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CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN

Two Russian Passengers Planes Crash Within Minutes of Each Other; Cheney Cites States' Rights in Gay Marriage Debate; Najaf Standoff

Aired August 24, 2004 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening again.
It is what we don't know tonight that is so troubling. We don't know if terrorists have struck again, again using airplanes, this time in Russia. We'll report the details in just a moment.

For nearly three years now every time a plane goes down our first impulse is the same, is it terror? It was true just weeks after September 11th when American Airlines 587 crashed in Queens, New York. It is, for me at least, true every time I hear of a plane in trouble, large or small.

Could it be another attack, different from the first but the same? Will we always think this way? Will our children? Will we always look up at a plane flying overhead and think is that plane too low? Is that the normal flight path?

Maybe it's just the way a New Yorker thinks or a reporter thinks but I doubt it. Today because an event a long way away, and with few facts, we are reminded again of our worst day and it won't be the last time.

And so the whip begins tonight in Moscow, CNN's Ryan Chilcote has the headline from there, Ryan good evening.

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Aaron.

Two planes, two Russian passenger planes that took off within minutes of one another and then disappeared off the radar screens of Russian air controllers almost simultaneously have crashed here.

BROWN: Ryan, we'll get the details coming up in a moment. Thank you.

Politics next, the vice president saying today he disagrees with his boss on the matter of same-sex marriage. CNN's Joe Johns has the watch in Philadelphia, so Joe a headline from you.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, the Kerry camp was working on two tracks today trying to return the focus to domestic issues, also mounting a fierce counterattack on the swift boat charges.

BROWN: Joe, thank you. On to that story, the swift boat story, another busy day for both campaigns. Our Senior Analyst Jeff Greenfield has some observations about the issues that should have been but aren't.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Well, Aaron, it's one of the oldest realities in politics. The things you think are your best assets may turn out to be one of your most serious liabilities and this year that may be affecting both campaigns -- Aaron.

BROWN: Jeff thanks for the headline. I knew I forgot to say something there.

Iraq next, in Najaf, another ultimatum another day in the three- week standoff, Matthew Chance again covering, Matt a headline from you.

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, more stalemates in Najaf, I'm afraid, Aaron, a much promised offensive against the supporters of the radical Shia cleric holed up in that mosque in the center of this standoff fails to materialize. We'll have all the latest details on this conflict which is dogging the new Iraqi government.

BROWN: Matt, thank you. We'll get back to you and the rest shortly.

Also coming up on the program tonight, as we said some candid talk by the vice president but could his frank talk on a personal issue become an issue in the campaign?

Also tonight, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," his so-called fake news, does it have a real impact on the race for the White House?

And later, the rest of the campaign news, plus stories from your local area, morning papers at the end of the hour, all that and more in the hour ahead.

We begin with a story that is still unfolding tonight, early morning in Russia, two airliners down within minutes of one another. What it is, is bad enough. What else it might be runs the gamut. In a country plagued by radical Islamic terrorism, the possibilities extend in horrible directions but, for now, they are simply that possibility.

For the facts as we know them we turn again to CNN's Ryan Chilcote in Moscow -- Ryan.

CHILCOTE: Well, Aaron, it all began at about 10:30 p.m. local time, seven and a half hours ago. That's when these two planes took off within minutes of one another from a Moscow airport.

First a Tupolev 134, it's a short haul passenger plane. It went missing about a half hour later and then crashed. The search and rescue officials found that plane first. They say that there were 42 people onboard from the flight manifest. They say that they do not expect to find any survivors. They did find, so far they found the tail and they're looking for the black box. They've also spoken with some eyewitnesses in a village in southern Russia near the crash site who say they saw an explosion on this plane just before it went down.

Now just literally one minute after that plane disappeared from the radar screens of Russian air traffic controllers another plane, a Tupolev 154, this plane a little bit bigger than the first one, disappeared. It, Russian officials say, had at least 46 people onboard, perhaps as many as 52.

It went missing. They looked for it for a very long time and just about an hour ago the search and rescue team said they found that wreckage. We do not have any information yet at this point though of whether there are any survivors -- Aaron.

BROWN: Russia has been plagued by a series of terrorist attacks, almost all of them connected in one way or another to the fight in Chechnya. Is there a reaction from the government that suggests the government believes terrorism might be at play?

