An Interview with John Kerry

We have to:
Fight for the progress that we make
Look at John Kerry’s character over thirty-five years
Have a review of our current sentencing structure
Not abandon children, that’s what we have to do

An Interview with John Kerry

We have to:
Fight for the progress that we make
Look at John Kerry’s character over thirty-five years
Have a review of our current sentencing structure
Not abandon children, that’s what we have to do

An Interview with John Kerry

ZZ Packer
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Despite Massachusetts Senator Kerry’s near 100 percent approval rating from the NAACP and his long history of promoting policies benefiting minorities, many African Americans have been slow in warming to Kerry. “I can imagine him going to a black church,” said Carol Jones Ali, a Washington D.C. native attending the 2004 Democratic National Convention, “and I can imagine him picking up a hymnbook, but it’s hard to imagine him getting into it and singing along.”

Though I agree with Ms. Ali—it is hard to imagine Kerry singing along at a black church—should this matter? Apparently it matters to the Kerry campaign, for the same reasons the GOP loves showing the video feed of Bush cutting back brush on his ranch in Crawford: it’s an image that galvanizes the loyal base.

The loyal base for the Democrats has long been the African-American electorate. When blacks vote, they vote overwhelmingly Democrat, with percentages hovering around 90 percent for registered black voters. In a close election, where voter turnout is key, it’s no surprise that the Kerry campaign has been sending the senator to every major black organizational event it can schedule before the November 2 election.

So far Kerry has attended Brown vs. Board of Education’s fiftieth anniversary, the Rainbow/Push Coalition Convention in Chicago, the National Urban League’s convention in Detroit, the Unity Conference of minority journalists in D.C., and several graduations at HBCUs—historically black colleges and universities. The do-not-miss event, however, was the NAACP convention in Philadelphia, which Bush famously snubbed on the grounds that its leadership had been too critical of him, though he’d at first said that he was too busy to attend due to “scheduling conflicts.” In the organization’s keynote speech, Kerry derided Bush for his no-show, quipping, “The president may be too busy to talk to you, but I have news for you: he’s going to have plenty of time after Election Day on November 2.”

What, then, accounts for this feeling that blacks still don’t really know Kerry—even as he’s made it a point to convene with members of nearly every major national black organization along the campaign trail? Why do so many blacks continue to say they are more “against Bush” than “pro-Kerry?”

Some said it was because the Kerry campaign had few blacks on its staff early on and was slow to address issues that were of particular concern to African-American voters. Others chalked it up to Kerry’s patrician demeanor—a perception which, if true, is hardly limited to the black electorate.

I interviewed Kerry in a concrete bunker–like hallway of the Philadelphia Convention Center, shortly after Kerry’s speech to the NAACP. Interviewing Kerry was a little like a ping-pong match, with Kerry often answering before I’d finished a question, prompting me to ask the next question as soon as I’d intuited he’d finished answering the previous one.

—ZZ Packer


THE BELIEVER: At the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education you unveiled your new slogan, “Let America Be America Again,” which was the title of a poem by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. How did you come to pick that as your campaign slogan?

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: It’s a powerful poem. There’s a lot of it that one could quote that would say something about the struggle of people today. But it seemed to me to be a plea that was appropriate to the time.

BLVR: Yet the refrain “America never was America to me” alludes to how America for blacks and the underprivileged is more an unrealized ideal than a place of the nostalgia that this title seems to imply.

JK: Well, we’re an ongoing story and we make progress because we fight for it. It takes leadership to help make that progress. When Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Bill there was a sea change. When he signed the Voting Rights Act in ’65, it was a change. You know, we have to fight for the progress that we make. We’ve been going backwards in the last years with this leadership.

So what I’m going to do is put it back on the forward course. We’re going to have health care for Americans. We’re going to end America’s separate and unequal school structure by funding education properly for rural and urban communities. We’re going to provide college loans and job opportunities to minority and disadvantaged communities which struggle today with access to higher education and jobs. The dropout rate is way too high in the inner cities and rural communities. We can do something about that. We just have to not abandon children, that’s what we have to do.

BLVR: Speaking of children, you’ve obviously talked about education quite a bit in your campaign memoir, A Call for Service, and specifically you stress the point of reforming the public school system from within. And yet it seems that all the presidential candidates promise to revitalize the educational system.

