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Bush Takes Break Amid TransitionAired December 26, 2000 - 5:00 p.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN ANCHOR: As the president-elect vacations in Florida, we'll recount the pre-inaugural work still on his desk.
Plus, the latest on the potential confirmation headaches for attorney general nominee John Ashcroft.
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BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's the day after Christmas, and all through the mall...
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MESERVE: Bruce Morton waxes poetic on American life after the election standoff.
ANNOUNCER: From Washington, this is INSIDE POLITICS, with Judy Woodruff and Bernard Shaw.
MESERVE: Thanks for joining us. I'm Jeanne Meserve, sitting in for Bernie and Judy today.
Like many Americans, George W. Bush is filling some of the time between Christmas and New Year's with some R&R in the sunshine. Unlike every other American, the president-elect still has an administration to put together: a task likely to encroach on his vacation -- at least to some degree.
CNN's John King is traveling with Bush as he takes a transition break in the state he fought so long and hard to win.
JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A little relaxation before the rush to inauguration -- in Florida, of all places. The president-elect was accompanied by his famous parents. Brother Jeb, who happens to be the governor here, was waiting on the links. Mr. Bush's golf game, it appears, is a work in progress. So is his Cabinet.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've still got work to do, and are going to do it. And we've made great progress up to now. I'm proud of how our team has really come together and done a great job in a short period of time. Everybody is heading back up there now to get in position. And I'll be up there in a couple of days.
KING: "Up there" is Washington. A late-week trip is in the works, more Cabinet picks planned, among them, GOP sources say, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, an anti-abortion conservative, to head the Department of Health and Human Services.
More interviews, too: Former Indiana Senator Dan Coats was the early favorite for defense secretary, but Mr. Bush wants to keep looking. Education secretary is another major post still unfilled, and a critical spot given the president-elect's campaign agenda.
MARSHALL WITTMAN, HUDSON INSTITUTE: So look for someone there who's a very strong advocate of education reform in general and vouchers in specific.
KING: The selection of Missouri Senator John Ashcroft for attorney general cheered conservatives, but the GOP right is still watching carefully.
WITTMAN: So far, Ashcroft has been the exception to the rule. He has been the only clear conservative who has been selected for the Cabinet. Conservatives brought Bush to the dance. Now they want to be rewarded.
KING: But it's a balancing act: Mr. Bush also wants at least one Democrat in the Cabinet. So Alaska Governor Tony Knowles is a prospect for Energy or interior secretary.
BUSH: I am obviously mindful of the fact that time's running short. But, as I say, we've done a very good job, I think, given the fact that over 30 days were taken out of the process.
KING: Missing from the picture was Laura Bush, back home in Austin because of a Christmas Day emergency appendectomy for 19-year- old daughter Jenna.
KING: Now, the governor has told reporters he hoped his wife and daughter could join him here in Florida soon. But, he said, if Jenna needs a little bit more time back in Austin to recuperate, perhaps she could clean her room as well. And on a more serious note, the numbers explain the sense of urgency now in the Bush camp. He is now at the halfway point.
Governor Bush has named seven of his 14 Cabinet members just 3 1/2 weeks left to Inauguration Day -- Jeanne.
MESERVE: And, John, when do we expect his next announcement on a Cabinet pick?
KING: We expect either Thursday or Friday in Washington, he will at least name Governor Thompson to be the HHS secretary -- some progress being made, we're told, in the search for an education secretary as well -- excuse me. The big question right now: Who will be defense secretary? Mr. Coats' star is fading. Former Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee is pushing the chairman of the Federal Express company, Fred Smith. Another candidate, we're told, is long- time veteran GOP hand, Donald Rumsfeld.
But Mr. Bush has told aides to look again. He wants somebody new in that post. It's still unclear, though, who it will be -- Jeanne.
MESERVE: John, Bush, of course, was looking at candidates for his Cabinet long before the election was settled. But is there fear now that time may negatively affect the process?
KING: They believe they will get the team announced before Inauguration Day, again, a little more than 3 1/2 weeks. One of the questions now: In a 50-50 Senate, how fast will the confirmation process unfold, especially in those first 17 days of the new Senate, when the Democrats nominally will be in charge?
Already negotiations: the Bush team turning to some veteran Republican lobbyists in Washington -- and a few Democrats as well -- to privately sound out the Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, as well as the Senate Republican leader Trent Lott, to try to ensure that those confirmation hearings will begin very quickly after the Bush inaugural.