CHILCOTE: They haven't said anything yet but that might be in part because it's still the middle of the night here and Russian officials usually take their time before they say things like that publicly but it's definitely something that they have to look at.

First of all, the likelihood that within one minute of one another both these planes would disappear off of the radar screens because of some kind of mechanical, catastrophic mechanical failure on both planes is very unlikely, aviation experts say.

And, we already had one bombing in Moscow earlier today, after which -- in which three people, it was a bomb that was placed at a bus stop, three people were wounded in that. And actually already at the airports they had raised their security posture. They were anticipating something larger.

The other thing that's important to look at, Aaron, in terms of timing is we are just a few days away from a regional election in Chechnya. I know you'll remember Chechnya is where Russian forces have been battling Chechen separatists, insurgents, for nearly a decade right now.

There's going to be a regional election there this weekend to replace their last leader who was killed in a terrorist act in May and it is very customary for there to be terrorist acts carried out on Russian soil right before major events take place in Chechnya itself -- Aaron.

BROWN: Ryan, I expect you have a busy day ahead. We look forward to your reporting tomorrow. Thank you, Ryan Chilcote who is in Moscow for us today.

On to other news beginning with a story that lives on that sometimes uncomfortable line between the personal, the political and public policy. Personal beliefs inform public choices and sometimes they confound them. At the very least they complicate them.

Today, the vice president, whose daughter is gay, found himself in one place on gay marriage with his president and much of his party someplace different. They support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. The vice president said today he does not.

The story is reported by CNN's Jill Dougherty.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DOUGHERTY (voice-over): A campaign issue takes a decidedly personal turn. Vice President Dick Cheney at a town hall meeting in Davenport, Iowa, with his wife Lynne and gay daughter Mary, head of his campaign operations, fields a question about gay marriage.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Lynne and I have a gay daughter, so it's an issue that our family is very familiar with. At this point, I'll say my own preference is, as I've stated, but the president makes basic policy for the administration and he's made it clear that he does, in fact, support a constitutional amendment on this issue.

DOUGHERTY: It was the first time the vice president addressed the issue in as much detail.

CHENEY: Freedom means freedom for everyone. People ought to be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to.

DOUGHERTY: The vice president's personal views set him apart from President Bush, who back in February proposed passing a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America.

DOUGHERTY: The vice president's comments came as the Republican Convention's Platform Committee discusses a position on gay marriage. The gay political organization Log Cabin Republicans applauded the vice president's comments, a written statement saying the party should welcome all voices.

"The vice president's comments should be a clear signal" they said "to the drafters of our party's platform to not include a plank that would call for a constitutional amendment."

DOUGHERTY (on camera): Vice President Cheney's role so far in this campaign has been to solidify the conservative Republican base but on gay marriage he finds himself personally at least on the other side of the equation and the timing could be significant. His comments come less than a week before the Republican National Convention.

Jill Dougherty CNN, Crawford, Texas.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BROWN: The question of same-sex marriage and gay rights may in the end join abortion and Vietnam as one of those battles we fight and re-fight in the political arena all of our lives.

For now for the Kerry campaign, Vietnam outranks it, the Senator spending another day with the focus divided between the issues he'd like to talk about and the controversy he can't quite put behind him.

Again, reporting the story for us CNN's Joe Johns.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS (voice-over): In New York, less than a week before the Republican National Convention, John Kerry was trying to move the political debate away from swift boats and onto the core campaign issues.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator, have you put the swift boat controversy behind you now at this point?

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We'll talk about the economy, jobs, health care, the things that matter to Americans.

JOHNS: But the swift boat ads clearly got the campaign's attention.

KERRY: 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.

JOHNS: And, at an evening fund-raiser in Philadelphia, Kerry vigorously defended his war record.

KERRY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) was telling a minute ago he keeps hearing these commentators, Republicans all of them, saying "Well, John Kerry was only in Vietnam for four months, blah, blah, blah." Well, I was there for longer than that, number one. Number two, I served two tours.

JOHNS: Behind the scenes, Kerry's aides were fighting the swift boat charges with unusual ferocity. They say they have evidence one of the top members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is an outright liar.

The co-author of the book "Unfit for Command," former swift boat commander John O'Neill said Kerry made up a story about being in Cambodia beyond the legal borders of the Vietnam War in 1968.

