Ted Kennedy Has Harsh Words for Bush on Iraq

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, September 23, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The senior senator from Massachusetts, Ted Kennedy (search), unloading on President Bush and the war in Iraq. The Republicans launch a counterattack on the Senate floor… saying Sen. Kennedy is guilty of hate speech.

Utah Sen. Robert Bennett (search) joins me now from Capitol Hill.

Senator, today's big question — is Ted Kennedy's criticism of President Bush over the line?

SEN. ROBERT BENNETT (R) UTAH: Well, if it's not true, it's very serious stuff indeed, because he is accusing the president of deliberately lying, deliberately manipulating foreign policy for political purposes. And that's the kind of thing, frankly, that we Republicans accuse Bill Clinton of when we were in the impeachment mode. I'm not suggesting in any way that Sen. Kennedy is — I'm not — let me put it this way, I am not questioning his motives. I am not questioning his patriotism. I was accused of that on the Senate floor. What I am asking him to do is prove his charges and I don't think that's a violation of anything in the Senate rules or anything that anybody would consider uncivil behavior.

GIBSON: Senator, what is the difference between what Sen. Kennedy said today and has been saying for the last few days, since this started and what [the 10] Democratic presidential hopefuls are saying?

BENNETT: Well, I don't think even the presidential hopefuls are saying that the president went into Iraq solely for political purposes. I've never heard that from a candidate. I've heard that the president lied to us, that the president manufactured reasons, etc. But I never heard anybody say callously the president decided, “I'm going to go to war in order to win the election.”

The other thing, of course, is the suggestion that foreign aid and foreign assistance, which this country has been handing out now for over 60 years to underdeveloped countries around the world, is a form of bribery. That's something we've never heard before.

GIBSON: You know, the Turks were going to get upwards of $26 billion if they allowed American troops, I think it was the third I.D. or maybe the 4th I.D. to go south across their border, headed for Baghdad. Now they're going to get $8.5 billion, a third of so of what they originally had in mind. Why is it that the $26 billion wasn't bribery, but $8.5 billion is?

BENNETT: Well, as I say, I challenge Sen. Kennedy to prove the statements that he's made. And I quoted The Washington Post, who responded to a similar kind of charge from their readers, by saying, “That's a serious charge and it deserves a serious response.” And I tried to give a serious response this morning.

And I seem to have touched a nerve because immediately after I did, Sen. Tom Daschle (search) came to the floor and started to bemoan the fact that Republicans are making personal attacks, that Republicans are questioning the patriotism of Democrats.

I interrupted Senator Daschle and asked him, "Can you point out where I questioned Sen. Kennedy's motives, his patriotism or his rights," which were the three words that Daschle used. And I said I thought I was questioning his accuracy. And if you can point out where I questioned either his motive, his patriotism or his rights, I will issue the appropriate apologies.

GIBSON: But senator ...

BENNETT: Sen. Daschle said, “I didn't hear your speech.”

GIBSON: I don't think the American people much care, you know, whether senators are kind of annoyed with each other. But is this indicative of a change in the way that the war opponents are speaking up, offering their opposition and attacking the president? Is this so different than what we've heard for months now?

BENNETT: I think, frankly, that it is because what we've heard for months is basically what Sen. Kennedy did when he came back after I called him on it. He came back and said, “Well, you didn't have a plan.” He said the military plan was brilliant, but the plan for the peace wasn't any good. They've been saying that for a long time. I think what Sen. Kennedy said over the weekend does represent an escalation. It's kind of the candidates and now Kennedy playing, "Can you top this?" in trying to throw red meat to their own political base.

GIBSON: Do you think that the Democratic candidates will, as I think Tom DeLay (search) demanded, either endorse Kennedy's views or condemn them?

BENNETT: Oh, I think they will ignore it. The very fact that Kennedy made his statement, I made my speech, and then Daschle came out. I called him on it as he tried to say I was questioning his patriotism. And then backed away from that. Then Kennedy [spoke] for 10 minutes and, frankly, I sat in the cloak room during that 10 minutes expecting to see Kennedy come on very strong. He didn't. He went back to the old, softer line of, “Well, you just don't have a plan. You just don't know what you're doing.” He didn't mention his previous statements that the president had acted out of complete political mendacity. So, I think the Democrats — they won't respond to Tom DeLay. They didn't respond to me. I think they'll just pretend it never happened.

GIBSON: Utah Sen. Robert Bennett… thank you very much.

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