August 1, 2000
RAY SUAREZ: And for those perspectives we turn to NewsHour regulars, presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss; to journalist and author Haynes Johnson; and they're joined this week by Kay James, a Bush delegate from Virginia and a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Well, the convention theme for tonight revolves around issues of national strength, national security, but America is basically at peace, and the Cold War is pretty much over. This is a pretty different circumstance from a lot of times this past century.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, no question. I mean, I was thinking about it. You think about McKinley being nominated for president in 1900. Britain was the major power in the world with colonies -- as Churchill said, the sun never set on the British empire. We had no standing military army, almost no good navy at that time.
Even in 1940, when Wilkie and Roosevelt are running against each other -- America only had 18th in military power. We had only 500,000 people in the army compared to ten million in Germany's army. In 1980, we only had two million people in the armed forces, twice that number Russia had, even though we were equal in nuclear destructive capability. Here we are at 2000. The American President, the most powerful person in the world, our economy, a dinosaur in the world. Our cultural influence is extraordinary. So the real question is, with this power to, what purpose shall it be put?
RAY SUAREZ: And that's -- nobody's answered that question in either party so far. That's one thing I don't think you're going to get an answer out of this convention either because they're not sure. They have more power than at any time in human history, a nation... a party that used to be isolationist and came to be internationalist. Its last five Presidents all were World War II veterans, starting with Eisenhower, Nixon... you go all the way through -- Ford, Reagan, Bush. All served in World War II, all had to deal with wars during presidencies and then now we're in this era where we have no Cold War, no nuclear threat that seems to challenge us at the moment. And we don't know what to do with the power, and we don't have any real clear, defined goals.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I think there's a little bit of a reason for that, too, one among many. That is, how were American Presidents from the mid-30's, Franklin Roosevelt all the way through George Bush, Sr., able to get essentially an isolationist country interested in spending a lot of money and lives of Americans in having a world role? And that was mainly by scaring them. Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1930's made the case, this is what your world will be like if it's run by Hitler and the Japanese, and the same thing happened with the Cold War Presidents.
Harry Truman in 1947 said he got Congress and the American people to oppose the Soviet Union by scaring hell out of everyone. It's a wonderful way of doing this, but the problem is, the moment the threat is gone, as the Soviet Union disappeared in 1991, then you've got the problem of later Presidents trying to get the public aroused.
KAY JAMES: Perhaps I've been spending too much of my time actually listening to and reading campaign materials, but it seems to me that what I'm hearing coming out of this particular convention and hopefully we'll hear in Los Angeles, as well, is what to do with that, and what I'm hearing this week is that even though we are at peace and we do have a great economy, there's still a lot to be done.
And what I heard last night was a focus on education. We should use some of that power to bring those children who have been left behind and give them the education that they need. What I'm hearing is that there's still a lot to be done about relieving tax burdens and those kinds of things. So whether we agree with it or not, I think the case is trying to be made for what should be done with that office and what George Bush says he wants to do with it if elected President of the United States.
RAY SUAREZ: But with American power, aren't the answers - they have to be more subtle, sometimes tougher to grasp - a Kosovo or a Rwanda - not an easy Cold War fit?
HAYNES JOHNSON: Take Kosovo. Here we have all this power - we wouldn't commit the Apache helicopters because we were afraid that one of them might get shot down and one American might die. The lesson of all the other Presidents - the war is dangerous - I could argue it's more dangerous today because of the fragmentation and the terrorism and the threat of nuclear weapons.
So there has to be some way the country deals with it, but we are afraid to commit forces up to the very end. Desert Storm ended in an inclusive basis - that's not - George Bush -as Michael said last night - had the highest popularity rate of any President in Desert Storm and then he was thrown out of office.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: The other big division I think you see both in history and in the Democrats and Republicans now is whether the United States is going to move, as the Republicans seem to be arguing, unilaterally, which means using their power to decide when they are going to commit forces, to what extent to, what exit, or whether as the Democratic administration seems to argue, we need some international cooperation.
It was the Democrats who wanted the League of Nations. It was the Democrats under FDR who wanted the United Nations and believed that the best power in the world is somehow shared and that we have to share obligations, pay those dues. I mean, that's going to be an interesting debate over time. It's not the quite old debate of isolationism versus interventionism, but it is a different focus that's also been floating around through history.
KAY JAMES: Wasn't it George Bush and Dick Cheney who sort of laid out the parameters when we went to the Persian Gulf, that, in fact, we needed to make sure that there were certain principles in place, things like, just as you said, which was a part of their principles, things like making sure that we did have the other national... the other nations involved in the decision-making process with us at the table, making sure that there was a clearly defined mission, making sure that we had an exit strategy. So I think, you know, with principles in place, you can begin to see how perhaps this President might want to use his power on the national level.
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: The world is always more complicated than that unfortunately.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think we lost something when President George Bush did not get a second term. And that is because he was deeply engaged in these issues. He was fascinated by them. And in a period after a Cold War or a struggle, that's when you need a leader who is absolutely energized by this and has the vision thing.
RAY SUAREZ: We will continue our conversations. Thank you all. Back to you, Jim.