MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Iraq, Iran, immigration, and the 2006 midterm elections. With us: the man who has represented Massachusetts in the United States Senate for 43 years, and the author of his new book, “America: Back on Track,” Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Then, the future of Donald Rumsfeld and the staff shake-up at the White House. Insights and analysis from two journalists, David Broder of The Washington Post and Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times. And two former press secretaries: He was Newt Gingrich’s spokesman, Tony Blankley; she was Bill Clinton’s spokeswoman, Dee Dee Myers.
Then, in our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE, words of advice from another press secretary serving a president with low poll ratings: President Lyndon Johnson’s spokesman George Christian, from 37 years ago.
(Videotape, January 19, 1969):
MR. GEORGE CHRISTIAN (Press Secretary to President Johnson): God save the republic if we ever have a president who isn’t sensitive to criticism.
MR. RUSSERT: But first, the senior senator from Massachusetts. Democrat Ted Kennedy is back on MEET THE PRESS.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D-Mass.): Good morning.
MR. RUSSERT: Iraq. We have a new permanent prime minister. It appears the government is coming together. Encouraging news?
SEN. KENNEDY: It is encouraging, but the bottom line is going to be what is happening out in the communities? What’s happening out in the streets? What’s the level of violence? You know, Tim, as of this week, American forces will have been in Iraq as long as America was in the Korean Peninsula in the Korean War. And at the end of this year, we will have been involved militarily in Iraq as long as we were in World War II. If we haven’t been able to have a military solution with that period of time, then it is time for the Americans—servicemen to be, to be withdrawn from that, that country. I believe that American—continuation of American servicemen is more of a crutch that Iraqi groups are leaning on rather than resolving their own problems, and it’s basically a time for the substantial withdrawal of American troops.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that no matter what the condition of Iraq, by the end of this year all American troops should be out?
SEN. KENNEDY: I believe that the presence of American troops and the numbers that they are—I agree with what General Abizaid has said to the Armed Services Committee over a year ago. General Casey, Mel Laird has written in the Foreign Affairs, that the American presence has helped to inflame the insurgency. I believe that is the current situation. And the only way that the Iraqi elements that are going to form the government are going to know that they are going to have to have their own destiny and are going to have to stand up their own troops is with a substantial withdrawal of American troops. That is the key. That is necessary. That, I believe, is essential this year.
The military has done its job. It’s time for American troops to come on home.
MR. RUSSERT: Substantial. We have 135,000. You’d bring it down to?
SEN. KENNEDY: I, I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t see the total withdrawal. We’re running into months now, six or eight more months to the remainder of the year, but there’s no question we’re going to have to have some presence in that area, strategic presence in that area for any period of time. But what we’re talking about in, in Iraq is to convince the elements in Iraq that are going to be making decisions, that they can no longer lean on the United States Armed Forces as a crutch, that they no more can just depend, that the Iraqis themselves are going to have to stand up for their own national security.
MR. RUSSERT: How does that square with this, Senator, what you said in July of ‘03. “As a nation with honor, responsibility, and the vision of a better world for the oppressed, America cannot invade, then cut and run from Iraq.”
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the fact is, what we are talking about, we have been there now. We have been there as long as we’ve been there in the Korean War, and we’ll be there as long as we’ve been in World War II. And if we can’t get a military solution in that period of time, what is crying out is for a political solution. And this is the best way to get a political solution.
Let me just say with regards to cutting and running, the people that are cutting and running are the administration when it comes to truth about Iraq and about their policies in Iraq, about the misguided information, the lack of intelligence, and the misinformation that they gave the American people as a basis for the invasion of Iraq, and the continued misinterpretation. That, I think, has been more damaging to the United States and the United States’ interests there.
MR. RUSSERT: You said this is August of ‘05, “History teaches that creating the institutions essential for democracy takes many years of broad and continuing political engagement and enormous patience. The difficult work of creating a viable democracy in Iraq might well become even more difficult after the adoption of a constitution and the election of a permanent government.” It sounds like you’ve lost patience.
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the fact is I was opposed to the war. That was the best vote I cast in the United States Senate, and I made speeches about the build-up to the war. In January of last year, I said that we ought to move for the substantial reduction and removal of American troops by the end of 2006. So that is a consistent. I don’t know how much longer we have to have there for these parties to come together. This is an encouraging sign that we have seen, but we’ve seen other encouraging signs as well. The real question, “Will the Iraqis take control over their own destiny?” It’s time for them to do it, the military’s done their job, and it’s time to have them come home.
MR. RUSSERT: If we got out and there was a civil war, chaos, and you saw al-Qaida moving in record numbers and Zarqawi exerting great control over the country, would you go back in?
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, first of all, I heard the same kinds of suggestions at the time of the end of the Vietnam War, the great blood bath, we’re going to have over 100,000 people that were going to be murdered and killed at that time. And for those of us that were strongly opposed to the war, heard those same kinds of arguments at the time. The fact is that the Iraqis have to win their own country, they have to be willing to sacrifice for their own country as Americans have been prepared to sacrifice, they have to stand up for their own country. And they have to be convinced that we’re not going to just have a permanent presence in Iraq. That’s what I think they believe today, and we have to disabuse them of it. The time has come, we have seen Americans do what they could do militarily, and the time has come for them to come home.
MR. RUSSERT: If it became a terrorist state, like Afghanistan, you would just leave it alone?
