John F. Kerry photo

Remarks at the Cooper Union in New York City

August 24, 2004

Thank you for that generous introduction. It is an honor to be here at an institution where America's learning has been so consistently advanced – and America's history so often made. For nearly a century and a half, Cooper Union has produced some of our nation's leading architects, engineers and artists. You have also helped lay the foundation and design the blueprint of our democracy. Great American values have always had a home here.

Seeing Cooper Union as a sanctuary and a force for equality, the NAACP was organized here. Seeing it as a symbol and a center of concern for others, the Red Cross was organized here. It is no accident that Thomas Edison, the man who invented the light bulb, and much of the rest of modern life, was a student here. And I can't help but noting that at least five presidents – Grant, Cleveland, Taft, Teddy Roosevelt, and, of course, Lincoln spoke here as candidates. So I've been kind of looking forward to this speech.

But to me, this contest this year is not just about winning a campaign. It is about making America stronger at home and respected in the world. It is about reclaiming the character of our country and the integrity of our politics.

I am here today to call for a truthful and robust debate about our values as Americans and the fundamental choices we will make at a critical time in our history. That is what this election should be about. But from the other side, we have seen a calculated effort to evade that debate. The Bush campaign and its allies have turned to the tactics of fear and smear because they can't talk about jobs, health care, energy independence, and rebuilding our alliances – the real issues that matter to the American people. They have no plans, no positive vision and no understanding of an urgent and undeniable truth -- a stronger America begins at home.

Next week, the Republicans will hold their convention here in New York. You should be proud of all you have done to prepare for and to protect this event. In the post 9/11 world, New Yorkers, more than most Americans, understand the importance of doing everything we can to make our country safer and more secure. Your city and your first responders have led in that effort and I applaud you for it.

The world will listen to what the Republicans say when they come here. But words, slogans, and personal attacks cannot disguise what they have done – and left undone. They are going to say that we've turned the corner; that the job is getting done. They are even going to claim, as they already have, that this is the best economy of our lifetimes. They have obviously decided that some people will believe anything, no matter how fictional or how far-fetched, if they just repeat it often enough. That's how they have run their administration; that's how they're running their campaign and that's how they will run their convention. I believe the American people are smarter than that. You can't cover up reality with a few empty slogans. You can't lead America by misleading the American people.

I don't believe that four years of lost jobs, lower wages, higher health care costs, higher tuitions and tax cuts for the few are the best we can do. America can do better. And we will.

While our opponents have focused on false reassurance and false attacks, John Edwards and I have traveled across this country, listening and responding to the hopes and concerns of the American people. On front porches, in town squares, in open fields and great cities like this, families have gathered to tell us what matters most to them.

They tell us to make sure that their sons and daughters in uniform risking their lives half a world away come home to a country where they can have a chance to live out their dreams – to find a good paying job, the chance to start their own business, a home they can pay for, affordable health care, the chance to send their kids to college.

The American people have also told us that they want a country that lives up to its ideals of responsibility, community, and opportunity for all. In the end, their concerns, like this election, are really about values. For four years, we've heard a lot of talk in Washington about values. But values are not just words. They're what we live by. They're the choices we make. Our values are how we define the difference between right and wrong. And ultimately, this election is not just a choice between Democrats and Republicans, but between what is right for America and policies that are wrong for the American people.

The fundamental choice we face comes down to this: Because a strong America begins at home, as President, I will be a champion for the middle class and those struggling to join it.

But this administration has weakened our middle class, weakened our economy, neglected the crisis of health care and turned away from the American dream of growth and opportunity for all.

Every step of the way, George W. Bush has put the narrow interests of the few ahead of the interests of most Americans.

The middle class has always been the moral and economic backbone of this nation. That's why Franklin Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill to help people go to college, buy a house, and build their wealth. Under Bill Clinton, we created 23 million new jobs, lifted 7 million Americans out of poverty, and sent millions more Americans to college. The middle class built this nation. They work hard, pay their bills, and do right by their families. Our country ought to do right by them.

Today, there is no more powerful example of the fundamental choice we face in this election than the issue of the economy.

The Bush administration blamed a weak economy on events out of their control.

Then they made a big promise of six million new jobs by the middle of 2004. They, in fact, have lost 1.8 million jobs. So now they offer another strategy: denial and attack. And as we will hear at their convention – the pretense that they finally have a plan for jobs.

But this is the reality: No jobs. No record they're willing to run on. And no real plans for the future.

And you can't make up for four years in a few days of a convention and a few weeks of campaigning.

They say our economy has turned a corner. That's not what John Edwards and I are hearing from people from one end of this country to the other.

America can do better. And the fundamental choice voters face is this: do we accept an economy that benefits the special interests or do we want an economy that works for the middle class?

It is a choice between an administration that says it's right to reward companies for shipping American jobs overseas – and a new leadership that will close those tax loopholes and provide incentives to create the good paying jobs of the future here in the United States of America.

It is a choice between the first Administration since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net loss of jobs – or new leadership with a plan to create jobs that pay people more, not $9,000 less than they earned before. Jobs where after a week's work, people can actually pay their bills, provide for their children, and lift up the quality of their lives.

The choice in this election is between an administration that has turned the largest surpluses in American history into the largest deficits and new leadership with a real plan to cut the deficit in half in the next four years. We will do it by passing the reforms John McCain and I have fought for to end corporate welfare – and by making government live by the same rules our families have to follow: pay as you go.

