MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: A school, a nation mourn the deaths of 32 members of the Virginia Tech community. Students and teachers, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, senselessly killed by this student, Seung-Hui Cho. What lessons can be learned from this horrific event about security at our schools, the diagnosis and treatment of students with mental illness, and the purchase of firearms?
With us, exclusive interviews with two members of the panel established by the governor of Virginia to review the tragedy: the chairman, retired Virginia state police superintendent Colonel Gerald Massengill; and the former secretary of homeland security, Tom Ridge; plus, the two Bush administration Cabinet secretaries who will conduct a nationwide review of the broader issues, the secretary of Health and Human Services, Michael Leavitt, and the secretary of education, Margaret Spellings. Massengill, Ridge, Leavitt and Spellings only on MEET THE PRESS.
Then, the attorney general under fire from his fellow Republicans.
SEN. TOM COBURN (R-OK): I believe that the best way to put this behind us is your resignation.
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MR. RUSSERT: And the Democratic Senate leader under fire for his comments on Iraq.
SEN. MAJ. LEADER HARRY REID (D-NV): This war is lost.
(End of videotape)
MR. RUSSERT: Insights and analysis from presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin; NBC News White House correspondent David Gregory; the editor of Newsweek magazine, Jon Meacham; and NBC News Justice correspondent Pete Williams.
But first, joining us from the Virginia Tech campus is the president of the university, Dr. Charles Steger.
Dr. Steger, welcome. On behalf of all of us, our deepest sympathies for all that has occurred, particularly to the families of those who have lost their loved ones.
I’d like to...
DR. CHARLES STEGER: Thank you very much.
MR. RUSSERT: Thank you, doctor. I’d like to begin by asking you to reflect upon the last seven days at Virginia Tech.
DR. STEGER: I think we find ourselves still in a stage of shock, but we also draw a great deal of strength from the enormous outpouring of support that we’ve received from around the world. And what we’re trying to do now is to focus our attention on supporting these families and also getting the school back on track with the classes opening tomorrow.
MR. RUSSERT: As you well know, doctor, back in August of 2006, the very first day of class at Virginia Tech...
DR. STEGER: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...there was a gunman loose at Blacksburg, and the campus was shut down.
DR. STEGER: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: Have you thought about that reaction as—and compared it to what happened last week when, after the first shooting, the campus was not shut down?
DR. STEGER: Well, in the first shooting that occurred, as soon as the police found a witness, we had a suspect identified who was pursued and taken into custody. I was advised that it looked like the event was contained to that dorm room, and we had a suspect being questioned at the moment, so we focused our energy on dealing with that particular incident. We had no way of anticipating what was yet to come in a matter of minutes.
MR. RUSSERT: In terms of campus alert, the University of Texas has a system where text messages are sent to every student, member and faculty immediately in case of a crisis.
DR. STEGER: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: Will Virginia Tech consider something like that in the future?
DR. STEGER: Actually, we are—were in the process of putting in place such a system when this event occurred.
MR. RUSSERT: And it will be in place relatively soon?
DR. STEGER: Yes, it will be.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me ask you about the whole issue of mental health in, in students and refer you to an article from The New York Times, which I’ll share with you and our viewers. “English professors and students appear to have worked harder than anyone to intervene in [Cho’s] life. Trying to balance the freedom needed to be creative against the warning” sign—“signs of psychosis, as many as eight of his teachers in the last 18 months had formed what one called a ‘task force’ to discuss how to handle him, gathering twice on the subject and frequently communicating among themselves.
“On at least two separate occasions they reached out to university officials, telling them as recently as this September that Mr. Cho was trouble. They made little headway, however, and no action was taken by school administrators in response to their concerns.”
In hindsight, looking back upon this, what could have been done differently, and what can be done differently in the future with troubled students?
DR. STEGER: Well, I think one, we, we need to examine the issue of the balance between the rights of the individual and those of collective society. I certainly hope, and I’m sure that the investigations that are under way, will give us a much more detail as to how this case was handled. But it is something that I think we should reflect upon very carefully and see what we can learn to ensure that this sort of tragic event doesn’t happen on another campus.
MR. RUSSERT: On that terrible morning at 7:15, when the gunman went to the residence hall, is there any indication or evidence that he had any connection to his two victims?
DR. STEGER: No. And as a matter of fact, I don’t believe we have established any connection to this point.
MR. RUSSERT: And when he went to Norris Hall and killed 28 more people, is there any indication as to why he chose that particular hall?
DR. STEGER: Not to my knowledge at this point. We are, of course, examining all the class roles, all of the interaction he may have had with any of these individuals, and I’m looking forward to learning more about that as we look at every detail of what happened.
MR. RUSSERT: There’s lots of conversation on your campus about what will happen to Norris Hall. Would it, in fact, be demolished and a memorial placed there or would it be renamed in honor of Professor Librescu, the extraordinary 76-year-old Holocaust survivor...
DR. STEGER: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...who barricaded the door and gave his life so his 21 students could escape safely? What’s your thinking?
DR. STEGER: Well, we are going to ensure that the legacy left by all who lost their lives is going to be something they can be proud of. Liviu Librescu was, was my neighbor, and I can tell you his—the loss of all these students, but the people that we know directly, causes great shock and, and disbelief in this. But we will ensure that an appropriate memorial will be established.
