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Shields and Brooks

April 23, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks: syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, the events come fast and furious: the 9/11 commission, an up-tick in the violence in Iraq and then the release of the Bob Woodward book. Does the Woodward book have anything in it that adds context to these other things that we have been hearing about?

MARK SHIELDS: It does and what makes it remarkable, Ray, is that why do people talk to Bob Woodward? Bob Woodward is a great reporter but one of the reasons I think people talk to him is Bob Woodward lets the participants’ quotes carry the narrative. He doesn’t make swooping judgments. So as a consequence, Democrats can read it, and say, look that’s just how absolute Bush had it in his mind from the day he came anywhere near the office to go to war with Iraq and Republicans, Bush folks can say gee doesn’t he look like a strong and decisive leader, he is not being pushed around by anybody.

In that sense, it is a book that, I guess, as you look at it you have to feel a certain pity almost — and I’m sure he hates that word — for Colin Powell, who is a diminished figure. He was not a key player in the decision to go to war…

RAY SUAREZ: By events or by this book?

MARK SHIELDS: By events I think portrayed in this book. People talk to Woodward because if they don’t, they know their rivals and adversaries will, so they figure they’re going to get their shot in anyway. But in the first book he was sort of a heroic figure, in the first Bush book. In this one he just seems diminished.

I mean the Powell doctrine with which he is totally identified, the use of overwhelming force and the exit strategy for a defined task was totally repudiated and rejected by his adversaries within the administration who said we could do it lighter and cheaper and quicker and, you know, we today are paying the price for what was that mistake.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I agree with both those points, first on the fact that both sides tout the book. Democrats see a lot of scandals and things they can use in the book. John Kerry has used it. The Bush campaign has put it on their Web site as something you should read because they think it shows Bush as a as a strong leader asking smart questions, very involved. And the interesting thing also is Colin Powell. I think he is the interesting thing that comes out.

Usually in Woodward books — and they’re now exceptions to, we have a whole flow of them — the source, the main source, is the hero. But in this case Colin Powell clearly was the major source but he’s not quite the hero. And he’s not I think in part because he was ignored but in part because the major foreign policy decision of this administration was whether to go to war in Iraq and he never made his opinion known. He was half in, half out. He never stood up for one side or another.

In contrast, some of the generals said, you know, they laid down the law. When Donald Rumsfeld was with Tommy Franks was sort of interfering with some of the war plans, Tommy Franks said hey, I’m the general. You either like it or get out.

RAY SUAREZ: I’m interested to hear you say that, David, because there are passages in the book where Colin Powell makes very clear, or appears to, his misgivings about this as an enterprise and also makes it clear that he is not very happy about being left out of the party when there are plans afoot.

DAVID BROOKS: The crucial conversation is a 12-minute conversation with the president in which he is not asked to give his view. This is the crucial meeting where the president is going to go ahead, and he doesn’t ask Powell what he thinks. And Powell doesn’t say anything. To me, if you’re secretary of State, huge decision, you have to make your opinion known. Then he does say I’m with you, Mr. President, so he is half in and half out.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, maybe I’m thinking of a different juncture because there is also the encounter with the president where he says, if you do this, I hope you understand the ramifications, if you do this, you are going to own it.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and then at several other points in the narrative, he is clearly hostile to what the Defense Department is doing, clearly worried about the way things are going, especially postwar. So in some parts he is very supportive and most parts I suppose he’s got great reservations and feels the train is leaving without him but he never takes a stand, never declares a firm position I would say either way.

MARK SHIELDS: Whether he took that stand or not and I think David makes a strong point, there is no question the lines were firmly drawn and he was on the other side, and one of the more remarkable scenes that Bob Woodward reports in this book is a dinner party at the vice president of the United States’ home, Dick and Lynn Cheney. There are Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of Defense, one of the leading architects of the war, Ken Edelman, a very close confidant, former Reagan official, and very supportive of going to war with Iraq, and Scooter Libby, the chief of staff of the vice president. They are there not simply to celebrate the U.S. military successful toppling of Saddam’s regime. They’re there as reported openly to celebrate the vanquishing of Colin Powell. I mean Colin Powell has been vanquished.

So the lines were drawn within the administration and Colin Powell was not seen as part of the team. David mentioned Tommy Franks. One of the better things in there was Tommy Franks, in really characteristically colorful fashion, said of Doug Fife, another Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz ally in the war at defense, he said I have to deal with the expletive deleted stupidest guy on the face of the earth almost every day when we’re talking about Doug Fife. It’s that kind of candor that Woodward gets that the rest of us envy.

DAVID BROOKS: I was wonder how you were going to quote Tommy Franks quotation without any of the curse words. They’re laced throughout the book.

The other thing is the president who clearly sides with Cheney sometimes and sides with Powell in the key decision to go to the U.N., and the president sort of does emerge, I think, for most people, I get this all the time: people ask who really runs the administration. And I always try to say the president runs the administration. He runs every meeting, sides with different people at different times. And I think this book does prove that beyond a doubt that he is the one who is running every meeting, he is probing, asking questions of people at briefings, unimpressed by George Tenet’s briefing on the weapons of mass destruction, says not very persuasive.

RAY SUAREZ: But then buys the case.

DAVID BROOKS: Tenet says it is a slam dunk and then he buys the case after Tenet says that. Tenet, by the way, is another loser in this book.

