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updated 12/26/2004 11:16:39 AM ET 2004-12-26T16:16:39

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NBC News MEET THE PRESS

Sunday, December 26, 2004

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Christmas weekend, what are the biggest challenges facing American families:  a conversation about parenting, helping others, holiday stress and absence and loss in this time of war.  Our guest, psychologist, author and television host Dr. Phil McGraw.

Then political gridlock in Washington--can Democrats and Republicans find common ground on complicated issues?  With us, two men who are leaving Congress after 50 years of combined service, the outgoing Democratic leader in the Senate, Tom Daschle of South Dakota, and the former assistant Republican leader in the Senate, Don Nickles of Oklahoma.

And in our MEET THE PRESS Minute, the legendary poet Robert Frost on the MEET THE PRESS Christmas program in 1958.

But first, here with us this morning is Dr. Phil McGraw.

Welcome to MEET THE PRESS.

DR. PHIL McGRAW:  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Christmastime gives us a chance to reflect about our nation, our people.  What do you think the biggest challenge confronting our nation is?

DR. McGRAW:  Right now, I think it's family, frankly.  I think that we live in a very different time.  I think this is the biggest shift in the environment, the world, all of the things that are impinging upon us as families and our children that we've ever seen from one generation to the next.  You stop and think about it, we are in the biggest information explosion I think in the history of the world.  It's just in this generation that when you and I were growing up, there wasn't even a word for Internet or World Wide Web, for example.  We had three TV channels.  We were watching either Lucy or "Gunsmoke" or Ricky Nelson.  And now there's 500 TV channels.  The Internet is just bringing all kinds of information into the home.  There's just a lot of distraction, a lot of competition for the parent's voice to resonate in the children's ears.

MR. RUSSERT:  When you talk about parenting, you did a survey and you found some very interesting things.  Tell us about that.

DR. McGRAW:  We did a really massive survey and we had about 20,000 respondents generating over 1.7 million pieces of data basically asking, "What's your experience as a parent?  What's the hardest thing you face? What's your greatest worry?  What's your greatest concern?  Tell us what is really happening in the real world in parenting."  And I think one of the most astounding things was that almost a third of the respondents said, "If I knew then what I know now, I probably would not have had children."  And that is--that to me was an amazing sort of thing.

And I don't think that means that a third of the parents don't want their children or don't love their children.  I think what it means is we're overwhelmed.  We don't know what to do.  I mean, think about it.  You go to school and they teach you how to add and subtract and read and write.  They teach you about biology and history.  But nobody ever teaches you how to be a mother or a father, a husband or a wife.  You don't really get taught those life skills, which I think are the most important things we should be taught.

MR. RUSSERT:  When we grew up, Mom and Dad would say something and it would be enforced through grounding and other discipline.  It was reinforced in school.  Parents, neighbors, teachers were all in one big conspiracy to keep us in line.  That now seems to have broken down.

DR. McGRAW:  It does seem to have broken down.  And I want to say I am probably the greatest optimist about family that you could ever find.  And the reason I'm optimistic about it is because I think if we do acknowledge what you just said, that there seems to be a breakdown of these values, a breakdown of the hierarchy, you cannot change what you do not acknowledge.  I think if we acknowledge it and we say, "OK.  We've got to get back to some real fundamental principles and some roles that are defined within the family." Parents come too much from guilt in my view.  It's, like, "I want to give my children everything I didn't have."  I don't think we invented that this generation.  I think every parent, every generation has wanted their children to do better and have a higher standard of living.  But I think there's too much guilt.

"I'm afraid that they may not get into the best school, I'm afraid they may not have the best dance instructor, I'm afraid they may not be on the select soccer team, I'm"--you know, I just--the parents worry too much, I think, about "My children won't love me if I tell them what they don't want to hear, they don't have the designer jeans, if they don't have all the things that the other kids have."  And so I'm afraid that parents are not drawing the line clear enough of saying, "I'm not your best friend.  I'm your parent.  I'm going to tell you what you don't want to hear some.  I'm going to require you to do what you don't want to, but that's my job."

MR. RUSSERT:  And yet our children are growing up much differently than we did.  Our children have much more access, much more privilege, if you will. How do we teach them that they are always, always loved but never, never entitled?

DR. McGRAW:  Well, I think that's a tall order, but I think you just embodied what I believe needs to be our North Star right now.  I think we need to give them too much love and not enough money, you know, too much time and attention and not enough privilege, in their minds, at least.  And what I mean by that is, if our children know that when they arrive at that early adulthood, they're going to start making their own way.  They need to understand that they won't start at the standard of living they leave.  I mean, they tend to have this belief now that "When I go out on my own, I should have a house that's kind of like where I've lived.  I should drive cars like Mom and Dad have."  I believe that overindulgence is one of the most insidious forms of child abuse known to man.  You don't teach them how the world really works if you're overindulging them.