MR. RUSSERT: What are the families of the victims saying to you, and the students on the campus, about this past week, the way the university handled it, and what we can learn for the future?
DR. STEGER: Well, I’ve talked with many of the families, I’ve visited the hospitals of—with the students who are recovering, and I’ll just give you one example. One young man I saw two days ago, who has a steel rod in his leg, told me he was planning to be in class on Tuesday. The expressions of support I’ve received from our students is absolutely overwhelming.
MR. RUSSERT: Do you expect most of them to return to class tomorrow?
DR. STEGER: It is their option, but I think we’ll have a very large number in class tomorrow, yes. We have a special community here. It is very strong and very resilient, and we support each other.
DR. RUSSERT: Dr. Steger, to that end, I’d like to put on the screen, share with our viewers a fund that has been established. Virginia Tech Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund, www.vt.edu. Or they can call 800-533-1144. That is monies that we raise to be used to help the victims and their families and establish memorials to honor those killed in this tragedy.
And Dr. Steger, before we go, I would like to say, on behalf of all of us here at NBC, let’s go, Hokies.
DR. STEGER: Thank you so much.
MR. RUSSERT: Take care and be well.
Colonel, you have been mandated by the governor of Virginia to look into this entire situation. Will you look into why there was not a shutdown of the campus immediately after the first shootings?
COL. GERALD MASSENGILL: Tim, I have been given that awesome responsibility, and we’re going to do what, what I would call a comprehensive case study of this entire event. We’re going to learn as much as we can about the shooter. We’re going to learn as much as we can about both incidents. And when we get all the, the information is out there, the accurate information, we’re going to ask the tough questions. I know that, in, in public safety, you only have one chance to get it right. And in this case, we’ll, we’ll learn what the circumstances were that the, the officials used to make that decision. And I, I would say to you that, at least from, from my perspective, the first decision—it’s been asked a lot, they locked down in August, why didn’t they now? Certainly, just from a commonsense perspective, you had a gunman in August that was running toward this campus, had already shot two police officers. In this particular instance, they thought, based on information we have now, that the shooter had left the campus. So I’m not going to make any—I’m not going to have any preconceived notions going into this, but we’re certainly going to take a tough look.
MR. RUSSERT: Governor Ridge, also about the reaction of the university to the presence of someone on its campus, in its dormitories with a very serious record of mental illness, will that be examined?
FMR. GOV. TOM RIDGE (R-PA): I don’t think, as the—under the leadership of the colonel at the direction of the governor, we’ve given a broad mandate, and I think what is very, very clear, this very unique situation surrounds a severely disturbed young man who’s very, very ill, who seemed to have access at the time, seemed to have lawful access to firearms in an environment that is one of the most open and cherished in America, a college and university campus. So there’s, there’s a range of issues that we’re going to have to look at, facts we’re going to have to look at, assumptions that were made, conclusions that were, were drawn. And it’s a, it’s a national tragedy, and, at the end of the day, I think, out of this tragedy, there may be lessons learned that have a national application. Tim, we’ve got over 4200 great colleges and universities in this country. We got 17 million men and women going to school. And maybe, out of this tragedy, we can reduce the risk that this could ever happen again.
MR. RUSSERT: But everything’s on the table?
FMR. GOV. RIDGE: Everything’s on the table. The governor’s been very clear, as the colonel pointed out. The, the primary problem, the individual that’s really to blame is deceased. And everybody—there’ll be a lot of other people looking for villains. We’ll let the other folks do that. We’re looking for potential solutions.
MR. RUSSERT: Two secretaries here, the secretary of health and human services, Michael Leavitt, Margaret Spellings, secretary of education. What mandate has the president given you?
SEC’Y. MARGARET SPELLINGS: Well, he’s asked us to look at things that, that we might do here in Washington to engage in, in a national dialogue, to listen from—listen to folks all around the country—educators, law enforcement officials—and really see what we can take away from this, what we in education call “a teachable moment” about the situation that has presented itself. This is a very complicated area of the law, with respect to student privacy and health privacy. And, you know, we want our educators and our students to feel safe always, and, and what we, we might learn from and how to improve this so it doesn’t happen again.
MR. RUSSERT: Is there any thought being given to national standards for a warning system on a campus or at a school so that students and faculty can learn immediately of crisis or trouble and take the necessary steps?
SEC’Y. SPELLINGS: Well, I think, like Governor Ridge, we don’t have preconceived notions about, about what we would or wouldn’t recommend. But I think we know that there really is no one-size-fits-all sort of solution, that institutions, higher institutions and K-12 institutions, are, are widely variant—big, small, rural, urban—and I think we would be guarded against, you know, prescribing from Washington one single solution.
MR. RUSSERT: But do you think there’s a need for schools to have such warning systems?
SEC’Y. SPELLINGS: Well, certainly, I—there is, and, and they do, often, many of them do. And I think this is an opportunity where every single university president, every single superintendant, campus principal, all of us as families, are thinking about what we would we do if this happened in our town. But I do want parents to know that—and students to know, that largely their schools are safe places to be. And, you know, I—we commend all the students who’re going back to school tomorrow, and we have to get about the business of learning.
