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Political Wrap

February 23, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, Shields and Gigot; syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot.

Mark, President Bush’s week. He had his first news conference among other things. How is he doing?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he’s doing fine, Jim, you’d have to say. He’s a little low-level criticism building. Bill Saphire, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, he criticized him for not having a press conference, Helen Thomas, the first lady of the Washington press corps, raised the same criticism. So they wake up yesterday morning, what’s on the screaming headlines in the paper? Hugh Rodham, Hillary Clinton’s brother is involved in pardons. They’ve got a free news day. They’ve got an absolutely free news day. Within an hour’s notice they say let’s have a press conference. They bring in the president, he answers questions.

JIM LEHRER: Not in the East Room.

MARK SHIELDS: Not in the East Room but in the White House press briefing room. And what happens, Jim, is that he gets through it, he gets through it with some grammatical slips, no particular master details. You might have expected at one point he would be compared to Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton’s command of details, his ability to explain, his knowledge of nuance was unmatched. But instead he’s being compared to Bill Clinton’s sleaze, and he looks good. And so it’s working very much to George Bush’s advantage to be compared to the man who is still very much dominating the news much to the despair and dejection of Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll get to that in a minute. How do you feel about Bush’s performance? Do you agree with Mark’s thesis here?

PAUL GIGOT: I do. I do. I think they wanted it to be low key, they don’t think Bush does very well at news conferences. He didn’t do all that well really. I mean, he had a hard time with a couple of foreign policy questions. But they didn’t want to build up expectations by having it in the East Room — just have it lower key in the press room where he’d sort of surprise everybody. I thought he did fine, got his message out. But he should probably have more of these.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to ask you, what can he do about this problem — because there’s always going to be either news conferences or a cry for more news conferences?

PAUL GIGOT: You don’t have to have them. Clinton doesn’t have one for months and months in his presidency. But I think at the beginning people do want to see a new president, take him to his measure, and he can help himself by practice. One thing Bush has shown over the past two years is he gets better, he learns. He hasn’t done this for a long time. If you have press conferences, you make grammatical mistakes, the chattering classes are going to criticize you, but the public isn’t going to do that. Eisenhower made them, Ford made them, Reagan made them, other people have made them. They want to know does he seem to grasp the job and the subject matter? And I think if he does that, has more of them, it will focus the White House attention on briefing him, on keeping him up to speed, and will make him more comfortable with it.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. Just two quick points though: Because of the dominant story, he could look magnanimous. All right. They asked him about the Clintons — oh, no, no piling on — so it gives him the chance to look magnanimous and say, look, what’s going on up on the Hill and what the folks are doing. At the same time, Jim, this is a man who said this week, you teach your child to read he or her will be able to pass a literacy test; this is the education president. I mean, this is fifth grade grammar. And he said, Tony Blair, I’m looking forward to having dinner with he and Mrs. Blair on Friday night — at the press conference. Absent the dominant story, that would have been — Paul raises the question of Ike and sin tax and so forth, but that was before the televised press conference.

PAUL GIGOT: I can tell you every voter in America who voted in this election knew what they were getting in terms of George W. Bush’s grammar. And they knew they had the most articulate president maybe in American history but it came with a lot of other stuff they didn’t want. And they’re willing to take the grammatical slips and the misuse of the nominative case if they get a guy who seems to be–

JIM LEHRER: Obviously an English major.

PAUL GIGOT: If he gets his — if he seems to understand the job and looks to be dignified in carrying it out.

JIM LEHRER: But, Mark, same question I asked Paul a moment ago, what does President Bush do about this now? Does he — eventually the Clinton story is going to go away, I promise you, it’s got to go away.

MARK SHIELDS: Promise? I’m taking your word on that one.

JIM LEHRER: All right, I take that back. It’s probably going to go away. So then all of the attention is going to be on him. So how does he learn to deal with this problem that you said he would have had if he hadn’t had this other thing, this other distraction — what’s he going to do about it?

MARK SHIELDS: It is a problem, because, as Paul knows, a central part of his program has been testing. I mean, it’s the fifth grade test, we’re going to test all the students in America. Jim, every president has to find out what he’s comfortable doing. With some presidents — I mean, Ronald Reagan was absolutely magnificent in the face-to-camera presentation and in an auditorium speech. Jack Kennedy was the master of the press conference. I mean, there are others who do it better on a small group interview. George W. Bush has to figure out what he does best, where he’s most effective getting his message across, because you’re right, if the Clinton thing does eventually go away, he’s got to be the guy that carries the ball on the tax cut, which needs some real momentum and some championing.

