Meet the Candidates: Richard Gephardt
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GWEN IFILL: We begin tonight with Congressman Richard Gephardt of Missouri. He’s 62 years olds; a graduate of Northwestern and the University of Michigan Law School. He was first elected to Congress in 1976, ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, and was elected House Majority Leader the next year. When the Republicans won control of the House in 1994, he became Minority Leader. Four elections passed, Gephardt failed to regain the majority, and he gave up the leader’s post in 2002. Last week, Richard Gephardt officially announced he’s running for president. He joins us now from Hollywood, Florida, site of the AFL- CIO’s annual winter meeting. Welcome, Congressman.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Good evening, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: You voted for the use of force resolution in October. Do you think that if you were president, this would be the time in which you would be taking further action?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think the problem here is that we’ve got to disarm Saddam Hussein, that’s the goal, and I share that goal. What we’re talking about here is keeping weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists. And the first place you’d have to look — if you were worried about that — is Iraq. So I have agreed that we need to reach this goal diplomatically if we can, militarily if we must. I’ve urged the president for a long time to go to the U.N. and try to get cooperation out of the U.N. in doing this with an international coalition. I’m glad the president has done that. He is continuing to do that today, and I believe if he stays with it and is patient, we can pull together the kind of international coalition that we need. And that frankly is the best way to try to avoid having to use military power. I’ve always felt if Saddam Hussein thought the whole world together was telling him that he had to do this, he’d be more likely to do it without the use of military force.
GWEN IFILL: Yet in 1991, when this use of force resolution came before Congress for the first Gulf War, you voted against it. What changed your mind in the twelve years since then?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, that was a different situation. At the time, I thought that the use of diplomatic measures, sanctions, economic sanctions, could bring about a change in Saddam Hussein’s behavior that we could get him out of Kuwait. As it turns out, that probably wasn’t the best judgment, but it was the best decision I could make at the time, and I thought I was right. 9/11 has had a big impact on my thinking, I must tell you, because now we realize we’re in a world of terrorists and terrorism, that people who want to do it and are willing to give up their lives can come here and do great harm to the American people. And again if you’re worried about weapons of mass destruction or components of weapons of mass destruction, winding up in the hands of terrorists, the first place you would look is Iraq. There are other situations around the world, but I think you have to treat each country differently according to their own circumstances. And I came to the conclusion that we needed to get an international coalition. But I agreed with the administration that to do that we needed to get a resolution through the Congress that gave the okay to the administration to use force, but I did negotiate with the administration to get language in that resolution that said they should go to the U.N., and that’s what they’ve done.
GWEN IFILL: You’ve also said that exhausting all efforts at e U.N. essential in this process. Have we done that yet?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, I think we’re in the process of doing that. We went to the U.N. really beginning in September when the president gave a speech at the U.N.. We got a resolution out of the U.N. I think in early November that called for resuming the inspections, but also importantly called on Saddam Hussein to disarm, something that U.N. resolutions in 1991 asked him to do. So we’ve been at this long time. And now we’re going to see if he will comply with the resolutions. He hasn’t done it yet. The resolution was not about just getting inspectors in to inspect, the inspections were to see if he had disarmed, which is what the inspections asked him to do. The reports from the inspectors are not encouraging right now on him actually doing what the resolutions for over twelve years have asked him to do. Again, if we make it clear that this is an international coalition that will take military action if he doesn’t do it, I think we have the best chance of getting him to do it without military action.