MR. RUSSERT: Secretary Leavitt, in terms of mental health, here’s a, a young man who clearly had trouble and, as recently as two years ago, undergone—underwent serious analysis and treatment. And yet he was back in the dormitories. How do we deal with that?
SEC’Y. MICHAEL LEAVITT: Tim, it’s important to me to, to say that I join with you in being able to express the sympathy we feel for these families and the pain we’re all feeling. These are complex, mind-numbingly complex situations, and they, they cause festering conflicts that have already been part of our society to be inflamed again, and many of the kinds of questions you’re raising today are among them. How do we balance privacy with the need for security? How, how do we make certain that people have mental health treatment when they need it and not create a, a stigma for it? How do we protect privacy? These are the kinds of larger issues that are not just applicable to what happened at Blacksburg, but also what’s happening in this, this unexplainable pattern of nightmarish episodes of, of violence in our, in our society. And that’s what the president has asked Secretary Spellings and I, and Secretary, Secretary—or Attorney General Gonzales to look at. We’ll be going across the country asking that question, asking mental health professionals, asking governors, law enforcement, higher education officials, “Talk to us, tell us what you’re feeling, what suggestions, what can we learn from this?”
MR. RUSSERT: If a student or a teacher observes bizarre behavior, at this moment, what should they do?
SEC’Y. LEAVITT: Well, I think those are among the questions, and I think we’ll learn, from what—the very specific inquiry that’s done at Virginia Tech, what should the answer to that be. These are the balances. We—it may—we’ve been wrestling with these for years. In circumstances like this, we have to reweigh values that we’ve already set. In some cases, we conclude that we need to recalibrate. In other cases, we, we find that there are just risks in mortality and that we have to do better at what we’ve already decided to do. It may be we’ll find that we’ve already made the right decisions, but we just need to execute better.
MR. RUSSERT: Colonel, are you concerned—worried about copy cats?
COL. MASSENGILL: Yes, I think a lot of people are, Tim. You never know how something like this is going to influence the people that are on the edge already, and, and certainly that is a concern.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me show you the front page of The Economist magazine, a British publication. “America’s Tragedy,” a handgun with the American flag on that, and, and refer you an article in USA Today which begins this way:
“Virginia State Police said Cho could buy firearms legally even though he had once been ordered taken to a psychiatric hospital when he was reported to be suicidal. Federal law bars gun purchases by anyone who has been deemed a ‘mental defective’ by a court or ordered ‘committed to any mental institution.’
“Under the law, Cho didn’t fall into either category, Virginia State Police said. He was taken to a mental hospital for evaluation” “December 13, 2005. A friend had told police that Cho was suicidal after Cho had stalked female students at Virginia Tech. ...
“The next day, a judge said Cho ‘presents an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness’ but declined to commit him to a hospital, according to court documents. Instead, Cho was ordered to undergo outpatient psychiatric treatment.”
There seems to be a loophole in the application of federal law to the state of Virginia law, that because he was not formally committed, he was not, therefore—did not register on the computer background check, and was given a gun. Should someone like him be given a gun?
COL. MASSENGILL: No, certainly not. Certainly not. And this is one of the things that this panel’s going to be looking in depth at. This panel that we have, Tim, is a well thought out panel as far as membership. And we’ll be bringing aboard shortly—it’s going to be an eight-person panel—we’ll have a juvenile judge who specializes in mental health issues in Virginia.
But let me—let me say, Virginia, for years, has been on the forefront when it comes to background checks for firearms and, and those issues that we’re dealing with right now. Virginia was one of the first states to have the instant background check. Virginians are passionate about the Second Amendment. But at the same time, this debate is to point of sale issues and and who has to go through or whom has to go through those background checks has been in our legislature for the last several sessions, and I expect we’ll see them next session. But in this particular situation, as you pointed out, the, the nexus between the outpatient rather than the involuntary commitment seems to be—seems to be where the ball may have been dropped. And certainly our panel will be taking an extensive look at that.
MR. RUSSERT: Will your panel report before school returns in the fall?
COL. MASSENGILL: Well, Governor Kaine and I have talked about that, and, and we have not etched any timelines in stone. But we certainly are going to try to have something finished by the fall.
FMR. GOV. RIDGE: Yeah. You know, Tim, it’s interesting. We’ve had many discussions before about the gap between law enforcement and intelligence prior to 9/11. There does appear to be a, a wall between mental health professionals. Look, it—this was designed—the laws go back as far as the, the ‘70s to protect an individual’s right to privacy, and mental health. And unfortunately, this tragedy points out that, that we got to re-examine that nexus between that—the right of that private individual who will seek treatment and need treatment. And, by the way, over the past 10 years, with the development of, of neuroscience and the way we can treat young people with mental health illnesses, there’re probably more on the campuses than ever before, so we have to figure out a way that we can still protect the privacy and administer to the health needs of the student and, at the same, time make sure that when you have that aberrant behavior that we saw on the Virginia Tech campus reflected in many, many actions even before this tragedy, that somebody can intervene and help.
MR. RUSSERT: At both the level of campus and on—in terms of law enforcement officials in terms of, of giving gun licenses.
FMR. GOV. RIDGE: Exactly. Exactly.