And both fairness and fiscal responsibility depend on another fundamental choice -- between tax cuts for the few and tax cuts for the middle class. Should we continue a failed fiscal policy that says to middle class families: Tax cuts for Halliburton and Enron and those who make more than $200,000 a year are more important than tax cuts for you?

As President, I will put the middle class first. John Edwards and I have a plan to cut taxes for the middle class and working families – to help them pay for health care, child care, and sending a son or daughter to college.

When we talk about the economy, we talk about jobs. But there is another side to the economy where there is a fundamental choice – and that is health care. When health care is more expensive...when co-pays and deductibles go through the roof...businesses, especially small businesses, are burdened by staggering health care costs. And that makes it harder to hire workers, harder to grow and harder to expand.

In the last four years, four million people have lost their health insurance. 44 million Americans are now without any health coverage at all. And middle class families are struggling to afford health costs that are going through the roof. Today, we have an administration that puts the interests of HMOs and big drug companies over the interests of patients and seniors and health care providers.

In a Kerry-Edwards Administration, we will see to it that that America is no longer the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't understand that health care is not a privilege for the wealthy, the connected and the elected – it is a right for every single American.

We have a plan to get the greed and waste out of the system – and save the average family up to $1,000 a year in their premiums. At the same time, we will make health care affordable and accessible for all. Under our plan, you will get to pick your own doctors – and doctors and patients, not insurance company bureaucrats, will make medical decisions. You will be able to buy less expensive medicines from countries like Canada. And instead of this Administration's multi-billion dollar windfall for the big drug companies, we will pass a real prescription drug benefit for all seniors.

This election is also a choice between a country where men and women who work and save all their lives suddenly find their pensions disappearing into thin air and the executives who looted them bailing out on golden parachutes. Or leadership that says everybody in America – from the White House to the boardroom to Main Street – has a responsibility to play by the rules, obey the law and treat people with dignity.

On almost every issue before us, we face the same fundamental choice – between the narrow interests of the few and the future of the vast majority of Americans. It is a choice between an anti-science policy that gives in to right-wing pressures – or new leadership that believes in science and the stem cell research that can treat and cure disease and save millions of lives. It is a choice between holding secret meetings with polluters in the White House to rewrite our environmental laws – or protecting the air our children breathe and the water they drink.

It is a choice between siding with big oil and making America independent of Mideast oil. When we only have 3 percent of the world's oil reserves and we depend on foreign nations for 61 percent of what we consume, we can't drill our way out of an energy crisis. We have to invent our way out of it.

John Edwards and I have a plan to invest in new technologies, alternative fuels, and the vehicles of the future so we can achieve energy independence of Middle East oil in ten years. This is our choice: We want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation, not the Saudi Royal family.

I have spoken often in this campaign about national security – about rebuilding and leading strong alliances to find and get the terrorists before they get us. I defended this country as a young man and I will defend it as President. But I also know that we can't be strong abroad unless we're strong at home.

And that depends not only on new policies – as important as they are – but on the most basic choice we will make this year about what kind of country we are. We have to decide between a leadership that seeks to divide us and a leadership that brings people together. It is a choice between a White House that only talks with those it agrees with...that sees us only as red states and blue states and a leadership that honors the rich diversity of all of our people and sees us as One America – red, white and blue.

When Abraham Lincoln was here at Cooper Union in 1860 to decry the continued spread of slavery, he spoke in tones of strength and humility. He said then: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

My duty, as I understand it, is to be a President who stands with middle class families in their hopes and their struggles...a President who has a plan to strengthen our economy...a President who knows a stronger America begins at home.

My duty, as I understand it, is to be a President and commander-in-chief who finds the truth and tells the truth instead of misleading the American people, hiding behind front groups, saying anything and doing anything to avoid the real issues that matter like jobs, health care and the war in Iraq.

My duty, as I understand it, is to fight for opportunity for all, and special privileges for none – so that every child, every parent, and every worker in America has an equal shot at living up to their God-given potential. A president who puts the middle class first puts their values first: hard work, respect for the truth and a commitment to what is right for Americans.

That is the kind of President I intend to be. And that is what I have fought for all my public life. As a prosecutor, I fought for victim's rights. As a Senator, I was a leader in the fight to put 100,000 new police on our streets. I broke with many in my own party to support a balanced budget. I stood with John McCain to find out the truth about what happened to our POWs and MIAs in Vietnam.

And I've always stood up for our veterans who stood on the frontlines for us. I am proud that I wrote the legislation that finally provided help and health care to the victims of Agent Orange.

I am also proud of the role I played in the landmark law that provides health care to the children of working families.

So, if people want to know the real choice in this election, just look at the record. For more than 20 years, I've fought for the middle class and those struggling to join it. But time after time, President Bush has sided with the narrow interests of the few.

Next week at Madison Square Garden, the Republican convention will focus on slogans, excuses, and attack politics. And mark my words, they'll bend over backwards with last minute proposals and last minute promises to make up for all they haven't done and to pretend they're not who they are. In fact, pretending to be something they're not may be the single most consistent thing about them, because that's what they've been doing all along.

But the American people want truthful answers and real plans. They want leadership that will really put the middle class first. And that's why this is the most important election of our lifetime.

America must do better and we will.

My fellow citizens, we're the optimists. We're the can do people. For us, this is a country of the future. And we believe that for America to be truly America, it must be a country of opportunity for all Americans.

So, it's time for an honest debate about the choices we face. It's time to reach for the next dream and look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is there. The sun is rising. Our best days are still to come.

Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.

John F. Kerry, Remarks at the Cooper Union in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Simple Search of Our Archives