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NBC News
updated 1/16/2006 10:51:12 AM ET 2006-01-16T15:51:12

Guests:
L. Paul Bremer, Author, "My Year in Iraq"

Taylor Branch, Author, "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years (1965-68)"

John McWhorter, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute

Marian Wright Edelman, Founder and President, Children's Defense Fund

Moderator/Panelist:
Tim Russert - NBC News

Mr. Tim Russert: Our issues this Sunday: In May 2003, this man was sent by President Bush to Iraq to take charge of that country. In his new book, "My Year In Iraq," he talks about the looting, the insurgency, American troop levels and his relationship with the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. With us, the former presidential envoy to Iraq, Ambassador Paul Bremer.

Then tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. We'll talk about his legacy and the state of black America. Joining us, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years (1965 to 1968)," Taylor Branch, the founder and president of the Children's Defense Fund, Marian Wright Edelman and the author of "Winning The Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America" Dr. John McWhorter.

And in our MEET THE PRESS Minute, Dr. King's last appearance on MEET THE PRESS, August 13, 1967.

(Videotape, August 13, 1967):

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: I refuse to allow myself to fall into the dark chambers of pessimism.

(End videotape)

Welcome.

Amb. Paul Bremer: Nice to be back with you, Tim.

Mr. Russert: Your new book, "My Year In Iraq."

Amb. Bremer: Yeah, first and last.

Mr. Russert: I'll get back to that in one second. Let me talk about Iraq for a second. It's 2006. We keep hearing this is a pivotal year. The Iraqi people have voted. You said the other day that there should be some changes in the constitution. The ranking Shiite leader in the south of the country rejected any changes in the constitution. What happens now?

Amb. Bremer: Well, let's see what happens. I think what we're seeing in Iraq now is something we're kind of familiar with in this country which is the beginning of a democratic debate over the form of the next government. I don't know whether Sheik Hakim--who you will quote here--really means no changes in the constitution. I hope he doesn't. I think they will have to make some modest changes in this constitution coming up and put together a government of national unity. And I think they'll do that.

Mr. Russert: Do you believe that enough Iraqis will step forward in terms of military service, police service so that there could be a significant withdrawal of American troops in 2006?

Amb. Bremer: You know, this question of troop numbers, Tim, which has gotten a lot of attention, is more complicated in many ways than we sometimes hear about. Let me tell you how it looked to me on the ground, because I know it's something everybody talked about.

There basically are three elements in the question of combat capability, which was my focus. One of them is the number of coalition forces, not just Americans.

The second is the kind of rules of engagement those forces have. Are they going to go on the offensive? Are they strictly defensive?

And the third element, the one you're talking about, is the quantity and quality of Iraqi forces. And this was my focus throughout the time I was there. And much of my concerns were about this last element, the quality and quantity of Iraqi forces. They have gotten a lot better in the last year and a half because we changed the way we're training them, changed the way we're training the army, changed the way we're training the police. There are something like 225,000 of them now. So they're stepping up and they're getting better. And as they get better, we will be able to reorient our forces in a different direction.

The president has said he'll make whatever decisions he can based on the conditions on the ground. So I think the trend is right. We'll see how it goes.

Mr. Russert: Do you think there'll be significant withdrawal of American troops?

Amb. Bremer: I really don't know. And I don't think it should be driven by anything other than the conditions on the ground. It shouldn't be a timetable or something like that.

Mr. Russert: Let's talk about some of the things you wrote about, troops over there. When you got to Iraq, you talk about having a conversation with one of Secretary Rumsfeld's senior secretary aides and with Condoleezza Rice. And you say that the coalition has about half the number of troops we need. And you cited a RAND Corporation study.

And this is how you wrote it in your book. "The paper was a draft RAND report estimating the troop levels that would be needed to stabilize postwar Iraq. The study was impartial, and unflinching. The professionals at RAND did not deal in any rosy scenarios; they applied cold logic to problems. ... `The population of Iraq today,' the report noted, `is nearly 25 million. That population that would require 500,000 troops on the ground to meet a standard of 20 troops per thousand residents. This number is more than three times the number of foreign troops now deployed to Iraq.' That afternoon, I had a summary of the draft copied and sent it down the corridor to Don Rumsfeld. `I think you should consider this,' I said in my cover memo. I never heard back from him about the report."

Why not?

Amb. Bremer: Well, first of all, this was a report, as I said, that I saw before I went to Iraq, before I saw the situation on the ground, and as your excerpt just showed, what I did basically was send it forward to Secretary Rumsfeld and say, "Take a look at this." We didn't discuss that report specifically. We had a lot of discussions over the next 14 months that I was there about my concerns about maintaining combat capability along the lines I already explained.

Mr. Russert: But Rumsfeld didn't respond to you.

Amb. Bremer: Well, he responded in the sense that we talked often, very often about this question of maintaining combat capability, all three elements.

Mr. Russert: But you make a point of saying--you're making a point of saying he didn't respond.

Amb. Bremer: Well, I'm making a point he didn't respond, but I left for Iraq two days later, three days later.

Mr. Russert: You came back to the United States in July, just about two months later, and came on this program.

