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Political Wrap with Mark Shields and David Brooks

March 15, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, the Friday night analysis of Shields and Brooks; syndicated columnist Mark Shields, the “Weekly Standard’s” David Brooks. Mark, the defeat of Charles Pickering, the Charles Pickering nomination by the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday, some outraged conservatives have called this “an ideological lynching.” What would you call it?

MARK SHIELDS: I’d call it payback time, Jim. I think it did a couple of things. The President said this is a time when we have a vacancy crisis on the fifth circuit. If that were the case–.

JIM LEHRER: Fifth circuit court of appeals headquartered in New Orleans.

MARK SHIELDS: To which Judge Pickering was nominated. Six years, the last six years of President Clinton’s presidency, there were three nominees of rather high quality, none of whom was ever given a hearing for the fifth circuit.

The six years the Republicans in the Senate didn’t see that vacancy crisis the same way the President now sees it with the same sense of urgency. And it’s payback time in the sense that this is what was done and I think what democrats were doing was sending a message and I think they did it unelegantly, if there is such a word.

JIM LEHRER: There is now.

MARK SHIELDS: But by first using the race card, which I thought was, not only inaccurate but unfair, but sending the message, look, we are going to block and we can block the nomination of a conservative…

JIM LEHRER: That we don’t like.

MARK SHIELDS: That we think is beyond the pale, if there is enough ammunition provided in his own background. And Judge Pickering’s background did provide enough ammunition to give them what they thought was political coverage.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, David, that there was enough ammunition, if they wanted to send the message, they chose the right candidate to do it?

DAVID BROOKS: No. I don’t think there was. This was a guy who was regarded as well qualified by the American Bar Association, who was enthusiastically supported by the people who actually knew him.

JIM LEHRER: This is in Mississippi.

DAVID BROOKS: Whether they were liberal or conservative, black or white, this was a guy who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate once before for his previous Judgeship, comes up to town, some of the liberal groups call him a racist. He goes up to the Judiciary Committee, which is, you know, a place, as Mark indicated, filled with ancient hatreds and bitter rivalries. It’s like Gaza Strip without the charm.

And he gets the usually partisan party line meat grinder. I agree with Mark that it is utterly business as usual. And it is payback and maybe that’s legitimate. The only new wrinkle in this was that members on both sides of the aisle said this is terrible; this process is disgusting. Let’s do it one more time.

JIM LEHRER: You raised that the other night — the guys that were doing what they were lamenting–.

DAVID BROOKS: Three minutes of condemnation and four minutes of doing what they just deplored.

MARK SHIELDS: The Democrats say we at least gave him a hearing before we rejected him. The Republicans, of course, say well we didn’t give a hearing. We didn’t even let any of the three nominees under Bill Clinton get that. One interesting wrinkle, Jim, the Republicans did, and David mentioned it, they trumpeted the fact he was well qualified by the ABA. This is the same Republicans who said the ABA recommendations mean nothing and they will be ignored by this administration.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make, David — is there a future-is there another step to this? I mean there was something today about– I’m answering my own question. I’ll come back to you in a minute, but Trent Lott, an old friend of Judge Pickering immediately said that he was not going to support a nominee that was supported by Senator Daschle for the FCC. Is this going to be — this is stage one of many stages?

DAVID BROOKS: It could be. Tom Daschle did something similar at the end of the Clinton Administration. But I really think it is time– they’re finally fed up or I take them at their word that they’re fed up with the process and there is some talk of reform, there is some talk of at least if there is a party line vote, just let the guy or the woman get a vote in the full Senate, which didn’t happen this time. I’m willing to get rid of the whole process.

I don’t think there is any member– any Judge nominated judge, who has been as disgraceful as the process is whether it was Ronnie White or Charles Pickering. They all seem to be perfectly legitimate people and a lot of them are getting shot down and not being given a hearing for just the worst, you know, like a sewer, the Judiciary Committee.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Another piece of news this week. The Immigration and Naturalization Service, six months afterwards, the process finished and they granted student visas to two of the September 11 hijackers. Nobody has yet explained how this happened. Does this mean one thing though, that INS is going to get reform? What do you think about that?

DAVID BROOKS: We know they’re going to win the bureaucratic bungle of the year award unless Ken Lay gets the congressional Medal of Honor by accident. It is an eye popping bungle. Not only is it a bungle – there actually is — it is a sign of how the INS has been running. The school applied for this visa in August of 2000.

JIM LEHRER: This is the aviation school in Florida.

DAVID BROOKS: In Florida. It was approved in August of 2001. So it’s already a year. The letter arrives March 12 or 13, 2002. And then nobody thinks, well, this Mohammed Atta guy, he’s kind of prominent — let’s see if we have any paperwork on the guy, after September 11. That doesn’t happen. It just does indicates a, you know, a Bartleby the Scribner type bureaucracy.

JIM LEHRER: You would think Mark, even as a computer check at the Justice– because the INS is part of the Justice Department, would have turned up something on these guys.

