JIM LEHRER: And to Shields and Lowry: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is off tonight. Mark, and so after a week, is the Cheney story over?
MARK SHIELDS: I don't think it is over, Jim. No. I think the story will always be with us. It's a -- unfortunately for the vice president, it's a little bit like the killer rabbit that attacked President Jimmy Carter's vote. It's like Vice President Quayle correcting the spelling bee contest by adding an "e" to the word potato. It's a visual. It will always be there. It's a cartoonist delight. So this is part of the Dick Cheney lore and a defining experience in sort of his public life.
JIM LEHRER: Rich, what's your view about whether or not the vice president mishandled this? I mean, forget the accident itself but the uproar that ensued afterward over the handling, is there some fault there?
RICH LOWRY: Yeah. I think they clearly should have gotten it out as soon as possible on Saturday night. But there were extenuating circumstances. They're down there in the boondocks, Cheney has no staff. My understanding is that he was understandably crushed and shaken by the incident. So they wait to do it Sunday, and they're also thinking if they had just put out a statement Saturday night "Oh, by the way, Cheney shot someone and we don't know his condition but we're just letting you know" there would have been a firestorm anyway. And if they had released any information prematurely that was incorrect, they also would have gotten hammered for that.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think about that, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, I think you have to take Dick Cheney as different from any other vice president. This is not a winter bottom figure or an ornamental vice president. This is the most influential, I'd say the most powerful vice president in the nation's history. I mean, he's the principal architect and advocate of the United States invasion of Iraq. He's the principal architect of the United States energy policy. You could say the war on terrorism. I mean, he's a defining figure in this administration.
When you read the News Summary at the beginning it says, "The man whom the vice president shot Saturday went home from the hospital today." Now, that's very newsworthy. And I thought that the idea that Katharine Armstrong became the spokesman -- the first spokesperson they had was Mary Matalin who I like very much. But Mary Matalin was 1,500 miles away; she had no idea what's going on. And the story she put out and Katharine Armstrong put out and Scott McClellan put out was ultimately corrected by the vice president and his own appearance on Brit Hume. So it was -- you know, it was botched, mishandled and misdirected.
RICH LOWRY: But a lot of it, obviously, was driven by Harry Whittington's condition. And I think the story -- Mark's right it will live on in lore - but in terms of news value it ended today when Whittington came out and looked pretty hale and hearty and gave an incredibly gracious statement. If he had done that three days ago, been in a condition to do that three days ago, everything would have been different. And also his turn for the worse bollixed the White house plan for dealing with this.
JIM LEHRER: The heart problem on Monday.
RICH LOWRY: Right. Because initially they're going to have - my understanding - they're going to have the president make a lighthearted remark about it Tuesday, figure that takes care of the Tuesday news cycle; do something with Cheney Wednesday or Thursday, and I'm not sure what, and then have this Wyoming event Friday. But when he has the heart condition, you can't joke about it anymore, and it kind of blew up that initial plan.
JIM LEHRER: You said you agree with Mark that the lore will continue. Does that have a lot to do -- as much to do with Cheney himself as it does with the incident?
RICH LOWRY: Well, it's just -- these kind of things, sometimes they just metaphorically fit. And there's something appropriate about a high level Bush administration official having a personal mishap that involves shooting someone, you know? You couldn't make this stuff up. So Mark's right, it will live on in lore.
JIM LEHRER: Peggy Noonan, a conservative columnist, a former speechwriter for the first President Bush, had a piece in the Wall Street Journal I think yesterday, an op-ed page piece where she said this could, in fact, lead to Vice President Cheney stepping down and the president picking a successor who would be in great shape to be the 2008 Republican nominee. Does that make sense to you?
RICH LOWRY: No, no, and I think there's zero chance of that, especially the way it played out later on in the week here where I think the vice president put it behind him. Also, you know, Vice President Cheney is not responsible for the president's political problems. He could have the most popular vice president we've ever seen in this country and he'd still be in the low 40 percent approval. The vice president's standing just doesn't matter that much. Plus, selecting a presumptive 2008 nominee would be extremely controversial and divisive in the party. That's why I think it's very unlikely that would happen.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I agree with Rich. I mean, the logical person is John McCain who turned it down in 2000, turned down John Kerry --
JIM LEHRER: You mean the running mate.