MR. RUSSERT:  About 50 percent of the marriages in the United States end in divorce.  You talk about blended families.  How have blended families changed the familial landscape that we now encounter?

DR. McGRAW:  You know, we used to talk about the traditional family, you know, Mom, Dad, 2.2 kids, barking dog and the picket fence.  I think the traditional family today is probably the single family or the blended family, because there is such a high divorce rate.  And I've said--I've got kind of three groups that I've always said are my heroes as I watch this world work.  One are the teachers, who we turn our greatest treasures and assets over to.  They spend more time with our children than we do and we pay them nothing.  I mean, I'm embarrassed every time I look a teacher in the eye, because we ask them to do so much for so little.  Second, the nurses, who I think are the backbone of the medical profession.  And third, and not in this order, but third, the single parents that are really struggling to do it right, really be mom and dad, provider and nurturer.

There's just a tremendous challenge that these people face today, and I think the thing that makes it even more acutely difficult for them is that when children go through divorce, all of their needs for security, predictability, sameness, guidance, leadership, those are all accentuated because they have had that parent ripped from the home, ripped from their hearts.  And children have this unique ability to blame themselves for virtually anything that happens in their family.

They'll hear mom and dad fighting about money and they may be fighting about their $3,000 mortgage and their house payments--I mean, their car payments, but the child will go back in the bedroom and say, "Gosh, if I hadn't needed $11.25 for my school pictures last week, maybe Mom and Dad wouldn't be fighting."  They find a way to make it their responsibility.  And so a single parent or a blended family where you're bringing a child that has been through that emotional quagmire, has been beat up in that way emotionally, it's kind of like their psychological skin has been burned and they're very, very sensitive.

So in addition to the new blended family or being a single parent, you have this child that is damaged and has to be dealt with.

MR. RUSSERT:  Another issue we confront, that is young children, young women having babies.  If you are 18 years old without a high school education, without a skill, without a job and without a spouse, and you have a baby, the chances are 80 percent--8-0--the baby will grow up in poverty.  The correlation between poverty and guns and drugs and gangs and death is overwhelming.  Many people grow up in those circumstances and achieve far more than we'll ever achieve, but the odds are stacked against them.  How do we get in the hearts and minds of those young girls, young babies having babies?

DR. McGRAW:  Tim, that is an excellent question.  And I wish I had a definitive answer for it.  In terms of diagnosing the problem, from my point of view, see, I believe that every person has what I call a personal truth. That's what they believe about themselves when nobody's looking or nobody's listening.  We all have a social mask, right?  We put it on, we go out, put our best foot forward, our best image.  But behind that social mask is a personal truth, what we really, really believe about who we are and what we're capable of.

The reason that's important is I think we have to begin with these young girls in helping them to believe that they are capable of more, that they have more of a future, that they don't need to--so many of them grow up without fathers and they're hungry for male attention.  They're vulnerable to male attention. They're looking for what they don't have.  And so I think we have to really help them have a personal truth that says, "I will hold myself to a higher standard."  And then we've got to make that come true.  We've got to say, "All right, you believe that you can do more."  We've got to give them the track to run on.  We've got to find a way for these young women to, in fact, be able to do more with their lives than what they're now doing.  But they have to believe that they can.  And right now, I don't think we do a very good job of helping these young boys and girls who are growing up in poverty to see very clearly what's in the future.  And, as a result, they live in the moment and it's in the moment that they make the bad choices.

MR. RUSSERT:  Providing skills that are learnable, jobs that are available.

DR. McGRAW:  And role models that they can identify with that--it's attainable.  It's--you know, right now, my son, Jay, our oldest son, once wrote, "We are not the only voice in our children's ear, so we better be the best voice, the clearest voice, the most influential voice in our children's ear."

MR. RUSSERT:  So many parents talk about quality time.  Isn't every second with your child quality time?

DR. McGRAW:  It is.  You know, it's interesting how much you learn from your children.  But one of the things that Jay told me one time--actually I heard him telling someone else and he repeated it to me.  He was talking to a parent and he said, "If you don't talk to your children about the things that don't matter, they'll never talk to you about the things that do."  You've got to talk to them about what somebody wore to school today and this silly movie or this sitcom or just what might be going on in their day that's not of any particular gravity but you're opening the channel, you're opening it for flow. And then when it comes time that they really need to talk to you about something, they don't feel awkward about it because you talk with them all the time.