Amb. Bremer: Right.

Mr. Russert: And came on this program, and here's an exchange we had. "Have you asked Secretary Rumsfeld for more American troops?"

Amb. Bremer: "No, I have not."

Mr. Russert: "Do we need more?"

Amb. Bremer: "I do not believe we do."

Mr. Russert: That seems to be contradictory to what you were suggesting to the secretary on Friday.

Amb. Bremer: No, it's not at all.

Go back to what you just read. What I said was I think this is an interesting report and you ought to take it into account. I didn't ask for more troops. I hadn't even been to Iraq. This was dated, I think your note just said May 6.

I didn't go to Iraq until the 12th. It's not a contradiction. And I have to say this, Tim, you got to go back and think about where we were in July when I was here. The insurgency had not yet picked up. It didn't really get momentum until the end of the summer of 2003 when my concerns were focused very much on the third element of this combat capability, the quality of these Iraqi forces. And I was very concerned about that, and there I had some disagreements with the Pentagon and I laid them out in this, in this account.

Mr. Russert: You sure do.

In your book, a year later now, this is May of 2004, you're having a conversation with the military commander on the ground, Rick Sanchez, and here's your book again: "I had a private meeting with [commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq] [Ricardo] Sanchez, to discuss the war. `What would you do if you have two more divisions, Rick?' I asked him. ... he answered immediately. `I'd control Baghdad.' ... I could see other uses for 35,000 or 40,000 additional troops. ... On May 18, I gave [National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice a heads-up that I intended to send Rumsfeld a very private message suggesting the Coalition needed more troops. ... That afternoon I sent my message to Rumsfeld. ... I stressed that while I did not think the mission was on the brink, I felt we were in a dangerous situation. I recommended that he consider whether the Coalition could deploy one or two additional divisions for up to a year. I verified the secretary received my message. I did not hear back from him."

Now, he was asked about that Thursday, and this is what Secretary Rumsfeld had to say.

(Videotape, Thursday):

Unidentified Reporter: Ambassador Bremer says you never responded to him in his book.

Sec'y Donald Rumsfeld: Well, I did. I have a copy of the memorandum I sent him. I thanked him for his suggestion and said we'd look into it. And we did. And by the time he left, he was, you know, no longer in a position where it would be appropriate to have given him the outcome, and he never asked that I recall.

(End videotape)

Mr. Russert: Did he respond to you?

Amb. Bremer: Well, yes. He's acknowledged he received the memo.

But let me tell you, Tim, about the circumstances on the ground that led me to send that memo. This was the only time I made a formal request for more troops. I had been concerned about the quality of Iraqi security forces starting in the fall of 2003. And, indeed, they basically collapsed when we had the uprisings in April and May of 2004. They simply were not up to snuff.

The situation on the ground where I was was pretty bad. So bad that at one point my advisor said I was probably going to have to institute food rationing for the coalition because our--we couldn't get our convoys through. We were having trouble controlling the borders, our lines of communications, as I mentioned to General Sanchez.

And I obviously--we weren't going to get any troops while I--I was going to leave in five weeks, so it wasn't a matter of affecting anything while I was on the ground. But I thought I owed it to the secretary to tell him what I thought.

The fact he didn't give me a substantive reply is not surprising. I was leaving, and nothing was going to happen anyway in five weeks. And as the secretary said in his press conference on Thursday, he did what you'd expect him to do. He asked his military advisors for their advice.

Mr. Russert: But he did send you a memo saying, "I'll consider this."

Amb. Bremer: He said--he said he'd received it and would consider it and he did he consider it.

Mr. Russert: What happened then as you came back to the United States, and you went around and talked to some groups, and you talked to some students--This is the Banner-Graphic newspaper in Greencastle, Indiana, where you went to DePauw University. "At [DePauw] student forum, [Ambassador Bremer] admitted, `The single most important change--the one thing that would have improved the situation--would have been having more troops in Iraq at the beginning and throughout ... Although I raised this issue a number of times with our government, I should have been even more insistent."

You were pretty firm about that.

Amb. Bremer: Yeah. I am. And I am, as I said, throughout the time I was there, I was focusing on this question of combat capability. And more troops could have been better, more trained Iraqi troops. There could have been more coalition forces.

In the end, as it was, we had about the same number of troops when I left as when I got there. My concern at the beginning, by the way, which is the opening of this book, was the looting that was going on.

Mr. Russert: I'm going to get to that in a second.

Amb. Bremer: And that was a problem.

Mr. Russert: But this was a big debate here in this country. And you gave that speech on September 17 in Greencastle, Indiana.

John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, immediately began to quote you. Ambassador Bremer said, "We needed more troops." He had asked for more troops.

In October, you wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times and you wrote this. "For the task before us now, I believe we have enough troops in Iraq." Were you forced to say that by the Bush administration?

Amb. Bremer: No. I'm a...

Mr. Russert: It seems to be so different than what you had said three weeks ago.

Amb. Bremer: No, no, Tim, look. The thing that happened--the good news that happened about the time I left was we learned the lesson of what--of how we had to change the training of Iraqi forces. And we learned that lesson because of the collapse in April of '03.

