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Brooks and Oliphant Discuss Cabinet Changes

December 3, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight to the analysis of Brooks and Oliphant: New York Times columnist David Brooks and Boston Globe columnist Tom Oliphant. Mark Shields is off tonight. David, what did you think of the Kerik nomination?

DAVID BROOKS: I like it. It’s sort of in a town of turkey; he’s a pastrami kind of guy. I like that kind of thing. But I do think that actually plays into the substance because one of the problems Tom Ridge had was an inability to project confidence. Ridge was given an almost impossible job of managing this new agency which was really an amalgamation of a bunch of different departments and that was tough.

But the public rejection could have been a little stronger. And one really got the sense that what Ridge was doing was not… he was not mastering events but was sort of mastered by them, was being jerked around by things. I think Kerik will do a much better job at projecting a sense of control.

JIM LEHRER: The public face will be stronger?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Because homeland security is… you know, people have heard about terrorism. They want to have a sense that somebody is in control of things whether anybody is or not. So… but I think he will do that quite well.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. What do you think, Tom?

TOM OLIPHANT: You know, to keep with your analogy, one of the tough things about Washington is it can turn pastrami into polenta very fast. Sorry. But what I think we need to keep in mind is the enormous size of the unfinished agenda that’s on Mr. Kerik’s desk when he starts work. We are still arguing about the adequacy of security at much of the industrial and transportation infrastructure in the country.

I agree wholeheartedly with what David said about Tom Ridge’s difficulties in projecting a face, a force, a vigor behind this office. But Kerik’s going to have to take a fresh look at some very tough questions because…

JIM LEHRER: Like what? What do you think..

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, the best example I can think of is the chemical industry. Without pretending to be expert on the merits, there were some plans to very vigorously shore up the security at chemical manufacturing plants around the country for obvious reasons. Ridge was behind these efforts. The industry complained about cost and needless bureaucratic meddling or whatever. They went around him to the White House and they succeeded. And I thought Ridge was a lame duck from that moment on a couple years ago. And that’s what has to stop. Kerik needs to take a fresh look at all of this and his personality will only be important as a benefit if he is able to take this new department all the way to preparedness.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think Bernie Kerik brings the attributes necessary to do that, to play this Washington game?

DAVID BROOKS: I think the public game I emphasize yes. His reputation in New York as an administrator was not sterling and that’s half and maybe even substantively the most important job. It is very difficult to start up a Cabinet department. It is difficult to start up a department that is already huge where half the people in the agency don’t want to be there. They were happy where they were in whatever old agency they used to be a part of. I’m not an expert on this, but the reputation of the Homeland Security Department around town is a poor one.

JIM LEHRER: In what way?

DAVID BROOKS: Shambolic would be the word you hear. You do need an administrator. Now, Kerik can appoint somebody who’s somebody who can get things to operate on time. And maybe the… what he does well, which is projecting authority, is what’s needed publicly.

JIM LEHRER: Well, Tom mentioned the chemical thing. Tommy Thompson’s parting shot we had on the News Summary, the outgoing HHS secretary, he said, by the way, if the terrorists want to do harm, they could poison our food supply.

DAVID BROOKS: Thanks for the suggestion!

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, actually one of the virtues, Tommy Thompson, one of the things he’s undeniably conscious or given credit for is bio-terrorism and being quite aggressive about that. He’s someone who’s the reverse, who I think has done a better job within his department of administrating it than he has done publicly or has he done in a policy sense. You know, we had this big Medicare plan that came out a year ago and that was run out of the White House by Mark Melman – Mark McClellan

TOM OLIPHANT: Mark Melman is a pollster.


JIM LEHRER: Just keep going, David.

DAVID BROOKS: And so the HHS secretary was not deeply involved in the legislation affecting him. To me, that’s a problem.

TOM OLIPHANT: But you just mentioned bio-terrorism and I think there’s the example of something that happened that hasn’t happened over at this new department. I mean, a problem was identified. Thompson, with a lot of help on the Hill, road this to, I think, the successful erection of an infrastructure that could deal with an attack. We got chemical plants, nuclear power plants, port facilities, air cargo operations, all these things that haven’t been done, some of what Tommy Thompson did needs to get over to this place.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Speaking of what has not happened, there were 15 members of the president’s Cabinet. As of today, eight of them have resigned. But the one that was announced who is not going is Don Rumsfeld. How do you… secretary of defense. How do you read that?

TOM OLIPHANT: As some of had thought would be the case. It was rather interesting this afternoon, Jim. The White House and other administration officials began contacting reporters this afternoon to sort of pass this word that not only Rumsfeld…

JIM LEHRER: Top White House official, every story said.

TOM OLIPHANT: That’s right. But actually the duty was farmed out a little bit more broadly than that. This was a rather reasonably full court press in private. Not only Rumsfeld but the top team, Paul Wolfowitz, Doug Feith, the policy guy, they stay.

JIM LEHRER: I didn’t know that I hadn’t read that– that has not been on the wires yet.

TOM OLIPHANT: And I believe people on the Hill have told me that they have been telling their offices that they’re going to be around, too. Unfinished business is the nice way of saying this. It’s logical in a way because at no point have I ever encountered any disagreement on the president’s part with any of Rumsfeld’s policies. It is an unfinished book and it’s not just the elections but whether the elections lead to a partial extrication from Iraq or whatever. It is sort of in the middle of the story and absent a real disagreement in the White House, I don’t know why anybody would expect Rumsfeld to go.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: First, let’s not ignore just the human factor here. The guy wasn’t born yesterday and he’s got… he’s had a very demanding job for four years and when you watch him and when you follow him around for a day, as I did, he’s got incredible energy. I don’t know how… these people leaving after four years, they really are exhausted.

JIM LEHRER: They are tired.

