Mark Shields and David Brooks Discuss the Past Week’s Political News
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, some words of analysis and possibly wisdom by Shields and Brooks: syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Mark, first, the continuing saga of Don Rumsfeld; is he on the way out or not? We thought– we talked about it last week but there’s been additional calls this week from Republicans, some of David’s former colleagues at the Weekly Standard, Sen. Lott, Sen. McCain, Sen. Coleman. They haven’t called for his resignation necessarily but it’s not good. What’s going on?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, there’s a convergence of factors here but there’s one central reality that really is — I think is damaging to Don Rumsfeld and that is if you take just the three years after Pearl Harbor, the United States was a country then of a Gross Domestic Product of $100 billion, we had 132 million people, we were struggling. We produced 296,439 aircraft.
We produced 2 1/2 million trucks; we produced 102,000 tanks. Here we are about to go into our third year with the war in Iraq and we have 29,000 vehicles on the ground in Iraq and exactly 25 percent of them are factory armored. And that is just… that’s just indefensible. And…
JIM LEHRER: It’s Rumsfeld’s fault?
MARK SHIELDS: There’s no question it’s Rumsfeld’s fault; I mean, it’s the leadership’s fault. But the president, I mean, the responsibility is there, I mean, because it was based upon either incompetent, indifference, probably on ideological.
There always was the belief to go in with a small number, go in light and they’re paying dearly for it. That sparks part of the criticism of Don Rumsfeld. Bill Kristol, David’s old colleague at the Weekly Standard, was very critical of Rumsfeld. But I think that comes from a different point of view.
What Bill Kristol sees is the great plan that the neo-cons had for the democratization of the Arab world coming unglued because of the failed policy. And Iraq is in chaos. I think they’re trying to put the best face they can on chaos but it is chaos. We’ve had 23 Americans killed in the last week.
JIM LEHRER: What do you… how do you read it?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, it is a confluence of factors. First I want to thank you for leaving the possibility of wisdom open. You didn’t close out that possibility. No, it is a confluence. There’s Trent Lott; there’s John McCain; and people like Kristol – I think McCain and Kristol, for this very reason, and it has to do with the armored trucks, but it’s a deeper reason.
Don Rumsfeld came to the Defense Department with his vision of transformation, transforming the military, turning it into a light high tech force doing some of the corporate reforms that were done and corporations in the ’90s, transferring them back to the military. It didn’t pass the first test.
It didn’t pass the war in Iraq test. We just couldn’t go in with a light mobile force because you got to nation build, you’ve got unexpected things that are going to happen like bombs along the roadside and you have to go in with a lot of people heavily armored. It’s just not mystery anymore. So Rumsfeld came in with this vision and if he had learned from the first 18 months of testing transformation and said “Okay, I have got to make some adjustments.”
I don’t think the opposition would be there to him today. But you’ve got four major senators at least and how many times have you had four major Republican senators opposing a major Republican cabinet member? That just does not happen.
JIM LEHRER: So what’s going to happen as a result of that, anything?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, he’s not going anywhere; he’s not going anywhere in the near term. But I would suspect that, you know, January will happen, then March and April. And all this lobbying is really about April and March.
It’s about maybe finding a replacement then and a replacement especially before the quadrennial review. Every four years the Pentagon comes up and wants to really reshape how they’re going to work for the next four years. I think there’s a vision that he should not be able to bind the hands of his successor on the part of people who want to get rid of him.
MARK SHIELDS: There’s another feeling, Jim, and that is that this week we saw George Bush’s administration has spent $34 billion on a missile defense system, a theoretical missile defense system. The last test was two years ago; it was a failure. We had the next test this week; it was a failure. The interceptor didn’t even get off the ground.
And at the same time that we’re spending that they can’t even spend $2 billion out of a $1/2 trillion defense budget on armor for our troops in Iraq. It’s just indefensible. And I think the other thing about Rumsfeld is chickens are coming home to roost. Don Rumsfeld’s been in this town a long time.
