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updated 12/31/2006 1:13:14 PM ET 2006-12-31T18:13:14

MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: This is the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, where the remains of the 38th president of the United States lie in state. What is Gerald Ford’s legacy? What is the story behind the story of his pardon of Richard Nixon? With us, two reporters who covered the Ford presidency, Tom Brokaw of NBC News and Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.

Then, the biggest stories of 2006 and the stories to watch for in 2007 and 2008. Insights and analysis from NBC News presidential historian Michael Beschloss, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, Kate O’Beirne of the National Review, Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post and William Safire of The New York Times.

But first, this was the scene just before 6:10 a.m. Saturday morning Baghdad time as Saddam Hussein was led to his death, the noose being tightened around his neck. TV stations affiliated with the prime minister, his political party of Iraq, showed this picture of what they say is the former dictator’s body, wrapped in a white shroud following the execution. And early this morning, these pictures from the area of Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit. There is Saddam’s picture on a chair, surrounded by mourners in front of his casket, which arrived in the back of a pickup truck.

Let’s go to Baghdad. We are joined by NBC’s Richard Engel. Richard, are we sure that Saddam’s body is in that casket and truly has been buried?

MR. RICHARD ENGEL: Good morning, Tim. A tribal sheik in that area who received Saddam’s body also spoke to Iraqi television. He is seen opening the casket, looking inside and then signing a document saying that it was, in fact, Saddam Hussein, and that it was prepared in a proper way for burial.

Tim:

MR. RUSSERT: Richard, there are new details, new grainy Internet footage about the actual execution. A lot of hostile and political comments made right before Saddam’s death. Tell us about that.

MR. ENGEL: In particular, they were sectarian comments and they are disturbing many people here in Iraq who say that it just exposes this Shiite government’s sectarian coloring that it took to as this execution was taking place. Saddam was led into the execution chamber, brought up to the gallows. He appeared very calm, according to witnesses and the, and the video that has been released and posted on the Internet. However, the guards and the witnesses started to taunt him. They were shouting jeers and Shiite Islamic slogans. They were saying the name of Moqtada al-Sadr, a leader of the militia groups here in this country. Saddam tried to remain calm and dignified. His hair had been just died black, his beard trimmed, shoes polished. He didn’t respond. At one stage, he only said, “Go to hell,” as they were saying for him to go to hell. But in the end, he just returned to, to prayers and the final words that were coming out of his mouth was the Islamic call, a profession of faith, as the hangman pulled the lever, dropping the trapdoor.

MR. RUSSERT: Richard, finally, there have been 75 deaths in the Baghdad area since the execution of Saddam Hussein. What impact do you believe his execution will have short-term, long-term, on the security situation in Iraq?

MR. ENGEL: Frankly, Tim, I don’t think it will have a tremendous impact. The Baath Party supporters, the people who are behind Saddam Hussein, are not the overwhelming majority of people in this country carrying out attacks against American soldiers or against Iraqis themselves. Now, it is mostly still Sunnis, but more Sunnis with an Islamic fundamentalist bent, people who are more motivated by al-Qaeda than to bring back Saddam Hussein. What could happen is the, is the more sectarian concerns, the fact that this video and the execution itself were such—were tinged by such sectarian overtones, that could fuel the, the much more greater problem in this country, which is the civil war.

MR. RUSSERT: Richard Engel, we thank you, as always, for that report. But try to have a happy new year in that difficult situation and location.

MR. ENGEL: Thank you very much.

MR. RUSSERT: And be safe.

And here in Washington, this is a live picture of the casket of former President Gerald R. Ford lying in state in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol as Americans begin to flow through the Capitol, paying their respects to the 38th president of the United States. And here to discuss that president, two reporters who covered his term in office, Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.

Welcome, both. Good morning.

MR. TOM BROKAW: Good morning.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me go back, Bob Woodward, to 1973. This is May. And you talk about the relationship between Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

MR. BOB WOODWARD: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: Nixon’s president, Gerald Ford, a congressman from Michigan, and you uncovered an audiotape. This is the morning after the president of the United States has just fired many of his staff, acknowledging wrongdoing in Watergate, but without accepting full responsibility. And this is the conversation. Let’s listen.

(Audiotape, May 1, 1973):

PRES. RICHARD NIXON: Just wanted to express my appreciation for your note, tell you to keep the faith and tell the guys goddamn it to get off their asses and start fighting back.

REP. GERALD FORD: Well, we’re going to, Mr. President, and you did a hell of a job last night, and, uh, isn’t any other way I can express it this morning, but uh, you’ve got a hell of a lot of friends up here, both Republican and Democrat, and don’t worry about anybody being sunshine soldiers or summer patriots.

PRES. NIXON: Never, Jerry Ford.

REP. FORD: Well, any time you want me to do anything, under any circumstances, you give me a call.

PRES. NIXON: You stand firm, old boy.

REP. FORD: Don’t worry.

PRES. NIXON: All right. Thank you.

(End audiotape)

MR. RUSSERT: May of ‘73, a very loyal soldier, Gerald Ford.

MR. WOODWARD: Yes, totally, and pledging fealty to Nixon. And one of the things you find here in looking at the record, and I was able to, over the last two years, talk to Ford for about eight hours and really dig into this relationship, it was much more intimate. They, they were friends, they, they shared all kinds of, of social times together with their wives. This was not merely a political alliance, it was a real friendship.