General Petraeus, David Petraeus, who I had come to know very well as the commander of the 101st Airborne--it was guarding the area around Mosul in the north--left Iraq when the 101st left, and then he came back about the time--about early June, I think, just before I left, and, basically, revamped the training. And by the fall of 2004 that had already begun to have a major impact on the quality of the Iraqi forces, both the army and the police.

And so by the end of the year, by the end of '04, we were beginning to see real improvement in Iraqi forces and I think that's really happening now.

If you look at the difference between the Iraqis, their behavior in Fallujah in April of 2004, when they, basically, collapsed--the National Guard wouldn't support us. Even the first two battalions of the Iraqi army wouldn't go into the fight.

In the fall of 2004--when we go back into Tall'Afar, when we went into Fallujah, it's the Iraqi forces that have been doing a lot of the hard work.

They've gotten a lot better. And that makes a big difference in this combat capability I mentioned.

Mr. Russert: But it seems in September 17, you're in Indiana with kids, saying we needed more troops. When John Kerry starts quoting you, you rush into a New York Times Op-Ed piece and say, "No, no, that's not the case."

Amb. Bremer: Well, you can have your interpretation. I'm telling you how it looked to me on the ground then and how it looks to me now.

Mr. Russert: Let's talk about looting. Because, again, you were very strong on that subject.

This is how the Associated Press wrote about it. "The United States didn't have enough troops in Iraq immediately following the ouster of Saddam and `paid a big price' for it, the former head of the U.S. occupation said. Paul Bremer said he arrived in Iraq...to find `horrid' looting and a very unstable situation. `We paid a big price for not stopping it because it established an atmosphere of lawlessness.'"

Around that time of the looting that you were describing, Secretary Rumsfeld had a news conference, which you describe in your book, and this is what exactly he said.

(Videotape, April 11, 2003):

Sec'y Rumsfeld: The images you are seeing on television, you are seeing over and over and over. And it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase. And you see it 20 times. And you think, "My goodness, were there that many vases? Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?"

Unidentified Reporter: ...the words anarchy and lawlessness are ill-chosen?

Sec'y Rumsfeld: Absolutely. I picked up a newspaper today. And I couldn't believe it. I read eight headlines that talked about chaos, violence, unrest. And it just was "Henny Penny, the sky is falling." I've never seen anything like it.

(End videotape)

Mr. Russert: You disagree with that.

Amb. Bremer: Look, I described what I saw on the ground when I got there and...

Mr. Russert: The first chapter of your book is entitled "Chaos."

Amb. Bremer: "Chaos." That's right.

Mr. Russert: And Secretary Rumsfeld said that's all "Henny Penny, the sky is falling."

Amb. Bremer: Well, Tim, I wrote this book because I thought it was important. It's the first time we've done this kind of an occupation in 50 years. And I wanted to give my firsthand impressions of how it looked to me on the ground. And that's how it looked to me.

Mr. Russert: And it's much different than what Secretary Rumsfeld describes.

Amb. Bremer: Well, you can draw your own conclusions. I found that the looting did us damage. Not just economic damage. And by the way, we estimated it cost, I don't know, $12 billion or something. It was a big number. But it was this impression that we were not prepared to enforce law and order, which is the primary role of any government.

Mr. Russert: President Bush asked you about Secretary Rumsfeld's management style. And you write this in your book. "`Don Rumsfeld terrifies his civilian subordinates, that I can rarely get any decisions out of anyone but him,' I said--I told [the president]."

Amb. Bremer: Well, he's a tough manager. So am I, and that's not all bad. It did make life a little more complicated but did I get decisions and I worked closely with him during the time I was there.

Mr. Russert: But it appears you did have differences on troop levels, did have differences on the looting. Also, I want to ask you about the insurgency, because this is obviously very important to where we are right now.

And again, from your book: "`The Baathist insurgents are definitely stepping up their activity level, Mr. Secretary,' [General] John Abizaid reported from CENTCOM headquarters to Don Rumsfeld in the Pentagon. ... I shared John Abizaid's frustration. For weeks I'd sensed that the Pentagon did not grasp the need to crush a mounting Baathist-jihadi insurgency and to crush it early on."

Now, that is July 14. And again, you came back to the United States a week later, one week from then, and here's an exchange you had. Let me put it up there.

Amb. Bremer: "We have a limited problem of some bitter-enders, some small remnants of the old regime."

Mr. Russert: "So you don't think this is a coordinated campaign?"

Amb. Bremer: "No."

Mr. Russert: "You don't believe this is a guerrilla war?"

Amb. Bremer: "No. They present no strategic threat to the coalition."

Mr. Russert: In private you seem to be very fearful of the insurgency, but you put a public face on that this is no big deal.

Amb. Bremer: Well, Tim, first of all, look, I've been in government for 40 years and my approach to government is that you owe it to the president to be very direct with him in what you recommend and what you say, which I tried to do throughout the time I was there.

You don't expect a government person to come on and say everything is wrong unless he's resigned. If you have real concerns and you can't support a president's policy, at least that's always been my view, then you resign.