DAVID BROOKS: And somehow we’ll all be gone in a few million years and Donald Rumsfeld will hold some big important job in Washington. So there’s sort of an amazing human factor here. I agree with Tom that I’ve never seen the president disagree with Rumsfeld or Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld disagree publicly. So the argument let’s not change horses midstream has some viability.

But let’s be honest, this is going to be a very controversial move. There are a lot of people, especially in the Democratic Party, who think this is the guy who messed up the war. There are a lot of people in the Republican Party who think this is the guy who didn’t send enough troops. And I guess one of the paradoxes is now we are sending in more troops. At the same time, the guy who didn’t want to send in more troops is staying. But you have to believe over the long term the president really likes Donald Rumsfeld’s grand vision, which is transforming and modernizing the military.

JIM LEHRER: Well, picking up on Tom’s point, do you also agree with him that essentially to get rid of Rumsfeld now would be essentially saying publicly something went wrong with the war and that it would… Rumsfeld has to stay in order for the president to stay the course?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I half agree with that. But I think half… if they were going to get rid of him, this was the time of least… you where you admit that the least. It is normal for him to leave now. You could say the guy –

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. He’s exhausted.

DAVID BROOKS: — he’s exhausted —

TOM OLIPHANT: The calendar is very unfriendly — the elections. On the negative side, there are several investigations still going on. Whether you’re critical of Rumsfeld or like him, in fairness to him, give him a chance… the prison business and some matters involving intelligence, Halliburton as well. So it… this is the wrong time.

JIM LEHRER: For Rumsfeld to go out?

TOM OLIPHANT: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: In general terms, do either of you see any significance, upside, down side, anything to talk about the fact that eight of the fifteen have resigned?

TOM OLIPHANT: Clinton was ten by the time his second term started. I just see one thing. I’m interested to see what David thinks also. In five cases the biggest ones from Bush’s perspective: State.

JIM LEHRER: That’s Powell.


JIM LEHRER: Ashcroft.

TOM OLIPHANT: Education.

JIM LEHRER: Paige. Let’s have a list here.

TOM OLIPHANT: It’s a lot easier for you.


TOM OLIPHANT: And HHS and I throw in CIA while we’re at it. People either in the White House staff or extremely close to the president personally or politically have been moved to take over the departments that make the most difference to him. This is a control second administration as opposed to new face, new policy administration. That’s my analysis in those major positions, at least. You get an outsider, say like a Carlos Gutierrez whom everybody likes to run the Commerce Department, but now you’re not talking about the center of administration policy.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. There’s even a rumor that John Snow will be leaving the Treasury Department. There’s a rumor Andy Card, the chief of staff, will move over there. I wouldn’t bet on it but it’s talked about. And to me it says a couple of things. The most interesting thing is it says for the past several administrations power has been controlled in the White House which is the White House building and the fancy building next door for tourists to Washington and not at the agencies. And yet people who really… the president trusts are now moving out to the agencies. Will policy make power move out with them? So I don’t know. The other thing I think the president really decided in this first term, I will have a lot of people arguing and I’ll sort of settle it. He had Powell and Rumsfeld arguing, for example. The president didn’t realize that in Washington arguments are never settled; they just go on and on and on. And it can tear things apart. And so I think he wants to avoid that mistake.

JIM LEHRER: Finally before we go I want both of you to act as reporters. What’s going to happen on the intelligence bill when Congress comes back on Monday?

DAVID BROOKS: I would be very surprised if it didn’t pass. I think the president has really gone quite far in being aggressive in trying to win this thing over, making some concessions here and there. If the House Republicans stand up to the president in these circumstances, that really would be a remarkable signal to me.

TOM OLIPHANT: He hasn’t taken the last step necessary to make this happen, in my judgment, and that is to insist to Speaker Hastert and Majority Leader DeLay’s face that there be a vote. Letters don’t count in this.

JIM LEHRER: He’s writing the letter today.

TOM OLIPHANT: Doesn’t count. That’s pen service. Making a statement doesn’t count. That’s lip service. When you sit down… not even a telephone call —

JIM LEHRER: He also literally called these guys to the White House?

TOM OLIPHANT: Spending the president’s capital is tough when you’re trying to form a majority on a controversial issue. But this thing is… has the votes to pass; all he needs is a vote and a president doesn’t have to break a sweat to insist that a House speaker of his party let a vote be held.

DAVID BROOKS: But if he voted and the majority of Republicans voted against, it would upset the majority for all sorts of votes to come. I’m just thinking in a calculated way here. It would really mess up the Republican coalition.

JIM LEHRER: So he not only has to… you’re saying the president not only has to win, he has to get a majority of the Republican votes?

DAVID BROOKS: The way Denny Hastert runs the House is different than Gingrich, different than a lot of others. He’s devolved a lot of power down throughout the caucus. And that means he doesn’t try to be a dictator. And they love him for it and I think it works. The down side is that he can’t just crack the whip the way other speakers in the past have been able to.

JIM LEHRER: Well the two chairmen who are holding this thing up, Congressman Sensenbrenner and Congressman Duncan Hunter, can the president call them?

TOM OLIPHANT: Well, in one case — Hunter’s opposition has been effectively neutered because the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Myers, is now aboard because it’s no longer a question of whether you have the House bill or the Senate bill, they’ve been compromised already in a Conference Committee. So the military issue doesn’t have the strength it had a week ago. It’s the immigration issue and Sensenbrenner that’s holding it up.

DAVID BROOKS: And the president has called; he called him from Chile weeks ago about when this thing started. So they’re standing up to the president.

JIM LEHRER: But the president is the one who has got everything riding on this Monday, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Or Lee Hamilton and the commission. But, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Politically.

DAVID BROOKS: It has now become a measure of status — aside from everything else.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you both very much.