it, not even to have an opinion about it. And I'm not going to let them get away with that.

MATTHEWS: Why do you think, along those lines, a vice president who has three deferments, why do you think he's putting his three deferments up against your three Purple Hearts?

KERRY: Ask him. It doesn't-listen, I'm going to talk about things that matter to people. I have a health care ...

MATTHEWS: I'll tell you what matters to a lot of people, our generation. I'm almost as old as you. Very close.

And I remember guys in college who were all right wing and hawkish on the war in Vietnam and then you said, "Are you going to join?" Because they all could have been officers.

And they said, "No, I'm participating in the system." Meaning they're going to-they're going to get out of it through deferments or whatever.

What do you think of guys like Cheney who said, "I'm going to have a kid at the right time. I'm going to grad school at the right time. I'm going to stack up those deferments till I'm 83 years old, before they get anywhere near me"? And they're also hawkish.

KERRY: I have historically never begrudged the choices that people made.

MATTHEWS: Even hawks who avoid the war?

KERRY: I didn't begrudge it. But if they're going to attack me, and they're going to start accusing me of something, then I'm going to demand a level of accountability from them that I think ought to be forthcoming.

MATTHEWS: OK. You did that today, Senator. You went after, you put out a statement in your campaign, asking tough questions, documented questions-you had all the material there-about President Bush's-President Bush's participation.

KERRY: I have not-I don't-I haven't seen what went out.

MATTHEWS: What went out, it basically tracks what you did the other day on "Good Morning America." And the question your staff put out, under your name, is, is Bush telling the truth, President Bush, when he said he had no special privileges or favoritism in jumping 150 places to get in the Air Guard in Texas?

What do you think about that? Is that something you care about? You want to know the truth?

KERRY: He ought to answer that question.


KERRY: Because I've answered the questions. I released all my military records. Mr. Gillespie thought it was important enough to go travel to another state, make a big speech, demand that I release my records. I did. Everything. All of it. Including my officer fitness reports.

Accountability time.

MATTHEWS: Is it accountable-should the president be accountable for skipping that-that physical when he was in the military?

KERRY: It's up to-it's up to Americans to decide.

MATTHEWS: Should he prove that he was in the Guard and actively involved in the Guard when he was out of town, he was in Alabama?

KERRY: Chris, as I-as I said, I've never begrudged people the choice they made.

MATTHEWS: But your statement today asked for particular information.

KERRY: But once you-but once you've made a choice, I think you have an obligation to fulfill the choice you've made.

MATTHEWS: Do you think the people around the president have hoisted themselves on their own petard by bringing up this issue of your service?

KERRY: That's up to the American people to decide.

MATTHEWS: Is it relevant that you served in combat and faced enemy fire and the president of the United States did not? Is that a relevant fact, when picking a commander in chief for the next four years?

KERRY: Again, it's up to Americans to decide.

MATTHEWS: If you had to vote between two candidates, one who served in the military and one who didn't, and they're actively conducting a war, would you look at the service records of both men?

KERRY: It would depend what other things the person believes. I would look at the entire character of somebody, and I would look at their whole life experience. I don't say that-look, we've had presidents who didn't serve. Franklin Roosevelt was a very...

MATTHEWS: And you voted for Clinton, rather than George Sr., right?

KERRY: I voted for Clinton because of his overall policy. But we're in a different world today, No. 1.

No. 2, I think that people look at the entire life record of an individual, and you make a judgment. It's part of my life. It's not all of my life. I was a prosecutor. I was lieutenant governor. I've been an advocate. I've been a father. I've been...

MATTHEWS: Are you a stronger man for having gone through that rite of passage?


MATTHEWS: Facing combat?


MATTHEWS: With the enemy?


MATTHEWS: And we'll be right back with Senator John Kerry.


MATTHEWS: We're here in Ohio with Senator John Kerry for his job summit here in Cleveland. I want to get to the jobs thing. I promise you, we'll get to it in a couple minutes.

But this president has made-and he is the issue, the president of the United States, because he's running for reelection. And you're offering yourself as an alternative, as an alternative plan.

The president of the United States was asked by the press the other day if he'd ever made any mistakes as president. And he said he hadn't. What do you think of that answer?

KERRY: I think we've all made mistakes, always, in our lives, in our careers. And I think the president has made some colossal mistakes.

Not the least of which is taking our nation to war in a way that was rushed, that pushed our allies away from us, that is costing the American people billions of dollars more than it ought to, that is putting our young soldiers at greater risk than they ought to be, without a plan to win the peace and broke his promise to go to war as a last resort.

I think that's a colossal mistake.

MATTHEWS: The absence of any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, does that justify a statement that he did make a mistake?

KERRY: I think the...

MATTHEWS: Was he mistaken to think there were weapons of mass destruction there?

KERRY: Well, everybody bought into the intelligence. How-what bothers me about this administration is they've even fought the effort to get to the bottom of why the intelligence was bad.

