Political Analysts Assess the Week’s Political News
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JIM LEHRER: And to our Friday night analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. Mark, what to you is the most important thing about the big Deep Throat revelation this week?
MARK SHIELDS: The biggest thing, Jim, I guess it reminds me again of how we in the press love stories that involve the press. We’re fascinated. There’s this strong streak of narcissism in it.
It had been a parlor game in Washington for 30 years about who it was, and then to watch so many of my colleagues — not David — but so many of them scramble to tell us how they’d always known.
JIM LEHRER: They always knew it was Mark Felt.
MARK SHIELDS: It was not one of the glorious moments. I was delighted. Sally Quinn, the wife of Ben Bradlee – who can I say this — who did know, did a piece in the Washington Post on Friday saying she didn’t know and admitting, confessing. I mean, those are the three toughest words to say in Washington.
But it was just, I guess, most of all a reminder of a time when the press was a more valued and honored profession and industry and it was, I guess most of all, it hit me that prior to Vietnam and Watergate, four out of five Americans when they were asked, “How often do you trust the federal government to do what’s right” said “All of the time or most of the time.” And, boy, we lost that trust.
JIM LEHRER: We, the press, we the government, we the Constitution.
MARK SHIELDS: The government in particular – Vietnam and Watergate. And it’s never been repurchased. There are moments of sort of optimism and cheerfulness, but ever since then, there’s been a skepticism, a cynicism, and I think a sourness.
JIM LEHRER: What about Mark Felt himself? Should he be viewed as a hero, David? Do you view him as a hero?
DAVID BROOKS: Moderately. I must say I come a generation later and I’m a little struck by the obsession with the whole thing. To me, the most interesting thing about this whole scandal is how it’s moved from being Nixon and the cover up to being Woodward and Bernstein are the story.
And I think this was in effect for a lot of people that Woodward and Bernstein led the fairytale life they dreamed of. They’re in college, they’re interested in the media; they want to do something good and make a difference and still have an exciting life and become rich and famous.
Well, that all happened at a very young age to Woodward and Bernstein. And they led the fairytale life for a certain sort of educated, meritocratic person and they were smart enough to see that in their book, that they were the story as much the story was the story.
And that was certainly true of the movie and it’s certainly been true now. When people think of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein are the main characters. And I think that’s the emergence of a sort of mass educated class focusing on these two fairytale figures.
JIM LEHRER: Some people have suggested that in addition to that they also changed, they created a generation of journalists who were all investigative reporters, they were all going to get presidents and they were all going to do kinds of things and it’s taken while to get… and the use of anonymous sources got out of hand. It wasn’t all up.
DAVID BROOKS: Oh, No. That’s for sure. They created a paradigm. First they brought a lot — if I walk around my newsroom, I’m sure I could find a half dozen people who went in because they were inspired by them.
But it created, as you say, a paradigm, a set of clichés. “Follow the money,” “The president’s always lying” it created, exacerbated the adversarial relationship which sometimes is good and sometimes has fed the cynicism.
And the poll survey, the poll question Mark was talking about were the trusted institutions has gone down is truly the most important poll question of our day.
And the paradox is that a lot of the people who were chasing Watergate may have been politically liberal, I’m not saying Woodward and Bernstein were, but a lot of the people were.
But the benefit has gone politically to conservatives because as people have become more cynical about government, they’ve tended to vote for people who are also cynical about government.
JIM LEHRER: Ben Bradlee was on this program last night, Mark, and he made the point about the current debate about anonymous sources. And he made a rather passionate statement about the fact that, “Just remember this story of Watergate when you start fooling around with thinking about sending reporters to jail for not revealing their sources and whatever.” What do you think about that?
MARK SHIELDS: I think Ben Bradlee made the point very well, Jim. And I guess by that I think there is overt use of anonymous sources now. I think for some it’s become a lazy way of doing journalism. Just as a major Republican strategist said, it’s a way of kind of doing it easy and not holding people accountable.
JIM LEHRER: Bradlee said it’s created some laziness on the part of – a bunch of lazy journalists.
MARK SHIELDS: I think he’s right. But I do think this really does drive home – Jim, you know, people — it’s been fascinating to watch the reaction, sort of the Nixon counteroffensive against Mark Felt.
I mean, there’s no way. I mean, they put out 400 stories on that, Woodward and Bernstein did — they had one correction they had to make on Herb Porter’s testimony, whether it was before a grand jury or to the prosecutors.
So, I mean, with Felt’s guidance — and Felt was not the sole source. I mean, I think credit has to go for, sure, the journalism, for a lot of hard work, phone calls, interviews, and credit also has to go to Judge John Sirica, a Republican judge who forced this investigation a lot more than anybody in the White House wanted to.
But I guess to watch this counteroffensive, all of a sudden it’s motives and whether he was pure and noble. Any semi-honest journalist knows that when anybody comes to you as a source they’ve got a mixture of motives.
I mean, it’s vanity, it’s settling a score, it’s patriotism, it’s altruism. There’s all kinds of things that drive – and you better find out what they are. But the question is the substance and the substance was accurate on everything Mark Felt told them.
JIM LEHRER: What do you make on the counter offensive on this by way of –
DAVID BROOKS: It reminds me a little of the Swift boat thing we had in the election. Some things just never die. I mean, when people get — I think Pat Buchanan, Ben Stein who was in the Nixon White House, Bob Novak, a lot of people were emotionally involved in the Nixon White House; they never leave it behind.
