A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better Americaby John Kerry
As an outsider among insiders in the U.S. Senate, John Kerry has never been afraid to battle the political establishment and fight the fights that need fighting. Now, in "A Call to Service," the Democratic presidential candidate formally introduces himself to the nation. In a book rich with autobiographical details that explain the experiences behind the ideas, Kerry offers his vision for America.
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Twelve years ago, late one night, I found myself on a C-135 transport plane that was taking me and two senatorial colleagues on the long flight across Europe and the Middle East to Kuwait. The Persian Gulf War had only recently ended, and we were headed for a postwar inspection tour of the region.
John Glenn, John McCain, and I had been discussing our shared love of flying until John Glenn fell asleep. And now John McCain and I sat in uncomfortable silence for a few moments until, inevitably, we started talking not about the Gulf War but about our war—Vietnam.
Though we had served together in the U.S. Senate for nearly five years at that point, we had never yet shared our common and separate experiences in Vietnam. We were aware of each other’s public stories, of course. I knew that John—the son of a distinguished admiral—had been a Navy pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam, where he was held, beaten, and tortured for five and a half years, much of that time served after he refused to accept freedom on terms that violated the POW code of honor governing the order of prisoner releases.
And John knew I had also been a Navy officer, commanding a “swift boat”— a small, fast patrol boat used for counterinsurgency missions—in the Mekong Delta for two tours of duty. Unlike him, I had been able to come back after I received my third Purple Heart. Upon my return, however, based on my strong feelings that our fighting men were being sacrificed for a mission in which our leaders no longer believed, I got involved in the effort of veterans to stop the war.
Not surprisingly John, who was still imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton at that time, took a dim view of my antiwar activities and, in fact, campaigned for my Republican opponent when I first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1984. But he didn’t - really know the story of my personal experiences in Vietnam, just as I didn’t really know his.
The gulf between us on that issue was typical. In those difficult years of the Vietnam War there were too many on both the left and right in this country, along with the Communists in Vietnam, who had tried to pit those who had worn the uniform and now opposed the war against those who still supported it and who, whether on the battlefields or in prison cells in Hanoi, continued to serve with the greatest of valor. John McCain and I were caught up in that crossfire, started by those who wanted differences over the war to become fundamental differences between two soldiers.
I don’t know exactly how long we talked about Vietnam in that dark C-135 cabin, but by daybreak we shared a new understanding—and a new friendship. And we built upon that friendship over the next few years to bring our war, finally, to an end.
Later that year, I was asked by the Senate majority leader to chair a special committee on POW/MIA affairs, in part because of continuing media reports— and family hopes that they raised—that a significant number of Americans were still being secretly held in Vietnam. This issue, moreover, had led to the continuation of our economic boycott against Vietnam and our refusal to resume normal diplomatic relations with that country even though the hostilities had ended nearly two decades earlier. John McCain also agreed to serve on this committee.
Both of us had signed up for what was generally regarded as one of the most thankless tasks in Washington. We had to review a thousand old documents, struggle to achieve some level of cooperation from a Vietnamese government that had hundreds of thousands of its own MIAs, and deal with a POW/MIA advocacy network that fed every wild rumor or conspiracy theory, preying on the grief of families of Americans who had not come home. We had to fight against the Rambo psychology of reopening all the contentious issues of the war all over again, and—for John McCain and me, at any rate—we had to come to grips with our own memories.
I certainly remembered how close I had come to being killed by rifle fire and rocket launchers from the shore in our forays deep into Viet Cong territory. I remembered crew members and close friends who didn’t come back. I knew I could have wound up, like John McCain and the sons and husbands of those who anxiously followed our hearings, a POW or MIA.
We made a total of eight trips to Vietnam during and immediately after our hearings. These visits were filled with unforgettable experiences, and one of the most deeply moving of them was accompanying John to the site of the Hanoi Hilton and seeing the tiny room—really almost a cage—where he sacrificed a good part of his young adulthood for his country, in pain and fear and isolation.
I have had no greater privilege in all my life than finding, then standing on, common ground with John McCain, with whom I formed a close personal and political alliance during these hearings. We insisted on examining all the evidence, demanded that witnesses be held accountable for the reliability of their testimony, and, in the end, convinced the entire committee to agree on a report that concluded that there were likely no Americans still alive in Vietnam.
And our alliance continued to the next steps our country needed to take to honorably put the war behind us—abandonment of the economic boycott against Vietnam and normalization of diplomatic relations. President Clinton had the courage to put these policies into action, and he still says that he couldn’t have done it without the constant presence and united support of two Vietnam vets named John—one a Democrat, one a Republican; one a famous POW, the other a famous war protester. As for me, I’m most proud of the fact that when we say the word “Vietnam” today we mean not just a war but a country—at long last, a place where, as I hoped thirty years ago, “America turned and veterans helped in the turning.”
My friendship with John McCain has continued and even strengthened after our last Vietnam mission, and neither of us has much use for those in either party who complain that we should keep to our own partisan interests. In fact, we have discovered that we share something far more precious than party: a common call to service.
I learned several important lessons during our effort to put the war behind us for ourselves, our generation, and our country.
I learned how to reach across partisan and ideological divides to find common ground in the rich soil of American values and experiences.
I learned how to overcome the passionate convictions of narrow interest groups to build a consensus based on facts rather than prejudice.
