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Shields and Brooks

December 13, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard.

David, what is your reaction to Senator Lott’s performance, to his position?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he is finished. He dug a hole with that statement, every apology he’s dug a further hole, and now has pierced through to China. I just think it was the statement of a politician. Nobody could look more than a politician than the way he just did: a lot of clichés, a lot of pabulum.

Most importantly, he never addressed the core issue. He talked about that one comment about Strom Thurmond. He barely addressed the fact that he said the same thing two decades before. He didn’t address the fact that he has frequently praised Jefferson Davis, said, of all Americans, the person I feel closest to is Jefferson Davis, the confederate President. He didn’t address any of that. It is going to satisfy no one. All day today the momentum has been shifting strongly against him on Capitol Hill. I can’t imagine he will last another few more days.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought the signal from the White House yesterday, Jim, was so strong from President Bush and Republicans on the Hill echoed that as well today, that the President was endorsing regime change in the United States Senate, that it was incumbent upon Trent Lott today to come up to a level matched by Richard Nixon in 1952 with the checker speech where he saved his political career by an eloquent appeal to the American people. And it’s hard for me to believe that any minds were changed today. And the way minds have been changing over the past week, they have been turning against Senator Lott.

JIM LEHRER: He mentioned himself at his news conference, Senator Jim Jeffords, Senator Santorum both came out publicly in support of him today. So that is not a trend?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Senator Jeffords doesn’t vote in the Republican caucus, so that’s sort of an empty offer.

JIM LEHRER: So count him out.

MARK SHIELDS: Senator Santorum, I think –

JIM LEHRER: He’s number three in the leadership.

MARK SHIELDS: Number three in the leadership. The difference right now and the reason I’m not as absolutely confident of David, this had been compared to 1998 when Newt Gingrich was in trouble after the election at that point, Gingrich was in trouble only when Bob Livingston, then popular and powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said “I’m going to run against him.” At that point Gingrich was doomed because there was a compelling candidate against him. There is not now. Nobody has emerged.

So one of the things you are seeing on the Republican side in the Senate is many Republicans, I think many in the White House, would like to see Bill Frist of Tennessee. But there aren’t a lot of Senators in the Senate who would like to see Bill Frist of Tennessee given that kind of exposure with his rather manifest national ambitions. And Mitch McConnell, who is about to become whip, wants the natural order as does Rick Santorum who is number three. So I think public pronouncements are not as much, until you see a candidacy form.

JIM LEHRER: Well, take us through a scenario here, David. First of all, also unlike the Gingrich thing, this election has already happened. I mean a month ago the Senate — the Republican Senators elected Lott as their leader, the new majority leader when the Congress comes back in January. To get rid of him now, it would take an overt act on somebody’s part, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Karl Rove would just have to say the word, and it would be done.

JIM LEHRER: That’s right? You think it could be done.

DAVID BROOKS: I think it could be done. Listen, if you go up to Capitol Hill, it is a historic moment. First of all, nobody wants to come out publicly, with the exception of Rick Santorum, an epidemic of camera shyness up there. If you dragged a camera through the hall of the Russell Senate Office Building, they would flee from it like a pack of Greta Garbos trying to get away from it, but that’s because they’re busy conniving. It has been an explosion of rumors and gossip today, and I don’t know which is true and which is not true but I know –

JIM LEHRER: Be my guest.

DAVID BROOKS: I know there’s a lot of people — they’re not waiting for the body to be cold, because there’s a lot of maneuvering going on. And one of the things all the candidates are aware of is that the person who sticks the knife in is not the person who naturally the job. There is no interest in anybody’s interest in being the first one to say I’m against Trent Lott because there are a lot of people who remain supportive of Trent Lott and you want to win the voters of those people if you are going to run for the Majority Leader. So you have got to seem somewhat supportive of Lott and then slip it.

JIM LEHRER: Lay out — let’s begin with you and then Mark — lay out the politics for the Republicans to get rid of Lott now. What is the compelling reason to throw him over the side?

