Cover Story

John Kerry

The Rolling Stone Interview


For two days in October, the John Kerry campaign came to a brief stop at a hotel and conference center on the high-plains sprawl of suburban Denver, where the candidate holed up with his staff and prepared for his second debate with George Bush. While the traveling press idled over endless buffets in one of the hotel dining rooms, Kerry and his closest advisers sequestered themselves behind closed doors, getting ready for the next night's crucial events.

The morning's calm was broken when Kerry's press advisers began circulating word that the candidate would soon be making a statement about the war in Iraq, a canny move to seize control of the day's news cycle, which was already full of bad news for President Bush: A government-commissioned report had concluded that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction; Paul Bremer, until recently his chief administrator in Iraq, had been quoted as saying that the U.S. invasion of Iraq had been done with too few troops; and Donald Rumsfeld had conceded that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. The press was herded out to a field in front of the hotel, chosen for its view of the mountains in the distance. When Kerry emerged, he was wearing his presidential blue suit, and with little fanfare or preamble he ripped into Bush with icy efficiency, saying how in light of the morning's news it was now clear that George Bush and Dick Cheney "may well be the last two people on the planet who won't face the truth about Iraq." After some questions from reporters, he disappeared, projecting the attitude that he had more important things to do.

A few minutes later, we were ushered up to Kerry's suite, where the candidate was tucking into a huge lunch. Gone was the crisp blue suit. He'd changed into khakis and running shoes and had dropped the formal manner. By the door stood a battered guitar case. Through an open door, one could see a framed picture of his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, on a bedside table. For the hour that we spoke with Kerry, he was conversational and forthright, relaxed but clearly wearing his game face.

You were tough out there today.

Well, I should be tough on him. This is an amazing moment in American history -- where a president of the United States is finding the rationale for invading another country after the fact.

The president has now given twenty-four reasons for going to war. Why do you think we really invaded Iraq?

Well, I think you've heard all the reasons. I can't psychoanalyze them. They were driven by ideology; they were driven by a fixation on Saddam Hussein. They took their eye off of Osama bin Laden and the real war on terror, and the consequences for our country are gigantic: $200 billion, and counting; the loss of credibility and prestige in the world; the loss of alliances that we need to be helping us. The American people are paying a very, very bitter price for their bad judgment -- no matter what the cause is.

Did you walk out of the first debate with the sense that you'd won?

You can't ever tell. We're the last people to ask -- the people on the stage. It's always tricky how people see it on TV. But I felt good, like I'd done the things I came to do, and I felt confident about the message.

How do you assess Bush's performance?

You don't have time to do that. I was listening very carefully and focusing on what I wanted to share with America, and it's a pretty intensive process of focusing.

The Bush administration says it's a certainty there will be more terrorist attacks. Is this a scare tactic?

They are privy to more intelligence and more analysis than I am. But I have had briefings, and I am deeply concerned about the potential of another attack. I think there's much more we can and should do to protect ourselves.

What has Bush failed to do to protect us?

The list of things undone by this president to make America safer is staggering. The 9/11 Commission report contains a full list of what a creative, proactive leadership should have done by itself -- rather than resist the 9/11 Commission, as they did.

On homeland security they've talked a good game, and not implemented or acted. Ninety-five percent of the containers that come into our country don't get inspected. Bridges and tunnels don't have the security and escape routes that ought to have been put in place. On planes, the baggage is X-rayed but not the cargo holds. It's absurd. Firehouses are understaffed. Police officers are being cut from the streets of America -- not added.

There are chemical, biological and nuclear plants around the country that don't have the protection that they ought to. The president actually gave in to the chemical industry and folded, instead of doing what was necessary for some of the chemical-plant protection.

Now, can any president guarantee the absence of any attack? The answer is no. I mean, if someone wants to blow themselves up, they can pretty much find a way to do it and hurt somebody. The question is: Are you doing all that's possible to protect against the greatest catastrophe? And there this administration has clearly failed.

Why do you think they've dropped the ball on this issue?

I think Senator Richard Lugar summed it up. He said their administration of the reconstruction funds has been incompetent, and I think their administration of the Homeland Security department has been incompetent.

What do you think of the color-coded terror alerts the Department of Homeland Security issues?

I think Americans, sadly, laugh at it. They don't know what to do.

Will you continue that program?

No. I'm going to find some more thoughtful way of alerting America. If we have to alert America, I think the most important thing to do is alert law enforcement more effectively across the country. Law enforcement doesn't have even a single, unified watch list yet. They still have separate watch lists, with different names and different people. This is the single, simplest, most important thing the Department of Homeland Security was supposed to do, and they haven't done it.

Doesn't it seem the threat level gets raised at key moments during the campaign?

Yeah. But you know what? I'm not going to question motivations that I can't . . .

Who's the enemy in the "War on Terror"?

Americans should have no doubts that there is a real enemy out there, one who wants to wreak destruction. And that enemy is a conglomeration of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and radical, extreme -- mostly Muslim -- fundamentalist groups that want to create a radical Islamic state. These groups want to take over the perceived-to-be-moderate governments of the region, radicalize the populations and have a dominant presence, throughout the Middle East and parts of Europe. I mean, it is real, and it is a serious challenge to us.

Bush says, "They hate our freedoms and resent our democracy." Do you think their motives are so simple?