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Obama, Clinton Face Off; Gonzales Testimony Challenged

July 27, 2007 at 6:40 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how do you view the push to investigate Attorney General Gonzales on perjury charges?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think it’s authentic. I think it’s genuine. I think — on both sides of the aisle. I don’t think it’s just partisan nitpicking on the part of the Democrats.

I do think that it’s an issue that has risen to a level of far more intensity here in Washington than it has in the country. I don’t get a sense that it’s crossed over beyond the Beltway and that Americans in Earl Pomeroy’s district in North Dakota are exercised about it…

JIM LEHRER: Has it crossed over to you, David?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I guess it hasn’t. I was just out on the campaign trail, and certainly nobody is asking about this subject. I do think — I don’t know whether it’s perjury or not. I don’t know what this moving target, this intelligence program was.

But I would say for anybody paying attention to this stuff, it certainly is not something that makes your government proud. It’s pretty clear that Gonzales is — I don’t know if he’s committing perjury or lying. He’s not telling you the sort of stuff that you’d want to know after hearing the story of what happened in that hospital room.

And I just think it’s a continuing drain on the administration. Like everyone else in Washington, I can’t believe why they haven’t gotten rid of this guy.

MARK SHIELDS: The Justice Department is in shambles, it really is. And as an indication of that, when four Democratic senators, led by Chuck Schumer of New York, made a request yesterday in a public forum for a special prosecutor, they had to send it to the solicitor general of the United States, Mr. Clement.

JIM LEHRER: Explain who he is.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he’s a very…

JIM LEHRER: No, I don’t mean him personally, but the office.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he’s number four. I mean, you couldn’t send it to Gonzales, because you’re asking for the attorney general, to get the attorney general. McNulty is leaving. The third one is there on an acting basis, so they had to go to Clement, who’s got a great reputation. He’s a very conservative guy, but straight arrow, and everybody says how competent he is.

JIM LEHRER: And his job is to represent the government before the Supreme Court, as his number-one job.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. And it tells you something about, you know, where the whole chain of command is.

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, I believe in a strong presidency. And at some instinctual level, I’m with Gonzales on protecting the power of the presidency. But if you want to establish the foundation for a strong presidency, you’ve got to tell the Congress the truth, and not only the legal truth. You’ve got to be honest with them, or else you will never get a strong presidency, because they will never trust you. And right now, the Congress is completely right not to trust Alberto Gonzales and, with him, the administration he works for.

Effect of Mueller testimony

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I think the political thing is revealed, Jim, when it's not the president who is out there this time defending him, as it was last time.

JIM LEHRER: Does the testimony of Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, make an impact on this? If that hadn't happened, would we be talking about this tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: We probably would be, but it's another nail. I mean, it's just one more. I mean, you've got former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who testified that he and John Ashcroft, then the attorney general, and FBI Director Mueller were on the verge of resigning over their resistance and questioning the propriety of this warrantless surveillance being conducted by the administration. And, you know, the attorney general essentially denied it.

I think the political thing is revealed, Jim, when it's not the president who is out there this time defending him, as it was last time, saying what a great job he'd done in testifying. There was none of that this week. It was Tony Snow and Dana Perino basically attacking the Democrats for going after him.

JIM LEHRER: David, based on -- your memory is much younger than Mark's and mine, but in your memory, have you ever known of an attorney general to be as criticized so bluntly, so openly as Alberto Gonzales?

DAVID BROOKS: I don't know. I was just watching Nickelodeon last week, so my memory doesn't really stretch back that far.

No, this is something unprecedented. I think the Bush administration has become divided between people who are competent and people who are not. And I think there's just boiling frustration on the party of competency against the party of embarrassment. And Gonzales is part of that.

It's part of the larger battle over the executive branch. But as I say, if you're going to defend the executive branch, you've got to level with people. And they just seem to not even go a step; it's just an act of contempt.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of leveling with people, what did you think of the Dole-Shalala recommendations, findings and recommendations today on the treating of the Iraq war wounded?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I was reminded, in drawing up what David said, P.J. O'Rourke, the conservative humorist, once said, "The Republicans are the party says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it." And this was one more example that just hit me.

I mean, you've got the passport office, the poisoned dog food, the tainted toothpaste, FEMA and Katrina, and the human suffering there, the lack of armor for our soldiers and Marines in Iraq, the unarmored vehicles. You just go right through. And this is a perfect, poignant, painful, personal example of a system that is not responsive, not working. It's a bureaucratic nightmare.

I commend both Donna Shalala and Bob Dole. I mean, I think their recommendations make sense. Just the very simple thing, that the care of veterans who are wounded ought not to be in the Department of the Defense who want it invested in getting them back in on the front lines or to get them out of the service, but the Veterans Administration, or at least that entity that's supposedly committed to their care and recovery.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I differ. I'm not sure it was a beautifully run program until the Republicans came to office and trashed the thing. I mean, one of the things we learned when the story first broke was that -- if I recall correctly -- to get some treatment, there were soldiers, there were veterans serving, 23 different forms that went to nine different offices that were rerouted. I think Donna Shalala on this program used the word "fragmentation" to describe what happens.

And that's what's happened in bureaucracies. You get all these little offices. They don't like to talk to each other. They never die. And so you get a fragmentation of a program, and periodically you've got to go through and simplify the thing to make it make sense. And it seems to me this is a normal outgrowth of an exploding program that was following the dictates of bureaucratic logic, but not human logic.

Taking care of veterans

David Brooks
The New York Times
This is the 19th step on that chain of "We didn't think of it."