I mean, when Roosevelt was president and Pearl Harbor took place, it was almost instantaneous that he appointed a commission and said, "We've got to know exactly what happened."

In the case of this administration, not only did they fight against it, they've stonewalled it. They wanted to terminate it early. And now, for some unknown, unbelievable reason, the president of the United States actually has to testify with the vice president at his side. I don't get it.

MATTHEWS: Do you think he's-he's afraid that his testimony won't jive with the vice president's?

KERRY: You'll have to ask them what the real reason is. I noticed in his press conference that he certainly didn't answer that question.

MATTHEWS: I mean, they're not the Menendez brothers. I mean, they don't have some major crime to hang-hang up. You were a prosecutor. You just brought me into an area of great opportunity here.

If you had two witnesses, two material witnesses, you had two, even defendants, and they said, and they were accused of operating together in some sort of theft or whatever, and they said, "Can we testify together?" What would you have said as a prosecutor?

KERRY: Well, first of all, I don't like the analogy you're making to the president and vice president.

MATTHEWS: Well, I make the analogy, but generally, in terms of human nature, do you think people have good reason for wanting to testify together?

KERRY: Fundamentally, I think you always want people to testify on their own two feet, standing alone. And obviously, you want to be able to see what the different views are...

MATTHEWS: But he says he never makes mistakes. So why would he be afraid to do it alone?

KERRY: Ask him.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about a year ago. There's a great picture that will probably be in our post-production here today on television of the president and the aircraft carrier. Looking great. He looked great. And he said it was the end of all combat activity.

And here we are in Fallujah today, bigger than a firefight, a real big confrontation.


MATTHEWS: Was he mistaken? Was he led to make this mistake by his advisers, that these people are going to be happy as hell to have us be there and there wasn't going to be any nationalistic resistance to our-our occupation of Iraq? Was that a big mistake?

KERRY: I believe that it was an extraordinary miscalculation. You know, John Kennedy took the heat and took the blame for the Bay of Pigs, even though the intelligence, again, was part of the failure.

MATTHEWS: He fired some people, too. He fired the chairman of the-the director of the central intelligence and his deputy, Ted Bissell (ph).

KERRY: Well...

MATTHEWS: Should this guy have fired a bunch of people for that intelligence failure?

KERRY: Yes. If he wasn't part of it. I mean, you know, I think, and I've said that previously.

It's extraordinary to me that people who were responsible for this failure of intelligence are somehow still there, as if nothing happened. There has to be some rationale for that. And we're, again, not privy to what that is.

There was a gigantic intelligence failure. And I think that it also was exaggerated. We know that the president and the White House exaggerated material that they were given purposely, even though they were told otherwise. We know that they gave misinformation.

And yet, the president says he didn't make mistakes.

MATTHEWS: Did you ever get the...

KERRY: I think that-I think there's no more important decision, obviously, that a president makes than how you take a nation to war and why you put young Americans in jeopardy.

MATTHEWS: You've spoken at length and very completely about the how question. But why do you think we went to war? If there was exaggeration of WMD, exaggeration of the danger, exaggeration implicitly with the connection of al Qaeda and 9/11, what's the motive for this? What's the why?

Why did Bush and Cheney and the ideologues around take us to war? Why do you think they did it?

KERRY: It appears, as they peel away the weapons of mass destruction issue-and we may yet find them, Chris. Look, I want to make it clear. Who knows if a month from now, three months from now, you find some weapons? You may.

But you certainly didn't find them where they said they were. And you certainly didn't find them in the quantities that they said they were.

And they weren't found-I've talked to some soldiers who've come back, who trained against the potential of artillery delivery, because artillery was the way that they had previously delivered and it was the only way they knew they could deliver.

Now we found nothing that is evidence of that kind of delivery.

So the fact is that, as you peeled away, I think it comes down to this larger ideological, neo-con concept of fundamental change in the region and who knows whether there are other motives with respect to Saddam Hussein.

But they did it because they thought they could. Because they misjudged exactly what the reaction would be and what they could get away with.

And they did it, that misjudgment, against the warnings of countless numbers of people, including General Shinseki, who they then isolated and tarnished. They did it against the warnings of Brent Scowcroft, Jim Baker, others.

They did it against the warnings of his father in his book about why they didn't go in. And they did it against the warnings of many of us who said winning the war is not the complicated part. It's winning the peace that's complicated.

And I think presidents need to be held accountable for those kinds of decisions.

MATTHEWS: Thank you. We'll be right back with some final words with Senator John Kerry, especially about the job situation here in Ohio.


MATTHEWS: This half hour on HARDBALL, John Kerry and George Bush both want to win the key battleground state of Pennsylvania. Which way will the Keystone State go? We'll ask Congressmen Curt Weldon and Chaka Fattah.

And when we return, more with Senator John Kerry as our seventh anniversary continues.

But, first, the latest headlines right now.


MATTHEWS: We're back with Senator John Kerry.