MESERVE: And, John, I have to ask: Is it a coincidence that Governor Bush is vacationing in Florida?
KING: Well, his family likes to come here for fishing -- certainly a great irony given that the state of Florida prolonged the transition by 36 days during the recount battle. His brother is the governor here, of course. His father loves to fish here. Governor Bush, we haven't seen golfing much. We got a taste of that today: a very different style than the outgoing president, Mr. Clinton -- so certainly a great irony that he would come here for a two-day vacation.
He'll be in Washington, though, by the end of the week: back to the important business of building a Cabinet.
MESERVE: John King in Florida, thanks so much.
And, as John reported, conservatives still are cheering Bush's selection of John Ashcroft for attorney general. But from the left, certain groups are pledging to turn Ashcroft's confirmation hearings into a confrontation.
We have an update on that from CNN's Kelly Wallace.
SEN. JOHN ASHCROFT (R-MO), ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Janet and I are profoundly...
KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After his nomination Friday, outgoing Missouri Senator John Ashcroft worked the phones, reaching out to some Democratic colleagues before his confirmation hearings. The ranking Democrat on the committee considering his nomination promises a fair review, but says there are obvious questions to ask.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Will he enforce the laws that protect a Planned Parenthood clinic from fire bombers and others? Will he enforce the fair employment, the equal-rights laws, whether he supported them or not as a legislator?
WALLACE: Democrats plan to probe Ashcroft's opposition to gun control and his abortion and civil-rights record, in particular his role in defeating the nomination of Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White for a federal judgeship. But a Bush transition spokeswoman says it is 100 percent confident the Senate will confirm its soon-to-be former colleague. Not one Democrat, so far, has publicly said he or she will oppose the nomination.
SEN. JOHN BREAUX (D), LOUISIANA: Ashcroft is probably more conservative than over 90, 95 percent of his Senate colleagues. But I think he has a great deal of respect for his honesty and for his integrity.
WALLACE: Ashcroft's nomination to be the nation's top law enforcer has some Republicans urging the president-elect to add more abortion-rights supporters to his inner circle.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I think that it creates a more pressing need for balance with moderates in the Cabinet: some pro-life, pro-choice people to provide some diversity, to offset some of Senator Ashcroft's more conservative views.
WALLACE: In fact, on the day Mr. Bush stood with Ashcroft, he also touted New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman, a vocal supporter of abortion rights, as his choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. And while liberal groups concede it will be tough to defeat the social and religious conservative, they do plan a tough confirmation fight.
REV. JESSE JACKSON, RAINBOW/PUSH COALITION: It will be an uphill battle. After all, this is a president who did not win the majority of the vote.
WALLACE: The last time the Senate rejected a Cabinet choice was back in 1989, when then-President Bush nominated John Tower to be secretary of defense.
(on camera): Nobody expects a repeat of what happened to John Tower, but the nomination could really key Democratic groups already bitter after the Florida recount for future battles with the new president over other nominees and control of the Congress in 2002.
Kelly Wallace, CNN, Austin.
(END VIDEOTAPE) MESERVE: And now another example of the confirmation heat being generated by civil-rights figures: The reverend Al Sharpton promised today to fight Christie Whitman's nomination as EPA chief. His specific charge: that the New Jersey governor failed to combat racial profiling, the targeting of black motorists by state police.
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REV. AL SHARPTON, NATIONAL ACTION NETWORK: It is clearly beyond my understanding how president-elect George Bush can say he is reaching out to the African-American and minority community, and ignore the fact that he is appointing Governor Whitman, who arguably -- in my judgment -- has been the queen of racial profiling.
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MESERVE: Sharpton says if Whitman was not sensitive to racial profiling, she will not be sensitive to so-called environmental racism: when sewage plants and other unwanted facilities are placed in minority and poor neighborhoods.
And now let's talk more about Bush's nominees and the confirmation process with David Broder of the "Washington Post."
David, we just heard Kelly Wallace report that the big ruckus is likely to be over John Ashcroft's nomination to be attorney general. Ultimately, is there any doubt that he's going to be confirmed?
DAVID BRODER, "WASHINGTON POST": I don't think there is any significant doubt at all. But there will be senators, I expect, who will feel enough pressure from the liberal lobbies that they will cast votes against him. I have been told by people up there that they'd be surprised if there were more than 15 or 20 votes against Senator Ashcroft at this point.
