TOPICS > Politics

Shields and Brooks Analyze President’s Speech

December 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


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

First on the NSA surveillance story, first what is your reaction to the story itself and how do you react to the president’s reaction?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, when you open the paper I work at the paper but didn’t see it until I opened the paper, and your eyes pop out.

And the president’s reaction is not going to fly. If you are not getting warrants, the burden of proof is on you to say why. I’m perfectly willing to accept that maybe there is a good reason why they had to go around the warrant system. But you got to tell me why.

And you got to tell me why, given that there has been this torture debate where they didn’t seem to want to defend that. They just bluntly said we need it but then they never could tell you why.

You know, this is the administration’s problem on many of these issues. They want to put up a firm wall, secretly the smart people in the administration know they’re going to have to give in and give an explanation, eventually they will cave. Why don’t they do it right away?

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I thought, first of all, the interview the president basically confirmed the story in the New York Times by not denying it and not addressing it and not responding to it.

JIM LEHRER: Because if he said oh my goodness, this is an outrage, we would never do anything like this —

MARK SHIELDS: No wonder I don’t read the New York Times –

JIM LEHRER: Right, right, right. Except for Brooks.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. Which I would read online if I could afford it.

JIM LEHRER: Moving right along.

MARK SHIELDS: But it also, Jim, goes right to, there has been an historical division in the separation of church and state between the National Security Agency which collects intelligence abroad and it’s not a domestic spying operation at all.

I mean there has been a clear division, and the FBI does it in this country and the CIA and the NSA are overseas. And they have an entirely different charter which has obviously been bridged, ignored and breached in this case.

So I just, I mean, I think the other question that is raised by this is, we saw the vote in the Senate on the Patriot Act which was directly connected with this.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, this story broke today and they were going to vote on it and this fed the ant-Patriot Act —

DAVID BROOKS: People are worried about civil liberties and this piles on. And everybody says whoa, whoa, what’s going on here.

MARK SHIELDS: Which raises a question for those of us who are a little paranoid, why did the New York Times say, why did they break it today, as Senate was in the process of appropriating the Patriot Act —

JIM LEHRER: We have a representative of the New York Times –

MARK SHIELDS: But the other thing is they sat on it for a year. And some Democrats today were grumbling, saying wait a minute, they sat on this for a year. What if it came out in the campaign of 2004; would it have made a difference?

JIM LEHRER: But I’m interested in your point, David, that eventually the president or somebody in the White House or somebody in the administration is going to have to fess up to this and explain it, right?


JIM LEHRER: Do you think that is inevitable as we sit here?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it is inevitable because you look at it and think about it for maybe three and a half seconds. And you know that of course Democrats are going to be upset. But you also know after three and a half seconds a lot of Republicans will be upset.

And when you get that kind of unified wall of suspicion, you at least have to provide an explanation. I mean, maybe there will be a debate about why they needed to go around the warrant system, but you at least have to give an argument. You can’t just say trust me, trust me.

JIM LEHRER: And that point is true on the Patriot Act in terms of Republicans and Democrats, is it not, Mark? There are some very conservative Republicans that are on — did not go for extending the Patriot Act today.

MARK SHIELDS: Larry Craig of Idaho, a member of the National Rifle Association, Broad John Sununu of New Hampshire, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. I mean there were — they were lined up. It wasn’t just Russ Feingold all by himself.

JIM LEHRER: What is going on here? What’s going to happen?

DAVID BROOKS: You have this competing interest, I’m not Mr. Civil Libertarian but I know there is legitimate interest in civil liberties as we fight the war on terror.

But I think the people in the White House and I remember the days after 9/11, they went to work thinking they were going to get killed. They went to work thinking there was going to be a missile or something to hit the White House. And they were possibly going to die there in office. And that was the atmosphere. And so their attitude was we’re going to do everything we can to prevent this country from getting hit again and everything they can.

And now the attitudes are a little different. Maybe now they would do it differently. But if are you sitting in the White House, to be honest, you would do whatever you can to protect lives. But there is this competing interest out there.

