Transcript: Sen. John Kerry on 'FNS'

The following is a partial transcript of the Nov. 19, 2006, edition of "FOX News Sunday With Chris Wallace":

"FOX NEWS SUNDAY" HOST CHRIS WALLACE: While the last few weeks have been a time of triumph for most Democrats, it's been a time of trial for Senator John Kerry, who disappeared from the campaign trail in the post-election victory lap after making a joke that went bad. Today, Senator Kerry is sitting down for his first interview since the controversy.

And, Senator, welcome back to "FOX News Sunday."

KERRY: Glad to be with you. Thank you for having me.

WALLACE: Speaking to a former hockey player, have you been in the penalty box the last few weeks? Did Democratic leaders say to you that you were becoming a distraction in the final week before the election and that you should sit down?

KERRY: You know, I would differ a little with the characterization you gave. Look, first of all, obviously, it was a bad joke, and I apologized for it. And we moved on, and we should move on.

You know, we had an historic election, absolutely historic. The American people spoke. And I worked very, very hard for those two years to help us elect a Democratic majority.

It was clear to me that if people wanted to make that joke a distraction, I didn't want it to be. I wanted to win — results. You know, campaigns are about winning and losing. We won.

Now we move on. You just had the news a moment ago, people are dead in Iraq. We have a terrible, unbelievable morass over there that's going to require enormous leadership. We Democrats are excited about what we've won, which is an opportunity to govern and help lead the country in the right direction. That's what I'm looking at.

WALLACE: Well, I must say — and we told you before you came on that we were going to talk some about the joke. I agree there's things to talk about after, but there are questions people have, and I'm going to ask you about them, sir.

Didn't two senators, didn't Democratic leader Harry Reid and also the Democratic campaign chair, Chuck Schumer, didn't they call you up after the joke and say to you, "This has become a distraction; sit down; get off the campaign trail"?

KERRY: Chris, let me again say to you — I mean, let's be serious about this. This was a bad joke. And I own it. And I apologized for it.

But the full measure of the Republican attack machine knew exactly what I had said, and they set out to make it a distraction.

I had a discussion with a number of leaders, including my colleague Ted Kennedy and others, in order to make a judgment about what was best to accomplish the goal that I had been working for.

And since you had some very close races, I thought it was important. I made the decision. It was my decision to make certain that I didn't distract.

And the results are what speak for themselves. In fact, the Republicans made a terrible mistake, because they shifted the topic back to Iraq. The polls showed that we went up. They didn't want to talk about Iraq, and within two days, they tried to shift back to taxes.

This is over. This was a misstatement. All of us make them in life. You wish you could have it back, but you can't.

But what really is the measure is, what are you fighting for? This election was a moment of history where the people of our country said, "We're tired of a corrupt Congress. We're tired of a Congress that's dysfunctional. We're tired of seeing the main issues that affect our lives not be attended to."

And we Democrats — and I'm proud that I contributed to that. You know, last summer people didn't want to talk about Iraq. I brought that to the floor of the United States Senate, and I helped force that discussion with Russ Feingold, Ted Kennedy and others.

So I believe I offered leadership. And leadership is the real test. Do you lead? I believe I've laid out an agenda on energy independence. I think I've laid out an agenda on health care, an agenda on how we get out of Iraq, how we rebuild America's moral authority. And that's what I'm going to continue to do.

And I've offered — you know, I called Condoleezza Rice, and I said, "Look, let's find a way to work together, because the country needs us to move on." They don't want to talk about a joke that's old news.

WALLACE: But, Senator, in fairness...

KERRY: Only you do.

WALLACE: No, it's not just me. I've got to tell you, there are a lot of people who want to, because they think that it raises questions. Both Republicans and Democrats have said it raises questions about your political judgment.

I want to put up on the screen what it is that your office, your staff said was the joke that you meant to say.

Please put it up on the screen, if you will.

That you 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."

Question: Do you think that — that was the real joke; that's not the botched joke. Do you think that that's funny, to call the president of the United States dumb and lazy?

KERRY: I think they didn't do their homework, and I think Americans know they didn't do their homework. It was not a good joke. It was not well-stated. I own it; I apologized for it. And it's time to move on.

Let's look at this question of homework. Let's look at the question of the troops. Who really was insulted?

I'm a veteran. I have fought all my life to help take care of veterans and to honor what service means. Just this past week, in the United States Senate, I added $18 million in order to help for mental health problems that a lot of veterans are having because they come back with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and there are waiting lines, and we're not taking care of them.

You want to know what the insult to the troops is? The insult to the troops is sending them to war for false reasons. The insult to the troops is sending them to war without the equipment that they need, without the armor, without the armed Humvees. The insult was having the secretary of defense who, for month after month after month, refused to listen to the Congress and listen to his own advisers. The insult is having troops who have a strategy that has them mired without the diplomacy necessary to resolve what everyone has said cannot be resolved militarily.

