TERENCE SMITH: We take a look back at 2003 with presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Richard Norton Smith, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. With journalist and author Haynes Johnson; Roger Wilkins, professor of history at George Mason University; and Diane Kunz, a former professor of diplomatic history at Columbia and Yale universities.
Welcome to you all. Michael Beschloss, obviously Iraq was the principal focus in 2003. How do you think people will look back on the U.S. actions in Iraq in 2003?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, here's a classic case where history actually does have some value, because I can assure you it's going to be very different from the way that we look at it tonight.
Twenty or 30 years from now, we're going to know all sorts of things about how George Bush got us into this war, how he ran it, and also how he ran the occupation that we can't possibly know until we get diaries, national security documents, the kind of stuff it takes a long time to get out.
The more important thing it is we will have hindsight, because 20 years from now, less than that, we will know whether this war ultimately have succeeded in making a democratic Iraq, a democratic Middle East as the president has hoped.
Two quick examples: Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam. We were talking on New Year's Day 1966, that would have looked as if it might have been a success. Years later, of course, we know it was one of the great failures in American history. Ronald Reagan -- if we were talking in 1984, New Year's, many, some on this panel might have said that Reagan was risking an unnecessary confrontation with the Soviet Union. With hindsight, there's a lot of evidence that his policies led to the end of the Cold War.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard Norton Smith, your take on Iraq as you look back on it.
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, Michael's absolutely right, it takes time to form perspective. On the other hand, there are some things going on right now that are spin-offs of Iraq, certainly in domestic politics, to the extent for which the presidential race, in particular the race for the Democratic nomination has been shaped by this one issue.
It's hard to believe that Howard Dean would be where he is today if it had not been for Iraq. I mean, Governor Dean has very skillfully tapped into much of the real opposition that many people have felt about the war, but also the frustration, the resentment, and yes, even the anger that many Democrats have felt about this administration since its inception.
And it's a fascinating process to watch. Governor Dean used Iraq very successfully I think to define himself, and even more, to define the rest of the field. He set himself apart, he made himself the "un-Bush."
And it's also, at the same time, something of a gamble if the Iraqi policy a year from now is perceived to have been a success, just as if a year from now the economy is believed to be stronger than it is today and poised to be stronger still, then it's a gamble the Democrats may wish they hadn't taken.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Roger Wilkins, your perspective.
ROGER WILKINS: Well, I think ... I'd lower the focus some and look at the U.S. Congress and say that the fecklessness of the Congress in examining this war before we got into it is really horrifying.
If you think that each of those kids out there -- except for the ones who are from Puerto Rico or from the District of Columbia -- each of those kids has a congressman and two senators who are supposed to be looking out for them, you know, worrying about putting them in harm's way and casting the heaviest vote they can.
Well, the Congress waffled and ducked and said essentially, "Well, Mr. President, we take we'll take your word for it." That's not the way the Constitution is supposed to work. And I have a 20-year-old daughter who is a privileged kid and is therefore not in harm's way. But she's about the age of Jessica Lynch, and I think of kids like Jessica Lynch and think they deserve a better Congress.
They deserved a better Congress when this issue came up. Maybe for folks like me when they did Medicare, I think we deserved a better Congress, too.
TERENCE SMITH: Diane Kunz, Roger's concerned principally about what happened going into the war. What's your view of how we're going to look back on Iraq in 2003?
DIANE KUNZ: Abraham Lincoln observed during the Civil War that he didn't transform events, events transformed him. And I think to me, that's one of the amazing stories of this year, the way in which George Bush, who campaigned on an anti-nation-building platform, has now become the spiritual grandson of Woodrow Wilson.
It was Woodrow Wilson who pledged to make the world safer democracy, but in fact only extended democracy to the extent he could to Europe. After World War II, the United States helped democracy come to Asia. And now this year, in the post- Iraq phase, the United States has committed itself to democracy as an international platform in general, and in Iraq in particular. This is a very difficult job.
As everyone has pointed out, we certainly don't know how it will turn out, but the fact that it is George Bush and his administration that is leading the charge has been to me a very amazing development this year.
TERENCE SMITH: Haynes Johnson, you get to bat clean-up here on Iraq. Put it in context.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I'd like to reinforce what Michael said and what Diane just said. We're not going to know a year from now, five years from now, maybe not 20 years from now what the consequences of this are, except it has enormous consequences.
We've had nine wars in the American experience since our revolution up until the two Gulf wars -- which I count both wars with Iraq -- and we've never had a war like this -- preemptive war, the concept of it, what it means, trying to bring democracy to the Middle East.
It would be wonderful if that works, and all that sort of thing, but I must say that we aren't going to know. And so I think the stakes are tremendous. What happens affects everything in this country, it affects all our relationships with the world, it affects the Congress, the political system, and the rest.
This is a fateful -- and you can easily say that about every year, some great issue -- but I think this is maybe the most important single event I can remember since World War II, and it's different because we don't know who the enemy is.
ROGER WILKINS: I think you're right in another way, and Richard raised it. This campaign, this year in 2004, ought to be about a lot of these issues.
HAYNES JOHNSON: I would hope it would be.
TERENCE SMITH: And at least the Democratic primary, Richard was saying, already is.
ROGER WILKINS: Dean is trying to make it that way, and it remains to be seen how bold the Democrats are in raising this issue.
HAYNES JOHSON: But they're all long-term issues --
ROGER WILKINS: That's right.