Actually, in July the situation was still somewhat confused. We didn't have very good intelligence on the command and control of the insurgency. We really didn't know how big it was. I was concerned that it was bigger than we perhaps thought it was, which was why I reported that conversation on July 14.

We really didn't know, I would say, till--it seems to me, thinking back on it, about September of '03 that this was a bigger insurgency than we had anticipated.

Mr. Russert: But the American people were in a situation where they, too, deserve honesty. And if you're saying one thing in private and another thing in public, that this is no big deal...

Amb. Bremer: Tim, just a minute.

I wasn't saying one thing in private and another thing in public. I was saying in private we've got to get a strategy to defeat the insurgency. I was saying in public effectively we didn't really know what we're up against. It looked to us then as if we had the remnants of the Saddam regime, the bitter-enders, as I called them then.

We did not see a strategic threat nor did we see a strategy on the part of the insurgents at that time.

Mr. Russert: But at that time only 232 Americans had been killed.

Amb. Bremer: Right.

Mr. Russert: Now, there's an additional 2,000...

Amb. Bremer: Right.

Mr. Russert: ...because of the intensity of the insurgency.

Shortly after that interview you went back to Iraq and they found a memo which they presented to you about the insurgency and again, it's in your book and this is a very important document. It's quite interesting. "The document...listed orders for point-by-point strategy to be implemented after the probable collapse of the regime beginning with the order of `Burn this office.'

I read the translation. It did indeed call for a strategy of organized resistance which included the classic pattern of forming cells and training combatants in insurgency. `Operatives' were to engage in `sabotage and looting.' Random sniper attacks, ambushes to be organized. The order continued, `...scatter agents to every town. Destroy electric power stations and water conduits. Infiltrate the mosques, the Shiite holy places..." It was a battle plan, a blueprint for exactly what happened.

Amb. Bremer: As we found.

And let me just say first on the deaths, every one of those 2,200 deaths is a tragedy for the families involved and you can only send your heartfelt sympathies out to those guys. I saw a lot of American soldiers, thousands of them, all around the country, and the only consolation you can give to these families is to say they're involved in a noble cause. They're doing something important.

On the insurgency, it is true we discovered this Mukhabarat intelligence service document. I was shown it in July. It was dated a couple of months before the invasion. And it certainly gave a sense that somebody at least in the Saddam regime, perhaps the Mukhabarat, perhaps Saddam himself, had thought ahead to what they would do in the event of a coalition invasion.

And, Tim, one of the things that I felt strongly about was that our intelligence guys--we had a big team there--were mostly looking for weapons of mass destruction. That was understandable. That was one of the reasons to go to war. But I felt and John Abizaid, the commander of CENTCOM, also felt we needed to get better intelligence on the insurgency itself.

And by the end of the year, by the end of 2003, we had a pretty good buildup of experts in counterterrorism and insurgency who were added to our intelligence services in Iraq and that helped us. But certainly at the time we're talking about here in July, we really were just beginning to get a picture of what we were up against.

Mr. Russert: But could an observer, a reader, look at this and say we made a misjudgment about the weapons of mass destruction? We made a misjudgment about the troop levels. We made a misjudgment about the looting and its impact and lawlessness and the impact of society and we made a misjudgment on the intensity of the insurgency. We simply did not know enough about Iraq before we went in.

Amb. Bremer: Well, I suppose you could say that. I mean, hindsight is a wonderful thing. It happens to be 20/20 in all occasions, but the problem on WMD is to me a mystery. I mean, it really is.

I don't know what happened. We know that the intelligence services, not just ours but the British, the French, the Germans, the Russians all thought he had WMD in the run-up to the war, including those countries that didn't in the end support the war. Where they went, I don't know. Are they still there? Did they go to Syria? Did he ever have them? It's a mystery. I really don't know.

Mr. Russert: There has been some discussion, criticism of your role in Iraq.

Larry Diamond, a former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority that you headed up, wrote a book called "Squandered Victory." And he writes this: "Soon after he arrived [in Iraq] Bremer imposed three fateful decisions that collectively put the United States down a treacherous path: dissolving the Iraqi Army, purging from public office tens of thousands of Iraqis (including schoolteachers) with a level 4 or higher membership in the Baath Party, and converting the U.S. presence into a formal occupation with no clear timetable for transferring sovereignty back to Iraqis. These decisions he made, or at least implemented, with a high degree of confidence but little knowledge of the country."

Amb. Bremer: While Professor Diamond--even though I sometimes say professors enjoy the leisure of the theory class, I had to deal with a situation I found on the ground. And all of those decisions, the first two he talks about, the Baath Party and the security forces, were the correct decisions.

If you'd like, I'd take a minute and tell you why I did them because it's important to understand.

First of all, the Baath Party was Saddam's instrument of political control over the country. A lot of people don't know he basically modeled it on the Nazi party avowedly. Saddam said he did because he liked the way the Nazis controlled it. We had no problem with 99 percent of the people in the Baath Party.

