Media ignored context of Kerry's remarks and acknowledgments by prominent Republicans that Kerry did not mean to insult troops

››› ››› JOSH KALVEN

Numerous news outlets have failed to provide the full context for Kerry's recent remarks on Iraq, instead presenting the issue of whether Kerry intended to criticize the troops as a he-said/she-said conflict. These outlets have also ignored comments by several prominent Republicans acknowledging that Kerry did not intend to disparage American soldiers.

In their coverage of the controversy surrounding Sen. John Kerry's (D-MA) recent remarks on Iraq, numerous news outlets -- including The Washington Post, USA Today, NBC, and CBS -- have left out the full context for Kerry's comment. Each of these outlets aired or quoted Kerry's October 30 statement to a group of students in California that "if you study hard ... you can do well," but if "you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." They then highlighted the subsequent attacks from President Bush and other Republicans -- who have claimed that Kerry insulted U.S. troops and demanded that he apologize -- while noting that Kerry claims it was a "botched joke" intended to specifically criticize Bush.

But in presenting the issue of whether Kerry intended to criticize the troops as a he-said/she-said conflict, these outlets omitted the evidence supporting Kerry's account. Indeed, according to his staff, his prepared remarks demonstrate what he meant to say: "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush." Also overlooked is the fact that Kerry's remark came after several one-liners, including one in which he personally accused Bush of "liv[ing] in a state of denial." Furthermore, these outlets ignored entirely the remarks by several prominent Republicans -- such as former Bush campaign chief strategist Matthew Dowd and former House Majority Leaders Dick Armey (R-TX) and Tom DeLay (R-TX) -- conceding that Kerry did not intend to disparage American soldiers. Armey even acknowledged that Republicans were making political hay by "misconstru[ing]" what Kerry said.

At an October 30 speech at a campaign rally in Pasadena, California, Kerry told a group of assembled college students, "Education, you know, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq." In response to the uproar over these remarks, Kerry's staff gave reporters what they claim were Kerry's prepared remarks, which make clear that he intended to criticize Bush's intelligence -- not the troops'. From the November 1 Los Angeles Times article on the controversy:

Kerry's office said the Democratic senator had misread prepared remarks, which said: "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush."

Kerry's explanation that his comments were a "botched joke" is further bolstered by the fact that they came in the context of other quips regarding Bush's Iraq policy, as an October 31 Associated Press article noted:

The Massachusetts senator, who is considering another presidential run in 2008, had opened his speech at Pasadena City College with several one-liners, joking at one point that Bush had lived in Texas but now "lives in a state of denial."

Moreover, several prominent Republicans have conceded that Kerry did not intend to insult the troops:

  • Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX): On the October 31 edition of MSNBC's Hardball, Armey said of the attacks on Kerry's remarks, "Well, it's pretty standard fare in political discourse. You misconstrue what somebody said. You isolate a statement, you lend your interpretation to it and then feign moral outrage." When host Chris Matthews stated that Kerry "was trashing Bush," Armey responded, "Right," and went on to say, "A fundamental premise of politics is we can make this work if people just never figure it out."
  • Former Bush campaign chief strategist Matthew Dowd: On the same edition of Hardball, Dowd said, "I think John Kerry served in Vietnam very well, and misspoke and got jumped on." Matthews went on to specifically ask him, "Do you think Kerry was making fun of the troops?" Dowd responded, "Do I think that was his intention? No. I think Kerry supports the troops, and I think that he was a member of the military, and I don't think his intention was that. He said it badly and different people can interpret it different ways, but I think John Kerry's intention has always been in his own way to support the troops."
  • Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX): On the October 31 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes, DeLay said of Kerry, "I don't think he intended to insult the troops at a campaign event, but he did. I don't think he intended to call them stupid, but he did."

Nonetheless, in a November 1 article on the controversy, Washington Post staff writers Jim VandeHei and Chris Cillizza reported that Kerry defended his remarks as a "botched joke" intended for Bush, but as blogger Greg Sargent noted, they omitted the supporting evidence listed above. VandeHei and Cillizza also made no mention of the fact that Armey, Dowd, and DeLay all back up Kerry's explanation. From the article:

After reading Kerry's comments to a GOP audience in Georgia, Bush said Kerry's statement was "insulting and it is shameful. The members of the United States military are plenty smart and they are plenty brave, and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology." The White House tipped off the networks to when Bush would attack Kerry, so the comments could be carried live and make the evening news.

In his defense, Kerry said that his comment was a "botched joke" and that he was referring to Bush's intellect, not that of American military personnel serving in Iraq.

