John Kerry’s ‘bin Laden’ speech line product of him wanting to respond to GOP criticism

Senator John F. Kerry addresses  the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last Thursday.
Senator John F. Kerry addresses the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., last Thursday.
Jason Reed/Reuters

In trying to rebuff Romney campaign criticism that the country has regressed during the Obama administration, Senator John F. Kerry offered a jaw-dropping rejoinder last week during his address to the Democratic National Convention.

“Ask Osama bin Laden if he is better off now than he was four years ago,” Kerry said Thursday night to a convention audience initially stunned and then delighted by the macabre imagery evoked by the Massachusetts Democrat.

Kerry laughed along as the crowd ate up the remark.

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Walking to through the Charlotte, N.C., airport on Friday morning to catch a flight back to Boston, Kerry laughed again when the topic was broached. “That was something, wasn’t it?” he said.

Asked by a Globe reporter how he came up the comeback, Kerry said it was the product of him and a couple aides who helped him finalize his remarks last week.

It was the major national security speech of the convention, one that forcefully defended President Obama’s approach the foreign policy, listed his achievements—including authorizing the 2011 Navy SEAL raid that killed the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks—and branded Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney and running mate Paul Ryan as inexperienced and embracing of an outdated national security approach.

Kerry got especially personal as he focused on Romney’s recent trip to Europe and the Middle East.

It had been designed to bolster the former Massachusetts governor’s foreign affairs credentials but was punctuated by criticism for his remarks about England’s readiness to host the Olympics, his suggestion Palestinian culture left its people poorer than Israelis, and an aides’ demand that reporters not question the candidate in Poland.

“‘President Mitt Romney’—three hypothetical words that mystified and alienated our allies this summer,” Kerry proclaimed. “For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas. It wasn’t a goodwill mission—it was a blooper reel.”

The speech also included a self-deprecating line, when Kerry cited a string of Romney policy statements and recalled an infamous line from his own 2004 presidential campaign by saying, “Talk about being for it before you were against it!”

A Democratic operative close to the senator said the bin Laden line was a “very late addition” to the speech.

“On Wednesday morning, Kerry was working on his speech and reading the newspapers, with cable on in the background. He was lamenting the fact that Democrats on television seemed hesitant to answer the Romney campaign’s question ‘are we better off than four years ago?’” the operative said.

“Kerry said out loud, ‘Come on, were we better off losing 700,000 jobs a month? Were we better off in Iraq, and with Osama bin Laden trying to kills us?’” the operative added.

“It triggered a thought that he wanted to encapsulate in his speech as an argument—to take it head-on. He started writing different variations in shorthand on his legal pad. Soon enough, he had the bin Laden line. When he went to do his podium check that day on Wednesday afternoon, he asked the technical team there to input it,” the operative said.

The following night, the world heard him read it off the TelePrompTer.