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, there’s other dangerous areas of the world, Bangladesh is an area—dangerous area of the world, we’ve got other dangerous areas of the world. The question is what is the limitation of American troops there? What are they going to be able to do? We can’t be in every trouble spot in, in the world. We’re going to have strategic interests in there, but the fact remains that we need other countries in those areas to participate. There are other political actions that a president can take similar to what President Clinton took in the Dayton conference. We could bring other countries together in terms of stability in those, in those regions. And I think that that can, that can be done and should be done and it ought to be done now.
MR. RUSSERT: General Zinni, the former head of CENTCOM, on this program three weeks ago, spoke out against Secretary Rumsfeld, called for his resignation. One, do you think it’s appropriate that these former generals are doing this? And two, should there be Senate Armed Services Committee hearings into the views expressed by the generals?
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the—first of all, I think they have certainly a right to be—to do it. These are distinguished, battle-hardened officers that have had distinguished careers. The case on the other side says, “Well, why didn’t they do it at other times and resign?” I don’t—I think one of the always impressive pictures that I see is when General Pace is there with Secretary Rumsfeld and said, “All of these people have the opportunity to speak at our conference. We always welcome differing views.” I said, “What Army has he been in?” As someone who was just a private first class, that is not the way the United States Army runs. These are distinguished officers, they’re talking about substantive policy judgments and decisions. And what the military understand is accountability—our services are built upon accountability, we haven’t had accountability with Don Rumsfeld. His removal—I’ve called for it after the Abu Ghraib.
What is more important, I think if the president had spent half the time this past week in refocusing on a new policy in Iraq rather than just defending Don Rumsfeld, we’d be better off. But it’s important that we understand the lessons of, of the history of this involvement. These officers can get—can help us understand that. I think it’s appropriate the Armed Services Committee has some time to hear them.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you concerned about people questioning the civilian leadership of, of the Pentagon?
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, it seems to me that it’s more related to tactics and strategy, information intelligence, the, the miscalculation in terms of the total number of troops, the withdrawal of troops at certain periods of time, the disarming of the military, the series of judgments that were made over there, virtually unilaterally, over military objections at that time. Those are some of the, the charges that have made in this—in these reports.
MR. RUSSERT: In your book, “America: Back on Track,” you write this: “Our actions in Iraq may also have had the consequence of accelerating the nuclear development programs of Iran and North Korea.” How can you say that?
SEN. KENNEDY: I don’t think there’s any question that that’s been the, the case.
I think the — we went — after we had the brilliant actions against the al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the political judgments, as the record is showing now, was made, “Well, we can clear out Iraq just as quickly, and we can go in there.” Military judgments or political judgments were made of that. And that, basically, the fact that we have been weighted down with Iraq all these years - $10 billion dollars a month, the 140,000 troops that we have had in there, and the, the stretching that our military has had in terms of Iraq — has emboldened Iran, has emboldened Iran, there’s no question about it. Iran is providing the support from Hamas and many of the terrorist organizations. They have accelerated their whole program in terms of nuclear capability. I think a nuclear Iran would be enormously dangerous for that region and for the world generally. I welcome the fact that the United States is working internationally with our international neighbors, and that we’re also having direct contacts with the Iranians.
But there is no question that the fact that we have been weighted down in Iraq has emboldened the countries, Iran, and also in North Korea. And also for the development of their nuclear capability. That is part of the, the spin-off in terms of the Iraq war. I think it’s a very regrettable one. Hopefully, we may, if we’re talking about Iran, try to develop—if we can’t get sanctions at the Security Council level, that we can develop bilateral sanction on any of the countries that are going to be transporting nuclear materials or, or technology to these countries. Sanctions have worked against South Africa very, very effectively. Sanctions worked against Libya. Sanctions were working, off and on, even against Iraq. Sanctions could work in this case. And I think it’s imperative that we are going to be aggressive in pursuing them.
MR. RUSSERT: If you were the president, you’d go for sanctions against Iran before the U.N., and if that didn’t work you’d apply them unilaterally?
SEN. KENNEDY: I would to—I’d go to the U.N. first. If we can’t—it does appear that Russia and China will probably exert a veto, I think that we have to go to a bilateral sanctions, and I would certainly think that that’s absolutely necessary, and I think they ought to be working on that at the present time.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you keep the military option on the table?
SEN. KENNEDY: Not the nuclear military option. I think that that is not a constructive or positive discussion. Other military options ought to be kept on the table.
MR. RUSSERT: But you would say publicly, we would not use tactical nuclear weapons?
SEN. KENNEDY: I would not rattle the nuclear saber with regards to Iran. I think that’s counterproductive, it’s dangerous, and we don’t need to have that at the present time, and I think it’s counterproductive. The other military options are clearly—would be left on the table.
MR. RUSSERT: What if the military advisers told you only tactical nuclear weapons could take out those bunkers?
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the—I cannot think of circumstances today where I, I would think that you’d want to even consider using the tactical nuclear weapons in those, in those circumstances. I think we ought to retain a military option, but I think the nuclear option is a condition which is not what we ought to be thinking about. The idea that the United States is thinking about a first strike capability in, in Iran is not the message that the United States ought to be giving to the Iranians, to that region of the world, to the world. I think it would be very dangerous and very, very counterproductive.
MR. RUSSERT: Osama bin Laden has released a new audiotape. Why can’t we capture him?