JIM LEHRER: What about on the competency issue, David, that Mark is raising, that if you're going to make a decision to go to war, you have to make the additional decision to take care of the people who fight in the war?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, on that, of course, he's absolutely correct. I mean, if you're going to make a decision to go to war, you might make a decision about what to do after the fourth week of the war, might have to see what you're going to do with Iraq after, and then what you're going to with the people who come home. It might occur to you that we've got much better medical technology, a lot more surviving people who would have died in previous wars. How are you going to take care of those people? A whole chain of things are about to happen. How are you going to think about that? And so, you know, this is the 19th step on that chain of "We didn't think of it."

JIM LEHRER: Bob Dole and Donna Shalala made it very clear at their news conference and on this program last night with Judy Woodruff that they're going to watch -- they're going to make sure that these six recommendations get followed up on, and I don't think that was the intention by some of the folks who received these. Did you get that impression?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, certainly, I mean, Tony Snow was rather cavalier. I mean, not that Tony doesn't have -- every day is a busy day for Tony, but he was sort of, "Oh, no, don't you worry. We'll get to this." But that was turned around, and the president himself came out.

And, Jim, I think Donna Shalala, maybe the report itself, said there has to be leadership and a sense of urgency, both of which have been missing in this. And, you know, with all the support that troops, decals you see on SUVs, I mean, this is the most fundamental and basic supporting of troops and the treatment of them.

DAVID BROOKS: I will say, talking about issues that resonate with the American people, as I said, I heard no questions about Gonzales on the couple days on the campaign trail. I probably heard eight to 12 questions about this...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: ... about veterans' health care and this kind of stuff.

JIM LEHRER: If you don't have a sense of urgency about this, what do you have?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, if you're out running for president, believe me, you have a sense of urgency about this.

The Obama-Clinton flap

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[Hillary Clinton] the next day escalated and raised the ante by saying [Barack Obama] was inexperienced and naive. That was just a total change in rhetoric, change in thermostat for the campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of out running for president, what about the flap, the Obama-Hillary Clinton flap about talking to dictators? Do you have a position on that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, I'm with Hillary. And I think if you're sitting there, and you're president of the United States, and you are asked to meet with Hugo Chavez, you don't even mention the name Hugo Chavez. You don't give that guy a kind of propaganda victory.

And I think one of the things, to me the biggest story of this presidential campaign is how well Hillary Clinton is campaigning. And I think she's doing so well in part because she was in the Oval Office, or in the White House anyway, and she knows how decisions are made. She knows the different factors you have to think about before you make a decision.

And so when she's asked a question on the campaign, on a stage, she can give a pretty accurate answer of how a president actually behaves. And Obama, for all his intelligence and all his talent, hasn't been through that. And so I think he gave a flubbed answer.

And, frankly, to me more disturbing, the next day, he didn't say, "Well, I didn't give the answer I should have given. I was wrong about that, but I'm right about this." He didn't say that the next day. He went on the attack defending what to me is a pretty indefensible position.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Disagree. First of all, this is a change election, Jim. This is not a continuity election. This is a big change election. People want a change in direction. George Bush probably couldn't be re-nominated; that's how much the change.

What Hillary Clinton is selling is safe change, that she's experienced, she's sure-footed, she has been there, she's knowledgeable. What Barack Obama is selling is a different, is a bold change, a different change. I thought the initial exchange in the debate probably worked to both of their strategies, Hillary settling that, you know, "I'm worldly, I'm pragmatic, I've been there," and Obama saying, "I'm different. You're looking for incremental change; I'm going to be different from that."

I thought probably a slight edge to her, because he didn't put the qualification in that would preset the meeting or whatever, minor point. She the next day escalated and raised the ante by saying he was inexperienced and naive. That was just a total change in rhetoric, change in thermostat for the campaign, giving him the opening to prove, a, he doesn't have a glass jaw, that is he's not going to go down for the punch, and, b, he can deliver a punch.

And he delivered the punch, which was essentially to say, "Look, don't talk about naive. Don't talk about that. You know, you're the one who trusted George W. Bush to go to war. You know, I mean, you gave him the blank check to go to war in 2002." And essentially his argument comes down to, when 70 percent of the American people were for the war, you were for the war. When 70 percent of the American people are against the war, you're against the war. I stood up when the 70 percent were for the war and said no.

I mean, that was basically the argument. So I think that, in that sense, he won round two.

JIM LEHRER: Did he?

On diplomacy

David Brooks
The New York Times
[President Bush] is not paying any attention to Hugo Chavez; that is the correct attitude for any U.S. president.

DAVID BROOKS: No, he's for change. The country, believe me, wants change, no dollar bills, just change. But Bush is doing something correctly. And are we going to change from those things, just because they're change?

He is not paying any attention to Hugo Chavez; that is the correct attitude for any U.S. president. And to say you will sit down with him, it would be insane. Then for Ahmadinejad, it's more defensible to talk about Ahmadinejad, but has he actually thought about what would happen in the Middle East if the president was seen sitting down with Ahmadinejad, what the follow-on consequences would be, in the first year to promise to do that? It's binding your hands. To me, it was a rookie mistake.

MARK SHIELDS: His rebuttal to that was, you know, Richard Nixon sat down with the Chinese, the red Chinese, who he opposed for 25 years. Ronald Reagan sat down with the Soviets.

DAVID BROOKS: He didn't promise in the campaign that he would do it regardless of what else happened.

JIM LEHRER: And Shields and Brooks sit down with each other every Friday night.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right, with no preconditions.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much. No preconditions.