JK: But I have a record of voting for it. Bush talked about it and didn’t fund it. I vote for it. Every opportunity I’ve been given to raise the money, I voted for it. So I take my political stake, I put it in the ground. George Bush is just words. And there’s a big difference. I’ve shown precisely how I’m going to fund it, and how I’m going to pay for it. Now, whether people believe me— they’re going to have to look at my character over thirty-five years. I have always pursued and followed through and fought for these things.

BLVR: How, specifically, would you then fund it?

JK: By rolling back George Bush’s tax cut for the wealthiest Americans and investing that money in education and health care. That is specifically how I’d pay for it. And by closing loopholes in the tax code.

BLVR: You mentioned unemployment when you were giving your speech [earlier at the NAACP convention] and you mentioned some of the same statistics I’ve read: that the rate of unemployment is twice as high for African Americans—10.9 percent—as it is for whites. And it outstrips the unemployment rate for Latinos and Asians. But what special measures would you take that would not just merely address the overall American unemployment and underemployment, but specifically the disparity of the two-to-one ratio?

JK: By targeted efforts that the [current] administration is not properly funding. Minority business ownership, minority business lending. Minority hiring within certain kinds of projects, the funding of those projects themselves in the inner cities, elsewhere, schools, construction, roads, sewers, all kinds of construction opportunities. Ongoing education—adult education—is a huge component of providing help for people, technical assistance, technology transfer. There are many ways to put people to work. You can do it from an immediate infusion of investment in public projects to longerterm efforts for education and training.

BLVR: Why do you think George Bush hasn’t done that yet?

JK: Because his priority—his top priority—is a big tax cut for wealthy Americans. Very simple. He doesn’t believe in those things. They’ve cut them, in fact. They’ve cut those programs. They’ve cut the lending of the SDA [socially disadvantaged applicants], they’ve cut the lending of access to credit.

BLVR: You gave a speech about affirmative action at Yale in March of 1992 and it’s been the subject of much debate in civil-rights groups.

JK: Well, it shouldn’t be. First of all, the speech was not about affirmative action. One paragraph or so out of the whole speech had anything to do with affirmative action. The speech was about building a consensus for an urban agenda. The speech was entitled something about the urban agenda. One paragraph said, “I support affirmative action.” It said it at the beginning and it said it at the end. What I did was describe the way many people, at that time, were viewing affirmative action as a barrier to building the consensus we needed for the cities. So I was in the “mend it, don’t end it” school.

BLVR: Yes, you’ve stated that you support affirmative action now and you supported it back then, that your position was in keeping with Clinton’s position of “mend it, don’t end it.” Yet civil-rights groups in particular seemed to look towards a phrase you used: “affirmative action kept America thinking in racial terms.” What did you mean by that?

JK: What I said is there are people who believe that. I didn’t say I think that. I was describing the way it was perceived—that it had kept people thinking in racial terms. Back then you had quotas. Those were the days of quotas. Quotas were wrong. What we needed to do was undo the quotas and get away from this notion [of quotas] so people could see the positive side [of affirmative action]. I’m very proud that I stood up for it. I’ve always practiced it, I’ve always embraced it, I’ve always supported it, I’ve always had an office that reflects the diversity of the country. And my campaign reflects it today.

BLVR: I know your NAACP voting record is definitely very high—

JK: I think I have almost 100 percent.

BLVR: But do you think there is anything that you would want to do to actually change any element of affirmative action? I’m sure there must be some aspect of it you’d want to change.

JK: No, not now. We did what we needed to do back then. I support it completely today.


BLVR: In A Call to Service you said, “For those who can afford it, we have the best health care system in the world, but it doesn’t guarantee every citizen health care.” So the problem seems as though, once again, every candidate comes along and has some plan and says he’s going to reform healthcare.

JK: But I have a plan, set out in full on my website, Anybody can go look at my plan. Every T is crossed, every I is dotted. I show what I’m going to do. I’m going to take the catastrophic cases out of the private-sector system. Pay for them at the federal level, and by doing that, reduce the premiums for all Americans and the cost of health care. Because no longer are you paying for the catastrophic case, the most expensive case in the system.

