April 19, 2004
Kerry Backs Off Statements on Vietnam WarBy JODI WILGOREN
MIAMI, April 18 Senator John Kerry on Sunday distanced himself from contentious statements he made three decades ago after returning from the Vietnam War, saying his long-ago use of the word "atrocities" to describe his and others' actions was inappropriate and "a little bit excessive."
"If you wanted to ask me, `Have you ever made mistakes in your life?' sure," Mr. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, said in an hourlong interview on the NBC program "Meet the Press." "I think some of the language that I used was a language that reflected an anger."
The near-apology came after the host, Tim Russert, played videotape of Mr. Kerry, in 1971, acknowledging that he had participated in shooting in free-fire zones, burning villages and search-and-destroy missions. All those actions were "contrary to the laws of warfare" and the Geneva Conventions, he said then. Republicans have seized on those comments, and accusations about war crimes the young Mr. Kerry made in testimony before a Senate committee, to try to undercut his war credentials.
"The words were honest," Mr. Kerry said Sunday, "but on the other hand, they were a little bit over the top."
In an appearance his aides hoped would counterbalance President Bush's televised news conference last week, Mr. Kerry said he completely supported Mr. Bush's new position that Israel should be able to keep part of the land seized in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. He also backed Israel's assassination this weekend of a Hamas leader.
"I believe Israel has every right in the world to respond to any act of terror against it," he said. Some members of Mr. Kerry's campaign are concerned that Mr. Bush's statements about West Bank settlements could draw Jewish Democrats.
Mr. Kerry's position on Israel was a rare point of agreement with the president, whose handling of Iraq Mr. Kerry called "stunningly ineffective."
"It may well be that we need a new president," he said, "a breath of fresh air, to re-establish credibility with the rest of the world."
The interview capped a week in which Mr. Kerry hammered Mr. Bush daily on Iraq, hoping to contrast his internationalist approach and policy experience with what his advisers see as Mr. Bush's simplistic "stay the course" presentation. He spent all of Saturday huddled with aides in preparation for the show.
It was Mr. Kerry's 19th appearance on "Meet the Press," his fourth since December 2002. He appeared well prepared for the forum and avoided verbal stumbles, correctly pronouncing the name of the United Nations' envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi, which he had mangled three times in recent days. Hours later, at the University of Miami, Mr. Kerry goofed again, referring to the envoy as "Brandini."
The wide-ranging interview focused largely on foreign policy, but also touched on job creation, budget balancing, his wife's tax returns and even the gas mileage standards for new cars. Pressed on his past comments about raising the retirement age and instituting a means test for Social Security, Mr. Kerry turned the tables on Mr. Russert, saying, "I wish I had the power to press this button and put up on the screen what you said" in 1997 when Medicare seemed on the brink of bankruptcy.
Marc Racicot, chairman of Mr. Bush's re-election campaign, criticized Mr. Kerry's appearance as "little more than contradiction, a great deal of confusion, inaccurate attacks and a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat that we face with terror."
In a conference call with reporters, Mr. Racicot called Mr. Kerry's reasoning on voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq but not the $87 billion appropriation for reconstruction, "remarkably flawed."
The interview did provide new fodder for Republican attacks on Mr. Kerry for avoiding direct questions. Three times, on questions about troop deployment, troop financing and whether he would pledge not to run for re-election if he failed to fulfill promises to create 10 million jobs and cut the deficit in half, Mr. Kerry said "it depends" on the circumstances or the situation.
Asked at the beginning of the show for a yes or no answer on whether the war in Iraq was a mistake, Mr. Kerry responded, "I think the way the president went to war was a mistake."
Pushed to reconcile his description of Cuba policy four years ago as counterproductive with his current support for the embargo, he said, "I think in the year 2000, the politics are very different from where they are in 2004."
When Mr. Russert asked whether his wealthy wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, would release her tax returns, which she has refused to do, Mr. Kerry said, "My wife is doing exactly what the law requires."
The most awkward moment came after the Vietnam-era videotape, Mr. Kerry's "Meet the Press" debut, with the candidate watching his younger self use grave and graphic words to describe the Vietnam War.
"Where did all the dark hair go, Tim?" Mr. Kerry tried, wearing an odd grin. "That's a big question for me."