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Shields and Brooks Examine Auto Plan, Blagojevich Case, Kennedy’s Senate Bid

December 19, 2008 at 6:40 PM EDT
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This week, the White House announced an aid package to keep the Big Three afloat, and Gov. Rod Blagojevich denied accusations of plotting to sell President-elect Obama's senate seat. Mark Shields and David Brooks offer their analysis.
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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.

Their first subject: Governor Blagojevich of Illinois. Here’s more of what the governor said today.

GOV. ROD BLAGOJEVICH, D.-Ill.: Now, I’m dying to answer these charges. I am dying to show you how innocent I am. And I want to assure everyone who’s here and everyone who’s listening that I intend to answer every allegation that comes my way.

However, I intend to answer them in the appropriate forum: in a court of law. And when I do, I am absolutely certain that I will be vindicated.

Now, I know there are some powerful forces arrayed against me. It’s kind of lonely right now. But I have on my side the most powerful ally there is, and it’s the truth. And, besides, I have the personal knowledge that I have not done anything wrong.

To the people of Illinois, I ask that they wait and be patient, sit back and take a deep breath, and please reserve judgment. Afford me the same rights that you and your children have: the presumption of innocence, the right to defend yourself, the right to your day in court, the same rights that you would expect for yourselves.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, David — Mark, I don’t know if you felt this way, but just watching it when he did this, this afternoon, seemed to be really enjoying himself. I mean, did you feel the same way?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated columnist: He did. I do think he complicates life for the Democrats enormously. I mean, he’d been a cartoon figure up until now. We’d only seen pictures of him, ducking in and out of the SUV, the state SUV, or read the transcript.

And he came across — you can understand why he could have been a very successful politician on the stump, I thought. And I think that the only thing he didn’t include was I want — when everybody is under oath, my accusers are under oath and I’m under oath, that’s why I choose that forum.

But I — while he didn’t answer any questions, I think he put a human face on himself which he hadn’t had until today. And I think he did complicate life for the Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: Complicate life?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Yes, I didn’t see it quite the same way. I mean, to me, the emotional highlight, he said all this stuff, and then he quotes Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “If,” which is, if you’re being hated, you don’t give in to hate. If people are lying about you, but you don’t get into lies, keep your head…

DAVID BROOKS: And, you know, I am a devotee of grandiosity, and so I expected maybe Santayana, Lord Acton, but if you’ve risen to the level of Rudyard Kipling, in my book — and the theme of that poem is he’s the only honest man. Well, there’s one honest person; everyone else is going crazy.

And so if he thinks he’s the only honest man, I give him an A-plus for grandiosity and bellicose poetry. I was thinking we were on the glide path to Dylan Thomas, you know, don’t go gently into the night. So I thought it was a pretty grand, eloquent performance, and I would say completely unconvincing.

JIM LEHRER: Completely — what about the question, though, that is beginning to float around a little more now? You know, maybe he only talked bad and maybe he didn’t do anything illegal. Has that occurred to you, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, no, my paper had a front-page story on that point…

JIM LEHRER: I know.

DAVID BROOKS: … quoting a lot of lawyers, and I think, on the narrow thing of the Senate, of filling Obama’s seat, from what I can see of the evidence, there’s a good case that all he did was talk like a parody of a Chicago pol.

But it’s not as if this is the only thing floating out there about him. If you’ve been around Illinois, you’ve been hearing stuff about this guy for a long time. And…

JIM LEHRER: Four years he’s been under investigation.

DAVID BROOKS: And the investigation is gigantic.

MARK SHIELDS: The fact that he’s been under investigation for four years is not proof of his guilt. I agree that…

JIM LEHRER: Of course, they haven’t made the case.

MARK SHIELDS: That case has not been made. But — and I agree that this is certainly not the only charge against him.

But, you know, I do think that we’re not going to see him go quietly or gently into the night. He has, in fact, I think, concluded, at least for the time being, that holding onto the office is the strongest bargaining chip he has.

And I think this week has been an important week, because we’ve seen a couple of guys flip who were close to him, who are now — have entered guilty pleas in Illinois, who were close to him in the fundraising.

So apparently Fitzgerald is trying to bring in — and the U.S. attorney there is trying to bring in the net around the governor.

Kennedy is a strong contender

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
[T]he two outstanding senators in either party -- two of the most outstanding, perhaps of the 20th century -- were people who came with nothing but famous names.

JIM LEHRER: We'll see. But, all right, another major opening in the United States Senate to come, New York, Caroline Kennedy said, "I want that job." What do you make of that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, there's no individuals in the United States Senate that have ever been helped by a famous name. There's nobody named Rockefeller, or Sununu, or Dole, or Kennedy, or Casey, Murkowski.