MR. RUSSERT: Secretary Spellings, has any study been done about video games? There’ve been reports that Mr. Cho spent an inordinate amount of time looking at violent video games.
SEC’Y. SPELLINGS: Well, I think we do have some evidence that when children, mostly the research is around young children, are exposed to violence—violence on television or video games and the like—that that certainly does net out in, in more violent behavior. And I think, again, those are the sorts of things that we’ll engage in as we talk with educators and law enforcement professionals, parents and policy makers about these issues.
MR. RUSSERT: Will there be a written report for the president and for the American people?
SEC’Y. SPELLINGS: Yes. We will be presenting, fairly shortly after this, after we get around the country, some, some recommendations or thoughts about what we might do.
MR. RUSSERT: Are you going to schools? Are you having town halls? How do you plan to...
SEC’Y. SPELLINGS: Any and all of that. We’re formulating our plans now. Secretary Leavitt is going to talk with the president on Monday. I’m going to visit with him on Tuesday. And yes, we intend to do a lot of listening, obviously, and we understand that we don’t have all the answers here in Washington and that experiences are going to vary widely. State laws vary widely. And, and we’ll, we’ll just take a look at all of that as we prepare our work for the president.
MR. RUSSERT: Secretary Leavitt, any thought of looking into video games and the impact they may have on young children?
SEC’Y. LEAVITT: I, I think we’ll have to look at a wide range because, while what we’re focusing on right now is what’s happened at, at Blacksburg, we do need to think about this pattern of unexplainable violence that occurs, and ask ourselves what can we learn from each of these. It will undoubtedly cause us to reweigh many of the judgments we’ve made in the past, and recalibrate on some, and others recognize that we just need to do what we’ve already decided better. I, I expect we’ll—there’ll be conversations about guns. There’ll be talk—we’ll have conversations about mental health policy and how we balance that. All of these things are—these are festering conflicts that, that have been inflamed by this. Every sensitivity of, of us as human beings is offended by this, and it will be an opportunity for us to rethink the decisions we’ve already made and perhaps make, make adjustments.
MR. RUSSERT: In terms of mental health, do you share Governor Ridge’s view that this fine line between the rights of the patient and the rights of society may have to be revisited, that if someone has a history of mental illness, perhaps a dormitory’s not the best place to reside or certainly the—be given a gun license is not the best policy for a government to be involved in.
SEC’Y. LEAVITT: It undoubtedly will be revisited. The question is, will we find a better way than we already have? This is a very difficult proposition, and one that we can’t overreact to. Because there, there—the decisions we have made up to this point have been made in the context of these difficult countervailing matters, the privacy issues of, of a person juxtaposed with the—I mean, we’re talking about the basic discussion between how we balance liberty and security. These are fundamental issues of a society, and sometimes we find that there are risks to mortality that we simply have to march forward and do the—a better job in dealing with the imperfections our world presents us with.
MR. RUSSERT: Colonel, there’s been discussion that, under the assault weapons ban that went out of existence a few years ago, the magazine clip that this killer used, allowing him to have rapid fire, would have been outlawed. Were you—will your review extend into something like that?
COL. MASSENGILL: We will, we will look at that and see exactly what it did mean, Tim. I, I couldn’t agree more with the secretary and, and with Governor Ridge. These issues seem to be slowly evolving into a mental health issue, and, and a good thoughtful process that will allow us to step back from the emotions and look at this in totality, I think, is what needed—is needed, and I think that’s what we going to get.
MR. RUSSERT: What’s your primary concern, Governor?
FMR. GOV. RIDGE: I think, as a board member, is, is, is to be as open as we possibly can to—this is not going to be a police investigation. We have a lot of capable people being involved in that. We need to get that information, and we will consume that. But I think the primary goal is to do everything we possibly can to learn as much as we possibly can and apply it, not just to the Virginia Tech, but make sure that the lesson is learned, as hard and as tragic and as difficult as they’ve been, give us an opportunity to rethink how we go about protecting one of the most cherished institutions in America, and that’s our colleges and universities where we educated our young people. And the concern is that we do it right. As the colonel said before, you only get one chance to do it right. We kind of get a second chance here. And everything, from mental health to the means of detecting this, to the communication, e-mails, text messages, are there other ways, I think to—as the governor says, there’s a broad mandate. Let’s, let’s do a deep dive. Let’s make sure we understand everything that went—transpired. All the facts, all the assumptions, all the conclusions, test them all. Get lessons learned. We have 40-plus-thousand universities out there. Maybe they’ll benefit. Maybe—we need to reduce the risk of this ever happens again. I’m not sure we can ever eliminate it, but we sure—I think we can reduce it.
MR. RUSSERT: Will that cost money if schools upgrade their communications systems or have more security on their campuses or need more resources to train their teachers in recognizing the mental health shortcomings?
SEC’Y. SPELLINGS: Well, clearly I think the potential for additional resources certainly is implicated. I also think we’re going to learn to develop some models, and we’re going to figure out, you know, what works best where. I think it’s a—you know, obviously law enforcement and public education are largely state and local responsibilities, and they are governed by state and local laws, largely. But I think, clearly, the best use of resources and the best use of our capabilities, like technology, certainly will be brought to bear in these discussions.
