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Insider Views

September 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: We get the views of four former presidential chiefs of staff. Hamilton Jordan worked for Jimmy Carter, Ken Duberstein was Ronald Reagan’s last chief of staff, John Sununu held the job under George Bush, Sr., and Leon Panetta served in the post for part of Bill Clinton’s presidency. Welcome, gentlemen. Ken Duberstein, beginning with you, let’s first talk about this overture that was made by Afghanistan today or by the clerics; the White House summarily rejected it. Was that the right response?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Absolutely, not even a close call. What the Taliban did today was offer a sham. Just because they are pulling occupancy permit or saying that they are pulling one doesn’t mean any of the conditions laid down by the President and the national security team. The President has to stay firm. This is not a time to negotiate. And the Taliban have to realize that the American government is firm, firm, and solid in making sure that our conditions are met – period — end of item.

MARGARET WARNER: John Sununu, do you agree, or is there a reason that the President might, that it might be advisable to at least look open to talks?


MARGARET WARNER: I’m asking you.

JOHN SUNUNU: The Taliban has been harboring a criminal for a long, long time. What they look for was an easy way out that has no meaning. It was a meaningless gesture on their part. The President I suspect is going to reject what they said out of hand and tell them either go back and do what is right or suffer the consequences. This country, I don’t think the world understands how serious the mood is in America today. And I think the President is going to try and convey not only to the American public what has to be done, but part of his message tonight I suspect is going to tell the world you should understand how serious we are about getting this thing done and getting it done right.


LEON PANETTA: Clearly it was not enough, but at the same time, when the United States is trying to form a coalition of Arab and Islamic nations along with other nations throughout the world in this war against terrorism, and at the same time, avoid a holy war, I think it would have been fair to at least acknowledge that the clerics took a step in the right direction although it was not enough, and then demand of the Taliban government that they set a time here for surrendering bin Laden. This is a time it seems to me when we have to establish that world coalition if in fact we’re going to engage in the kind of broad terrorist war that the President and the country ought to engage in.

MARGARET WARNER: Hamilton Jordan, how do you see this question?

HAMILTON JORDAN: Well, the Taliban’s word means nothing or should mean nothing to our country. And indeed I think it means very little in the Middle East to even the Muslim countries. So I think the President was right to reject it out of hand. There is no middle ground here. You are with us, or you are against us. You are against terrorism, or you are on the other side nurturing and supporting those people responsible for this dastardly deed.

MARGARET WARNER: John Sununu, let’s go on to the speech. What is the most important thing the President needs to do tonight at this critical moment?

JOHN SUNUNU: Well, certainly he is going to lay out what has happened in clearer terms. What he thinks is behind what has happened, but I think the most important thing he that is to get out of the speech in the long run is to communicate to the American public they’ve got to contribute patients to this process. This is not going to be taken care of quickly. We as a nation have a tendency sometimes to lose patience with our Presidents. And the media sometimes has a thirst for action on a daily basis. I think what the President has to communicate to the public and the media, that that is going to be a long steady process with a full process of preparation and then an execution after preparation to take care of the need over a long period of time.

MARGARET WARNER: That is a very tall order isn’t it Ken Duberstein?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Absolutely, but I think it’s achievable and let me build for a second on John’s comments. To say another important goal tonight is to demonstrate to the world, to the international coalition that President Bush is trying to form, how united the American people are and the symbolism of going to a joint session of the Congress, flanked by Tom Daschle the Majority Leader and Dick Gephardt as well as Trent Lott and Denny Hastert to see the applause flute the whole chambers of Republicans and Democrats alike is a clear signal to the world not only how serious we are but how united we are — and I think George W. Bush is going to send that message tonight and build on it so that the mission becomes defined and achievable by building this broad coalition internationally.

MARGARET WARNER: Leon Panetta, your view of the first most important he needs to do tonight and what is the biggest challenge, what is the difficulty here for him, the biggest one?

LEON PANETTA: Well, the difficulty is that you have a country that is in a state of shock. We are angry. We are confused. We are trying to figure out who the enemy is here, who should we go after. What is this war on terrorism? What is all of this doing to our economy? To our security as a nation? And so it’s a period of great confusion and anger. The President has to basically define for the country what is the situation that we are in as a nation, what are the challenges that face us, what steps do we need to take to confront those challenges. And most importantly, he has got to reach deep into the fiber of America and say that this is a moment when all Americans have to draw on our courage to be able to confront those challenges. This is the moment that the President of the United States really has to pull this country together and provide direction for the future.

MARGARET WARNER: Can a President do that, Hamilton Jordan?

HAMILTON JORDAN: Well, as Leon said it’s a tall order but the President in our society has a number of roles official and unofficial — as chief law enforcement officer tonight he will tell us how we are going to pursue and punish those people responsible for the terror last week. As commanding chief he is going to take us what steps we are going to take at home and abroad to fight terrorism, but I also hope that he will be a father figure and I hope another thing that is important to have happen now is I hope that the President will tell the American family in his role as father figure that we’ve got to go back to work. We’ve got to have some sense of normalcy in our lives and a strong economy because without a strong economy we cannot be strong militarily or politically around the world.