A November 1 article by USA Today David Jackson also failed to provide the full context for Kerry's explanation:

Kerry told a college crowd Monday: "You know education, if you make the most of it, and you study hard, and you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

Bush said Kerry's comments were "insulting" and "shameful" to U.S. troops. "The members of the United States military are plenty smart, and they are plenty brave, and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology," the president said Tuesday at a rally in Georgia.

Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said his comments at Pasadena City College in Southern California were distorted by "assorted right-wing nut jobs." He said he was trying to make a joke about Bush and his team's preparations for the Iraq war.

Similarly, NBC's Today presented the dispute as a he-said/she-said, while ignoring Kerry's prepared remarks, the context in which he made comments, and the fact that several Republicans have defended him against claims that he intended to disparage the troops. On the November 1 edition of the show, co-host Matt Lauer simply told viewers, "Well, the president and some other Republicans say that Kerry was slamming U.S. troops, but John Kerry insists it was a joke; he meant to criticize the president, not those serving in Iraq." In a subsequent, longer report on the controversy on Today, NBC chief White House correspondent David Gregory aired Kerry's remark, as well as the subsequent attacks from Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), while noting in passing that a Kerry aide "later said that the remark was a swipe at the president, not the troops."

CBS' The Early Show treated the story similarly. In his report on the controversy, senior White House correspondent Bill Plante aired the October 30 comment, then stated, "Kerry says he was talking about the president, but he botched the joke. No way, said President Bush at a campaign rally in Georgia. He accused the senator of a snide slam at the troops."

In contrast, the October 31 edition of ABC's Good Morning America provided viewers with some additional context. In his report on the story, senior political correspondent Jake Tapper aired a clip of Norman Ornstein, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, saying of the attacks on Kerry, "This is not fair." In a later interview with McCain, co-host Diane Sawyer noted what Kerry had intended to say: "John Kerry has said that he botched a joke about the president, that he meant to say, I think the words were, 'If you don't, you get us stuck in Iraq.' "

From the November 1 edition of NBC's Today:

MEREDITH VIEIRA (co-host): You know, it's déjà vu all over again. President Bush and Senator John Kerry are at each other's throats all over these comments made by Senator Kerry on Monday.

KERRY [video clip]: You know, education -- if you make the most of it, and you study hard, and you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.

LAUER: Well, the president and some other Republicans say that Kerry was slamming U.S. troops, but John Kerry insists it was simply a "botched joke"; he meant to criticize the president, not those serving in Iraq. Is this just the opening the Republicans need? We're going to have much more on that story in just a couple of minutes.

[...]

VIEIRA: But first, it's Bush versus Kerry on the campaign trail, even though neither man is running for anything. NBC's chief White House correspondent David Gregory has the latest. Good morning, David.

GREGORY: Good morning, Meredith. Well, even with Republicans distancing themselves from the president over Iraq, Mr. Bush has not backed down from talking about the war and hoping to rally his base. He seized on those comments that we just played from Senator Kerry, accusing the senator of bashing the troops.

[begin video clip]

GREGORY: A vocal critic of the president over Iraq, Kerry went one step farther this week while campaigning in California.

KERRY: You know, education, if you make the most of it, and you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.

GREGORY: An aide later said the remark was meant as a swipe at the president, not the troops. But that did little to slow the story down. Campaigning in Georgia, Mr. Bush demanded an apology.

BUSH: The senator's suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting and it is shameful. The members of the United States military are plenty smart, and they are plenty brave, and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology.

GREGORY: Other Republicans also rushed to condemn Kerry's remarks.

McCAIN: The suggestion that only the least educated Americans would agree to serve in the military and fight in Iraq is an insult to every soldier serving in combat today.

GREGORY: Kerry, positioning himself for another White House run in 2008, is still smarting from GOP attacks on his Vietnam service two years ago. On Tuesday, he was immediately defensive, lashing out at critics in a written statement, quote: "I'm not going to be lectured by a stuffed suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium, or doughy Rush Limbaugh," he said, continuing his rebuttal later during a hastily called press conference.

KERRY: That was clearly a remark directed at this administration. They understand it. They want to distort it. It's a classic Republican playbook. ... They have a bankrupt policy, and they can't defend it to the nation and they can't defend it to the world, and I'm not going to stand for this anymore. Period. That's the apology that people ought to get.

From the November 1 edition of CBS' The Early Show:

STORM: All right, but first we want to get right to our top story this morning, and that is President Bush versus Senator John Kerry. Sound familiar? Yep, just like campaign 2004 all over again, after a single comment by the former Democratic presidential candidate started the sparks flying. CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante is live with details. Good morning, Bill.

PLANTE: Good morning, Hannah. That's right, a rerun for sure. And the White House jumped at the chance to make John Kerry the focus of the argument. It all started when Kerry was talking to a group of students about education.