MR. RUSSERT: Seven months after that, Tom Brokaw, Gerald Ford did not know and Richard Nixon did not know, but Gerald Ford became vice president of the United States when Spiro Agnew had to resign that office for financial improprieties. Here’s Gerald Ford taking the oath of office December 6th, 1973, Richard Nixon behind him. And a few weeks after that, Mr. Ford—Vice President Ford appeared on MEET THE PRESS and was asked specifically about Richard Nixon and his role in Watergate. Let’s watch.

(Videotape, January 6, 1974):

VICE PRES. FORD: I’m sure he turned to those running the re-election campaign and said, “I have these major matters that involve the national security and the well-being of the American people, and you run the campaign.” Unfortunately, those that ran, some of them apparently ran it badly. But I’m convinced that the president was preoccupied with these very important matters and therefore, I’m convinced he had nothing whatsoever to do with Watergate.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: That was January of ‘74, the vice president saying the president had nothing to do with Watergate. The president had made a decision that morning, Tom, not to turn over 500 hours of tapes to the Sam Ervin investigative committee of the U.S. Senate. Tom Brokaw was on that program with Gerald Ford and asked this question. Let’s watch.

(Videotape, January 5, 1974):

MR. BROKAW: The question, Mr. Vice President, was about the possibility of a compromise. And President Nixon apparently closed the door on that possibility. Do you think that that was wise?

VICE PRES. FORD: At this point, I think with the broad-sweeping demand by the committee, the president was right in saying that he would not go along with their demand. Now, if they are willing to make some refinements in the demand, cutting it down to things that are more relevant to the committee’s responsibility, then I think there may be, and I underline may be, an area of compromise.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: The vice president opening the door of compromise, Tom. That led to this headline in The Washington Post the next day, the very next day:

“Ford Suggests Nixon-Ervin Compromise” on the tapes, which led to this response from the White, White House: “White House Disowns Ford, Ford’s View on Tapes,” which led to this, led to this analysis piece in The Washington Post: “On Jan. 7 ... the new Vice President said on NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ that a compromise might be possible between the White House and the Senate Watergate committee over release of about 500 presidential tapes.

“The White House immediately disowned the observation by saying Ford was speaking for himself only, and though the disclaimed was softened later, the implication was clear: Ford had climbed out on a limb, and was being left there.” When you heard Jerry Ford say, “You know what, maybe we could compromise on this,” did you realize that he was opening the door between himself and Richard Nixon?

MR. BROKAW: Well, it was a startling acknowledgment on his part. I remember the other two panel members were David Broder and George Will, and immediately afterwards, they said he just landed on the front page with that story, because the White House was deep in its bunker at the time, and Jerry Ford was not long into the vice presidency.

I think in that exchange, Tim, and in the earlier one that Bob Woodward talked about, you saw both Richard Nixon and Jerry Ford in their essence. I always believed that Richard Nixon played Jerry Ford’s friendship very cynically to his own advantage. And Jerry Ford, even his closest friends would acknowledge, would sometimes be too much the team player. He could be, if you will, too willing to accept the party line. I think his conditioning changed once he got into the White House, but we were in transition there at that moment, because a lot of his friends were beginning to say to him, “Don’t get too close to defending the Richard Nixon line on Watergate.” But he did continue to go around the country and defend the president, even after that, as other people were tugging on his sleeve and saying, “Be careful, Jerry, don’t go too far here.”

MR. RUSSERT: Seven months later, and things were moving very, very quickly. Bob Woodward, this is how you portray the scene: “At 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 1, 1974, Nixon’s chief of staff, Alexander Haig, entered the vice president’s suite. He looked troubled and on edge. ‘Are you ready, Mr. Vice President, to assume the presidency in a short period of time?’ Haig asked. New Watergate tapes, he said, would show Nixon had ordered the coverup of the burglary. Ford was stunned. Haig presented Ford with six scenarios: Nixon could step aside temporarily under the 25th Amendment, he could just wait and delay the ongoing impeachment process, or he could try to settle for a formal censure.

In addition, there were three pardon options. Nixon could pardon himself and resign. Or he could pardon the aides involved and then resign. Or Nixon could agree to leave in return for an agreement that the new President Ford would pardon him. Haig handed Ford two pieces of paper. The first sheet contained a handwritten summary of a president’s legal authority to pardon. The second sheet was a draft pardon form that needed only Ford’s signature and Nixon’s name to make it legal. ‘It’s my understanding from a White House lawyer,’ Haig said, ‘that the president does have authority to pardon even before criminal action has been taken against an individual.’”

After that meeting, Gerald Ford met with this staff. What happened?

MR. WOODWARD: Well, of all kinds—this is one of the most dramatic moments in Watergate, to say the least. And of course I’ve interviewed Ford extensively about that moment. And he acknowledges that he believes that Haig was offering him a deal. I mean, to, to hand a draft pardon, and say, “Oh, by the way.” Ford got it, but he—when he told his staff, they said, you, you know, “You have—you’ve entered into dangerous legal territory. You have to call Haig and say there’s no deal.” Ford also acknowledges that he was naive about all of this, and at the same time—and again, there’s, there’s a complexity in this that doesn’t yield a sound bite. Ford had his reasons for granting the pardon, to get over Watergate and Nixon. At the same time, this, this loyalty and friendship with Nixon was intense, and he gave the pardon. I, I think it turns out to be very, very wise. But he—it, it was, on one level, the last, last act of loyalty.

