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Political Analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks Discuss the Week’s Events

January 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. The Alberto Gonzales nomination, David; have you heard anything or do you know anything that you believe disqualifies Alberto Gonzales to be attorney general of the United States.

DAVID BROOKS: No, he is a short stocky guy but that’s no problem. No, I think he will be the attorney general. I think he’s going to sail through this committee vote. There were some protests and issues raised but he will be the attorney general.

JIM LEHRER: No issues that bothered you?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, not in particular. You know, I think one of the things that he has tried to do, the administration has maybe not been always successful but has been to deal with this problem. We go to Afghanistan. We have got people who are not normal soldiers first of all. Second of all, they’re not normal prisoners because they want to die. They’re divorced from life. All of our techniques in interrogating people like prisoners is based on the idea that they’re basically like us, that they want to go home to their families so we had a unique situation over there, and we had to figure out how to deal with it –

JIM LEHRER: Post-9/11.

DAVID BROOKS: — right after 9/11, and he was part of the discussions. Now, in some of those discussions, the Bibby Memo, where they said you know, you can basically almost kill the people, did we go over the line, were those terrible memos? Yes. But he was part of the discussions and I think he was right that maybe the Geneva Conventions should not necessarily apply to those people. And I think he was right to deal with that issue. And, you know, I’m sort of stuck in-between. On the left you’ve got sometimes some hysteria that won’t even address this problem of how do we deal with al-Qaida types. On the right you’ve got a bunch of clichés, we can’t do a Marquis de Queensbury rules; it’s a New World. We’ve got to be tough. And so a lot of us are kind stuck in the middle, and I think that he is, too, so I have some sympathy for him.

JIM LEHRER: Are you stuck anywhere on Gonzales?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Gonzales will be… he is no John Mitchell, let’s get that.

JIM LEHRER: Is he a John Ashcroft?

MARK SHIELDS: Is he a John Ashcroft: He is, do I think he will be confirmed? He will be confirmed. He is intellectually qualified, certainly his education credentials qualify. I thought, Jim, the most dramatic moment in the hearings was when Sen. Lindsay Graham, the Republican from South Carolina, a man who has been a military lawyer, said that the administration’s tactics here were playing cute with the law, and that —

JIM LEHRER: On this issue of interrogation –

MARK SHIELDS: On this issue of interrogation — and that it had severely undermined the United States’ standing and our ability to maintain and claim the high moral ground. And I thought, as I watched that and listened to Gonzales, that how you feel about it depends on how you feel about Abu Ghraib. If you really think that’s an open wound in the United States, that the pictures and the photograph of the evidence of what was done here has hurt us permanently; hurt the United States and its mission and its efforts in the Muslim world, then I think you probably, you know, were not satisfied with Gonzales’s answers.

DAVID BROOKS: Abu Ghraib, those people were not interrogating anybody. They were just torturing people. That was just sadism. That wasn’t part of any interrogation process. It was the middle of the night. And it wasn’t any part of rational effort to get information. I don’t even know if they asked questions. They just were out of control. But the interrogation process is a much, you know, — and there have been atrocities in that, too. I don’t want to whitewash that.

MARK SHIELDS: There have been.

DAVID BROOKS: But the interrogation process and how we react at Gitmo, how we react in Iraq, these are issues that I think we should have memos about. You know, every week we sit here and we watch on Fridays the soldiers that have been killed in Iraq and —

JIM LEHRER: We have some more tonight.

DAVID BROOKS: And we know very little about the insurgents. And we have got to somehow do a better job in knowing about the people who are killing the faces we see every Friday night. And this is part of that process. And I think his role has been utterly appropriate.

MARK SHIELDS: I question its appropriateness in this sense, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: The process or Gonzales’s role?

MARK SHIELDS: Gonzales’s role. Gonzales’s entire career, other than the time at Vincent and Elkins — has been spent in the service of George W. Bush — basically his counsel in Texas, counsel in the White House and that one year on the Texas Supreme Court.

JIM LEHRER: Appointed by then Gov. Bush.

MARK SHIELDS: By then Gov. Bush. And I had the feeling, as you look at what he has done, I mean yes, we repealed the Bibby Memo now two years after the fact.

JIM LEHRER: This was the torture memo.

MARK SHIELDS: This was the torture memo. It basically said anything goes up to —

JIM LEHRER: As long as you don’t kill them.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh well, kill them. Take an organ out. That’s the level of pain we are talking about. And you know, I really think, Jim, that this is serious stuff, and that he has to be held accountable for his position on it. And I don’t think that this committee is going to do it. And I’ll be very honest with you. I think for political reasons… I mean, the political reason is very simple.

The biggest demographic increase George W. Bush had between 2000 and 2004 in the entire electorate was among Latino voters. The president is aware of that. He has nominated Mr. Gutierrez at Commerce; he’s nominated Mr. Gonzales to be attorney general. Democrats, intimidated, terrified at this important, growing constituency, could be slipping away, are not going to choose this to make a fight, it could be an important symbolic figure, especially when Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio, stood up and endorsed him and he was introduced by Ken Salazar, the new Democratic Latino Hispanic senator from Colorado. So, I mean, the reality is one thing and the argument in the debate is something else.

JIM LEHRER: What about David’s point? Move Gonzales away from it for a moment. David’s point is that what he said about, you know, that those on the right argue one thing but those on the left, you know,… if you cannot… how do you handle the special situation of people like post-9/11, Afghanistan folks, Taliban and all of that?

