John F. Kerry photo

"Supporting America's Front Lines of the War on Terror": Remarks of John Kerry

March 15, 2004

I can't begin what we need to talk about today without two words: thank you. You were there with me through thick and thin. When the going was tough. On the coldest days in Iowa and New Hampshire. Through this long journey you have shown what we always knew was true: firefighters can take the heat.

You stood with me through all the ups and downs - and I will stand with you for all the days to come. Because our goal is not just victory in November. It is the day when every firefighter gets the equipment and support they need - and the respect and honor they've earned. And we will not rest for one moment until we get there.

As we talk about where the Bush Administration hasn't spent the money they need to on security, I have to say a few words about another instance of this Administration wasting our tax dollars. Today we find out they have been using government money to pay for campaign-style videos to sell their Medicare bill. They know that their Medicare bill does more for drug companies than seniors. So they've hired actors to pose as journalists to sell a bad bill with your money. After already hiring actors to pose as soldiers in the President's campaign commercials, you have to kind of wonder: how many Oscar-winning performances will it take to convince America that George Bush can put America back on track?

When President Bush fought to push through his Medicare plan last November, he promised the American people that it would cost $395 billion. Yet, only two months later the Administration said they now realized the plan would cost $135 billion more than the President had promised.

Now we learn the shocking truth: that they knew it all along. And even worse, the government's top expert on Medicare costs had been told to keep quiet - or pay the price. There is no place for silencing the truth. I believe the American people deserve real answers on why this Administration is keeping public officials quiet and keeping facts from the American people. We deserve better than this.

Courage is a word that gets thrown around a lot sometimes. But it doesn't mean anything unless there is a danger that is real. None of you here needs to be reminded of this. But this past week, all of us received heartbreaking reminders nonetheless.

We join together in mourning the loss of Charles Brace and Richard Stefanakis and pray for the speedy recovery of the 29 other firefighters injured at the blaze in the Ebenezer Church. Today, that ground has been made even holier by their brave sacrifice. And what they did - and what they represented - will never be forgotten.

And we also mourn the loss of Mike Miller of New Hampshire who died in an underwater training exercise. I visited his firehouse in Laconia during this campaign and my heart goes out to his family and his comrades.

We meet today while our nation is at war. The War on Terror is being fought in distant parts of the world - and in the very neighborhoods we call home. One year ago, I came here to say that the most basic responsibility of government is to provide for the common defense. But that thus far the Bush Administration had "provided too little support, provided too little leadership, and provided too little vision for the common defense of our homeland." One year later we gather again - and the same is true. Whether it has been providing funding and equipment for firefighters, ensuring that cargo in our ports is screened, guarding our chemical and nuclear facilities, or working with local communities across the country to give them the resources they need - this Administration has given our homeland security efforts short shrift. And you deserve better.

I do not fault George Bush for doing too much in the War on Terror; I believe he's done too little. When the focus of the War on Terror was appropriately in Afghanistan and on breaking al Qaeda, President Bush shifted his focus to Iraq and Saddam Hussein. He's pushed away our allies at a time when we need them most. He hasn't pursued a strategy to win the hearts and minds of people around the world and win the war of ideas against the radical ideology of Osama bin Laden. And time and again, George Bush has failed to give those fighting the War on Terror - whether they're overseas or over here - the weapons, equipment, and support they need.

In dangerous parts of Iraq, our helicopters are flying missions without the best available anti-missile systems. Un-armored Humvees are falling victim to road-side bombs and small-arms fire and the Bush Administration waited through month after month of ambushes to act.

And tens of thousands of other troops arrived in Iraq to find that - with danger around every corner - there wasn't enough body armor to protect them. Many of their families on the homefront - mothers and fathers, husbands and wives and children - were forced to raise the money to buy it for them. Families should be sending pictures and care packages to Iraq - and the Department of Defense should be sending the body armor. Today, I call on President Bush to support a law now in Congress to reimburse each and every family who had to buy the body armor this Administration failed to provide.