I learned how to make my personal experiences a platform for broader lessons about American ideals and their special place in the world’s struggle for peace and justice.
And perhaps most important, I learned that the call to service did not end with a discharge from the Navy or election to the United States Senate.
I’m pretty sure that our mutual experience in transcending the Vietnam trauma was one important factor that led John McCain to run for president in 2000 as a serious reformer, a “straight talker,” and a patriot who believes our willingness to meet domestic challenges is as important a test of national will as our willingness to engage in warfare. He did his best to summon his party to rise to such values, and had he succeeded, the country would be in much better hands today.
I don’t believe there’s much left in the Republican Party of the spirit of true civic service or the courage to defy powerful interests and seriously address the most pressing national issues. And too many people in my own Democratic Party are focused on narrow interests and as a result have too little vision of the vast potential for achievement, at home and abroad, for the United States under the kind of leadership we deserve.
It’s time for a new call to service. It’s time to rally Democrats, Republicans, and inde- pendents alike to face the common challenges of this generation. In the course of my career, from the Mekong Delta to the Senate, I’ve tried to muster the right combination of the toughness to govern and the compassion to care—along with a deep commitment to justice and to America’s progressive values. But my experiences have taught me that a leader succeeds only to the extent that he is able to communicate his values, his goals, his ideas, and much of who he is in direct communication, one on one. I began that kind of conversation with John McCain on a C-135 late one night, and it’s continued ever since. I want to begin that conversation with my fellow citizens in this book and during this presidential campaign, and continue it while we work together to meet the challenges of our age.
Why I Am Running for President
I am a child of the greatest generation of Americans and therefore a member of the most fortunate generation of Americans. Like my parents, I have always hoped and often assumed that my own children will have more opportunities in life than I had and will live in a country and in a world where such opportunities are more widely shared and more deeply rooted than at any time in the past.
I am running for president in no small part to redeem that promise for the America to come. While we are living today in the most extraordinary and powerful nation on earth, I believe not only that America’s best days are still to come but that our best work is yet to be done. We have the capacity to lift the life of our own land as well as lead the world to a safer and more hopeful future. But doing so will require equal measures of strength, vision, and resolve, embodied in a leadership that grasps both the breadth of our potential and the great legacy of our past.
As Americans, we inherit with our birthright of freedom a sacred chain of responsibility that stretches back to the Founders and to the sacrifices of the immigrants who built this country before and after them and extends to the present day. Our task is not just to guarantee material progress: along with a better life we must pass on to our children that unique sense of optimism and that God-given belief in the universal appeal of our ideals that have always marked our national character.
I look ahead with confidence, because all around us I see evidence that the children of the baby-boom generation have the right stuff. The skill and courage of the young men and women who went into harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq—and for that matter, at ground zero in New York—match the best of my generation during the cold war and my parents’ generation during the Second World War.
In that conflict my father flew DC-3s in the Army Air Corps. Afterward, he entered the diplomatic service and was privileged to be an active participant during the historic period when this nation forged a “grand and global alliance” against tyranny with measures that ranged from the Marshall Plan through NATO to a host of multilateral institutions. His was the greatest generation not just because it defeated Fascism but because it was determined after the war to create a nation worthy of all the effort and sacrifice that had been made and a world worthy of the cause for which they had fought.
My parents raised me with a belief in patriotism and service. After I joined the Navy during the Vietnam War, I commanded a naval gunboat patrolling the Mekong Delta. Then when I came home after two tours of duty, I decided that the same sense of service demanded something more of me. This led me to protest the very war in which I had fought, while always honoring those who fought before me, with me, and after me.
It may be hard to understand three decades later, but for all the conflict and contention over Vietnam here at home, this period was also a time when the - people of our country were drawn into a great civic discourse. Critical national issues had come to the center of people’s everyday lives. We had both the burden and the honor of facing in a short span of time a long list of topics that would fundamentally change our lives—civil rights, women’s rights, the environment, economic opportunity, and reclaiming democracy itself from elected leaders who lied to us and broke the laws they were sworn to uphold. We Americans took our country back and moved our country forward. That was the real America for which I had fought in the Vietnam War and in the antiwar movement, and I am still convinced—and can cite witnesses across the former Soviet empire who will confirm my belief—that it was the power of our values as much as the power of weapons that finally won the cold war.
In world war and in cold war, our people never lost the determination to make sure that our country was truly the best it could be. They knew there were things worth fighting for, both at home and abroad. It is that determination I hope to bring to the election of 2004, to the presidency of the United States, and to the common challenges Americans face.
There’s a famous old saying that all leaders tend to be either hedgehogs or foxes. A hedgehog knows one thing very well, and a fox knows a little about everything. I suspect I would qualify as a hedgehog who’s been around the field a few times. In the course of my public career, I’ve had the chance to master a range of issues—veterans issues after the war, crime as a prosecutor, economic development as a lieutenant governor, and then foreign policy, health care, intelligence, national defense, drug trafficking, technology, and education during nineteen years as a U.S. senator.
I don’t consider myself a policy wonk, but I was brought up to care about the big issues and to think for myself, not hire others to do the thinking for me.
