DES MOINES—The most interesting thing to happen with the Kerry campaign Wednesday was an exchange between Stephanie Cutter, a Kerry spokeswoman, and CNN’s Candy Crowley. Disgruntled reporters gathered around Cutter after Kerry’s anticipated but disappointing speech in Cincinnati that criticized President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq. The speech had two memorable moments, both of which occurred before it really began: the announcement beforehand that Peter Frampton was on hand, and the shouts of a protester—”You said you committed atrocities. You said you burned villages”—who was silenced when the man standing next to him put him in a headlock. After the speech, Kerry spokesman David Wade said the protester was a man named Mike Russell, who Wade said was the Bush-Cheney chairman in Bracken County, Ky., during the 2000 election. “He is now, coincidentally, with the Swift Boat Veterans,” Wade added.
Nothing Kerry said in Cincinnati could compensate for the blunder he made the day before when he stood before cameras on the tarmac of the Cincinnati airport and expressed his sorrow for the 1,000th American casualty in Iraq. “More than 1,000 of America’s sons and daughters have now given their lives on behalf of their country, on behalf of freedom, in the war on terror,” Kerry said. The war on terror? Oops. The mistake was part of the natural reversion to the mean of the Kerry candidacy. After the successful day and a half of campaigning that followed his conversation with President Clinton, the usual Kerry—the New Old Kerry—was back. Kerry took no questions after making his mystifying “war on terror” comment. Crowley called out, “Senator, you’ve been saying that it’s ‘wrong war, wrong place, wrong time.’ What does that mean about these deaths?” but Kerry, in a typical maneuver, just walked away. It’s been more than five weeks since Kerry last took questions at a press conference, or an “avail,” as it’s called.
So, Crowley asked Cutter if she could explain what Kerry meant. Short answer: No. Long answer: Cutter said Kerry was referring to something Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday about the increase in terrorists in Iraq after the war. “There were not terrorists in Iraq before we went,” Cutter explained (incorrectly), but there are now. Kerry was just “repeating what Rumsfeld said,” Cutter continued. So, Crowley asked, Iraq is now part of the war on terror? “No. That’s not what I’m saying,” Cutter said. “Should he have clarified it, said it differently? Maybe. But the point remains the same. There was no terrorism before we went to war. There is now terrorism there.” But Democratic orthodoxy is that the war on terror and the war in Iraq are distinct, Crowley said. Cutter replied, “And he agrees with that.” Crowley: “Had he stayed for questions, we could have clarified that.”
Kerry should have said, hey, I misspoke, I was trying to express my sympathy for all the Americans who have lost their lives in the broader war on terror, not just the 1,000-plus who have died in the war in Iraq. But instead the campaign has concocted this preposterously complicated explanation, saying yes he meant to say it, but no, he thinks Iraq is not part of the war on terror. What?
The other head-scratcher uttered by Kerry in the past two days came Wednesday in Greensboro, N.C. There, in response to a question from a woman about the health problems caused by mold and indoor air contamination—and her complaint, “There’s not one agency in this government that has come forward” to deal with the problem—Kerry endorsed the creation of a new federal department. “What I want to do, what I’m determined to do, and it’s in my health-care plan, is refocus America on something that can reduce the cost of health care significantly for all Americans, which is wellness and prevention,” Kerry said. So far, so good. But then, “And I intend to have not just a Department of Health and Human Services, but a Department of Wellness.” Again, what? Apparently this idea comes from Teresa Heinz Kerry, who told the Boston Herald in January 2003 that she would, in the Herald’s words, “be an activist first lady, lobbying for a Department of Wellness that would stress preventive health.” Oh, boy. Preventive health is a fine idea, but do we need a new agency—I assume it’s not Cabinet-level—to handle it?
Kerry ended his day in Iowa, the state that launched him to the nomination of the Democratic Party. The traveling press headed to the Hotel Fort Des Moines to spend the night. At the hotel, I came across an inauspicious if ultimately meaningless piece of trivia on an information sheet given to hotel guests. Three presidential candidates, according to the hotel, celebrated their victories in the Iowa caucuses at the Hotel Fort Des Moines. Two of them, Walter Mondale in 1984 and Bob Dole in 1996, went on to win the nominations of their parties (the third was George Bush in 1980). In their general-election match-ups, Mondale won one state and the District of Columbia, while Dole won 41 percent of the popular vote. John Kerry? He too celebrated caucus night at the Hotel Fort Des Moines this January, but the hotel hasn’t added him to its list yet. Maybe it’s afraid of being a three-time loser.