Full Episode: January 14, 2011

Jan. 14, 2011 AT 8 p.m. EST

After the tragedy in Tucson, the panel looks back at the impact of the events in Arizona and Barack Obama as Healer in Chief. Also, the latest on the investigation of Jared Loughner and a profile of Gabrielle Giffords. Gwen is joined by Dan Balz of the Washington Post, Janet Hook of the Wall Street Journal, Pete Williams of NBC News, and Charles Babington of the Associated Press.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

MS. IFILL: It was a time for accusation, finger pointing, and in the end, introspection. How an Arizona shooting rampage may have shifted the national debate, tonight, on “Washington Week.”

COL. BILL BADGER: It was just one fire shot right after the other. Just bang, bang, bang, bang.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It’s just an absolutely a profane act. It’s shocking. It’s been surreal.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We didn’t feel like we would be picking out caskets at 9-years-old.

MS. IFILL: Moments of chaos in a supermarket parking lot morph into a week of debate, self-analysis, and mourning.

SPEAKER JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH): Our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Words are inadequate at a time like this. But nonetheless I hope that it is a comfort.

MS. IFILL: As a member of Congress fights for survival, her colleagues debate gun rights, security, the cost of incivility, and the cost of laying blame.

GOV. SARAH PALIN: Journalists and pundits should not manufacture a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence that they purport to condemn.

MS. IFILL: As a president seizes the moment –

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it. I want America to be as good as she imagined it.

MS. IFILL: We examine the event, the investigation, and what it means for the national political discourse with the reporters covering the week: Dan Balz of the “Washington Post,” Charles Babington of the Associated Press, Janet Hook of the “Wall Street Journal,” and Pete Williams of NBC news.

ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week” with Gwen Ifill produced in association with “National Journal.”

(Station announcements.)

ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL: Good evening. Seldom does a single event manage to leave its imprint on such a broad swath of the public debate. But the tragic shooting in Tucson plunged the nation and its elected leaders into a week of soul-searching that touched on the law, the limits of dispute, the protections offered by the Second Amendment, and heartbreakingly human stories of life, death, and the thin line that separates the two. As so often happens in these cases of focused national attention and grief, it fell to the president of the United States to weave those themes together.

PRES. OBAMA: Rather than pointing fingers or assigning blame, let’s use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways that our hopes and dreams are bound together.

MS. IFILL: President Obama’s appeal to the moral imagination won praise across the political spectrum. In an opinion piece posted today in the “Washington Post,” Arizona Republican Senator John McCain called it a terrific speech. “We are Americans and fellow human beings,” he wrote. “And that shared distinction is so much more important than the disputes that invigorate our noisy, rough-and-tumble political culture. That is what I heard the president say on Wednesday evening,” he said. “I commend him and thank him for it.”

So, Dan, with statements like that and statements from John McCain, who of course was very quiet all week, does this mean we’ve reached this moment of national comity?

MR. BALZ: Well, Gwen, I would put it a different way. I think that Tucson has caused the whole country, individually and collectively to kind of hit the pause button. When something like this happens, I think it’s natural for people to look at a lot of different aspects – the role of guns in society, how we treat people with mental illnesses. And certainly this week, one aspect of that has been how we conduct political discourse that we use in our democracy.

I think people are hopeful that this will bring some change, but I think we have to keep it in perspective. After 9/11 – 9/11 changed “everything” quote, unquote. And for a time, there was a great period of national unity. That quickly gave way to deep partisan polarization and I think we have to be prepared for some of that to re-emerge. The differences in this country politically are very deep and they’re very heartfelt, and sometimes they get expressed in ways that are over the top. And I think we’re at that moment where everybody individually is going to kind of say, well, how can I do what I normally do, but do it in a little softer volume? But I think the jury’s out as to whether there’s going to be any real permanent change as a result of this.

MS. IFILL: Janet, it felt like on the Hill, they were reaching for the right tone trying to figure out how do you continue with the seriously held disagreements you have with the other party and yet express grief for a colleague, concern for oneself, a lot of things were going on.

MS. HOOK: Yes, it was in Congress that they really hit the pause button. The Republicans had planned this week to be the first week of the new Republican majority in the House, and they were going to have their cornerstone vote on Wednesday to repeal President Obama’s health care bill. And they suspended the regular business, put that off until next week and they had one day of debate, debate on a resolution honoring the victims of the tragedy and Gabby Giffords. And it was actually a really unusual debate. It was like six hours scheduled and dozens and dozens, hundreds of members spoke and it was so unlike a typical House debate in that it was – it was very heartfelt. It kind of reminded you that Congress is in addition to being a legislative body, a community. A lot of people know Gabby Giffords and expressed their connections to it.

