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GWEN IFILL: Now, the second of our conversations with the leaders of the two major political parties. Last month I spoke with Howard Dean, the Democratic National Committee Chairman, who has engendered his share of controversy. Tonight, Ken Mehlman, the Republican chairman is now in the eye of a very different storm.
GWEN IFILL: Ken Mehlman is waging a two-front war. There is Mehlman the Republican Party chief who’s been traveling the country raising money from the faithful and mending fences with the not-so-faithful.
KEN MEHLMAN: It’s not in my interest as Republican chairman for close to 90 percent of the African-American community to vote Democrat in every election.
GWEN IFILL: And there is Mehlman the White House political hand, leading the defense for his old friend and ally, Karl Rove.
KEN MEHLMAN: It’s wrong; it’s outrageous, and folks involved in this frankly, owe Karl Rove an apology.
SPOKESMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Mehlman ran the president’s reelection campaign and remains in closely coordinated sync with the White House. More of a political operative than a politician himself, he bears more resemblance to his immediate predecessor, GOP veteran Ed Gillespie, than he does to his Democratic counterpart, Howard Dean, who ran for president and was governor of Vermont. Six months after taking the reins at the RNC, the 38-year-old Maryland native is raising money at twice the rate of the Democrats.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: — told the Congress and told the country –
GWEN IFILL: He is front and center now in the campaign to protect political partner Rove from questions arising from the ongoing White House leak investigation. I sat down with him at Republican National Headquarters earlier today.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mehlman, welcome.
KEN MEHLMAN: Thanks. I should say welcome to you.
GWEN IFILL: Thank you. We are in the middle of one of those summer scandals that happen in Washington, questions about the White House leak investigation involving your friend and colleague, Karl Rove. You said over the weekend that there is – the information exonerates and vindicates, but it does not implicate Karl Rove. But it seems like the investigation isn’t over. Isn’t it a little soon to say that he is vindicated?
KEN MEHLMAN: That was my point. I think I began by saying that it was unfortunate that there were folks that for political gain were trying to smear his name and try to pre-judge this. I think we need to let the process work out. There’s a tough prosecutor. He’s a long-time career prosecutor, Pat Fitzgerald. He’s looking into it. But if you think about it, what changed over the past week was that two pieces of information came out, they were both used as a way to smear Karl Rove.
And, in fact if you look at that information, the information says that Bob Novak’s source was somebody else, not Karl Rove, and it says in the case of Matt Cooper, that Karl Rove discouraged Matt Cooper from writing a story, which in fact turned out to be the right thing to do because a lot of what Joe Wilson said was wrong.
But you hit the nail on the head. We can’t prejudge this. We need to wait. We need to allow this prosecutor to do his job. And that’s why I thought it was outrageous and wrong that folks were trying to prejudge it and smear Karl Rove last week.
GWEN IFILL: Isn’t vindication, saying something is vindicated, isn’t that pre-judging?
KEN MEHLMAN: I think what I said was that it’s wrong to prejudge and that the information that came out that people were using to smear him, in fact, proved the other side.
GWEN IFILL: Do you think this investigation and this debate is all political?
KEN MEHLMAN: It shouldn’t be. I think this is an important issue. We need to get to the bottom of it. There are a lot of questions involved. You know, Joe Wilson the other day had a press conference said that his wife wasn’t an undercover agent at the time. So does the statute apply to her?
All of these are things that important. They need to be looked into. And that is why I think it was unfortunate that last week so many leading Democrats used this for political gain, tried to prejudge it and went after and tried to smear Karl Rove.
GWEN IFILL: Is there a line — let’s just talk about the facts rather than what people are saying about one another surrounding this investigation — is there a line between what is inappropriate and what is criminally liable in an investigation like this?
KEN MEHLMAN: Well, obviously every investigation is different. And the facts of every investigation and the applicable law will determine what that line is between inappropriate and between criminal. In this case what we know is most appropriate is that Karl Rove and the others at the White House are cooperating fully with the investigation.
I think it’s incredibly admirable and unusual that folks aren’t commenting from the podium, aren’t commenting from the White House, aren’t defending themselves in response to these attacks because they think it could have the effect of undermining or impeding or discouraging the investigation. And so I give them great credit for that.
I have no doubt that Pat Fitzgerald is going to get to the bottom of this. I think that everybody needs to take a breath, slow down, and stop trying to smear people for political gain.
GWEN IFILL: And you are satisfied that whatever Pat Fitzgerald finds, the prosecutor finds, will be acceptable?
KEN MEHLMAN: You know, I’m the chairman of the RNC. I’m not an attorney for one of the people involved. I have tremendous confidence in him and confidence in the process, but I don’t have the standing or the authority to say, you know, what he finds is going to be something that people involved make a decision on. I can simply speak for myself, which is that I have tremendous confidence in him in the process.
GWEN IFILL: As the chairman of the RNC, you went last week to speak to the NAACP Convention, a convention that the president had skipped five straight times and, in fact, spent his same day at another event at the Indiana Black Expo, I guess, last week. Why did you go to the NAACP and the president did not?
KEN MEHLMAN: Well, the president went to an event that I think was an incredibly important event. And one of the things that the president talked about and that the event focused on is something that I also talked about and that the new NAACP president, Bruce Gordon has focused on, and that is how do we move to a society where we have economic quality? How do we empower people? How do more African-Americans own their own businesses, small and large? How do we close the wealth gap and the health gap in this country?