Now, what, what is most significant to history in all of this, part of the arrangement with the pardon was that Ford insisted that the government keep Nixon’s tapes. And we now know this rather complete history of Watergate because of Ford’s decision. And there was a wise lawyer in the White House who told Ford, “Don’t give Nixon those tapes, he’ll burn them. It will be considered the last act of the coverup.” So having the tapes, most important to understanding the Nixon presidency.

MR. RUSSERT: Now, Mr. Haig denies there was ever a deal offered.

MR. WOODWARD: That’s right, he said absolutely not. I mean, look, look at, you come in. I mean, it—Brokaw is even laughing. And you say these are the things to do. And by the way, in case you—your pencil doesn’t work, here is a draft of a pardon.

MR. RUSSERT: Tom Brokaw, you were at the White House the day that Richard Nixon resigned. And then he and his wife, escorted by Gerald Ford and Betty Ford, walking to the helicopter. Describe that day.

MR. BROKAW: Well, it’s hard to describe, because there were really two realities. One played out on television, and one played out there in the East Room, where the president made his farewell speech to his staff—which at that point was so emotionally drained that people could hardly sit upright. And you remember that famous speech in which he talked about his mother, the saint. Then they went down the diplomatic entrance to the White House and made that dramatic walk out onto the helicopter. I was surrounded by Nixon aides, including Ron Ziegler, who took that moment, curiously enough, to make fun of Tom Jarrell’s haircut. Tom Jarrell was the ABC correspondent at the time. It was this kind of surreal quality in there. Here was the first president ever to resign, it was the most tragic moment in the life of the man that all these staffers had dedicated their lives to, and then there was that very somber moment as he walked out to the helicopter and gave that last defiant Richard Nixon gesture. I remember one of the aides turning to me and saying, “I’m just going to go fishing.” There was this sense—palpable sense of relief.

When I got back to the office, to the bureau, David Brinkley took me aside and said, “Did you think that he was going to do something drastic to himself?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” And he took me down and showed me, on television, the very close-up isolated on video of Richard Nixon, and all of the faces. And I must say, the difference between being in the room and then seeing it on television was very dramatic indeed. Much more dramatic on television than it was in the room itself.

And I went back down to the White House press room, and one of the Nixon aides had come down and burst into tears and said, “I was just told to get something for the president and I don’t know which president they were talking about.”

MR. RUSSERT: Mm. Gerald Ford assumed the presidency that day. He talked about our long national nightmare being over. We saw the president in his robe and eating his English muffins in a suburban house.

MR. WOODWARD: Not only eating it, but toasting it himself.

MR. RUSSERT: Toasting it—laying some, laying some butter on there, I think, as well.

MR. WOODWARD: That was the important symbol. Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT: And then a month later, on a Sunday morning, Gerald Ford startled the nation with this announcement from the Oval Office.

(Videotape, September 8, 1974):

PRES. FORD: I, Gerald R. Ford, president of the United States, pursuant to the pardon power conferred upon me by Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution, have granted and by these presents, do grant a full, free and absolute pardon unto Richard Nixon for all offenses against the United States which he, Richard Nixon, has committed or may have committed.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Such a firestorm, Bob Woodward.

MR. WOODWARD: Yes, there was. And Ford, who was popular, there was this sense Watergate is over, all of a sudden it looked like the secret dealings were continuing. It was a giant deal, defined the Ford presidency, probably lost the election in ‘76 because of this. But, I—you know, it, it, it was wise. I mean, think about it. Nixon investigated, on trial, maybe going to jail, a year, two years more of Watergate. We needed to get beyond that, and, and, and Ford, to his credit, had an intuitive recognition of that. A lot of people were telling him, “Don’t do it.” It was very close-knit circle in the White House saying, you know, “Consult Congress, get the public involved,” and so forth. Ford, Ford said, in his way—one of his aides said, “Well, you know, just tell them you haven’t decided,” and he said, “But I have.”

MR. RUSSERT: In 2000, I went to the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, interviewed President Ford and President Carter, and asked President Ford about the pardon. Let’s watch.

(Videotape, April 13, 2000):

MR. RUSSERT: Do you have any second thoughts about your pardon of President Nixon?

Pres. FORD: I was—I should’ve been—devoted 100 percent of my time to the problems of 260 million Americans. But the truth is, in the first month that I was president, I was spending 25 percent of my time listening to the lawyers from the Department of Justice, the lawyers from the White House staff, telling me what I should or shouldn’t do with Mr. Nixon’s papers and tapes. I finally decided it made more sense for the country for me to clear my desk of Mr. Nixon’s problems, and the way to do it was to issue a pardon once and for all, clear the deck, and spend all of my time on the problems of the country as a whole. I think it was right, and I feel even more so today.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think you paid a political price?

PRES. FORD: There were people in the country who hated Mr. Nixon so much under no circumstances would they forgive me.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: It’s interesting, 25 years later the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award was given to Gerald Ford for that pardon. Ted Kennedy at the time of the pardon said it was a continuation of the Watergate coverup, Tom Brokaw, said, “You know what? I was wrong, Gerald Ford was right and history has proven that to be the case.”

