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Shields and Brooks on the Ferguson ruling, Hagel resignation

November 28, 2014 at 6:35 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the grand jury verdict on the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, plus what our commentators are thankful for this Thanksgiving.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This week a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, chose not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the death of a black teenager, Michael Brown, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his resignation.

For that and more, we turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

We welcome you both on this day after Thanksgiving.

So, Mark, the aftermath, the reaction to the Ferguson grand jury decision not to indict, we’re watching reaction all over the country. What does it say about the state of race relations in this country today?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know if it says as much about the state of race relations as it certainly does about race perceptions.

There are two different Americas when it comes, for example, to the performance of the police. A majority of Americans, white Americans, strong majority, believe that the police treat everybody the same. Black Americans do not see that the case. They see that blacks — that are treated disproportionately, with greater force than are whites.

There is less confidence in the police on the part of blacks than there is whites. And, Judy, it’s borne out by the numbers in Ferguson; 86 percent — this a city that is two-thirds black. Out of the 53 officers on the police force, three of them are non-white and 86 percent of all the traffic stops were of black motorists.

So there is that sense of the widening gap. I think we were all euphoric in 2008, the election of the first African-American president, who since has been reelected with a majority, that somehow race relations in the country have been resolved and we’re over — as an open wound. But on something like police treatment of black Americans, it obviously is two different countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it mostly, David, about perception of how people are treated by law enforcement?

DAVID BROOKS: I think a little, yes, obviously, but not so much from the grand jury.

I thought the grand jury report had — it angered a lot of people, but I think introduced a note of ambiguity to more people because it really did put some facts in front of the case and I think it made us cautious. I think one of the things it did for a lot of people is made them separate the episode from the condition.

The episode was what actually happened that night between Wilson and Brown. And I think we learned that Wilson — Brown definitely went into the car, tried to seize the officer’s gun. And that makes it very hard to indict the police officer in those circumstances.

We don’t know whether Wilson was attacking — or Brown was attacking Wilson when the final shots were fired, but we know there was a pretty ambiguous confrontation there which probably made conviction impossible. So we have some facts about the episode.

The larger conditions, I think we still have a lot to say about, which is that there’s the legacy of distrust, the legacy of racism, the impact of poverty, the impact of inequality. And I think what’s happened with the larger condition is the distinct issue of civil rights has become embedded in a whole series of social problems, having to do with poverty, having to do with concentrated poverty, having to do with family structures, having to do with schools, having to do with disappearing jobs.

And it’s become a lot thornier. And so what was a very simple good vs. bad civil rights story has become a much more complicated domestic policy story, really.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, is it possible — I was going to…

MARK SHIELDS: Just — I just wanted to say on David’s — David makes a good point, but I think the difference is seen in the way he presented it.

Whites look at this individual episode and the grand jury report, and I think the points he make are absolutely valid ones. But blacks, I think, have an understandable tendency to look at it as a pattern. In other words, there’s a presumption on the part of blacks that they’re not going to be treated as well or as fairly when dealing with the police.

And i think that’s a major, major gulf. And make no mistake about it, Judy. The traditional ladder of — when America gets a cold economically, black America gets pneumonia. And the traditional road up, through factory jobs, manufacturing jobs that so many African-Americans have used to climb into the middle class, then educate their children in college, is no longer available.

It’s no longer available for white working-class Americans either. The changed economy has compounded the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have heard from some viewers.Go ahead, David. Yes, go ahead. I want you both…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think it’s compounded the problem economically and led to the widening inequality.

It’s also led, I think, for whites and blacks and Hispanics as well to a widening sense of disrespect, that not only is there no opportunity, but they’re being disrespected by people with authority. And that’s especially true with African-Americans because the legacy, the historical legacy of racism in this country.

And it does make me think that, across a range of issues, but especially law enforcement issues, we have two models, the sort of dominant force model, which is what the police are used to using, and a model that gives much more emphasis on respecting people in the community, which is probably a little less aggressive sometimes, and which may be risky, but in the long run, that more respectful model may be the stronger and the healthier model for the communities.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s interesting. We have been hearing some viewers this week who are saying they don’t think the news media is reflecting the whole spectrum of the position that law enforcement is in.

But, Mark, I guess my question, the next question for me is, can this country have a constructive conversation about this?

MARK SHIELDS: You know, I hope we can, Judy.

I think we’re capable of it if we — and acknowledging right up front that police officers have a tough job. When they get a 911 call or just any kind of a call, they’re going into a situation that’s laden and fraught with violence.

And I in no way, I mean, intend any dishonor or disrespect to them and to the incredibly tough job and good job that they overwhelmingly do. I hope we can. It’s something that an African-American president — the only — only two Democrats in our history have been elected and reelected with a majority of the popular vote, Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama.