You go through the towns of this state, like Spencerville, and there's only a few buildings left in the downtown areas, maybe a Blockbuster, maybe a dinette. All the factories are old and rusting. And can you change that or is that just the past?

KERRY: No. You can change some of it.

Can you bring back Youngstown, Cleveland Steel the way it was? No. Can you have the steel industry flowing the way it was? No. But can you save industries that are still threatened if you have an even playing field in trade? Yes. Can you help create a manufacturing credit to create more jobs? Yes. Can you help people who are dislocated with real job training and health care? Yes. Can you do a better job of pushing the curve of creating new jobs for the future? Yes. Can you put money into Cleveland and Toledo and Columbus and a lot of other cities in Ohio that need help in order to put people back to work? Yes.

There are all kinds of things we could do, Chris, that this administration isn't. I can give you an example. American workers, people in Ohio, are subsidizing jobs that are going overseas. They're actually giving a tax benefit to the company that goes overseas. Now, that's obscene. We should be able to give the credit to the company that stays here and tries to fight and compete here. George Bush has had four years to come here, sit down with the mayors, work at these issues.

He just ignores them, gives a big tax cut to the wealthiest people and people are hurting more and more. We need a president who knows what's really happening to middle-class America and the working people. And we need to put people back to work. And that's exactly what I'm going to do with a plan to create 10 million new jobs in four years.

MATTHEWS: The other day, I bought one of those XM radios for the car and I called up to get it installed. And I get a guy about a half-hour later. He's got an Indian accent. He's in Bangalore somewhere. And it took the longest-and I said, forget about it. I'll use online to get this thing fixed.

Why are we going around the world to get our radios set up or our computers set up, or why isn't there somebody in this town or city or this part of Ohio that can work for 15 bucks an hour? Apparently, they're paying them good money over there in India to help us get our computers online or help us get our problems with high tech fixed up.

KERRY: Chris, a lot of jobs pay so low that it's difficult to compete here. But there are a lot of jobs like you just described which all things being equal, if we could reduce the cost of health care, if we could have a better tax structure, companies wouldn't decide to go, because, in the end, it wouldn't be that much more profitable or that much better.

They do it today because it's part of their overall marketing strategy. It's cheaper and they go and do it because the competition is doing it. What we need to do is provide relief to our companies in America. That's why-again, George Bush has had four years to address the fact that 43 million Americans have no health care. Under George Bush, four million additional Americans have lost their health care. He has no plan.

He doesn't talk about how to reduce health care costs for Americans. He doesn't talk about how to bring those 43 million


MATTHEWS: But is it that simple?

KERRY: But wait. I do. I have a plan. I have a plan that within three years of passage, we'll cover 97 percent of all Americans and we'll reduce the cost of health care for people today.

You know how we do it? We have to take George Bush's tax cut for the wealthiest Americans, roll it back, and use some of that money as an incentive structure to do what I just talked about. It can work. It will happen. We'll make American business more competitive.

MATTHEWS: Can you make health care cheaper than a phone bill? That's what we're talking about here.


MATTHEWS: Serious. Long distance to India is cheaper for those companies than giving health care to an American worker.

KERRY: No, but I can make it cheaper than it is today.

Health care in America is the best health care in the world. Technology does cost money. New drugs do cost money. But we can reduce the incredible rate of increase in that cost. And we can reduce the burden on working people. All the labor people that it talk to here, they go out and negotiate a new contract. They just turn the money from their wage increase straight over to the health care industry. It doesn't go in their pocket.

And most Americans have seen tuitions go up about 38 percent over the course of the last three years -- 28 percent. Health care costs have gone up anywhere from 25, 40, 60 percent.


KERRY: Gasoline prices are up. And wages for most Americans are down.

Chris, this president doesn't understand what's happening to the average person in America. All he wants to do is do a tax cut that goes into effect seven years from now. It will do nothing to put people to work today. I have a plan to lower health care costs, help our schools, and be responsible about our budget, but at the same time, create jobs and grow our economy.

MATTHEWS: Do you think this administration and its political handlers like Karl Rove are capable of realizing they can't beat you on the jobs issue, they can't beat you on foreign policy, so they are going to drop this nonsensical stuff?

Don Evans, the secretary of commerce and the president's good friend, said you look French the other day. Are they going to after Teresa because she was born in Mozambique? Are they going to try to build the idea that you're like Mike Dukakis or you're like Al Gore, a little different than most people? You know what they did the last couple times.

KERRY: Chris...

MATTHEWS: Are they going to do that?

KERRY: Anything's possible with this crowd because they don't have a record to run on. They have got a record to run away from. I think the American people can see through it.

Maybe they ought to get really nervous in the White House, because I understand Karen Hughes was born in Paris.


KERRY: They better worry about it.


MATTHEWS: Hah! Tit for tat.

Thank you very much, Senator John Kerry, in Cleveland, Ohio.

KERRY: Thank you.

MATTHEWS: We'll be right back with more on HARDBALL.


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