While my father, Richard Kerry, was serving as a diplomat, my mother, Rosemary, became a serious civic activist and an environmentalist before the word “ecology” was widely used. And I first got to know my wife, Teresa, at a policy conference in South America. It’s no surprise that I’m accustomed to talking about ideas and world events around the dinner table and that my family is a central part of my political life. We’ve kept up the tradition with my daughters, Alex and Vanessa, and my stepsons, John, Andre, and Chris. They’ve all been nurtured on a steady diet of civic obligation.
I’ve also benefited from a pretty remarkable extended family of people who have influenced my thinking and helped keep me humble and hungry for knowledge.
First and foremost have been my brothers-in-arms from Vietnam, my crewmates from PCF 94 and PCF 44. We came from different states and backgrounds, but all that really mattered was that we were all from America. My real growing up came with them on a fragile boat under enemy fire halfway across the world. Thirty-five years later, they still help me keep my bearings. We share a precious, unshakable bond that veterans understand and others respect.
While I was an antiwar activist and veterans advocate after Vietnam, my extended family grew to include thousands who had always passionately loved their country and often passionately disagreed with one another about how to fight for their country’s values. After I testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, I felt as if I had heard from every one of them, whether happy, angry, approving, or damning, along with their parents, their wives and girlfriends, and their children. And I quickly learned to listen to the veterans of World War II and Korea who shared our sacrifices but didn’t like our long hair, our music, or our challenges to authority.
All these experiences helped me deal with the ultimate extended family of constituents I have represented in elected office. I will never forget meeting crime victims as an assistant district attorney in Middlesex County, Massachusetts. Crime too often is reduced to a statistic, but from each of them, I learned that - every act of violence gives rise to an individual human tragedy. Since then, as lieutenant governor and as a senator, I’ve talked with countless citizens, often in happy moments but often, too, at some of the hardest times in their lives—men and women displaced from their homes by natural disasters or from their jobs by technological change; families overwhelmed by health-care costs or frustrated by bad schools; citizens struggling to obtain medical benefits for their parents or get questions answered by bureaucrats. I can’t say I’ve heard it all, but I have heard a lot, and I’ve tried to learn something from every encounter with a person, a problem, or an idea that crosses my path.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to say that the 2004 election represents a real crossroads for our country.
During the 1990s we were actually beginning to make real progress on a range of national problems that people had pretty much come to regard as immutable parts of the landscape. Violent crime fell sharply after nearly twenty-five years of steady increases. Welfare dependency was down by more than half. Teen pregnancy and abortion rates decreased. We adopted tough measures to reduce acid rain and raise water quality. Inner cities were being reborn all across the country. Real incomes rose for the middle class for the first time in two decades. Health-care costs stabilized. Technological innovations exploded, and productivity increased dramatically. Millions of working families—for the first time ever, a majority in this nation or any nation—joined the investor class, and America created the first mass upper-middle class in human history. Nearly thirty years of federal budget deficits were replaced by budget surpluses so large as to defy the imagination. From a statistical point of view, nearly everything good went up and nearly everything bad went down. And all this progress occurred despite partisan warfare and gridlock in Congress, and an administration under Bill Clinton that became more and more distracted and embattled by endless allegations and the investigations that grew out of them.
While we can’t go back to the exact policies of the Clinton years—as a progressive, I believe we should always be looking forward and embracing change—it is hard to believe that most people wouldn’t want to go back to the kind of results they helped achieve. Instead, in the name of ideology and on behalf of selfish interests, the Bush administration has been systematically dismantling just about everything government accomplished during the 1990s: environmen- tal protection, international diplomacy, substantial investments in basic scientific and technological research, fiscal discipline, and the commitment to a fairer society of opportunity for all. Not surprisingly, its policies have begun to have seriously alarming consequences: a sluggish economy, rising crime, the largest budget deficits in history, and the weakening of our alliances and standing around the world. Another four years of the Bush agenda, especially if there is a Republican Congress, will take this country so far off track that it could take a generation to put things right again.
But if we put the country back on a progressive course in 2004, I believe we can rebuild the prosperity of the 1990s, reverse a long series of bad decisions and evasions of responsibility, restore America’s world leadership in the eyes of our friends and our enemies alike, and protect the liberties that make this country a beacon to the hopeful and a reproach to tyrants everywhere. We have the chance to truly protect Americans from terrorism at home and abroad while calling on all Americans to join in the fulfillment of our freedom and democracy.
The time has come to renew our best hopes, take up the great unfinished business of our society, and take on the big challenges that many people have come to consider as hopeless, challenges like achieving energy independence, providing universal access to health care, creating high-quality schools for all students, using technology to drastically reform how government works, and turning the rhetoric of worker-controlled lifelong learning into a reality. And if I have anything to say about it, we will also make a commitment to political and civic reform, turning the tide of cynicism and indifference about politics and government and making our democracy both far more participatory and truly representative.
My fellow Democrats don’t agree on all of these issues or how exactly to resolve them, and that’s as it should be. I want my party to be an open door for lively debate, not a mirror image of the narrow ideological sect that the Republicans are becoming. Most of us, however, do agree that George W. Bush is leading America in a very dangerous direction. While we all admired the way he rallied the nation after 9/11, we also believe that he is, by ideology, inclination, and experience, incapable of keeping America strong enough at home or abroad to sustain us in peace or in war over the long haul. The question we now face is how to make that case to the widest span of the American people—Democrats, independents, and moderate Republicans alike—and offer a clear alternative agenda.