SEN. KENNEDY: I don’t know. Why did we abandon the, the effort to capture him and divert our attention? I think that is the diversion of the war on terror. We went into Iraq instead of continuing to focus the—on Osama bin Laden and the war on terror. We had them on the run, we had them at the Tora Bora in the mountains there, we had them in other areas in those mountainous regions, and we have effectively abandoned that to move into Iraq. That was a very dangerous mistake. And the idea that he hasn’t been captured today, I think is a, a real blunder by the administration. That is the direction—we should be in—fighting the war on terror rather than go in, in a trumped-up intelligence, into, into Iraq. And the cost of Iraq is just overwhelming and continuing and ongoing, and that has to end.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to immigration. Do you believe that there can be a bipartisan consensus immigration reform bill this year?
SEN. KENNEDY: Yes, I do, and I think there’s strong support for it. Senator McCain and I have worked very closely with the Democrats and Republicans in both caucuses. I think we’ve got a very substantial strong bipartisan legislation which is very tough on enforcement and national security, recognizes the economic realities and also the values which this country stands for in terms of people that work hard, play by the rules, obey the law, pay the penalties over a long time, go to the end of the line of immigrants that are coming in here and be able earn their right to be part of the American family. I think we can do that.
I would have hoped that the president would become more involved. If the president were to take on the right wing of his own political party, we could get this legislation and pass it very, very quickly, and I think the overwhelming majority of Americans would support it. I think it would be a major achievement. I think that — we call on the president to be involved and to be willing to take that step, I think he’d play a very important role. I think it’s — it would be very, very useful. I think we’ll get it, but it would be very — it would be better if we were able to get it with his support.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, that’s interesting, because you told the Richmond Times-Dispatch — this is March 19, 2006, just five weeks ago, you said, “President Bush has been courageous on this issue.”
SEN. KENNEDY: That’s right. He has spoken about immigration for over a year and a half when others were unwilling to do so. The question is now, with this particular legislative proposal, will he go the last step and say, as presidents can, “Look, here is the consensus. There’s a consensus in the Republican, there’s a consensus in the Democratic Party, let’s hold back my right wing and pass this legislation and achieve something to be important.”
I commended the president because for a year and a half he talked about immigration when it was difficult for Senator McCain and I to get it on the national agenda, to get it on the Senate agenda. So he was. Now is the opportunity for presidential leadership.
MR. RUSSERT: Democrats have been uneasy about your role, saying that you’re too quick to compromise with the Republicans. You were too quick on the Medicare drug plan, too quick on education policy, and that when your leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, said, “No amendments,” you criticized Harry Reid now.
SEN. KENNEDY: The — we’ve made important progress on the issues of immigration. The Democrats are virtually united, virtually united in a comprehensive approach. We saw that with the votes in the United States Senate. So the Democrats are virtually united on it, and we have a very substantial group of Republicans that are united on a comprehensive approach.
MR. RUSSERT: The Senate should allow...
SEN. KENNEDY: And then the Senate’s going to be...
MR. RUSSERT: The Senate should allow amendments.
SEN. KENNEDY: The, the Senate should — obviously it’s going to have to allow amendments. The real issue was were we going to have an unlimited series of amendments by those individuals who declared their opposition to this and that they would not support it under any circumstances whatsoever? What we have traditionally and historically done is had the leaderships work out an accommodation on those kind of issues. Time ran out at that particular time. We’ve got the time, we ought to do it, and do it now.
MR. RUSSERT: John McCain, your co-sponsor on this bill, in 2000 said that Jerry Falwell was an agent of intolerance. He’s now met with Reverend Falwell, going down to Liberty University to talk at his commencement address on May 13th. What do you think of that?
SEN. KENNEDY: What, that he’s going down to talk? I think it’s fine. I went down there and talked as well. I was invited down there and talked at Jerry Falwell’s university to—as well.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, let me show you what you—let me show you what you—let me show you some of the things...
SEN. KENNEDY: So I mean, what are you trying to drive us—a division between my friend John McCain and I about visiting there together...(unintelligible)?
MR. RUSSERT: Well, do you think Reverend Falwell’s an agent of intolerance?
SEN. KENNEDY: Tolerance. I think he’s had statements which I think I find intolerant in the past. I wouldn’t have used the “agent of intolerance.” But I don’t know why, why we’re dwelling on that necessarily. I think the fact that John McCain has an opportunity to talk to those young students, and Jerry Falwell invited him down there to do that, is a constructive and positive step. And I think John...
MR. RUSSERT: When you, when you went down you were very critical of Reverend Falwell. Would, would you expect John McCain to do the same?
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, we, we—he’s frank. He’s straight-talkin’. We’ll have a chance to see what he’s going to come on up with.
MR. RUSSERT: You would hope that he would be frank?
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, I think that it’s going to be fair. He’s going to obviously separate himself from, probably, past statements or accusations of the—of Reverend Falwell, but I imagine he’ll make a very candid speech, the sort of person that he is. But I think the idea that he’s going down there is, is constructive and positive. I think he talks to the young people. It’s an incredible national radio structure that he has that goes all over the country, every part of the nation, talks to people that support Falwell. And the idea that they hear a different voice on a lot of the issues that John McCain’s involved in I think is good for the country.
MR. RUSSERT: Straight, straight talk.
SEN. KENNEDY: Straight talk.
MR. RUSSERT: Is he doing it for political reasons?
SEN. KENNEDY: Oh, well, you’ll have to hear him on the program and he’ll tell you.
MR. RUSSERT: What do you think?
