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Shields and Brooks Mull Torture Flap, Cheney’s Reemergence

May 15, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the top news of the week, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's comments on torture tactics and former Vice President Dick Cheney's remarks on policy direction.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, what do you make of the — of Speaker Pelosi’s news conference about the CIA and waterboarding?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: I thought it was pathetic.

JIM LEHRER: Pathetic?

DAVID BROOKS: That’s the other word I would choose. Listen, I think, in 2002-2003, she was caught up in a climate a lot of people were caught up in where either they didn’t object or they thought it was the right thing to do, it was something we needed to do, because of the sense of an imminent threat.

The climate has changed. A lot of people’s opinions have changed. And so she was told — and we now know for sure — in 2003, early 2003, about some of this stuff. A colleague of hers, Jane Harman from California, a representative, wrote a letter in protest. Nancy Pelosi didn’t.

And I think if she had said, “Now, you know, times change. It was wrong. I should have been against it,” in my view, that would have been the honest response. Instead, she’s chosen a whole series of explanations with decreasing credibility. And the last one was the worst.

To say the CIA was lying, to attack President Bush was just either a partisanship, and it was dishonorable, because you’re attacking the people in the CIA. And I’m glad to see Leon Panetta struck back at her. So I thought it was — it’s just been one bad and very, I mean, dishonorable course that she’s taken all the way down.

JIM LEHRER: Dishonorable course, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: No, I agree that the press conference was certainly something that she never would have done, should have done. It was really…

JIM LEHRER: You mean have the news conference or the way she conducted it…

MARK SHIELDS: The way she conducted it.

JIM LEHRER: … or what she said? Yes, OK.

MARK SHIELDS: It really was. I mean, understand this, first of all, about Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi is not a message politician. She is not — Newt Gingrich was a message politician. He was a communicator of ideas and this.

She is a brilliant, tough, inside politician in the House of Representatives. I mean, you don’t get to be speaker of the House unless you are, and you certainly don’t get to be the first woman speaker unless you’re five times as tough. And she’s protected her Democratic majority.

I agree with David that it was a miserable performance yesterday. I don’t think her criticism of the CIA — the jury is very much out on that. I mean, the CIA’s response was that, “We never mislead the Congress.”

That was at the very same time that the director of the CIA was saying it’s a slam-dunk that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction and the capacity to deliver them on the continental United States. So, I mean, let’s forget that about deceiving or misleading the American people or the Congress.

But that said and that acknowledged, I do think that the mistake that is made right now for the Democrats — this is not where they want the debate to be. I mean, Dick Cheney has done a service to his party. He’s a lousy messenger, because he’s 5-to-1 negative…

A fire under the torture debate

David Brooks
The New York Times
When you talk to people in the Obama administration, Democrats on Capitol Hill, and you talk about any other subject, they're happy to talk to you. When you talk to them about torture and all this stuff, they just cave in.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of messengers, huh?

MARK SHIELDS: Messengers, but his message is where the Republicans want to be. That's the one place where voters really gave George Bush credit, was for keeping the country safe.

And the Democrats don't want to be arguing about the past, six, seven, eight years ago. And, obviously, the administration doesn't. What they want to be arguing about and debating is the economy, jobs, health care. So I think, in that sense, it was an enormous political disservice.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it certainly...

JIM LEHRER: Political disservice?

DAVID BROOKS: It's going to keep this story on. She basically lit a fire. I mean, it was sort of burning, burning, burning, and she just poured oxygen or blew oxygen, whatever you do with oxygen, so it will go on for weeks and weeks.

JIM LEHRER: That's what you do. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And it's funny. When you talk to people in the Obama administration, Democrats on Capitol Hill, and you talk about any other subject, they're happy to talk to you. When you talk to them about torture and all this stuff, they just cave in. They just do not want to talk about it, because they want to move on to all this other stuff they're trying to deal with, health care, things like that. And so she did that.

The one other thing I'd say about Nancy Pelosi -- I agree she's very tough, and I agree she's a very effective speaker, but she is super-partisan, like Tom DeLay, though she's more honest than Tom DeLay was. And her reaction in this time of crisis was to blame George Bush.