I would hope the president could help initiate and inspire such conversation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think it’s possible, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

And let’s start with the police. I do think it’s valid to say their view had not been represented. Like a lot of people in my business, I started as a police reporter in Chicago and spend a lot of time around police. And one of the things that has to be said about them, they spend a lot of their time in extremely unpleasant circumstance with extremely unpleasant people.

And they have to wade into that to keep us safe. And God bless them for it. It does often mean that they have a very negative and sometimes a cynical view and armor, an emotional armor they put on about the communities they go into.

And I suppose they need that for survival, but it does sometimes lead to a small authoritarianism, if you want to put it that — a little bullying sometimes in police behavior. And so, like everything else, the way the police behave, they’re human beings, and so some of it is incredibly normal and noble. And some of it is brutalizing. And they sometimes in some cases a brutalizing effect on the people they’re sort of lording over.

It’s a human story of good and bad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn you both to running the Pentagon.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Mark, steps down this week. He’s the third secretary of defense in the Obama administration to be leaving the position. They are now looking for a fourth. What does this say, does Chuck Hagel’s experience say about the administration, say about him?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know, I should acknowledge right up front I’m a sympathizer, supporter of Chuck Hagel, and have been for a long time, admired his own service both to the country politically and publicly and volunteered in the military to serve as heroically as he did in Vietnam.

But, Judy, when you’re looking for your fourth secretary of defense in less than six years, which is what this administration is doing, and the previous two, Hagel’s two predecessors, both went public with charges of micromanagement from the White House, that — Bob Gates, a reasonable man, said it drove him crazy.

When — when Leon Panetta said it’s leading to an exclusion of other voices, just a limitation, that the president is sort of surrounded by this clique of very hyper, uber loyalists, but with very few other people, that the Cabinet is excluded, I think it’s a comment on a situation that is serious to the president.

And I really…

JUDY WOODRUFF: A situation that…

MARK SHIELDS: A situation that he is in a bubble that is very, very narrowed, that they’re trying to run everything out of the White House.

And I think this is a — I think it’s a problem that they had that Gates complained of it, that Panetta complained of it. And it didn’t change under Chuck Hagel. And they can fault Chuck Hagel. The president praises him and then immediately the White House staffs starts sniping that he wasn’t up to the job, he didn’t have the substance, he wasn’t proactive, whatever the hell that means.

So, they immediately accuse the president of dissembling — their — their loyalists are suggesting the president was being disingenuous when he praised the president and — the secretary as an exemplary defense secretary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, each administration over the last 30 years probably has concentrated more and more power in the White House. For a long time, most of the other Cabinet secretary jobs have been neutered. But it used to be, you had the big three, secretary of state, secretary of defense, and the surgeon general, had some independent authority.

Under this administration, I think even the big three have been severely weakened, none more seriously than Chuck Hagel. There are people who follow this who say he underperformed in certain roles, especially the outside roles.

But it’s certainly true that he wasn’t consulted in all sorts of policies concerning the Defense Department, that decisions were made in the White House both here and abroad and then he was told about them later. And he tried to be a good soldier. And so if you are going to hire somebody to be a good soldier, you can’t really fault them for not being proactive, because you’re not giving them anything to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, do we look for the next secretary of defense to be somebody who very close — already in close with the White House, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Judy, ironically, the next secretary of defense is probably Chuck Hagel.

I mean, we have had two — Jack Reed, senator from Rhode Island, rejected it 30 microseconds after he was floated. Michele Flournoy, the former deputy secretary of defense, said she wasn’t interested. So, I don’t know who is going to be and then confirmed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quick thought, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree. They’re having trouble, because who wants to be a weak person with only two years left?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Less than a minute.

To both of you, it’s the day after Thanksgiving. You have to tell me what you’re thankful for, Mark, and what you’re not thankful for.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, I am thankful for — I am thankful that American graduation rates in high schools are up dramatically, that our crime rate is down, that people are covered in health care.

I’m grateful for the “NewsHour.”

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And not grateful for?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not grateful for David’s constant interruption and carping.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: No. No. There’s nothing I’m not grateful…

JUDY WOODRUFF: There’s nothing — I think that’s…

MARK SHIELDS: … I’m not grateful for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On that positive note, David, it’s your turn.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I was going to thank — be thankful for Mark Shields, who has been a great partner and friend for many years.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But I think I may retract that now.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: The thing I’m not thankful for is that we don’t have 30 minutes on the show, which I think the viewers really demand.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Not just 12 or 14.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m going to take to our executive producer. I think that’s a great idea.

MARK SHIELDS: Please.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

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