SEN. KENNEDY: He’s ambitious and he’s political. And I—what he’s going to do in the future is, is anyone’s guess. But I, I think—most of us think that he’s probably looking to the future with, with the politics on his mind.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn back to the book, “America: Back on Track.” Here’s the Kennedy plan for health care that America deserves. “The most effective option is to expand Medicare to cover all Americans. ... It gives patients a clear guarantee that they will be able to see the doctor of their choice.” Forty million people on Medicare now, 80 million when the baby boomers retire, and now you want to expand it even more?
SEN. KENNEDY: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: Even though the financial pressures are huge? What’s wrong with what you did in Massachusetts? An insurance plan which could be expanded across the country?
SEN. KENNEDY: That’s, that’s—I’m going to come to that. But just in regards to the book, that book was written basically because of my deep concern about the general sense of disarray that exists in our terms of our democracy and in terms of our political institutions responding to the major issues of our time.
Let me point out a different time in American political life where we had leaders that came—brought Democrats and Republicans together to deal with these major issues on, on race, on education, on so many of the other issues that have been overriding and overwhelming, and we’re missing that opportunity today. And that book is really about how we get the America back on track.
Specifically, what I have talked about in the, in the book in terms of the expansion of the Medicare. Medicare provides extraordinary health care to our seniors and the—and it has the confidence of the American people. It’s not a new program. And I suggest in there that one of the alternatives in reaching national health insurance would be to gradually expand the Medicare system to make sure that we are going to cover basically all Americans. We have the CHIP program that looks after children that come from needy families and for poor families. And if those different groups could really meet in the middle and we got a comprehensive report, now that I think is the goal and the idea.
I still believe very strongly in universal comprehensive coverage, but in Massachusetts, we saw where Democrats and Republicans came together, and we have passed a bill that is going to provide the comprehensive coverage in that—in our state. And I’m going to battle to help and assist—other states are going to do this if they have the opportunity to do it. But I think in the back of my mind is always getting a universal coverage.
MR. RUSSERT: Governor Romney showed leadership?
SEN. KENNEDY: Absolutely.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that he’d make a good president?
SEN. KENNEDY: I think he’s going to be a tough contender for it, and I think he’s underestimated by a number of Republicans, but I think the Democrat’s going to be the better candidate and he’s—that’s the one I intend to support.
MR. RUSSERT: And that will be John Kerry if he runs?
SEN. KENNEDY: If he’s going to run. If he runs, I’m supporting him.
MR. RUSSERT: You also in your book say this about education, “I propose that every child in America, on reaching eighth grade, be offered a contract. Let students sign it, along with their parents and Uncle Sam. The contract will state that if you work hard, finish high school, and are accepted for college, the federal government will guarantee you the cost of earning a degree.”
SEN. KENNEDY: Right. That’s right.
MR. RUSSERT: Where are we going to get that money?
SEN. KENNEDY: Well. We don’t have an alternative, Tim, in the areas of education. The Chinese now are graduating 650,000 engineers a year; the Indians, 350,000 engineers a year. We’re at 72,000 and half of those are foreign students. We’re facing in the areas of globalization, we’re either going to equip every young person in this country to be able to deal with globalization, every worker to get continuing training, or we’re going to be a second-level country in another 25 years. And that’s going to take education, it’s going to take investment on that. If we are spending $10 billion dollars a month, $10 billion dollars a month on Iraq. If we’re going to spend a trillion dollars, which is the—Mr. Schultz’s estimate, who’s the Nobel Laureate, he says it’s going to cost a trillion dollars. We ought to be able to educate every child, provide continuing training, and make sure that our American young people and older people are going to be ably equipped for globalization.
MR. RUSSERT: But Senator, will you be willing to raise taxes to pay for this?
SEN. KENNEDY: I’d pay—we restore the kinds of tax structure that we had when we had the greatest period of economic growth and price stability under President Clinton.
MR. RUSSERT: Why?
SEN. KENNEDY: Go back to that particular time, but the fact is we’re spending now the $10 billion dollars a month. I’d rather put that in education. I think most Americans would rather. We’d be—you’re talking now a trillion dollars. You’re talking about $100 billion dollars this—over $100 billion dollars this year, and $100 billion dollars you can do all of those things and educate every—everybody.
Now finally, let me point this out. When we passed the GI Bill at the end of World War II, the Treasury figured out $7 dollars was returned for every dollar that was invested in education. Seven dollars returned. You will find out that most people that reviewed that program said it was the best investment that this country has ever provided because it produced more income in terms of it. And that is what education does, it creates opportunity, it can create activity, and it create—it makes sure America’s going to continue to be number one. Not only economically, this is militarily, Tim. This is important to our national security, well-educated individuals that have the high-tech training, and that no country is going to be ahead of the United States in terms of science and research.
MR. RUSSERT: What are we going to do about $3-dollars-a-gallon gasoline?
SEN. KENNEDY: The president, the president should have called the head of the oil companies into the White House and started jawboning. He should have done that a week ago. Why he doesn’t do that, I do not understand. He ought to be pointing out that hard-working Americans, middle-class people, who have their sons and daughters in Iraq and in Afghanistan, that this is not a time for greed. And he ought to activate and call the Federal Trade Commission—which is basically a sleepy organization that has given an interim report in terms of price-fixing and gouging—he ought to get them off and have them working seven days a week, 24/7, to make sure that we know exactly who is price-gouging. And third, we ought to have a bipartisan effort to recapture, recapture these excessive profits that are going to the oil industry and return them to working families and middle-income families.
