ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
I'm Melissa Block.
And first off, the White House versus John Kerry over a comment Kerry made on Monday which Republicans cite as evidence of the Democratic Senator's disdain for the U.S. military. This afternoon, Senator Kerry issued a statement saying in part, “I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrong imply anything negative about those in uniform and I personally apologize to any service member, family member or American who was offended.”
Kerry noted that he himself is a combat veteran and he said that what is at issue is his inability to tell a political joke the way he intended to.
SIEGEL: This dispute accounted for much of today's White House briefing and we're going to get briefed on it by our political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Welcome, Mara.
MARA LIASSON: Hello, Robert.
SIEGEL: And we begin with the joke. Here is what Senator Kerry was recorded saying at Pasadena City College on Monday.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): We're here to talk about education, but I want to say something before, 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 don't, you get stuck in Iraq.
SIEGEL: Now, Mara, one might hear that joke as flunk out and you're in the Army, but Senator Kerry says that is not at all what he meant.
LIASSON: No. Kerry said that he intended to say something else and his people have supplied a text of the speech as it was written for him, where he was supposed to say, quote, “If you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy, you'll end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.”
So after a lot of attacks by Republicans, Kerry did issue an apology today. And he also engaged in the time honored ritual of political damage control. He went on the Imus show to explain himself.
SIEGEL: That's right. Here is Senator Kerry responding to Don Imus's suggestion this morning. Imus's suggestion was Senator Kerry, please stop talking.
(Soundbite of Don Imus Show)
Mr. DON IMUS (Radio host): Go home, get on a bike, go windsurfing, anything. Stop it.
Senator KERRY: I'm not going to let these guys distort something completely out of its context solely for the purpose of avoiding responsibility, which is what they're doing. Look, everybody knows I botched a joke. It's not the first time anybody's done that.
SIEGEL: But Republicans insisted this was an insult to the troops. In fact, President Bush said this today on the Rush Limbaugh Show.
(Soundbite of Rush Limbaugh Show)
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Anybody who is, uh, who is in a position to serve this country ought to understand the consequences of words. And our troops deserve the full support.
SIEGEL: Mara, it sounds like the Republicans have been in need of a good issue and they thought they found one in Senator Kerry.
LIASSON: They certainly think so. This is something they are trying to use to fire up their base. They need to in the remaining days before election day. Even at the expense of returning voters' focus to Iraq.
Now this is a little bit of déjà vu all over again because of that windsurfing flip-flopper has provided the Republicans with ammunition again, just like he did in the campaign of 2004. And Vice President Dick Cheney was out on the campaign trail saying John Kerry was for the joke before he was against the joke.
And Republican candidates are now demanding that Democratic candidates denounce Kerry and return all the campaign donations they've got from him. And in some red states, like Tennessee and Montana, the Democratic candidates actually are denouncing him. Of course, it's not hard to get Democrats to distance themselves from the man they think lost a presidential election he should have won.
But I should point out that Republican candidates who are running in blue states, like Michael Steele in Maryland, are not touching this one with a ten foot pole.
SIEGEL: But at least, though, for Senator Kerry, I gather, there will be no further November surprises this year.
LIASSON: No. And he's actually staying home. He's cancelled his appearances on behalf of Democratic candidates.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
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