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Weekly Analysis of Shields and Brooks

December 12, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, the Halliburton oil price story. The president spoke up about it today. What kind of smell, if any, do you pick up about this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, for political opponents of the president, this has almost been the perfect storm. I mean you have the Halliburton intersecting at the same time you have a whole brouhaha over who is getting contracts in Iraq; the question of Jim Baker being sent to seek forgiveness of the debt to the countries being denied bids on that contract.

And Halliburton, the most conspicuous of all the contractors, notorious of all the contractors, absolutely no evidence the vice president has been involved in this in any way, but still it lingers because up until his selection as vice president the nomination in summer 2000, he was CEO of Halliburton. Halliburton got a no bid contract after a secret process. The Americans say Kuwaitis are paying five cents, ten cents a gallon for gasoline and the United States is paying $2.64 and … you can overcharge $67 million in cafeteria food. That would be room service at the Four Seasons for just about everybody involved. So it’s sort of the worst of all possible — and each story is feeding on the other.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: It does look bad but I spent a couple weeks looking into it and it’s not as bad as it looks. GAO and all these auditing agencies do look at Halliburton. Halliburton has been involved in the Clinton administration, the first Bush administration, and the second administration.

And what we do is we privatized a lot of our military services, building the bases, supplying laundry and all the water, everything is done now by private companies like Halliburton and KBR and different subsidiaries. And they do an excellent job. Most people agree they do an excellent job. They have a history of overcharging. This is not the first time. GAO reports have found in the past they’ve overcharged significantly.

And so you’ve got the problem of this private company which has been hired by Republican and Democratic administrations, often or sometimes with no bid contracts, and we’ve got the problem that we’ve got private companies serving with our military. To me the problem is not the overcharging in the realm of the defense budget, it is reasonably small. The problem is that we have a half privatized army. What do we do with all these private companies if it gets really hot over there and they decide we’re leaving? How does our military function without any support because it’s all private? We’ve also got private people in other companies carrying guns, doing security. Are they private or are they public? And there are really some problematic issues involved in that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that Halliburton issue would be an issue if Vice President Cheney he not been the CEO?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I think it would.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

DAVID BROOKS: It was in the first Gulf War when Halliburton played a role. It is the stench of corporations. If you are anti-corporate, and you think Bush is corporate, it wouldn’t be as big an issue obviously.

MARK SHIELDS: It feeds the perception too, Jim, that this administration is terribly chummy and terribly cozy and terribly congenial to big business and to major contributors. I mean they’ve given three quarters of a million dollars, Halliburton has, and 95 percent of it has gone to Republicans. So that perception is there, and it feeds on that perception.

JIM LEHRER: Now the other issue that Mark raised, David, is this one this week that it was announced that unless you were in the coalition going in, you are not going to get any contracts to reconstruct. How do you think about that? What do you think about that?

DAVID BROOKS: I enjoyed it for three or four minutes. I felt it was honest. They were just terrible to us. The Germans, they promised they wouldn’t run on an anti-American platform. Schroeder ran on an anti-American platform. It was terrible. I enjoyed my three minutes of gloating and revenge –

JIM LEHRER: Take that! Take that!

DAVID BROOKS: But then on mature reflection, which you know me for, I decided the hypocritical strategy would have been the best. It would have been better to say listen, all is forgiven. We’ve got a lot to do. Let’s move on. And let’s accept your bids. Privately, you would stiff them. You wouldn’t give them anything, but publicly you would be genial because we’ve got relationships we’re working on. So I endorse the mature hypocritical course at the end of the day.

JIM LEHRER: Are you still in the immature, unhypocritical — where are you?

MARK SHIELDS: I went through the hypocritical quicker than David did. I want to quote Paul Martin, the new premier of Canada. Canada got stiffed. Canada on a per capita basis, probably the most generous nation in the world when it comes to foreign aid. I mean, it has been a stalwart ally of ours throughout thick and thin and difficult and everything else. They’re getting dropped from consideration. He pointed out, he said, you know, what ought to be involved here is not giving out contracts and rewarding companies. I don’t think that Halliburton is, to the best of my knowledge made any great sacrifices in this war. If we’re talking about who sacrificed, what we ought to do is really give it to Halliburton. They were there. I didn’t see the purple hearts they picked up, Jim –

JIM LEHRER: So there is no connection.

MARK SHIELDS: There’s absolutely no connection. The logic is assailable and indefensible. But I think what he pointed out is that what ought to be under consideration is what is best for the Iraqi people.

And I don’t see Uzbekistan, I don’t see the Marshal Islands bidding for contracts. This is basically we are going to do all the stuff ourselves and going to keep it in-house. And for expanding the whole effort to include other countries, to share that sacrifice, to share the burden, to provide the troops, eventually this is the way of cutting off, I think, America’s best hope.

DAVID BROOKS: Some Halliburton people I think did die, have died in the reconstruction. I basically agree with Mark that we lost some of the moral high ground when we said let’s do whatever is best for the Iraqi people. And it’s a sham. Let’s face it. Publicly we’re punishing them. Privately, first of all Bush and other people are calling around to these countries that are being allegedly shut out, giving them all sorts of reassurances. And second, companies from those countries can’t win the primary contracts. They can win the subcontracts which is where a lot of the money is. So you’ll have French and German companies building the phone system in Iraq. So it is just a public insult with no meat to it.