HAYNES JOHNSON: -- and that's why it can't be debated about where it's going and so forth.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, Iraq was the big story, but it was not the only story of the year. Michael, when you look back on the year, what development or trend stands out as distinguishing in your mind?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, two surprises. I think a year ago, if we were talking about the presidential campaign as we now are -- I'll only speak for myself, I'm sure everyone else would have been wise and sage-like unlike me -- I would have said that this process we have that nominates candidates-- which I think is atrocious -- had become so front-loaded that it's impossible for anyone to get nominated by a party unless you've been raised you can raise an enormous amount of money from special interests and also be extremely well-known.
And Howard Dean tonight is the front-runner on the Democratic side, completely disproves all that, was able to tunnel his way through this horrible system in a way that not only I think are we surprised by, but in a way, you know, whether you like Dean or not, I think suggests some hope to what I think is this dreadful system.
The other thing is that George Bush we're talking about tonight as a very important president, whether he turns out to be importantly great or importantly otherwise, that's something we wouldn't have seen I think at the end of 2001, a president who was elected under the most difficult circumstances possible to even call it a narrow margin, you know, came in with, you know some kind of margin in Congress, and now is not only a very influential president, but someone who, at least tonight, has a very good chance to get reelected. It does show that some things are surprising.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard, what's your view of that? Beyond Iraq, what comes out and strikes you as important and significant for this year?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, I think this was the year when a host of gay-related issues forced their way to the center of the stage, not just in the popular culture, not just a "queer eye for the straight guy," but in the Supreme Court, and increasingly on the political campaign trail.
Imagine if you have a race next year between Governor Dean, who signed the civil union law in Vermont, and George W. Bush, whose political base, including the religious right, is active, as we speak, trying to amend the Constitution to prevent anything like gay marriage from being legal. It has the potential to be a divisive and even ugly contest.
TERENCE SMITH: Roger Wilkins?
ROGER WILKINS: I would say that the Michigan case, the affirmative action case before the Supreme Court. We always knew that the Baake case that came down in the '70s would be tested and assaulted, but it came up at a propitious time, 40 years after the march on Washington and 49 years after Brown v. Board. And it seems to me that what we've learned in those decades is how powerful the culture is in still pushing back the opportunities for black people.
It's opened up in a number of ways, but still, the winds of the culture restrain black opportunities, Hispanic opportunities vary significantly as you can see by disparities in income and wealth and occupations and all the rest. But the assault on Baake was very powerful, and this is a generally regarded as a conservative Supreme Court. Justice O'Connor has had a swing vote for a long time, but nobody could have expected that she would have reaffirmed the principle of Baake as resoundingly as she did in her majority opinion in the Michigan Law School case. So I think that that was a very large landmark in the law.
TERENCE SMITH: Diane Kunz, what bubbles to the top for you other than Iraq in 2003?
DIANE KUNZ: The transformation of American life post-Sept. 11, 2001. For the decade 1991-2001, our country had the luxury of putting foreign affairs on the back burner, and since 2001, they have been front and center.
It's not just the Iraq war, it's all our military and our economic strategies all linked now to what's going to happen in the fight against weapons of mass destruction and state-sponsored terrorism.
TERENCE SMITH: Certainly a huge change in day to day life, Haynes Johnson?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I think the long-term economic problems the country now faces, going from huge surpluses of $6 trillion to an annual deficit of $500 billion -- and this is not just for this year, it's affecting Iraq, military spending.
Every state house, every mayor's office, every county commissioner's office, every education, George and I teach, Michael, we all teach. And cutbacks across the board down to all levels, and what it means is that there are choices before the country we haven't even begun to talk about.
We talk about the election. I hope we talk about these things. But the priorities are tremendous and that's in the long term, going to affect everybody's who's listening to us, particularly my grandchildren.
TERENCE SMITH: You know, we don't have much time left, but I wonder if we could play the Time magazine game of person of the year. The magazine chose the U.S. soldier, rather than an individual. Could you tell me very, very quickly, Michael, starting with you, who you'd choose and why?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think the U.S. soldier is absolutely terrific, very central in all of our minds tonight. And really should be because it is one way of, you know, really focusing a question like whether we should go to war.
TERENCE SMITH: Richard?
RICHARD NORTON SMITH: I'll take a cue from Roger. I think Sandra Day O'Connor, whether it's affirmative action, gay rights, campaign finance reform, she's not only the swing vote, but her political skills at bringing about a consensus on a divided court makes this arguably the O'Connor court.
TERENCE SMITH: Roger, a candidate?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, I'm old enough to have been really hideously disappointed that Hitler was killed, he killed himself, Mussolini was killed. These guys do these hideous, horrible, horrible things to human beings, and they are never called to account, I mean the worst ones, and so I pick Saddam for coming out of his ... running away, coming out of his -- his spider hole and looking like the miserable creature that we always thought he was. And finally, I got another guy.
TERENCE SMITH: Who's that?
ROGER WILKINS: For us old geezers, the manager of the Marlins, 72-year-old Jack McKeon. That -- beats the Yankees.
TERENCE SMITH: For winning the World Series against the Yankees. Diane Kunz?
DIANE KUNZ: Well, I've got to go with George Bush. Better or for worse, Iraq is his war, and I think we have to either give him credit or blame for transforming the Republican Party into the not-tax-but-let's-spend-a-lot party.
TERENCE SMITH: Haynes?
HAYNES JOHNSON: I agree. I think George Bush has dominated the year in all kinds of ways. I agree with Michael, what he said about the American soldier symbolically and so forth, but I think Bush has been a towering, dominant figure and we're going to watch him now as he proceeds into this year and long into the future. I think he has dominated the world stage, not just the American stage.
TERENCE SMITH: All right, thank you all five very much for 2003, now on to 2004.
GROUP: Happy New Year, Terry.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you. Happy New Year.