O'Neill said no one could cross the border by river and he claimed in an audio tape that his publicist played to CNN that he, himself, had never been to Cambodia either. But in 1971, O'Neill said precisely the opposite to then President Richard Nixon.

O'NEILL: I was in Cambodia, sir. I worked along the border on the water.

NIXON: In a swift boat?

O'NEILL: Yes, sir.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JOHNS: Now, O'Neill may have an explanation for this but he has not returned CNN's calls. What does seem clear is that a top member of the swift boat group is now being held to the same standard of literal accuracy they've tried to impose on John Kerry -- Aaron.

BROWN: Do they -- are they going to, they being the Kerry side here, are they going to keep talking about this beyond today or are they done with it?

JOHNS: Well they say -- they said both things, excuse me, Aaron. They said they'd really like to get off of it. They've also said they do like to debate the issue of Vietnam because they think it (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in their favor.

The thing that is clear is they think they have to keep going ahead and responding to charges against John Kerry, especially when it has to do with his biography or his resume.

BROWN: And just quickly on the O'Neill thing, just for my edification here, Mr. O'Neill's publicist played for you a tape where Mr. O'Neill says what again?

JOHNS: Well, he says in the tape essentially that he did not go to Cambodia, plain and simple. He says that a couple times in fact in this little short interview that was played for me on the phone. Now, of course, as you listen to that conversation with Richard Nixon, he says something completely different or, at least, that's what it sounds like -- Aaron.

BROWN: It does. Thank you, Joe Johns in Philadelphia tonight.

The fact that Senator Kerry was obliged to spend another day, or at least part of it, dealing with the swift boat story says a lot about the way the political game is played but it also speaks, frankly, to how it's covered.

Try a little thought experiment for a moment. Imagine Senator John F. Kennedy facing allegations from the PT Boat Veterans for Truth before Drudge, before Rush, before cable news. Would it be any different? With apologies to Walter Winchell, Howard Kurtz says yes.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Question, how many people would ordinarily have seen this Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ad based on a half million dollar buy in just three states?

Answer, not many but that was before the media, and especially cable television, began serving as a megaphone for charges about John Kerry's military record without having the slightest idea whether those charges were true. And when the cable circuit began debating whether Kerry deserved his silver star and his bronze star and his three purple hearts in Vietnam, viewers were also left wondering what was true.

JAMES CARVILLE, CNN HOST: Did you meet him in Vietnam?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.

CARVILLE: You mean you never met him in Vietnam?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.

CARVILLE: Come on. You're writing a book on a -- oh, come on, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was -- he was only there three months, James.

ROBERT NOVAK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You shout and you yell because you cannot answer the allegations in this book.

KURTZ: Suddenly, it seemed the only issue in the presidential campaign was the war, Vietnam not Iraq.

SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, "HANNITY AND COLMES": I've read the book. It's frankly devastating to Senator Kerry what his fellow Vietnam guys are saying, what they experienced with him. They contradict just about every story he has told about his experience here.

JOHN O'NEILL, CO-AUTHOR, "UNFIT FOR COMMAND": It's a pattern of total lying and exaggeration, much of it very demeaning to the other people that served with him.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS": Who was the person that told you this that he didn't deserve the purple heart?

LARRY THURLOW: The people -- keep in mind...

MATTHEWS: Can you give me a name, sir?

THURLOW: The name I would give you after the fact is (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KURTZ: Soon the broadcast networks were putting on swift boat veterans like John O'Neill as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And so what specific evidence do you have that John Kerry didn't deserve that purple heart?

O'NEILL: All right, first of all Dr. Letson was the treating physician.

KURTZ: Amid the sound and fury, "The Boston Globe, "Chicago Tribune," "Washington Post" and "New York Times" began poking holes in the Swift Boat Veterans' allegations. Three of the veterans, George Elliott, Adrian Lonsdale and Roy Hoffman had previously praised Kerry for bravery. Thurlow says there was no enemy fire when Kerry turned his boat around to pull crewmate Jim Rassmann out of a river.

JIM RASSMANN: I was receiving fire in the water every time I came up for air.

KURTZ: But Thurlow's own bronze star citation says there was enemy fire. The problem these are lengthy pieces dealing with complicated charges, hard to translate into good television, though some correspondents have certainly tried, besides the media have already moved on to the political question of whether President Bush would denounce the ad, not whether the ad was accurate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Message wars, that anti-Kerry television commercial, the president praises Kerry's Vietnam service but refuses to condemn the ad.