I think the bigger challenge isn’t what they did this week, it’s what they do next week. And I’m skeptical that it’ll have too much lasting impact on the nature of the debate, say, over the health care bill because that is deeply felt policy difference that – you can express your opposition in terms that are more civil than what happened in the campaign or when congressional offices were being vandalized, or some member of Congress had his electricity cut off after he voted for the bill.

So we’ll see next week. I don’t expect the political dynamics to change, but at least for one week maybe we’ll see a softer tone.

MS. IFILL: We’ve heard both Speaker John Boehner and President Obama, Chuck, use exactly the same verbiage, which was we can disagree without being disagreeable and then disagreeability usually ensues. Is that a word? So what do we see happening here? Do we see disagreement becoming respectful again, or do we just lapse back into where we were?

MR. BABINGTON: If I had to guess, Gwen, I would say we’re going to lapse back and that’s partly based on history. Dan mentioned 9/11, same thing after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Within that same year, we had such an impasse between the parties that the government shut down.

One thing that’s happening is that Congress and especially the House, is just becoming more and more partisan. And years ago, you had conservatives in the Democratic Party from the South; you had some liberals and definitely moderates in the Republican Party, mainly from the Northeast. Almost all those people have been defeated now. The realignment of the parties is virtually complete. And just last election, you had 60-some Democrats lose their seats, the great majority of those were the so-called “blue dog” Democrats, moderates.

So now you have a Democratic caucus – it’s a smaller of course, but it’s also more liberal. It’s more solidly liberal. And the Republican caucus is very conservative. And for those reasons, you have the systemic reasons that are making it harder and harder for this comity to take place.

MS. IFILL: Let’s go to the site of the tragedy, which is what happened on the ground in Tucson. Now, we turn to the investigation. We turn to figuring out the why. The president alluded to this the other night, which is one of the things we’re always asking about is why. Are we any closer tonight to knowing the answer, Pete?

MR. WILLIAMS: I think some. I’m not sure we’ll ever know an answer that will be satisfactory. It seems that as this young man’s life was spiraling downward, the person on whom he had fixated his hatred of government was becoming more powerful and more successful. Gabrielle Giffords had become a big deal in Arizona politics, a rising star of the Democratic party, had just been reelected in a very visible, noisy campaign. And this man, Jared Loughner, who’s accused of the shooting, had been rejected by the United States Army. He had been thrown out of college – he actually dropped out when the college said he couldn’t come back unless he could prove that he was mentally stable enough to be not a danger to his teachers and fellow students, and at the same time his apparent mental disease was getting worse. So those were the two forces at work.

Now, he had met her in 2007. She’d had one of these “Congress on the Corner” events in Tucson, at another shopping center. He asked her a question about what is government if words have no meaning. And of courts, the question is Delphic. Who knows what it meant? She had a difficult time answering it, and he immediately told all her friends, well, she’s a fraud. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. So it’s apparent that he became fixated on her, and you put all this together and you have this witches’ brew of forces in his life.

MS. IFILL: But as was asserted, I call it the Dupnik effect, the Clarence Dupnik effect, the sheriff of Pima County, who came out and said, see, this is what happens when you have this kind of toxic conversation that’s going on around the country. And for at least 48-72 hours, people were trying to make the link between Jared Loughner and anybody who had had a tough campaign, chief among them – Sarah Palin. By the end of the week or by midweek, it became clear there wasn’t really a connection.

MR. WILLIAMS: Let me just say one thing about that. We still don’t know all the forces that were at work on him. And one of the things that’s still pending – we know a huge amount about what he was doing. The sheriff’s office has accounted for virtually every minute in the 48 hours leading up to this. We know when he bought his gun. We know there were notes in his safe in which he talked about “my assassination,” “I planned ahead.” We still don’t know about what’s on his computer, what emails he was having, what other influences there might have been brought to bear, but I will say that so far we haven’t seen any indication of what you’re just talking about.

MS. IFILL: But it’s certainly – that certainly roiled the debate.

MR. BALZ: Terribly. Literally within an hour or two after the shootings, that debate was beginning to take place. And it cranked up at enormous volume and with very deep bitterness. Sarah Palin was literally under attack on her Facebook page, threat levels to her escalated to the point that her people began to talk to security –

MR. WILLIAMS: Because of that ad

MS. IFILL: Well, because she’d run – she’d put up on her website these targets.

MR. BALZ: – right. She had –

MS. IFILL: It targeted Gabrielle Giffords’ district.

MR. BABINGTON: And also Gabrielle Giffords did a TV interview with MSNBC less than a year ago, in which she talked about that site, mentioned Sarah Palin by name, and said that she worried about the consequences of these kinds of actions. Now, granted, there seems to be no connection. As far as we know, Loughner maybe didn’t even know about Sarah Palin or certainly that ad, but once you have a member of Congress talk in front of a TV camera about “I worry about consequences of this kind of things,” and low and behold she gets shot in the head, then you’re going to have to address that issue. And it’s somewhat complicated. You’ve got to then explain to the reader or the listener there doesn’t seem to be a connection between these two things.