So, you know, this would be -- this would be an aberration in American politics that somebody with a famous name -- we even got two Udalls this time. And I think the seat that's vacant is a Clinton seat. So nobody has ever traded...

JIM LEHRER: And there's a Jeb Bush about to run.

MARK SHIELDS: There's a Jeb Bush about to run. That's right. So there's...

JIM LEHRER: In Florida.

MARK SHIELDS: ... famous names don't matter.

I would say this. You know, I don't know Caroline Kennedy well. I've met her. People who do know her are very high on her. Has she earned her credentials, gone through the chairs at the lodge, been corresponding secretary, sergeant-at-arms like the others? No. Neither had Barack Obama.

I mean, it's kind of frustrating for other politicians to see somebody by the magic of their personality, of their persona, whatever else, vault to the top.

But I will say that, in my 44 years in Washington, the two outstanding senators in either party -- two of the most outstanding, perhaps of the 20th century -- were people who came with nothing but famous names.

Howard Baker from Tennessee had no credentials, save that his father had been a congressman and his stepmother had been a congressman. And if there was a more outstanding Republican senator over the last half-century than Howard Baker, I don't know who it was.

JIM LEHRER: And later, also, a White House chief of staff in the Reagan administration.

MARK SHIELDS: And White House chief of staff and ambassador to Japan and a great public citizen.

And Ted Kennedy, a 30-year-old assistant district attorney from Massachusetts, whose brother, I think, was president, and came to the United States Senate, and was dismissed as "Teddy," and by every definition, now is just automatically referred to as the lion of the Senate.

So I don't preclude it. She's going through that most difficult period of all, which is from a private person to go public, and she's asking people for their help, which I think is important.

I would recommend that she do a bus trip of the state and get to know the rest of the state. I mean, I think that's the most important thing for her.

'Can she legislate?'

David Brooks
The New York Times
Everyone who knows [Caroline Kennedy] speaks very highly of her, but can she legislate?

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: This is the genetic theory of senatorial privilege.

JIM LEHRER: Is it?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm not sure I buy it. I mean, it's a job. Being a senator is a job that requires actually a pretty complicated skill set. Ted Kennedy has earned that skill set. He has that skill set, passing legislation.

Caroline Kennedy we have no knowledge and no evidence that she's got that skill set. Everyone who knows her speaks very highly of her, but can she legislate?

I perfectly understand that she can fundraise. I understand that she's going to be a fantastic fundraising machine for the Democratic Party. But as a legislator, that's completely open.

Barack Obama actually was a state senator and built his way. It wasn't a long time, but he actually built his way, learned something about the craft.

So I start by being extremely dubious. I start -- I think, also, with the widely shared view, which one hears all over the place, of a distrust of the monarchical nature of American politics, which is a growing thing around us, especially when a job is actually being handed to you without you actually having to run for it.

On the other hand -- and when you speak to people in New York, they say, "Well, we actually don't have a long list of great candidates." And so -- and people think highly of her.

But I must say, I think a lot of people are starting with a high degree of skepticism.

JIM LEHRER: What about David Paterson, the governor? It's his decision. Should he make that decision?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I've begun to think, "No." I had this fantasy notion when this issue started, thinking that, when you get a governor, you can pick somebody who wouldn't normally get elected, like, you know -- Daniel Patrick Moynihan got elected, but he's not your classic politician, big hair, you know, fancy talker.

And I was thinking, well, the governors will all pick, you know, somebody a little unusual. But governors seem to pick less unusual people than voters. And I think -- I'm much more leaning to the idea that we shouldn't have gubernatorial appointments. We should have elections.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I'd point out that Ted Kennedy's skill set, which David lauds now, Ted Kennedy did not have when he came to the Senate. And we don't know until they do come to the Senate.

I don't know if there is a resume that says, "This person is going to be a very effective senator," because we've seen very effective House members fall flat on their face.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about...

MARK SHIELDS: David Paterson will make a decision, like every governor I've ever known, based upon his own self-interest, the interest of the state, the interest of his party. You know, it's not rocket science. It's not altruism.

JIM LEHRER: But you think it should be left to the governor?

MARK SHIELDS: Do I think it should? Do I think it should be?

JIM LEHRER: Should they change it and start doing special elections.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I'm always in favor of popular elections. I mean, it's one of the reasons I like the House better than the Senate. I mean, everybody there has been elected.

And very few of them -- most of them have gotten there on their own, without the help of either a family fortune or family pedigree.

But, you know, in a time of budget constraints, that's one of the problems you have and one of the arguments.

I think Illinois is going to end up with an election. I don't think there will be an appointment.

Auto plan simply biding time

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
[T]here's nothing that's actually going to force the painful reforms on all sides that most people seem to think that's going to happen.