He’s played with sharp elbows. And you meet the same people on the way down that you met on the way up. And he’s been cocky, he’s been arrogant, he’s been able, but I think there’s a lot of people now that see a wounded tiger and would like to take a shot.
JIM LEHRER: Going for him, you think?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: What do you make, David, of President Bush’s decision to give these medals of freedom to George Tenet, to Paul Bremer and Tommy Franks? Much was made of that. What would you make of it?
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t like it. I don’t like it because I respect medals of freedom and I respect them as non-political entities, as things that are given long after the fact for a lifetime of service, for something that’s not… doesn’t strike people as a political statement.
And I… as a political statement, I think it’s defensible to give Bremer and Tenet these awards on the grounds, though, whatever mistakes they made the president can say to these guys “we went through tough times, mistakes were made.” Bremer made the huge mistake of disbanding the military. Tenet had the slam dunk –
JIM LEHRER: The Iraqi military.
DAVID BROOKS: The Iraqi military. “But I’m going to stick with you because it was tough times; we did the best we could and I’m loyal to you.” And I think that sends a good message to people in the administration, I’m not abandoning you just because you made a mistake when times are tough. That’s a decent message.
But these medals are something higher than that, and they’re given out for things which are not political. So I object to giving them and I object also to the tone that the president sometimes gets in his less attractive moments of the Washington establishment is against this so I’m going to just stick my thumb in their eye and I’m just going to ram it down their throats. I don’t think that’s him at his best.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, who gets the Medal of Honor –
JIM LEHRER: Medal of Freedom.
MARK SHIELDS: — Medal of Freedom? Nelson Mandela for freeing a nation of people; Jonas Salk for curing polio; Martin Luther King for redeeming the promise and the conscience of America; Mother Teresa for comforting the world’s untouchables and nursing them and cleansing them; three architects of a failed policy in Iraq.
Their president never admits a mistake, this is a way of not admitting a mistake and I think all men… all three men you can say had… were admirable in their individual rights. They’ve made abject failures. I mean, David put his point on slam dunk at George Tenet. George Tenet was the key to the most defective witness for this war making his testimony; that was Colin Powell.
He briefed Colin Powell. That was in addition to the slam dunk. Add to that Paul Bremer’s decision to disband… he’s made that decision to disband the Iraqi army or he took the fall for it.
JIM LEHRER: Who knows who made the decision –
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. But the third thing is, I mean, Tommy Franks, who had a marvelous army career, but Tommy Franks told George Bush and Don Rumsfeld what they wanted to hear.
He argued with the other generals and said “you have got to have 300,000 troops. You have got to go in heavy, you have got to be ready to occupy and pacify, 150,000 is not enough to do it.” Tommy Franks said “No, we can do it.” And he was wrong and paid an enormous intelligence price.
DAVID BROOKS: Listen, they made mistakes, I grant that. But they are not participants in a massive failure. It’s way too early to say. That we’ve got elections coming on in January in Iraq. We’ve had elections in Afghanistan.
We’re having elections in the Palestine territories. As my colleague Tom Friedman is reporting, there’s talk of reform across the Arab world; there are significant problems which we’re all aware of. But the idea that this is somehow a failed policy, to me this is becoming a hopeful moment. And there is this reform…
JIM LEHRER: Two different things here, the Medal of Freedom and the policy?
DAVID BROOKS: Right. What I’m saying is these guys were flawed members of a policy which could turn out to be a historically important policy. I object to giving them the Medal of Freedom because it looks like a political statement.
JIM LEHRER: New subject: Bernie Kerik. What happened there?
MARK SHIELDS: Nobody’s perfect. I mean, that’s what it turned out. David’s probably got an unreturned library book in his background if they really got into the scrutiny.
The guys got more skeletons, Jim than an anatomy lab at the Harvard Medical School. I’ve never seen anything like this. And the vetting process of George Bush – I mean, if anybody’s going to play priors on this it ought to be Gonzales.
JIM LEHRER: Alberto Gonzales?
MARK SHIELDS: He was in charge of the vetting. And, you know, Dan Jenkins, the great Texas sports writer –
JIM LEHRER: I worked with him at the Dallas Times –
MARK SHIELDS: A man of great talent.
