Shields and Brooks on Government Scandals, Remembering Watergate

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talks with Judy Woodruff about the recent scandals rocking Washington and the Obama administration, what we can observe about how the government operates and how the trust of the American people is affected, plus the legacy of Watergate 40 years on.

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    And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    So, gentlemen, it's only been one week, but it's been three giant headaches for the Obama administration, for the president.

    David, let's take them one by one. The IRS, this hearing today, two completely different points of view on what happened. Whom are we to believe?


    Well, I think we just don't know.

    One of the things we don't know is who all instigated this. Was there lobbying from Capitol Hill on instigating this? Second, who knew it when? In the Treasury Department, did they know it? Did anybody in the White House know it? How up in the IRS did they know it? Did they give maybe not completely false testimony, but non-forthcoming testimony?

    And then the final thing, which we may know a little more about after today and after the report, is, was it political thuggery or was it obliviousness? And I think the evidence on the latter issue is probably, it was a little more toward oblivious. You had a group of technocrats who had become so abstracted and so removed from political reality, it didn't — it wasn't blindingly obvious to them that, if you target tea party groups, that is going to look a lot like political thuggery.

    And it looks like that was more the explanation, rather than they ideologically went after these anti-tax groups.


    Mark, a little more like obliviousness than something deliberately political targeting?


    As of now, I would say that, Judy.

    If the words, instead of tea party and 9/12, were, in fact, "choice," "reproductive freedom," "peace," "feminist," and they were scrutinizing those, I think you would hear a cry, an understandable outcry from those on the left-hand side of the political equation.

    And this plays right in to this whole story, plays right into the Republican wheelhouse, that — what the conservatives have long argued, that the government is too big, the government is too intrusive, the government cannot be trusted, the government can even be evil.

    And I think that represents the greatest threat to this administration right now. And I think that's what the administration has failed to get on top of so far.


    What do you mean failed to get on top of?


    Well, I think — I just compare the president's passive approach. He was detached at the outset. He did grow more active and involved as the week went on. He learned about this in the news reports last Friday, even though we found out …


    From the inspector general.


    The inspector general — that two weeks earlier that the White House counsel had had at least an outline of a report on the very thing.

    What we're looking for, quite honestly, is a president who steps up and says, "This is on my watch. This is my responsibility," not unlike what President Kennedy did at the time of the Bay of Pigs, when he said simply that defeat is an orphan and victory has a hundred fathers.

    It was good politics and it's good policy to take that kind of leadership and that responsibility. I think he should have appointed an independent counsel. And I think — because, Judy, when confidence is government is eroded, it hurts not simply government. It hurts not only the country. It hurts the Democratic Party, which believes that government is an instrument of social justice and economic progress.


    So, David, how much is it the president's responsibility? Because people keep looking for direct connection with the White House, and there's a question so far about where that is or what that is.



    Well, I think Mark makes the right distinction. This is not so far about the White House. It's not about the political fortunes of President Obama. It's not even about the political fortunes of Attorney General Eric Holder, these three scandals. It is about government and trust in government.

    And I think it's more a management issue, a management values issue. President Obama can't control the millions of people who work for the government. But leaders of agencies can say, listen, we're in government to do good, but we have to understand that power corrupts and those of us who go into government tend to like to control other people. We tend to like to run other people's lives. And we have to be extremely restrained about how we use our power. And we have to be extremely sensitive that we're going to not be disinterested in the use of that power.

    And so there has to be a culture of self-restraint. And I don't think there was a culture of self-restraint at the IRS. I certainly don't think there was a culture of self-restraint at the Department of Justice, where they went hog wild with this investigation into the Associated Press.

    And so I think it's more — as Mark says, it's about government and how government operates. And if government's going to act in an unrestrained fashion that doesn't discipline itself, then people are going to turn off from it. And that's the core threat here.


    So you're saying that — it sounds like that two of you are saying, Mark, you can't really separate these three problems for the administration. They have all kind of come together to represent one symbolic failure.


    No, I think they're easily distinct.

    I think Benghazi is essentially over. I mean, I think Benghazi was trumped up. There are those who want this to be some great conspiracy. I think that has been basically — I would be surprised if Benghazi is still being discussed, other than by Darrell Issa's committee in the House, as tries to …


    Because the White House issued all the hundreds of e-mails.


    Yes, issued it, and I just think — I think that there's no there there. There really isn't.

    I think that — I think David's absolutely right about the Associated Press and the overreach of the Justice Department, the failure to consult, the failure to have a conversation, the failure to even approach, 20 phones, home phones, cell phones, chilling effect on — anybody who wants to be a whistle-blower, who's got information of wrongdoing is going to think twice, three times whether, in fact, they're going to be visited by somebody from the Justice Department and the FBI.

    But I think the IRS goes to the very trust. It's the health care act. That's — it's the central agency in collecting all the information on the Affordable Care Act when it comes into force. And if there's no confidence there in its integrity and its competence, that's a real problem for this country, let alone for the administration.


    So, David, you agree this spills over into just about everything else, including health care and everything else the government does?


    Oh, absolutely.

    You know, if you go through the 20th century and if you ask people, do you trust government to do the right thing most of the time, typically, the numbers would be about 70 percent we're trusting government to do the right thing. In the last 10 years, maybe it's 19 percent, 25 percent, somewhere down there.