MR. BROKAW: Well, I think there was a couple of elements. I think that the president made a mistake at the time of the pardon in not preparing the country more. There was a strong undercurrent that this was a possibility, but as Bob will remember, the president characterizes it correctly when he says, “We were consumed with what was going to happen with Richard Nixon, what was going to happen with those papers.” He was the unindicted co-conspirator, the first president to resign. He had not acknowledged guilt in any way. Unfortunately, the president didn’t make that part of the deal.

The other part of this, of course, which reflects on Jerry Ford as well, in terms of his trust, is that he had been dealing with Al Haig and then he later learned Al Haig had gone to President Nixon and said, “I think he’s going to give you a pardon.” And later, President Ford said, “I couldn’t believe it. Al Haig worked for me at that point.” Well, that was just part of the intrigue that was so brilliantly documented by Bob Woodward in his book about that time. But I always believed that if he’d brought down a few of his friends on both sides of the aisle from Capitol Hill to a couple of meetings at the White House and said, “Help me out here, what is your thinking on all this?” the country could’ve been a little more prepared for it, but it was a 12-kiloton explosion when it happened on that Sunday morning. The place was stunned. And it was so closely held, no one knew that he was going to go out and make that announcement. His political currency was so great, his approval rating was so high during the peak of the honeymoon, I honestly think he intuitively believed that he could take a hit that wouldn’t be as big as it was going to be.

MR. RUSSERT: Bob Woodward, you have reported that leading up to the pardon, President Ford sent a young lawyer named Becker out to meet with President Clinton and...

MR. WOODWARD: Nixon, yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Nixon, and showed him a Supreme Court case, U.S. vs Burdick, which says if you accept the pardon, you were acknowledging admitting guilt.

MR. WOODWARD: That’s right. And in interviewing Ford a number of years ago about this and the whole question, which Tom Brokaw rightly raises, did, did Nixon acknowledge guilt? Because the statement he released in accepting the pardon didn’t really do it very directly. And Ford literally carried in his wallet a section of the Burdick decision from the Supreme Court that said the acceptance of a pardon is an admission of guilt. And he felt that was legally sufficient.

MR. RUSSERT: You know, it is remarkable watching Gerald Ford in life and now in death, the grace, the dignity, the bearing. The most athletic man ever to sit in the Oval Office, and yet, Chevy Chase of “Saturday Night Live” made his reputation and here he is here, imitating President Ford for knocking things over and falling over the desk and so forth. I had a chance to ask President Ford about Chevy Chase. Let’s listen.

(Videotape, April 13, 2000):

MR. RUSSERT: President Ford, you were the best athlete ever to serve as president. You played on national championship football teams. Graduated in the top fourth of your class at Yale Law School. How did you put up with Chevy Chase?

PRES. FORD: Well, it wasn’t very pleasant.

PRES. JIMMY CARTER: I thought it was great, Jerry.

PRES. FORD: But I think you learn, if you’re going to be in politics, certainly at the national level, you have to have a thick skin and you have to let the comments or the remarks roll off your back. If you sit around and worry about what is written or said, you can’t concentrate, Tim, on the things you ought to be working on.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Tom Brokaw, Jerry Ford, Midwest nice. Just get it done. Do your job and not worry about these kinds of things. And when someone pokes fun, share the laugh.

MR. BROKAW: Well, I also think it had something to do with the way he came to the office. He was not a man who sought that office. He wanted to be the speaker of the House, so he arrives there by accident without design and without the kind of inbred hubris that brings a lot of the people to that office. He was completely at ease with himself and he had earned that condition in many years in the House of being in the minority, of getting beat up by his friend, Tip O’Neill and going out across the country 200 nights a year trying to get Republicans to get there. So he was prepared, in many ways, for all the, all the slings and arrows that a president can get because he checked his ego at the door, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT: What was, what was his North Star, Tom?

MR. BROKAW: Pardon me?

MR. RUSSERT: What was his North Star?

MR. BROKAW: His North Star was his patriotism, Tim. And the fact that he really felt committed to this country and to the ideals of how he had grown up. Eagle Scout, Pledge of Allegiance every day, Main Street values in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was a man of the service clubs of America who went off to war and came back and joined his fellow veterans in saying, “We can make this a better place.” I really believe that that’s what motivated him. He served in the Congress for 13 consecutive terms, getting elected by 60 percent every time. And he just cared about the nation.

MR. RUSSERT: Bob Woodward, final thoughts on Gerald Ford?

MR. WOODWARD: Yeah. But, but there’s another dimension to Ford, and in these interviews over the last couple of years, I asked him to think about who he was and what his experiences were. And he said, “Look, people think I’m a figure of the establishment.” He said, “I’m a renegade.” And then he made a very convincing case about how, as a young man coming back from World War II, he’d been an isolationist. World War II convinced him he had to go—become an internationalist. And he ran against—in Michigan, you know, that’s, that’s, that’s the fodder—and he ran against an isolationist congressman and won. He spoke in these interviews much more openly about what he felt, how—his deep reservations about the Iraq war. His reservations about Vietnam and how, in the ‘50s, he had gone to talk to the French generals, who said, “Oh, we’ve got this licked,” and then the, “the French got their ass kicked,” as he said.