BLVR:You also talk about removing some of the layers of bureaucracy and that would then reduce healthcare costs.

JK:We [should] reduce waste, create incentives for technology to be put in the systems we streamline and make more efficient. We spend a huge amount of money just on administrative overhead in the health-care system. We have to streamline.

BLVR: The racial disparity in American health care means that African Americans are 5.8 times more likely to die from AIDS. Blacks are consistently over-represented in twelve of the fifteen leading causes of death in the United States. And 23 percent of them are uninsured. What would you do as President to specifically address those disparities—as opposed to a mere across-the-board solution?

JK: Well, my health-care plan helps do that because I provide health care automatically to all children. And since the vast majority of children who don’t have it today are black or Hispanic or Asian, they’re going to get covered. And families at lower income levels will get a subsidy that will help them be able to buy into the health care.

BLVR: And then what about cases in which you have basically two people in the same situation: a black man with a heart condition and a white man with a heart condition. Studies show that a white man is far more likely to get angioplasty or other potentially life-saving advanced care than the black man. So is there anything that you would do that would actually address that particular issue?

JK: Sure. Two things: one, the coverage of the health care itself, and two, the Patient’s Bill of Rights, which gives you a right to enforce your right to have access.

BLVR: I also wanted to know your position on harsh sentencing for nonviolent offenses. I know it’s usually a state issue, but where will the federal government weigh in under a Kerry administration?

JK: We have to have a review of our current sentencing structure. It’s gotten out of hand and there’s a great disparity between sentences for crack cocaine and powder cocaine, and other mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes. We’re filling up prisons with nonviolent offenders; we need to do a much more thoughtful job. Also, in our present system we need to do a more effective job of rehab and education and retraining.

BLVR: How do you feel about the “three strikes and you’re out” policy?

JK: That’s—here’s the thing: I’m for three strikes and you’re out if it’s a certain kind of offense: a major felony. Three armed robberies, three… well, I mean, one rape is enough, I’d say… but three felonious assaults with an intent to commit dangerous acts or armed weapons. Where you get one shot, period, that’s plenty.

But I don’t think you should just pile on three run-of-the-mill kinds of things, particularly in the absence of rehab, reeducation, training, and the other kinds of things you need. It’s just asking for trouble.

BLVR: Blacks tend to think that a politician of any race who lacks real-life connections with African-American communities can’t be sensitive enough to blacks’ daily struggle to put any teeth in those polices, or determined enough to enforce those policies. So, given all this, what would you say your point of connection is to African-American communities?

JK: I’ve had a connection to the African-American community since I was a kid.

BLVR: In what way?

JK: Beginning with my service in—well, beginning with my involvement in the civil-rights movement in 1963 and ’64 when I became a supporter of the Mississippi voter-registration drive and we marched and demonstrated for civil rights when I was an undergraduate in college, to my involvement in the military. I mean, I had African Americans in my crew. They were my friends—as well as the people I served with. When I came back from Vietnam my co-coordinator of the Vietnam Veterans Fighting Against the War was an African American. And we worked very closely together with minority vets who were particularly disillusioned by the war and by their return home. I spoke of racism that was occurring in the military in 1971, publicly, to the Congress. And ever since then, throughout my political life I campaigned [for them]. When I ran for District Attorney’s office, I hired African-American prosecutors through affirmative action. I reached out, went out and found them. So we got a representation that was reflective of the community. Likewise, as a senator, all my life I’ve had [African-American] people on my staff. My longest-serving staff member in Boston, who ran my entire constituent service, was black. My current political director of Massachusetts is black. My campaign political director, Brian Burke, is black. My deputy campaign manager, Marcus Jadotte, is black.

BLVR: Why do you think so many people have said your campaign doesn’t reflect—

JK: Because people didn’t know… and because people sounded off for their own agendas without looking before they found it out.

When I was chairman of the Steering Committee for the U.S. Senate, we reached out regularly to the Black Caucus. I started the first-ever meetings of the United States Senate with the Congressional Black Caucus on a regular basis. When I secured the nomination, my second this year, the first people I met with on Capitol Hill, before I went back to see my colleagues in the Senate, before I saw the Senate leader—anybody— was with Jim Clyburn and Elijah Cummings and the Congressional Black Caucus. So I’ve made a very strong effort to reach out. And I think we have very strong representation in the campaign. Alexis Herman is working with us today. My trip director is Setti Warren—I can run a long list. I’ve got the most diverse presidential campaign in the history of the country.