MARK SHIELDS: Competing interest, yes, but I think that there is no question that that was a feverish response and a fevered response. We saw, Jim, in the compromise, if you would, the cave, the apomatic scene at the White House on torture was a perfect example of this. I mean, the president having publicly threatened himself, he was going to veto the bill, realized he couldn’t — realized that — that the Senate by a nine to one vote, the House by better than a foolproof, veto-proof majority, over 300 people voted to outlaw, to put in concrete terms what torture was, and a prohibition against it. And the administration, now this was another example of pushing, stretching, bending after 9/11.

JIM LEHRER: But the president, I asked him about that, of course, David. I mean, he made it seem like he and McCain have been together all along.

DAVID BROOKS: I think the part where they are friends is actually true.

JIM LEHRER: Is that right?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they used to dislike each other but now they actually get along quite well. But the idea that they were always together is not true. They worked hard and I think actually the White House had a legitimate interest here making sure that people are actually doing the interrogating could do so without fear of getting sued and everything else.

JIM LEHRER: Now on Iraq, we just have been told by the way just been announced that the president is going to address the nation from the Oval Office on Sunday night at 9:00. This is the first Oval Office speech, I have been told, since he announced going into Iraq two and a half years ago.

But how do you — what kind of marks do you give him? He did — this was, as I said, this was the third interview he did this week on national television — the one he did with us. But also he made these four speeches in addition to that over the last say ten days or so. How he is doing?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, they obviously, for an administration that disdains polling; they had focus groups say it isn’t working, talking only to military audiences, repeating, rote, the talking points that they had wasn’t working.

So they decided to reach out to mainstream media — to first of all, not simply talking to you but talking to Brian Williams of NBC, that just talking to their friendly support outlets wasn’t working for them– and to admit mistakes.

Once somebody admits a mistake, they get a second hearing. And I think that was — that was — it was — it was a tactic. I talked to one pollster today who is as smart as anybody I know who said look, those speeches were like a breath mint; it doesn’t cure the problem here. I mean it gives you a little lift, it gives you a little altoid energy and perhaps a little sweetening to it. But it isn’t the answer to what the problem is.

And if you look at the numbers in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, for example, the underlying thing is that, I think the fear is twofold, one that the president waited too long to make this speech. And if he made it a year ago –

JIM LEHRER: To launch this campaign.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s right. And secondly, you could see the guarded, in the interview with you, he was guarded even in the celebration about the vote, Jim, because there is a fear that the administration’s supporters have: One is that the government, the new government will ask us to leave too precipitously. And second, that they will ask us to stay and keep the dangerous tasks of defending — because they don’t want Iraqis doing those.

JIM LEHRER: How do you think the president doing —

DAVID BROOKS: First on the communications I think finally, and I think these four speeches were excellent speeches. We’ve talked for years with how he doesn’t level with people, doesn’t say the good and bad, doesn’t admit mistakes. He has done all that now. He’s talked about Iraq with the granularity that he hasn’t before.

You know, he did the second inaugural, and it was, freedom, freedom, freedom, then he was doing pallid imitations of that speech; finally we get some granularity and we get some honesty from the way he actually thinks, and I think that’s why I thought he did pretty well in this debate, I mean, in your discussion.

And one of the things that struck me is he committed to doing the interview before the election – if the election had gone badly, it would have been a tricky day —

JIM LEHRER: He didn’t know what the story was going to be today on Iraq.

DAVID BROOKS: Exactly. So I think that, whether it is a breath mint or a gulp of Listerine, the speeches have been excellent, I think.

And, you know, what’s going to change public opinion is what happened yesterday in Iraq, where you had this tremendous election, the Sunnis coming out, most importantly coming out and showing from their actions and their words to everybody, John Burns, my colleague, that they have a commitment to a democratic and unified Iraq.

It’s not Shiites wanting to kill Sunnis and vice versa. They have got other identify identities. And they want that Iraq and that gives you hope that they’re going to work out the rivalry which they are dealing with.

JIM LEHRER: Burns said that on our program last night. He was very impressed with the Sunnis. He talked to a lot of the Sunnis as to why they voted.