I, like so many of my fellow Democrats, am still angry about the painful and protracted events that followed the 2000 election and that perhaps altered its outcome. We should channel this anger into positive grassroots energy and into a determination never to let voters be disenfranchised again.
President Bush has enough bad policies on which to focus our energies; there is no need to ascribe to him a weak intellect or bad intentions as a political strategy. We should not deny him his few successes or refuse to acknowledge the affection his plainspokenness and quiet self-confidence inspire in many. For my part, I intend to run a presidential campaign organized around a contest of ideas, values, and policies, rather than a clash of personalities or a war between political tribes.
To those who think that sounds naïve, I would point to my last contested senatorial reelection campaign, in 1996, when I was challenged by William Weld, a very popular incumbent governor. There’s no question that that campaign could have degenerated into a mud bath if we had let it. It was a close race between two longtime statewide elected officials with nearly universal name recognition, the kind of race that is often decided by turnout. We both had advisers who urged us to focus on “energizing” our supporters with emotional appeals and attack ads and forget about persuading the relatively small group of undecided voters. But Governor Weld and I chose another path for our campaigns—a long series of debates rigorously focused on issues rather than personalities, a process that let voters reach their own judgments about our differences, our characters, and our capacity for leadership. By the end of that campaign, we all sincerely felt we were part of something unique and valuable, which had not only raised the level of civic discourse in Massachusetts but had actually boosted voter turnout through positive rather than negative means.
That’s precisely the kind of contest I would like to have with George W. Bush, and it’s one that I believe will serve the nation well.
President Bill Clinton once said that running for the presidency against an incumbent is like an extended job interview with the American people: You have to convince voters to fire the chief executive, then hire you as the replacement. I would add to that sentiment that you don’t have any business running for the presidency if you don’t know and can’t explain exactly how you would do a better job.
My case for sending George W. Bush back to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, is based on three big promises he made when he was in my position in the year 2000, then subsequently abandoned.
First, he pledged over and over again to “change the tone” in Washington—to reach out to Democrats and all Americans and overcome the partisan bitterness of the late 1990s. That promise became much more important when he took office after having lost the popular vote, becoming president only by virtue of an eternally controversial ruling by the narrowest possible majority of the U.S. Supreme Court. But since then the president has done the very opposite of what he promised, presiding over the most partisan administration I have experienced in my nearly twenty years in the Senate. He reaches out to Democrats only occasionally, primarily to invite surrender to his political and legislative demands. The tone in Washington, despite the longing for unity inspired by 9/ 11, is so poisonously partisan that a growing majority of Americans—who have become either nonvoters or independents—are no longer allied with either side. The president and his closest colleagues have personally contributed to this toxic atmosphere by denouncing any thoughtful differences of opinion as unpatriotic, cynically invoking loyalty in the service of party obedience.
Second, George W. Bush pledged frequently to temper the harsh ideology of his party with a “compassionate conservatism” that would harness our nation’s civic energy in the pursuit of justice and opportunity for the poor and forgotten. There is no question that the president has broken this promise as well. His one exercise in compassion was the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, an education reform effort that I supported. The stated purpose of that legislation was to offer a new bargain to states and school districts, under which they would accept greater accountability for results in exchange for the resources and the flexibility to get the job done. The Bush administration began welshing on its side of the bargain almost before the ink was dry on the bill, undermining education funding as part of a larger strategy of directing every available dollar toward tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. This has been sadly typical of the administration’s approach to government: a rhetoric of compassion and concern accompanied by policies that are compassionate primarily toward the most comfortable members of our society.
And that leads me to the third big promise the president has broken. He pledged many times to usher in a “responsibility era,” to exercise brave leadership whatever the political costs, and, in the words he used in the 2003 State of the Union Address, not to “pass along our problems to other Congresses, other presidents, and other generations.” By reneging on this promise the president has betrayed his claim to represent the mature and responsible face of the baby-boom generation. Among the many dangers the administration is refusing to deal with are global climate change, the impending crisis in retirement programs, the culture of corporate corruption, the need for a genuine homeland security system, our vulnerability to energy blackmail, the “loose nukes” problem in the former Soviet Union, and the threat of worldwide economic deflation. This is the first administration since Calvin Coolidge’s that believes that the national government can’t do anything about the economy other than giving more to those who already have the most. And this is the same administration that has managed to pass along trillions of dollars in new debt, along with neglect of big national challenges, to future generations.
In my campaign I intend to hold the president accountable for breaking all three of his big promises, applying the very standards he set for himself. And there’s an even more fundamental issue upon which I intend to pose the choice between another term for George W. Bush and a Kerry administration. It is a question central to all the challenges our country faces in the new world created by the end of the cold war with communism and the beginning of a war with terrorist networks and other globalized threats to our security. I believe what America needs is a president determined to restore our sense of common national purpose.
No matter what issue, foreign or domestic, I address—no matter where in the country I’m speaking, no matter the audience—my underlying message will be the same: It’s time to renew a sense of common purpose. It is a quality our nation has been losing for several decades—indeed, for much of my lifetime—and it is a quality I firmly believe we must restore. My presidential campaign will be built around the ideas of shared endeavor, national service, intergenerational obligation, and activism aimed at overcoming partisan and personal rivalries to meet the demands of a decisive, even fateful, era. That’s why I’ve titled this book A Call to Service. I hear that call, and I believe most Americans are ready to hear it as well and to respond to it. But it’s not a call they will hear from George W. Bush, who in the days after 9/11 so memorably asked Americans to shop and travel as their contribution to the fight against terrorism.