BLVR: Perhaps this next question is another case of misrepresentation. So much newsprint and air time has been devoted to your alleged major reversals, and yet when I was researching your supposed “flip-flops” I found that every position can be modified based on new information or modified based on a frustration with how certain types of policies were being executed. And I suppose a Senate vote comes with so many addenda and riders that can make a law virtually unrecognizable from the original. What do you attribute to the way the conservative media has portrayed you as flip-flopping and the way the mainstream has picked up on it?

JK: It’s a complete disinformation campaign. It’s as misleading as the way they took America to war. They’re completely engaged in an effort to rewrite history. They have no record to run on so they’re running against—running away from—their record by attacking me. I heard the president last night. He mentioned four things. He said, “John Kerry was for NAFTA, John Kerry was for ‘No Child Left Behind,’ he was for ‘bring them back’ and he was for the Patriot Act. And now he’s not.” It’s just not true. That’s just absolutely not true.

I’m for those things. I don’t like the fact that NAFTA has three provisions in it on labor that ought to be enforced and the administration won’t enforce them. So I criticize them. I don’t like the fact that when we voted to go to war, we did so with the understanding that the president would do it the right way: he didn’t. Of course I’m going to criticize him. No Child Left Behind: we voted for it, I want it, but I want it funded. I mean they are just—they don’t tell the truth. It’s that simple. They have a pathetic, sad, out-of-touch, meanspirited campaign.

BLVR:You’ve stated many times that you didn’t regret your October 2002 Senate vote giving Bush authority to use force in Iraq because you believed he would have a tenable strategy for both the war and the peace. In other words, you seemed to disagree with Bush’s execution of the war and his reneged promises of securing an international coalition, rather than the war itself. But how do you feel now that the bipartisan commission declared it found no credible link between Al-Qaeda and the alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

JK:That we haven’t found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq raises very serious questions about the quality of our intelligence and the need for serious intelligence reform. It matters when the president of the United States says that we have evidence of weapons of mass destruction, lays out a case to the American people, Congress, and the world, and then our case appears to be either flawed or even perhaps exaggerated. It matters when the United States loses the credibility and power of persuasion we need to get allies and other countries to help us win the war on terror.

I don’t regret my vote on Iraq. I believed Bill Clinton deserved the authority to use force in Iraq years before to galvanize the world to force Saddam Hussein to comply with UN resolutions and disarm. The problem is that this president drove away our allies instead of bringing them to our side.This president rushed to war before exhausting the diplomatic process and as a result we ended up in Iraq almost alone, without a plan to win the peace, and with American soldiers paying the heaviest price and American taxpayers picking up most of the bill. That’s wrong. It just didn’t have to be that way.

BLVR: You also mentioned Sudan in your NAACP speech earlier today. Only recently has America gotten involved there, but the British and international press have been covering it for a while.

JK:Weeks ago, I issued a statement calling on the United States to act.This administration has been negligent, and they’re still not… Powell goes over, does his trip. Big deal.

BLVR:That’s what I wanted to know in terms of your foreign policy. Oftentimes U.S. foreign policy revolves around something that we particularly want, like wealth or oil, or has to do with a country posing a significant threat to us. But then you have places like third-world countries, sub-Saharan Africa, that are beleaguered by intense poverty, civil war, widespread AIDS, and brutal despot regimes—but receive little or no attention from the United States. Or in the case of the Sudan, as you were saying earlier in your speech, it’s essentially genocide. But it doesn’t seem as though it’s a major issue in terms of foreign policy—

JK: If I were president I’d be at the UN leading the effort on Darfur, as I would have intervened in Liberia way before they did.

BLVR: And what do you think about Clinton’s admission that he felt as though he neglected Rwanda?

JK: He’s very honest. That’s a very honest statement and I read what he said when he went to Rwanda—into the fields where people were killed. I thought he made a very eloquent, very sensitive statement about how it just sort of got ahead of them.They weren’t aware of how devastating it was. And we should learn from that.

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