RAY SUAREZ: Given what we heard with great attention paid to the 9/11 commission, how does this book and the story it tells mesh with the story that’s emerging of how these decisions were made in the months after the terrorist attack?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the president appears far more engaged. I guess what I want in a president and maybe what is missing in the portrait of George Bush that I see here, I want someone who is more thoughtful than I am, more reflective than I am, smarter than I am and more decisive than I am. And George Bush appears more decisive.

I think there is no question about his decisiveness. I think David is right. I don’t think he does ask the questions. I don’t think … I mean he obviously missed the questions about what about afterwards, and he did accept what was absolutely stupid advice about … they were talking about 60,000 troops doing this in September of 2003. And General Myers this week testified … admitted that was their plan and how wrong it was. And they had to force them to even up it to where they were. I think the president, you know, didn’t ask as many questions and wasn’t as reflective as I want my leader to be. But he certainly is decisive and I think that portrait of him emerges.

RAY SUAREZ: This week Americans got to see for the first time in real numbers, the bodies of American soldiers, not as bodies but as flag-draped coffins, taken as they’re being brought back to the United States, the result of a Freedom of Information Act request as we heard earlier in the show. A big development, a sort of interesting cultural moment, how do you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: No, one of the things that’s happened in the polls in the past two weeks is that we’ve seen how disjointed the discussion in Washington is from the discussion in the country because we’ve had just terrible news for the president within Washington at the same time the president’s approval ratings have gone up. His vote, his relationship with Kerry in the polls, he is now up by 5 or 7 percent depending on the polls, and support for the war has risen, support for completing more troops for the war has risen. So, there is a significant new move in the public saying, you know, this is a tough situation, tough war, casualties, these coffins coming back, but we’ve got to fight this thing to win.

And so far there is a majority that, a small majority, that thinks Bush is the president to do that. So I don’t think the coffins and the sight of the coffins is going to affect that. I think the American people are very intelligent and mature. They know when they see that 700 people have died, that there’re going to be 700 boxes coming back.

RAY SUAREZ: So why did the Defense of Department insist, reiterate today that they’re going to make sure that these kinds of photos don’t…

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think they’re giving the American people enough credit.

MARK SHIELDS: I think what we are seeing … I disagree with David’s assessment of the polls. I think you’ve got a margin of error on both sides — Newsweek up and CNN down, and I don’t think there’s been that seat change that he describes.

I will say this. We are having the debate now, I think in a strange way — and Dover is part of this — and whether in fact we should see coffins, that we didn’t have before the war. Before the war in the run up and the rush to go to war, the stampede to go to war, I think both the Congress and the press forfeited their obligation for the full debate. We are getting it. Chuck Hagel, Republican senator from Nebraska, this week said we have to think about a draft, an issue that none raised previously only by Charlie Rangel and Fritz Hollings.

We went into the war basically saying we are going to have a tax cut where you are going to pay no price, bear no burden. That’s part of what we are coming to right now. The Dover test was laid down by Gen. Hugh Shelton in 2000. He was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and he said any president, before he makes the most grave of all decisions, before he commits Americans to combat, must ask himself and face the Dover test, which is: whether Americans can view their most precious resource returning in flag-draped coffins. So they decided to short circuit this.

The president is not simply the commander in chief. The president is the comforter in chief. And that’s what Ronald Reagan did after the Challenger, it’s when he spoke about we saw them break the surly bonds of Earth and touch the face of God. It’s what he did when he went to welcome back the 241 Americans, Marines who’d been blown up in Lebanon, it’s what Bill Clinton did when he recognized those Americans who’d been blown up at the embassy and at the U.S.S. Cole.

I think there is a certain pictorial denial that’s going on in this administration, and the president has yet to be — has yet to attend a funeral, the president has yet to be comforter in chief to the nation.

DAVID BROOKS: He has made several visits to the wounded. He has made private calls and private visits. His decision was I’m not going to turn this in a public ceremony, I’m going to try to be more discreet about it.

RAY SUAREZ: We have very little time but a quick comment on the announcement of the Catholic Church that it is going to ask priests in the United States not to give communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

MARK SHIELDS: It was not the Catholic Church. It was Cardinal Arinze, who is a Nigerian cardinal and said it in a press questioning. There is a question here of whether the Holy Eucharist Communion will be used as a political football.

Cardinal McCarrick, the cardinal archbishop of Baltimore [sic] right now has been meeting, trying to come up with some sort of a prudential decision on this. I mean I think there are those in the Church who recognize that a Mary Landrieu, the Democratic senator from Louisiana, has her seat in the Senate in large part because the cardinal archbishop of New Orleans came out against her because she had cast some pro-choice votes in the Senate.

So I think, you know, there is a real question, but there is a question as well, what do you believe and what does a Catholic believe and John Kerry is … has yet to talk about the poor, has yet to talk about universal health insurance, other issues that deeply concern the Catholic Church.

RAY SUAREZ: And quickly, David.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I think the Catholic Church has a right to issue instructions on the Church teachings. I don’t think it will affect politics one way or the other.

RAY SUAREZ: You don’t see this as the thin edge of the wedge for the rest of this campaign season?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I really think John Kerry’s Catholicism will not be a major issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Gents, thanks a lot.