From that moment on there’s been a striking contrast between the president’s willingness to use stirring patriotic rhetoric and his unwillingness to apply the true spirit of patriotism to any aspect of national policy beyond actual military operations. As only one example, he broke a promise in the 2002 State of the Union Address to provide more opportunities for national service by passively accepting congressional Republican efforts to gut the AmeriCorps program that offers precisely such opportunities.
There are literally hundreds of issues on which I strongly disagree with the Bush administration and a Republicanism that’s drifted far from its roots as the party of Lincoln and is obsessed with dividing the Union that Lincoln saved. The one policy that bothers me most is their deliberate and consistent effort to undermine the ideal of shared sacrifice and purpose, devotion to the common good, and responsibility to future generations.
Instead this administration has made its top wartime priority the easing of the tax burden on its wealthiest citizens—the citizens least likely to face sacrifices at home or abroad in a time of war. This president has all but endorsed the most invidious conservative policy of our time: that cutting taxes for the people who least need help, turning budget surpluses into deficits, and piling debts on our children are all useful strategies because they will effectively paralyze our own government—the instrument of our democracy—by denying it the revenues to pay for progress. Using tax dollars paid by all Americans to comfort the comfortable while starving the commonwealth has become an item of orthodoxy for a Republican Party that has left behind not only millions of children, not only its promises, but its own honorable traditions of moderation and national stewardship.
Whether it’s an energy policy that perpetuates dependence on Middle - Eastern oil, an environmental policy that denies global climate change, a health- care policy that proposes to dismantle Medicare and Medicaid, a civil rights policy that pretends to be color-blind while denying educational opportunity to all Americans, or a judicial philosophy that would appoint activist judges determined to validate discrimination or repudiate a woman’s right to choose, this is not an administration focused on our long-term interests as a nation. This is an administration that is exploiting our national security challenges as a rationale for dismantling the achievements of a progressive era that lasted from Theodore Roosevelt to Bill Clinton, and taking America back to a system of go-it-alone economics and politics.
This dismantling of the commonwealth is fundamentally corrosive of our national strength, not just at home but ultimately abroad as well. I believe Americans sense that we can and must do better, and my aim is to mobilize a new national resolve to rebuild our commonwealth and with it our strength. I believe America’s destiny is to become a living testament to what free human beings can accomplish by acting in unity. The administration currently in the White House apparently believes we can’t accomplish anything together other than waging war. That’s the contrast I will constantly draw during this campaign, and it’s one that will give Americans a clear, even stark, choice in November of 2004.
Every successful political message conveys three things: values and goals, then ideas or proposals to reach those goals. To put it another way, all candidates must explain who they are, what they want to do, and how they want to do it.
We Democrats have traditionally been very good at that last step—talking about our programs. We sometimes forget, however, to explain just what our programs are supposed to accomplish. And far too many of us are likewise uncomfortable talking about our own values.
But a presidential contest is an arena in which you inevitably reveal who you are and what you’re made of just in the course of dealing with the pressures of the campaign itself. Some candidates fall apart or self-destruct over the very subject of how they define themselves as people. It’s crucial to be true to yourself and true to your record of thoughts, words, and deeds, recognizing at the same time that the world changes and that how you apply your values must evolve like life itself.
Some political insiders have called me aloof over the years. I have a feeling that my spending not one weekend in Washington for more than seventeen years may have something to do with that label. I’m not aloof at all with the colleagues, friends, and constituents I have spent time with when I’m away from Washington.
Likewise, I’ve been misunderstood for having come from a comfortable background. That is certainly true, but it was a background built on a foundation of duty and service, which my family considered a responsibility. And I am deeply grateful to have served America, to have done my part, no matter how small, to help our great nation.
Fortunately, I recognize that life is more than politics or power.
As someone might guess from my early decision to serve on fast boats in the Navy, I love pastimes that bring together the sky, wind, and surf. One of my favorite sports, in fact, is windsurfing, followed by sailing as a close second. I’m a trained glider pilot but generally fly with an engine. In the winter, I love to ski and skate, and I am so addicted to ice hockey that I still fantasize about starting a professional over-fifty senior league.
I have been an avid biker (bicycle and motorcycle) all my life. I bought a Harley-Davidson last year and have been trying to talk Teresa into riding with me ever since. I rarely get time to ride now, which I’m confident pleases her greatly. If there was an ESPN 11/2, I would be a charter subscriber.
But all this is just background music to the main theme of my life right now. I don’t want the Democrats to nominate me because I’m a charter member of one of the most selective but fastest growing sports clubs in the world: the NASCAR fans of Massachusetts. I don’t intend to challenge President Bush to a contest of who’s a more regular guy. I will, however, challenge him to a contest of ideas and vision, and I’m confident I will be able to compete from a position of strength.
Beating an incumbent president is always a difficult task. Doing so in a period of external threat to the nation is even harder. Moreover, this administration can call on almost unlimited campaign money and a fanatically loyal right-wing party base that looks forward to a second Bush term as the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow they’ve been chasing for decades. Finally, the Bush administration is among the most bellicose in our history, determined to have a second term in the White House.