MARGARET WARNER: That is something and Kentucky, and Speaker Hastert mentioned how important it is that the President has to help restore confidence in the economy. How can he — what can he do tonight to at least start that process?

HAMILTON JORDAN: He can talk about the sensitivity that we all share toward moving workers back to work by taking care of those who are unemployed. By worrying about the airline industry, by encouraging people of the safety of the travel and the security of transportation, by saying America can get the job done both militarily but most fundamentally economically here at home. I think he can send that message; in fact tonight’s meeting will send that message because it is a united America. That is a big challenge, but it is also something that he can reassure the American people and the world about.

MARGARET WARNER: Leon Panetta, pick up on that, but I want to ask it also in a slightly different way. On the one hand the White House aides say he needs to persuade the American public there is a serious threat. That is why they have to be patient. They have to be ready for this long campaign but at the same time, he has to persuade Americans that it’s also time to really get back to their lives and do what they have to do to keep the economy strong or restore the economy. How does he walk that line?

LEON PANETTA: I think the most important thing is to say that no terrorist attack can undermine the fundamentals in the United States of America. That goes for our economy, and that goes to our basic society and our values as a society. And the fact is we have the best workers in the world. They are productive. We are creative. We are imaginative. We have strong fundamentals, as Chairman Greenspan said, with regards to our economy. All we have to do now is roll up our sleeves and get back to work. This country is fundamentally strong. Yes, we’ve taken a blow. But we are so strong in terms of our values and our beliefs, that ultimately we can win any war against anyone.


JOHN SUNUNU: You know, it’s interesting, I think this President has a great sense of what the public is all about, what they feel. I think he has shown that in his reactions to this tragedy as well as other events. I think he recognizes that the greatest asset he has is a population that is willing to do what they have to do if they get the message — and he is going to give the message tonight. It has been amazing over these past few days as much as I’ve run into people who are certainly not feeling, are feeling glum about what happened last week, I have not, I have not run into any real pessimism in anyone; and what they are all saying is tell us what to do and we’re ready to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Hamilton Jordan, pick up on something that Jim asked Leader Gephardt about, which was a comment Mr. Gephardt made earlier today, and he said this is a new country, a different country. Do you think it is and if so, how?

HAMILTON JORDAN: Well, I think it is, Margaret. I think we’ve lost our innocence. We see the world from the complex place that it is. We understand now that we are the envy of the world; people come here from all over the world to pursue the American dream. We are the strongest country. Our pop culture is all around the world, but we also resented in some places – and not well understood. And I think that this, I think President Bush faces one of the great challenges that has ever faced any American President, but I agree with Governor Sununu; he has got the 100% support of the American people. I think behind him to take those steps necessary to deal with these issues. And as we all know who have been in the White House, there comes a time when the cheering stops. I hope that time is far, far off into the future because this is a long and complex set of issues that he is going to have to deal with.

MARGARET WARNER: You wanted to get in here, Ken Duberstein.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: I think this is also a defining moment for this generation of Americans. The same way that it was a defining moment for the Kennedy assassination of my generation and the Vietnam War or my parents’ of the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor. I think this is a unique moment in American history and I think George W. Bush elected as a domestic President can really shine on the international stage by leading this comprehensive but not indiscriminate strategy to rid the world of terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: Leon Panetta, a new country, how does the President govern a new country?

LEON PANETTA: Well, we are a different country as a result of what happened on September 11, because the reality is that no one even though we in the White House often talked about the threats of terrorism, no one anticipated that we would see what happened last Tuesday. So as a consequence, the United States understands that we face a very different kind of threat in the world. So our lives are changing as a result of that. Our economy is being impacted. We’re going to be involved in greater security efforts when we go on planes when we travel. This country is in effect going to have to be in a war footing in order to confront this new threat. But again, even though those changes are taking place, the fundamentals are the same. We are the same people and citizens and workers that we’ve always been in this country. We can reach down deep down inside all of us and into our families and find the inner strength that is so important to our country. My parents were immigrants from Italy. They came to this country believing deeply in the opportunity and freedom that is part of this country. All Americans believe deeply in the strength of this country. That is the strength that we will use to confront this new threat.

MARGARET WARNER: John Sununu, what is what the President has to tap into tonight?

JOHN SUNUNU: I do, I do think so. There is a difference but we should in the overestimate what this difference is. We as a nation have gone through periods of time where we had concerns in our country. Whether we liked it or not during the Cold War, we did have fears that there might be a nuclear exchange even as far back as World War II we had people who went through the exercises of preparing for air raids even though in reality, they may not have been very likely. And so this is a nation that is not going to concern for the first time but it certainly going through a focused concern for the first time in the memory of a lot of people. It has dealt with those kinds of issues in the past. It’s going to deal with it now, and the President just has to remind us that we have dealt with adversity. We can deal with adversity and we will deal with this adversity.

MARGARET WARNER: Hamilton Jordan, final thoughts from you?

HAMILTON JORDAN: Well, Margaret, at the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union that was always a discussion about how the world might be organized going forward between the haves and the have-nots, the North and the South. What about we organize along the simple principle that terrorism against citizens anywhere is unacceptable behavior. And that is what I think our great nation trying to do now and I think that is the great challenge and opportunity that faces our President. And I think the American people are with him.

MARGARET WARNER: All right thank you all four very much.