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Gerson and Capehart on Afghanistan, school mask mandates

Washington Post columnists Jonathan Capehart and Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week in politics, including the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the politicization of mask mandates in Florida’s schools, and around the country.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Americans watched this week as troubling scenes unfolded in Afghanistan and the Delta variant continued its deadly sweep across the country.

    Here to talk about the implications of this are Jonathan Capehart and Michael Gerson. That is Jonathan Capehart and Michael Gerson, both columnists — I had to repeat myself — both columnists for The Washington Post.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's very good to have both of you. David Brooks, we should say, is away.

    Welcome to you, Michael.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Thanks.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But, Jonathan, let me start with you.

    Afghanistan all over the news this week. We just keep watching these heartbreaking, disturbing pictures of people outside the Kabul Airport. We have now heard from the president several times this week. What do you make at this point of how the president and his team are handling this?

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    It seems as though the president and his team are trying to do a better job of explaining and also a better job of explaining and handling the situation in Kabul than they did in the opening hours of this.

    It is horrifying to see people so desperate that they would hang on to a roaring Air Force jet down the runway. The video I woke up to this morning of I guess it was a Marine pulling a baby out of the crowd and over the barbed wire, heart-wrenching.

    But I think what we saw on Monday with the president's speech, what we saw today in the East Room with the president's remarks and taking questions from the press is a president who is resolute in the decision that he made, the horrifying images and the news that we keep getting notwithstanding.

    And when I look at the president and listen to him, two things come to mind. One is, he is where the American — unfortunately, he is where the American public is and has been for years, which is, they have long wanted the United States out of Iraq, despite polling…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Out of Afghanistan.

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Out of — yes, thank you, Judy. Out of Afghanistan.

    So that's one.

    Two, when he speaks as — about this issue, most people look at him as a commander — the commander in chief. But when I look at him, I see a commander in chief who is the father of late service member. So this is not foreign to him. He has a child who went to war. And, as commander in chief, he has to send men and women, sons and daughters, into war.

    And the last point I will make on this, that's important, because only 1 percent of the U.S. population is involved in some way in the military. This is something that former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates used to hammer away at…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    … that we — more people need to be involved in defending this country.

    And so I put all of that out there as a way of trying to at least, in some way, put the president's — I call it resoluteness — I think a lot of other people might call it stubbornness — on this issue into some context.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    How do you piece together what you see this week?

  • Michael Gerson:

    Well, I was kind of collecting the historical analogies that people were using this week.

    And you had the Bay of Pigs by Leon Panetta, the former head of — White House chief of staff. I heard the fall of Saigon, obviously, Dunkirk, which would be a little better outcome. Also, from the British, the Suez crisis, in which Eisenhower really abandoned his allies.

    There's a deep feeling of abandonment. So, it's not a — when you have those examples, it's not a great week. And some of the attributes, the best things about who this president is, his empathy, his competence, his way with our allies, seemed inoperative at the first part of this week.

    In fact, I think that there's some damage done here to the president's reputation, basically because he was elected as a steady hand. The purpose was to be a contrast to the constant drama of the Trump years. These were people that are supposed to be a highly professional team, highly effective group of people.

    And when you squander something that's central to your public identity, I think that it hurts.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And no question what you're saying about the president.

    At the same time, Jonathan, as we heard from Sarah Chayes in her interview a few minutes ago with William Brangham, there's a lot more to this story. There's a lot of history here. We're going to be dissecting this for a long time.

    And yet we still have to explain to ourselves, how did it happen? How did it happen?

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    Right. How did it happen?

    Craig Whitlock, our colleague at The Washington Post, in 2009 wrote a story that's now a book called "The Afghanistan Papers," where he happened upon transcripts of a series of interviews that were done with service members with the — I think it was the Office of Inspector General, where they never — they weren't talking to a reporter.

    They were talking to colleagues, where they were perfectly blunt about the mismanagement, how horrible things were going, how the generals were saying one thing to the American public, a rosy picture, painting a rosy picture, and yet what was happening on the ground was the complete — was the complete opposite.

    What we're finding out today, The Wall Street Journal had a story about this cable that came from State Department employees in Kabul saying directly, in the dissent channel, hey, this is not going well. The situation is deteriorating.

    And the State Department spokesperson said, yes, the secretary of state saw it. He took it under advisement. He may have made comments on it.

