Kerry's press conference.

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Sept. 22 2004 12:59 AM

Kerry Answers Questions!

The press still doesn't understand his position on Iraq.

Staying on message ... for now
Staying on message ... for now

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—John Kerry emitted an exasperated sigh. The last time he held a press conference, on Aug. 9, he confused everyone by saying he would have voted for the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq even if he had known that Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Now, six weeks later, the press still doesn't understand his position on the war. At least, they keep asking about it.

Kerry took 11 questions Tuesday. Ten were about Iraq, and eight of those 10 were requests for Kerry to clarify his position. Question No. 1: President Bush says you think the world would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power. Is that right? No. 3: Are you responsible for the fact that many people are confused about your position on the war? No. 4: Can you explain your support for the congressional resolution on the use of force? No. 5: How do you square the fact that you believe the world is better off with Saddam out of power with your statement to David Letterman that you wouldn't have gone to war with Iraq? No. 6: You didn't answer the earlier question. Are you responsible for the fact that people can't figure out your position? No. 8, the one that led to the frustrated noise: The president appealed to the United Nations today. How is what you're suggesting any different from what the president is doing? No. 9: If presidents deserve to be able to go to the United Nations with the leverage of congressional authority to use force, why did you vote against the 1991 war with Iraq?

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Maybe Kerry wished he was back on Live with Regis & Kelly that morning, when the questions had been easier: You're very handsome, Senator. How do you stay in shape? Do you have a routine? Don't you think that Tom Cruise could play John Edwards in the movie? Who would play you? (Kerry's answer: "I don't have any idea." Kelly Ripa interjected, "Harrison Ford.")

But this time during the press conference, unlike the one in August, Kerry's doesn't let himself get sucked into the Green Eggs & Iraq (Do you like it on a train? Would you like it on a plane?) discussion that the Bush campaign loves to goad him into. Instead, he sticks to his change vs. more-of-the-same script: "The president wants to shift the topic, and I'm not going to let him shift the topic," Kerry says. "This is about President Bush, and his decisions, and his choices, and his unwillingness as I said in my speech yesterday to live in a world of reality." Kerry uses that phrase, "world of reality," four times. In all, he uses the world "reality" or "realities" (as in, the "realities on the ground") 10 times. "The president keeps wanting to debate fiction, or hypotheticals, rather than debate the reality of what's on the ground," Kerry says. "The president has not denied one of the facts that I laid out yesterday" in a speech in New York.

The reason so many people are confused about his position, Kerry says, is because they interpret his vote, incorrectly, as "a vote to go to war." "It wasn't a vote to go that day. It was a vote to go through a process," to give the president leverage at the United Nations and to get the inspectors back into Iraq. Kerry emphasizes on several occasions that he's been consistent on this point. "I said so all along," he says, sounding irritated. "Every one of you throughout this knows I have said there's a right way to do this and a wrong way to do this, and the president every step of the way has chosen the wrong way."

Kerry's right on this one. From the beginning, he's been consistent, if complicated, on the meaning of his 2002 vote. The Boston Globe's Kerry book quotes his mouthful from the Senate floor: "The vote that I will give to the president is for one reason and one reason only, to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint conference with our allies." Kerry added of President Bush, "I expect him to fulfill the commitments he has made to the American people in recent days—to work with the United Nations Security Council ... and to 'act with our allies at our side' if we have to disarm Saddam Hussein by force.' " Four days later, Kerry said, "What's happened is every single member of the United States Senate moved to take it to the U.N. with a willingness to enforce through the United Nations if that is the will of the international community. ... There is no justification whatsoever for sending Americans for the first time in American history as the belligerent, as the initiator of it, as a matter of first instance, without a showing of an imminent threat to our country." Walter Shapiro's chronicle of the early stages of the 2004 campaign, One-Car Caravan, confirms this point. Shapiro hears Kerry say in October 2002, "My vote was cast in a way that made it very clear, Mr. President, I'm voting for you to do what you said you're going to do, which is to go through the U.N. and do this through an international process. If you go unilaterally, without having exhausted these remedies, I'm not supporting you. And if you decide that this is just a matter of straight pre-emptive doctrine for regime-change purposes without regard to the imminence of the threat, I'm not going to support you."

Disagree with Kerry's reasoning if you want, call him ambivalent or even unclear, but you can't say that he's been inconsistent or that he flip-flopped. Kerry is wrong, however, that his 2002 vote doesn't contradict his 1991 vote. The first time around, Kerry expressly criticized the justification he would use 12 years later, calling it "dangerous" and "flawed." In 1991, Kerry said, taking the quote again from the Globe book, "This is not a vote about sending a message. It is a vote about war." Kerry could explain his change of heart fairly easily (for example, 9/11 changed everything, didn't it?), but instead he takes the Bushian stance of denying the "world of reality." During a long, confusing, and unconvincing explanation of how the rationale for his 1991 vote is consistent with the rationale for his 2002 vote, Kerry eventually stops himself and remembers his script: "That's not the debate. That's the debate the president wants to have now. The debate now is whether or not you have a plan to win, and whether or not you are facing the realities on the ground in Iraq." Back on message.

Kerry has emerged with a message that makes sense before. His problem is his inability to just pick one and stick with it. If he can hang on to this one for nine days, he might get out of the first debate alive.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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