MR. RUSSERT:  During this past presidential campaign, you sat down with George W. and Laura Bush and John and Teresa Kerry.  Tell me about those interviews.

DR. McGRAW:  You know, my thinking was, they had been asked all the political issue questions ad nauseam.  I mean, they were like, you know, the Chatty Cathy answers that you pull the string and here comes the answer.  What I wanted to do was provide the viewer a different look at these men, because I'm one of those that believes you can't be one kind of a man and another kind of president.  I think those two are just inextricably intertwined.  And I wanted to just have a conversation as parents about what do you do behind closed doors?  Are you--you know, do you spank?  How did you problem solve?  What are your greatest fears?  And I found both of them very forthcoming.  I found their wives very forthcoming, and I think it gave--I hope it gave the viewer a unique perspective that you don't often get in the middle of a campaign.  Just what are you like as parents and what are you like at home?  And that was my goal in sitting down with them, and I found it very informative and very intriguing.

MR. RUSSERT:  We live in a country that is very divided politically.  It's been so written about, the red states, the blue states.  There are some very issues that--on abortion or on gay marriage, people have profound political and moral views.  How do you reconcile those differences?  Is there any way to actually find common ground on issues where people have a profound moral view?

DR. McGRAW:  Yes, and I'll tell you my view on that, and it is because we do have more common ground than we have differences.  Think about it.  I think that the differences are really profound this time because we're not talking about do you spend money on this program or that one so much as things that go to the absolute core moral fiber of what defines someone at a values and beliefs level.

But I think what we have to do--I've always thought the way to come together is first let's talk about our similarities and our commonalties before we dive into our differences.  If your neighbor has a completely different view on abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, all of those things, you still are both Americans.  Neither one of you is necessarily more patriotic than the other.  Neither loves their country any more than the other one does.  Neither wants any less for the children of America, for the quality and fiber of our life in this country.  But, you know, my dad used to say, "If you're yelling, you're not listening.  If you're not listening you're not learning.  If you're not learning, you're not evolving."

MR. RUSSERT:  Even though people have profound moral views that abortion is taking a life or gay marriage immoral and against the Bible, that people can find common ground?

DR. McGRAW:  I do because, as I say, we start on common ground.  We love America.  We all want a quality of life.  We all want to leave the next generation better than this one.  I think a good, healthy debate about these things is what causes us to evolve.  So I hope we don't ever just kind of become Stepford Americans where everybody is just kind of going along and nodding their heads.

MR. RUSSERT:  Christmastime is often the moment when families are reunited. People who don't see each other on a regular basis are sometimes at the dinner table together, at the holiday parties.  It's also a time of loneliness and depression.  Talk about how Americans cope with Christmas, as well as the happiness, but sometimes the unhappiness.

DR. McGRAW:  You know, I think it all has to do with expectancies.  What upsets people is not what happens in our lives.  What upsets people is if something happens different than we expect.  That's what gets people upset. My dad used to say that the holidays are when you get a whole bunch of people that really aren't that close and don't know each other that well and overcrowd them into a small room for an extended period of time so they can make each other miserable.  Now, he was being a bit of a cynic when he said that because there are also so many warm reunions during that time.  But the idea is what do you expect?

Really, everybody sometimes will think about Christmas, Christmases past, like it was a Currier & Ives print, you know, the candle in the window, the snow on the sill, and isn't this wonderful?  But the truth was Uncle Harry got drunk, the kids were fighting over the toys, there wasn't enough money, you overate. If we just stop and be realistic so we don't go in with too high of an expectancy, then we really come away so much better.

MR. RUSSERT:  It's also a time when people who have experienced loss, a lost parent, a lost child, or with so many soldiers in Iraq, absence of a loved one.  How do people deal with loss and absence during the holidays?

DR. McGRAW:  You know, it is profound, particularly right now with so much military in Iraq.  Robin and I just hosted a Christmas party at our home for military children and parents who have a father and spouse deployed to Iraq. We knew there was nothing we could do to fill that void for them.  What they wanted was their mom or dad back, but we thought if we could give them, you know, just a little joy, a little extra attention that it might help.  Most of them we got to a satellite feed and were able to get a message back home to the parents, to the children.  For many of them, it's the first time they had seen that parent in five or six months.  And to look at the pain in their face of them being gone and the joy when mom or dad popped up on that screen, it is absolutely what this holiday season--it defined it for us, I can tell you.

But it is a time that we have, as I said, these expectancies of togetherness and warmth and wonderful communion.  And when you can't have that because you've lost that parent, I just hope that if you know someone in your neighborhood, on your base, in your neighborhood, military or otherwise, we oftentimes don't know what to say so we don't say anything at all.  Don't make that mistake.