MR. RUSSERT: But that’s not the only reason that gas prices are $3 dollars.
SEN. KENNEDY: It’s not the only one, but why are we tolerating this extraordinary explosion of the president of Exxon getting a half a billion dollars in separate fees? We need an excess profits tax that’s going to return that to working families. This is not a time for greed, and that is what we have on this. And the administration has been slow, it has failed to take action, and the Democrats are going to demand it.
MR. RUSSERT: What’s going to happen in the midterm elections?
SEN. KENNEDY: Democrats are going to be successful. I think we’re going to make progress. I think we’ll carry the Senate and also the House.
MR. RUSSERT: Both houses?
SEN. KENNEDY: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: What will be the big issues?
SEN. KENNEDY: The big—the overarching issue is the gross incompetency of this administration in every aspect, whether it’s in the Medicare prescription drug bill--45 different programs in my state of Massachusetts—rather than the simple kind of a program that would have been the Medicare system on that thing, the incompetence that we had down in Katrina, the cronyism that we have had in terms of the individuals that have taken government jobs, the refusal of accountability in terms of the—of Iraq. I think it’s all, it’s all out there.
MR. RUSSERT: So you think the Republicans will be blamed for corruption?
SEN. KENNEDY: I think there’s certainly a big—there’ll be a heavy burden for them to try and defend what’s been happening here. The sweetheart contracts, the Halliburton sweetheart contracts that have been out there, I think they’ll have a heavy burden to do so.
MR. RUSSERT: Your very first appearance on MEET THE PRESS in 1962, there was a lot of corruption in Massachusetts, and you were asked, “What would be the political effect of those Democrats who were guilty of corruption?” Let’s watch.
(Videotape, March 11, 1962):
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Will the Democratic Party be harmed this year by these scandals?
SEN. KENNEDY: Well, I think the question of whether individuals who have come up, who’ve been indicted, have been Democrats, I think are irrelevant, really, any more than you can say that because certain of these people belong to a certain racial group, a religious group, a racial group, or from a certain city and town are necessarily all evil.
MR. RUSSERT: When it’s Democrats, it’s irrelevant.
SEN. KENNEDY: That’s, that’s really not the issue, is it? I mean, is it just the individuals or is it the whole culture? And I think what most Americans understand is that there is the whole permeation, sort of the stench of money and corruption and cronyism and fixed deals and special interests, that the special interests get special consideration when they make the contribution, all of that sort of wrapped on in...(unintelligible).
MR. RUSSERT: Democrats as well as Republicans?
SEN. KENNEDY: There are some, and there ought to be the accountability. But this is—this really is something that is just waiting on the administration and upon the leadership. The leadership has an opportunity to clear—have done something, and it should have.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Ted Kennedy, thank you for joining us. The book, “America: Back on Track.”
SEN. KENNEDY: “Track.”
MR. RUSSERT: Thanks for joining us.
SEN. KENNEDY: Nice to see you. Thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next: What effect, if any, will all the White House staff changes have on the Bush presidency? Is there anything the president can do to reverse his decline in the polls? Our roundtable is next, right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Changes at the White House: the firing of a CIA officer and more, coming up right here on the MEET THE PRESS roundtable.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Welcome, all.
Let me show you some headlines, and this is The Washington Post: “CIA Officer is Fired for Media Leaks.” And there she is, Mary McCarthy, talking about this particular story. The original story in November of ‘05, “CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons,” which was written by, and there she is in the orange blouse, Dana Priest, who won a Pulitzer Prize for that story.
We have—David Broder, how do we deal with this in terms of journalists winning Pulitzer Prizes for tough, aggressive reporting, but the sources, the leaks, being dismissed?
MR. DAVID BRODER (The Washington Post): Well, I think the view that my paper has is that it’s the government’s responsibility to keep the government secrets secret. And the internal discipline that they have applied is basically their business.
I have to say that using lie detectors on government employees is a pretty extreme measure. I remember when George Schultz was secretary of state, and somebody proposed that they use lie detectors on him, and he said, “I’m out of here if you want to do that.” But I have to say, as journalists, we have to let the government deal with its internal processes themselves.
MR. RUSSERT: Ron Brownstein, the conservative analyst Bill Bennett said that journalists are worthy of jail, that they damage national security with these reports.
MR. RON BROWNSTEIN (Los Angeles Times): And said they were basically traitorist in what they, in what they did. First of all, that’s a reflection of the political era we’re in and the intensity of the, of the polarization. I would say this is, this is not a simple issue for me. Obviously, as a, as a CIA officer, if you are leaking classified information, you have to be prepared to accept the consequences of that, if you believe it is important enough to do it in the first place and in the national interest. On the other hand, this administration doesn’t come to this with a—with clean hands, in effect. I mean, we have from Lewis Libby the acknowledgement of the president himself had authorized—it’s different because the president’s authorizing, but nonetheless, the president releases, authorized him to release classified information that they thought would benefit their case, and yet they’re very aggressively—on Iraq—very aggressively going after those who they think will hurt their case. And it does create, I think, sort of a, of a cognitive dissonance in the message they’re sending out.
MR. RUSSERT: Tony Blankley, you were press secretary for Newt Gingrich, now the editorial page editor for The Washington Times. Where do you come down on this?