MARK SHIELDS: Right - to George Bush in 2000, to John Kerry in 2004, I think probably he's demonstrated that he's not interested.
JIM LEHRER: Don't you understand about no?
MARK SHIELDS: That's right. Why pick somebody when the race is wide open for 2008 and alienate everybody else in the race, especially at a time when your party is fracturing? But I think you have to understand this about Dick Cheney. Dick Cheney is unlike any other vice president --
JIM LEHRER: Well, this was Peggy Noonan's point, that he's a drawer of negative vibes and negative reaction.
MARK SHIELDS: I just come back to the great story and I apologize if I've told it before. Gov. Jim Rhodes was four times governor of Ohio, just a remarkably resilient Republican governor with great blue-collar appeal, had a figure in his administration who was -- the lightning rod for all discontent -- county chairman said he can't be trusted; Harry is no good. State legislature said get rid of Harry, he's killing you - contributors said Harry is rude and impudent. And so his chief of staff said are you going to get rid of Harry and he said, you never take the punching bag out of the gym. Okay.
I mean, in other words, Dick Cheney serves a very valuable purpose. Dick Cheney not only is a man without a political and personal agenda of his own. He's the only vice president we've ever had really since Spiro Agnew who was otherwise disabled who didn't want to run for president. And he never has tried to. So he plays a very key role in that sense and he has enormous appeal and I think Rich would confirm this, to the conservative base of the Republican Party in part because he doesn't have this -- any agenda.
RICH LOWRY: And also, ironically, just given the polarized poisonous nature of our politics, the fact is that he's a hate magnet, as Peggy Noonan put it, makes him more popular with the Republicans and makes him more valuable in terms of reaching out to the Republican base.
JIM LEHRER: What kind of marks would you give the press over the handling of this incident, particularly the White House press corps, they were the people in the front lines, so to speak, on this?
RICH LOWRY: I think it was absurd overreaction. And, as I said, I think Cheney's office should have gotten it out sooner but a 14- or 18-hour delay in the scheme of things over this kind of incident I think is meaningless.
MARK SHIELDS: I think this was cumulative with this administration. I mean, it's Scott McClellan-- who I feel bad for-- because I think he's powerless and almost just a recorded message standing up there and saying Karl Rove has assured me he had nothing to do with this. Scooter Libby had nothing to do with the Valerie Plame story and continuing like nothing ever happened.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, the baggage is what caused the reaction --
MARK SHIELDS: The baggage is just so enormous at this point.
JIM LEHRER: You don't buy that?
RICH LOWRY: I do buy that.
JIM LEHRER: Oh, you do buy that. You don't think it's an excuse?
RICH LOWRY: Exactly. I still think it's an absurd overreaction but it's the reason that there was the overreaction.
JIM LEHRER: Now, staying on Cheney here, the -- do you think -- there's been word this week of the possibility, at least, that the vice president has some direct involvement in the Plame/Libby situation. How do you read that?
RICH LOWRY: Well, I think it's mostly what we've been talking about and hearing about. Well, one, the vice president did accrue more power to his office in this executive order a couple of years ago where the president says the vice president, too, has power to classify and also my understanding is to declassify material. And apparently he used that to allow Scooter Libby to talk to reporters about the national intelligence estimate about Iraq's WMD programs.
And this is being, I think, conflated with the Plame matter and being spun into some scandal. I just don't think it is because that national intelligence estimate ended up being declassified itself and released to the press and a lot of the people who have been complaining about Cheney's secretiveness and all the rest of it this week I'm sure are the same people that wanted to see the basis for the war being released and declassified at that time.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have a view on this, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I do. (Laughs)
JIM LEHRER: Share it with us.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, they're quite selective, the Congress of the United States can't be told what violations there may have been, probably were under the FISA law.