DAVID BROOKS: First, he is an embarrassment. People generally disagree with and are offended and outraged by what Lott said. So there is the sincerity, which is not small. It may not be the biggest thing in the world, but it’s not small. Then there is the fact that, say there is a Supreme Court vacancy. Do you want to go into a fight with the Supreme Court vacancy, which is a brutal fight that takes place in the Senate, with Trent Lott as your leader; do you want to go into a campaign in two years with Trent Lott as your leader? People were not in love with this guy in the first place before any of this happened, so there’s just been a buildup.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Mark, I read today that many Democrats, they just as soon Trent Lott stay in place.

MARK SHIELDS: I talked to one Democrat this afternoon who said to me, how do we keep him? I mean they don’t want to see him go. I would add this, Jim: The very week that the President’s national security advisor, an African American woman is featured on Newsweek and there pictured with the President’s African American secretary of state, central figures in the national security of this country, Trent Lott comes out and makes this statement. I mean two points. First of all, Alan Ginsburg, a friend and historian said can you imagine if Strom Thurmond had been born two months earlier, if he had been born two months earlier and this party had taken place in October -

JIM LEHRER: Birthday party?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right — the entire dynamic, if Trent Lott had said the same thing, of the election of 2002 would have been changed. You couldn’t have used the Confederate flag as an issue in Georgia against the governor and against Max Cleland. It would have put every Republican on the defensive. Mary Landrieu would have won without a runoff. All over the country this would have been a problem.

Second, Jim, I think, as you look at Trent Lott, the one thing he said all week that was absolutely true was this was a mistake of the head, not of the heart. His head is empty. I mean, this is a man who has said stupid things for a long, long time that haven’t been covered — I mean, like the tree falling in the forest. Now all of a sudden they’re being covered. It is only going to get worse. There’s only going to be further revelations.

He said he was only seven years old when Strom Thurmond ran in 1948. He was 22 when Andrew Goodman and when Michael Schwarner and James Chaney were killed in the terrible summer of 1964 in Miami when he was opposing the integration of his university. He was 30 when he ran for the Congress to succeed as the protégé of one of the really vicious white supremacists, William Colmer. He was 42 when he said of the Republican National Convention platform which he presided over as chairman, this is written in the spirit of Jefferson Davis. I mean, it’s always through this man’s entire career. So I mean, Republicans have to say, wait a minute, as we’re trying to reach out, as George W. Bush talks about compassionate conservatism appears with the black mayor of Philadelphia, John Street –

JIM LEHRER: Yesterday.

MARK SHIELDS: Yesterday — I mean — how can you do this?

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of yesterday and the President, what did you think of the way the President handled this yesterday, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Quite good. He gave a sincere statement. He didn’t seem to push Lott out. He didn’t have a Machiavellian motive at all. He just said this is what I believe, and that is where the party is. People are right to ask right now, do Republicans talk in private the way Trent Lott talks in public? And that’s a legitimate question given what Lott said. My only personal testimony is that I spend a lot of times with Republicans just us talking and they don’t talk that way. Nobody uses overtly racist language among Republicans in private. The party is not there anymore. It’s 2002. Nobody is fighting 1948 anymore.

I think Strom Thurmond has this bizarre notion of history that somehow the wrong side won the Civil War; Abraham Lincoln was the first coming of George McGovern and all our problems started because the North won the Civil War. And I don’t know how much of that is racial or not. I’m not that deep into the southern mind but it’s just not where the party is.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Last night Adam Nagourney of the New York Times was on. He suggested — he was here as a reporter not as a commentator or as an analyst. But he said that the President’s comments were so strong, that if in fact they do eventually, the Senate Republicans, do eventually throw Lott out, that the President can take some of the credit for that because he gave the Senators cover. Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: I saw the Nagourney segment. I think he also made the correct point that it was a contrast. That’s what you say if you are soul searching. This is what you say — this is what Trent Lott should have said. Trent Lott somehow could never say that, maybe because he doesn’t believe it. Bush was sincere and has demonstrated that sincerity.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think about the President?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Jim, I thought the President had it both ways. The President would not be — does not think it’s necessary for Trent Lott to resign. That was Ari Fleischer’s follow-up. You can read anything you want into that. Then, of course the White House sources, the unnamed White House sources dropped a dime on Trent Lott. They said he and the President have never been that close — that the President would not be at all distressed if he left. I mean, there was a sense that they we pushing him very, very close to the edge.