MR. TONY BLANKLEY (The Washington Times): Well, I think certainly regarding the government side of it, putting the journalist side away for a moment, we’ve had a decreasing level of discipline in releasing classified information. Remember during—before the war, you had Washington Post, New York Times quoting allegedly and apparently senior Pentagon officials on war plans that were being released in the months leading up to that. We’ve had these CIA leaks that are now becoming revealed. I think there’s been a reduction in the standard of discipline in the government that needs to be restrengthened.
Now, certainly, I think prosecuting a CIA agent who particularly—they signed—they sign a contract to agree not to release, they’re in a special case and I think are more vulnerable to prosecution than true civilian government employees.
As far as, as far as the newspapers’ vulnerabilities, it was the Philip Agee case back in, what, the ‘80s, I guess, that created the legislation, made it illegal to publish as well as to release. I don’t know that that’s been used except against one newsletter many years ago.
MR. RUSSERT: Dee Dee Myers, who worked with President Clinton, now with Vanity Fair, what’s your take?
MS. DEE DEE MYERS: Well, I mean, I agree with Tony. I think there’s been a diminishing of standards over the years as we’ve moved toward a more transparent society more broadly. I mean, people think information is to shared in a way that I don’t think was always true. But classified secrets have been leaked always. We have the case now of Jack Anderson. The FBI wants to go back and purge his files because they believe there’s some information in there that ought not to be in there.
I think government employees, and particularly those with a security clearance, do sign, make a commitment that they’re not going to release that information. And if they choose to release it because they think that the releasing it serves a more important end than keeping that commitment, then that’s a decision they’re free to make if they’re willing to accept the consequences. And we’ll see as this case goes forward whether Mary McCarthy thought, you know, she would get caught, whether this factored in, whether she thought, “I don’t care whether I get caught. If I do, I think releasing this information”—if she, in fact, did it—“is more important than keeping my commitment.”
MR. BROWNSTEIN: That’s part of the question here. I mean, ultimately, you know, the responsibility the individual bears is one thing. Is the country better off knowing this or not? Do we feel that the country is better off, that the world is better off having this information out there? Certainly, the question on the NSA spying, that’s what—the NSA wiretap, that’s what Bill Bennett was getting at, arguing no. You know, probably many Americans feel, whether they agree with this program or not, that they are better off knowing it. So that ultimately there’s a choice being made here by an individual, but there’s also a kind of a social and broader political choice.
MR. BLANKLEY: But in any one given instance, you might be able to make a pretty good case the people ought to know a particular fact.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: Yeah.
MR. BLANKLEY: But over time, the government loses its capacity to manage foreign and military and intelligence policy if everybody feels free to start releasing. So you can’t...
MR. BRODER: But it’s also the case, Tony, that ultimately, an administration’s credibility depends on its willingness to be straight with the public on the big issues. And this administration too often has failed that test.
MR. BLANKLEY: Yeah, but that’s different from classified information that’s being released. As far as an administration is not being honest, obviously, that’s going to induce whistle-blowing and leaking. But this we’re talking about national security, classified information that apparently in this case the CIA has actually done damage to our relations with Eastern European countries. It’s a fairly big deal.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to the staff change at the White House. Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, is gone, replaced by Josh Bolten. Karl Rove, the deputy chief of staff who is deeply involved in policy, now told, “Focus on politics.” What does that mean, David?
MR. BRODER: It means, I think, that the president is taking sensible steps to try to strengthen his hand. Josh Bolten is doing a good job, I think, of hitting the places where this administration needed some shoring up. In the case of Karl Rove, it’s hard to believe that he will not keep a hand in policy since there is such an intimate connection between politics and policy. But by having somebody else designated as a policy coordinator, it probably means that they’ll get more attention to that part of the process.
MR. RUSSERT: We had a situation in the New York Times where it said that Josh Bolten was concerned about Harriet Miers, the White House council, whether she was competent enough for that job. Harriet Miers, the same woman that President Bush nominated for the Supreme Court, Ron Brownstein. At the Friday morning staff meeting, Josh Bolten said, “No, no, no, that’s not true. Harriet Miers is safe and secure.”
MR. BROWNSTEIN: Well, there’s a—you know, there’s a lot of anxiety in the White House about how far this is going to go, but I—in some ways the question should be whether they’re looking at changes that are fundamental or not. You know, the president is in the weakest position he has been in throughout his presidency, and moving staff around when you’re almost entirely dealing with a, with a pool of people who have been there from the beginning, a lot of questions about whether that’s going to be enough.
You know, Karl Rove’s relationship with the president is the source of his power, not his title. So I don’t think that Karl Rove is going to be marginalized.
The bigger problem, Tim, I think in the policy process has been if you go back and look at any of this in the State of the Union, they had pretty much run aground. There’s a very minimalist agenda, and that was driven largely by the concern among the Republicans on Capitol Hill that they didn’t have the cohesion and the president didn’t have the strength with the country to push a more ambitious agenda at this point. Until that changes, whoever we put in this—these jobs, we’re not going to see big, bright, bold ideas I think out of the White House for the foreseeable future.
MR. RUSSERT: Dee Dee Myers, you stood at that White House podium. October of 2003 Scott McClellan said he had talked to Scooter Libby and Karl Rove. They were not involved in the Valerie Plame case.
MS. MYERS: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: He came back out in July of ‘05 and said, “Well, I’m not going to talk about it, and, and in terms of my credibility you know me. You know the kind of person I am.” Is it just a winless position?