MARK SHIELDS: David got half the answer right. You have to know more about these people. You really do. You have to understand them. You can’t use… I mean I know nobody who has been involved in this who believes in torture; that torture is an effective… I know nobody in uniform who sanctions torture.

JIM LEHRER: Just the opposite.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right but….

JIM LEHRER: It doesn’t work.

MARK SHIELDS: Lindsay Graham pointed out, not only does it not work, but what it does is it makes vulnerable American soldiers and Marines who do fall into the hands of the enemy —

JIM LEHRER: Because tit for tat and all of that.

DAVID BROOKS: They torture them anyway because al-Qaida is not playing by the rules. Anyway, we are learning more about what al-Qaida knew; they had a handbook of how to deal with these situations. And the handbook said they can’t do anything to you, and the problem with these specific soldiers, with the religious fanatics, is they want to be martyrs. You can’t – you can’t play on their normal human reactions, which we assume and which our entire interrogation system is based on. And from what I’ve read, the one time you can actually get information out of these sort of prisoners who are perfectly happy to die is when you have a stressful situation where they think there are no rules. Now we’ve got to have rules so we don’t get Abu Ghraib, but somehow you have to give the prisoner the impression there are no rules.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly David, how do you respond to Mark’s point about the fact that Gonzales is so close to the president? Is that a liability or is that an asset?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s both. It’s a liability in the case that sometimes the attorney general has to look into scandals and things like that. And the utter dependence is a problem. On the other hand, the attorney general also is carrying out policies from the administration initiating policy and having the trust of the president I think is tremendously important. I think with John Ashcroft, one of the things that was dysfunctional about that relationship, he and Bush were not particularly close and I think at times it messed up the system.

MARK SHIELDS: As an unabashed admirer of Robert F. Kennedy, certainly there was nobody closer to a president than Robert Kennedy, and I think he ranks as a superb attorney general….

JIM LEHRER: So that’s not a liability.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it is a liability but Jim, there is going to be a host of future litigation that comes before the attorney general as a direct consequence of the Abu Ghraib trials and the Abu Ghraib convictions and all the other torture. I mean Abu Ghraib is not an isolated incident. We’ve now discovered the FBI has documented over two years this kind of treatment and mistreatment, so….

JIM LEHRER: Not by the FBI but by others.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, by Americans.

JIM LEHRER: Those reports are trickling out and….

MARK SHIELDS: They’re going to come before Gonzales.

JIM LEHRER: David, the House Republicans changes in the ethics rules. The dust has now cleared on that. How do you read what finally happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, and a little sanity returned. I think bending the rules was a big mistake. I think a lot of Republicans voted to bend those rules for Tom DeLay, felt guilty about it, felt secretly ashamed. If you secretly asked did you vote for him, they all said yeah, I wouldn’t vote for changed rules. I have high ethical standards but they did under pressure by their leadership. But I think they came to their senses, and they have improved the situation. Listen, I think they have to recognize that the biggest single threat to the Republican majority is the relationship on K Street with corporate lobbyists and the corruption that is entailed in that. And corruption is the thing that is going to bring the Republicans down, if anything. So having super high standards, not that they have super high standards but at least they’re not lower than they were too much a year ago, is just totally necessary for self-preservation.


MARK SHIELDS: I agree with David’s assessment. I think they’re in trouble on K Street; I think they’re in trouble with being too close to corporate interests and I think that the hearings before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will document that in rather glaring and graphic and terrifying detail. But, Jim, they are to be commended. It was a shrewd political move to back down, to change those rules because it would have been a liability but at the same time don’t ignore the fact that they have weakened the ethics process by saying that in order for any ethics complaint to move forward now, there has to be a majority, that a tie vote —

JIM LEHRER: Used to not be that way so.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. So if you are going to stack the committee, are you going to get another chairman who’s as independent as Hefley has been, the Republican from Colorado, in the past?

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that’s a major change?

DAVID BROOKS: I think there’s a danger though if we are hoping – we’re waiting for the House Ethics Committee to police the House, we are going to be in trouble. It has sometimes done a good job but not in general —

JIM LEHRER: Quickly, President Bush announced today, Mark, a bipartisan commission to reform the tax code; former Senators Mack, Republican and Sen. Breaux, Democrat. Is this really going to happen, do you think? It has been on the agenda, the president’s agenda. What do you smell?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, that you know, based upon the 9/11 Commission, commissions have a new life and new stature in Washington. That was fascinating because it was investigating a mystery. It’s no mystery when President Bush wants to do and no suspense about what this commission is going to come up with. It’s going to come up with lowering the tax on unearned income, capital investment and interest dividends and it’s going to raise it on earned income.

JIM LEHRER: Is that —

DAVID BROOKS: Maybe, maybe not. I think they could have a consumption tax. What I’m hoping for personally is that they don’t file in August but they complete their work in a few weeks because I think one needs to have – you have got to combine tax reform with Social Security reform which is floundering and talk about the payroll tax.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, finally before we go, Mark, you wanted to say something about Bob Matsui, the Democratic congressman from California who died last weekend.

MARK SHIELDS: He did, Jim, at the age of 63 – 28 — 26 years in the House from Sacramento. A remarkable man.-I mean, a man of enormously strong convictions but totally open mind and politics with Bob Matsui was never personal. His convictions were real but he had political opponents but he never had a political enemy. There were no political enemies in his life and at his memorial service, Hillary Clinton, I thought put it well, she said, given the rancor and the short tempers and the frayed nerves of Washington, we ought to stop every once in awhile have a Matsui moment. And boy that was a wonderful example for us–

JIM LEHRER: Very nice phrase. Thank you both very much.