To win this election in the face of such opposition we’re going to have to be especially self-disciplined, focused, and loyal to the broad interests of the nation. We can’t afford a self-indulgent campaign that congratulates us for our superior virtue as Democrats while alienating a majority of the voting public. We can’t treat the Bush ad- ministration’s errors and faults as self-evident; we will have to explain them in specific detail every day to voters who are as skeptical of us as they are of the Republicans. We aren’t going to win merely by energizing ourselves and getting a big Democratic turnout, although we can’t win without doing that. With about one-third of the electorate unattached to either party and with at least one-third of voting-age citizens not even bothering to vote, we must make this a campaign of persuasion as well as mobilization.
Republicans will obviously have their own version of what distinguishes the two parties, arguing that we are addicted to government programs, alienated from mainstream values, and unwilling to use the best military in the world to defend the American people in a time of war. We must never accept these stereotypes. I will say all across this country that patriotism and the flag don’t belong to any president or any party but to all Americans. And if I am the Democratic nominee, I will proudly proclaim the values that make us Democrats: our commitment to equal opportunity; our belief that economic growth is built on the work and talent of all our people; our commitment to international rules and institutions that promote peace, security, prosperity, freedom and democracy; our concern for a vibrant and participatory democracy here at home; our willingness to meet national challenges before they become emergencies; and, above all, our determination to make government not an end in itself but a vehicle for the achievement of common goals.
I argued in 2002 that Democrats were making a big mistake by dealing with - every defense and foreign policy issue by supporting the president and changing the subject, opposing the president and changing the subject, or simply changing the subject from the get-go. They tried instead to address the insecurity of the American people by just offering them prescription drug coverage, but the tactic - didn’t work. And I’m not ashamed to say it shouldn’t have worked. A national political party with nothing much to say about national security in a time of war is evading its responsibilities.
In contrast to the dangerous mix of isolationism and unilateralism that characterizes the Republicans, my kind of Democrat should speak from a position of strength on international issues. That position is the tough-minded, multilateral cooperative tradition of democratic internationalism forged by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt in the course of two world wars and by Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy in the cold war. It acknowledges that multilateral organizations—all created at the initiative of the United States—are vehicles for the promotion of our ideals and the protection of our interests around the world. And it recognizes that those ideals and interests in this globalized world are consistent with the peace, prosperity, and self-determination of every country on earth.
Democratic internationalists understand that there are times when America must challenge the UN, NATO, and our allies to stand up for their own preferred values. And they also realize that there are times when America must be challenged to live up to its values as well. That is why I view my own service in the Navy in the Vietnam War and my public dissent from the direction of that war before and after I served as two sides of the same coin. America has taken a rare step in human history in arguing that its interests and the world’s are one. I fully accept the challenge of moral as well as military leadership that that claim demands.
Beyond national security issues, I will urge Democrats and Republicans alike to get out of the habit of thinking of issues as belonging exclusively to one party or another. After Democrats made that mistake in the 1970s and 1980s, Bill Clinton was elected and reelected president in no small part because he refused to play this game of issue ownership. Instead of treating national defense, crime, welfare reform, fiscal discipline, or economic development as enemy territory to be avoided at all costs, he came up with progressive positions on these issues, which not only changed the perception that Democrats didn’t care about them but also challenged Republicans to come up with proposals on “Democratic issues,” like health care and education.
As President Clinton understood, the people who actually cast votes do not have brains divided into left and right ideological segments that vibrate only when stimulated by particular liberal or conservative messages. Americans expect their elected officials to have a constructive solution to every national problem. More to the point, Democrats cannot truly hold President Bush responsible for the vast, phony Potemkin Village of his nice-sounding but empty domestic policies unless we hold ourselves responsible for articulating our policies on “their” defense and foreign policy issues. If I’m leading the Democratic Party in 2004, I will present a 360-degree view of where America is today, and I will articulate it in a language that speaks to everyone instead of just preaching to the choir.
Another part of the Democratic heritage that I want to reclaim is the ability to appeal to Americans as Americans.
Though it’s one of our oldest traditions to stand for equal opportunity for all and special privileges for none, we Democrats have gotten out of the habit of appealing to voters as citizens of the United States and have instead sometimes addressed them primarily as members of interest or constituency groups or as consumers of government benefits and tax cuts.
To be sure, millions of Americans belong to groups of people who have been marginalized in today’s politics or, worse yet, have not yet achieved full political rights. One of the core values of the Democratic Party, past, present, and future, is to include the excluded and champion the disenfranchised. Our goal should be to offer every American the chance to transcend group differences, and our goal for America should be to make those things we have in common more important than those things that divide us. We must show that Democrats take unity and diversity—issues that have been given only token attention by Republicans— seriously.
The best place to start this process is by making it clear that Democrats will not contract out our commitment to equal opportunity to any organization that claims to speak for groups of American citizens. For my part, I will not have a subdivided campaign message or campaign structure that’s different for men or women, African Americans or Hispanics, gays and lesbians or heterosexuals, Catholics, Protestants, and Jews or the irreligious—or any other way we can segment the electorate. Every single person in my campaign will be attentive not just to Democrats whose rights have been disrespected in the past but to any citizens in the same position. In my view, civil rights are as important to the majority as to any minority, and we must all stand or fall together on our commitment to full, unconditional, affirmative, and assertive equal opportunity for every American.