So there, he had a much better understanding. And, and you, you see in this that the presidency’s a straightjacket, public life is a straightjacket, and somebody wanted to break out of that and say, “Look, I understood a lot of this. I got what was going on. I understood what a great secretary of state Henry Kissinger was.” But as he said, Kissinger was somebody with the thinnest skin of anyone Ford knew in public life. So there, let, let’s mourn the man as he really was and not be taken in by some of the, the cautious rhetoric that public office requires.

MR. RUSSERT: Amen. And this morning, we offer Mrs. Ford and her family our deepest sympathies, and we keep the former president in our thoughts and prayers. Tom Brokaw, Bob Woodward, thanks very much.

MR. WOODWARD: Thanks.

MR. BROKAW: My pleasure.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, we look back at ‘06 and, yes, onto ‘07, and of course, ‘08, a presidential year. Our roundtable is next. A special New Year’s Eve day MEET THE PRESS continues.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: The year that was, the year that’s going to be. Our New Year’s roundtable, after this station break.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: And we are back. Welcome, all. Before we get to looking back at ‘06, and ahead to ‘07 and ‘08, Michael Beschloss, you have the cover story in Newsweek magazine. And you interviewed President Ford, embargo until his death, where he tells you that he wishes President Nixon had been more forthcoming in acknowledging wrongdoing or guilt. He did have the legal case in his pocket, U.S. Burdick, saying...

MR. MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: He did.

MR. RUSSERT: ...acceptance of a pardon is admission of guilt. But he said, “I would appreciate it if he had done more.” Talk about that.

MR. BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, you were talking with Bob and Tom about the fact that he went through this firestorm because he gave the pardon. He knew that that would have been less of a firestorm if he had been able to get from Nixon a statement saying, “Look, you know, I know that I did terrible things in Watergate. I admit my offenses, I admit my responsibility.” Nixon was unwilling to do that. And for years, Ford, you know, sort of talked to himself, why wasn’t able to—I able to persuade Nixon to sign a statement of guilt? Late in life, just before I talked to him some years ago, he said he had discovered that Al Haig, his holdover chief of staff from Richard Nixon, he felt that Haig had gone to Nixon and essentially transmitted to him the message, “Ford’s going to give you the pardon anyway, don’t sign a statement of guilt, you don’t need to.”

MR. RUSSERT: Bill Safire, do you think Richard Nixon ever thought about being more forthcoming about his guilt, responsibility?

MR. WILLIAM SAFIRE: I don’t think he, he felt that he was guilty. And I think he felt—now, I don’t know this, I didn’t interview him about it—I think he felt that he had given a sword, as he put it, to—on television once, to his enemies. And the most important thing I think that came out of those powerful moments, when Tom Brokaw talked about that, that last speech he made before he got on the helicopter, he did say at the very end that if you hate people who hate you, you destroy yourself. Now, that meant that he understood what had happened. And more than admitting to a coverup, which he obviously played a part in, more than that, the understanding that hating people was a way of destroying yourself, I think, was the big understanding that Nixon came to.

MR. RUSSERT: That debate will play out for years to come, but today we do remember the noble life of Gerald R. Ford, the 38th president.

Let me turn to the topic at hand. Gene Robinson, the biggest story in ‘06 was?

MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: The biggest story in ‘06 was the, the, the midterm election, I guess, the, the big switch. I’m getting two stories in here, actually.

MR. RUSSERT: Good.

MR. ROBINSON: Because it was because of Iraq and, and I think the public’s turn against the war in Iraq, against the president’s policy and the public’s stamping of its feet and, and demanding a new policy and, and, and an exit from Iraq. I think that was the big story.

MR. RUSSERT: Kate O’Beirne?

MS. KATE O’BEIRNE: I would agree. Iraq’s the big story, just as it is the central issue in this president’s presidency. I can’t help thinking he will be very happy to see the end of 2006. Might even stay up past 9:00 tonight to welcome in 2007. Just a really terrible year, beginning with the Dubai port debacle early in the year. I mean, he got Justice Alito on the court. That, of course, was a win. But boy, the year went downhill after that, and I think Iraq was the major story, and the elections, of course, where the central question was Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: You subscribe to the Robinson theory that it was the midterm elections driven by Iraq?

MR. E.J. DIONNE: Yes. It was Iraq. Also by corruption stories in the House of Representatives. You can’t put aside the problems that caused the Republicans. I think President Bush is going to stay awake just to make sure it becomes 2007. And I think this—I think this election was really that conservative crackup that people have been talking about for 20 years, and it never quite materializes, Kate probably is sure that it won’t materialize again, but I really think the whole approach of the—you know, the Reagan approach, but in particular the approach of the Republican revolution in Congress was overturned. And I think you’re going to see a lot of interesting turmoil and debate inside the Republican Party, both in their presidential campaign and in Congress about whether you need to turn a page and find, as Bill Safire once wrote, I believe, for Richard Nixon, “The drive—or the lift of a driving dream.” They need a new driving dream to go forward.

MR. RUSSERT: Professor Beschloss, so we have a boiling pot here and we put a little bit of Iraq, a little bit of corruption, a little bit of a conservative crackup, according to Mr. Dionne. We had a midterm election where the Democrats took control. Was that the story of ‘06?