The order that I signed said merely the top 1 percent can no longer serve in government positions; they could serve elsewhere. It was a correct decision. It was important to show we meant business, that the Baath ideology would no longer going to be here.

The mistake made? I turned the implementation of this correct policy over to a bunch of Iraqi politicians who then implemented it much more broadly. And that hurt us. We had problems with that.

On the army, here was the situation that I found, Tim. There was no army when I arrived. The army basically dissolved itself--self-demobilized was the term the Pentagon used--during the war. And so the question was whether we were going to recall the army.

This don't forget was the army that he used to crush the Kurds. He used chemical weapons against them, killed hundreds of thousands of his own citizens using the army. We said we've got to create a new army and we did.

And by the way, one thing that gets kind of overlooked, we paid all of the officers of the old army a monthly stipend every single month throughout the time I was there except for the very top guys.

So I think these were the correct decisions and I stand by them.

Mr. Russert: Colonel Paul Hughes said that he had recruited 137,000 Iraqis to come back in the army. That would have happened but for your involvement.

Amb. Bremer: Well, look, I'm sure there are people with different views.

I was the guy who was paid to give my best advice on the situation on the ground I found. Bringing back the army would have, I think, risked the Kurdish commitment to a unified Iraq. And it certainly would have offended the 60 percent of the Iraqis who are Shia, who were the victims of army terror. So you're talking about alienating 80 percent of the Iraqi population.

And I'm sure there were colonels and captains who had a different view. I had my view based on what I saw was the risk of calling back the army. I think it would have been a very serious mistake.

Mr. Russert: Should you have put an Iraqi face on that new government sooner? Were you too visible as an occupier?

Amb. Bremer: Well, I've heard that argument.

We had an Iraqi government in place within two months of my arrival. They, in turn, appointed ministers to run the government on a day-to-day basis within six weeks.

As of September 2nd, 2003, we had Iraqi faces running all the ministries. I met with the ministers and I said, "You guys are in charge of the policy, the personnel, the budgets."

I don't remember, Tim, ever once overruling an Iraqi minister in the time I was there. I did insist on one thing, where I disagreed with some of the Iraqis. I insisted we had to have a constitution in place to sort of bound Iraqi political life before we turned over sovereignty. And that point I insisted on.

And I think it was actually in the end our proudest legacy, was getting that constitution.

Mr. Russert: In terms of budgets and monies, as you well know, the inspector general has been very critical of your tenure, and let me write--read it on the screen and give you a chance to respond.

"The" Coalition Provisional Authority "did not implement adequate financial controls to ensure ... funds were properly used. ... the CPA did not maintain adequate documentation to support budget spending plans, budgets disbursements or cash allocations made by coalition forces." They suggest that billions of dollars were wasted and squandered.

Amb. Bremer: Well, let me answer that. First of all, I took the threat of corruption seriously. Saddam, after all, had institutionalized corruption. We know that from the oil-for-food thing, and I took steps to deal with that. But the inspector general was essentially saying we should not operate the government, the Iraqi government, until we had imposed Western modern accounting procedures.

I'll give you an example. He recommended that we shouldn't pay the Iraqi civil servants and pensioners until we had established a modern payroll system. That would have taken months. I--there were millions of families dependent on us paying the government salaries right away. They hadn't been paid for two months, since before the war, and I decided to go ahead and pay them.

He wanted instead to impose an army of American auditors into all of these ministries to follow every dinar down to the very last dinar. This would have been a recipe for a real mess, and I just think he's wrong. I share his concern about the corruption, which is why I took steps, but I think he was unaware that we were in a country at war and you can't impose Western accounting on them right away. It just couldn't happen.

Mr. Russert: Before you go, two years from now will Iraq be closer to democracy or in the middle of a civil war?

Amb. Bremer: Iraq already is a democracy. They've had three elections in the last year.

By the way, in the last election their turnout was greater than any American presidential election in 100 years.

I think it will be better, and I hope you'll have a chance to visit there sometime soon and see for yourself.

Mr. Russert: No chance of a civil war?

Amb. Bremer: Oh, there's always some percent chance of a civil war, but I don't think it's likely.

Mr. Russert: Ambassador Paul Bremer, "My Year In Iraq" is the book. We thank you for sharing your views.

Amb. Bremer: Good to be with you again.

Mr. Russert: Coming next, the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the state of black America 38 years after his death, coming up right here on MEET THE PRESS.

(Announcements)

Mr. Russert: The legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the state of black America, right after this.

(Announcements)

Mr. Russert: We're back.

Welcome all.

Martin Luther King celebration tomorrow. Taylor Branch, you've devoted 24 years of your life writing about Martin Luther King. Your latest book, "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years (1965 to 1968)." You conclude with Dr. King's death April 4 of 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. And it's eerie the speech he gave the night before he died, which we have a tape of, and I'd like to play that tape to begin our conversation. Dr. King, April 3, 1968.

(Videotape, April 3, 1968):

Dr. King: We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop. And I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land! So I'm happy tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

(End videotape)

Mr. Russert: Almost a premonition of death.