KURTZ: For journalists of a certain generation, Vietnam remains the irresistible issue to the point that not much else is being covered in the campaign right now.

That Kerry volunteered for Vietnam and George Bush did not has been drowned out by the shouting about whether Kerry was sufficiently wounded to justify those medals. For television this back and forth, he's a hero, no, he's a liar, is so much easier than cutting through the fog of a 35-year-old war.

Howard Kurtz, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Well, the Brown table will earn its money tonight, perhaps even time and a half if it's eligible under the new overtime rules. Two-thirds of it are with us tonight, the two being John Harwood of "The Wall Street Journal," and Terry Neal of washingtonpost.com and we are glad to have you both and we're certain we'll hear you both as well.

John, it's the perfect cable story, isn't it, lots of shouting, he's a liar, he's a liar? It's the perfect moment.

JOHN HARWOOD, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Aaron, cable television is now part of the central nervous system of modern presidential campaigns. While we are talking right now, people in both campaigns are watching or listening to what we're saying, TIVO-ing it, transcribing it, sending it around for use one way or the other.

There are people in campaigns whose whole job is to appear on cable TV shows and whack the other side. This story, which has a narrative, if you're John Kerry of heroism and, if you're the other side, of cowardice and lying, is perfectly suited for this and it really boils it down to very often misleading dimensions in a story this complex.

BROWN: And, Terry, where do you respectable types fit into all of this?

TERRY NEAL, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: Respectable types, well thank you, Aaron. Well, you know, it really is up to us to decipher this moment. It's an extremely difficult thing to do because there's -- just because of the sheer number of charges that have been levied and allegations that have been levied against John Kerry.

It's kind of like if you were to take a shotgun and shoot someone at close range. You have a pretty good shot of something sticking and I think that's sort of what's happened here, which is that a lot of this stuff is being refuted in bits and pieces.

But there's so much of it out there and the vast majority of people aren't going to take the time and look at each and every one of these charges about how Kerry got each and every one of his medals.

So what ends up happening is you come out of a convention where, you know, he had sort of established himself on this issue and his personal bio and all of a sudden now people are saying, "Well, you know, maybe it's not so clear cut," and if they -- if that's all they accomplish, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth as they call themselves have had a victory.

BROWN: John, just really quickly because I want to move on to the vice president, do you think the story's about over, the swift boat story?

HARWOOD: I think it is about over, Aaron, for a couple of reasons. One, John Kerry wants it over because it's been hurting him badly over the last couple of weeks and also George W. Bush wants it over.

They've probably, Republicans have probably gotten as much benefit as they're going to get out of this story. He needs to roll into his convention, begin projecting a message about his second term. He doesn't want this story to hang around for another week because he's got bigger fish to fry.

BROWN: OK. Let's move on to the vice president. Terry, what I saw today was this personal moment. I'm not sure it was an important political moment. Was it do you think?

NEAL: I actually do think it was sort of an important political moment, not one necessarily that's going to affect the election or anything like that but it does really talk about and it really does sort of send a message about how complicated an issue this is.

I mean Dick Cheney really found himself in a very difficult position on this in that he's trying to both, you know, not offend a daughter that he loves very much and a boss that he respects -- and a boss that he respects very much.

But this is an important issue in the sense that Dick Cheney's approval rating has dropped down into the high 30s, maybe low 40s and most of that support is coming from very strong conservatives. Those people are not going to -- those people are not going to turn against him.

But it does sort of soften his image a little bit, particularly at a time when they're going into a convention, where they're going to be trying to appeal to swing voters and Independents in these battleground states that we keep hearing so much about.

BROWN: So, John, I suppose the most cynical interpretation of that is it was a well timed moment for a party that will go before the country and present itself as more moderate than many of its members in fact are, not unlike the Democrats at the convention who tend to be more liberal than the country is at large.

HARWOOD: Not a lot happens in Bush-Cheney campaign events right now that's by accident. This is useful for the Republican ticket as a way of saying to a lot of Americans out there, hey we understand your lives too. Dick Cheney is sending a message of understanding by talking about his own daughter.

And the convention uniquely is a time when the tickets are able to communicate broadly with people. They're having a hard time getting the attention and John Kerry found out at his convention the television ratings were very low. He didn't -- he didn't break through quite as much as he wanted to.