I've just had so many people over the years tell me that people don't understand the power of just reaching out and acknowledging someone, including them in some way, you know, giving them a hug, a hand shake, just some acknowledgement, which lets them know that somebody does care, and I'm not alone.  It's hard to feel lonely when you're really not alone.  You can do it, but it's harder.

And so I think it's important for all of us to make this a season of giving and, you know, talk to the people at your church, talk to the people in your neighborhood, find someone that really is having a tough time.  They'll identify them for you if you don't know them on your own, and reach out to them and give what you have to give, your time, your attention, your love, your caring, a small gift, an observance, a dinner, anything can make a huge difference for people that are suffering through the holidays.

MR. RUSSERT:  I read about a commencement speech that was the following: "The best exercise for the human heart is reaching down and helping somebody else up."

DR. McGRAW:  Absolutely.  And nothing fills you up like giving away.  And if you're one of those people that feels lonely right now, is experiencing a loss, I would tell you to do what I just said.  If you're sitting there lonely and hurting because you've lost a parent or a loved one, call your church and ask them what you can do to give to somebody else.  It will fill your heart up faster than anything else you could possibly do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Dr. Phil McGraw, thank you for joining us on this special holiday edition of MEET THE PRESS.

DR. McGRAW:  Tim, it's an honor to be here.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, a special conversation about the ways of Washington with two United States senators leaving Congress after more than 50 years of service, outgoing Democratic leader Tom Daschle and the former assistant Republican leader Don Nickles.  They are next right here on MEET THE PRESS.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  More of our special Christmas weekend edition of MEET THE PRESS. Departing Senators Daschle and Nickles reflect on their time in Washington after this brief station break.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.

Senators Tom Daschle, Don Nickles, welcome both to MEET THE PRESS.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE, (D-SD):  Thank you, Tim.

SEN. DON NICKLES, (R-OK):  Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Daschle, 26 years in Washington--what's the most important lesson you learned?

SEN. DASCHLE:  I think the most important lesson you learn is that this really is the greatest country in the world, and democracy works.  Democracy has all of its flaws but it beats the noise of violence.  I think there's just so much we can be proud of, especially this time of the year.  We have a lot of challenges out there, Tim, but the most important lesson is that I think this legacy, this democracy, this incredible republic's going to go on for centuries to come.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Nickles?

SEN. NICKLES:  Well, I'd echo that and I compliment Senator Daschle for his service.  But this is a great system.  It greatly exceeded my expectations and I've enjoyed 24 years of it and any time we travel around the country or around the world, you know, it always made us proud, I think, to say, you know, "We're from the United States Senate."  And people looked up to the Senate.  We want them to continue to do that.  The United States is the beacon of democracy throughout the world and now you see in more countries, including Afghanistan and soon to be Iraq, we'll be having elections.  That is really exciting.  People hunger for freedom and democracy, which frankly we've been almost taking for granted.

MR. RUSSERT:  That's an interesting point, because many voters think about senators traveling as junkets and a waste of taxpayer money, but you found those trips to countries helpful, informative and made you a better senator?

SEN. NICKLES:  Oh, I think so, and I think, you know, as senators we'd end up representing our country and people look to the Senate.  The Senate has a great reputation.  I think we are looked to as the real example of democracy and we have elections, we have tough elections.  They see the presidential election of the United States, and--but we have smooth transitions of power and I think that's--we're to be complimented for it.  We need to expand it, we need to do it better.  We need to lower the tension sometimes on the Senate and in the House and maybe in the presidential races as well.  But frankly, you know, you look at all the countries around the world now in Eastern Europe and others that are struggling with democracy, and Ukraine as we speak, we have--I think we've done--our forefathers did a good job in putting this format together.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Daschle, when you take that oath as United States senator, does it change you as a person?

SEN. DASCHLE:  Well, I think there are occasions when you wish it would change you more.  But I think it does, Tim.  I think that the gravity of the situation is all the more appreciated when you've taken that oath and you sit at the desk and pull open the drawer of that desk and see all the names of the senators who have preceded you carved into that drawer, and you become all the more aware of your role in history as you sit at that desk and make the decisions you do.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Nickles, when you were announcing your retirement, you said this:  "Frankly, I'm surprised I'm in the Senate for 24 years.  ...I thought we might do a couple of terms.  I was kind of surprised we did three terms, real surprised we did four and then I was sorely tempted to do five.  I told [my wife] Linda I didn't want to be a lifer."

Is it tough to let go?