Mr. Taylor Branch: Yes. Although he had those quite frequently because he was under death threat from the time his career began. But the notion of being on the edge of--like Moses, being able to glimpse the Promised Land, but not get there, and still have faith that the people as a whole will get there, is characteristic of Dr. King. He believed that the non-violent movement was redemptive for all of America and that, however much America strayed from the goal of freedom, you know, they would get there. And he...

Mr. Russert: Even in the midst of a lot of insurrection and rioting in the city streets, and people around him advocating violence, he held firm to the principle of non-violence.

Mr. Branch: More and more. He believed to be not only the fused core of his religious belief but of his political optimism for democracy. After all, every vote is a piece of non-violence. And he believed that was the hope for America.

Mr. Russert: I want to talk about the lessons that Dr. King taught and how well we have learned them as a country. He was on this program, his last appearance August 13, 1967, talking then about the state of black America, what had to be done. Let's listen and come back and begin our conversation.

(Videotape, August 13, 1967):

Unidentified Panelist: You've told us what the white man and what the government can do about this very serious situation. What do you think the Negro himself can do? You have come out of--you've been able to come out of poverty. You've been able to get a good education, as have hundreds of thousands of Negroes. Why do some succeed and not others?

Dr. King: Some succeed and not others because the system is stacked against the Negro. And it's all right to say to people, "Lift yourself by your own bootstraps," but it's a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And the fact is that millions of Negroes have been left bootless as a result of poverty, as a result of illiteracy caused by inadequate education and real lack of educational opportunities and as a result of centuries of neglect and hurt. And I think the government and everybody must see that the Negro can't do this job by himself.

(End videotape)

Mr. Russert: Marian Wright Edelman, you picked up on that very theme in your book, "I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children." And then also you are working on a report which the Kansas City Star wrote about and it says that you gave a--excuse me--"a preview to a report on what she called the cradle-to-prison pipeline. She believes the non-level playing field exists for many African-American males from the day they're born. A black male born in 2001 has a 1-in-3 chance of ending up in prison. A black girl born the same year has a 1-in-17 chance, she said. `I want to get a debate going on the cradle-to-prison pipeline, the set of odds that are set in front of our black children. The most dangerous inter section of America is the intersection of race and poverty.'"

Explain.

Ms. Marian Wright Edelman: Well, we live in the richest nation on Earth and we let a child be born into poverty every 36 seconds. A majority of their parents are working, playing by the rules, cannot get jobs at decent wages that allow them to escape poverty.

We let a child in the world's leading nation on health technology be born without health insurance; 90 percent of those children are born in families where they're working and playing by the rules. Their employers don't cover health care.

And so what you have despite--and there has been much progress since Dr. King. And I guess if I had one point to make today is that so much progress has been made but much of it is at risk that millions of young people did escape poverty.

One in 10 of those who were poor in 1968 and would be poor today except for the safety net programs are not. We've made progress. They earned income tax credit, Medicaid and child health insurance expansions, food stamp programs. All of these have made enormous progress but they've got to be continued and we've got to finish Dr. King's dream.

The war was begun; it did not get finished.

But here we are today despite years of progress and the decrease in poverty among many with a new threat. Child poverty has been increasing since 2001. A black boy today does have a one-in-three chance of going off to prison.

This is a death knell for the black family, for black disempowerment and we must address it.

And we've got to make sure that every one of our children gets health care, every one of our children gets a strong early education, every one of our children gets education. Eighty percent of black children aren't reading in fourth grade.

And we've got to stop the obscenity of arresting five- and six- and seven-year-old children and then sending children through schools who don't educate them, of having zero tolerance policies that start them very early into the juvenile justice system and then to the criminal justice system.

So this poverty which we know how they end and must end, we must do something about it today with a sense of urgency and finish Dr. King's dream. We'd all like to celebrate him, but what we need to do is follow him and to finish what he began.

Mr. Russert: John McWhorter, your new book, "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis of Black America," has some quite interesting observations, and let me share one with our viewers. It says, "Young blacks started checking out of the work force in the 1960s when the economy was roaring. The unemployment problem among them barely moved for decades regardless of how the economy was doing. At the exact same time two things happened. One, rejecting mainstream norms became vibrantly fashionable in young America and in black America this often translated in a bone-deep wariness of `white' norms. Two, welfare became an open-ended opportunity led by people actively seeking people to bring them onto the rolls. From now on millions of poor blacks grew up in places where few people worked regularly and even fewer considered this especially unusual."

Explain.

Dr. John McWhorter: Well, what I mean is that I see Dr. King's legacy being followed. And I think it's very important that we do it, but sometimes I worry that people follow it in ways that have questionable values.

So, for example, you look at the early '60s with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and you see people doing very serious work, such as Ms. Edelman in Mississippi. One of my favorite scenes is her standing up to Senator Stennis and telling him simply that he is wrong when he tries to claim that poverty legislation is some sort of fraud.

But you see something symbolic at that time because starting in the late '60s, SNCC starts being taken over by people who are more interested in the drama than in doing the hard work that the people who started it were interested in doing. And that sense of civil rights activism being about drama is our problem today because it means that an awful lot of people seem to think that it's important to say that we need a second civil rights revolution rather than teaching people who've been given a bad hand how to make the best of the worst.