MS. IFILL: But the second part of that didn’t happen for a couple days.

MR. BABINGTON: Well, I think – in fairness, I do think in the mainstream media, I think most of responsible media out did lay this out as clearly as they could. There were a number of more partisan groups that jumped on it. And I think that’s all become kind of a –

MR. BALZ: Which is part of a reflection of the political environment in which we operate, that mainstream media is one thing, but it’s only a piece of the entirety of the conversation that goes on in politics today. And some people try to be responsible and some people feel they are responsible, but they do it in a different way. And we saw all of that – it all just crystallized in those couple of days right –

MS. IFILL: Yes, who among us have not used kind of targeting terminology to describe politics or to describe almost anything? But the question still becomes at this point, at the end of a long week of debate in which we went eight steps forward, three steps back – Sarah Palin pushed back pretty aggressively against the notion that she was culpable, and then the president and John McCain both talked about this in far more calm ways. Do we lose sight of what part of the danger is here, which is that members of Congress do this? There are 435 members of them, most of them without extreme security, who leave their jobs in the weekends and when they can get home is to go meet with constituents?

MS. HOOK: Right. And I think that’s part of why for Congress this was not a kind of totally random act of violence that they could just look calmly at and say, gee, that’s too bad. It was basically Gabby Giffords doing what they do all the time, which is telling their constituents exactly where they’re going to be or when they’re going to be there and showing up with an armed guard kind of defeats the purpose. So – but that’s life as a member of Congress. You can’t – they’re not about to retreat from doing that because they feel like that’s part of their job.

MS. IFILL: It’s actually life as a public official, and any kind of public official. Eric Holder, the Justice Department, the attorney general, who you cover, Pete, had this to say about that very issue this week.

MR. ERIC HOLDER: Without question, threats against public officials, whatever form they take, continue to be cause for concern and vigilance, but I do not believe that these threats are as strong as the forces working for tolerance and for peace.

MS. IFILL: So what does the Justice Department – what do federal officials do with these threats, with what we presume to be threats we don’t even know about?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I think you’re seeing two things happening. One is you’re seeing members of Congress go to the capital police and the FBI and do an inventory of people they think might be a threat to the member of Congress, who’s been stalking them, who’s been sending them threatening letters? They take this more seriously now. And we’ve seen in the last couple of days, FBI agents actually going out and talking to people and saying, “I just want to make sure that this is not a problem.” But in terms of the retail protection of members of Congress, you have 535 members going home, doing four, five events a day. So do the math. It is not possible for FBI agents to go out with them. And the sergeant at arms of the House said today that if he had been told in advance what Gabrielle Giffords had planned to do, where she was going to do it, what the even was, what the topics were going to be, he would have said, well, you might want to just call the police department and maybe they send a cruiser by to be in the parking lot. Would that have made any difference? Who knows?

MS. IFILL: Who knows? One of the interesting things about this, and this happens every single time you go to these national paroxysms, is that the president’s role in Tucson was kind of critical. We’ve seen when we were just as anticipatory when President Clinton went to Oklahoma City after the bombing, we were taken a little bit by surprise when President George W. Bush went to 9/11 and picked up that bullhorn and talked. But – and Ronald Reagan. Every President seems to have this moment, where all eyes turn to him and they say, please, heal us or speak to us. How did President Obama rise to that occasion?

MR. BALZ: It is interesting that the role of mourner-in-chief, if you will, is now part of the contemporary job description of the president.

MS. IFILL: Was not always?

MR. BALZ: It was not always. You can go back to Lincoln at Gettysburg as a moment in which the president did that, but we never thought of it so much. And I think in some ways, it was Reagan after the Challenger disaster that kind of began that and people began to look to presidents to do that.

I thought this was an important moment for President Obama. He was able to deliver what in essence was a political message to the country, which was to let us step back, let us cool, let us seek our better angels. But he did it in a way that was basically shorn of partisanship, I thought, and I think that’s one of the reasons that he has gotten praise across the political spectrum for what he was able to do. He used the tragedy and particularly the victims, and in particular the nine-year-old, Christina Taylor Green, to say let us live up to what she believed this country was and could be, and I think that that was effective.

I think the other thing to say about him is that – it’s been written a lot since the speech that this echoed themes of his 2008 campaign, and in a way this was the kind of setting where that message, which is very much part of President Obama, not the totality of President Obama but part of President Obama, is able to come forth. That seemed to come straight from his soul.

