TOPICS > Politics

Shields and Brooks

October 28, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, how all of this looks to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, just in general what, do you think of this action today against with Lewis Libby?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the crucial fact is that it’s about Lewis Libby. This is not quite the lone leaker, but this is about really the actions of one individual.

The danger for the White House was always going to be that there would be a perception there’s a cancer on the White House — that there would be a conspiracy involving Rove and maybe several other people.

It’s now clear there aren’t going to be indictments of several other people, and as the prosecutor said, probably not about Rove.

And so we’ve had a great prosecutor, Fitzgerald, look for 22 months into this administration with all sorts of access, and he’s found there’s no sort of broad conspiracy.

So while this is certainly a bad day for the administration, it’s a day that the administration will probably survive because there is no sort of cancer on the presidency.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, I think you can make case that Lewis Libby was a high enough person in the White House, an influential, an independent enough person — based on Ray’s excellent interview with Mark Leibovich and George Packer — that he could operate on his own. He was a single operator.

But at the same time, he was a loyal staff man, and there’s very little question what he was about, he wasn’t on a rogue mission. I mean he was trying to shoot down the criticism of the very premise for going to war that Joe Wilson raised, and they did it in a way that, quite frankly, was reckless in terms of Victoria (Valerie) Plame.

So I think it gives you an indication of just how committed ideologically, even though un-deflected by reality and evidence and experience, these people were about that Iraqi war.

JIM LEHRER: David, do you think the war, like it or not, is going to become part of this trial in a major way, beyond Lewis Libby as an individual?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I really don’t. Fitzgerald said very clearly this is not about the war. This is about somebody who allegedly lied to some reporters and most importantly, lied to the grand jury. So this is not about the larger issue of going to war. Joe Wilson isn’t really even about that.

It’s about the trip to Niger, which is off to the side about whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

And, I’ll be honest. When I look at Scooter, someone I know — I’ve gone to lunch with him for a couple of times and he’s always been a terrible source because he never told me anything — but one of the things I will always wonder about him is why was he so obsessed with Joe Wilson.

There were many broad issues about WMD’s. Everybody thought Saddam had ‘em going in, Democrat or Republican. We now know that was untrue.

But Joe Wilson was sort of off to the side, so why was Scooter so obsessed talking to so many reporters over a long period of time about him? I still find that mystifying.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Reid, David, said this today, that this is “about how the Bush White House manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to bolster its cases for the war in Iraq and to discredit anyone who dared to challenge the president.” You disagree with Sen. Reid.

DAVID BROOKS: No, I really think this is a case of overreaching, almost a case of paranoia and sort of conspiracy mongering.

We’ve had a prosecutor — who is a very good prosecutor — go for 22 months in this administration with more cooperation than any reporter has ever had, anybody has ever had before. If there was a big conspiracy here, surely he would have had, (a), some indictments about the underlying crime; and surely he would have had more people than Scooter Libby.

But when you listened to that press conference, it was about one person, and it was about somebody calling a series of reporters, not about a big conspiracy, not about broader issues. It was about obstructing justice at the grand jury.

JIM LEHRER: Mark? You see it differently.

MARK SHIELDS: I do see it differently. I agree with David on Patrick Fitzgerald. I mean, I thought that what he did today was truly impressive.

I mean, we saw a large slice of it in the opening part of the show. But this is somebody with no notes, no teleprompter, and in total command of the facts, but with no arrogance and no cockiness.

And was quite disarming in the way he dodged questions, said, look I’m not going to answer that, ducked it, and everything else.

But I thought he made, you know, a very, very strong case. But what he showed more than anything else was this enormous respect for the law — that he would not go beyond where the law took him. I mean, that’s what he was about, and that’s what his career has been about. But, remember -

JIM LEHRER: In other words, if somebody is going to make the conspiracy charge, Patrick Fitzgerald is not going to make it, but you think it’s still there to be made?

MARK SHIELDS: David doesn’t need to be reminded, the official White House position, repeated time and again by the principal spokesman, the president’s spokesman, was that Karl Rove and Scooter Libby and Elliot Abrams had never been involved in these leaks at all, and that each of them had assured him, Scott McClellan, and presumably the president, that they had not been involved in these leaks.

Well, we know that’s not the case. I mean, we know David is right, there was almost an obsession with Libby. I mean, he was talking to — according to Patrick Fitzgerald, he was talking to all manner of people about Joe Wilson’s wife.

JIM LEHRER: What does this more generally — also picking up on what David said, that he doesn’t believe this really does that much damage to the White House itself, to the president, the vice president, it’s strictly Scooter Libby? Do you –

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Jim, I mean, we understand this, that Dick Cheney is the most influential vice president in the history of the country, and Scooter Libby was the most influential chief of staff that a vice president’s ever had, and as, again, in Ray’s segment, he was an assistant to the president. He was somebody who was at all the meetings. He was at Camp David.

You don’t get a lot of vice presidential people showing up at Camp David on a – any regular basis. So was he important? Was it as symbolically important as Karl Rove being indicted? Absolutely not. Karl Rove is the person that conservatives love as their champion and that liberals loathe as a villain. That would have been a bigger story.