MR. RUSSERT: Have you heard from high school principals, superintendents in the last few days as to how, how they should navigate the situation?
SEC’Y. SPELLINGS: Clearly, you know, just in, in the aftermath of the most recent spate of shootings last fall, General Gonzales and I had a—had a school safety summit that was largely focused on our—on our post-second—our secondary system. And yes, they’re concerned. And I think each and every time we have one of these incidents, they revisit their own policies. They talk with their administrators and families about are, are they prepared in this eventuality, in this set of circumstances. And I think they’re all doing that all over the country.
SEC’Y. LEAVITT: The answer is yes, we’re hearing from many people around the country, particularly mental health professionals and particularly from those who lead agencies in state governments and local governments on mental health. There’s a, a great concern on their part that as we revisit this, that we not overreact, that we recognize that the policies that have been established have been done in the context of this debate, and that this is a moment for us to recalibrate and rethink, but it—we need to do it in a thoughtful, national dialogue on it and not move in a way that would in some way unsettle a balance that may, in fact, have equilibrium today.
MR. RUSSERT: Colonel, before we go, you will try to, to teach us all the lessons learned from this tragedy. But if mistakes were made, you will be willing to point them out?
COL. MASSENGILL: Oh, no doubt. No doubt. And I, I would like to think, Tim, that’s one reason that the governor came to me. I think he, he realizes that this is important. This thing has gripped the entire nation, and appropriately so. So yes, I’d be remiss to do anything else but that.
MR. RUSSERT: Sometimes it’s hard for one police officer to criticize another.
COL. MASSENGILL: Oh, I don’t, I don’t think that’ll be any problem. You know, we’re, we’re not going out trying to second guess or point fingers and that kind of stuff. But if we see something, Tim, that, that, that we think should have been done differently, that will make our universities and our schools in this country safer, you bet we’re going to point it out.
MR. RUSSERT: We thank you all. A very important conversation with a very difficult subject, and we wish you the very best in your study.
COL. MASSENGILL: Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: All of you.
SEC’Y. LEAVITT: Thanks, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, the future of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The Democrats and the president continue to debate funding for the war in Iraq. And the Supreme Court weighs in on the abortion issue. Our political roundtable is next, right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Our political roundtable after this brief station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we are back.
MR. JON MEACHAM: Good morning.
MR. RUSSERT: Terrible, terrible week in this country. One of the reactions in Washington was a discussion of gun control. A subdued discussion, I might add. Here’s the poll of the American people by the Associated Press. “Do you support a presidential candidate who favors stricter gun control?” More likely, 55; less likely, 32. Look at this breakdown by party: Democrats 69-to-21, 21, Republicans, less likely, 50-to-34; independents, 50-to-34. And yet neither party seemed to be very enthusiastic this week, Jon Meacham...
MR. MEACHAM: Mm.
MR. RUSSERT: ...about gun control. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, this is an article from Newsday, the Long Island newspaper. “[Rudy] Giuliani this week issued statements on gun control and late term abortion that differ sharply from his previous positions, opening him up to ‘flip-flop’ charges by activists. The gun control switch seems particularly stark. As New York mayor, Giuliani didn’t just support tough controls—he became former President Bill Clinton’s go-to Republican to lobby a GOP Congress to back an assault weapons ban.
“Later, Giuliani joined a lawsuit against gun makers and called for a ‘uniform law passed by Congress’ to regulate handgun ownership.” That’s not part of his agenda now.
MR. MEACHAM: No, and I think you saw what the Democrats—there was a lot of kind of deafening silence, in a way, on the gun issue most of the week. You know that in 1994 the Republican blowout was to some extent, and in some quarters, blamed on the crime bill, on President Clinton’s anti-crime legislation. I know that people close to the Gores blame the loss of Tennessee in 2000, and therefore the loss of the presidency, on the gun issue. And so I think the Democrats are very touchy about this, and the Republicans are, rather predictably at this point, playing, playing to the base. It’s an inevitable conversation that comes up after one of these horrible things. We have a piece in Newsweek this week by Mike Bloomberg, who is, argues, “Let’s enforce what’s on the books. Let’s crack down on illegal guns.” And I think you’ll see more of that moderate Bloomberg-Schwarzenegger wing of politics taking the lead on this.
MR. RUSSERT: Doris Kearns Goodwin, in fact The Washington Post reports this:
“With the Virginia Tech shootings resurrecting calls for tighter gun controls, the” NRA “has begun negotiations with senior Democrats over legislation to bolster the national background-check system and potentially block gun purchases by the mentally ill.
“Multiple gun control measures were introduced after the Columbine High School shootings eight years ago, but the NRA helped thwart them all, then helped defeat Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 bid for the White House,” as Jon mentioned. “With that in mind, Democratic leaders are anxious to bring the NRA aboard as they try to respond to this week’s shootings.”
And I refer to you these comments from senior Democrats. Charlie Rangel of Harlem, “It’s a regional thing. It’s a cultural thing.” Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut, “The states are dealing with gun issues. We tried it,” “it didn’t succeed.” Lloyd Doggett of Texas, “Unless we get some” kind of “leadership from the White House, we’re not going to take this kind of political damage bringing up something that would never become law.” Clearly the Democrats are saying, “Hold off on gun control.”
