March 19, 1999
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot discuss the President's press conference and the week's other political happenings.
JIM LEHRER: Now some Shields and Gigot analysis of the President's news conference and related matters. Mark Shields is a syndicated columnist; Paul Gigot is a Wall Street Journal columnist. Let's go through some of the major points that the President covered here, for instance, Kosovo. Did he make the case for air strikes against the Serbs, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: He made the case better than it's been made, Jim, but I thought that was the kind of speech that he began his press conference with that should have stood alone and separately; it should have been addressed to the American people, not at 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon before the -- before a press conference began -- quite frankly because there's been no public debate on it; there's been no debate on the Hill; there's been no debate in the country. And I don't think the President has made it. He made it in terms of massacre; he made it terms of the humanitarian aid sense, but by that premise, Jim, we could be everywhere in the world. By last count there were 45 wars, and I-- you know, I just hope it isn't where a CNN camera happens to turn up that determines where U.S. troops are committed.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Paul, how big a selling job does he have with the Congress and with the public on this?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think he can do, Jim, just because he's President whatever he wants for a time. The selling job he has to do in advance, I think, would help when things get rough. If you run into some heavy weather over there, and it looks like this time this is not a peacekeeping exercise -- what the House debated last week was sending 4,000 American troops to keep the peace, to sit on the border --
JIM LEHRER: That assumed there was going to be a peace treaty, and, of course, there wasn't.
PAUL GIGOT: Now, we're talking about a bombing campaign against a sovereign nation -- Serbia -- and against an adversary, who only a few years back was our partner in the Bosnian peace deal. And now he is an adversary we may have to bomb. Do we bomb the capital, or what about - what is our end game here? Are we going to try to depose him? Are we now at war with Serbia? None of that was really explained.
|The case for action in Kosovo.|
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Mark that it was a mistake to kind of tack it at the top of his news conference? Should he have done it in a more dramatic way from the Oval Office or something?
PAUL GIGOT: I was grateful just to have him do it, frankly, because, as Mark said, he hasn't done anything. And Senator Robert Byrd made that point today rather forcefully. He hasn't done anything at all. But he has to do it again and again.
JIM LEHRER: And Senator Warner was on our program last night, he said the Senate is going to start debating this on Monday. Mark, what about China and the nuclear secrets issue, what did you think of his answers to those questions? There were series of questions. We showed some of them.
MARK SHIELDS: Right.
JIM LEHRER: They had to with the nuclear issue. They also had to do with whether or not this should change our relationship with China. He also got into the human rights thing. What did you think about all that?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I guess depending upon which one you begin with, Helen Thomas's question earlier, the UPI veteran White House reporter, asked him quite frankly about how long the Chinese have been stealing our nuclear secrets. I mean, that was a pretty blunt and direct way of confronting the President on this issue. And I thought the President got better on the subject as it went along. I thought toward the end, when he got the question about China's - from Carl Cannon -
JIM LEHRER: The National Journal?
MARK SHIELDS: National Journal -- who asked him the very tough question about a billion people in China with no human rights, no political rights, no rights of redress and so forth. I thought the President made -- that was sort of the Bill Clinton of the seminar. I mean you could see he thought at three different levels, the political level, sort of the historic level, the global level. It was really quite an impressive answer. But then of course the blockbuster at the end from Fox News saying that they have information, the last question of the press conference, next to last, that they have information about the Chinese actually during -- on the Clinton watch, pilfering weapons.
JIM LEHRER: And of course the President said, hey, wait a minute. I don't know. I haven't been told about that.
PAUL GIGOT: And maybe that's true. I mean, but this -- it just goes to show you -- it does suggest that this is an ongoing story that's going to roll out. I wanted to send for Mark a little better answer to Carl Cannon - I thought in that answer he started well but he lapsed into what I thought is going to hand his enemies or his opponents on this issue some ammunition. And that is when he compared the debate going on in China to the debate going on here it suggested a kind of moral equivalence that I think that a lot of his critics are going to say that's exactly the problem, Mr. President. If you're talking about China, you're talking about a dictatorial regime and you've got to be more forceful with them and you've got to make the case that they aren't just like us. We're trying to get them there, but they aren't just like us.
JIM LEHRER: What about his basic point, which has always been there, that look there are limits to what we can do in terms of influencing the way the Chinese choose to govern themselves.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, that's absolutely correct, and I -- broadly speaking, I support the President's China policy much more than I think Mark does. My problem with --
MARK SHIELDS: A lot more.
PAUL GIGOT: -- has always been that he -- that he lets you down so often when you go to bat for him, and he lets you down in terms of Taiwan. He undercuts them as an independent country, and this moral equivalence argument is a perfect example of that.
|Will she run?|
JIM LEHRER: Okay. Paul, on Mrs. Clinton, he said he didn't have a clue about whether or not she's going to run for the United States Senate from New York. Do you have a clue?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, if he doesn't have a clue, his sources are better than mine. What's fascinating to me about this is how much due diligence she is doing. All the phone calls she's making, all the people she's talk talking to -- she's relying on Harold Ickes, who is the Democratic -
JIM LEHRER: Former Deputy White House chief of staff.
