Tom Brokaw: Good evening ladies and gentlemen, this is Tom Brokaw, with Tim Russert. Tonight we will witness a most unusual political event. Tim, tell us what it is.
Tim Russert: Yes, Tom. Last week, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry challenged George W. Bush to a series of weekly debates on topics such as the War in Iraq, the Economy, Health Care, the Environment and their military service during the Vietnam conflict.
Brokaw: That in itself not so unusual ...
Russert: Exactly, Tom. Nominees for president often demand such things from incumbents. That's why the Commission on Presidential Debates was formed -- to create a format that would take some of the politicking about debates and settle on a format.
Brokaw: So, in a way, Kerry is breaking with that agreement between the parties?
Russert: You're correct, Tom. But in truth, I think he had a larger purpose.
Brokaw: Which, ladies and gentlemen, is why we are here tonight.
Russert: That's right, Tom. Sen. Kerry's purpose was to open the door to weekly debates with himself. And that is what Kerry will try to do tonight. Tell us what he thinks -- based on specific statements he's made in the past -- in the first Kerry vs. Kerry presidential debate.
[CAMERA PANS TO A STAGE WITH A SINGLE PODIUM]
Brokaw: All right, Sen. Kerry. Are you ready for your first question?
Sen. Kerry: John Kerry, reporting for duty.
Brokaw: Good, good. You don't have to salute me. But your response brings up the first question. Do you think that military service, such as yours in Vietnam that you've raised during your campaign, is an important qualification to be president?
Kerry: Well, Tom, as you may recall, back in October of 1992, when Bill Clinton was running -- and he had no military experience, as you may remember -- I stood up on the Senate floor and said plainly: 'You and I know that if service or nonservice in the war is to become a test of qualification for high office, you would not have a Vice President, nor would you have a Secretary of Defense and our Nation would never recover from the divisions created by that war.'
Kerry: Of course not. I've grown older and wiser, and I realized that my service provides me the kind of vital perspective on being a war-time president that wasn't needed when we'd just ended the Cold War. And it wasn't a partisan decision. No, not at all. I raised it during the primaries, too, noting that none of my Democratic opponents -- well, none other than Wesley Clark, and he dropped out pretty early -- had 'worn the uniform of our country' so they could withstand a debate with Mr. Bush on national security.
Russert: But, sir, I recall when I had you on Meet the Press in early February, you said you didn't consider the war against terror a real war or President Bush to be a war president.
Kerry: Well, as I said then, and I recall it pretty exactly, 'The war on terrorism is a very different war from the way the president is trying to sell it to us. It's a serious challenge, and it is a war of sorts, but it is not the kind of war they're trying to market to America.' As I pointed out then, 'It's basically a manhunt. You gotta know who they are, where they are, what they're planning, and you gotta be able to go get 'em before they get us.' And I'm just the one who will go get them.
Brokaw: So, why is your service experience so relevant, if it's just, as you put it, basically a manhunt?
Kerry: Because, as I put it so plainly, in late February. 'This war isn't just a manhunt -- a checklist of names from a deck of cards. In it, we do not face just one man or one terrorist group. We face a global jihadist movement of many groups, from different sources, with separate agendas, but all committed to assaulting the United States and free and open societies around the globe.'
Russert: I think. ... Well, war or manhunt, just for the record, did you favor going to war in Iraq?
Kerry: You have to understand, as I pointed out in the Presidential Candidate Debate on May 4, 2003, 'I said at the time I would have preferred if we had given diplomacy a greater opportunity, but I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein, and when the President made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him.'
Brokaw: So, you weren't an anti-war candidate, like Howard Dean, who ran against you, and opposed the war?
Kerry: No, no. Chris Matthews asked me point blank on his show Hardball in January: 'Are you one of the anti-war candidates?' And I said, 'I am. Yes. In the sense that I don't believe the president took to us war as he should have, yes. Absolutely.'
Brokaw: Senator, your Iraq War vote and your subsequent rhetoric seem like they may be at odds. Could you clarify your position?
Kerry: I've said it before, and I'll say it again, Tom, as I did at a debate in Baltimore in September of last year: 'If we hadn't voted the way we voted, we would not have been able to have a chance of going to the United Nations and stopping the president, in effect, who already had the votes and who was obviously asking serious questions about whether or not the Congress was going to be there to enforce the effort to create a threat.' That should clarify things.
Russert: Senator, what about in the reconstruction phase in Iraq? I recall that we discussed that on Meet the Press back in August of last year, and when I asked if we should reduce funding for the operation in Iraq, you said, 'No. I think we should increase it.' And when I asked by how much, you said, 'By whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win. It is critical that the United States of America be successful in Iraq.'
But then you voted against the $86.5 billion Iraq/Afghanistan reconstruction package.
Kerry: Well, as I told Glen Johnson of the Boston Globe in March, 'I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.'
Brokaw: Maybe we should move on to some other issues. You have come out in this campaign favoring a health care plan like the one you have.
Kerry: To put it precisely, as I said at Mercy Medical last December, 'As a U.S. Senator, I could get the best health care in the world. Most people aren't so lucky, and we need to change that. That's why my plan gives every American access to the same kind of health care that members of Congress give themselves. ... Because your family's health care is just as important as any politician's in Washington.'
Brokaw: But I recall back in 1994, when Hillary Rodham Clinton came to Boston and promised a health care plan like the one that existed for Senators, you told her that you thought the country could do better.
Kerry: Surely I did. I had a $500 dental bill for treatment of an abscessed tooth. Want to know why? As I told Hillary then, 'Because it was done in the dentist's office, rather than the hospital, they didn't cover it. So they were urging me to go spend twice as much in a hospital.'
Kerry: Well, that would ensure we spend more for health care as long as we send people to the hospital ...
Russert: But didn't you also say on Meet the Press back then that Ted Kennedy's and Hillary Clinton's pushing health care reform was a major cause for the Democratic Party's problems at the polls?
Kerry: Of course. They wanted a lot of complicated things. My message is simple -- send everybody to the hospital for dental care.
Russert: But in April of 2002, didn't you tell CNN's Tucker Carlson that you didn't favor repealing Bush's tax cuts?
Kerry: What I said was: 'We passed appropriately a tax cut as a stimulus, some $40 billion. Many of us thought it should have even maybe been a little bit larger this last year ... [T]he next tax cut doesn't take effect until 2004. If we can grow the economy enough between now and then, if we have sensible policies in place and make good choices, who knows what our choices will be. So it's simply not a ripe issue right now. And I'm not in favor of turning around today and repealing it.' Well, now it's 2004, I'm running for president, so we have different choices.
Brokaw: Well, we've run out of time for tonight. Next week, perhaps, we can have candidate Kerry debate himself on the Kyoto protocol -- once against and now for; NAFTA and trade with China, for once and now against, and gay marriage, for which he is against and for at the same time. Good night, Tim. Thank you, Sen. Kerry.