MS. DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, it seems to me, though, that the Democrats are misreading history when they blame the 2000 election on gun control strength, and when they blame 1994--it’s true that some people claim that, but there were a lot of other reasons why the Democrats lost in ‘94, a lot of other reasons why Gore lost in 2000. We make a narrative sometimes that’s based on something too simple. Also, the Democrats want those mountain states where they had hunters who won.
But on the other hand, there’s an even deeper threat in the country today which is the desire for the country to overcome polarization. And I think the first Democratic candidate who can speak on both sides of this issue empathetically, understanding that freedom desire that’s been part of our Second Amendment from the beginning, but the need for security on the other side, and figure out how to—I think you’re right (points to Jon Meacham), a moderate approach. They can’t just be silent about this, this has been one of their issues. They’ve got to take some sort of leadership.
MR. DAVID GREGORY: Tim, you know, there’s, there’s a political point here, and I heard a commonsense approach. Something like this happens and you can see some laser-like areas where they can focus. Keeping guns out of the hands of those who are mentally unstable seems like an obvious area to bring in the NRA, to bring in the public policy folks, politicians. Another has to do with the political, which is get the NRA and the White House on board to sort of bring something up so it doesn’t play to all the polarization on this issue. Where it gets more difficult is to sort of engage both parties on these issues and say, “Is there a way we can, we can have this debate in a more reasonable way that is not so polarizing, that speaks to the availability of guns, that speaks to these ammunitions clips where you can, you can fire off 15 shots at a time and create this kind of carnage without getting into the familiar, entrenched areas?”
MR. PETE WILLIAMS: There’s ample reason to think, actually, that the existing federal law did clearly sweep up this gun purchase. But the Virginia state law was not in conformance with the federal law. Virginia’s law didn’t capture sufficient numbers of people who were mentally unqualified to own a gun. The sobering thing is, as defective as the Virginia system is, it’s considered the best in the country among the states in terms of looking at mental health records.
MR. RUSSERT: And Colonel Massengill seemed to indicate that it—he’d like to look at that loophole.
MR. WILLIAMS: Right, well, the Virginia attorney general’s office is already looking at whether the Virginia law needs to be changed.
MR. RUSSERT: Pete, a big decision in the Supreme Court about abortion rights. Explain it.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, the Court basically said that it’s never medically necessary to have this, this, this particular kind of abortion that opponents call partial birth abortion, that a health exception isn’t needed because it’s never medically necessary, and that Congress, as a moral issue, could say “We’re going to ban this, and you don’t need a health exception.” The first time a particular ban was—a particular kind of abortion procedure was struck down, first time the Supreme Court said, “You don’t need a health exception.” And I think what’s telling about the decision, Tim, is that the language of the decision is considered the sort of thing that people who oppose abortion are saying, you know, “Finally the Supreme Court gets it.” It’s, it’s, it’s very incendiary language in terms of how they describe the procedure. It says that abortion, there is a moral component to it, and so it—people who oppose abortion think this is a great thing, people who think there should be abortion rights are very alarmed.
MR. RUSSERT: Jon Meacham, perhaps it was Virginia Tech and other issues that captured the news attention, but this decision by the Supreme Court was significant, and, yet again, the Democrats seem to have been relatively careful in their response to it.
MR. MEACHAM: Well, you’re right, we had a week where some of the most fundamental questions in our national life, in our politics were changed to some extent. The—this is the first Roberts court sign that the long-feared liberal, liberal fears that the court was going to turn right on these issues—this is the first time that there’s actually evidence that, that they will. Although the—as you know, the country is against this procedure, and there’s there’s popular—against that. The, the people are against it. I think you have Democrats who are still struggling to find out how do they signal to the broad American public that they share their values, that it’s a party that understands and believes—whether it’s religion or guns or life—that they, too, are in tune with the public. And it’s—the Democrats have a long history of being able to do this, but it’s been a long time since they have.
MR. RUSSERT: In terms of defining debate, Democrats are much more comfortable, it seems, Doris, debating a woman’s fundamental right to choose as opposed to the specifics of a partial birth abortion.
MS. GOODWIN: And I think it probably was smart for them, in the context of this week, not to come out will full guns blazing about how they’re going to respond to the Supreme Court. I think Jon is right, tone is, is critical right now, and I think they’re struggling to figure out a way to make sure that women can especially understand the potential threat that this might be to their right to choose, but without going out and sort of sounding like, you know, they’re—all the alarms are coming, because that’s not going to help them right now. This debate is so important, and it’s a long-term debate. And, in a certain sense, what’s on their side is that people are willing to fight more for something they fear than for something they already have. So now women are going to be afraid that something is going to go further along. And if they can tap that without making it sound like they’re in the middle of a big war cry—because the country doesn’t want to hear that. The country wants restrained tone, I think.
MR. RUSSERT: Women who are in favor of abortion rights, and there are women who are opposed to abortion rights, as well, who are fearful on the other side...
MS. GOODWIN: Exactly right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...that a Democratic president would change the balance of the court.