MR. BESCHLOSS: I think it was and it’s stemming from what happened in Iraq. You know, this was the year that most Americans really turned and said, “We think we’re losing in Iraq. We think this was the wrong thing.” And you know, as an historian, Tim, you know, I write history books and one reason I do is that I have this idea that if our leaders and our people have made big mistakes in history, we learn from those and we don’t repeat them. And, you know, I never thought that we’d repeat some of the biggest lessons of Vietnam starting with you have a big debate before you get into a war like this, make sure that everyone knows this war may drag on and they’re signed on at the beginning. And one more just to name another, the Powell Doctrine, which came out of Vietnam. Colin Powell’s idea that if you go into war, you do it with overwhelming force to make sure you’d win. I wouldn’t have thought that we wouldn’t have done that again.

MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Safire.

MR. SAFIRE: The Iraq story is obviously the big story of the year. And I look at the Trumanesque quality in the White House now. You have a president who is facing all this bad news coming out of Iraq and the casualties and the brink of civil war. And he’s hanging in there and he’s not admitting defeat, he’s not embracing defeatism. And he’s coming up with another approach, and who knows, he may turn it around.

MS. O’BEIRNE: In 2004, being steadfast like that served him well. The contrast was John Kerry is a flip-flopper and George Bush is steadfast. But by 2006, that was no longer an asset. What looked—what they considered steadfast, I think, looked stubborn and out of touch. And they’re only post-election making up for that perception, I’m afraid.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me talk about Iraq and we’re going to talk about Mr. Safire’s office pool, the various options you lay out. But first, because this is a program of accountability, let me—Bill—bring Bill Safire back, January 2nd, 2005. Two years ago, his prediction about Iraq. Let’s read.

“I think we’re going to win in Iraq. I think by the end of next year,” that would be the end of ‘06, “we’ll have begun to withdraw our forces. We won’t have them out, but we’ll have begun to withdraw. ... I don’t see a long civil war there.”

How do you plead?

MR. SAFIRE: Optimistic, and frankly, that was as well-sourced a prediction as I’ve ever had.

MR. ROBINSON: That was the problem.

MR. BESCHLOSS: They know things that we don’t know, right, Bill?

MR. SAFIRE: But one of these days I’m going to be right.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, here are the questions that you posed...

MR. DIONNE: He’s steadfast.

MR. RUSSERT: Yeah. Here’s the Safire office pool, and we’re all going to take it.

“The level of American troops in Iraq at year’s end”—that’s at 2007, end of this, next year, 2007, A: over 100,000, down from 160; under 100,000 from today’s unsurged 140; under 80, with announced timetable for downsizing in ‘08 to 40 to secure Iraqi Kurdistan.”

Mr. Safire, you picked A, over 100,000.

MR. SAFIRE: I think what we’ll have is surging, the surge will be there. And the Democrats will go along with the surge, provided that it can be shown to have a mission in mind, and has some support from the Iraqis. Even Hillary Clinton, when she said, “I’m against the surge unless it has some other mission in mind.”

MR. RUSSERT: Gene Robinson, you think the Democrats will go along with the president sending more troops to Iraq?

MR. ROBINSON: Well, you know, it’s, it’s interesting. It looks, at the moment as if they will. I would take issue only with the, the assertion that it will be down from 160. I’m not sure it will be. I’m not sure the troop level will be down from there. It could be 160 or more, depending on, on what the “surge” is, because, from what I hear from President Bush, he does not seem to see this as a two- or three-month deal, and, in fact, what can you do with 20,000 or 30,000 additional troops in just a few months? The military analysts seem to say, basically, not very much. It, it takes much longer than that to pacify a megalopolis like Baghdad. And, and so I think troop levels could be quite high at the end of the year.

MR. RUSSERT: Kate O’Beirne, we expect to hear from the president next week or two about his decision on Iraq. He has said repeatedly, “If the generals want more troops, they get them; they want fewer troops, they get that.” We’ve seen published reports of the chiefs—Joint Chiefs of Staff, of military people on the ground opposing this surge. How does he deal with it? How does he finesse that?

MS. O’BEIRNE: Well, of course Bill Safire had a lot of company, well-informed company, when he was predicting that there’d be a drawdown by the end of this year. General Casey predicted a drawdown by the end of this year. And what we’ve learned since Don Rumsfeld left the Pentagon is that he was very much in step with his field commanders, because there’s resistance on the part of General Casey and others to increasing the number of troops, owing to their conviction. True, they, they buy the Rumsfeld theory, that the lighter footprint is better, that the—they need more troops, but they should be Iraqi troops, and that the military is simply stretched too far.

The most hawkish voices president’s listening to, including former vice chief of staff of the Army Jack Keane, says minimum 30,000, minimum 18 months. So I think Gene’s right. I, I wouldn’t expect, if there is this surge, that it, that it would be temporary.

MR. RUSSERT: E.J., how do Democrats handle this?

MR. DIONNE: I think it’s going to be difficult for them in a technical sense, because the president does have this power. And there’re only so many things that Congress can do. They can cut off the funds, which a lot of Democrats say they don’t want to do. I think most of them are going to come out against the surge, and I think they’re going to do so for this reason: that, first of all, this is the first time the president’s going to have to publicly break with some substantial number of people in his own military who’re saying, “We don’t think this works.”