MS. IFILL: I was taken by how the difference between that kind of discussion and the discussion which inevitably we have in Washington about what to do about these things, which this week wasn’t so much about gun rights and gun control as you would think it would be, even though there is a debate going on about it, and certainly not about mental health care, as you would think it would be. Is there any movement that’s going to come as a result of this on any of those issues that you’ve seen signs of, Janet?

MS. HOOK: I don’t think so. The politics and the legislative gridlock on gun issues is pretty firmly in place. This episode, though, kind of raised proposals that were a little more targeted that you would think might gain some traction, like how about limiting those ammunition clips that allow you to shoot so many bullets so quickly?

Actually, one of the more moving speeches on president House floor came from Carolyn McCarthy, who’s a congressman from New York, who was elected after her husband had been assassinated – not assassinated, he wasn’t a public official – he was shot to death on a commuter train in New York, and she came to Congress as a big gun control advocate. But it was interesting when she went to the House floor; she spoke about the very personal aspect of the tragedy instead of advocating for gun control. I was very struck by that.

MR. WILLIAMS: The bill that she’ll introduce on Tuesday would revive in a sort of more concentrated way a provision that was actual federal law for 10 years, during the period of the so-called assault weapons ban, from 1994 to 2004. And it would outlaw the sale of what they call high capacity magazines – magazines are the thing that you slide into the gun that holds the bullets.

MS. IFILL: That he was about to reload when he was stopped.

MR. WILLIAMS: That’s the argument here. That when he was subdued, when the people tackled him, it was when he was changing magazines. He walked in with 30-plus rounds in that Glock-19 pistol. And it was when he was reloading that he was stopped. And what the advocates are saying is if he had a smaller magazine, he would have been able to fire fewer shots. But I think you’re absolutely right. The politics just don’t seem that that’s going to happen.

MS. IFILL: And mental health care, no discussion about that really, or does talking about almost give the alleged shooter a defense – an insanity defense?

MR. BALZ: Well, it’s so hard to know what are the solutions to that problem. There were so many yellow lights if not red lights about him, and yet he was still able to buy a handgun, a powerful gun. He was never really treated for mental illness in a serious way. And so society in this instance broke down because collectively and individually, people just weren’t able to do –

MS. IFILL: I feel like we had this conversation right after Virginia Tech, where there was this breakdown –

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, there was a difference there because in Virginia Tech, Cho, the young man who fired the bullets, actually had tripped the wires that should have gotten him in the federal database. Here the purchase was entirely legal. He had never, in the words of the federal law, been adjudicated a mental defect.

MS. IFILL: So next week or a couple of weeks from now, we’re going to have the State of the Union speech. And there’s at least one freshman senator who’s suggesting that as a sign of our new ability to talk to one another, everybody sit together, and not that standing up on one side, standing up on the other side, stuff that greets that president. And nobody seems to be pushing back very much on that. Is it going to happen?

MR. BABINGTON: That’s Mark Udall from Colorado. It’s an idea pushed by this group called The Third Way. And obviously it’s mostly symbolic, but right off the bat, Gwen, as you said, the leaders of Congress, with the exception of Steny Hoyer, the minority whip, were very cool to this idea. A few individuals in both parties said it sounds like a good idea. And again, it just shows the difficulty of partisanship.

We had in this last election, in some Republican primaries, certainly Utah with Bob Bennett, Alaska with Lisa Murkowski – she pulled it out with a write-in campaign – but they got bounced off the Republican ticket in the primary process largely because they were seen as not rigid enough, as too willing to talk or cooperate with Democrats. When conservative Republicans from the House see that, what lesson are they going to take? I think some of them are going to be very leery, as silly as it sounds – I’m not sure some of them want to be seen sitting next to the other.

MR. BALZ: But I also think that even before the shootings, the new speaker, John Boehner, had attempted to set a more civil tone for the House of Representatives and clearly in the wake of the election losses, President Obama had gone back more to “let us work together, let us try to come together.” So there were some seeds planted before Tucson by two important leaders that in the wake of Tucson could give us more time speaking coolly.

MS. HOOK: And I actually think you will see some members sitting on the other side of the aisle during the State of the Union if only because, there is no seating plan. People haven’t been sitting, Democrats and Republicans – they can sit anywhere they want.

MS. IFILL: And if you’re Joe Lieberman or Lisa Murkowski, why not?

MS. HOOK: Right. It’s an easy way to show bipartisanship.

MS. IFILL: Okay.

MS. HOOK: There are some members who will get credit back home, not blame, for sitting next to somebody in the other party.

MS. IFILL: Something else to watch for at the State of the Union. Thank you all very much for this. It’s been kind of a tough week. We hope we helped you make sense of it all. The conversation ends here, but it continues on line with our “Washington week” Webcast Extra. Check it out. Keep track of daily developments on the PBS “NewsHour,” and we’ll see you right here next week on “Washington week.” Good night.


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