MR. GREGORY: You know what’s interesting, too, we’re talking about guns, we’re talking about abortion, and these are such polarizing issues. And you talk about the politics of 2008, you have this interest is really on both sides, in both parties to talk about politics in a much different way. The, the rationales for candidacies like Rudy Giuliani or Barack Obama to sort of get beyond that level of partisanship. And it gets very hard, because there’s such political peril in engaging these issues in any other way besides the way that they have been fought over time. And that makes it a real test to see if Democrats and Republicans really do want to engage.
MR. RUSSERT: One area, subject, debate where there seems to be bipartisanship is the future of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. I was stunned watching the hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Pete, where the Republicans seemed to be much more aggressive than many of the Democrats. And it strikes me as if the Republicans are much more anxious to see him go, step down, than the Democrats are. The Democrats kind of enjoying this notion of if he stays, the investigation continues, drip, drip, drip, and Republicans are suggesting let’s stop now. Here’s Lindsey Graham, Republican senator from South Carolina. Let’s watch.
(Videotape, April 19, 2007)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): You said something that struck me, that sometimes it just came down to these were not the right people at the right time. If I applied that standard to you, what would you say?
(End of videotape)
MR. RUSSERT: Ouch.
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Arlen Specter called this Alberto Gonzales’ reconfirmation hearing. The problem is there’s not going to be a vote at the end of this. Alberto Gonzales is going on about his business. He’s made it very clear he wants to stay. He was at an awards ceremony Friday. He’s got a news conference coming up tomorrow on identity theft. He’s going to be appearing before Congress in May for a couple of hearings on the budget. It’s sort of the reverse of the usual process. In a confirmation, the White House sends it up to the Senate and says OK, you decide. Here, the Senate’s sort of making an entreaty to the president, saying you decide. On Friday the president reiterated his support for the attorney general. The attorney general says he wants to stay. His people think he did, given his sort of usual rhetorical style, in the Congress, they think he did about as well as could be expected. And I, I do think that the tone of the Senate has changed. This started out as an investigation of whether prosecutors were stopped from looking into corruption or there was some sort of pressure—political pressure that interfered with the justice system. It’s really become, now, a kind of referendum on the attorney general’s management style.
MR. RUSSERT: David Gregory, the White House staff, are they pushing back hard on you, in a—in an outright defense for the attorney general?
MR. GREGORY: No, and there’s nobody actually standing up and saying, “Well, he really acquitted himself well, and he, he pulled this off.” What they say is there’s no other revelation that really came out. If it it was a question of how this was handled, we admit it was handled extremely, extremely poorly, and people can make their judgments based on that. But should he lose his job for it? No, is their contention, and so they’ll stick by him. And this is, as one Republican said this to me, this is Bush being Bush. And if people think that Bush will throw him overboard if the heat gets too hot, but he won’t. He’ll stand by Alberto Gonzales as long as, as it’s possible. Or if he wants to remove him, may remove him on his own timetable. There’s also a recognition that to replace Alberto Gonzales now would only galvanize Democrats who want to keep going on this issue, want to get Karl Rove to testify and Harriet Miers. And that to do that would only help keep, keep the issue alive.
MR. RUSSERT: Doris.
MS. GOODWIN: And yet, on the other hand, keeping him there is like water torture. I mean, you know, he can learn, I think—President Bush—from Harry Truman. Because I think what’s behind the Republicans now speaking out against Gonzales—as we saw Lindsey Graham and Tom Coburn—is the idea that they know the war is unpopular, they know the president is unpopular, and there’s a sense of their own vulnerability because of the midterm elections. Just as Harry Truman had cronyism and corruption in those last days of his presidency, his war was unpopular, he was unpopular, but he had loyalty as his cardinal virtue, just as President Bush does.
MR. MEACHAM: Right.
MS. GOODWIN: And he refused to fire these people who he should have fired, so he kept them on until finally they had to be forced resignation, and people said it was water torture. There was even one guy who was an ambassador to Mexico who had admitted in a congressional hearing under the Kefauver, that he’d actually put gangsters into his New York Cabinet—he was the mayor—and he wouldn’t resign, he refused to resign. And Harry Truman said, “He’s a fighter, I’m going to support him.” Well, you know, after awhile, that undid Harry Truman. So I think President Bush, who loves Harry Truman, loves loyalty, has to realize that sometimes loyalty to the country is more important than loyalty to your friend, if it turns out that the time for Gonzales is to go.
MR. RUSSERT: It’s hard for a president when someone comes from their home state.
MS. GOODWIN: Oh, it’s terribly hard. But I mean, that’s where, as president, you sometimes have to undo your friendships. And, and what you have to hope for is that Mr. Gonzales—if this thing continues to unwind—realizes it’s his responsibility to give President Bush that chance.
MR. RUSSERT: A Democrat got in some hot water with, with his fellow party members as well. Harry Reid, the leader of the Democrats, talked about the war in Iraq and the funding, and this is what he had to say.
(Videotape, April 19, 2007)
SEN. MAJ. LEADER HARRY REID (D-NV): I believe, myself, that the secretary of state, secretary of defense—and you have to make your own decision as to what the president knows—that this war is lost.
(End of videotape)
MR. RUSSERT: Several Democrats called me, Jon Meacham, and said, “We don’t want—we do not, do not want to be debating whether the, the war is lost or not.”