Secondly, I think the surge is premised on the idea, “Well, those who supported the war can’t think of anything else, so let’s surge.” But I think it’s based on the same false optimism that misled us right from the beginning of the war, that this was going to be easy, that there would be no civil war, the famous Cheney interview on your show. And I don’t yet see the surge connected to a political program to change Iraq enough to create more security. Maybe Bill will be right and they’ll have some sudden coming together of so-called moderate forces. I’m just very pessimistic about that happening. And I don’t think the surge helps that political outcome.

MR. RUSSERT: Think in—back in history, Michael Beschloss. If a president steps forward and says, “I’m going to send more American troops to Iraq,” which now is approved about 15--by 15 percent of the American people...

MR. BESCHLOSS: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...you assume that when he gets behind the issue and tries to go around the country and campaign for it, that margin may go up a little bit. But there’re probably be very strong opposition from the Democratic Party. How does history look upon a president taking on an issue like that, that is so unpopular, when it involves the young men and women of the military?

MR. BESCHLOSS: Ultimately, if it works in the end, he’s honored; and if it doesn’t, he’s reviled, as Lyndon Johnson was in Vietnam.

MR. SAFIRE: That’s exactly right.

MR. BESCHLOSS: And you know, the other thing, Tim, you know, I’ve just been thinking as we’ve been talking about this, presidents fight wars much more effectively when you have a big risk opposition. Franklin Roosevelt before World War II, huge isolationist worry about getting involved in World War II. And also, during the war, a lot of people in Congress holding Roosevelt’s feet to the fire.

That really hasn’t happened with George Bush. In 2002, there were too many Democrats who, you know, we would all hear in Washington, who privately were saying, “I’m really worried about this war, I wish I could be against it, but I’m terrified to vote against it because it might defeat me next time.” That has been one reason why this war has been not as well prosecuted as it, as it should be.

MR. RUSSERT: And now the Democrats are lining up, those who are running for president, saying, “My vote was wrong.”

MR. BESCHLOSS: Right.

MR. RUSSERT: It was a mistake.

MR. BESCHLOSS: Right.

MR. DIONNE: Except for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

MR. RUSSERT: So far, the one exception. Which I want to turn to presidential politics, and we can continue to weave in Iraq into that.

But two questions in the office pool for Mr. Safire involve the Democrats and the Republicans. Who will lead amongst primary voters at the end of 2007? Mr. Safire lists Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Gore, and then Richardson, Biden, Dodd and Dean. He predicts Hillary Clinton will lead by the end of ‘07.

MR. SAFIRE: She’s organized, she’s ready, and we’re going to see all these “of the month” candidates. All of a sudden we see the emergence of the number one best seller on The New York Times’ Best Seller list, Obama—Barack Obama.

MR. RUSSERT: And John Edwards had a very good roll-out. Big crowds in New Hampshire...

MR. SAFIRE: Right, right, right.

MR. RUSSERT: ...Iowa, Nevada, his home state of North Carolina.

MR. SAFIRE: But, you see, what will, will—what we have to do is come up with somebody new every couple of months. And we all swarm all over him. In a couple of months, I’m sure, it’s going to dawn on somebody that the Hispanic vote is very important. And then we’ll look around, and there the Democrats will have Bill Richardson. And he’ll be on the cover of Time and Newsweek.

MR. RUSSERT: Gene Robinson, is Obama simply the candidate du jour, or do you think that he will run, and has real political legs in a tough primary battle?

MR. ROBINSON: I think he will run, and I think—I think he does have legs. I’m not sure he will win the nomination or win the presidency. I think that’s a—that’s tougher for him in many ways than Hillary Clinton. I mean if—you know, look at the fascinating race, you’ve got, you know, the first really, really credible black candidate, the first really, really credible female candidate. We don’t have historical precedent to look back on to see how blacks and women do in national elections. But if you look at statewide elections, women do a lot better than, than black people do. There are currently, what, eight or nine female governors. There have been two in our—two black governors in our history. There are 16, I think, female senators. There’s one black senator, Senator Obama. So you’d have to say the hill is higher for him than it is for Hillary.

MR. RUSSERT: Certainly, the competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has generated the best T-shirt of this novice campaign, a picture of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and it says “Don’t tell Mama I’m for Obama.”

Kate O’Beirne, let me move to the Republicans. Here’s the Safire office poll. He has McCain, Romney, Giuliani, then Gingrich, Rice, Brownback and Hagel. He says that at the end of ‘07, John McCain will be ahead in those polls.

MS. O’BEIRNE: I think polls of likely Republican primary voters, by the end of the year, would probably put John McCain on top. You know, the—they’re, they’re not going to tune in like we will, have been chewing over it all year, and given that he’s run before, and the name recognition. And although there are reservations on the part of a lot of conservatives about John McCain, he has conservative support, too. I think John McCain will probably top the polls, which is not to say he’ll be the nominee.

MR. RUSSERT: Who will be?