But I think that if this goes to trial, I think the trial could, quite frankly, be a continuing source of embarrassment. The irony here is, if — the United States — an ordinary United States citizen to lie to federal officials is a crime.

But for federal officials to lie to the American people, apparently is not — is a matter of course. I mean, Karl Rove is still working at the White House, I mean, even though he lied to us and lied, presumably lied to the president about his involvement.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, clearly there were lies told about Rove’s role, but to me the most damaging thing, the way I would look at the administration, the way I think a lot of Americans would look at the administration was if they had really a rogue operation, which you really did see in the Nixon administration, sort of this rogue conspiracy to intentionally expose a covert operative for political gain, and if there were a bunch of people sitting around a room talking about this, then you really get a sense of a malevolence.

And, frankly, when you looked at the run-up to these indictments, all the focus was on Rove; there was talk about five indictments. And if that had happened, this would have been a cataclysmic really credibility-ending day for the administration.

But as it is, as I say, it’s a bad day. Scooter Libby was a very important person in that administration, but it is not a credibility ending because it is so much about one person’s actions.

JIM LEHRER: David, what about the issue that was raised before today by some Republican senators, even, that if the indictments — no matter who was indicted, if it was just for what they call technical things, like perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements, that that’s not a big deal, compared to what it would be of leaking classified information, et cetera. Where do you come down on that today?

DAVID BROOKS: If anybody makes that argument after Fitzgerald’s presentation at his press conference, the person is an idiot. I think Fitzgerald did a fantastic job of saying why this is an important thing, and the argument was, this is not something at the end of the judicial process.

Telling the truth to a grand jury is the basis of the judicial process. So I think that argument died today.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I do agree with David. And one other thing David wrote this week, and other people have as well, but David made a very strong case that in the second term of an administration, the Bush administration in this case, insulation, isolation, and exhaustion set in, and there’s a need for change, a need for fresh blood, just as President Reagan did with bringing in Howard Baker.

There had been talk around town that maybe former Congressman Vin Weber, former Republican Sen. Bill Cohen, somebody like that would come to the White House.

I think as a consequence of today, when Karl Rove doesn’t get a clean bill of health but certainly dodged the bullet and wasn’t indicted, that the likelihood of that happening is less than it was.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, David, that there’s less chance now that there will be this big change?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, yes, because if Rove had been indicted, he would be out and there would be forced change.


DAVID BROOKS: And now I agree with Mark about that. It does seem a lot less likely, though I do – you know, when I talk about them surviving this day. I don’t mean to say they should be banging the bongo drums and lighting up the cigars. They merely survived. They have still got a long way to go to climb back to where they were.

JIM LEHRER: Do either of you have any inside word that you’d like to share — and I won’t it will anybody if you do — about whether the president’s made a decision about who he is going to replace as the nominee for Harriet Miers?

MARK SHIELDS: I do but I was sworn to secrecy — no, I don’t.

JIM LEHRER: You heard anything today, David?

DAVID BROOKS: No. I think one has heard the arguments, and the president said today he is very close. And so I suspect it will be somebody we’ve all heard of; he won’t be taking any more big, risky chances.

But I haven’t heard – he hasn’t whispered the name to me, though, if he wants to call, he’s got my number.

JIM LEHRER: But, of course my follow-up to that is if he does something like that, like Monday, Tuesday, or whatever, is the dark cloud beginning to be removed from the top of the White House, do you think, taking this event today, Harriet Miers yesterday, and then stepping up to the plate and doing something Monday, Tuesday, on the Harriet Miers issue, what do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I’d say look at two scenarios: One, Harriet Miers goes through, and had the hearings, and she performed poorly, and add to that, you get four or five indictments, that’s the end of the administration. So that’s one scenario. The other scenario is that she withdraws and the president gets a chance to name someone who will probably do a little better in the hearings, and you only get one indictment.

That’s the reality scenario, and that’s just a much better scenario for the administration than one – what we were looking at about a week ago.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see the cloud issue?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, these are rough seas politically. I mean, if he comes up with a 10-strike, John Roberts’ long-lost identical twin, it’s not going to save — I mean, look it, we just passed 2,000 killed in Iraq this week, 90 percent killed of them have been killed since the president announced mission accomplished.

We saw a $10 billion profit for Exxon-Mobil yesterday, quarterly profit, a new record. People are paying for it at the gas pumps. People are paying more. We have got consumer confidence down; house prices down or house values down, and at the same time, we’ve got health costs up, and so I mean I don’t know where in the president’s own numbers, the one loyal constituency who stuck with him are his conservatives.

I mean, moderates and independents have deserted this president. So he’s got very serious problems on every possible front.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your overview — go ahead, David.

DAVID BROOKS: To mention one thing about the conservatives, to me my main worry is conservatives are over reading their victory when it comes to Harriet Miers.

Listen, there was a Gallup Poll that came out today, the reason why she was not favored by the majority of the American people was competence. It was not ideology. But a lot of conservative groups are reading this as a lesson, now Bush really has to pick someone extremely conservative to please us because we really run this show.

And to me, the president’s bind now is that a lot of conservative groups, including responsible conservative groups, not just the wing nuts, have over read what just happened and so that to me is a potential pitfall for the Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, we’ll leave it there. Good to see you both, thank you both.