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National Public Radio Tavis Smiley Show Transcript

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Copyright 2003 National Public Radio (R). All rights reserved.
SHOW: Tavis Smiley (9:00 AM ET) - NPR
January 30, 2003 Thursday

HEADLINE: Senator John Kerry discusses his campaign for president of the United States in 2004


TAVIS SMILEY, host: From NPR in Los Angeles, I'm Tavis Smiley. On today's program, two astronauts join us live from space for a chat. Also, regular folk here on Earth give their take on the State of the Union. And Omar Wasow updates us on the latest gadgets from the Consumer Electronics Show. Plus, sweet sounds from the Boys Choir of Harlem.

But first, we continue our series of conversations with presidential contenders. Senator JOHN KERRY (Massachusetts): If I decide to run, I will go to the country as an American, an American who served his country in war, an American who served his country in peace, and whose record, I believe, stands for itself.

SMILEY: That was Massachusetts Senator John Kerry speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press." Well, Senator Kerry did decide to run, and today we'll hear from him.

A former prosecutor, Kerry was first elected to the Senate in 1984. He is a decorated combat veteran who later became a vocal critic of the Vietnam War. Kerry is considered a Democratic leader on issues as diverse as foreign policy and the environment. I began by asking Senator Kerry what he would bring to the White House that the other five men running for the Democratic nomination could not.

Sen. KERRY: I think it's a question of leadership, the record of fighting for folks who don't necessarily have a voice in Washington, people who are increasingly feeling completely distant from the government, who don't think that the government works for them, helps them, understands their needs, is in touch with them. And I think if you look at the fights that I've been involved with through my entire time here, I've been somebody who's tried to stand up and fight for the average person, beginning with the veterans when we came back from Vietnam, and so many veterans were disaffected, literally alienated from their government, unable to get health care, unable to get extended benefits of the GI Bill. And I think throughout my career as a prosecutor, as a senator, I have fought to hold the government accountable to create jobs, to be fair, to have a tax policy that doesn't just favor the wealthy and to guarantee that we enforce the laws in this country in a fair and sensible way.

SMILEY: Among those who are declared candidates, on the Democratic side at least, and those who've expressed interest in running in '04 are several leaders in Congress. I wonder whether you think the fact that there's so many of you all running who have positions now in Congress that that hurts the Democratic Party's effort to build a unified agenda over the next two years?

Sen. KERRY: Oh, I don't think at all. Look, the race is going to be defined by the things that we fight for. Every time we have a problem with respect to the economy or almost any aspect of jobs in the country, the president wants a tax cut that goes from average Americans to wealthy people. I believe we need fairness. People understand it. People get it. They want fairness. I have a vision that says we should have affirmative action in the country. The president thinks that what we do at Michigan is quotas. It's not a quota any more than what he was lucky enough to get in getting into Yale University when he got some benefits for the fact that a parent had gone there, just as I did, incidentally.

I don't think that's fair to call something at Michigan, where you're trying to do what the Supreme Court has said we can do, which is where there's a compelling interest, you're allowed to measure whether or not you want to try to have a university that's funded by the state look like the face of America. So I think the president wants to divide. I think he's obviously prepared in the judges that he's now sending up to the Supreme Court, so I believe that there's a very different agenda for how you are fair, how you create jobs and how you move the economy of our country.

SMILEY: You have come out very strongly, as you just articulated, in opposition to the president's position on this affirmative action question vis-a-vis the University of Michigan. Back in 1992, though, you said affirmative action, and I quote, "kept America thinking in racial terms."

Sen. KERRY: What I said was, I was describing what a lot of people in white America were feeling at that point of time and the way in which it was divided. But if you look at the very paragraph you read from, at the top of the paragraph, it says, 'I support affirmative action,' and at the bottom of the paragraph, it says, 'I support affirmative action.' So I bracketed what I was trying to make was an observation in the country about how what we really needed to do was create an urban policy in America, a policy that addresses the inequities of our school system. The fact is that today in America, we have institutionalized separate and unequal school systems, and I underscore unequal. We've got school districts in the inner cities and in rural areas that have no tax base, and I don't think you can fulfill the promise of America and the full measure of our constitutional rights unless you provide a real opportunity to all of the students of our country, and that's one of the things I wish the president would address, is that inequality.

SMILEY: In a recent speech, Senator Kerry, you criticized the Bush administration's blustering unilateralism in Iraq. Yet last fall, you voted to authorize President Bush to use force in Iraq, with our without international support. Square those positions for me.

