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Former Presidential Advisers Preview State of the Union

January 30, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, some state of the union thoughts. President Bush will deliver his tomorrow evening in the sixth State of the Union address he has delivered.

Ours come now from three seasoned presidential advisors. Thomas “Mack” McLarty was President Clinton’s chief of staff. Kenneth Duberstein was chief of staff for President Reagan. And David Gergen served as an advisor for Presidents Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Ford and Nixon.

Ken Duberstein, what do you expect the president to do tomorrow night?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Well, I think, you know, you have to look at a year ago when the wind really was at his back coming out of the Iraqi elections a year ago.

This year the wind is really in his face. His poll numbers have plummeted from where he was just a year ago, let alone at the election. I think he has to talk about reform and put on that old mantle of the reformer with results, even if it is his sixth State of the Union address.

I think he’s going to talk an awful lot about security, national security, personal security, education, energy security.

And I also think he has to really hit hard for the Republican base, deficit reduction and permanence to tax cuts.

But I think the key to the speech is the first ten to fifteen minutes. I’m reminded, Jim, of what Ronald Reagan used to say to me when I walked in and said, you know who is giving the Democratic response, and he would say to me, I don’t care because nobody is going to be watching by that time.

JIM LEHRER: They will all have turned off by then.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: But what he would say was they’ll watch me if I’m lucky for the first ten or 15 minutes. So everything I have to offer has to be in that top segment of the speech.

I think you’re going to will hear that the same way from George W. Bush tomorrow night.

JIM LEHRER: Mack McLarty what would you add or subtract?

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: First of all, we always worried that our president, President Clinton, might go more than the first ten minutes, and he did.

But generally, the audience stayed with him. And generally his remarks were well-received, his poll numbers went up. Jim, he’s got to strike a balance tomorrow night.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Ken Duberstein that he has a real problem; he’s got wind in his face?


JIM LEHRER: The Duberstein analogy here?

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: It a challenge for him. It is a challenge not only of wind in his face; he’s got to have real energy in this sixth year, this midterm of the second term. He’s got to restore some energy and leadership and some clarity about where he’s taking the country.

Over 60 percent of the country does not agree with the course that he’s on. But the real balance of any State of the Union, and I think it will be a particular challenge in this State of the Union, is domestic and foreign policy issues. How do you balance those two, how do you commune with the American people?

He will clearly have to talk about Iraq but he also has to talk about economic issues. I expect him to be very bullish, very optimistic about the economy.

JIM LEHRER: David Gergen, do you think he has to talk about Iraq?

DAVID GERGEN: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: What does he have to say, what does he have to say about Iraq; what’s his problem on Iraq that he has to address?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, it is so huge; it’s hard to know where to begin, Jim. The — it strikes me that he’s got trouble across much of the Islamic world now, not just in Iraq but in Iran and among the Palestinians. Your reports tonight I think just reinforced that.

And of course the injuries over the weekend of Bob Woodruff and his cameraman, Mr. Vogt, I think have underlined for Americans, in a very graphic way just on the eve of the State of the Union just how perilous it remains in Iraq. If anything, it may be more dangerous than a year ago.

So I think that in contrast to what he has been doing, it seems he has to be very realistic tomorrow night. It can’t be happy talk. This can’t be Pollyannaish about what is going on in the Islamic world; it has got to be very realistic about just how tough the challenges are going to be in the next few months and then rally people to say with him.

What he wants to do more than anything else, I think, in this state of the union is to, in effect, launch a public campaign to restore his presidency, to restore his authority because it ‘s been seeping away from him.

JIM LEHRER: What about the surveillance issue, David, does he have to talk about that?

DAVID GERGEN: I think he does. He’s been more successful on that in the last few weeks than one might have supposed only a month ago. The Democrats were on the offensive on that and they’re now backpedaling and they are not quite sure it is their issue.

But I do think he has to talk about it. There are these — several issues now that go to exercise of executive authority and whether the administration’s open responses say on the Katrina and releasing all the records of whether he is really going to release records with regard to be a Abramoff.

I think he has to show in this speech that he is a president who is hearing the concerns, that he’s not overly optimistic; that he’s not overconfident about where we are, not over-Pollyannaish but is hearing the concerns of Americans on a wide range of issues and is trying to provide realistic — yes confident — but realistic answers, and to try to begin rebuilding his presidency so that he can govern, and of course he wants to keep Congress in Republican hands this fall.

JIM LEHRER: Ken Duberstein, do you see it as that dire, that he has to rebuild his presidency and reestablish his authority as both Mack and David have suggested?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: No, I think what he has to do is talk about leadership — leadership of America and be optimistic about it.

I don’t think this is about rebuilding his presidency. I think this is talking about rebuilding American spirit to get things done. I think he has —

JIM LEHRER: You don’t share David’s Pollyanna problem?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: No, I don’t think Bush will be Pollyannaish, I’m not sure he will go to the other extreme and be down right negative. I think the answer is that he will try to cut it right in the middle.

Look, the theater tomorrow night is not the House of Representatives. It’s the American people. And what they need to do, what Bush needs to do is to talk directly to the American people.