And the president talked about a lot of policies that are important to that in front of a group that’s doing that every single day. I had the opportunity to speak to the NAACP, and I also talked about what I believe should be a shared agenda. I think because of this agenda is a tremendous opportunity for the party of (Abraham) Lincoln and for the African-American community to renew our historic bonds. It certainly isn’t in my interest as RNC chairman for 90 percent of African-Americans to vote for Democrats, but more importantly I believe it’s not in the interest of African-Americans when 90 percent vote for one party because then there’s not real competition for the vote.
GWEN IFILL: When you talk about restoring historic bonds, would it be nice at this point to put aside this rift with the NAACP by having the president speak to them?
KEN MEHLMAN: Well, look, I think that any community, whether it’s the African-American, the Latino, Jewish community is larger than one individual organization. I think it has been disappointing to me as someone who did speak to the NAACP and someone who appreciated the invitation that some leaders of the NAACP have said things that I think are way above the line, are frankly outrageous and are unfair.
I think it was wrong that in 2000 the NAACP ran a television ad that compared George W. Bush to a racist killer in East Texas and talked about him — he brought that man to justice. This is a man that is tremendously committed to racial reconciliation in this country, and so I think that I’ve been disappointed as somebody who grew up revering the NAACP, as somebody who was proud and I pointed this out, my grandfather was an NAACP member before the civil rights movement back when he was a grocer in West Baltimore — that’s something I’m really proud of.
And so it was really disappointing to me to hear some of that rhetoric over the last few years. And I think we need to restore those bonds. And I also think we want to work with the organization, but part of that is going to require leaders who disagree to not demonize the other side.
GWEN IFILL: Another topic: The Supreme Court. As we speak today, we’re expecting the president to at some point within the next few weeks announce his choice for someone to replace Sandra Day O’Connor.
There has been some debate within the Republican conservative community between economic conservatives and social conservatives or however else you want to describe it about who that person should be and how much of an ideological conservative that person should be. Where does that debate stand today?
KEN MEHLMAN: Well, I think ultimately what you hear across the spectrum and you hear also from a lot of folks that aren’t necessarily conservatives is confidence in this president. If you look at the men and women he’s appointed so far, they have certain things in common.
One is these are people of integrity. They’re people that have sterling judicial credentials. They’re impartial and they’re fair in how they deal with cases that come before them and they understand that their job is to faithfully interpret the Constitution, not to legislate from the bench.
The other thing that this administration doing that’s different is very interesting: Almost two thirds of the United States senators have been consulted. We don’t just mean consulted in the sense of hey, what you do you think? The White House has gone to people and said give us suggestions. Who do you like? Give us a name or two. It’s unprecedented, the level of consultation. I think Robert Byrd says he gives the White House an A-plus. He doesn’t give a lot of grade inflation to this White House.
GWEN IFILL: No he doesn’t. If there is so much confidence in what the president will do and in his judgment on this matter, why was there so much unhappiness expressed about the potential of an (Attorney General) Alberto Gonzales nomination?
KEN MEHLMAN: Well, you’ll have to ask people that expressed that unhappiness. I worked with Alberto Gonzales at the White House. I was a political director in the first term and had a wonderful relationship with him. He’s a smart guy; he’s a great public servant. He’s a living example of the American dream. He’s doing a fantastic job as attorney general today. And I think that ultimately everybody involved in this process ought to have confidence in this president based on his record, based on who he’s appointed before.
GWEN IFILL: Is it harder or is it easier to have control of the White House and both chambers of Congress?
KEN MEHLMAN: I think it is easier. And the reason I think it’s easier is because you can get stuff done. I mean ultimately I’m a huge believer that good policy is good politics. And there’s no question that you know some people said don’t you hope that if you lose Congress you can try triangulate; the goal is not to triangulate, it’s to get stuff done.
And if you stop and think about the fact that in this president’s five years we’ve made the most significant education reform in years, which we’re seeing results from, two of the three largest tax cuts in history, put in fantastic judges, transformed how America defends itself to deal with the threat of terrorism we face all around the world, hopefully we’re going to have an energy strategy; for the first time ever seniors will have access to prescription drugs; all of these result from people that want to work together, and frankly they result from Democrats too. Every one of these was a bipartisan accomplishment.
GWEN IFILL: Speaking of Democrats a couple of weeks ago we talked to Howard Dean in the same way. And we quoted back to him some of the things he’s had to say about Republicans, which I’m sure you’re familiar with. And I wanted to quote back something that you’ve said at a meeting you were in New York recently to a group of lawyers. And you said that you describe yourself as the member of the vast right wing conspiracy before it was vast, which may have been a joke. I’m not sure. How would you characterize the Republican Party now?
KEN MEHLMAN: Well, I was talking about the Federalist Society. You may remember the Federalist Society a lot of left — a lot of liberals criticized during the 90s. I was a member of the Federalist Society since 1989 because I was a student at Harvard Law School where their law journal is. I was pointing that out. The Republican conspiracy is far vaster.
How would I describe it today? I would describe it as a party that is very much committed to expanding freedom, expanding freedom around the world by taking on the terrorists abroad and by making sure that we fight the — and also by promoting freedom. Think about it. You have a president today and a secretary of state that are traveling around the world saying women in Kuwait need the right to vote. That rejects the old notion that freedom is good for some, but not good for others because they have never had it before. And at home, we’re doing the same thing: Focusing on how do we expand opportunity for people who haven’t had it before.
GWEN IFILL: Ken Mehlman, thank you very much.
KEN MEHLMAN: Thanks a lot.