MESERVE: Why are the liberal-advocacy groups putting up such a fuss at this point, then, if the outcome is all but certain? Is this a prelude to other battles that lie ahead?
BRODER: I think so. They want to make a record of what his positions have been in the past. And they want to also put the new president on notice that, if Attorney General Ashcroft sends President Bush the names of extremely conservative judges for appointment -- particularly to the appellate and Supreme Court level -- that there will be a major battle over those appointments.
I think this is a signaling battle, rather than an effort to defeat Senator Ashcroft.
MESERVE: The counterpoint to the Ashcroft nomination is the Christie Todd Whitman nomination to be head of the EPA. Do you expect they'll be much objection to her from either conservative groups, who object to her abortion stance, or from environmental groups?
BRODER: No, I don't think there will be much of a fight there. I think Mr. -- Reverend Sharpton is going to find himself with very few allies in that battle.
MESERVE: What about the Interior Department: no pick there made yet, but a sensitive issue potentially to environmentalists? Could that be a flash point in the confirmation process?
BRODER: I would think so. The likelihood, it seems to me, is that president-elect Bush will pick somebody for Interior who will give much more comfort to the mining, agriculture, extractive industries in the West, and to the people who are critical of federal land-management policies under the Clinton administration, as an offset to the environmental emphasis that Governor Whitman will bring to EPA.
If that's the case, then certainly the environmental groups outside Congress and their allies inside Congress will be at least raising some tough questions for that Interior appointee.
MESERVE: A big ideological divide in this country over the matter of education: And it's a priority for Governor Bush. Again, no pick there yet, but is it likely that that could be a controversial position?
BRODER: Whoever is nominated will certainly face questions in the confirmation hearings about his or her views on vouchers and where vouchers fit into the overall education strategy of the new administration. President Bush -- president-elect Bush -- was nominally for vouchers, but he certainly didn't put much emphasis on it during the campaign. And there will be some signaling to him not to go heavily on the voucher front from the liberal side of the Senate during those education secretary confirmation hearings.
MESERVE: Let's talk about the confirmation outlook for some of the people he has already chosen: Mel Martinez at HUD?
BRODER: Well, I think there are going to be a lot of questions asked of Mr. Martinez. He has a compelling personal story as a refugee from Castro Cuba. Not much is known to the Urban lobbies and groups about his record in Orlando at the county level. And I think there will be a lot of questions as to where he wants to take that department: whether he will continue to break down the concentrations of public housing, whether he will be in favor of an enlarged rent subsidy program.
Those questions are going to be asked of him, because not much is known about his record.
MESERVE: What about Paul O'Neill at Treasury?
BRODER: I wouldn't think there is going to be much opposition there. I know some of the conservative groups have raised the flag that he's not as much of a tax-cutter as they would like. But Paul O'Neill had a very fine reputation in Washington during his earlier service as the deputy director of the bureau of budget, at OMB. He was -- he is a broad-ranging man with real intellectual interests: interests in health care.
I think he will sail through his confirmation hearings and be confirmed overwhelmingly.
MESERVE: Overall, what is your assessment of the Cabinet Bush is assembling? Does it work?
BRODER: It looks to me like a pretty talented group of people. The interesting thing about it is that many of them seem to be chosen for their ability to handle the external politics of their departments and agencies, rather than the internal management. And I suspect we're going to see a lot of real management types come in at the undersecretary/deputy level.
MESERVE: David Broder of the "Washington Post," thanks so much.
And with just weeks left to go in his administration, President Clinton has been attending to some unfinished business. Does he still have time to solve the Mideast puzzle? That's coming up next.
MESERVE: Palestinian leaders met today, but they made no decision on whether they'll accept President Clinton's outline for a Mideast peace settlement -- more deliberations expected tomorrow.
As CNN White House correspondent Major Garrett reports, the Palestinians appear to hold the key to an agreement.
MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who sees a peace deal as a path to reelection, appears ready to jump at the latest U.S. proposal, providing the Palestinians do the same.
EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: We won't to be able to be isolated as the side or party who does not want to try to achieve peace. And we will be almost enforced to accept it.
GARRETT: As they did at Camp David, hopes for this latest peace gambit appear to ride on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
YASSER ARAFAT, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY CHAIRMAN (through translator): It needs deep examination. Some of the positions are much less than what was offered at Camp David.