MS. O’BEIRNE: I think there are vulnerabilities for John McCain owing to the antipathy of so many conservatives. Mitt Romney, governor of Massachusetts, could emerge as a viable conservative alternative to John McCain. We like governors. They tend to make it to the Oval Office a lot more often than senators do, for reasons we’re always reminded during these races. So there’s room for a conservative alternative to John McCain, I think.

MR. RUSSERT: E.J., how do you see ‘08 emerging?

MR. DIONNE: Well, on the Republican side, I see an opening for a dark horse, for all the reasons Kate talked about. So that somebody like Huckabee or even in a long-shot, Brownback, could sneak into this competition. Romney is a very appealing person, but he’s had a terrible time the last few weeks on all this flip-flopping over the gay marriage issue, which I think has really taken a toll on him.

On the Democratic side, you know, I feel like predicting John Edwards since no one but his wife would ever do that. Barack Obama is one of the most formidable political talents I’ve ever met. There are only three people where, in the last 20 years, where the moment I met them, long before they became public figures, I knew they were going far. The first was Newt Gingrich in ‘86, Bill Clinton in ‘87, Barack Obama in ‘97. He is really—I think he’s the real deal.

MR. RUSSERT: Michael Beschloss.

MR. BESCHLOSS: Well, coming from Illinois, you know, we’ve got two Illinois candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, so we’re doing well. But, you know, the one thing that occurs to me—I almost hate the idea that these polls matter this early. We’ve been talking about Jerry Ford this week. When Ford was nominated in the summer of ‘76 in Kansas City, that went all the way down to the convention. You had six months of a race between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. It showed us a lot about the two guys and also how effective they might or might not be in the fall. We don’t have that anymore. This is probably going to be decided in about two after weeks after Iowa in 2008. I sure wish we went back to at least something of the old system so we all had more time.

MR. SAFIRE: You’d break the rice bowls of everybody around this table.

MR. BESCHLOSS: I know.

MR. DIONNE: But Bill is right. Hillary Clinton has one of the most formidable operations built over a very long period of time and that cannot be discounted.

MR. RUSSERT: You have front-runner-itis? You think it’s McCain vs.

Clinton?

MR. SAFIRE: Yes, I think so. As of now. But time and chance happen to us all and two years is a long time and...

MR. RUSSERT: But we’ll know the nominees in 13 months.

MR. SAFIRE: Thirteen months is a long time.

MS. O’BEIRNE: Because he’s so talented and the fresh face is so appealing, although I disagree, I think the, the real credible first black candidate, although he didn’t run, was Colin Powell, given his, his qualifications vs. Barack Obama. He could, he could dent Hillary Clinton’s inevitability, which is a huge asset for her at the moment, that she’d be the nominee.

MR. SAFIRE: Yes.

MS. O’BEIRNE: And create an appetite for a new face. And if it winds up not being him because of reservations about his experience, John Edwards could benefit.

MR. RUSSERT: There was a big event at the White House a few weeks ago. One member of this roundtable was honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and I would like to show that scene right now.

(Videotape, December 15, 2006):

PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: He’s a voice of independence and principle. And American journalism is better for the contributions from William Safire. Congratulations.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Presidential Medal of Freedom. What a rare honor.

MR. SAFIRE: I was going to wear it today, but I thought that was...

MS. O’BEIRNE: Yeah, congratulations.

MR. SAFIRE: It came as a bolt from the blue. You, you don’t lobby for it. I certainly didn’t expect it. But you sit there in the White House next to people like Natan Sharansky, the great dissident and, and historians like David McCullough and Paul Johnson, and it was quite a moment. And you do get to bring your whole family. And it knocked me out, to tell you the truth.

MR. RUSSERT: Nothing better than that.

Before we go, how about a new year’s wish for our country and our world? E.J.

Dionne, start us off.

MR. DIONNE: I would wish, would wish that Bill be right and I be wrong on Iraq.

MR. RUSSERT: Hm.

MR. DIONNE: And that things sort of straighten out to some degree. I just think that’s a real long shot, and...

MR. RUSSERT: Kate?

MS. O’BEIRNE: We’re, we’re at war, although too few are bearing the burden of so many of us, so you have to think about the troops in the field, it seems to me, you know, entering the new year. And I would join E.J., I hope Bill’s right about our prospects in Iraq given the, given the sacrifice they’ve made.

MR. RUSSERT: Eugene Robinson?

MR. ROBINSON: Facing the reality in Iraq and not provoking a wider Mideast war.

MR. RUSSERT: Bill Safire?

MR. SAFIRE: Remembering the, the beauty of last night’s services and of Tuesday’s service, too, that reminds us that we can remember some great things about presidents and not just tear them down.

MR. RUSSERT: Michael Beschloss.

MR. BESCHLOSS: I’ll be less lofty. I’m a big Chicago Cubs fan, I’ve got two boys who are 12 and 10, they love the Nationals. We’re just hoping for something this year.

MR. RUSSERT: Hope springs eternal. Even I couldn’t do the Buffalo Bills, my guys.

But thank you all for an uplifting conversation. Happy new year, everybody.

MS. O’BEIRNE: Happy new year.

MR. ROBINSON: Happy new year.

MR. BESCHLOSS: Happy new year.

MR. DIONNE: Happy new year.

MR. SAFIRE: Happy new year.

MR. RUSSERT: And we’ll be right back.

(Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT: That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS. Happy new year, everybody.

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