MS. MYERS: It’s becoming increasingly winless. I mean, I think the relationship between the press corps and this White House and this White House press operation is so contentious and so fraught that it’s very hard to imagine how anybody can really succeed. You go out there every day and you feel a bit like canon fodder.
But—and I think Scott’s—that moment is illustrative. People did know him, they believed he was an honest guy and yet it didn’t matter. In that matter his credibility was, was rocked because people had told him something and he went out and repeated it in good faith, which is something you learn to do very, very rarely once you’re in that job because people, you find, are protecting their own prerogatives, particularly when there’s criminal investigations involved and you have to be very, very careful. But that said, I think it is an increasingly difficult job, and a 24/7 news environment and a contentious press/government official environment and the next person who comes along is going to, you know, learn that as well, I think.
MR. RUSSERT: When you were White House press secretary only the first five minutes of the press briefings...
MS. MYERS: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...with you were on television.
MS. MYERS: And that was a change from the previous administration where none of it was on.
MR. RUSSERT: And then your predecessor changed it to have the whole event.
If you were—successor.
MS. MYERS: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: If you were the White House press secretary in 2006, would you shut off the cameras?
MS. MYERS: Boy, it would be an interesting experiment. The, the, the reaction from the press corps would be tremendous, and you’d have to be willing to find other ways to feed their needs for—I mean, what we, what we’ve seen over the last several years or the last decade is an increasing number of, of cable television outlets, places where you can use that video which you couldn’t use 10 years ago. There was no place to put it so there wasn’t as pressure for me to be on TV throughout my briefing. Now for radio, for cable television, for the Internet there’s such a tremendous appetite for video footage. So I think it may be impossible to put that genie back in the bottle.
But it’s worth thinking about how to make that briefing more useful. It’s not very useful any more. Both sides are posturing. There’s not a lot of useful information that gets exchanged. The White House spokesman isn’t that forthcoming. The press is sometimes just, you know, shouting questions at him for reaction, to show that they’re being tough and they’re not lapdogs for this Republican administration. And so they’re—you know, it’s a very tall order, because the press resists it mightily and this administration isn’t that interested in having a better relationship so far. We’ll see if Bolten changes that.
MR. RUSSERT: Tony Blankley, in your former life you came in with Newt Gingrich, the Republican revolution. One of the first things you did is have the speakers briefing open to cameras. Mistake?
MR. BLANKLEY: No, I don’t think so, although Newt eventually thought it was a mistake. He canceled it I think in—after the—April. But the reason we did it was because it was an opportunity to frame the news for the day nationally early in the morning. Ten, 11 o’clock in the morning we were able to get out there and, and frame it. I think that it helped.
I think it helped us, by the way, pass the Contract With America back then because we were framing the issue, making the positive points. It became very contentious as, as the White House briefings recently have become. And how you manage the contention is a question, I think, of technical expertise to some extent. You take Scott’s example that you used where he said, “I talked to them and they didn’t do it.” He might have said, for instance, “I talked to them and they told me he—they didn’t do it,” and that would distance him a little bit from, from it. He’s then just a conduit for their statements, but by internalizing it and asserting it as his own assertion, he then becomes responsible for its truth or non-truth.
And I agree with, with Dee Dee. Obviously, as a press secretary you have to be almost as good a reporter as, as a reporter does to make sure you’re getting the facts.
MR. BRODER: All this goes, really, goes back to the president, and what the president wants.
MS. MYERS: Good point.
MR. BRODER: I mean the problem is not Scott, the problem is George W.
MS. MYERS: Right.
MR. BRODER: ...who has no sense of any obligation to keep the press informed or to keep the public current on what is going on there. And as long as that’s his attitude, it’s going to be very difficult for anybody to succeed in that job.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: The question is whether it’s really going to be unique to Bush. Certainly, I agree with everything you’ve said, but I think at a more fundamental level, we are seeing a change in the relationship between the media and politicians, and increasingly I think political leaders, and I think this White House very clearly doesn’t necessarily believe that talk—that, that using the mainstream mass media is the most effective way to reach its voters. I mean, increasingly they seem target—more focused on targeted, niche kind of vehicles of communication that reach their conservative base, and, and talking to the, sort of the mass media through that White House press briefing, or through any other vehicle isn’t really the core of their communication strategy. And increasingly it’s reaching people directly on their side through things like the Internet, some of the more—talk radio, and some of the more overtly partisan news sources. And I, and I think that is a real shift that may outlast this president.
MR. RUSSERT: I remember when Bill Clinton would get off the plane sometimes, Dee Dee, and see the national press on one side, the local press on the other side. Right to the locals.
MS. MYERS: Right. Absolutely, that’s a lesson you learn very fast. You’re going to get a—sort of a clear, fairer shake from the locals who are just so excited that you’re there and talking to them.
(To Mr. Blankley) I’m sorry.
MR. BLANKLEY: But, but I agree with Mr. Broder. I—and, and I think it is a mistake of, of a White House press operation not to engage the press corps here. I think that it can be done effectively and honestly, and, and, and in a serious way. You’re going to get hit a lot, but to put up the shield and have no communication is going to induce future administrations to get into the same kind of—they exaggerate the mess they’re going to get into when they have no communication back and forth.
By the way, one of the good things that a White House gets from talking to the press is, is reconnaissance of how the press and to some extent the country is feeling. I think it’s—that two-way exchange is really vital to the process.
MR. RUSSERT: You—but you’ve been nominated, you’ve been nominated for this job.
