August 27, 1999
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Weekly Standard writer Matthew Rees discuss the Waco standoff investigation and Election 2000.
MARGARET WARNER: For our end-of-the week political analysis, we turn to syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and the Weekly Standard's Matthew Rees, sitting in tonight for Paul Gigot.
Mark, yesterday Attorney General Reno went before the cameras and said she reversed six years of denials. She said the FBI, she had been told, had used incendiary flame-causing devices on the final day of the Waco standoff. What do you think is going to be the fallout from this?
|An antigovernment sentiment?|
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the fallout, Margaret, reinforces and validates cynicism - it widens alienation from the federal government. It was a Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who said at the end of the century that the government is us, you and I. Boy, that spirit is certainly not obtaining in the land. And you almost get the feeling that, you know, the black helicopter crowd may have something. You know, paranoids who, at the fringes, recruiting for militias are going to have a field day as a consequence of this.
MARGARET WARNER: Because Waco really was a major event in fueling this antigovernment sentiment, wasn't it?
MATTHEW REES: Oh, yeah, it certainly was. And I think that this will confirm a lot of their suspicions. And I think there are two ways of looking at this. There is that this was an innocent mistake and that she was simply duped by her subordinates and then the more cynical interpretation that she has created an environment in the Justice Department where these sorts of evasions happen on a regular basis. And you've seen that certainly in some of the campaign finance investigations, in the Wen Ho Lee matter. And she has, as she herself acknowledged yesterday, a real credibility problem.
MARK SHIELDS: Yeah. I think that the irony of this, of course, is that Waco made Janet Reno and it made her indispensable as a cabinet officer. After leadership that was missing in action in the case of the President at that time, of his predecessors, where we hadn't traded arms for hostages, where I'm out of the loop, mistakes were made. She was that rare official in Washington who came and said "I'm responsible." She made herself an icon at that point. Bill Clinton would have been more than happy to get rid of Janet Reno in 1996 but he couldn't as a consequence of Waco.
MARGARET WARNER: But she has said that she was consistently told there were no incendiary devices. I mean, she thought to ask this.
MATTHEW REES: Right.
|Finding more answers|
MARGARET WARNER: So, what does it say about the FBI and its credibility, and what do you think is going to happen on that score?
MATTHEW REES: Well, it certainly doesn't lend too much credibility to the FBI if they could deny and deny and deny for six years this and then only have it come out under the threat of litigation. Presumably some heads are going to roll at the FBI. As we know, there has always been a bit of tension between Janet Reno and Louis Freeh. He has been more hard-line on the campaign finance investigation. I don't think he's going to -- he's not in jeopardy. Some lower level people are. But I think ultimately the responsibility, as Janet Reno said, the buck stops here and she has made it look like almost a Keystone Cop situation in which you repeatedly find that she is having to reverse herself and backtrack when new information is uncovered.
MARK SHIELDS: What is not satisfactory is an investigation of the FBI by the FBI or the Justice Department. I mean, Lloyd Bentsen was Secretary of the Treasury in 1993 after the aborted raid by the AFT - the Alcohol Firearms and Tobacco group - in February which set up the 51-day siege which led to the confrontation.
MARGARET WARNER: Where the FBI took charge, their hostage rescue team.
MARK SHIELDS: Took over. Exactly. And after that mishap, Bentsen appointed a tough outside committee led by Ed Guthman, a former Justice Department official. They came back and heads did roll, and they came with some credibility. To restore the credibility of the FBI and the Justice Department, you are going to need, I think, a blue ribbon commission with powers and with independence and integrity deep.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, we've had the predictable - I would say predictable sort of calls for Senate and House hearings. But is that going to lead anywhere, or is there sort of a feeling that this administration is on its last year plus in office?
MATTHEW REES: I mean, I think Mark's idea is better that normally you do get more with sometimes these independent investigations. Yes, the Congress, both the House and the Senate leaders have said that they want to investigate. They've investigated this before and none of this information was uncovered. But it is bad. It's serious when something like this, and when the attorney general for six years is saying something and then she has to reverse herself. At what point you wonder what else has been covered up and at what point are we going to learn the truth?
|McCain on abortion|
MARGARET WARNER: Let's switch to the campaign trail. John McCain... Senator John McCain made a comment about abortion actually a week ago that has generated all kinds of controversy in the... among the conservative press, in Republican ranks. Why the uproar, Matt?