[begin video clip]

KERRY: If you make the most of it, and you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.

PLANTE: Kerry says he was talking about the president, but that he botched the joke. No way, said Mr. Bush at a campaign rally in Georgia. He accused the senator of a snide slam at the troops.

BUSH: The senator's suggestion that the men and women of our military are somehow uneducated is insulting and it is shameful. The members of the United States military are plenty smart, and they are plenty brave, and the senator from Massachusetts owes them an apology.

KERRY: I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and of his broken policy.

PLANTE: Kerry, a decorated war veteran who may run again for president, was hurt in 2004 when he failed to respond to accusations about his military service. He vowed that that wouldn't happen again.

KERRY: I'm not going to give them one ounce of daylight to spread one of their lies and to play this game ever, ever again. That is a lesson I learned deep and hard.

PLANTE: But another decorated veteran and likely presidential candidate joined the war of words.

McCAIN: The suggestion that only the least educated Americans would agree to serve in the military and fight in Iraq is an insult to every soldier serving in combat today.

[end video clip]

PLANTE: The White House, of course, was delighted to change the subject from the war and the president to John Kerry and make him the issue. You can bet that when the president talks to Rush Limbaugh later today, this will come up again. Hannah.

STORM: It's probably a good bet. CBS' Bill Plante at the White House. Thank you.

From the 5 p.m. ET hour of the October 31 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Mr. Armey, what do you make of this -- well, it's a rhubarb I guess, in politics terms. What is it? Is this a real "catch him," "we got him," or is it they're making it look like they've got Kerry saying something?

ARMEY: Well, it's pretty standard fare in political discourse. You misconstrue what somebody said, you isolate a statement, you lend your interpretation to it, then feign moral outrage. And Democrats have been doing it for years.

MATTHEWS: So, it's a bicoastal, bipartisan opportunity here?

ARMEY: Absolutely. And I would say to John Kerry, "Look, you know, you live by the P.C., you die by the P.C." I mean, the P.C. was a Democrat creation, so, I mean, share and share alike.

MATTHEWS: What do you mean the P.C.?

ARMEY: Political correctness -- you know, feigning moral outrage for what might be perceived to have been a possible slight, given my interpretation of what was said.

MATTHEWS: And so, the president -- well, according to the prepared statement we've gotten a copy of -- will jump on Kerry defending the troops when, in fact, Kerry may well have meant -- according to reading the script of what he said and the account of it -- he was trashing the very man who's now defending the troops. He was trashing Bush himself and Bush says, "Don't say those terrible things about my troops!"

ARMEY: Right.

MATTHEWS: So, this is a bit of theater orchestrated well by the White House. They have got the American Legion commander out there making a statement. They got him to do it. I'm sure -- I assume that most of these people did not read the whole statement of Kerry yesterday, but they are happy to jump on the quote they got.

ARMEY: A fundamental premise of politics is: We can make this work if people just never figure it out.

[...]

MATTHEWS: What do you think is going on here with the president calling, basically, our attention to a major national speech tonight in Georgia trashing Kerry?

DOWD: Well, I think it's actually something that the American public really doesn't care all that much about. I think John Kerry served in Vietnam very well, misspoke, got jumped on, as what happens in this politics and the way we live in today, and people jump back and forth, but I think by tomorrow or the next day, the American public is going to want to know what's the Democrats' plan to get out of Iraq and fix the situation, and what are the Republicans going to do.

I think this is just a story that I think the American public, as we found out on [grassroots community website] Hot Soup throughout the course of the last few weeks, this kind of thing is what they don't want us to focus on; they want to focus on the substance of the problem.

MATTHEWS: Do you think Kerry was making fun of troops -- military people, enlisted men and women -- as people who can't make the academic grade and, therefore, end up in the military? Is that what you're saying?

DOWD: Do I think -- do I think that was his intention? No. I don't think -- I think John Kerry supports the troops. I think he's -- he was a member of the military. I don't think was that -- it was his intention. He said it badly, and different people can interpret it different ways, but I think John Kerry's intention has always been, in his own way, to support the troops.

From the October 31 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes:

ALAN COLMES (co-host): I know the Republicans would like to use -- we're going to talk about it more with John McCain coming up -- John Kerry's reaction and statement to help elect Republicans. He was doing a bad joke about the president. He didn't articulate it well, but he wasn't dissing the troops. You know that to be true.

DeLAY: Well, I don't think he intended to insult the troops at a campaign event, but he did. I don't think he intended to call them stupid, but he did.

Network/Outlet
The Washington Post, CBS, NBC, USA Today
Show/Publication
Today Show, The Early Show
Stories/Interests
Attacks on Progressives, Propaganda/Noise Machine, 2006 Elections
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