Add to that, Jim, the fact that Trent Lott’s dumbness– I mean he talks about Strom Thurmond, he comes to the Congress of the United States, civil rights bills are basically over. It’s 1972. Ronald Reagan becomes President and he pushes for an extension of the Voting Rights Act that guarantees the federal government’s interest in providing and guaranteeing every American has the right to vote unfettered from fear. And Ronald Reagan supports it. Strom Thurmond votes against it, for it –

JIM LEHRER: For it. Thurmond supported it.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right — and Trent Lott votes against it at every possible point. So I think Republicans have to be looking right now — the one place I disagree with David is Trent Lott’s best hope may be if Karl Rove and the heavy hand of the White House are seen as trying to pick a Republican leader of the Congress. That’s meddling and then institutional prerogatives –

DAVID BROOKS: Trent Lott’s best hope, which his supporters have not been shy in reminding people of, is that the governor of Mississippi is a Democrat. If Trent Lott leaves the Senate, there’s a Democrat coming in. The Senate’s 50-50. It takes one Lincoln Chafee to switch parties.

JIM LEHRER: He could stay in the Senate without being the Senate Majority Leader.

DAVID BROOKS: He could conceivably do that but it would be a humiliation.

JIM LEHRER: One other quick thing before we go: There was a resignation today. Henry Kissinger and before that this week: George Mitchell, the chairman and vice chairman of this 9/11 commission. Where does that leave the commission? Where does that leave the state of affairs trying to get people like this to run commissions?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I hope it leaves us with a couple things. First of all, that you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. You can’t be a rich guy earning a salary with its international network of business contacts and also be a public servant. It’s just hard to do. The second thing: Why do we need these headliners? Whey do we need George Mitchell, Henry Kissinger stars to run these commissions? Isn’t a Presidential commission prestigious enough if we get somebody who is actually going to do the work and going to devote his life to this commission? I don’t see why we always we need the heavy names. So I hope –

JIM LEHRER: So it could be a good thing.

DAVID BROOKS: I think so, yeah.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I hope it is a good thing, Jim. It proved the White House didn’t want to take on another burden of arguing that Henry Kissinger should be exempt from the full disclosure that every other commissioner and the Congressional Reference Service, the Library of Congress said no, he would not be exempt as chairman. He would have to provide the answers and he didn’t want to. One other item on Mississippi. The other Republican Senator from Mississippi is Thad Cochran. Thad Cochran of Mississippi is a conservative, has a conservative voting record. There has never been a whiff of race involved at any point in his career. At every point, he has sought and gone after African American votes and that’s been his career. I mean Trent Lott is not representative of the state. Trent Lott is Trent Lott.

JIM LEHRER: Now back to Henry Kissinger and George Mitchell.

DAVID BROOKS: He voted for Thomas Dewey, Henry Kissinger in 1948.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of David’s point here that maybe this could be a good development because it could bring in, maybe we don’t need stars to do these commissions or people that have a lot of conflicts of interests anyhow?

MARK SHIELDS: We don’t need people with conflicts of interest; I think stars help. David is a little bit of a Pollyanna. He believes the first 500 names of the D.C. phone book…

JIM LEHRER: Lee Hamilton was the vice chairman, head of the Woodrow Wilson Center — Democratic Congressman from Indiana for a long time — and does not do outside work. So maybe he’ll stay –

MARK SHIELDS: He will stay. I wonder if the President won’t name him chairman.

DAVID BROOKS: And Shirley Temple and Regis Philbin. I’m a Pollyanna …

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.