MATTHEW REES: Well, he did was in San Francisco and he had just given a speech. In response to a question from a local reporter about abortion and Roe v. Wade, he said that he didn't support overturning or appealing Roe v. Wade; that he thought it would be a mistake to do so, that it would lead women into dangerous and illegal operations. That then provoked a firestorm of controversy from groups like the National Right-To-Life Committee, which has sparred with Senator McCain on other issues. And they said this is a mistake. And then they were quite forthright in criticizing him. He then did what all good politicians do when they are confronted with that situation and he backtracked. And now his position actually is that he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned or repealed. And the irony in this is that he actually is now to the right, somewhat to the right of George W. Bush, who has refused to answer questions on this matter of whether he would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned.
MARGARET WARNER: Because in the past, Mark, no one has ever questioned that John McCain is against abortion, though he has never been a strong advocate or forefront.
MARK SHIELDS: It's not a profile issue for him, Margaret, but for 17 years in the House and Senate, he has had a consistent pro-life record. But Matt hedged on something that is the subtext of this whole week. And that is the National Right-To-Life Committee, which I think is fair to say is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Campaign Committee at this point on the issue of campaign finance. They are all out in their opposition to John McCain and Russ Feingold's effort to limit their power, their soft money, their ability to run television spots that attack or criticize candidates for their positions on abortion. And John McCain is on their hit list. There is no doubt about it. In spite of his 17 years, I mean of...
MARGARET WARNER: This is a convenient opportunity...
|An uncomfortable issue|
SHIELDS: A great opportunity. The people asked was McCain being cute here?
John McCain doesn't have a lot to sell against George W. Bush, who has
an enormous lead and deep pockets. What he has to sell is character, candor
and courage. And what you don't want to compromise is character, candor
and courage. So this was a mistake of competence on his part and I think
MARGARET WARNER: But now none -- I shouldn't say none, but many of the Republican candidates for President are also - some soft pedaling the abortion issue. This is a little new, isn't it, Matt?
MATTHEW REES: It is.
MARGARET WARNER: This early in a Republican primary contest?
MATTHEW REES: Four years ago when Steve Forbes tried to put forward this more incremental position, he was actually quite strongly criticized by a number of antiabortion groups and conservatives, whereas, this year you have had George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole and others acknowledge that we're not going to be passing, say, a constitutional amendment to ban abortion immediately. And we have to take a more incremental stance and perhaps address things like partial birth abortions. So there has been a recognition, I think, even by the National Right-To-Life Committee, that the incremental position is the more popular one. And the question now is how much distrust is there between the conservative elements in the party and John McCain. Some people think that this was a tactical decision and maybe a way for him to send a signal to pro-choice elements within the party that, well, I may be pro-life, this is not something I'm going to crusade on and you can trust me.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you explain, Mark, that even people like Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition or Paul Weyrich, another great leader in the Christian conservative movement. They're also basically soft pedaling the issue and saying let's just do it step by step.
MARK SHIELDS: Two things. I think first of all Bill Clinton, after eight years of Bill Clinton, there is a desire and urgency to win on the part of Republicans. And this is seen as a divisive issue. A number of Republican pollsters and analysts - Bill McInturf and Linda DiVall, have pointed out that abortion and that constitutional amendment and we're right and everybody else is wrong attitude sends a metaphor for intolerance from the Republican Party. That's been a problem.
MARGARET WARNER: Alienates all the independent voters.
MARK SHIELDS: In the sense that maybe Republicans are not as tolerant as Democrats. Now, the irony, of course, is that those who are commentators and columnists who are calling for a big tent for the Republicans to bring in pro-choice was never say the same thing to Democrats never say they should bring in pro-life Democrats. That's an exception, of course. We acknowledge a little hypocrisy now and then. But I think the keys is that among Republicans, there is a division in the party. The people who do the hard work, the people who go door-to-do, the foot soldiers of the Republican Party are pro-life overwhelmingly. They care deeply. The people who go to the kind of events that John McCain was speaking at or every Republican candidate goes to raise money and to get white papers written and everything else, those are the ones who are pro-choice. You have a real chasm within the Republican Party socially, economically and in this sense culturally. And so Republicans are a little skittish - candidates are -- about alienating either side. They need the money but most of all they also need the vote and the work.
MATTHEW REES: One of John McCain's advisors said to me that this is an issue on which he is not real comfortable talking about, which is why he got in trouble. He doesn't understand all of the nuances of the issue.
MARGARET WARNER: And so he did what all politicians do in such a situation, which is say what I meant to say was?
MATTHEW REES: Right, right.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Thanks, Mark and Matt, thanks very much.