It’s the ’60s or the early’ 70s, that period is still vivid in people’s mind and they want to re-fight the same war over and over again. A lot of us, you know, can’t see the passion. The Nixon administration was clearly a corrupt administration. A lot of us were drawn to politics reading about this, the tremendous confrontation, vividly remember the summer of the hearings and all of that.
But, you know, I once wrote an editorial about the French Revolution where I was all hyped up about it and my editor looked up at it and said, “It was 200 years ago.” So you’ve have got to have that attitude.
MARK SHIELDS: If I have to listen to one more lecture on journalistic ethics from G. Gordon Liddy, I think that will be too much.
JIM LEHRER: David, what do you make of the gulag at Guantanamo Bay debate we just heard on our program that’s been going on in the last few days?
DAVID BROOKS: I really want an independent commission — some of the questions. They’ve worked well for us in the past and I really don’t know who to trust. I’ve read the stories, I haven’t done any independent reporting.
But you read all the stories, you read some of the reports; I’m a little dubious about the Amnesty International report. I think they have become a little politicized in this.
Nonetheless, this is not only a war against individual terrorists, this is clearly a war for public opinion in the world and especially the Muslim world, and there’s no question that’s what’s happening, or at least the issue of Guantanamo is a defeat, a daily defeat for the United States.
And somehow that defeat has to be dealt with. And to me, having an independent commission that will take a look at whether the Navy’s doing a good job or the investigators down there are doing a good job, that just seems to me necessary.
JIM LEHRER: Margaret used in her question the example of the 9/11 Commission, a commission like that is what you’re talking about, right, some commission that’s clean going in and nobody has any problems with it?
DAVID BROOKS: We’ve had a couple commissions recently who have given us credible information and not all vindicating one side or the other. So I think it’s definitely worth it again.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think David’s absolutely right and I think a blue ribbon, a truly blue ribbon and one that doesn’t come masked in some sort of partisanship or apologists. But I do think, Jim, that the Amnesty International thing is fascinating.
I mean, the president went after them the other day four different times calling it absurd and the use of the word gulag. That said, the word gulag was unfortunate. It’s like the word Holocaust – as E. J. Dionne pointed out – you know, there are certain words you don’t use.
JIM LEHRER: That’s high bar word.
MARK SHIELDS: It absolutely is. But, you know, Amnesty International was quoted — I mean, during the ’70s and ’80s, they were the most authoritative sources on the abuse and torture of Soviet citizens by the Soviet administration and they were relied upon.
I mean, Don Rumsfeld cited them repeatedly in the run up to the war in Iraq. I mean, talking about Saddam Hussein. I think they’ve been awfully good on both right and left. I mean, whether it’s Cuba and China -
I think for that reason they are listened to in Guantanamo and the United States is losing that battle. We are losing that battle right now. And an independent commission, I think, is the first step, an important step.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of steps, there was a step at the Securities & Exchange; two steps at the Securities & Exchange — it’s called a segue, Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: Good, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: At the Securities & Exchange — Mr. Donaldson resigned, Christopher Cox, congressman from California has been selected to replace him. Is that a big… a big to-do has been made over that, David. Do you agree that this is going to change the direction, more pro-business and less regulatory?
DAVID BROOKS: I’m not sure as some of the reporting has been. I don’t claim to be an expert on SEC issues but I have been covering Chris Cox for 20 years.
JIM LEHRER: I thought you were.
DAVID BROOKS: My broker is, I hope. But Chris Cox is one of the smartest people on Capitol Hill, so I have a lot of faith in him as a person. He went to Harvard Law and Harvard College but that not withstanding.
He strikes me as a sort of a Jack Kemp Republican — not quite in tune with the current House leadership Tom DeLay sorts, but he really goes back to the Reagan years and I think he was there with Jack Kemp.
JIM LEHRER: He worked in the Reagan administration.
DAVID BROOKS: He worked in the Reagan administration.
JIM LEHRER: He was one of the counsel –
DAVID BROOKS: And he’s just someone who, is on a policy level, extremely serious. And so I have a lot of faith in him, a lot of faith in his intelligence. And I would also say as a politician when there’s a scandal he will understand the importance of playing to the public about it and responding to public cries for reform
And the final thing to be said is there’s no contradiction being pro-free market and wanting to crack down on the bad guys. So I just don’t think it’s right to pre-judge him either way.
MARK SHIELDS: I’ll prejudge him. I think he’s awfully smart. I think David’s right and Chris will not hesitate to tell you that he’s smart. But he’s also a disciple of Ayn Rand, the high priestess of unfettered capitalism.
And there’s been a relentless campaign by the Chamber of Commerce to get rid of Bill Donaldson. This was quite obvious. He reached the point not unlike Colin Powell. They floated regularly that Chris Cox was going to take his place and he was given the bum’s rush out the door. And Bill –
JIM LEHRER: He had come from Wall Street.
MARK SHIELDS: He had come from Wall Street and I think Bill Donaldson did a terrific job — I mean, the Sarbanes-Oxley implementation and execution and a lot of people in business didn’t like that regulation.
But don’t forget, I mean, we had hundreds of thousands of people had their savings lost by the WorldComs and the Enrons and all the rest of this unfettered capitalism.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the job Donaldson did?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, he dealt with a different regime and there was a great step up in regulation in part because of these scandals. But even Donaldson admitted that Sarbanes-Oxley has imposed costs on business which are just too far, especially on small businesses.
And so there’s clearly going to be a pullback because some of the costs that people want to serve on the board, some of the costs on small business have been exorbitant. So there may be a pullback, but I think that would have happened if Donaldson had stayed – either way.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. We’ll leave it there. Thank you both very much.