SEN. NICKLES:  Sure, if you love it, and frankly, I've loved being in the Senate.  It's a great institution.  I've enjoyed serving with my colleagues. My best friends that I have are senators.  I get along very well with Democrats and Republicans.  I've enjoyed the job.  I've enjoyed the challenge. I like the debate.  I like the friskiness of debating tax one minute and foreign policy the next minute and...

MR. RUSSERT:  Why not be a lifer?

SEN. NICKLES:  I just really didn't want to do it all my life.  I was in the private sector before.  I love the private sector as well and I look forward to returning to it as well.  But the Senate, it's very tempting to do it as long as you can and some people do and I compliment many who have served for a long time.  But I've always planned on returning to the private sector.  But I've loved--I almost said every minute, but I've thoroughly enjoyed my service in the Senate, and it's had ups and downs, but for the most part it's been very positive.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Daschle, you wanted a fourth term but things didn't work out.  How much did you enjoy the Senate and why did you want to stay there so badly?

SEN. DASCHLE:  I loved the Senate, too, for many of the same reasons Don's mentioned.  It's been great.  Oftentimes you hear about the partisanship and the confrontation and the extraordinary negative side of the political aspects of our lives.  But there are many other times.  You mentioned the travel earlier, Tim.  You mentioned the oath of office.  And we share a bond as senators.  And sometimes that bond isn't as transparent as I wish it would be, because you develop those relationships and recognize the extraordinary responsibilities every senator has in various ways and in various capacities. We try to live up to the expectations of the Founding Fathers and there's no better job in the world than that.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is it tough to lose?

SEN. DASCHLE:  It is.  Anybody that told you anything else than that, they would not be telling you the truth.  It's a very tough thing to lose, but you've got to focus on the future and I'm doing that and looking forward to my future with great excitement and anticipation.

MR. RUSSERT:  What are you going to do?

SEN. DASCHLE:  Haven't decided yet.  There are a lot of different things I'd like to do.  I want to stay involved in public policy.  I'd like to be able to teach.  There are many other areas in the private sector, like Don said, that I'd like to explore as well.  I'm doing that now.

MR. RUSSERT:  How about you, Senator Nickles?

SEN. NICKLES:  Well, one, I'm sure that Tom Daschle is going to be successful in whatever he does, and I'm going to return to the private sector.  I'm going to start a business.  And I hope to be successful, but I also hope to be significant.  I still want to do some things that will have some positive impact on mankind and in Oklahoma but also, frankly, in the country and around the world.

MR. RUSSERT:  I was reading The New York Times, Senator Daschle, when you were talking about taking phone calls from your fellow senators after your election defeat.  "Trent Lott," The Times said, "was the first Republican to call to offer condolences after Mr. Daschle's defeat.  Other Republicans called as well, he said, but only surreptitiously.  ... `I can't tell you how many Republicans have called and said, "If you ever tell anybody I called you, I'll deny it."  I just don't know what to say about that.  Why is it that this town has to be so mean that a guy can't even call and say, "I'm sorry you lost'?"

What happened?  Why is it that way?

SEN. DASCHLE:  Well, it isn't always that way.  Don, I should say, came up to me on the Senate floor and in full public view, as an alternative to that.  It was nice of them to call.  I just felt sorry for them that they felt somehow as if they had to ask me to keep this conversation private.  I think that it was yet another--probably the final illustration of how in some ways the town can be too mean.  But it was nice of them to call and I appreciated, even with this caveat, their kind words.

MR. RUSSERT:  Has the partisanship changed dramatically in your 24 years?

SEN. NICKLES:  It's gotten too partisan, and there's no doubt, and hopefully it will change back.  I don't know if it's because the Senate's so closely divided, when we went, you know, 50:50, 51:49.  It's vacillated back and forth.  In my four terms in the Senate, I've been a majority, minority, majority, minority, majority.  It's changed five times and it's going to change again, too.  So people need to remember that and they need to get along.  But sometimes when it's sitting right on 50, everybody gets a little uptight and it gets too partisan and that's not good.  It's not good for the institution.  The Senate's a great institution.  It basically operates on unanimous consent and that means people have to cooperate.  And on occasion, it gets a little frayed and, hopefully with this election behind us, we'll return back to the great traditions of the Senate and be a lot less partisan.

MR. RUSSERT:  Way back in 1982, when I left working the Senate, I look back at going there in 1977, where people actually knew each other.  Senators spent a lot of time together, having a drink, playing cards, Hubert Humphrey, Barry Goldwater, robust debates and then go off in the cloak room and sit down and try to work out something, Senator.  Has it changed?