GWEN IFILL: The actors on this stage so far have been primarily the United Nations, NATO, the United States, its allies and Saddam Hussein. But the United States Congress hasn’t played much of a role since that resolution passed last year. If you were president, would you be consulting more widely with the Congress?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think the president should and is consulting with the proper committees and the leadership of the Congress. Obviously the Congress is interested in what’s happening and involved in what’s happening. But the administration has also done what we asked them to do in the resolution and that is go to the U.N., try to work through the U.N. and the Security Council, try to form an international coalition to get this done. And when I talked to the president about this a number of times, I told him the reasons I thought it was important. We created the U.N., it’s our organization, we’re the leader of it, so we got to stay with it as long as we possibly can. We need help, we need help both before and we’re going to need help after whatever is done. Thirdly, we don’t want to set a bad precedent. We don’t want China to hit Taiwan a year from now and then say that they didn’t go to the U.N. because we hadn’t gone to the U.N., and finally we need to be on the moral high ground. So I think we have been involved in this decision. I certainly have talked long and hard to the president about why I thought getting international cooperation was important. And I think that he has listened to what some of us have said to him, and I’m glad that he’s at the U.N. and continuing to expend every possible effort to get the U.N. to do this with us. I think it’s very important.
GWEN IFILL: I probably don’t have to tell you that Democratic activists at the Democrat National Committee here meeting here in Washington this weekend and also in the early primary states like Iowa are overwhelmingly anti-war. What do you say to them, how do you justify your position to the folks who you have to count on to get you through those early hurdles?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: Well, what I’ve said to everybody that I’ve talked to about this issue, whether they’re a political activist or not, is that I think on an issue like this, you have to do what in your heart and mind you think is right. On 9/12 after the tragedy of 9/11, I said to Pres. Bush in the Oval Office, that we had to put politics aside on these issues as much as humanly possible because these are issues of life and death. And we have to do, hopefully together, what we think is right to keep our people safe and secure. It’s our highest responsibility. And you can’t and shouldn’t play politics with issues of that kind, ever. And so what I’ve tried to do throughout this whole period is to try to decide the issues on what I thought was the best thing that the country could do to keep our people safe. That’s what I’ve told members of my caucus who many didn’t agree with what I was saying and doing, and others. And people have to decide whether they think that we’ve done the right job or not, but all I know to do is what I think is the right thing to keep our people safe. I think it’s our highest and most important responsibility.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you to respond very specifically to something that Sen. Robert Byrd said on the Senate floor. He said this represents a turning point in U.S. foreign policy and he said specifically the doctrine of preemption — the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening and may not be threatening, but may be threatening in the future, is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self defense. What’s your response to that?
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I think we have to very carefully evaluate this new policy. I think the Congress needs to be involved in that evaluation. I personally have some real troubles with the way it was stated by the administration, by the president. I don’t think it is the right policy for the country. I do understand the need to keep our people safe, I do understand the need to have self defense. I know we’re in a new world where we have terrorists and terrorism. And if we could have predicted 9/11, we obviously would have done that. But if we had known more that 9/11 was going to happen, maybe we could have done something to prevent it from happening. One of the things I’ve tried to –.
GWEN IFILL: I’m sorry I have to interrupt, you keep mentioning Sept. 11, and I want to ask you whether you think the case has been made a that there’s a connection between what’s happening in Iraq and Sept. 11.
REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT: I don’t know that there has been. I’m not seeing definitive evidence. But again, I don’t think you can look at this in terms of making a case in a court of law that you can make the all the causal connections between what happened with al-Qaida and Iraq. If that’s the test, then we’re never going to be able to stop any of these surprise attacks from happening and that’s what we have to try to do in this new world that we’re in. Unfortunately, there are lots of people apparently out there who want to do grave harm to the people of the United States and don’t mind taking their own lives in the process. That is a completely new situation than we’ve ever been presented with. And you’ve got to figure out how if you humanly can to prevent that from happening. I’ve said a number of times, we cannot, if we can humanly prevent it, have a weapon of mass destruction detonated in the United States. We spent 50 years and trillions of dollars trying to deter the Russians from doing that to us, so we’ve got to have policies today that will be effective in keeping terrorists from doing it to us.
GWEN IFILL: Okay, Congressman Gephardt, thank you very much for your time. We’re all out of time. Thank you.