JIM LEHRER: Right. We'll see. All right, let's talk about the auto bailout package. We talked about it many times in the last few weeks. You have essentially been kind of semi-opposed to it, and you've kind of been semi-in-favor-of-it.

MARK SHIELDS: More than.

JIM LEHRER: More than in favor of it.

MARK SHIELDS: OK, semi, whatever. Anyhow, how do you feel about it now that it's a done deal, at least from the administration's point of view, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I can understand why they did it. If you're sitting there in the Oval Office, you do not want a million people to lose their jobs on your watch, especially in this economic climate.

But I don't think we should delude ourselves into thinking this is a fix for the auto industry. The only thing that's going to fix the auto industry is the sword of real pressure.

And what we've learned this week is that sitting administrations will not allow the auto industry to fail. If they won't allow them to fail now, in an allegedly free-market administration, they certainly aren't going to let them -- allow to fail in March.

And so there's nothing that's actually going to force the painful reforms on all sides that most people seem to think that's going to happen. So they'll come back in March, and they'll get another subsidy and, one presumes, another subsidy.

And my basic view, which I think a lot of economists share, is the political process is a lousy way to do this. We have a bankruptcy process. And maybe this is the wrong moment for the Chapter 11 process. Maybe they're right to wait for a stronger economy and we should just have a jobs program called "The Big Three." But at some point, they're going to have to go through that process.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I do think that they understand the urgency of their task right now, the auto companies. I think it does accelerate the likelihood of a merger between G.M. and Chrysler.

You know, there's nothing that concentrates the attention like the prospect of being hanged. And I think this was pretty close to it. And I'm not sure that there's going to be the will in the country for in perpetuity backing and subsidizing...

JIM LEHRER: To keep helping the auto companies?

MARK SHIELDS: And I think there has to be progress.

Now, I think, in fairness to the auto companies, they're on life support right now. And whether, in fact, 90 days or into March is going to be enough is a serious question. But they're going to have to show some real progress, Jim.

And, you know, auto sales are down everywhere. It isn't just the American big three. They're across the board now.

JIM LEHRER: It was the congressman from New Jersey who pointed that out at the...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right.

JIM LEHRER: ... in the interview with Judy.

MARK SHIELDS: Congressman Garrett.

JIM LEHRER: Nobody's buying cars.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, exactly.

JIM LEHRER: It isn't just about the manufacturers.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: But some companies have a culture of innovation. I think we know Toyota does. Some companies have a culture not of innovation. And those cultures are extremely stubborn.

Management studies have shown you can keep just a few people from an old regime and they will preserve the old culture. And that's not only a decision that you make -- "we're going to do X instead of Y" -- that's a subconscious paradigm the way you think about things, the way you behave, sense of urgency, really hard to change.

JIM LEHRER: We have a minute left. Do you want to say something else about this before we go to the final minute? I've got -- everybody else...

MARK SHIELDS: You have another topic, though, don't you?

Bright spots in Obama Cabinet

David Brooks
The New York Times
[O]verall I would give Obama an A ... for a Democratic cabinet I think is the best of all possible cabinets.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes. I just want to see just quickly, in a minute, what do you think of the Obama cabinet? It's almost done.

MARK SHIELDS: I have...

JIM LEHRER: In general terms.

MARK SHIELDS: ... two really bright spots. I mean, there's a lot of talent in there, the Larry Summers and Hillary Clinton, got a lot of attention.

But to me, the most conspicuous nominees are General Eric Shinseki as the Veterans Administration, which sends a message that this is an administration that's different from its predecessors. This is an administration where, if you speak truth to power, if you're independent, you're going to be recognized and not punished and isolated, as Shinseki was.

JIM LEHRER: Who's the other?

MARK SHIELDS: And Ray LaHood, retiring Republican congressman from Illinois, somebody who believes and exudes civility. When it came to the most important vote that the House has cast in the past 20 years, the impeachment of the presidency, there was one person whom both sides agreed, both sides agreed would be fair and firm in presiding over the House in an incredible time. It was Ray LaHood.

JIM LEHRER: Had the gavel and make the decisions?

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly, it's Ray LaHood. And I just think that it says something. He's a real Republican, but he does believe that people on the other side aren't demons.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree on both those points, but overall I would give Obama an A...

JIM LEHRER: An A?

DAVID BROOKS: ... for a Democratic cabinet I think is the best of all possible cabinets. He had all the Clinton people up above. This week and the last couple of weeks, a lot of regional reformers in education, in housing, people who are more Obama's age, but who have reformed at the local level.

So you get some Washington, with some people from around the country. The mixture is quite impressive.

JIM LEHRER: And the diversity on all levels, everything?

MARK SHIELDS: Everybody -- I don't know the energy fellow, but, I mean, but people rave about him.

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you both. Happy holidays to you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you very much.