Remarks in Quincy, Illinois
One Wednesday afternoon in 1858, Quincy was transformed. Twenty thousand people gathered here in what was a town of ten thousand. They came from miles around to see Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas take part in the sixth of seven debates about the fateful issues of that time.
Both candidates laid out their positions plainly and honestly. They clashed – but over differences in policy, not personal attacks.
This state – and this country – was energized by election campaigns in those days. After the Quincy debate, thousands lit torches and paraded through the town – singing and cheering into the night.
But today, campaigns too often generate more heat than light – firing up partisans while leaving increasing numbers out in the cold. Candidates find it easier to exchange insults than to face issues. Commentators and pollsters tell us who's up and who's down. On television, talking heads talk and yell past one another. Six-second sound-bites on the evening news and thirty-second attack ads all day long dominate the airwaves.
Everyone in politics shares the blame. But I have come here today, because I believe this campaign should be different. President Bush and I can do better – and America deserves better. And so here, in Quincy, where long ago we saw the best of American politics, I am asking George Bush to agree to a series of monthly debates, stating this spring. This should be a campaign worthy of the great issues before us, a campaign that truly can give the election of America's president back to America's people.
In recent years, we have seen just how easily our politics can descend into a battle over the lowest common denominator. When he first began running for President, George Bush promised that he'd "change the tone in Washington" – that he'd bring a kinder, gentler politics of "respect and bipartisanship."
But in South Carolina, John McCain's sacrifice as a POW was used to attack his fitness to serve as Commander-in-Chief. In 2002, an America hero, Max Cleland – who lost three limbs in Vietnam – was defeated for reelection to the Senate with ads that questioned his patriotism and his commitment to our national security.
After 9-11, the American people hoped Washington would put away the old ways of slash-and-burn. The people themselves rallied – not to any party – but to the cause of country at a time of peril. Now, it is time for George Bush and me to offer the American people a campaign that honors the best in America.
2004 can't be just another year of politics-as-usual. The challenges we face are just too great and too grave. Every minute that passes, we're losing two jobs and adding a million dollars to our national debt. In the past three years, three million more Americans have slipped into poverty and four million more are uninsured. And two and a half years after September 11th, our firefighters are getting laid off, our troops have been left without body armor, and potential allies in the War on Terror have been pushed away. We confront big issues – as big as any in our history – and they call for a new and historic commitment to a real and informed exchange of ideas.
Already, the Bush campaign has started airing their long-trumpeted negative attack ads. And our campaign has answered to set the record straight. But America shouldn't have to put up with eight months of sniping. We need to get off that detour, and back onto the true path of democracy.
We will have disagreements. And we should discuss them. I think the Bush tax giveaway for the wealthy is a mistake and an injustice. And I believe that money could be better used to finally get health care costs under control. But let's debate that issue instead of falsely suggesting that I want to raise taxes on all Americans – when in fact I have proposed to cut taxes on the middle class.
Let's stop implying that either of us doesn't want to defend our nation – and start talking about the best way to do it.
President Bush was gracious enough to call me on Super Tuesday to offer his congratulations. I told him then, what I have said here, that I hope we will have a great debate on the issues that will determine America's future. I meant it. That's why today, I am asking the President to join me in committing ourselves to a series of monthly debates where we can present our two visions to the people for their judgment. Surely, if the attack ads can start now, at least, we can agree to start a real discussion about America's future.
George Bush and I certainly aren't Stephen Douglas or Abraham Lincoln, but I believe the American people are hungry for a genuine conversation about the fundamental questions before us – and they are ready to begin this now instead of postponing it for later in the campaign.
I have some personal experience with this. In 1996, I ran for reelection against Bill Weld, the very popular Republican governor of Massachusetts. Everyone expected it would be a knock-down, drag-out mud bath. And we did have our share of rough-and-tumble politics.
But we did something else too. From April to October, we took part in a series of eight debates all across the state. I have to admit, when I first decided to do it, I wondered if voters could actually take the cruel and unusual punishment of having to listen to two politicians for that long.
But something happened along the way. From the start, polls showed that almost half the viewers in Massachusetts watched the debates. By the time voters went to the polls, everyone knew where we stood and what we would do. And after the election was over, Bill Weld and I were still able to get together for a beer at a local bar, pull up a stool together, and shake hands as friends.
I believe America is ready for that kind of democracy in 2004. I believe America needs and deserves it now more than ever.
The morning after the Quincy debate, Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln boarded a steamer at dawn to head to the next debate. But their impact and influence lives on here in Quincy and across America.
It was almost a hundred years later that President Kennedy and Barry Goldwater looked forward to running against one another in the 1964 campaign. They planned to fly around, maybe in the same airplane, and debate all across the country. A single moment in Dallas shattered that dream and so many others. But it doesn't have to have died for good.
After the last Lincoln-Douglas debate ended, the Rockford Republican wrote, "These debates are now closed, and the people, ...having heard the two opposing champions and candidates...have been able to judge between the merits of their respective positions ...and their abilities as statesmen." We can renew that bond of trust with the American people in the election of 2004.
Maybe George Bush and I won't travel on the same boat or on the same airplane. But we can give this country a campaign that genuinely addresses our real issues and treats voters with respect.
And who knows, maybe after it's all over, George Bush and I will be able to sit down together at a Red Sox-Rangers game and shake hands as friends. And that would be an election where all Americans would win in the end.
John F. Kerry, Remarks in Quincy, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/216732