But it is the time where they can appeal beyond their base and talk to people in the middle. That's one of the reasons why we saw Dick Cheney do what he did today.

BROWN: Do you really think that he -- that this was by design that they looked for a moment where he could separate himself on this issue from the president, John?

HARWOOD: I'm not sure how much he separated himself. You know, he took this position in 2000 in the debate. That's a matter of record. His wife, Lynne Cheney, said much the same thing a few weeks ago, didn't get a whole lot of attention.

I do think that, you know, Dick Cheney, his conservative credentials by this point aren't questioned by anybody and for him to be able to reach out in the way that he did today I think is going to help the ticket.

NEAL: Can I say something?

BROWN: Terry, John, good to have you both. Go find Nina and we'll all get together next week. Thank you.

HARWOOD: We'll do it.

NEAL: All right.

HARWOOD: Thanks.

BROWN: Thank you.

Ahead on the program still the battle for Najaf, more talk of peace but the battle around the shrine has intensified.

And, the fake news that has become the daily campaign news for more than a million young Americans, "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." We take a break first.

From New York this would be NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Each of those I dare say is a front page story in the towns that they lived in. It was near mine today.

In Iraq today, no end to the fighting in Najaf, no end either to reports that a negotiated settlement is just around the corner or to threats of what might happen if a deal can't be struck.

In short, Groundhog Day with the Mehdi Army inside the shrine and a real and powerful army just outside of it, reporting from Najaf tonight, CNN's Matthew Chance.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHANCE (voice-over): For weeks the streets of Najaf have been a combat zone but this is more than just another Iraqi firefight. Control and credibility are what's at stake here and the Iraqi interim government may be losing both.

Another news conference, another ultimatum for Muqtada al-Sadr, this time it's the Iraqi defense minister threatening strong action. At dawn, he said, fighters loyal to the radical Shia cleric holed up inside the Imam Ali Mosque would face a government-led assault.

HAZIM SHALAN, IRAQI INTERIM DEFENSE MINISTER (through translator): Tonight, a large number of your forces, the Iraqi forces, will descend around the shrine awaiting orders to attack or the elements will give themselves up to the Iraqi forces saving their lives and the lives of those who are with them.

CHANCE: By daybreak, though, the operation hadn't taken place. It's believed hundreds of Mehdi militia supporters remain in the mosque, possibly Muqtada al-Sadr himself. No official reason was given for the change of plan.

These are the men who could put an Iraqi face on military operations, so far dominated by U.S. firepower. For weeks Iraqi forces have been training for a possible assault on the holy shrines of Najaf but, with each day that passes, the authority of their interim government is challenged.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHANCE: This is, of course, all political brinkmanship but what many Iraqis want to see is an end to this crisis as soon as possible and for many people that we have spoken to, a government that says it's going to act and then doesn't do it seems to many people as a weak government and that's an impression that this new Iraqi government, struggling for credibility, desperately needs to avoid -- Aaron.

BROWN: Matt, you've been around a lot around the American forces for the last couple of weeks. Is there frustration there that this thing has gone on and on and on and on?

CHANCE: There's a great deal of frustration because the people here have been alongside the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi leadership trying to put together a plan that would enable forces to get inside the mosque to clear it out and to do that in a way that would cause minimum damage to the actual shrine. They've put a lot of effort into doing that but again and again they've been waiting for that political approval to go ahead with any operation.

BROWN: Matt, good to see you again tonight, Matthew Chance who's in Najaf.

A little later in the program, by the way, we'll take you inside the shrine and show you what is there.

On to another nasty piece of business about the war in Iraq, an independent panel investigating the abuses at Abu Ghraib Prison released its long-awaited report today, one of two that will come out this week. Since the scandal first unfolded, the compelling question has been how far up the chain of command blame should go. Far, the report concludes.

Here's CNN's Barbara Starr.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is a devastating indictment of what the former defense secretary, James Schlesinger, calls the chaos that raged at Abu Ghraib Prison.

JAMES SCHLESINGER, PANEL CHAIRMAN: There was sadism on the night shift of Abu Ghraib, sadism that was certainly not authorized. It was kind of "Animal House" on the night shift.