    So the idea that they did not see this coming, I think to Michael's point…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes.

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    … really dings the president on the competence issue, on the experience issue.

    How could someone running for president on the record that Biden — that the president has, botch something like this so royally?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And picking up on that, Michael, I mean, Congress is going to be asking those questions, we think, as early as next week.

  • Michael Gerson:

    No, that's absolutely true. I think there are going to be a lot of questions about the how we got here, because this was a fiasco of planning. And there were unforeseen elements here.

    I would say one thing, though, having been in the White House in some moments like this, that I would like to maybe push back a little bit. It's hard. When you're in one of these moments — I saw in the interview with Stephanopoulos this week, where that…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    With the president.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Right — mentioned the example of the plane that you were talking about, the image.

    And the president's response was, that was four or five days ago. It was two days ago. But it feels like four or five when you're in that kind of environment.

    You have limited information, have to make real-time decisions. So I respect people that do this job as well. It's not — it's not hard — it's not easy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's going to be a lot of dissecting and questions asked and demanding of answers.

    I also want to turn to the story that we just saw John Yang reporting on, Jonathan. And that's this raging debate around the country about mask mandates. You have got the Delta variant out there. You have got parents worried, educators worried about teachers and students. You have got a number of governors, Republican governors, who are starting to impose mandates.

    But then you have got governors in Florida and Texas, Arizona, Republicans, saying no. And they're getting into fights with school boards.

    Explain the arguments here. I mean, who's got the right argument at this point?

    (LAUGHTER)

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    I think that's a leading question.

    (LAUGHTER)

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    Look, the Republican governors, Governor Abbott and Governor DeSantis in Florida, should be ashamed of themselves, what they are doing.

    They are playing with people's lives. They are playing politics with people's lives. When you have teachers saying, please let us make the decision, don't stop us from making — requiring children to wear masks, it's not a matter of just the children's health. It's the teachers' health as well. It's the health of the school community.

    And the idea that these governors are actually getting in the way, and the president not naming them, but saying, if you're not going to do the right thing, then at least get out of the way. And, instead, they are hurling themselves in the middle of this, playing politics. Maybe there's 2024 ambitions out there, but while they're playing politics with the lives of the people in their states and with children's lives, and it's outrageous.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you do have parents, as we heard in John Yang's report, Michael, who are resisting.

  • Michael Gerson:

    No, I think that's true.

    I mean, Republicans have a very difficult circumstance here. Basic public health measures, things like masking and this — vaccine requirements, these are not absurd or great violations of individual liberty — they're just the normal way that you oppose disease — have become deeply controversial in a significant portion of the Republican coalition.

    It's as though you have — an important part of your coalition is just saying, well, we think that trash collection is a socialist plot, and, therefore, we oppose it.

    It's a an extraordinary circumstance. These people are responding to very weak real social pressures, the Republican governors, or political pressures. They're making absolutely terrible decisions. But I think the Republican coalition has some serious issues here, when that's what your demand is, that it's treated like a culture war issue, when in fact it's a public health issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you do have Republican governors, Jonathan, like, what, Asa Hutchinson…

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    Right.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    … in Arkansas, who has changed his mind. I mean, he's openly said I should have done this sooner.

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    Right.

    And he's the only one really we can name, when it should be more than just Governor Hutchinson. It should be — President, former President Trump should come out there and say, get the vaccine, wear a mask. If you love me, I need you to hang around for whatever I might do, but at least to be a part of the solution, and not continue to be the problem, because one of the reasons why masks have become such an issue, vaccine — getting the vaccine has become such an issue, is because Donald Trump made it a political issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then you have members of Congress, Michael, who have made a big deal out of the fact they have been required in the House of Representatives to wear masks.

    And a number of them are saying: I won't do it.

    You now have senators, prominent — three prominent — well, they're all prominent.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All three — but three United States senators have — who have been vaccinated have come down with breakthrough infections.

  • Michael Gerson:

    I think some of it is a fundamental misunderstanding of what public health is.

    I mean, this is the kind of issue where we all succeed or fail together. You know, the goal here is the aggregate good. And talking about rights-based language in this context is really a misunderstanding of what the issue is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, it's hard to believe some of what we're seeing out there.

    Michael Gerson, Jonathan Capehart, thank you both.

  •  Jonathan Capehart:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Michael Gerson:

    Sure. Thank you.

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