MARK SHIELDS: You would, Jim. And so much of the good will generated for public employees and public service by the events of September 11 is diluted by this kind of an experience. This is the old bumbling, indifferent, inept – but, Jim, there is a hearty perennial headline in Washington and it has been here ever since you’ve been here, I’ve been here which is new commissioner pledges reform of INS. I mean, that is the story. And this is–.

JIM LEHRER: The long lines, going to get rid of the long lines, going to get rid of all the paperwork.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. And one of the problems is that this is an agency with a conflicting mandate. It’s 10,000 agents for border patrol to keep out the bad elements and to legalize the entry point.

Then it has 1700 agents that have the responsibility of monitoring some eight million people who are here, who are foreign citizens — 40% of whom are on expired visas apparently — education, or travel or business. And so they’re also under enormous heat. Business doesn’t want lines at the entry points.

They want to move that along. Plus they kind of like, many businesses like those employees here that aren’t terribly difficult to get along with, they work long hours, don’t complain about working conditions. So, and the schools like the tuition of the 547,000 students who are here on educational visas. So there is a real conflict here. And I think there may be a serious move to split it up — split up those duties.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to say, David, unfortunately I can’t remember his name but some member of Congress in the last 24 hours called for the complete abolition of INS and we were going to have no more Immigration and Naturalization? Do you have a favorite reform way to do this? Do you think it should be split up?

DAVID BROOKS: There is talk of splitting it up, the welcome wagon part, the splitting it up from the security part. That seems fine. You are still going to have these interests who want the mess. And they can’t do it, we can’t say, okay, let’s have completely open borders. So they say let’s have ineffective borders, which is a way de facto to let people in without saying we’re letting people in.

JIM LEHRER: President Bush has a second full-scale news conference this week, Mark, a couple days ago. How do you think he did?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, three hours notice, no prime time. If they really wanted a lot of people to see it, they probably would have given us more notice.

JIM LEHRER: 4:00 in the afternoon.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. The President seemed comfortable. 80% favorable rating in the poll will do that for a fellow. The idea that there has been a transforming experience in his syntax or command of rhetoric as of September 11, the lie was put to that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it was a commanding performance. I mean he was fine. He was comfortable, likable, but it wasn’t that sense of compelling commander that was expected. There were two things that I thought stood out to me anyway.

One was we’ve transformed Osama bin Laden from wanted — dead or alive, to he has been marginalized. I mean, there was, at the outset, a desire and urgency to personify the opposition. Now that that appears to be less the case…he appears to be more elusive.

The other thing is – and I say this as a Catholic, I was really upset with the President’s endorsement of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and with not a single expression of any sympathy, any compassion for the victims of the hierarchy’s absolutely cruel indifference and callous disregard of the young boys who have been assaulted, emotionally, physically, and spiritually by predator priests.

JIM LEHRER: David, what do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess on that, for someone who is not in the church, there is no profit in getting involved. There’s more harm. I was struck by the change in moral tone. Since September 11 he has talked especially about foreign policy in extremely moral terms. You are either with us or against us, axis of evil.

He identified terrorists in the Middle East as part of the sort of junior partners in this axis of evil, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah. This time when asked about the Middle East, the Middle East violence at a time of record terrorism, suddenly he is not talking in moral terms. He is talking like the Manchurian diplomat. He is talking about the process.

We’ve got to get to Tenet and Tenet is the avenue to Mitchell and Mitchell is the avenue back to Oslo, and he is back in diplomatic mode and very punishing towards the Israelis. I think people understand that, you know, we have to get more of the Arab world on our side for the attack of Iraq so you have to kick the Israelis around a little. I think they are willing to forgive him this slide into cynicism.

JIM LEHRER: Is that what this was a slide in cynicism?

DAVID BROOKS: He had a job to do. The U.S.’s first priority is to rally some sort of support for Iraq and Iran. So he has to get some Arab support. That does mean kicking Israel around. And I think Americans understand that.

The problem is that he has reached these high approval ratings because he has been a straight talker. He has been a moral leader. And he wasn’t that at the press conference. And I sort of give him credit for being bad at the citadel game which he had to play for U.S. interest.

MARK SHIELDS: I thought that the President was anything but tough on the Israelis. I mean not helpful is hardly a term of censure. I mean this is the biggest Israeli military invasion since 1967.

At a time when General Zinni is on his way there, which struck me as a very calculated move on the Sharon government’s part to get this done before General Zinni, the President’s peace envoy and the Vice President of the United States arrive — I mean and are there. So I didn’t– I disagree with David, that I thought it was in any way harsh or tough on Israel.


DAVID BROOKS: He had been very condemnatory of Hamas and Islamic jihad and the terror groups associated with — there was none of that this time. He had said you have to go in and fight terror at the cell level, you have to go where it starts. Israel either crudely or not is doing that and suddenly he is condemning them? It takes a little more explaining than he gave.

JIM LEHRER: We have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.