SEN. DASCHLE:  It has, Tim, and I think that it's changed in part because of the demands of campaigns these days.  Campaigns are so expensive that one has to be engaged in the politics of raising money a lot more than you used to.  I think because of jet travel these days, there are higher expectations about senators being home in their states.  And so that necessitates leaving on Thursday and coming back on Monday.  I think the city was slower and more contemplative and, as a result, I think more bipartisan and perhaps more personal back in those early days.  I wish somehow we could get back to that, but we've got to find ways to address the modern challenges and confrontations that you face in public life and in politics today.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Fritz Hollings, your colleague from South Carolina who's leaving, talked about fund raising and what it's done to the institution.  This is what he had to say, "The body of politics has got a cancer of money.  ...  We're collecting for six years out.  That means we don't work on Monday, we don't work on Friday.  I've got to get money, money, money, money, and I only listen to the people who give me money.  With the shortages of time and everything else, you've got to listen to the $1,000 givers.  I mean, no individual is corrupt, but the body has been corrupted."

And if you add up the math, Senator Nickles, senators have to raise about $60,000 a week, every week, for six years, $10,000 a day.  How do you do that and still do your job?

SEN. NICKLES:  I was with Fritz when he did the interview--and there were several retiring senators that were doing it together--and I knew he was making news, but I didn't agree with what he said.  I don't think the body is corrupt.  And I don't think fund raising is all that evil.  And I don't even think it's all that time consuming unless you have a very contested race, and Tom had one.  Tom ended running up against John Thune, who was probably the best candidate running on the Republican side, an outstanding member and who just ran two years before.  So he had--that was a very unusual situation. Most incumbents don't have tough races, and most incumbents don't have to raise a lot of money.

Bill Proxmire used to win elections and would never raise hardly any money. And frankly, I think most incumbents could probably do that.  So I don't think the place is corrupt.  Yes, you have to raise a lot of money.  Yes, it takes some time.  But most people can do that without spending a lot of time doing it.

MR. RUSSERT:  But, Senator Daschle, isn't that a growing problem?  If the House districts are safe seats, where out of the 435 seats, 400 members don't really have to worry about a general election.  They can stay in there as long as they want, but they're very worried about a primary in their own party because it's a safe Democratic seat or a safe Republican seat.  And so they really do toe the party line, ideologically, philosophically, and are afraid to work out issues in a bipartisan way.

SEN. DASCHLE:  Well, I think that there's more of that problem today than any time that I've been in the Senate, Tim.  I think that you're right.  The parties and the pressures politically tend to nudge, and sometimes move even more aggressively, people in the opposite direction.  Rather than towards the center, they move to the far left and the far right.  And that then creates the chasm that Don was talking about earlier.  Instead, I think what you've got to do is look for what I'd like to call the politics of common ground, finding ways with which to find the center once again.  But the political system doesn't address that as satisfactorily today as I think it should.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Nickles?

SEN. NICKLES:  Well, I think the House is more defined that way.  I think the Senate has maybe, because you represent entire states and so on, we are probably more of an institution where there's more common ground.  Plus our rules almost demand it.  So if you're going to do major legislation, it has to pass both houses.  It has to get through the Senate.  And it's important to work with--neither party has 60 votes, and we shouldn't have to have 60 votes. We shouldn't be filibustering every bill nor significant appointments.  That undermines some of the collegial atmosphere in the Senate.  But we need to work together more.

It used to be--you know, it got to where we were having filibusters all the time on anything, and it shouldn't be that way.  Filibusters should be a very seldom used tool.  But people need to work together.  We need to spend more time together.  We need to get to know people.  We need to listen better and tone down the partisan rhetoric.

Elections are two years from now.  Let's not have--let's not start out--I've heard some people talking about having more rooms and all this kind of stuff already for next year.  That shouldn't be the case.  You know, we should say, "Hey, wait a minute.  We've got some big problems.  How can we work together to solve those problems?"  Democrats and Republicans, recognizing if you're going to do significant reform on Social Security or on budgets or on rewriting the tax code--since Tom and I have been in the Congress, we've rewritten the tax code a lot.  I mean, maximum rate when I was first elected was 70 percent.  It's 35 percent now.  But the tax code's still a mess, and it needs to be reformed, and so there's proposals.  That won't happen unless there's Democrats and Republicans that are working together in the Senate to make that happen.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Daschle, you told Jamie Gangel on the "Today" show that you always wanted to be an offensive quarterback, but you turned out being a defensive lineman.  Explain that.

SEN. DASCHLE:  Well, what I meant by that was the role that I've had over the course of most of my time in public life, Tim, has been to be the loyal opposition.  We've had Republican administrations, Republican majorities, and as a result, the proactive agenda that I got excited about when I considered politics 30 years ago really wasn't something that we were able to do much about.  Instead, what we did was defend and protect the things that we really believe in, Social Security and Medicare and education, and the commitments that our country has made through government to strengthen our society through the programs that we've been able to address.  So that was really what I was referring to, the role that I've played largely has been defensive rather than offensive.

