Should the Dems Push Bush's Guard Record?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," Sept. 14, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The Democratic National Committee going after President Bush's military record with "operation fortunate son" — referring back to that John Fogerty (search) song, of course that's a Credence Clearwater (search) song — about a soldier who can't get out of Vietnam because he's not rich.

Meantime, there are new questions about those National Guard memos shown on CBS. We start with the Republican perspective from former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson (search). Welcome, it's good to have you here.

FRED THOMPSON, FORMER TENNESSEE SENATOR: Thank you, John. It's good to be here.

GIBSON: What do you think about the Democratic strategy of going after Bush on his National Guard service?

THOMPSON: Terrible strategy.

GIBSON: Why?

THOMPSON: I think it's bad for the nation. I think at long last, people would think you could have a good debate about the security of the country and it's prosperity and so forth, but we're back in the middle of that again.

GIBSON: You know what they say, "Kerry got hit hard by the Swift Boat Vets; this is only fair."

THOMPSON: Well, in the first place, the Swift Boat Vets were not Republican National Committee. What's happening on the side is coming right directly from the DNC. So, they're embracing it and adopting it and advertising it as their deal.

Kerry stepped out and made Vietnam service his centerpiece. Not the future of the country, not his 20 years in the Senate, but the four months he served in Vietnam. He got in trouble over that; got pushed back on that. A lot of controversy of back and forth and so forth.

So, instead of stepping away from that, they've doubled up. Now they're coming with the juveniles over at the DNC and coordination with the news media, it looks like, coming up with the new round of Bush and the National Guard — a story that's been around every since Bush has been in the public eye.

I just think it's terrible political judgment and political strategy. It's not going be what turns independent voters on. And it's a bad thing for the country.

GIBSON: How come these questions about Kerry's service coming from the Swift Boat Vets hurt him, but you think this won't hurt George Bush?

THOMPSON: George Bush has been the leader of this country for four years, the leader of the free world for four years. The real issue here is — I think the Kerry campaign has not really ever come to terms with — Kerry's leadership. We know what Bush's leadership has been: he inherited a tough economy, he inherited a CIA that was in bad shape, then 9/11 happened.

You can argue over whether or not he always did the right thing or about his judgment, but you know what it is as a proven record. Kerry is being newly introduced to the country. The people are wondering what he would do. When he asked what he would do after he criticizes Bush on North Vietnam or Iraq, he basically says, "Well, that's a hypothetical, and I can't answer that until I'm president."

And while his mignons are off, once again, dredging up news stories about something that happened 30 years ago, with regard to President Bush's national security service. If Bush was a new person on the scene, that might make some sense, but people are not going to be affected one way or the other about that.

GIBSON: What about the document deal? Here's this thing: CBS is standing by it, although there are some serious, serious questions about this letter that was written by a guy who is now dead — we can't ask him if he wrote the letter — and it appears it wasn't written on a typewriter of the time where he would have written a letter, instead it's been written on a computer. In other words: a forgery.

How much does that affect this attack on Bush?

THOMPSON: Well, it's certainly a part of it. I think the Democrats have failed to learn the lesson that the Republicans belatedly learned with regard to Bill Clinton. We had President Clinton with all of these problems and all these scandals and all of these things and we were hot after him for a long time. And the media was hot after him — a new scandal every night. And we said, "By George, we got him this time, right?"

And we look at the polls; hadn't hurt him a bit in the polls. What we didn't understand was that although they disapproved of the president in part, they disapproved of his adversaries — someone attacking a sitting president just as much — in that case it was us and they certainly disapproved of the media.

Now here you have the DNC at the same time that CBS comes out with these documents, CBS is stonewalling. You ask them a question, "Did you talk to the family of this person who supposedly wrote this document before you ran the story?"

They won't even answer the question. They're saying the burden of proof is on the other people to prove that they're false. This is a leading news organization saying this.

They get in deeper and deeper and deeper. So, what an excellent time the DNC thinks, to revive the Bush National Guard story. I think it's circular firing squad over there.

GIBSON: Do you have an explanation as to why the DNC would ignore the advice of Bill Clinton and leave this issue alone?

THOMPSON: I don't know. It's a difficult one to answer. I think that probably some insiders over there are so mad and so angry. You know, they are smarter and prettier and have more sophisticated nuance positions on everything and more intellectual. And yet, they still can't quite get the point across.

