GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS (Off Camera): And we're back for more on all of this with George Will and "New York Times" columnist Paul Krugman, whose paperback "The Great Unraveling" is out in bookstores now. And we have to begin with the Vietnam debate. It exploded in the middle of the campaign this week, George Will. And let's begin, try to go through the substance of the charges of both Mr. Podesta and Mr. O'Neill. What's your assessment of the allegations?
GEORGE WILL, ABC NEWS (Off Camera): The allegations are dueling memories of the confusion of combat. And there's going to be at the end of this a certain inherent indeterminacy, there's going to be he said-he said and people have to make their minds up. I don't think this is helpful to Mr. Kerry, A, because it takes him off subjects he'd prefer to talk about and because some people are going to say we have to remain agnostic about this, and that's not the thrust of his campaign.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): You say it's he said-he said, at what point do the official record matter?
PAUL KRUGMAN, COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: All of the official records, all of the official records back Kerry's version of events. All of the people who were on his boat back versions of events. And now you have this cloud of smoke that's being thrown up by people, all of which are charges that they're making, as some people have pointed out, you know, John O'Neill originally was rolled out by Richard Nixon in 1971 to debate John Kerry. When the memories were still fresh, when there people who could have come up and the Nixon administration, which desperately wanted to discredit Kerry never challenged his actual heroism in combat. So now, much later when it's all far in the past they're coming up with all this stuff. It's just not credible.
GEORGE WILL (Off Camera): It would be interesting to take out, to go into public domain the debate Mr. O'Neill had on "The Dick Cavett Show," I believe it was. Let's let people decide a contemporaneous debate from 1971.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): It would be interesting to see that. It is true though that in 1971 John O'Neill did not question the medals that John Kerry earned. The probably ...
GEORGE WILL (Off Camera): He would say, of course, there has been subsequent provocations in the sense of things that Mr. Kerry has said and things said on his behalf.
PAUL KRUGMAN: Yes. But the other thing to say, by the way, the real disingenuity there was saying well, we didn't do this, we did this before his nomination because we started in May and, of course, Kerry had wrapped up the nomination much earlier than that. So this whole thing sprang into existence only after it was clear that Kerry was going to be the Democratic nominee.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): The new ad, I think, George, has the potential to be politically more problematic for John Kerry.
GEORGE WILL: It's more problematic. And it's interesting, it's been widely discussed but it hasn't been aired yet. It won't be aired really until Monday.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): Then we should explain, this is about his Vietnam testimony where he did talk about war crimes committed by United States troops.
GEORGE WILL: This is a completely severable story. There's the swift boat story and this next ad. Two of the three people in the next ad were not swift boaters. They were POWS. And they say something that is incontestable which is, Mr. Kerry said the following things on Capitol Hill. And then say, the second fact, then they say, we were tortured because we would not say, because it was false, what Mr. Kerry was saying in the comfort of Capitol Hill.
PAUL KRUGMAN: Let me just say, as a columnist who is often checked by the, by my editor to ask, you know, have you truncated a quote to change its meaning, if you look at everything that's in the ad, it's chopping off the front. So when Kerry says people who were there say that they personally did bad things, the ad begins, they personally did bad things. It's exactly the kind of thing that would force me to issue a humiliating correction in my column if I did it. So this is, this is a, these are true quotes but you can do a lot by eliding and cutting, and that's what they have done.
GEORGE WILL (Off Camera): Another case just been made by Mr. Krugman for getting the whole thing out and let's show the testimony.
PAUL KRUGMAN: Read Kerry's testimony. It's a remarkable document. Clearly it's an impassioned thing. It's not anti-American. It's an appeal on behalf of the soldiers saying what is happening to us?
AL FRENCH, VIETNAM VETERAN (Off Camera): I have read it, but it does rely heavily on this winter soldier testimony which has been looked at widely and in many cases discredited. A lot of people have said that these winter soldiers did make up some these charges.
PAUL KRUGMAN: Well, we can go through that. But the point was that Kerry was simply saying this is what soldiers said. And he said that terrible things happened in war which is certainly true, which we're learning again in Iraq.
GEORGE WILL (Off Camera): He's now also saying, however that when he said they did these things, he was really referring to the leadership.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): Right.
GEORGE WILL (Off Camera): And in fact, the antecedent of the pronoun they cannot be the leadership. He was not saying that President Johnson and General Westmoreland were cutting ears off.
PAUL KRUGMAN: To repeat, he is saying, he's quoting, he's saying the people in this testimony said that they had personally, and this becomes in the ads, they had personally. They have taken out the fact that he, rightly or wrongly he was in fact citing what people actually said about themselves. He was not slandering people who were, who couldn't defend themselves.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): Clearly, George Will, John O'Neill and others think they're helping President Bush and hurting Senator Kerry on this. And a lot of Democrats were dismayed that Senator Kerry took so long to respond. But in the long run, is a debate about Vietnam good for President Bush in his campaign?
GEORGE WILL (Off Camera): Yes, because Vietnam service and what happened 35 years ago is not the centerpiece of his campaign. Mr. Kerry, at his convention, almost said as much, judge my fitness to be president by the man I was 35 years ago. Well, this is what the argument's about.
PAUL KRUGMAN: Well, obviously President Bush is vulnerable. He has not been able to produce any, any credible witness that he actually served his duty in Alabama and so on. But it is true, this is a distraction. Because the whole point about this is that the Bush campaign has got very little positive to run on. If you wanted, their real campaign slogan is things could be worse.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): Rob Portman says they're turning the corner.
PAUL KRUGMAN: Oh, boy, Hooverite, echoes of Herbert Hoover. No, the fact is you get this essay from Greg Mankiew, the top economic advisor, which is basically saying things aren't as bad as they look and feel. That's not a very stirring slogan on the economy. On Iraq, they're apparently pressuring the CIA to produce another report saying, well, bad things would have happened if we didn't invade even worse than what has actually happened because we did invade. So it's a real, they're really, they have to run an entirely negative campaign because there's nothing actually positive to point to.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): George, I was surprised that Congressman Portman used the phrase turning the corner today, because President Bush had used it last month and then it disappeared on the campaign trail. Is that a winning argument for them?
GEORGE WILL (Off Camera): No, in the sense that it indicates there have been hard times but then people know that already. I don't think people vote retrospectively. They vote on the sense of the momentum in October.
PAUL KRUGMAN: I wish, also, they've got to stop using that fastest growth rate in 20 years. It ain't so. It was last quarter. But as of the latest number it's the fastest growth rate in, guess what, four years.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): In four years, 4.8 percent?
PAUL KRUGMAN: Yeah, if you take the four quarter growth rate, which they have to do because the last quarter is not very good at all. It turns out if you take the four quarters that ended in second quarter 2000, it was actually faster than what we've got now.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): Final question, George Will. Will we still be debating Vietnam on November 1st?
GEORGE WILL (Off Camera): In September, the people who are making the charges about the POWS are going to produce a documentary about 28-minute documentary, I think. This will give additional legs to this. And it seems to me, the answer is, yes.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Off Camera): George Will, Paul Krugman, thanks very much. I'll right back with the list.
Originally broadcast, 8.22.04