MR. RUSSERT:  Is there a fine line between loyal opposition as the Democrats would define it and obstructionists as the Republicans would define it?

SEN. DASCHLE:  Well, I think there probably is a fine line, but I think that that role is important.  I don't think you should ever apologize for making your voice heard.  That's--the noise of democracy is something that we have to protect and celebrate, not try to demean and to negate.  I think it's critical that we have that opportunity for full and aggressive debate on things.  It doesn't have to be personal.  It doesn't have to be overly partisan, but I do believe that these vigorous debates are what the Senate is all about, and that is what I saw my role to be.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Nickles, in June of 2004, Senator Daschle gave a speech about the politics of common ground.  I want to play a piece of that and give you a chance to respond.  Let's watch.

(Videotape, June 24, 2004):

SEN. DASCHLE:  I believe in what I like to call the politics of common ground. Practicing the politics of common ground does not mean betraying one's principles.  We can bend on details without abandoning our basic beliefs.  The politics of common ground is pragmatic, not dogmatic.  It recognizes that there can be differences in different ways to reach the same goal.  It puts our common interests ahead of personal or partisan interests.  Instead of narrow or ideological victories, the politics of common ground seeks broad principled compromise.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  "Principled compromise."  We're in a time now where people take very rigid and firm views.  Abortion is the taking of a life.  Abortion is a woman's right to choose.  Homosexuality is against the nature and laws of God. Homosexuality is something that should be tolerated as a way of life.  How do you find common ground on those kinds of issues?

SEN. NICKLES:  Well, that's one of the things that legislators have to do. And I think by and large on those couple of issues, we've been successful in the Senate, in the Congress.  Take abortion.  No one's made abortion illegal, but we basically said we're not going to subsidize it, we're not going to fund it.  That's where Congress has come together.  Basically, the American people agree with that.  On the issue of gay marriage, we passed a bill, I was principal sponsor of it, that said if one state does it, other states don't have to recognize it.  It's Defense of Marriage Act.  It passed with 80-some-odd votes in the Senate.  President Clinton signed it.  So that's part of the legislative process.

There is a little bend, but frankly, you do find common ground and we had resolved basically those very controversial issues that people get very excited about.  That's kind of where Congress is and it's pretty close to where the American people are on those issues and so the system works.  It does work.  And you can resolve some things that seem to be intractable sometimes if Congress listens to each other, if we work, if we legislate, if we do our business.  It doesn't work if you get so partisan and we really get into the, you know, pointing fingers and filibustering everything and so on and then the Senate's not really working and I think the body politic is not working very well.

MR. RUSSERT:  Can we find common ground on abortion, gay rights, on issues like Social Security, tax reform, Iraq?  Even with strong pronounced differences, can you come together?

SEN. DASCHLE:  Tim, I think you can.  I think Don is exactly right.  We have found some common ground.  It's not comfortable for many that we are where we are and there are shrill voices on either side who want to move us in one direction or the other.  But I think that is our role.  That is the responsibility of the Senate to try to find, to fashion this incredible cacophony of voices in a policy that makes sense and reflects in large measure the views of the American people.  That's certainly going to be true on Social Security, on tax reform, on immigration, on a lot of the controversial issues that Congress will face in the 109th session and I believe they will.

MR. RUSSERT:  President Bush had said that he wanted to change the tone in Washington and you said he did for the worse.  Do you think his second term will be different?

SEN. DASCHLE:  Well, this is a golden opportunity for him, Tim.  He has to make a decision on whether he tries to placate his base or whether he moves to the middle and creates that consensus and that common ground that is there. There's a desire.  And the one good thing about a new Congress is that--I think generally people start out with the very best intentions.  As senators and congressmen talk to one another, there's a feeling of beginning anew and a belief that maybe we can start differently this time.  I've had conversations with Senator Frist who has reiterated his desire to find this politics of common ground.  So we'll see.  The opportunity is there.

MR. RUSSERT:  The president said he is frustrated that he has not been able to change the tone.  Do you think his second term will be different?

SEN. NICKLES:  I think it will be.  I think he tried initially and for whatever reason--I think maybe again because the Senate was so closely divided and people realized one--remember when Jim Jeffers switched we lost control and things were so close.  People were looking at every vote, every little thing, "How can we regain control?" and so on.  It was very tough.  I think he has an opportunity, I think President Bush has an opportunity, but I think even more importantly, the Senate has an opportunity and hopefully the House as well to say, "Wait a minutes.  Let's--this is too partisan."  I think everybody recognizes that.  Let's put that behind us.  Let's do some things together.