    And that fundamental shift in the country, distrust of government, changes politics in all sorts of ways. To me, one of the — it explains why the health care law remains unpopular, because people don't trust government to do something complicated for them. And this is a cynical country about government right now, and this plays into that and underlines that and will reinforce that.

    And to be fair, the tea party people and a lot of Republicans have been saying they have been targeting us, they have been targeting us, and nobody's believed them. But it turns out, for whatever motivation, they were more or less right.

    And if I could make one point about Benghazi, where — I agree with Mark about the talking points of Benghazi. I think that's a non-scandal. Basically, it was a turf war between the CIA and the State Department, and the CIA began to walk back some of their allegations.

    I still think there's a Benghazi issue on why we didn't send support troops when Ambassador Stevens and others were in trouble. That early issue, when no action was taken that possibly could have averted some oft catastrophe, I think that part remains an issue.


    No, I think that's a legitimate area of inquiry.

    But I think the real problem, Judy, that faces — Judy, the federal government, if you're going to make a case for it, it abolished slavery in this country. It ended segregation. It built the land grant colleges that have produced more Nobel Prize winners than all the universities of Europe combined. It saved the Great Lakes. It took 99 percent of the lead out of the air.

    That's — that's what you — it took want and terror out of old age through Social Security. There's a case to be made for government. And when government — confidence in government and its integrity and its competence is undermined, and I — and I just think it's up to the president to rise to its defense and to say, anybody who does this and threatens that positive confidence — I will just add one thing to David's point.

    And that is, we're going to see Jim and Robin coming up on the piece on Watergate. That's really — Watergate and Vietnam is when confidence in government, which had been 75 percent, 80 percent that I trust government to do what is right most or all of the time, that's when it really started to slide. And, sadly, it's never come back.


    Yes. And I was going to ask the two of you about that.

    But just so that I understand, so, the two of you are saying, even if it turns out, which is what Mr. Miller at the IRS was arguing today, that this was — this was foolish mistakes on the part of civil servants, you're saying that it could do this much damage?


    I think it's up to the president to restore that confidence, to make sure that doesn't happen.


    And you're saying he hasn't done that?


    I don't think — I think he's started to act, but I don't think he's stepped up and said, this is on my watch, I'm going to get answers, and I take responsibility.


    David, how much has the president been harmed? How much has his agenda been harmed by this?


    What agenda would that be?

    I do think he has a problem where there's a vacuum. He tried to get in front of it today by talking about speeding up some infrastructure projects, but that's really not much of an agenda. I think the scandals are occupying so much space because the agenda, such as it is, is really down to immigration, and that's being handled on Capitol Hill.

    So there's not that much of an agenda, in part because of this distrust of government. And if I could say one thing about the obliviousness of the IRS, this is not a small matter. Governments get really dangerous when the people in governments lose the human context in which they are acting, when they reduce everything to abstract bureaucratic categories, which I think is what actually happened in the IRS.

    That's when governments begin to overstep. And on Mark's point about the good and the bad of government, the way I would put it is that government is like fire. If you can marshal it, it's tremendously useful, but if it's out of control, it can be tremendously harmful.

    And so I would hope the president would remind people of the two-edged sword of government, that it can do us wonderful good, but if unrestrained, it can do us incredible tyranny.


    And, Mark, as you said, we are going to go from this to a retrospective from Jim Lehrer, Robin MacNeil on how this program came together. They covered the Watergate hearings back in the early 1970s, 40 years ago.

    What are the lessons for you of Watergate? I mean, a connection to what's going on this week, but in a larger sense, the — you know, the sense that that was the scandal of all scandals.


    Yes. I mean, if we're going to compare it, I mean, we're talking about the Boston massacre vs. double parking, I mean, this week.

    This is not a — I have heard this compared, this president — in fact, Sen. Inhofe talked about impeachment of the president, which is just beyond ludicrous, because there's nothing that rises to any even criminal or negative effect here.

    I would say this, Judy, that the trust and confidence in the federal government began to end and erode and diminish when that happened. We had a president resign. We had 25 of his closest friends and allies and colleagues go to jail. And it was just — it was a shock for this country's system, from which it's never really recovered.

    We're still to a great degree running against Washington because of Vietnam and Watergate, to a great degree.


    David, what about Watergate?


    Yes. I have a perverse relationship to Watergate, because it made me interested in politics. It was those hearings, watching those hearings on TV that really lit the fire for me that this was really important, that what happened in Washington tremendously important, for good and evil, a test of character and a test of virtue.

    And it should be pointed out that, in Watergate, we saw acts of cowardice. We also saw some incredible acts of courage from some of the people chasing it down and reacting with integrity. To me, the aftershocks have been negative mostly, in part, as Mark described, with loss of trust in government, in part the rise of a scandal culture.

    Watergate really was a scandal, but we now have a lot of people who try to use scandal to settle policy differences by other means, who take mini-scandals and try to use them to got some policy edge or a political edge. And I actually think we as a country have become over-addicted to scandal as a way to destroy other people.

    And that was in the Supreme Court hearings, and that's in a lot of the scandals. So, I think it's bred a politics of cynicism which kind of reverberates, without the actual substance of a major act of corruption.


    Just one thing to add, Judy.

    And that is the three patriots who went to the president, President Nixon, and told him he had to leave happen to be Republicans, Barry Goldwater of Arizona, John Rhodes, the Republican House leader, and Hugh Scott, the Republican Senate leader. It was a different time.


    Well, this is the time we are in now.

    And we thank you both, Mark Shields, David Brooks.