GARRETT: The White House will not convene other summit, as it did last July at Camp David, unless it is sure a deal can be struck. Both sides are to report back to Mr. Clinton by Wednesday, or, if more time is needed, by week's end.
MUSTAFA BARGHOUTI, PALESTINIAN ACTIVIST: Palestinians have accepted a compromise. What Israel is trying to do is practically to compromise the compromise. And believe me, there can be no peace nor security for us or for them unless this occupation ends.
GARRETT: So the president waits. PHILLIP REEKER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We think there is a historic opportunity here. We're trying to take advantage of the time that is left in this administration.
GARRETT: Both sides are considering a U.S. proposal that includes a Palestinian state composed of 95 percent of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territory Israel won in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The proposal also calls for Palestinian sovereignty over the Temple Mount, a revered site for Jews and Muslims. The proposal also calls for return of tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees to a new Palestinian state, but not to Israel, as the Palestinians have long demanded.
GARRETT: When the Camp David talks failed, Mr. Clinton laid most of the blame at Mr. Arafat's feet. When violence erupted, the president conclude Mr. Arafat had not done all he could to stop the violence. Now it appears the president is pinning his hopes for peace once again on the Palestinians. Optimistic advisers are hard to find -- Jeanne.
MESERVE: Major, I understand you just completed some phone conversations with officials there. What do they think the prospects are for the coming week?
GARRETT: Well, a senior administration official, Jeanne, tells CNN that the president really hopes that tomorrow he will hear from both sides. There is a very strong expectation the president has that the Palestinians and the Israelis will tell him if they are willing to accept this framework that he's laid out, a framework that was developed Saturday at meetings here at the White House.
A senior administration official tells CNN that if, in fact, the Israelis and the Palestinians do accept that framework, it is the expectation here at the White House that Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat will then come to Washington separately, possibly as early as next week. But this administration official cautions all of us covering this story not to read too much into acceptance of this framework. The administration official says there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done.
And that framework really only establishes -- in his words -- the "foul lines" for the negotiations to occur within them. They have to establish a field that everyone agrees on before they can play ball, in this administration official's words -- Jeanne.
MESERVE: What exactly are the implications for all of this for the incoming Bush administration?
GARRETT: Well, they are many and they're profound, Jeanne. If, in fact, let's say, for example, the Israelis and Palestinians tomorrow inform the president that, yes, they accept the framework. And, in fact, Mr. Barak and Mr. Arafat come here and then begin some very hard negotiations that moves this process along at a rapid pace. This administration official tells CNN it would still take almost a miracle to establish a final deal before the president leaves office on January 20.
But if substantial progress is made by then, then a new president, President Bush would inherit a process very far along, that would only require a little bit of coaxing on his behalf to move the two parties to the finish line. If, however, the two sides do not accept this framework, this administration official tells CNN the White House really sees no prospect of reviving the talks, and that only violence will ensue, violence that the new president would have to inherit and deal with in all of its complexity -- Jeanne.
MESERVE: Major Garrett at the White House, thank you.
There is no doubt that the Bush administration will face a tough series of problems when it takes over, both on the world stage and domestically. And to succeed, Governor Bush will need to build up a great deal of popular support. Joining us now with more on the political challenge facing Bush is Ron Brownstein of the "Los Angeles Times."
Thanks so much for coming in today.
RON BROWNSTEIN, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Thank you, Jeanne.
MESERVE: During the campaign, we heard it over and over from Governor Bush: He was a uniter. He was a different kind of Republican. He was going to be a compassionate conservative. Did he succeed in persuading the critical swing voters that, in fact, that was his profile?
BROWNSTEIN: Not nearly as much as he hoped to do. And, in fact, Bush now faces the tension, the conflict of resolving an election that produced a very different coalition than he set out to build. He wanted, as you said, with his compassionate-conservative message, expand the Republican base. Instead, he won mostly by consolidating the Republican base.
If you look at it demographically or geographically, he won by bringing over conservative-leaning groups. Outside the South, he didn't really succeed at bringing over the swing voters in the Northern suburbs. So he's got this sort of classic dilemma: The people who elected him have some legitimate claims on him. It was the core of the Republican base. But if he pleases that base, it will be harder to go after those swing voters who resisted him the first time.
MESERVE: The election is over. The next one isn't for four years. Why does he need to bring those people over to his side now?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, ultimately, you have to convince them in office. And I think that what you are going to see is an attempt by the Democrats very early on to try to polarize -- particularly around some of the social issues that were sublimated in the campaign -- in a way that will drive some barriers between Bush -- or attempt to drive barriers between Bush and those voters.