You know, you get all the noise you want in the show time of the House chamber. But it really is reaching out and saying I know where I’m leading the country; I hope you’ll be with me; here are the reasons why, whether it’s the economics or Iraq or terrorism, here is the leader that you have chosen and I’m demonstrating to you the strength of my leadership and why it makes sense.

You then worry about or you then contrast that with the press going to the Democrats. And in light of everything they’ve put up recently and having Tim Kaine, the new governor of Virginia —

JIM LEHRER: He’s going to give the Democratic statement.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: His response, and I can hear Reagan again saying who cares, except he is speaking perhaps not for the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.

And so you have that contrast which I think really does help President Bush.

JIM LEHRER: Mack McLarty on this issue, you heard now, I think I’m just going to arbitrarily say that Duberstein is saying be upbeat. And David Gergen is saying tell, be realistic, be negative about some things. Where do you come down?

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: It’s a thin and narrow path. I came down exactly where I started. It’s got to be a balance. It’s got to be a balance; he does.

JIM LEHRER: But Presidents don’t talk about negatives in the State of the Union addresses, do they?

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: I do think though, Jim, particularly with Iraq and the war on terrorism, he’s got to be realistic. But by the same token, he has to be optimistic.

And I would say what Ken noted, he is speaking in communion with the American people but he also is talking to his base. Let’s bear in mind this kind of kicks off the political season as well.

And I would add one more aspect, particularly with Iraq; he’s talking to the world.


THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: So this has been —

JIM LEHRER: Iraq, Iran, you go down the list, Hamas, Middle East.

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: The axis evil commentary of a number of years ago, it resonates. So it’s a challenge for him. I think he will meet it at least to some degree.

JIM LEHRER: David Gergen, there was a piece in The Washington Post yesterday written by University of Texas Professor Lewis Gould in which he said, “It’s time to end the meaningless annual ritual of the State of the Union address. What began as a yearly survey of the nation’s condition has deteriorated into a frivolous moment of political theater, and continuous campaigning.” Do you agree?

DAVID GERGEN: Lewis Gould has written some excellent articles and books about the presidency. This one does not pass that test from my judgment. I — I thought it was a provocative piece. But, and on one point I would agree with him, and that is we need more serious discourse in American politics about what we confront as a people, say, on the environment or energy security.

We really — we don’t have in a lot of the speeches that pass as discourse, we don’t have the kind of seriousness of purpose that we saw say in some of the early States of the Union way back with Washington and Adams, or what Jefferson sent up in his written messages.

But even so, Jim, I think, you know, as Lincoln recognized, vaudeville is part of politics. And if we’re going to start canceling political speeches and events that have a little vaudeville in them, you know, television sets are going to go dark all over the country from now till kingdom come. We won’t have debates as you’re familiar with. We won’t have conventions. That’s part of the tradition of our country.

I think these States of the Union addresses serve a valuable purpose and have traditionally, and will continue. And I think President Bush’s address tomorrow night will serve a very valuable purpose in giving us an insight into the president’s thinking, his priorities, his blueprint for ahead.

And they do serve as both Mack and Ken I’m sure will attest, they serve a very valuable purpose inside an administration. They force people to sort out the priorities inside.

JIM LEHRER: They have to sit down and think, okay, now what is it we’re going to say here in 47 minutes —


JIM LEHRER: — and the process itself does that. You’re nodding, Mack McLarty.

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: No question. Of course, you get tremendous pressure, Jim, from all of the members of the cabinet who want their —

JIM LEHRER: Do my little thing here.

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: Big thing here.

JIM LEHRER: Big thing here, right.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Project the laundry list. I mean, for every cabinet officer they are always lobbying, first it starts out with a paragraph. By the end of it is a sentence with two words mentioning something in my department —

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: And then you hear from the Senate and House as well.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Right. But I think David’s point about the state of the union being fundamentally important is right on target. But I would note that there really aren’t any memorable phrases, at least in the last 50 years that have come out of a State of the Union address with the exception of the era of big government is gone — even though that’s not true.

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: I would take something —

JIM LEHRER: President Clinton said the era of big government is over. And you are saying it’s not?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Well, not yet. That was 1994.

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: I’d say we had a surplus.

JIM LEHRER: But both of you agree with David and disagree with Lewis Gould —



JIM LEHRER: — that these things do —

THOMAS “MACK” McLARTY: Serve a purpose.

JIM LEHRER: — serve a purpose?

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Absolutely. In fact, the one innovation of the Reagan years, the one thing that is remembered of the Reagan State of the Union addresses is the heroes’ gallery.

JIM LEHRER: And now it’s a regular part.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: And now it is all the speculation who’s going to be there, who is sitting next to the first lady.

It started with Lenny Skutnick, who jumped into the Potomac to save those people from —

JIM LEHRER: Not far from where we’re sitting right now.

KEN DUBERSTEIN: Absolutely. But even that, everybody starts focusing on it. And the media as well as the American people all start saying who is going to be up there; who’s going to prove the president’s points?

JIM LEHRER: Thank you all very much, we will see you on Wednesday night to see how well you did at forecasting what the president should do or will do. Thank you. See you then. Thank you.