JIM LEHRER: So why did they do it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they’re straightforward, they’re really bad at dealing with people they don’t like. Their attitude is, we don’t play games. If we don’t like you, we tell you we don’t like you. We are above board. There is such a thing as being too honest. They’re sometimes a little too straightforward for their own good.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think there is any chance you feel that they could back down from this? Or are they stuck with it?

DAVID BROOKS: …Some friends of mine wrote a memo for the Project for the New American Century saying Bush is going to back down. He didn’t back down, so I don’t think they will right now.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I think two things, I think David gives them too much credit. It’s campaign 2004. It has a nice ring to it. If you can put it on a bumper sticker, you can put it on a poster. They didn’t help us, you know, screw the French. They weren’t there, you know, that kind of… no Franks in the rebuilding and whatever else. I think, Jim, they went a mile too far when they inserted the national security provision so they would be exempt from the World Trade Organization rules. Suggesting that, you know, that France and Germany and Russia — our great poody-poody, our great friend — that they’re somehow a threat to the national security of the United States –

DAVID BROOKS: France is.

MARK SHIELDS: But seriously, I mean, that was just such a specious and obvious and transparent political move.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of political moves, Al Gore made a political move this week. He endorsed Howard Dean. Why do you think he did? Why do you think he did it now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, a, I think he is psychologically affected as any of us would be if we woke up for three years saying at two in the morning I was elected president, I’m not president.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, it was three years ago today that the Supreme Court made its decision that made Al Gore the non-president. Go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: I’ve been lighting candles. And I think he has been a changed man. I think personally he is a very different person, but politically he is a very different person. I think what we saw in the Dean endorsement was someone who has moved very far away from the Clinton Democratic Party to a party which is much more liberal and much more aggressive and much more angry. I think he has found his home in Dean. He is someone who now agrees with Dean on the war, on domestic policy, on secular values.

JIM LEHRER: It’s a real endorsement.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I don’t think it was opportunistic. I think he wishes he were Howard Dean.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about it?

MARK SHIELDS: First of all, Jim, it is a political plus for Howard Dean. It gives him a sense of momentum. Al Gore to primary — Democratic primary voters is the man who was robbed. They think he was legitimately elected in 2004, so it gives Dean the insurgent outsider, who has got to move, if he is going to move, to the insider party leader, which is a difficult transition to make, it gives him a certain blessing from the party….

JIM LEHRER: Which he didn’t have.

MARK SHIELDS: Which he didn’t have from the party’s most important establishment figure. Al Gore being Al Gore and always sort of lacking that deft touch at personal relations did it in a way that took away all the luster of his endorsement by just absolutely dissing Joe Lieberman who had been the exemplar of loyalty, who had foregone his own presidential ambitions until Gore made up his own mind; didn’t even give him the decency of the human phone call.

JIM LEHRER: Now just for the record, one of the Gore daughters said today that is not true; that her father tried all night to get — the night before, to get Lieberman on the phone and he couldn’t do it and she was right there. She knows for a fact she tried to get him on the phone and it didn’t work.

MARK SHIELDS: How about John Kerry and John Edwards, the last two finalists? There are three finalists to be his vice president. In a personal level, you explain this. There are only three people he considered to be vice president, one heartbeat away. All three happen to be running for president. So I think in that sense, it transformed….

JIM LEHRER: So what does that say about Al Gore and… does that say something truly negative about Al Gore, in your opinion?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it raises — I mean, he goes into Harlem to do the announcement, doesn’t mention it to Charlie Rangel, the home congressman.

JIM LEHRER: Who is supporting….

MARK SHIELDS: …A longtime Gore supporter and all the rest of it. It is a lack of touch. But coming back to the most important element that David touched on is that there is no known cure for the presidential virus other than embalming fluid. I mean Al Gore gets up every morning knowing he got more votes than anybody who ever ran for president except Ronald Reagan. More votes than anybody that has been elected since, either of the Bushes, Bill Clinton, anybody, and it doesn’t go away. I mean so he wants to be a player. And that’s understandable. He doesn’t want to write off all chances of ever being president.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see the way Gore handled it and this whole Lieberman thing because there has been a lot of stink about it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he was monumentally selfish. He may have tried but Joe Lieberman didn’t know about it. …I was calling Joe.. I could get a message to Joe Lieberman, why can’t Al Gore get a message to Joe Lieberman is any just don’t buy it–

JIM LEHRER: But is it important?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s important for this reason. So far the anti-Dean opposition has not coalesced. There has been jabs here and there but there has not been a coalition against Howard Dean. This might generate it because for the first time the anti-Dean forces have some passion. I personally think it is too late but it raises the possibility that that might happen.

JIM LEHRER: That they might get together around one candidate?

DAVID BROOKS: If this were the Republican Party, John Kerry would be gone. The entire mass would move away from him. They would find the anti-Dean people. This is not the Republican Party, so that hasn’t happened, but this is an opportunity to do that.

MARK SHIELDS: Not to correct history, I saw the stop Goldwater movement in 1964, a fellow named Bill Scranton, Governor of Pennsylvania. It didn’t work. That’s it. They don’t work. They started the stop Reagan, I’ve seen stop Carter.

JIM LEHRER: How about Shields and Brooks?

MARK SHIELDS: What?

JIM LEHRER: Good night and thank you.