Ballot Box

The Gaffes of John Kerry

His most embarrassing quotes, in context.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, worldviews, best moments, worst moments, and flip-flops. This series assesses each candidate’s most embarrassing quotes, puts them in context, and explains how the candidate or his supporters defend the comments. Today’s subject is John Kerry.

Quote: “What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States” (Boston Globe, April 3, 2003).

Charge: Then-GOP Chairman Marc Racicot said Kerry “crossed a grave line when he dared to suggest the replacement of America’s commander in chief at a time when America is at war.” Racicot said Kerry’s remark was “designed to further Sen. Kerry’s political ambitions at a time when the lives of America’s sons and daughters are at stake.” John Podhoretz of the New York Post accused Kerry of drawing an “implicit parallel … between Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush.”

Context: Kerry was not advocating the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. However, he made the remark less than a month after saying, “If America is at war, I won’t speak a word without measuring how it’ll sound to the guys doing the fighting when they’re listening to their radios in the desert.”

Defense: Kerry issued four responses to his critics: 1) “It is possible that the word ‘regime change’ is too harsh. Perhaps it is.” 2) It was just a “quip.” 3) “That’s what a presidential race is about. It’s about changing the administration.” 4) “I’m not going to let the likes of Tom DeLay question my patriotism, which I fought for and bled for in order to have the right to speak out.”

Quote: ”For those of us who are fortunate to share an Irish ancestry, we take great pride in the contributions that Irish-Americans …” (Congressional Record, March 18, 1986).

Charge: Kerry was accused of using such comments to make his Irish-American constituents think he is one of them when, in fact, he isn’t. The Republican National Committee included the 1986 statement in a compendium of Kerry quotes titled Will He Say Anything To Get Elected?

Context: Kerry never delivered the statement orally. He claimed that his staff wrote it and, without showing it to him, submitted it to the Congressional Record to commemorate St. Patrick’s Day.

Defense:Kerry knows that people often assume he is Irish, but he insists he has always been “clear as a bell” in refuting that assumption. The Kerry campaign said he “has never indicated to anyone that he was Irish and corrected people over the years who assumed he was.”

Quote: “Somebody told me the other day that the Secret Service has orders that if George Bush is shot, they’re to shoot Quayle. … There isn’t any press here, is there?” (Associated Press, Nov. 16, 1988).

Charge: Kerry delivered this joke at a business breakfast shortly after the election of President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle. The co-chairman of the Bush-Quayle campaign in Massachusetts called it “an extraordinarily reckless comment” that was “very clearly in bad taste.”

Context: The Secret Service hadn’t really been told to shoot Quayle. Kerry was joking. Moreover, the joke had been going around Washington for some time.

Defense: Kerry immediately issued a statement saying: “I shouldn’t have repeated the story. It was inappropriate and I apologize for doing so.” He later told the Boston Globe that he was “kicking himself” for his “bad taste.”