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Kerry Calls to Respond – That Iraq Vote, the '04 Election, and More

05/25/2011 11:50 am ET

"Hello, Richard, this is John Kerry."

The road to Kerry's call began with my first blogging effort, the day after the 2004 election. That sparked an email exchange that led to his phone call a few hours later. Our conversation included some new insights into Colin Powell's role in Kerry's war vote, Bin Laden's impact on the election, and the Joe Lieberman Rose Garden moment that changed the road to war.

I put up my first post on November 5 - just the picture of a long-dead politician and a line from an old George Jones song. (Let's say I hadn't found my voice yet.) I had found a lot to admire in John Kerry over the years, including his antiwar efforts and his work against BCCI and its terrorist clients. The day after his defeat, I was wondering how it had come to this.

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Kerry emailed me in response to my recent Huffington Post piece about him. A few hours later we were talking about that day in November 2004 - and about war, integrity, his party, Murtha, the press, and the power of political language.

I'd repeated an anecdote in the Huffington piece that suggested he privately pushed his fellow Dems to oppose the Iraq resolution, but bowed to the majority's will when he was overruled. "Never happened," Kerry said firmly. "There was no 'Faustian bargain.'"

So if there was no private meeting, no agreement to join with the majority, then why vote for the resolution? "It didn't happen in a vacuum," he said. "I'd been supporting the Biden-Lugar Amendment, a bipartisan effort that would have required that the inspections be completed before any military action took place. We had a good chance of passing it. That amendment reflected my position on the war.

"Then one day we turned on the TV and Joe Lieberman was in the Rose Garden with the President, saying that he was supporting the resolution - as is. We realized that, as of that moment, the amendment was effectively dead."

Then why vote for the resolution without the Biden-Lugar Amendment?

"Colin Powell," said Kerry. "I've known him a long time. I respect him, and I trust him. We sat down one-on-one and he showed me the evidence. He has since made it clear that he was fed false information, that he was misled too. And Lawrence Wilkerson, who worked closely with him, has been even more direct - that there was a small group there, a cabal run by Cheney and Wolfowitz, directing all the planning and leaving the rest of them out of the loop."

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Kerry's email earlier in the day had said this:

"... (the meeting that was described) didn't happen. I publicly and privately argued for the Biden-Lugar Resolution as the best resolution to deal with Saddam Hussein. ... When (it) was pushed aside I voted for the resolution on the table.

"We know a lot more today than we did then. We know we were misled about weapons of mass destruction -- and misled by an Administration that made promises about going to war as a last resort, good diplomacy, and careful planning. That's why I regret my vote. It was a mistake. I said in 2004 that I wouldn't have gone to war knowing what I knew, and I have said that I wouldn't vote to give the President that authority knowing what I know now. In fact, I don't know anyone who would.

"I accept my share of responsibility. But I don't think it's fair to question my motives.

"If I had argued behind closed doors to vote against the Iraq resolution, I would've voted against it. Period. War is personal to me - and those decisions about sending soldiers to war are now and always have been far more important to me than being President. You may not believe that, and you're welcome to your own opinion - but I want you to know that the facts as you relayed them are simply wrong, and it matters to me. It's a criticism of my character that is untrue."

I answered by posing a scenario where a person of good conscience might find himself making compromises in pursuit of what could be considered the higher good:

"I would never question the fact that sending soldiers to war is more important to you than being President," I wrote. "I hope I was also clear that ... 'hamartia' can consist of the right trait in the wrong circumstances. I can picture, for example, a fine and decent man who feels he can't end an already-inevitable war unless he becomes President, and who can't become President without collaborating with his colleagues ... etc. etc."

Kerry's answer was to call me and reiterate - emphatically - that no such meeting took place, and that his vote was based on judgment, not expediency. He insists he would never send soldiers to war against his conscience, and I believe him.

"I appreciate your willingness to be forthright, to talk about what you wrote," Kerry said, "but there's something more important than that, which is that we look to the future, not the past. That's what I'm concentrating on now - ending this war. My vote for the war resolution has been misinterpreted, but I don't want that to stand in the way of what I'm doing now."

"But believe me," he added, "there was no meeting like the one you wrote about. I don't even know where it would have happened, except at our weekly Democratic Caucus meetings. And we never had a discussion like the one you describe."

I had already sent him the citation I'd used for the story, in a piece by Eric Alterman for The Nation. I said that I respect Alterman, and that I used his information because he cited more than one source. (In an email exchange, Alterman reiterated his regard for his sources, but indicated that since the record was unclear he would cite Kerry's denial in the future.)

Kerry challenged my assertion that the Bush Administration's perfidy about Iraq was so unprecedented, so profound, that in 2004 the body politic still lacked the right political language for it - that it was difficult to respond in a tone that was moderate and reasonable, while remaining true to the enormity of the situation. I had suggested in my email that both his campaign and the antiwar movement struggled with this language problem, and that it contributed to the election's outcome.