MR. MEACHAM: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Reid went to the floor and tried to fix it the next day. But what is the significance of that comment, and what’s the state of the debate?
MR. MEACHAM: I think we’re in this odd moment where everyone wants to support the troops, but move away from the mission. And the Democrats are living in terror of—and I think that’s the reaction to Senator Reid’s comments—is to look as though they’re being unsupportive of the troops, because that is a—to link all these things together—that’s an American value. That’s something we should all share. We should be—in the political culture at the moment, we should be supporting the troops in the field, we should be taking care of them when we come home. That’s become a very live political question. And when the language of lives wasted, which Senator McCain said on Letterman, and had to...
MR. RUSSERT: Senator Obama.
MS. GOODWIN: Obama.
MR. MEACHAM: Senator Obama. People don’t want to hear that more than 3,000 American lives have been wasted in a war that, whatever you think about the run-up and the intelligence failures, was undertaken with Congress and with the broad support of the American people and is a grand historical bet. And it’s something that we are not going to know whether it’s worked or not worked for a long time.
MR. RUSSERT: David, is there any indication that the secretary of defense, or the secretary of state believe the war is lost?
MR. GREGORY: No. Not that they’ll certainly come out and, and say publicly. And, and they are behind a surge strategy that’s only halfway complete. But Republicans close to the White House said to me this week, “Look, we, we don’t want people to focus just on the war itself in terms of this is a referendum on the war, we’re in awful shape.” But what Harry Reid’s comments do is focus on what the alternative is from the Democrats, and it sort of distracts from how people feel about the war, and that’s where the president is trying to keep the focus, which is on concentrate on what they’re proposing and then the alternative, and is that a sound enough strategy?
MR. RUSSERT: The Democrats are going to pass legislation which says here’s the funding for the war, but here’s a date withdrawal for U.S. troops and benchmarks for the Iraqis to reach. The president will veto that.
MR. GREGORY: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: The Democrats will then send new legislation back, perhaps not with a withdrawal date, but saying to the president, “We want you to notify us, inform us on a regular basis as to whether or not the Iraqi government is performing adequately.” Will the president accept that language?
MR. GREGORY: It’s not clear whether—I think goals, benchmarks, more pressure on the Maliki government, I think he would accept that. I also think you saw Friday, it got overshadowed by the other news. The president for the first time gave an update to the American people that he really hasn’t done before, using slides, maps, and a more detailed and very sober analysis of how things are going. They say they want to do more of that. A lot of critics will say it’s way too late for that.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn again, return to the Virginia Tech situation. Pete Williams, NBC received the manifesto from the shooter, and here it is, all gruesome pages of it. When you first saw this and read this, what was your first reaction?
MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I think the first thing that comes through is that this was obviously a very disturbed young man. He—I think that’s thing one. Thing two is, you know, people sometimes say, “Well, he just snapped.” This is clearly not a person who just snapped. He started buying his first weapon in February. He bought the next one in March. He was practicing at a firing range near the campus. And you clearly see a lifetime of rage, resentment. And, and the other thing that comes through is he specifically refers to the two students who shot their fellow classmates at Columbine. I understand now why the profilers said that he reminded them so much of, of them. He’s someone who felt picked on, abused. It was him against the world.
MR. RUSSERT: Doris Kearns Goodwin, I had an opportunity to visit the campus recently, and I know you went there and addressed the students as well. Tell us about your memories of Virginia Tech.
MS. GOODWIN: You know, I think the thing that’s not been talked about enough is that it’s also a military preparatory school. I mean, I spoke to thousands of cadets down there, and there’s such a proud tradition in that school, beyond the liberal arts part of the school, of having sent more people who actually go into the Army or the Navy or the Marines, percentagewise, than a lot of the other academies. More Medal of Honor winners there, except for the two major academies. And there’s a sense in which there’s a sense of service in that school, which is why I think when they pulled together in the end in that extraordinary memorial that they were able to do, they really do have a sense of camaraderie. Somebody had mentioned that they were surprised that they got an e-mail from somebody in Iraq who was writing to one of the kids saying, “How—is everything all right there?” What was he doing being upset about this when he was in worse situation? Well, he was probably a student from there who had gone to Iraq, and they know that service to the country. It was a great place.
MR. RUSSERT: It’s—yeah.
MS. GOODWIN: It will be again.
MR. RUSSERT: Though it’s extraordinary just talking to those students, we’ve had many correspondents down there. And the reaction overwhelmingly is, “We’re Virginia Tech. We’re Hokies. We’re—we’re going to get through this. We’re going to stay together as a family.”
MR. MEACHAM: One, one of the things I found so striking was the diversity of the victims. As you mentioned, the Holocaust survivor, professor who tried to—tried help and save people, the, the number of international students there in the middle of Virginia. It’s, it’s a snapshot of what the country is. And it’s, it’s a diverse country and it’s a good country.
MR. RUSSERT: And it gave us all time to pause. I don’t know anybody who didn’t just grab a phone and want to call their own child or their own parent just to hear their voice. Because when something like this happens to Virginia Tech, it happens to all of us. Pete Williams, David Gregory, Jon Meacham, Doris Kearns Goodwin, thank you. We’ll be right back.
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