Here Bush keeps Lucy and the football. They keep missing it and Bush keeps scoring. And I think there's a lot of anger out there. And I think their manhood's at stake, with regard to some of them. And they're doing irrational things.

And they're launching out and instead of putting Kerry in a position where he could be presidential — and he's plenty capable of doing it — he's a smart, articulate guy; he wants the best things for our country, I think, deep down inside the way the rest of us do — and talking about the future and things of that nature, they keep going back, "And we're going be meaner and tougher and uglier than the Swift Boat Veterans."

GIBSON: Senator Fred Thompson, of course, now a major television star.

Good to have him in this television studio for whenever he can appear. Senator thanks very much.

THOMPSON: Thank you, appreciate it.

GIBSON: More now on the President's Guard service and the Democrats' attack with DNC Special Adviser for Communications, Howard Wolfson. He joins me from Washington.

Howard, you just heard Senator Thompson talking about it? Why go down this road with Bush and the Guard service? What's the point?

HOWARD WOLFSON, DNC SPECIAL ADVISER FOR COMMUNICATIONS: Well, this was a road that others have gone down for quite some time and I don't know how many voices were complaining about the lies that the Swift Boat folks were telling back in August.

The President's lies about his military service have bearing on the kind of lies he might tell to the American people in the future — the kind of lies that he has told about Iraq and other issues.

GIBSON: You've thrown this lie word around a lot, Howard. That's a loaded word. It's loaded when you accuse the Swift Boat Veterans in lying about Kerry and it's loaded when you talk about Bush. And it doesn't seem to be working. Why do this?

WOLFSON: Oh, no, I do think it's working. There was a Newsweek poll that came out this week that showed that the president lost 10 points in his credibility numbers in one week since these issues about his service began.

GIBSON: Yes, but he's got 10 points on the war, 10 points on homeland security, 10 points on who's going keep you safer. And, not to mention six or seven points in just who are you going to vote for. Once again, it doesn't appear to be working in the areas where it counts, Howard.

WOLFSON: Well, look, we've been talking about this issue for about a week. We want to make two points. One, that the President hasn't been truthful about his service, that strings were pulled for him and that he didn't fulfill his obligations when he was in the Guard.

And two, that it goes to a larger point about a son of privilege, a fortunate son, who's had strings pulled for him his whole life.

GIBSON: But Howard, if you raise that issue, with all due respect, what you've got is two men of privilege running here. And when you say the issue is a man of privilege...

WOLFSON: No, no.

GIBSON: ... a voter's naturally going to say, "Aren't you talking about a billionaire on your side as well?"

WOLFSON: No, no.

What we're talking about on the one hand is John Kerry, who when he graduated from college, volunteered to go to Vietnam, who served his country honorably. And you have another young man who was faced with a similar choice at the same time who decided to use his influence, his father's influence, to get into the National Guard.

GIBSON: OK. But Howard, let's grant you the point for just a second. You spoke out for Hillary Clinton when she ran for Senate in New York.

WOLFSON: Proudly.

GIBSON: Proudly. And you did a good job and she won. Surely you know the value of Bill Clinton's advice?

WOLFSON: I do.

GIBSON: He told Kerry, "Don't do this."

So, why is Terry McAuliffe, why is the DNC — it's not even Swift Boat Veterans against Bush, it's the DNC attacking Bush on this. Why?

WOLFSON: My understanding, first of all, is that the president told John Kerry that he should be focusing on the future and that's exactly what John Kerry's doing. He's out everyday talking about how to make America a better place.

GIBSON: Oh, so surrogates are OK?

WOLFSON: We at the DNC are focusing on holding the President accountable. And, again, I think we make an important point when we call into question the president's credibility on these issues.

GIBSON: What about the forged document, Howard?

WOLFSON: I don't work for CBS. And that's a question you'd have to ask them.

GIBSON: But it can't be a very good argument if somebody's having to put out a forged document, the argument that this was terrible service 30 years ago isn't helped, is it?

WOLFSON: Well, many news organizations have looked at this and there are facts that are not in dispute: that George Bush had strings pulled for him to get into the Guard, that he missed significant amount of time while he was in the Guard, that he failed to take a physical and that he was grounded.

GIBSON: And he got honorably discharged.

WOLFSON: Those are not facts that are anywhere in dispute, that I'm aware of. And those are important facts.

GIBSON: All right. Howard Wolfson, always good to see you. Howard thanks for coming on.

WOLFSON: Sorry I'm not in New York with you.

GIBSON: All right. You would have liked it, Senator Thompson was here.

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