And it seems to me that that particular kind of change becomes especially impenetrable in black America starting in the late 1960s. We're often told that the reason that, for example, the inner cities took such a hideous turn starting at about 1970 was because of the economy or because of racism in general.

Now, we certainly don't have a just society. But I think that those changes were not due to the things that we're often told. For example--very quick example, we're told that when factory jobs moved away from the city center, then it left people without opportunities to work, but we don't ask the questions. Once immigrants started coming in after the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, why wasn't the story that the immigrants were complaining that lower-class blacks were outcompeting them and grabbing the jobs that were available despite the factory jobs?

How come that didn't happen? Why is it that now it's often said that immigrants are taking over jobs from disadvantaged black people? These are complex questions, but I'm not sure that we're always taught to look for the answers that might be as constructive as I would prefer.

Mr. Russert: Ms. Edelman talks about one in three young black men confronting the prospect of prison. Do you think that's because of racism, because of poverty, because of what?

Dr. McWhorter: Well, certainly there are biases in the justice system, but when we look at these things, it's always important to consider history. And I think we all know that to an extent, but we have to ask: Why wasn't that particular prison statistic the case in, say, black Chicago where most people were poor from 1920 to 1930?

There's been an increase in the relationship of young black men to the criminal justice system. Is the reason because of some moral depravity? No. But on the other hand, we can't just say drugs came in. Heroin was a scourge in black communities long before anybody had ever heard of crack. Yet, it didn't have the same role in the communities as this new drug did.

And the question is why. We have to always look at what was going on before the late '60s and what's going on after before we decide what the factors are and what we need to do about them.

Mr. Russert: Bill Cosby has entered this discussion, this debate, and I want to share some of his views and put them on the screen for our viewers and for our panel.

Mr. Cosby said--"`Let me tell you something,' [Bill] Cosby, one of America's most admired men, told the group. `Your dirty laundry gets out of school at 2:30 every day, it's cursing, and calling each other [the N-word] as they're walking up and down the street. They think they're hip. They can't read. They can't write. They're laughing and giggling, and they're going nowhere.' ... `For me there is a time ... when we have to turn the mirror around,' he said. `Because for me it's almost analgesic to talk about what the white man is doing against us. And it keeps a person frozen in their seat. It keeps you frozen in your hole you're sitting in."

Taylor Branch, what would Dr. King think of that analysis?

Mr. Branch: Dr. King confronted that analysis a lot and said, "We all have to lift ourselves. You know, it's up to everybody."

It's hard to be self-governing. He said that the principles and mistake in the movement would lift everybody, that the challenge of democracy to refine democracy and have it fair was a challenge across the board. And that's one reason why I think he's a modern founder in the sense that he refined democracy for everyone. He predicted the movement would liberate the white South, first of all.

You never heard about the sunbelt when it was segregated. It wasn't even fit for sports teams. And the civil rights movement spread blessings by having people struggle with self-government and democracy and democratic values. And, of course, that's what makes it so contemporary today when we're trying to create democracy in Iraq.

Mr. Russert: When Mr. Cosby says the things he does about young blacks, is it because of poverty, because of racism or is it because of black accountability and discipline?

Ms. Edelman: It's a combination of a lot of things, but most young black people are trying to go to school, trying to do right or trying to live by the rules. They're beating the odds every day. We celebrate them. We train them. And despite violence and despite inner city problems, you know, they're staying in schools, they're going on and they're trying to give back to their community.

There are thousands of black young people who are going to college and who are coming back and getting trained and running freedom schools for their younger sisters and brothers to provide them the mentors and role models and the hope that they were given and we were given in my generation but are trying to give back.

And most people want to work. But we have a problem in this country of poverty and race. The black middle-class did leave ghettos. I'm proud of the Ken Chenaults and I'm proud of Ruth Simpsons, the Browns.

And we've got new leadership, but there is a lot that is going on.

But the key issue here is poverty and race and racial disparities in our school systems, in our health systems, in our criminal justice systems.

You know, black young people still don't have the same chance to succeed, particularly a poor young black person. A young black man who gets pulled into the juvenile justice system is 48 times more likely than a young Latino man is, nine times more likely to be detained for the same drug offense as a white young man.

So we've got to make sure, one, that our children are ready for school and are healthy, have strong families, but we've got to make sure that those families have jobs at decent wages. We've got to make sure that they have schools to teach them to learn because if you can't read in this society, you're not going to succeed. And we've got to make sure that our whole emphasis is not on punishment but on prevention and early intervention.

The only universal child policy in this country that we will guarantee every child is a jail or detention cell after they get into trouble. We will not guarantee them far cheaper health care and far cheaper Head Start and preschool. And we will not guarantee them schools.

In fact, those young people in Chicago are not facing the same kind of educational system. The poorest children get the poorest schools and the poorest neighborhoods, and they're all being plagued by violence. But let me just remind you as Dr. King reminded us in the poor people's campaign that poverty afflicts more whites than blacks, that poverty and teen-age pregnancy and violence afflicts more whites than blacks.

