Kerry's remarks set off a storm on both sides of the aisle
By ROBERT MARCHANT
THE JOURNAL NEWS
U.S. Sen. John 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."
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(Original publication: November 2, 2006)
A flubbed joke or a slam on American troops serving overseas, Sen. John Kerry's remark at a campaign rally continued to reverberate through the national political spectrum yesterday and amped up tough talk among candidates in the Lower Hudson Valley.
Republicans spent the day focusing on Kerry's gaffe as a demonstration of what they called a disrespectful attitude toward the military, while Democrats were more interested in changing the subject to the larger issue of the war in Iraq.
In a campaign appearance on Monday in California, Kerry said, "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." He later insisted he was intending to make a joke about President Bush and inadvertently left out a phrase at the end - "just ask President Bush" - that would have landed the jibe at the president and his handling of the war, not the troops.
At first defiant - "I'm not gonna let these guys distort something completely out of its context," he said on the Don Imus morning show - Kerry later said he was sorry for the remarks. "I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended," he said in a prepared statement released in the afternoon.
Congressional candidates made it clear Kerry was no longer welcome to campaign for them in Iowa and Minnesota, and Kerry canceled scheduled appearances.
Republicans had called for Kerry to apologize for the remarks, whatever their true intent, from the White House to campaign stops all over the New York suburbs.
John Spencer, the Republican-Conservative candidate for U.S. Senate and a former Yonkers mayor, summed up the sentiment yesterday, saying: "As a veteran who left college and volunteered to serve in Vietnam, I am appalled by his remarks. Senator Kerry doesn't seem to understand that our all-volunteer military is filled with the best and the brightest that our nation has to offer."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton later called Kerry's remarks "inappropriate" at a campaign stop in Kingston, but said voters didn't want a replay of the 2004 presidential race.
Aiming to turn the Kerry gaffe into political ammunition, Rep. Sue Kelly, R-Katonah, said her Democratic opponent, John Hall, needed to condemn the remarks. "It displays volumes about Hall's real attitude toward our military and those who are serving our country that he has yet to utter a single line critical of Senator Kerry's words," she said yesterday.
But Democrats have been dismissive of the entire controversy, attempting to turn it back against Republican policy-makers.
"John Kerry can defend himself. He doesn't need John Hall to defend him," said Hall spokesman Tom Staudter. "And the voters are more interested in knowing why Congresswoman Kelly voted for the war in Iraq to begin with and continues to support the president's ruinous policies. It's typical they're playing a game with semantics."
U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-Bronx, said the reaction to Kerry's comment was "right out of the Republican playbook" and blamed Republican strategist Karl Rove for fueling the brouhaha. "They seize upon somebody's remark, they take it out of context and they try to hit a home run with it," Engel said, adding that a Kerry apology was a good idea because some people were legitimately offended and it would defuse the issue.
Brian Nickerson, an expert on politics, wondered whether the Republican outrage would last much longer and how useful it would prove with voters.
"It's not going to have much impact on the national elections," said Nickerson, the director of the Michaelian Institute at Pace University. "The more the Republicans pay attention to it, the more it reinserts them into the danger zone of Iraq, of having to defend themselves on their policies in Iraq. It might actually work in favor of the Democrats, if you think the strategy through on the chessboard."
Whatever the ultimate political result, two things were certain, Nickerson said. It was another political disaster for John Kerry. "He comes across as being stiff, and when he attempts humor, he doesn't get it right. It certainly puts another nail in the coffin of Kerry's possibility of resurrecting himself as a Democratic front runner" in the 2008 presidential election, Nickerson said.
And it highlighted what he said was a weakness that had come to haunt Democratic campaigners on the national stage. "The Republicans are much better at presentation and use of language. They spend much more time on it," he noted. "For Democrats, there's a need to spend time on image-polishing."