It’s precisely our willingness to demand the aggressive pursuit of equal opportunity as a basic part of the American creed that distinguishes Democrats from Republicans. We’re not a coalition of groups demanding programs or power; we’re a coalition of American citizens asking for the same rights for and obligations of one another.
As fate would have it, I learned a new personal lesson about diversity and the American mosaic late last year. Anticipating my candidacy, the Boston Globe looked into my family history. Among other things, the paper discovered that one hundred years ago, my paternal grandfather was an Austrian Jew named Fritz Kohn, who changed his name to Kerry and converted to Catholicism shortly before immigrating to Massachusetts. I didn’t know this because my grandfather died when my father was just five years old—a reminder of how much so much of America’s history is buried.
One thing that hasn’t changed for me as a result of this revelation is my Catholic heritage. I am a believing and practicing Catholic, married to another believing and practicing Catholic. And being an American Catholic at this particular moment in history has three particular implications for my own point of view as a candidate for the presidency.
The first two follow directly from the two great commandments set forth in the Scriptures: our obligations to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The first commandment means we must believe that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. They may not - always be that clear, but they exist, and it is our duty to honor them as best we can.
The second commandment means that our commitment to equal rights and social justice, here and around the world, is not simply a matter of political fashion or economic and social theory but a direct command from God. From this perspective “Christian” bigotry and intolerance are nothing less than a direct affront to God’s law and a rejection of God’s love.
There’s a third facet of being an American Catholic that I take very seriously. We’ve always been a minority in this country, and have sometimes suffered persecution. To a larger extent than Catholics elsewhere, we have supported and relied upon the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state to guarantee our right to worship and our liberty of conscience. That tradition, strongly advanced by John Kennedy in his quest to become our first Catholic president, helped make religious affiliation a nonissue in American politics. It should stay that way.
Democrats and Republicans must also take a long look at our recent tendency to compete in a politics of personal self-interest.
It’s really become an anomaly. Just about every Democratic activist or elected official I’ve ever known entered politics out of a belief in principle and in progress for all, not just for some. We’re by tradition the party that actually upholds collective action through government as essential to build a true commonwealth, as well as to defend individual liberties and create individual opportunity. One of our central goals is to convince people to think beyond their own selfish interests and accept the responsibilities of citizenship and the mission of spreading freedom and democracy.
Yet in recent election cycles Democrats have tried to compete with Republicans in a bidding war to see who can shower voters with the greater share of the public treasury: our prescription drug benefits versus their tax cuts; our teacher salaries versus their vouchers; our stuff versus their stuff. We’ve managed to join the Republicans in an effort to convince the citizens of the proudest nation on earth to conduct a personal cost-benefit analysis of their relationship with government and to view elections as a chance to cut a better deal.
I think this is a betrayal of Democratic principle, and it, too, is self-defeating. We can never beat today’s Republicans in appeals to selfishness.
At the core of Republicans’ purpose and policies is a big step backward - toward their late-nineteenth-century tradition of social Darwinisim, elitism, and the celebration of economic privilege as part of the natural order of things. Even in their rare “compassionate” moments, today’s Republicans often offer charity instead of genuine opportunity or justice. They express sympathy for the less privileged with a spirit of pity for life’s losers instead of solidarity for fellow citizens who deserve the chance to gain a position in the winner’s circle.
My campaign will refuse to play the “what’s in it for me?” game. Instead, we will put our message where our hearts are: asking the American people to join us in a citizens’ campaign to make this country as strong, prosperous, wise, and bighearted as we know it can be.
On every major political issue, we should ask Americans to frame key political questions not in terms of what’s in it for them but what’s in it for all of us.
We should ask Americans to think of the federal budget not as a dispenser of benefits and a confiscator of wealth but as a balance sheet of investments that we as a people have decided are important enough to tax ourselves to make.
We should ask Americans to think of our foreign policy not just as a projection of our influence and our military power but of our principles and our freedoms.
We should ask Americans to think of the impending crisis in the Social Security and Medicare system not as a problem affecting the pocketbooks of seniors but as an intergenerational challenge to our willingness to lay aside a portion of our wealth for future needs we know that we will soon have.
We should ask Americans to think of energy policy not just in immediate terms of pump prices but in terms of our standing in the world and our capacity to sustain economic growth while preserving our environment at home.
And we should ask Americans to think of our civil liberties not as rights to be defended only when it is convenient and ignored when it is not but as essential to who we are.
If we can begin to get our fellow citizens to look at the world—at their world—from a fundamentally patriotic perspective on domestic as well as international issues, the difference between Democrats and Republicans will become unmistakably clear and so will the choices in 2004.
There’s one other element of our Democratic heritage that I want to reclaim to make it clear just how much we differ from Republicans: our heritage as the party of reform.
Republicans typically don’t care how effective domestic government programs are because as a matter of principle they don’t believe in domestic government. But Democrats must be scrupulously concerned about the results we get for the taxpayer dollars we invest. We should be passionately involved not just to ensure that well-intentioned programs have the resources they need to succeed but that success is achieved in measurable ways. Across the entire domestic agenda, Democrats should welcome and champion new ideas, not distrust change as a threat to the familiar status quo.