STARR: The pictures that stunned the world were not part of any effort to interrogate prisoners, at the end of the day, undisciplined soldiers with commanders not paying attention.

But the problems perhaps could have been avoided and the report does aim responsibility right at the top. The panel said top military and civilian leaders failed to anticipate the insurgency and the thousands of prisoners they would take into custody.

TILLIE FOWLER, PANEL MEMBER: The Pentagon failed to properly adapt to the situation on the ground and to provide a sufficient number of adequately organized and trained personnel needed to conduct detention operations in Iraq.

STARR: At Abu Ghraib, a disaster brewing. The military police didn't have all their equipment, were poorly trained. At one point, each soldier was responsible for controlling 75 prisoners as opposed to the prison at Guantanamo Bay where the ratio was one to one. In Baghdad as Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez struggled to fight the insurgency, the report notes that senior leaders should have moved to meet the need for additional military police forces. Sanchez and other top leaders criticized for not making clear who was running the prison and for allowing confusing interrogation policies to emerge.

(on camera): But the panel said at the top, it was mistakes, not legal culpability, and neither Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld or General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, should resign.

Barbara Starr, CNN, the Pentagon.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Coming up next on NEWSNIGHT, the battle for the White House, a return to politics, Senator Kerry, President Bush on the front lines, how issues of strength turn into liabilities.

A break first. Around the world, this is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have spoken often in this campaign about national security and about rebuilding our alliances in order to be able to get the terrorists before they get us. I defended this country as a young man, and I will defend it as president of the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: John Kerry's military record was supposed to be the strength in his presidential campaign, especially in an election unfolding against the backdrop of war. The quick fall of Saddam Hussein, mission accomplished, was supposed to provide the win for President Bush's reelection effort. As it turns out, the scriptwriters may have gotten it all wrong.

Our senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, joins us now.

We'll start with Kerry. Do you believe that Vietnam or his service in Vietnam is now irrelevant in the campaign?

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Well, they certainly don't think so. And that's the point.

They saw Vietnam as being a lot of things. They thought it would give the Democratic Party strength, the theme of the Democratic campaign, that big banner out at the FleetCenter in Boston. They thought it would inoculate Kerry from charges that he wasn't as patriotic as the president. You know, he picked up a gun. Barney Frank, I think, the very witty congressman from Massachusetts, said, you're going to call this guy unpatriotic? He killed communists. We haven't seen that in an ad yet, but that's a subtext.

BROWN: Yes.

GREENFIELD: And what I think is that, quite apart from this whole swift boat thing, what may have been a miscalculation was a very fair question. What has military service in Vietnam to do with the talents necessary to be commander in chief?

And that's not an argument the Democratic Party has conveyed in recent decades. And it's a fair point. And I think, as I mentioned last night, it may well have muddled message, which was supposed to be, I can bring the change to this country that most Americans want.

BROWN: Some very good presidents has no military experience at all.

GREENFIELD: Well, FDR being one of them. You could argue that Ronald Reagan, who made Army training films in World War II -- I'm sure there's a debate on this -- but as a commander in chief of a Cold War, you know, he seemed to be a lot smarter than people gave him credit for by the time his term was over and the Soviet Union was imploding.

The other side of that is, General Grant, pretty good general, I guess, in the Civil War, not considered one of the great presidents, in fact, considered one of the worst. I think a lot of Democrats would say Douglas MacArthur was not the kind of guy they wanted to see as president. And that gap, I think, is something that has affected the campaign not in the swift boat controversy, but in the, OK, what did you do in the 34 years after?

BROWN: All right, now, Iraq and the president. And here is -- months ago, when he lands on the USS Abraham Lincoln, you can see the commercial.

GREENFIELD: Oh, everybody said, oh, boy, that's a piece of footage is going to wind up in the film in the Bush campaign. And that's right.

His job approval rating on Iraq was 76 percent. His overall job approval was 71 percent. And it seemed to prove a basic underlying point that the Bush campaign wants us to believe, that these are the grownups. After September 11, I heard a lot of liberals say, well, you know, I'm not so unhappy that these are the guys in charge, because they know how to do this.

And the fundamental problem with the Bush campaign is not the Michael Moore, he lied, he doesn't know what he's doing. It is incompetence, mismanagement. You have General Anthony Zinni, former CENTCOM commander, saying that Rumsfeld and the entire civilian leadership should resign or be fired because they screwed Iraq up. And this is not Monday-morning quarterbacking.