Social Security has big problems, and you and I have talked about that in the past.  Demographically, it's got a big, big challenge in the out years that needs to be solved, and your former boss, Pat Moynihan, recognized that. There's a lot of people--John Breaux and others that have contributed, said we know we need to start fixing this problem and the sooner we start working to fix it, the better.  And frankly that can't happen unless you have Democrats and Republicans, and it's going to take bipartisan effort to solve the big problem, the big challenge that we have.  Same thing for rewriting the tax code.  This is a great opportunity.  The tax code's a mess.  There's lots of inequities in it.  It's going to take both parties working together to make it happen, to fix that mess, and hopefully this will happen this Congress.

MR. RUSSERT:  Before we go, your greatest moment in the Senate?

SEN. DASCHLE:  I think the greatest moment was responding to the crisis we faced.  I'd list three, 9/11, the impeachment crisis and the anthrax attack, Tim.  Those were times when our country really had to pull together and I think we did.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Nickles?

SEN. NICKLES:  I would agree.  I think post-9/11, with Tom Daschle, Trent Lott, they came together very strongly and our nation came together.  We were in a real critical time, and I think we joined hands and frankly put all partisanship aside for some time, did a lot of good.

MR. RUSSERT:  I remember when Democrats and Republicans stood on the steps of the Capitol and spontaneously began to sing "America the Beautiful," which is a nice way to remember it.

SEN. NICKLES:  Absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT:  Senator Nickles, Senator Daschle, thank you very much.  Hope you have a great holiday and a healthy and happy new year.

SEN. DASCHLE:  Thank you, Tim.  Same to you.

SEN. NICKLES:  Same to you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, a special MEET THE PRESS Minute with Robert Frost and his poetry.  He was right here on MEET THE PRESS, Christmas, 1958, 46 years ago.

                               (Announcements)

MR. RUSSERT:  Christmastime, 46 years ago, Robert Frost appeared right here to share his thoughts and his poetry.

(Videotape, December 28, 1958):

Unidentified Man:  Mr. Frost is now almost 85 years old but he still is young in hopes and in dreams, free from despair and pessimism.  He is a man of deep loyalties to his land and his people.  While he is known as a New England poet, he is the poet of all America.  Indeed, that can be said that he is the poet of all mankind.

MR. JAMES RESTON (New York Times):  What has happened to the American character, Mr. Frost, in the last 30 years?  Are we a merrier people at Christmastime?

MR. ROBERT FROST (Poet):  That's interesting to say.  I think, no.  I think that would be a hard thing for me to judge.  We're always a rather merry people.

MR. ERNEST LINDLEY (Newsweek):  Mr. Frost, do you think American civilization has improved or deteriorated during your lifetime?

MR. FROST:  I think it's made its way forward, natural way, you know.  We're so rich that we're like rich parents that wish they knew how to give their children the hardships that made them so rich.

Unidentified Man:  You have a new book of your poems coming out, a new book of your poems.  I wondered if perhaps you could say one of them for us.  Do you perhaps have a favorite?  Hearing you say your poems has always been a high spot on our programs with you.

MR. FROST:  Yes.

Unidentified Man:  Is there one that you have as a favorite?

MR. FROST:  No.  Some of them are too long.  I suppose I say one, like very political in its implications.  It's called "The Objection to Being Stepped On," which rules the world, I think.

"At the end of the row I stepped on the toe of an unemployed hoe.  It rose in offense and struck me a blow in the seat of my sense.  It wasn't to blame but I called it a name and I must say it dealt me a blow that I felt like malice prepence.  You may call me a fool but was there a rule the weapon should be turned into a tool?  But what do we say?  The first tool I stepped on turned into a weapon."

Unidentified Man:  Mr. Spivak.

MR. LAWRENCE SPIVAK (NBC News):  Mr. Frost, while you're reciting poetry, I wonder whether you'd say the one about the hardship of accounting, which I think may seem particularly appropriate to this season of the year when people are spending so much money, they don't know where it came from or where it's gone.

MR. FROST:  That's a little squib of mine and it's all in one rhyme, five lines.  "The Hardship of Accounting."  "Never ask of money spent where the spender thinks it went.  Nobody was ever meant to remember or invent what he did with every cent."

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  What a wise man.  And we hope all of you are having a wonderful holiday and will have a very healthy and happy new year.  In that spirit, MEET THE PRESS is proud to present the United States Navy Band Brass Quartet.

(United States Navy Band Brass Quartet performs)

                               (Announcements)

(United States Navy Band Brass Quartet performs)

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