For example, I’ve been a passionate advocate of reforming our public schools during my Senate career. And it bothers me that some Democrats have resisted the idea of making educational outcomes—the skills and knowledge our kids obtain from the educational system—as important as educational inputs— the adequate funding, the good facilities, and the higher teacher pay we all want.
In every area of government, we should be the first to demand demonstrable results, because we are the first to claim that the public sector can get results. But we should never confuse government as an organizer of public resources with government as an owner-operator of public enterprises. Some areas, like public schools and the police, are properly the province of the public sector. We can’t strengthen education by weakening public education. But there are countless areas—child care, after-school programs, environmental protection— where government can and should work through community organizations, nonprofit, and even for-profit private enterprises or public-private partnerships.
Most of all, I believe we should respond to Republican attacks on government not simply by defending it, warts and all, but by reforming government to achieve the best possible results through the most efficient means and the freshest ideas. The great progressives of the past—FDR, JFK, LBJ—did not envision the New Deal, the New Frontier, or the Great Society as perfect or permanent accomplishments. If we are to be called progressives, we must rekindle the innovative spirit that created the best government initiatives, not worship the dead letter of their programmatic residue.
The reinventing government movement of the 1990s needs to be revived— and, indeed, it is already being revived by governors, mayors, and county executives whose revenue windfalls of the Clinton boom have been replaced by the hard fiscal times of the Bush bust. At every level of government, we need to find ways to reduce bureaucracy, focus on results, distinguish high priorities from low ones, and deploy technology to achieve more with less.
If we stop defending the bad things about government, we will no longer risk losing the argument to Republicans, who want to throw out the good with the bad and pare back public investments across the board.
Our reform agenda must include not only government programs but also our democratic system itself. The time has come for us to be ashamed of living in the country with the lowest voting participation and the highest campaign spending of any advanced democratic society. As the international controversy over our confrontation with Iraq has shown, people in other democracies, which have much higher voting rates, have logically wondered if the Bush administration’s hard line truly reflects the large majority of voting-age Americans who did not vote for George W. Bush.
Unlike ideologues on the left or the right, I’m not confident that I know for a fact that nonvoters ultimately favor one party or another. But I do know I’d be more confident in making that judgment if voting rates rose to European levels. And as I have repeatedly said, my campaign will focus on mobilizing nonvoters, in part because it’s the right thing to do, and in part because I don’t want to be a president like our current one, whose “mandate” comes from a small minority of the American people. And because so many Americans refrain from political and civic involvement because they rightly disapprove of the way campaigns are financed by special interests, I will do everything within my power to work toward a system that includes public financing, full disclosure of contributions, and more civil campaigns.
A campaign that rediscovers our Democratic heritage of common national purpose—that insists on meeting all our country’s challenges, domestic and foreign; that engages all citizens equally in that task; and that makes government an instrument of the popular will—will give Democrats and the independents we seek to attract the best and highest ground for taking on the Republican Party and the Bush administration.
I believe that, as a candidate for the presidency, I may confidently put my values; my record in public life; my knowledge of how the world works, from international and military affairs to small business to family life; and my agenda for what America can become up against anyone else’s.
I don’t really care about labels. If I’m dismissed by Republicans or conserv- ative media as a Massachusetts liberal or attacked by Democratic rivals or liberal media as a Clinton-style centrist, I will simply state my values and my ideas and let the voters make their own decisions.
The progressive tradition that I claim is not exclusively the province of either political party or of the political left or right. It was expressed more than 140 years ago by Abraham Lincoln, who told his first wartime Congress this: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew.” That same tradition was championed by one of my predecessors as a senator from Massachusetts, whose younger brother is my senior colleague and a continuing influence on my conscience and my agenda. In accepting the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1960, John Kennedy did not tell people what government would do for them. Instead he called the nation to a higher standard: “The New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges. It sums up not what I intend to offer the American people but what I intend to ask of them. It appeals to their pride, not their pocketbook—it holds out the promise of more sacrifice instead of more security.”
It’s that spirit that Democrats need to lead the country and that America needs to lead the world. We must stand for the courage to challenge and the vision to lead.
The Bush administration, for all its claims about the necessity of fighting terrorists overseas, has a timid, unimaginative, and fundamentally reactionary agenda for America that will make us selfish and second-rate at a time when we should be united and great.
We have the means and the opportunity in this country to create the highest standard of living the world has ever seen. We have the brainpower to clean up our environment, improve our quality of life, spread innovation throughout our workplaces, build twenty-first-century schools, give Americans longer life and better health, eradicate bigotry, and radically reduce poverty. And we can spread political and economic freedom around the world, doing so in a way that makes America the most admired, not the most feared, nation on earth.
I believe I’ve been called to service in 2004, as I hope this book will make clear in addressing six big challenges facing our country in the decade ahead. Please read what I’ve written here, think, argue, and consider. Beyond these pages, Teresa and I will make ourselves an open book and offer a clear proposition for national leadership. Read us as well, then join us in answering the call to service and taking the opportunity we have in 2004 to turn this country around.
Together, we can live up to the patriotism and courage Americans show every day and make America the living proof of the possibilities of the human spirit that were the divine inspiration of our Founders—and of true leaders today.
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