And that was the partisan reaction, I guess, designed to stir up the base in her moment of need, but it was not an honest reaction. It was not the right reaction.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, let me just say one thing.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, Bob Graham, who was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee at the time, and whatever...

JIM LEHRER: The senator from Florida.

MARK SHIELDS: Senator from Florida. What everyone says about Bob Graham, he is not somebody who is indifferent to details. He's a man who probably...

JIM LEHRER: He was the original Twitterer.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. He...

JIM LEHRER: He writes down everything.

MARK SHIELDS: It probably cost him the vice presidential nomination in 2000 and cost the Democrats the White House, because if he'd been on the ticket, the Democrats would have carried Florida and George W. Bush would be pleasantly back in Texas permanently.

But he was chairman. He said the four dates that they gave, that the CIA told them they had meetings where he was briefed, he came back and he said three of them, there was no such meeting, so that their recollections are not necessarily infallible. I don't think that's the case.

I mean, and I do think that, you know, Nancy Pelosi made a bad case for herself publicly. I don't think it's a subject that she wants to be discussing or the Democrats want to be discussing. But I don't think that it's immolation politically.

Calls for a truth commission

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
But the question is now, does it go before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where it's going to be quite partisan back and forth on this now, or do you try and do a Lee Hamilton, Jim Baker, kind of insulate it with statesmen presiding?

JIM LEHRER: Is it over? Or does this keep going on and on and on? Is there any way to make it go over, if anybody wanted to make it go over?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it will lead eventually to some sort of truth commission, I suppose. It won't go over until she settles on a story. I mean, the problem -- I wasn't that upset about her until she had six different stories and then chose this one, which I think was the worst, as her most desperate story. But she just has to settle on one story.

JIM LEHRER: You mean that the CIA lied to me about the...

DAVID BROOKS: The CIA lied to me. So, you know, she settles on a story. But the thing which will hit both parties -- I think this makes it more likely we'll get some sort of outside truth commission, which hopefully will settle this in a more academic...

MARK SHIELDS: That is her...

JIM LEHRER: You think it should be settled -- you think it needs to be...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I'm for a truth commission, have been. And I think Nancy Pelosi has been, as well, maybe, you know, that was before all this. But I think it's her only hope for redemption.

But the question is now, does it go before the Senate Intelligence Committee, where it's going to be quite partisan back and forth on this now, or do you try and do a Lee Hamilton, Jim Baker, kind of insulate it with statesmen presiding?

JIM LEHRER: But you think it's important enough that it should be done, that it should be cleared up once and for all?

MARK SHIELDS: I do.

JIM LEHRER: Do you?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. Many people in this town with more powerful positions just want it to go away.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: And that's what Harry Reid was saying a couple weeks ago. And that may still happen.

MARK SHIELDS: And the administration, too, this one.

Military commission for detainees

David Brooks
The New York Times
I made these statements during the campaign. They were very clear. People applauded. It was great at the rallies. Somebody walks into my office in the Oval Office and says, "Well, it's not really going to work that way. Can we change it?"

JIM LEHRER: Mark, speaking of commissions, President Obama's decision today to stay with, in different form, but the military commission for the detainees. What do you think of that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it's the difference between being a candidate and being commander-in-chief. When you're a candidate, you know, you can campaign in prose -- poetry, rather, and you govern in prose.

I mean, this was a national security -- one thing he's found out is the closing of Guantanamo is, what are you going to do with the prisoners? And now...

JIM LEHRER: Nobody will take them.

MARK SHIELDS: Nobody will take them. I mean, the only place you could send them are places that you couldn't in good conscience send them. I mean, there are some countries, "Yes, we'll take them, sure." And you know exactly that the fingernails are being pulled out before they even get off the plane there.

So I think that it's going to irritate and anger people on his left, and especially among Democrats, not a few of whom, including probably myself from time to time, like to have a certain sense of moral superiority.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, Mark...

MARK SHIELDS: And this compromises my sense of moral superiority, not that Republicans or conservatives don't like moral superiority, but this does. This kind of brings back to real politics.

JIM LEHRER: You can take this anywhere you want to.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I'll talk about Mark's moral superiority.

JIM LEHRER: You can go moral superiority. You can go politics, whatever you want.

MARK SHIELDS: Alleged.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, this will be a short segment here. Well, first, I just would say, it's government versus campaign.