JIM LEHRER: Yes.
MARK SHIELDS: He described the ten stages of drunkenness. And in the last two stages, intoxication takes many forms, not only alcohol. Power, glory, status can also be intoxicating. He called invisible and bulletproof. That is, nobody see what is I’m doing and I’m immune. And Bernie Kerik had obviously passed into that territory and you know, I mean, it’s just… it’s a story in the New York Daily News – I mean –
JIM LEHRER: It just goes on and on and on.
MARK SHIELDS: Listen. They’re going to live on this. They’re going to pay the rent on this story for the rest of the year.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think?
DAVID BROOKS: Nobody’s perfect. He made a few mistakes.
JIM LEHRER: No, no; that’s what Mark said.
DAVID BROOKS: A few mistresses here, a few bribes there, what’s the big deal?
MARK SHIELDS: Is cheating on a mistress a violation –
JIM LEHRER: It’s David’s turn now, Mark.
DAVID BROOKS: Well, he violates my essential principle, which is… my essential principle that we don’t want people in government who, since age eight have been worrying about their confirmation hearings and are leading lily clean lives because you get this kind of sanitized government. On the other hand, he goes a little far on the other side.
And so I think… he made a.. I think the White House made a series of mistakes. One of them was a lot of the stuff they knew about but they compartmentalized it. They said “Is that enough to disqualify him? Probably not. Is that enough? ” but when you put it all together it’s a lot.
And then the other mistake, there were other things they didn’t know about and I think he seems like he wasn’t forthcoming about, which is the fatal mistake — that’s the bulletproof part — the fatal mistake that people make when they’re up for a job, a big job which they’re dying to have. They somehow think “nobody will notice.” They always notice and that just destroys the president’s trust.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of big jobs and the president, the president also said “Hey, we’re going to reform Social Security, and I really mean it this time.” Do you think it’s going to happen?
DAVID BROOKS: I wouldn’t… when you look at the barriers there, the hurdles are high. Even the Republican Party… I could count four different groups who want four mutually contradictory plans. Then you are talking about the Democrats.
So it’s going to be really hard but the president really, really, really does want it. And so we’ll see if he can do it. We’ll see if there’s a culture of negotiation in this town which is what it’s going to take to actually get something done.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s going to take – I mean, Ronald Reagan did something a lot more modest 25 years ago and he did it… he obviously did 20 years ago – he did it with a bipartisan effort, a major bipartisan effort. They can’t do this with the Republicans in the Congress, that’s the first thing.
I think, Jim, one Republican said to me this week, this could very well be for George Bush what health care was for Bill Clinton: the big reach that doesn’t work; 33 million American retirees get a Social Security check every month. Half of them would be living in poverty without that Social Security check. You’re tampering with people’s existence. One out of five retirees — that is their sole source of income. So you’re talking about people’s lives.
This isn’t something in the abstract. This isn’t something that comes out of a think tank, this is really people’s lives and I think that in order to do it, you’d better be sure that you’ve got a majority… not something in the Congress — that you’ve got a majority in the country and he does not now.
DAVID BROOKS: I think “a” on the substance it’s important to have it. But just on the politics of it, having that culture of negotiation, you know, when it was done in ’82 and ’83 by people like Alan Greenspan and James Hayward -
MARK SHIELDS: Danny Rostenkowski -
DAVID BROOKS: Danny Rostenkowski – one of the things they did, they had all these members who didn’t want to budge because it is such a tough issue, they snuck ‘em through tunnels to get to the Blair House for private meetings and they surrounded them and said “We’ve got a deal, are you going to sign up?”
And the last guy they surrounded was Claude Pepper on a Saturday night at 7:30 and they just surrounded him and he finally collapsed and said “Okay, I’m in for the deal.” They realized the deal would fall apart if they waited the next day to announce it so they had a press conference like at 9 o’clock on a Saturday night because this is tough work.
JIM LEHRER: We’ll see what happens. Thank you both very much.