JIM LEHRER: You mean on the NSA --
MARK SHIELDS: On the NSA investigation because, my goodness, that would be a threat to national security if we did. But we want to selectively reveal classified information in hopes of advancing a political purpose for this administration, then that's fine, but I think there's another purpose by the vice president's statement this week and I think that's layered down the defense of Scooter Libby and that's they're laying out the case right now --
JIM LEHRER: That he was just carrying out instructions from his boss.
MARK SHIELDS: And it was under executive order that George Bush in 2003, I believe, signed, and that -- I think they're laying out, I think, what is going to be the defense.
JIM LEHRER: Do you have the same smell?
RICH LOWRY: Maybe. Maybe Libby will go to that defense. But I think they're separate things. I think they're talking about the national intelligence estimate when Libby says that he was authorized by -
JIM LEHRER: Cheney -
RICH LOWRY: -- the vice president to talk about what was classified material. And I don't think he said that about Plame yet.
JIM LEHRER: To reveal -- for folks who don't follow what we're talking about, the two -- the first thing is the national security -- national intelligence; the other is Valerie Plame was a CIA officer and her identity was classified and that's where the thing that Mark -- what you're talking about, Mark -- that if, in fact, the vice president said, hey, she's a CIA thing and I declassify that and you're free to go do it -- but there's no allegation -- I means there is an allegation but --
RICH LOWRY: Right. But the allegation doesn't have to do with their status which is still somewhat controversial, it was about whether Libby lied or not to investigators about whether he had told reporters about it.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Finally, Katrina, this has been the week of Katrina on the Hill, both the House and Senate have had hearings. How has Michael Chertoff, the secretary of housing -- of Homeland Security, handled this, do you think, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Terribly. But he's got no hand to play, Jim. I mean, one statistic -- and I give credit to Tom Davis and that Republican House committee - that for the first time kind of reclaimed its independence and its integrity with the report which I think was an honest and comprehensive report -- 24,967 pre-fab homes bought, top dollar price, no bid contract and 1,295 modular homes -- $900 million -- $900 million - okay. They are worthless. They cannot go in a flood plain. All right. They're rotting away. They have to be sold at fire sale prices.
I don't know how many conservative speeches I've listened to and Rich has as well, after-dinner speeches about the welfare queen who's using food stamps to buy a bottle of vodka and how terrible this is. Where is the outrage on this? I mean, it just really bothers me.
JIM LEHRER: Rich?
RICH LOWRY: It's classic government failure. The whole thing was a government failure and part of it has to do with the nature of the Department of Homeland Security, which is just a monstrosity with these 22 separate organizations thrown in there without a lot of thought by either party in Congress or apparently the President of the United States. So I have a little sympathy for Michael Chertoff and trying to manage this unmanageable thing.
But it came down in the end of the day to leadership and something is stuck in my mind that Michael Brown said last week during his hearings. If this had been a terrorist attack in New Orleans, he said, it would have been all different. And I think there's something to that because it was a classic case of fighting the last war where that was what the federal government was really primed to respond to and they didn't have the same level of awareness and initiative in the word of that report that came out this week when it was a natural disaster.
JIM LEHRER: Did you hear anything from Chertoff this week in response to the criticism that makes you think he can fix this?
RICH LOWRY: You know, he's going to try. It sounds like he has the right ideas. He's basically still trying to make this department cohere; and one thing he talked about this week is, you know, making every one of those 22 separate entities that has some operational capacity, sort of melding them and making them work together. But it's a huge task.
JIM LEHRER: You have got 22 seconds, Mark.
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I remember the first debate in 2000 between Al Gore and George Bush when the moderator sitting at this table asked him "what about dealing with crisis and catastrophe." He said I have to pay a compliment, said Gov. Bush, to the Clinton administration and its director of FEMA, James Lee Witt, the wonderful job they've done in dealing with crises with the governors.
And you know, FEMA was a functioning excellent department when the Bush people came in. They have dismantled it and they have destroyed it and for that they are held accountable.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.
RICH LOWRY: Thank you.
JIM LEHRER: Good to see you, Rich.
RICH LOWRY: Good to see you.