DAVID BROOKS: And there is a little low boiling of war going on there – let’s face it –


DAVID BROOKS: — but people can move beyond it. And that is what we saw. And I think if we are going to move up in the polls and if we’re going to stay there, which I think we are, it going to be a little of the speeches but a lot of Iraq is going to change.

JIM LEHRER: On the ground this was a big day yesterday.

MARK SHIELDS: It was important, Jim. But I think the American people will measure their — the success or the failure of this and continue to do so, not by the clinics that are open or the rapprochement to this; they will measure it on the bodies coming home.

I mean we can hide the caskets but you can’t hide the casualties and that in the final analysis is what I think has led to the erosion of support here.

I was amazed quite frankly at the question when you asked the president about, did you — what was your estimate, is this the number of casualties you expected, and he said well, you know, it was almost like it hadn’t entered his mind before — and our guess, we didn’t guess. Before you go into something of this magnitude, to go to war, you sit down and you get the solid best estimate you can to decide whether the mission is worth it in terms of casualties. I was, frankly, I mean —

DAVID BROOKS: I was a little struck by that. I do think you get an estimate. On the other hand, the estimates going into Baghdad were 150,000 dead, the order of 15,000 body bags so maybe the estimates are worthless.

But I think when you do go you have to do some sort of risk analysis of going in. So, you know, I was a little surprised by that.

I was very much struck, and I’m always, when he speaks, A, he is a lot more comfortable then he used to be in these things, but B. the commitment to winning, where he said our objective is winning. I do think that’s at the core of who he is and it’s always political analysis of, you know, he’s going to the midterms; he’s got to get them out. I think what we saw there was the real Bush; his objective is winning.

JIM LEHRER: What about the issue of the troops? You know, I talked to him about it and it was something, he doesn’t want to talk about pulling U.S. troops out. What did you think of his rational for that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think what is going to happen, and he sort of implied this, which is they will go back into training missions as the Iraqi army stands up, they will go back – they’ll be there for a long time to train.

But you know, the problem is, and I think he alluded to this — you have got these two sides that really don’t trust each other. If we leave, they have no —

JIM LEHRER: You mean the Sunnis and Shiites.

DAVID BROOKS: — no incentive to disarm; there has to be an important third force there enforcing any sort of joint governing agreement they can reach. And I think these are the sorts of calculations they are making. And the president just can’t make a commitment to pulling people out.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that; he has to be careful on this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know, he said the 30,000 are basically coming out. I mean that, and we had 30,000 extra in there. There was a lockdown for the election.

I mean, that really did contribute to the sense of security that people could go out and vote, and from one hundred and thirty-seven up to sixty thousand.

I thought his definition of victory, boy, I mean, it seemed almost minimalist. I mean victory and violence coexisting were, I mean, was part of the formula as he described it. And I mean it just, the idea that there with be a partner in the war against terror, and that they would — they would have standing with and for democracy — I mean it really — it wasn’t — it wasn’t the idea of the victory that we talked about earlier.

DAVID BROOKS: He said that – what’s striking to me was that he brought up Colombia and the FARC because he is clearly thinking about civil wars that happened in the past and how —

JIM LEHRER: — that go on for a while.

DAVID BROOKS: That go on for a while — and then they never, they don’t just end, they de-escalate slowly. And so there is a long, slow, gradual drawdown period where there is still violence while there’s elections. So he is clearly thinking in those terms.

MARK SHIELDS: I thought he did, I agree with David, I thought that he seemed more comfortable. Jim, it’s awfully tough to score points politically when you are in the defensive. It wasn’t the questions were hostile; you just went right from the paper. I mean, if the news is to the good, whether it is Katrina or whether in fact it is the NSA story and spying, you know, those are tough stories.

And I mean the president at no point could say these are the three things we’ve done this year, and that’s why 2005 has been such a great year and 2006 is going to be better.

JIM LEHRER: I wanted so to ask you both about what you thought about the Novak thing that the president knows about who did the leaking but we are out of time, so we have to leave it there. Thank you both very much.