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Shields and Brooks Discuss Recent Developments in the Presidential Campaign

July 23, 2004 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. First, the 9/11 Commission report. In general, David, what kind of job do you think the commission did?

DAVID BROOKS: Outstanding. To me it’s like 1947. It took a couple years after the end of World War II for us to look at the Cold War and figure out what kind of institutions we needed. ’47, we had the Kennan article, the National Security Act that created the CIA and Defense Department. This is a broad, sober, serious report that not only talks about reorganizing intelligence but has a broad overview of American foreign policy: What we need to do, what the real enemy is, and it’s bipartisan. All of them agreed. It’s pretty inspiring actually, it’s a great moment.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mark: Inspiring, outstanding?

MARK SHIELDS: I do agree, Jim, and I would say credit must first go to chairman and co-chairman of the commission, former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean and former Indiana Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton. But then to the ten members. They decided to hold off on all the partisan political fire, and did not assess blame in any way, and decided instead to make some serious public policy recommendations. And for that they deserve not only the praise but the gratitude of all of us.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, John Lehman, one of the members, told me that the first nine months of the Commission they were bickering, feuding, but he said the wealth of the evidence sort of bowled over them. And the last nine months, with a few exceptions, they were unanimous. So he said, “you know, in Washington if you’ve been around this town long enough you never make any new friends. But I have nine new friends.” So it really was… they saw, they peered into the tar that could happen and they were sort of united. I think that’s happened to a lot of people.

JIM LEHRER: That is a rarity, is it not, Mark? Can you think of any time when a commission has come together like this? Let’s face it, 9/11 was a big deal in ways that were historic and all that, but do you know any parallel to this?

MARK SHIELDS: I really don’t, Jim. I guess you could say the Warren Commission came to conclusions, but it never resolved anything. I mean it seemed to be responding to a need on the part of the public for reassurance at that point. And this is, we’re talking big casino here. This is not… we’re not talking about the adoption of the metric system or, you know, whether in fact the 55 mile an hour speed limit ought to be raised. I mean, this is serious stuff.

I guess the one jarring note I got yesterday was to hear our leadership on Capitol Hill respond to what I thought was an urgent call from this Commission and a serious warning from the chairman particularly, and say “my goodness, we’re going on vacation for six weeks. Then we’re coming back for a month and we’ve got to handle some very urgent matters like the epidemic of flag burning in the country, a constitutional amendment, and we’ve got to outlaw gay marriage.”

Maybe if we find two Hamas terrorists, Jim, at the Provincetown City Hall trying to get a marriage license after they’ve burned a flag, it might get the attention of the Congress. But, I mean, I have to say, not to respond to this and not to say “this is serious business”… and I commend again Joe Lieberman and John McCain for saying we’re going to introduce the sponsors of this Commission, and they did it over great resistance, you’ll recall, especially from the White House, saying we’re going to endorse this and file this into legislation today and force some action.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say Congress has gotten the message; Delay and Hastert were a little suspicious. The White House has been a little standoffish toward this, a little way too standoffish, I would say, though obviously there’s been some public feedback because just a few minutes ago something came over the wire saying Hastert and delay said they will indeed hold hearings in August and September.

JIM LEHRER: I had reported in the news summary, in fact, earlier in this program that nothing had been heard from the House. The Senate is doing something, and I’ve just got the same information, which I was going to put in the recap, in fact, to update that. So they’ve gotten message, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I don’t know whether it’s the Hamas guys in Provincetown are getting married, but somebody gave them the call. This whole thing has been mysterious. We just heard from Phil Zelikow backstage, 50 million people hit the Web site yesterday, 50 million hits, that’s a lot of hits, there’s a lot of people buying this book. There’s a lot of interest. This book is not just about the director of intelligence and where it should be organized. You go to page 361, which I highly recommend, you’ve got a definition of the whole problem. They say this…

JIM LEHRER: Page 361, are you serious?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. But they say, you know, this is not a war on terror. This is not even a war against an axis of evil. It’s a war against an ideology. How do we think about fighting an ideology? There’s a lot of interesting stuff about how do you do that. That stuff that is broader than just how to reorganize this box or that box.

JIM LEHRER: You’re optimistic that something will come of this?

DAVID BROOKS: I think you can feel it, the way Hastert and Delay have just acted and McCain– Lieberman, I think you can sort of feel something.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t feel the feeling yet on this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t feel the feeling yet, Jim, but I am encouraged by the fact that sometime between 6:00 tonight and now the House leadership has been spurred to move. So maybe they are feeling the heat. David is right; the book sales were just off the charts yesterday at, you know, at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, it’s the number-one best seller there in the day.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Another subject that’s kind of related but not directly related to the findings of the 9/11 Commission, mark, is what do you make of this flap over the Sandy Berger taking of documents out of the national archives?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, in show business and in politics, timing is everything. This happened ten months ago, and if you recall, John Kerry was not affectionately referred to as “dead man walking” by those on the press bus. This was not about the Kerry campaign, it was about Sandy Berger, and I think he’s guilty of arrogant sloppiness or sloppy arrogance, however you want to describe it, but going in and trying to assemble a record that could make the case for himself and Bill Clinton before the 9/11 Commission.