"Respectfully, I disagree," he said, "because I was out there every day talking about it. The problem was that our press has become so cynical, and so unwilling to accept the fact that positions change - and that they should change - as the situation changes, or as new information emerges. It was, 'Kerry wants to have it both ways,' rather than the explanation I kept giving: I was misled."

Speaking of being misled - I suggested politely that some of us are far less convinced than he is of Powell's moral rectitude. (There's compelling evidence, in my opinion, that Powell knew, or should have known, that he was peddling false information.) Kerry's response was firm: "I've known Colin since Vietnam. I respect the work he did there, and what he's accomplished since then. He's a friend, and I trust him."

"Read the speech I gave on the floor of the Senate," Kerry added. "I made it clear that I was voting to support the President as he continued to work toward resolving the situation. I was also clear that WMD's - and only WMD's - were a justification for war. I assumed - wrongly, as it turned out - that the system of checks and balances was in place. That vote was not a blank check to go to war."

Then why not say from the start, I wasn't told the truth? "I did," Kerry answered, "but remember: back then much of the country still supported the war. They weren't ready to hear that it was the wrong decision."

"Besides," he added, "we got 10 million more votes than Clinton got in 1996. And Stan Greenberg's data shows that if Bin Laden hadn't released that video the week before the election, we would've won."

But you acknowledge that the war resolution also contributed? "Sure," said Kerry, "and I've said as much, more than once."

"Then doesn't this suggest," I asked, "that this 'Rose Garden' moment with Lieberman was the real turning point? It was the moment when war became inevitable. From then on, you - and Daschle, Biden, Harkin - were out of options. And you were in an untenable situation going forward into the election."

"You can look at it that way," he answered, "but if there's one thing I want to emphasize, it's that we need to stay focused on now. What do we do now? How do we stop more soldiers from dying? That's what my resolution does - it sets some dates for bringing an end to this conflict. That's what I'm all about these days."

Then why not coordinate with John Murtha and others in the party who have the same goal? "I'm planning to give Jack a call," he answered. "I intend to do that."

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My impressions? I can't have been the only observer who, in the first two years of the war, recalled Yeats' line: "The best lack all convictions, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Kerry certainly had "passionate intensity" during our exchange. And, while he disagreed with my observations about political language, the impression lingers that he's been accessing a different vocabulary since the election. Or maybe it's fairer to say that this vocabulary, candid and direct, was present in 2004 - but not consistently, and never accurately reported.

It was there when we talked, though. "I take responsibility," he said more than once. "Sure," he said at one point, "that vote was a mistake." (Although Rachel Sklar's right, too: the war wasn't Kerry's mistake, but Bush's. It's great that he takes responsibility for being deceived, but he might want to emphasize that hthe Administration bears the real responsibility for the war and the lies that led up to it.)

That vocabulary was most striking in our exchange about civil war in Iraq, when he talked about bringing Sunni and Shi'ite leaders together to build an agreement going forward. I said that some knowledgeable people would say that, tragically, it can no longer be done.

"I think it can be done," he answered, "but only if we come to the table with humility, with honesty, and with the willingness to acknowledge that we made some mistakes that have brought us all to this point. And," he added, "if we do it with international support."

I found him open, responsive (if emphatic), and willing to be challenged. And at one point he used a mild epithet, but asked that I not put it into print. "Why not?" I said. "You said 'fuck' in Rolling Stone." He laughed. "I know, but I got some flak about it afterward."

Kerry would probably object to being compared to Al Gore, who found a new vernacular and a clearer sense of self after the 2000 election. I think Kerry would argue that he's always been the same man he is today, and that he's the same man who ran for President in 2004.

I don't completely agree, and I think it's to his credit. There will be those who say his call to me is another example of a politician 'working the refs,' and that I've been overly swayed by his attention. I don't think so. My criticisms of his 2004 campaign are unchanged - but so is my belief that without press sabotage he would have won with a significant margin.

If he runs again, John Kerry will need to construct a narrative for himself - and for the voters - that builds an arc between the Kerry of 2004 and the Kerry of today: Where was he right in that first campaign? Where was he wrong? What has he learned?

He's begun that process already, but the press doesn't seem to be listening. He needs a crystallizing moment, like Bill and Hillary's appearance on '60 Minutes,' to breathe life into the story - that is, if he accepts the notion of transformation as part of his post-election life.

It's true that he won 10 million more votes than Clinton, and future historians may well conclude that he was the winner in 2004, at least in the Electoral College. But whatever the true vote count was, I think the John Kerry I spoke with the other day would have done better.

A Night Light

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