JIM LEHRER: And not do what somebody else wants him to do, do what he wants to do.

PAUL GIGOT: Sure and what he feels comfortable with, I agree with that. There’s one problem, though, that underlies, I think, their hesitation on press conferences, and that is the desire for control. They’re so afraid… I think he’s overcautious because they really want to control the message, and they’re afraid that if he rambles at a press conference, somehow then it will be the reporter’s message and the press corps’ message. And this is a White House that is extremely disciplined. This is a president who when he was governor of Texas was extremely disciplined. And they want to keep it on their turf, on their message. And I think sometimes that hurts them, because a little expansiveness sometimes can help explain things to the public and sell a policy.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, on the pardon story, Mark, the Hugh Rodham development, and there have been others of course from the very beginning now, we’re 30 days into this story. What’s it doing to the Democrats and the Democratic Party?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I talked to a leading national Democrat, close to a household word — his name today, who’s been involved–

JIM LEHRER: You want to guess who that is?

MARK SHIELDS: Every major Democratic campaign since 1972. He said to me this is a disaster. It is truly a disaster of epic proportions. He said the sense of despair and disillusionment all the way through the party and the sense that how are we ever going to get our own message out? There are Democrats basically feel what the president did is indefensible, Democrats as loyal as James Carville who was with Bill Clinton every mile of the long march through New Hampshire and Gennifer Flowers and the draft story and the impeachment and attacking Ken Starr, I mean, he’s basically said, you know, he’s my friend but I can’t defend what he’s done. I mean, it is… I cannot calculate, I cannot express just how dispiriting this has been for Democrats.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, they’re saying the same things in private, the difference this time is there are also many Democrats say in public — this has liberated them in a way to say in public what some of them have been thinking in private about this man’s lack of discipline, his lack of respect for the office and many of its powers, and a lot of Democrats are speaking out. Jimmy Carter did something extraordinary. This is a former Democratic president, who’s known for his own caution and respect for the office, coming out this week and calling those pardons the behavior disgraceful and saying he assumes there was a quid pro quo involved. His former chief of staff, Hampton Jordan said — wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal calling the Clintons grifters or confidence men.

JIM LEHRER: That was a devastating piece.

PAUL GIGOT: Very, very tough. And I think that’s a sense of a couple of things: One, is it’s a declaration I think, at least a desire of independence by a lot of Democrats to separate themselves. They realize that if the Clintons dominate the party, become the public face of the party, keep being the public face of party, they run the risk of him becoming their Newt Gingrich, somebody who is not liked by the majority of the public. And I think the other thing is the Democrats coming to terms with why they lost this last election. They shouldn’t have lost it. A lot of Democrats say two months ago we were thinking well, maybe it was Al Gore was a lousy candidate. But more and more are coming to the terms with the fact that they had lost their moral authority and they lost the culturally traditional part of the country, some of the states they hadn’t lost in years.

JIM LEHRER: You buy that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Not completely. I think, you know, Jimmy Carter, who is an admirable public figure has always had a problem with Bill Clinton. There’s no question about it. Hamilton Jordan made one compelling argument, and that was, he said, other presidents and their pardons — there’s a theme that runs through them — the pardons. Gerry Ford –when he was president of the United States — made an important decision, an historic decision to pardon Richard Nixon — probably cost him his reelection in 1976. Jimmy Carter, who was the post-Vietnam president, used his pardon to commute the sentences or repatriate a number of Americans who had avoided the draft, who had fled to Canada and so forth. This, Jim, what’s distressing to Democrats about this is there’s no pattern. I mean, these are bottom feeders we’re talking about. We thought we got through Marc Rich and then we get to Vignali and Braswell, who are two– these are people not you say have done great work or somehow rehabilitated themselves — one guy selling 800 pounds of cocaine, Jim, to be converted into crack cocaine. So there is a sense –

JIM LEHRER: And Hamilton Jordan made that point that there was a feeling that this was a perk of the president, and that’s the way they dispensed it.

MARK SHIELDS: In the sense everybody was cashing in is the other part.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.