Now, I'm going to continue to fight for that. That's what the American people voted for the other day, Chris. And, you know, this parlor game of who's up, who's down, today or tomorrow, if I listened to that stuff, I never would've won the nomination, I never would've gotten up in the morning. And I'm not going to be sidetracked by it now, and nor should you.

WALLACE: But, Senator, people are trying to take a measure, as they look ahead to 2008, of the various candidates, and are they...

KERRY: Well, then, you know what I say to them? Take a measure of the guy who mortgaged his house when I was at 30 points below and nobody said I could win. Take a measure of a guy who got up every morning and went to Iowa and said, "I know how to win this." Take a measure of a guy who was 10 points down and won three debates against a sitting president of the United States and put on a convention that had a great message to America about where we're going.

I believe I learned a lot of lessons in that race. And one of the lessons is, when the full attack machine of the Republican Party is leveled at you, fight back. I fought back, for my honor, my integrity and for the rectitude of what I said.

WALLACE: But, Senator...

KERRY: And now we go forward. That's behind us.

WALLACE: But, Senator, wait, wait. The point that a lot of Democrats, not Republicans, Democrats are making at this point is, they're saying you learned the wrong lesson from 2004, that the lesson you — and you were on the show about a month ago...

KERRY: Right.

WALLACE: ... and you said, "I'm not going to get swiftboated again."

KERRY: Correct.

WALLACE: Some people say that's the wrong lesson; that the right lesson is to be politically agile, to be deft in handling whatever the situation is. Sometimes when it's fighting back and that's appropriate, fight back. When it's apologizing, that's appropriate.

I want to take you, if I may, sir, I want to take you back, because some people say what may have gotten you in as much as trouble as the joke is the way you responded to it. Both...

KERRY: But, Chris...

WALLACE: If I may, sir, both Republicans and Democrats were demanding an apology, but here is you at the news conference the next day. Let's take a look.


KERRY: Let me make it crystal-clear, as crystal-clear as I know how: I apologize to no one for my criticism of the president and of his broken policy.


WALLACE: Senator...

KERRY: Yes, but why didn't you play the part where I said, "It was a botched joke, and I never intended to insult anybody, especially not the troops"?

WALLACE: But why didn't...

KERRY: Because that was part of what I just said.

WALLACE: ... apologize. The question is...

KERRY: I apologized...

WALLACE: The question is, why not just stop the bleeding right away...

KERRY: Sure, Chris, I've apologized. And this is now clear to everybody, that it was a botched joke; I own it.

But I think the measure of an individual in public life and the measure of what I have done is much bigger than missing one word in a bad joke.

And, you know, that's a game everybody plays here in Washington. What people want to know is, what are we going to do about these major issues? America has lost its moral authority in the world. Does that matter, as we sit here today? Does that matter to people who play this parlor game in Washington?

I've been leading the effort to try to restore how we have a foreign policy that makes us stronger. We need to have the ability to be able to talk directly to North Korea. We need to deal with Iran and Syria. I promise you the Baker commission will come out and say that we should be doing things that some of us have been saying we should be doing for three years. That's leadership.

Energy independence: The United States of America could have jobs, better health, better environment, better security if we move toward real energy independence.

What the American people voted for the other day is to stop having an oil industry that writes an oil bill, a drug industry that writes the drug bill, a bank industry and credit card industry that writes a bankruptcy bill, and takes away from the American people their right to be in the people's house. The people's house once again belongs to the people.

Now, I think what's important for us to talk about is, how do we build a bipartisanship that lifts our government and seizes this moment of optimism and hope that's been expressed by the American people?

WALLACE: Well, Senator...

KERRY: That's what's important.

WALLACE: ... we keep talking past each other. I'm going to...

KERRY: Well, no, that's only because you want to focus on the picayune, not on the real issues that face the country.

WALLACE: I don't think this is picayune, sir. I mean, one of the points is that, on November 1st, when you finally issued your apology, you didn't even come out and say it yourself. You issued a statement. You issued a written piece of paper.


WALLACE: If I may, sir, just finish.

KERRY: Sure.

WALLACE: That same day, November 1st, a woman named Danna Swain Palmer sent you and every other senator a letter. Her son, Cory, left the computer engineering program at West Virginia University — here he is up on the screen — to join the Marines, sign up for the Marines. And this May, he and three of his comrades were killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq.

And here's what she wrote to you, Senator: "These men, along with their peers, are superior in intellect. How dare you dishonor them by your careless words."

Mrs. Palmer, Senator, has yet to hear — this was three weeks ago — has yet to hear from your office. Here is your opportunity, on camera, in front of the country. What do you say to her and everyone else about those comments you made?

KERRY: I'm sorry. I apologize. Profusely, profoundly. And I have said that on any number of occasions, and I can't make it more clear.