Many of us here today have been on the frontlines of conflicts far away. But all of us know that today firefighters and other first defenders here at home are on the frontlines of this new war - and you also deserve the tools you need to do the job.

After September 11th, President Bush went to New York, stood at Ground Zero, and stood with our firefighters. I wish the President would go back now and ask whether he's stood with you since that day.

You should never have to worry about getting the health benefits and collective bargaining rights you've earned. And President Bush should never forget that the three hundred forty-three heroes we lost on 9-11 were not only parents and children, brothers and husbands, fiancees and best friends. They were also proud members of Locals 94 and 854. They never forgot it and neither will we.

Two and a half years after 9-11, fire departments only have enough radios for half their firefighters and almost two-thirds of firehouses are short-staffed - with more firefighters and police officers being laid off.

Cargo in our airports and seaports still isn't getting screened. Our terrorist watch lists haven't been simplified and the right information still isn't available to the right people on the frontlines of preventing the next attack. First defenders still can't radio each other in emergency situations. Air marshals are being laid off.

And yet this Administration has put a tax giveaway for the very wealthiest over making sure we do all we can to win the War on Terror here at home. They have no problem giving Halliburton a fat no-bid contract while only soldiers and firefighters and police officers are asked to give their sacrifice.

I think this Administration has it backwards. President Bush says we can't afford to fund homeland security. I say we can't afford not to. When it comes to protecting America from terrorism, this Administration is big on bluster and short on action. But as we saw again last week in Spain - real action is what we need.

The Bush Administration is tinkering while the clock on homeland security is ticking. And we don't have a moment to waste.

That means truly dedicating ourselves to homeland security - not using it as a political prop. For months this Administration stubbornly refused to allow a Department of Homeland Security - and then shifted course when the pressure mounted. But since then, they've used the Department of Homeland Security to track down state legislators in Texas. And this week, we learn from Time Magazine that the Department's employees have been asked to provide President Bush with a homeland security photo-op every month.

America doesn't need leaders who play politics with 9-11 or see the War on Terror as just another campaign issue. Our nation's safety is too important. If I am President, we will work toward victory in the War on Terror knowing that those on the frontlines of this battle are heroes, not political props. That the needs of our first defenders will never be left for last.

Here's what we will do:

We will pass the SAFER Firefighters Act, fund the FIRE Act, and create the Father Mychal Judge Fund to hire 100,000 new firefighters across America.

We will direct assistance to the frontlines. So that local firefighters and other first defenders don't have to settle for the left-overs that filter down to them through layer upon layer of bureaucracy. When we passed the COPS program ten years ago to put 100,000 police officers on the beat, it took just 62 days for the first grants to local communities. Today, towns and cities all over America are still waiting for the homeland security funds for purchasing equipment and providing training that they've been promised for years.

And while we're at it, we will restore the COPS funds President Bush eliminated. We should be putting more cops on the beat not laying them off.

We will reduce the spread of nuclear and biological and chemical weapons and better guard our ports. We will provide frontline defenders with the gear and communications equipments and intelligence they need. We will make sure our public health system is ready for whatever comes its way. And we will enlist the American people and make sure they are part of our efforts to make the land we share safer from those opposed to our democracy and way of life.

I'm not saying this will all be easy. But none of you here has signed up for an easy life. And none of you signed up to be on the frontlines of a new war. But, day after day, firefighters get the job done. You deserve a President who joins you in that effort - not just when the cameras are clicking or the political season heats up. But a President who goes to the Oval Office every morning knowing that his job is to help you do yours. And that's the kind of President I will be.

You have already done so much - but we have just yet begun to fight. Together we will take our message of change - of a strong America - to every corner of America. To all the places and all the people that want leadership that lives by and honors mainstream values. And leadership that makes our people safe and secure. That's not too much to ask for. But right here, right now, together, we are making this pledge: that's what we will deliver.

Thank you.

John F. Kerry, "Supporting America's Front Lines of the War on Terror": Remarks of John Kerry Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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