MS. MYERS: Yeah.
MR. BLANKLEY: Thanks.
MR. RUSSERT: Would, would you accept it, Tony?
MR. BLANKLEY: I thought you were my friend.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you accept it?
MR. BLANKLEY: No, no thank you.
MR. RUSSERT: All right.
MS. MYERS: He’s a conservative.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: (Unintelligible)...anyway.
MR. BRODER: The problem with the niche strategy is that you’re trying to govern a country.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: Right.
MR. BRODER: And the niche strategy gets you to 52 percent on a good day, and on a bad day it gets you where they are today.
MS. MYERS: Right.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: And that’s what, and that’s what we’ve seen. I mean, at the high point of, of reelection, you—you’re basically speaking to half the country, when things are going well. You have very little cushion, very little margin of error for this president when things started to go badly in ‘05. And as David says, now he’s down in the mid-, in the mid-30s and wondering how he does reach an electorate beyond his base.
MR. RUSSERT: One person—go ahead.
MS. MYERS: But there’s a conversation going on now among people who are starting to look at running in, in 2008, and it’s about will the Democratic nominee or the Republican nominee or the next president adopt the Bush strategy. And I think it’s—that’s a fascinating conversation, because it has wrought what Ron pointed out, which is you’re only talking to, at best, half the country, and then it’s not a very effective strategy for governing. And yet it’s been effective politically at certain times for the Bush administration, and I think everybody else is wondering, should they adopt it?
MR. RUSSERT: One of those examples: Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. Here was President Bush on Tuesday defending Mr. Rumsfeld.
(Videotape, April 18, 2006):
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: I have strong confidence in Don Rumsfeld. I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.
MR. RUSSERT: Now Tom DeFrank of the Daily News, David, said that in private the president has been venting about some of the recommendations Mr. Rumsfeld gave them. A senior White House official said, “No, that’s just not true.” Where are we on Donald Rumsfeld?
MR. BRODER: Well, I think you have to take the president at his word. I think he has made that decision, I think he’s committed to it, and I don’t think that argument about whether Rumsfeld stays or goes is much of a useful exercise as long as president is where he is.
MR. RUSSERT: One Bush friend told me “to fire Rumsfeld would be the equivalent of the president firing himself because it would be an admission that everything that had been recommended about the war had not, in fact, happened.”
MS. MYERS: Well, if they hadn’t let it get to this point, though, he could have used Rumsfeld as an opportunity to separate what was bad about his strategy from what was good, and say, “We were right to go to Iraq, it was badly handled in execution. That’s the secretary of defense’s job,” and he wouldn’t have said it quite that bluntly, but, “It’s time to move on.” It’s too late now.
MR. BLANKLEY: Look, I mean, I think much more important than whether Rumsfeld’s done a good or a bad job—and we all have our opinions on that, I think he’s done a pretty good job, but I disagree on some areas—is the way in which this revolt of the generals has come out. We—you know, where you’ve got generals, not only retired, but apparently active now, lobbying, virtually, in public, to try to get the secretary of defense fired. And, and Richard Holbrooke in The Washington Post, leading Democrat, indicated in his column last week in The Post, that, that he was aware of these plans, these agreements to start releasing information. I think there’s a very serious—as The Washington Post editorial said a few days later—question of, of civilian and control of the military.
MR. RUSSERT: Ron, 10 seconds.
MR. BROWNSTEIN: I would say that that soundbite says more about where the president’s going than all the shake-up in the White House: Basic same strategy, “I am a man of resolve, I believe what I believe and you can like it or not, but I am sticking with my course.” And I think that’s the overriding message that he sent, and probably one that’s going to guide the rest of his presidency, for better or worse.
MR. RUSSERT: To be continued. We’ll be right back with our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. George Christian was the press secretary for President Lyndon B. Johnson, another embattled president whose poll ratings suffered from an unpopular war. He offers some interesting advice in his final days on the job.
(Videotape, January 19, 1969):
MR. LAWRENCE E. SPIVAK: Our guest today on MEET THE PRESS is the special assistant and press secretary to President Johnson, George Christian. He leaves the White House Monday after almost three years of service.
Mr. Christian, you’ve been both a newsman and a press secretary, have you any suggestions as you leave the office for improving the relationship between the presidency and the press and the public interest?
MR. CHRISTIAN: The presidency and the press, I believe, Mr. Spivak, have a fairly good relationship. I’m not sure it ought to be a close relationship. It should be rather arm’s length. It should be a critical relationship. I think presidents ought to be free to criticize the press, and the press ought to be free to criticize the president. And I think both presidents, in the plural, and press in the plural sense, are sensitive to criticism, and I think this is partly what makes the country tick. And God save the republic if we ever have a president who isn’t sensitive to criticism.
MR. RAY SCHERER (NBC News): What advice might you offer to your successors, Mr. Klein, Mr, Ziegler, as a holder of one of the most thankless jobs in Washington?
MR. CHRISTIAN: Probably the same advice that my predecessors gave me, merely to tell the truth and keep your sense of humor. I think if you, if you try to do that, the other things come along.
MR. RUSSERT: Pretty good advice for life. And we’ll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: Yes, it is what you think. It really is the Stanley Cup for supremacy in National Hockey League. And, yes, you know what’s coming, you know where it’s going, the Buffalo Sabres. Big game last night. Oh, yeah, Stanley Cup, I can feel it now. Big Russ, this baby’s coming back to Buffalo.
That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.