PAUL GIGOT: Yes, and a lawyer with extensive maybe the best ties among the Democratic Party in New York, particularly the labor movement. She's looking into it.
JIM LEHRER: Were you interested, Mark, when the President said, hey, look, when this thing first came up, the First Lady was very complimented by it and all that but didn't take it very seriously, and now she's beginning to take it seriously. What's your reading of that and his answer on that?
MARK SHIELDS: I think she is more than beginning. She has begun. She is taking it seriously.
JIM LEHRER: So you do have a clue?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Well, from my own reporting, I'd say that she's very close to running. And one of the things that she's trying to resolve is how do you do I do have it as First Lady? How do you do -- do you postpone the entry of the race? I mean they've reached that point of discussion politically, so that's a tactical decision on how you do that. I just did want to say, Paul, I didn't get the moral equivalency, I mean, come -- argument on the China question from the President. And I have been quite critical. Quite frankly in 1992 - see, this is becoming sort of routine in American politics; the party out of power is critical of the party in power on China. And that's the way Al Gore and Bill Clinton did it in 1992. Then they come back in and they immediately get very close to the Chinese. And now you're kicking on the Republicans. The Republican candidates are lining up and they're being very critical of getting too close to the Chinese. And of course when they come in, there's a fear that they may revert to form.
|A question loyalty.|
JIM LEHRER: What about toward the end, it was the last question, but it was not literally the last question of the news conference, the thing about where he was asked about lying. He was also -- earlier he was asked about loyalty as it related to the Stephanopoulos and Dick Morris books. What did you think about all that?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean I think that these are questions, I mean, that indicated it's been a year and a lot has happened since he's had a press conference like this. And they've stored up, they're waiting to plunge forth and I think these were questions that people have had over this 12-month period. Where what do see your legacy as, Mr. President? What about the lying? How do you answer to the children? I thought his answer on the loyalty, on the Stephanopoulos and Morris books was his best, I thought he handled that well in the sense of I haven't been grateful enough and expressed my appreciation to those who have been loyal in the White House, in the Cabinet.
JIM LEHRER: Unlike Stephanopoulos and Morris?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, and that was a nice way of handling it. Then he denied, which is somehow obligatory -- you have to deny you've ever read anything about the book or seen it anywhere. I mean, you know, this is for some reason, public figures feel compelled to say this.
JIM LEHRER: Paul?
PAUL GIGOT: It's completely unbelievable, frankly. I mean this is a President who's preoccupied with these kinds of things. He takes slights like this personally. You've got to believe that he's reading what George Stephanopoulos is saying. I don't think there's any question about it that. I thought what was odd was the fact that there was sequestered off, the impeachment, anything having to do with this last year it was as if it was somebody else's presidency. I'm not going to take that on. And I'm not sure -- certainly it makes it easier. You don't have to get into the some of the details, but I'm not so sure that it was a good idea in this sense, because the questions about foreign policy are in a sense questions about impeachment because they're questions about credibility. They're not just questions about Kosovo and China; they're questions about do we believe you, Mr. President? And why should we believe you? And particularly when it comes to China and -
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark? First of all, this news conference went on for an hour. We weren't able to run everything, but he -- well, we did run the Juanita Broaddrick thing where he said, I've already denied that -- or my lawyer did and I'm not going to say anything more about that. He was asked another question, which we didn't have, which is "Do you have any reflections on the impeachment thing now that it's over," and all of that, and each time he said, "No, I don't really have anything to say about it. I'm going to go be President, next question."
MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think that's the construct that they've established and he's just putting that behind him and he's not going to answer. I mean he referred to his own attorney, of course who wasn't present at the alleged incident with Juanita Broaddrick and his only source on it presumably is the President. He quoted the person to whom he had spoken. But that was -- which I thought was kind of an intriguing ploy. But I think, Jim, the questions do belie a certain suspicion on the part of the press -- not totally on undeserved -- about what is the -- how are we supposed to believe your word on this? How do we know that the U.S. word is good? How do we know that we're going to go to power? What is the threshold for committing U.S. troops? And I think that, quite frankly, while he made the case in a humanitarian sense for action in Kosovo, I didn't think that was -
JIM LEHRER: So you agree with Paul, there's some connection there. Generally, what kind of marks would you give him? I mean, it's the first time he's had a news conference in 11 months, and a lot of water's gone under a lot of bridges. How would you rate what he did?
PAUL GIGOT: Well, it was his first step out of a kind of internal exile. I'd say that he got passing marks. I think the White House itself will be pleased that most of the questions were on foreign policy and away from impeachment. They were lucky that the press was as respectful as it was.
MARK SHIELDS: Of all sad words of tongue and pen, these are the saddest it might have been. This is a man of enormous gifts, of enormous talent. I sat there with a melancholy feeling what that presidency could have been. I mean, his mastery of detail, his ability to present it I think has not been equaled since John Kennedy, who didn't face as hostile a press. And to see that presidency mired and where it's mired in its twilight years, it's kind of sad.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. All right, don't go away.