But the fact that it was simmering for ten months, hadn’t been resolved and, lo and behold, on the eve of the release of this report, my goodness, that said the country is safer but not safe, we find out that Sandy Berger has done this. So it gave an opening for the Justice Department to send it over to the White House, for the White House to make sure that it was in the public realm with no fingerprints, and I think that’s what it was about.

JIM LEHRER: Is it a serious matter, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, I think it is. I’m not sure if the White House leaked it. I’m not sure who leaked it. Nobody would leak opportunistically in this town. What he did was a serious thing. You don’t treat classified material that way. What he did was a couple times take documents, and they were not ordinary documents, they were documents that were incriminating about the Clinton administration’s behavior toward terrorism. And that’s bad. And he’s someone I…

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean incriminating?

DAVID BROOKS: There were apparently documents that suggested the Clinton administration and Berger in particular were not as aggressive about going after Osama bin Laden as they might have been, or something like that, and he took all copies of a particular memo. So that’s bad. I would say that he has a high reputation though, and that’s why a lot of us are so surprised by this. And I think it’s somewhat unfortunate that he obviously will now not be in the Kerry cabinet. This is a serious person people have a lot of respect for, but this particular episode, doing it in this way and then not telling Kerry really has put a crimp in his career for a little while.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I would make the point that the commission had everything that Sandy Berger took. They looked at it, examined it, they found nothing in that that was, you know, somehow damning or indictable or whatever, not in his taking it, but in the information. So I really don’t think it was an attempt to try and hide evidence from the Commission.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s what makes it so mystifying. I don’t mean to suggest that Clinton was worse than Bush. One of the nice things about this moment is that both were responsible. But there were four moments that the Commission points to when people tried to get Osama bin Laden, and Berger said no, no, no, for one reason or another. So that was part of a pattern that crossed administrations in not being as aggressive as possible.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see any political damage for Kerry in this?

DAVID BROOKS: No, no.

JIM LEHRER: What about you, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Kerry, what does he have to do next week?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, first of all, John Kerry enters this convention in better shape politically than any challenger in a quarter century. Since Ronald Reagan in 1980, no challenger has, against an incumbent president, has come in either tied or ahead in the polls. So in that sense, his campaign has achieved considerably thus far.

But there are a couple of lingering and serious and grave doubts that voters have about him. One is that the question of Democrats as commander in chief– is he tough enough in handling the national security of the country? They know his personal biography but questions that have been raised about his voting record, I think he has to resolve those.

But secondly it’s a question of values. This election must has been about values. What are the values that drive and determine John Kerry? Because up to now this race has been defined and driven by George W. Bush. People who are voting for George Bush are voting for George Bush. Many people who are voting for John Kerry are voting against George Bush. And what John Kerry has to do, is to give people a reason to be for him.

JIM LEHRER: How would you read the Kerry mission?

DAVID BROOKS: If I have to hear the word “values” at this convention, I’m going to jump out of our suite up there; I’m sick of that word. But I basically agree with Mark. They’re tied, they’ve been tied for six months. It’s uncanny how steady this race has been. A little bump after the Edwards pick, but back down, tied. I agree with Mark, he’s in pretty good shape. I’d say what he has to do is show he can make a decision. People have this flip-flop thing on their minds.

JIM LEHRER: Is that taking hold, do you think, the flip flop?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s one of the doubts that people have. I think they just want to see that he’s a decent guy. They just want to see that they can like him. For a challenger, this election, as Mark said, is about Bush. There are a certain number of people who want to reject Bush but just want to make sure the challenger is okay. They don’t have to fall in love with the guy; they just want to have a sense that he’s okay, and I think that’s a pretty low bar which he’ll probably pass.

JIM LEHRER: Why don’t you think they think he’s okay yet?

DAVID BROOKS: The guy is not the greatest campaigner, he’s stiff, he’s aloof, he makes things a little more boring than they have to be, and he’s not emotive. This is a Clinton/Reagan moment. It’s TV. People want emotion, they want someone who’s baring their soul, that’s not John Kerry. Frankly, some people who’ve known him a long time are not crazy about him. So the personal charm stuff is not there. There are other qualities he has.

JIM LEHRER: This is a major mission you guys are laying out for him, Mark. Can he do it?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it is, and I think David put his finger on something important. John Kerry suffers I think as northeastern candidates do in general, from a certain reticence. He’s not a guy who talks easily, openly about his feelings or his faith and family, and I think we’ve seen that President Clinton’s ability to do that in his campaigns and President Bush’s served them both very well.

JIM LEHRER: David, do you think the 9/11 Commission and Iraq as issues will dominate the convention?

DAVID BROOKS: Personally I’m incredibly curious to see if Kerry and the Democrats feel that this is a war that is just the dominating issue of our time. That’s what Republicans do feel. There are a lot of splits in the Republican Party; that’s the one thing that unites them. I’m not sure it’s quite as uppermost on the mind of Democrats. I’ll be very curious if they try to check that off or if that is really the consuming passion for John Kerry, which I think it should be.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. We’re going to find out. I look forward to being with each of you, together, each night next week. Thank you and I’ll see you in Boston on Monday.