You have documented evidence that people in the State Department, the Army War College, the CIA, all telling them, this is what you got to do once you beat Saddam. They didn't do it. So Iraq is not only not an asset right now, but it's a liability for the president.

BROWN: Funny how things turn out.

GREENFIELD: That's why whoever called this political science didn't know what he or she was talking about, you know?

BROWN: Thank you. Good to see you.

GREENFIELD: OK.

BROWN: See you tomorrow, I hope.

Still to come on the program, the sanctuary of the mosque and the battle for Najaf rages on. We'll take you inside the holy shrine. It is something to see.

This is NEWSNIGHT on CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Back now to Iraq.

The Imam Ali mosque at the center of the fighting in Najaf is, as we've said countless times, among the most holy sites in Shia Islam, and, by extension, the third rail, which is complicating the efforts to put down the al-Sadr insurgency. Besides being an important place of worship for Shia worships, the 10th century mosque is also home to an ancient library and a museum whose artifacts are rarely seen.

CNN's Diana Muriel was given exclusive access.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DIANA MURIEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the inner sanctuary of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, here, the tomb of Imam Ali.

This ancient jar marks the place where Muslims believe the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad is buried. The faithful come here to worship. It's hard to tell which are members of the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who have been fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces in Najaf. The devout ask for prayers to be answered and express gratitude by throwing money, gold and gifts through the silver bars.

But underneath the tomb in the vaults of the holy shrine lie treasures of a different sort. Here, a collection of weapons, muskets, some dating to the Iraqi uprising against British rule in the 1920s, ancient swords and scimitars, too. Stacked on the shelves, carpets, old and more recent. Holy text and poetry written on brass tablets, as well as priceless copies of the Koran itself, bound in velvet.

Many of the ancient artifacts like these water pots simply lie scattered in gloomy corners or are collected in sacks, like this gold left over from the construction of the minarets. Sadr's top aide and self-appointed curator, Sheik Ali al-Smaisem, says he was shocked at the condition of the museum when he took charge. SHEIK ALI AL-SMAISEM, SHRINE MUSEUM CURATOR (through translator): These antiquities have been shoved in the corners next to old fans and other electrical appliances. It is almost as if they were being thrown away. These antiquities have great historical importance. They represent the history of the shrine and of the city, but they have been left in a miserable state.

MURIEL: Shake Ali says he has brought in outside experts to help him catalog the contents of the vaults, which have been hidden from general view for many years.

ALI AL-SMAISEM (through translator): May God grant that I live long enough to see this place a proper and prestigious museum.

MURIEL: But the museum is this the thick of intense fighting that has lasted for more than two weeks between followers loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. The battle for control of the mosque shows no sign of abating. And the ancient treasures of the holy shrine remain at risk.

Diana Muriel, CNN, Baghdad.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Ahead on NEWSNIGHT, real news on a so-called fake newscast, does it have an impact on the race for the White House?

And all the campaign news that's fit to print and a lot of other cool things, too. Morning papers still to come on NEWSNIGHT from New York.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Twelve years ago, when Bill Clinton was just another candidate doing damage control, he chose CBS' "60 Minutes" as the venue for doing it; 12 years later, Senator John Kerry chose "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. Funny? You might say. Something else? You might say that, too, when people looking for news start looking elsewhere to find it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I wouldn't know who John Kerry was if I didn't watch "The Daily Show." I wouldn't know anything about President Bush if I didn't watch "The Daily Show."

BROWN (voice-over): Exactly. While Jon Stewart calls his show fake news, its following is real, more than a million viewers a night, up 21 percent from a year ago, hooked on Stewart's undeniably fresh take on the day's news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

JON STEWART, HOST: I'm referring, of course, to the ironically named Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, who appear to be neither swift, nor truthful. (LAUGHTER)

STEWART: For instance, one veteran, George Elliott, says this about John Kerry in one of their ads.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, SWIFT BOAT VETERANS FOR TRUTH AD)

GEORGE ELLIOTT, VIETNAM VETERAN: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STEWART: That's tough. That's hard-hitting. Unfortunately, he also said this about John Kerry in the same event back in 1996 while standing next to John Kerry.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ELLIOTT: John turned his boats to the beach and the enemy was routed. The fact that he chased an armed enemy down is something not to be looked down upon, but it was an act of courage.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: To be fair, Elliott then did add, I can't tell you the whole story. He's right here. Give me eight years.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Fake news or not, "The Daily Show" has become the news show for those 18-to-34s advertisers covet and traditional news programs struggle to attract.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sometimes, when I watch regular news, I get the feeling I'm being preached to. And he doesn't preach. And I know it is comedy. At the same time, there's a lot of truth in comedy sometimes.