But at the same time, Chris, let's be honest about this. I mean, let's be honest about it. The White House knew that I didn't set out to or intend to insult anybody. And people who read the full context of my remarks knew that I didn't set out to do it. And what those troops heard they heard because the White House attack machine took those comments and took them into what they want.

And what I learned in '04 is, if people are going to try to make you something that you're not, if people are going to try to manufacture who you are, you have to fight back for that.

Now, I am deeply sorry for that woman, for her. And I have asked my staff to find anybody that I can contact — I've contacted people in the military, because I feel this so profoundly.

Even the joke itself wouldn't make sense for the simple reason that we do have a volunteer army and you have to be smart to get into it. So, even that runs counter to what they did.

Now, I've apologized, and we have to move on to the real issues that face this country. And those are the issues of, how are we going to govern? How are we going to lift this place up? People didn't vote — you know, nothing that I said affected this race. We won all our races. That's what I wanted to do.

And I think I showed political acumen, in fact, to understand that. My instinct would've been, if I'd been on the ballot, to go out. My name wasn't on the ballot. So I went out and fought and did what I thought was right in order to help elect a majority.

You know, winning — you know, Newt Gingrich is coming on. You know, campaigns are about winning and losing. We won. We won a majority in the Congress. We won the right to go forward. That's what I've been working for.

And now I'm excited, as Americans are. They don't want to sit here and rehash the past. That's a Washington game, that's an inside politics game.

WALLACE: How much damage...

KERRY: The real test is whether or not we're going to do what they've elected us to do. Are they going to accept responsibility? Are we going to do health care for all Americans? Are we going to reform the ethics of the United States Congress so we can open it up and be accountable and transparent?

WALLACE: Senator, how much damage has this done to your possibly seeking the presidency in 2008?

KERRY: The voters will decide that in the future. I believe the voters want to see leadership. And I'm proud of the leadership that I've offered. As I said, I was the first person to run for president who actually advertised publicly about energy independence and dealt with climate change in a real way.

We are the only nation in the world that is the denier of the facts and science of climate change. That has to change. I've been leading on that. Leading on health care — I have a health-care plan that I laid out that I think is still one that would make our businesses more competitive, one that would help our country to reduce the cost of doing business and provide health care that's affordable to all Americans. And I know that we can fight a more effective war on terror and make our country more secure.

That's the crux of...

WALLACE: I want to ask you about the War on Terror in a second, but I just want to make clear on 2008: You have not given up the thought of running for president in 2008?

KERRY: Not in the least. I'm looking at it in the same way. The people that I have talked to across the country are — my team is confident and strong. I don't know what I'll do.

WALLACE: Are you thinking of setting up — because that seems to be the thing to do now — are you thinking of setting up an exploratory committee?

KERRY: You know what we need to do right now? And I've said this all along. My decision would be somewhere around the turn of the year, beginning of the year. Right now our focus, all of us, ought to be to respect what happened on Election Day.

The American people want us to make the Congress function in their interests. The American people are waiting for us to lift up an enormous challenge.

And what's interesting to me is, you know, my colleagues in the Senate and the House are not going to do unto others as they've done unto us. We're not going to be seeking retribution. We're all reaching out to our ranking members as future chairmen. We're going to try to work across the aisle. We're going to try to build the consensus necessary.

And I'm prepared — as I say, I called Condoleezza Rice. Nothing is more important than resolving Iraq, Afghanistan, North Korea. And I will do everything in my power there.

WALLACE: Let me ask you about Iraq, if I can. We've got about a minute left.

General John Abizaid, the commander of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, spoke to the Senate Armed Services Committee this week. He said to start pulling troops out of Iraq now would only increase the sectarian violence and weaken the government.

One, how do you respond? And, two, do you still have confidence in the generals in charge of the war in Iraq?

KERRY: I have confidence in the generals. I think they've been put in a very, very difficult position.

What I don't have confidence in is the policy. And General Abizaid is giving us a diagnosis that is based on the current policy. But that policy has to change, and it can change.

I believe that if you pursue — I know that if you pursue legitimate diplomacy, the way Henry Kissinger did when he made multiple trips, night after night, day after day, twisting arms, working; if you make the effort that Jim Baker did to build a legitimate coalition, I'm confident we can do what's necessary to get the neighborhood — and I include in that Iran and Syria — to take greater stakes in what they realize they have a stake in.

And, frankly, it's very incumbent on us Democrats — and this is why I called Condoleezza Rice. We have a significant role to play, because we have credibility, because we need to represent a united government. This is in America's interest. This is not Democrat or Republican.

And, frankly, that's how you protect and honor the troops. You give the troops the civilian leadership and the policy that backs them up. We owe them that, and that's what I'm going to work on.

WALLACE: Senator Kerry, we're going to have to leave it there.

KERRY: Thank you.

WALLACE: I want to thank you so much for coming in today...

KERRY: Proud to be here.

WALLACE: ... and dealing with all of this. Please come back, sir.

KERRY: I will.