Sen. KERRY: Well, actually, the resolution that we passed specifically said that the president has to exhaust the diplomatic possibilities, and what we did was we voted to go to the United Nations and to go through the inspection process, and I think that everybody will acknowledge that it wasn't until we insisted that the president go to the United Nations together, I might add, with some Republicans. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser, former Secretary of State Jim Baker, people weighed in to pull this administration back from the brink and to try to talk common sense to them.

I think the country deserves an administration that doesn't have to be taught how to use international institutions to the great advantage of our nation. I think the country deserves a president whose first instinct is to try to work with other people to build international support so that America is operating from a position of strength. And I believe very deeply that making a better effort through the United Nations, trying harder to bring people on board with us strengthens America. It's not a sign of weakness to reach out and build a strong coalition. His father did it in the Gulf War in 1991, and I wish this administration had expended much more sensible energy in an effort to try to build the kind of support that we needed over the course of the last two years, and certainly since September 11th when it's been an imperative for the efforts to prosecute the war on terror effectively.

SMILEY: It's not lost on me, Senator, as we talk about a potential war with Iraq, that you are a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War. I wonder whether you think putting someone with combat experience in the White House will be more important to the American people in '04 than in recent elections?

Sen. KERRY: I think that knowing how you make America safer is critical. I think Americans are very anxious about the war on terror, about homeland security, and the world that we live in today, as well as, obviously, our economy and other issues here at home. But they're all linked now. They're linked much more directly than they have been at any time in recent memory, and our economy will depend on our relationship with these other countries. It will depend on how much we are expending in war. It will depend on how well we build relationships with other countries as to how safe we are here at home. The role of the president as head of state, chief diplomat, as well as commander in chief, which is two-thirds of the presidency, is, in fact, much more at play and more much more at issue today than I think I've known it to be in recent times, and I think that will continue into the future because of the nature of the world we're living in.

SMILEY: Finally, Senator Kerry, I wonder if there is a particular issue or issues that you think are, at the moment, being neglected by this administration or, for that matter, the national media, that would become ultimately priorities in a Kerry presidency?

Sen. KERRY: I think there are a huge set of choices that we face for the country that the president is not addressing, has not addressed. Our country needs to invest in its own future. We need to invest in our cities and in our--you know, it's a big horrible word we use for all the things we need to do to build a strong nation, but it's called infrastructure. I mean, our bridges, our roads, our airports, our railroad system, our transportation systems, our schools. All of those things need investment at levels that have been neglected in the last years. And in addition to that, we have a housing crisis in America. The shelters are full. There are more homeless today. We have a new class of homeless, which are the working poor in America.

We need to face up to some of these important choices. We have environmental challenges that are just mounting, toxic waste sites that people live near, brownfields in cities that aren't being cleaned up that don't come onto the tax rolls, that mayors get to stare at that remain as vacant lots because we don't have a partnership to really clean them up. We have an enormous challenge of health care in America. I believe that it would be good if the president said, 'I am planning to offer a plan to have health-care coverage for every citizen in America.'

That's what we ought to be doing, and I think that in addition to that, our education system, as I mentioned earlier, is leaving millions of children behind every single day. We need to do what is necessary to have the best education system in the world, and you can't do that halfway. You can't do that on the cheap. It requires a commitment of resources that, unfortunately, this administration has gone back on, in favor, I might add, of giving very large amounts of money back to the wealthiest Americans. I think the issue of fundamental fairness is on the table as it hasn't been for years in this country, and we need to put that choice of how we're going to deliver that fairness to average folks in America, to the average person who works hard, plays by the rules, who expects the government to repay that with fairness. And what they're doing right now is reverse Robin Hood, taking from the middle class and giving to the wealthiest Americans. I think most Americans know there's a better set of choices.

SMILEY: Senator John Kerry is a Democrat from Massachusetts and one of the six announced Democratic candidates for the White House. He joined us today from his office in Washington.

Senator, thanks for your time, sir. I appreciate it.

Sen. KERRY: Thank you. Great to be with you. Thanks a lot, Tavis.

SMILEY: Tomorrow, the final two candidates in our series, Missouri Representative Dick Gephardt and the Reverend Al Sharpton. Just ahead, live from outer space, we'll talk to two of the astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. It's 19 minutes past the hour.

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