What we've got to do is to move beyond that watershed and build across racial movement focused on children that eliminates child poverty in the richest nation on Earth, that stands up to an administration, members of Congress, that would after four massive tax cuts during war give war tax cuts to the rich and cut $40 billion from safety net programs to help these young children, white and black.

That's just wrongheaded. And we are making the wrong choices. And the post-Katrina disaster which we must address, we're spending the life out of our children in a war choice in Iraq and tax cuts for the rich. We need to finish the movement to end poverty and child poverty in America.

Mr. Russert: You mentioned strong families.

Let me show what you the National Center for Health Statistics said in terms of births to unmarried mothers.

In the Asian community it's 15 percent; in the white community, 24 percent; Hispanic community, 46 percent; the black community, 69 percent.

Mr. McWhorter, how much of a factor is that in terms of black culture, black society and some of the problems we're talking about?

Dr. McWhorter: It's not an absolute that somebody brought up by a single mother is going to have a bad life, but I think that all indications are that it's better for somebody to have two parents.

And more importantly, a great proportion of that 69 percent are women who are not in the best position to give the best life to their children.

We can talk about what the reasons for that are, but again, our history and not just news reels of Dr. King. It's Chicago. It's poor black Chicago in the 1920s, and people were alarmed that the illegitimacy rate is 15 percent.

Now, what's the difference between then and now? Clearly there are things that happened to our system that made it a lot easier to have children that you aren't necessarily in a position to take care of. You just do what people do, seeing what's going on around you.

This is not the kind of situation that I think Dr. King would have wanted. He's actually on record, I remember in one speech, as saying that the Negro--that was, of course, the terminology of the day--the Negro man does not want to languish on welfare.

Now, of course, you have to have some welfare, but he would have been very surprised to see what was happening to the welfare system with poor black people in mind, precisely when he was assassinated. There are some things that we need to think about. Main thing about King is that one of his legacies, one of the things we should think about with King, is that we can't wait for another one. The problems are different.

The things that Ms. Edelman is talking about are very real and the idea is to fix them now working with local organizations that can help people face-to-face of making the best of the worst.

And so you have the Harlem Children Zone in New York. You have Operation Hope in Los Angeles. You have Eugene Rivers' Ten-Point Coalition in Boston.

These are the things that we need to pay more attention to. Academics need to stop being so professionally pessimistic about race in America and pointing us to these things that are actually making some kind of a difference.

And in general, anyone who tells us what we need to wait for is a second civil rights revolution, whether this is said explicitly or implied, is engaging in a kind of unintended cruelty, because we all know that for better or for worse that revolution isn't going to happen. We have harder, although more concrete, work to do. And it's actually being done. We just need to call more attention to it.

Mr. Russert: What would Dr. King say about black America in 2006?

Mr. Branch: Well, he'd be stunned, because you have to remember when he died, if you turned on a Saturday football game, it was all white people and there was terror. So much has been lifted.

But I think he would also say the state of citizenship and our public language and discourse has atrophied from a time of hope that he had even in an era of lynching.

The movement offered a superhuman kind of self-government and discipline of people willing to accept blows and believe in public trust. That kind of citizenship is a model for everybody, and I think that we've kind of fallen down in our sense of what, you know, every American owes and can do as an equal owner of this country.

Mr. Russert: To be continued.

Taylor Branch, "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years (1965 to 1968)," John McWhorter, "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America," and Marian Wright Edelman, "I Can Make a Difference: A Treasury to Inspire Our Children."

Thank you all for joining us.

We'll be right back.

A program note: You can see more of Taylor Branch and his new book tomorrow on the "Today" program.

We'll be right back.

(Announcements)

Mr. Russert: And we are back.

In the midst of the civil rights struggle, Martin Luther King appeared on MEET THE PRESS and radiated optimism.

(Videotape, August 13, 1967):

Mr. Simeon Booker (Ebony): Our guest today on MEET THE PRESS is Dr. Martin Luther King, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Dr. King, do you believe that the American racial problem can be solved?

Dr. King: Yes, I do. I refuse to give up.

I refuse to despair in this moment. I refuse to allow myself to fall into the dark chambers of pessimism because I think in any social revolution the one thing that keeps it going is hope. And when the hope dies, somehow the revolution degenerates into a kind of nihilistic philosophy, which says you must engage in disruption for disruption's sake.

I refuse to believe that. However difficult it is, I believe that the forces of goodwill, white and black in this country, can work together to bring about a resolution of this problem. We have the resources to do it.

At present, we don't have the will. But, certainly, the Negroes and the decent, committed whites--maybe they're in the minority now, but they're there--must work together to so arouse the conscience of this nation, and, at the same time, to so articulate the issue through direct action and powerful action programs that our demands can no longer be eluded by the government or by Congress or all of the forces in power.

(End videotape)

Mr. Russert: Less than a year after that interview, Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tennessee. Had he lived, he would be 77 years old today. And we'll be right back.

(Announcements)

Mr. Russert: Start your day tomorrow on "Today" with Katie and Matt, then the "NBC Nightly News" with Brian Williams.

That's all for today. We'll be back next week.

If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.

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