JIM LEHRER: You agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Campaigning, I would say, black and white; governing is gray. And the one thing we learned about Obama's character is he knew from his political people, for himself, I made these statements. And it's about this, it's about the photographs, and it's about Gitmo.

It's the same issue. I made these statements during the campaign. They were very clear. People applauded. It was great at the rallies. Somebody walks into my office in the Oval Office and says, "Well, it's not really going to work that way. Can we change it?"

And so he has a choice. Do I go with my campaign, which is the politically easy way, or do I take a little -- a few days of political embarrassment and go with these guys who are the professional executers of policy?

And to his credit, he went with the executers of policy. And I will just say, there are soldiers in Wardak province in Afghanistan who will say, "He took one for us. It makes our life a little easier that this can happen."

And so they, many of whom may not have voted for him, I think, because of this kind of decision, will look at him with a little more respect.

Barring release of photos

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think that it's an argument against torture. It probably is subsequently an argument against releasing the photos.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that on the photos, too, the release of the -- his fighting -- his decision to oppose the release of the abuse photos falls in the same category as David said?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it was a little bit more dissembling on that, he said. There's nothing really new in these photographs. I mean, that was one of the ways...

JIM LEHRER: It will cause a riot, but there's nothing new.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, really, exactly. But, you know, even though there are tanks apparently with detainees and guns being held over hooded prisoners.

But I think there's no question that going -- these were to be released on the 28th of May. He's going to give a speech in Cairo shortly thereafter to the Muslim world, with the spring offensive in Afghanistan, that it was -- it was no question, Jim, that one of the arguments -- torture, when the photos of Abu Ghraib were released, everybody, military, nonmilitary, defense will acknowledge one of thing: It led to the recruiting of terrorists. It led to the swelling of the ranks of al-Qaida.

And I think that it's an argument against torture. It probably is subsequently an argument against releasing the photos.

JIM LEHRER: Vice President Cheney, former Vice President Cheney, what do you think of -- some people have suggested that this is -- he is influencing the White House on all of this, because he's raised all these issues and he's keeping the heat on and all of that, and President Obama and his folks are reacting to that.

I asked David Axelrod that last night. He said, "No way." You got any reading on the influence of former Vice President Cheney?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, just on that narrow issue, I agree with David Axelrod. I don't think he's influencing.

I think the president is surrounded by people like Bob Gates. That's who influences him on these issues, and the military people are influencing him.

The Cheney thing is interesting. For those of us who watched the last three or four years of the Bush administration, where Dick Cheney was definitely in the outs, I think it probably took from the day Donald Rumsfeld left office where Cheney was off in internal exile there, and probably pent up anger, finally he had a chance, once out of office, to really say what he believed.

He couldn't say it in office, and he was sort of on the outs with President Bush, and so he's having his say.

JIM LEHRER: And so be it, huh?

DAVID BROOKS: And, you know, he has a point to make. And some of them are good points. It's obviously not good for the Republican Party to have the least popular member of your party as the most prominent spokesman, but so it is.

JIM LEHRER: What's your Cheney reading, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: As George W. Bush said in another context, bring him on. I mean, it's a godsend for the administration in many respects that Dick Cheney...

JIM LEHRER: For the Obama administration?

MARK SHIELDS: ... the Obama administration -- becomes the face of the party. It's backward-looking. It's a reminder of what people did not like about the last eight years.

But I do think, while he is a flawed and failed messenger, I do think his message is disturbing to Democrats to the degree that they're talking about keeping the country safe and, you know, whether, in fact, President Obama is keeping it safe and all of that. That isn't where you want the debate to be, if you're Barack Obama.

DAVID BROOKS: To his credit, all throughout the campaign -- and especially in France, you remember he held a town meeting in France -- he said, we're at war. And he's kept that uppermost on his mind. And if you go in with that attitude, we're at war, you know there are some ugly decisions you have to make.

JIM LEHRER: You mean Obama, President Obama?

DAVID BROOKS: Obama.

MARK SHIELDS: But he just hasn't established his credentials yet as commander-in-chief. That's all. And I think that's what is a problem, I mean, not that he hasn't -- I agree with you, but the commander-in-chief credentials are important to establish.

JIM LEHRER: More of a problem right now is that we're out of time. Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.