BROWN: Stewart tackles the media with his acerbic witness, as often as he does politicians.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sorry. My opinion? No, I don't have opinions.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm a reporter, Jon. My job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says and half the time repeating the other.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Jon Stewart consistently maintains that his viewers make the distinction between what he does, comedy, and news.

STEWART: We're reactive and not actual news. So I don't think -- if you don't like Jon Stewart, then you'll have to go to another comedy program, not another news program.

BROWN: Television critic Adam Buckman dubbed Jon Stewart the it boy this political season, saying Stewart is the perfect match for a time when the lines between news and entertainment are increasingly blurred.

ADAM BUCKMAN, "THE NEW YORK POST": One thing that makes a successful show like "The Daily Show" possible right now is because the news media is so easy to lampoon, with people shouting at each other on the cable news talk programs and with relentless news being delivered 24 hours a day on competitive news channels. It's a great field to satirize or parody on a show like "The Daily Show."

BROWN: Candidates like non-news format, the questions generally easier, the setting more relaxed. As a candidate, George Bush showed up on "Oprah." Bill Clinton played the sax for Arsenio Hall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Voters tend to vote for people that they like and relate to, and this is a way to connect with them in a way that other formats and other outlets don't offer.

BROWN: There's no way to predict whether "The Daily Show" will have any real political impact come November. All we know is that lots of young people watch. Pew Research found that a fifth of people 18 to 29 say they get their campaign news from Stewart and the older and far larger "Saturday Night Live," a substantial increase from four years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think "The Daily Show" will have a big impact on the way I vote. It gives me a lot of my political information.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's fake news. I watch it to laugh, but I read the newspaper if I want the news.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(ROOSTER CROWING)

BROWN: OK, time to check morning papers from around the country and around the world. Setting that one aside. I got some issues with that story. I don't think I want to do it.

Let's -- you know, let's start with "The International Herald Tribune." We haven't done that in at least 24 hours.

"A Day of Liberation 60 Years Ago"; 60 years ago, Paris was liberated by the Americans. That's reason to celebrate. It's also a very cool picture. If you get your hands on "The International Herald Tribune," you can look at it up close. "Pentagon Leaders Faulted For Abuse" is their main news story. "Outside Panel Cites Chaos at Iraqi Jail and Finds Responsibility at Higher Levels," responsibility, but nobody is going to get axed for it. I want a government job. Nobody ever gets fired, do they? "The Atlanta Journal -- not to suggest that someone should.

"The Atlanta Journal-Constitution." "No Joy For Iraq." They lead Olympics. "Underdogs' Golden Dream Dies." This actually was a wonderful story in the Olympic Games, the Iraqi soccer team. And so they put it on the front page. And I can't say that I blame them.

I just love this picture and I like the cut line in "The Des Moines Register" in Des Moines, Iowa. And actually, there is more than one Des Moines. There are two Des Moines that I know of. There's a Des Moines, Washington, which is actually said Des Moines. "I'm Not Saying I Can't Be Beaten, But Tonight I'm the Best Hurdler in the World" is the headline. And it is Joanna Hayes of the United States. She's the 100-meter hurdle gold medal winner. Good for her.

And I know you guys don't watch the Olympics. You watch us, so you count on me to do this stuff.

Thirty? My goodness?

OK, let's do this one, because I can do two things here. "Chicago Sun" -- I know -- "Chicago Sun-Times." "Beach Party. Americans Win Gold, Bronze in Beach Volleyball." I didn't know that was a sport, an Olympic sport. I knew it was like an ESPN2 sport. The weather in Chicago tomorrow is "sparky." That doesn't sound good to me.

We'll wrap it up in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: "AMERICAN MORNING" at 7:00 a.m. Eastern time. "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" next for most of you.

We're all back tomorrow, 10:00 Eastern. We hope you will join us. Until then, good night for all of us at NEWSNIGHT.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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