The nomination of John Ashcroft, I think, as attorney general is likely to be a vehicle for this. Very few Democrats think they're going to defeat him. But if they can use it to highlight issues like abortion, in particular, ones that might make it tougher for Bush to bridge this gap, which remained even after the election...
MESERVE: Because those issues -- like abortion and gun control -- those are issues that are very important to some of those key swing groups, correct?
BROWNSTEIN: Yes -- and on both sides. Bush won because he got a very strong turnout and very high numbers among gun-owners, conservative Christians, rural voters. On the other hand, he didn't do nearly as well as he hoped among -- as we said -- those suburban voters, especially women, outside the South.
Now, these groups have antithetical views on almost all social issues. Can Bush remain true to that base that elected him, while also pursuing those voters? You know, in a campaign, it's a lot easier to glide over these differences than it is in governing. And the Ashcroft nomination and the hearings may be one venue where we see some of this play out.
MESERVE: So do you have any prescription for him? Is there some particular set of issues, for instance, that he should emphasize that might serve to bridge the divide?
BROWNSTEIN: Every successful political coalition in American history, to some degree, is incoherent. It has to be. The country is too big to have an ideologically unified majority. What you have to do are find the places where your coalition agrees. Now, clearly, for Bush, education has got to be at top of that list. Can he find a way to pursue education reform in a way that brings over some of those voters that are still going be cool to him on abortion, guns and questions like that?
The hard part will be keeping those issues down in as low a profile as they were in the campaign. Supreme Court nominations, gun- control issues, they are going to arise. And he is going to have to figure out how to play them.
MESERVE: Now, is he trying to play to the middle with an appointment like Christie Todd Whitman's? And does it work?
BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Well, I think, you know, clearly -- as I think David might have said before -- what you see in this Cabinet is very much a balancing act, both ideologically, geographically, demographically. But these sort of symbolic statements only go so far. I mean, ultimately, the policies are going to define how he is perceived by the electorate.
His father suffered quite a bit of erosion on the base on a series of steps that he made in office that alienated various conservative constituencies. Republicans felt that -- you know, some of the conservatives felt that was why he headed into '92 in a weak position. I think this -- W. Bush is going to be very reluctant to get into that position. And we saw that, even in the campaign, he didn't really want to go out too far from the base. And, again, how you can manage that? It's very similar to the problem that Clinton had when he was elected in '92 without doing what he set out to do. He set out to bring in the middle, won a 43-percent election, was dependent on the base -- caused him a lot of problem in that first term.
MESERVE: So the voting patterns are a problem for Bush. Are they also a problem for the Democrats when they look down the road?
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, absolutely. I mean, look, both sides are sort of so precariously balanced that neither one can move very far without endangering what they already have. If you look at this election, you saw a real stark polarity. The Republicans dominated rural America to a degree that they haven't in recent times. Bush won by 20 points among rural voters, and brought back all of the border states -- culturally conservative border states.
Democrats can't really let all of that go without trying to fight for it. But they are so dependent on these suburban voters now, it's hard to see how they make the moves toward the center on some of those cultural issues in a way that might bring back some of the rural voters who have moved toward the GOP. The suburbs are the battlefield. Democrats have urban America. Republicans now have rural America. The suburbs are split: outside the South, still lean slightly Democratic.
I still think the task is bigger for Bush to break into those places.
MESERVE: Ron Brownstein, thanks so much for your insight.
BROWNSTEIN: Thank you, Jeanne.
MESERVE: And there is much more ahead on INSIDE POLITICS. Up next: the latest grist for critics of Hillary Clinton, as the senator- elect prepares to begin her new job. Also ahead:
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WALLACE: As the future first couple packs up the governor's mansion, just what from Texas will they bring to Washington?
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MESERVE: Kelly Wallace on the Lone Star ambiance likely to pervade the Bush White House.
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MORTON (voice-over): Was it really just a couple of weeks ago that we were reading about how the system was in trouble and the country at risk?
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MESERVE: Post-election, post-Christmas reflections from our Bruce Morton.
MESERVE: We will have more of the day's political news coming up -- and now a look at some other top stories.
Seven people are dead in suburban Boston: the victims of a workplace-shooting rampage -- the suspected gunman: a fellow employee.
MESERVE: We will have more of the day's political news coming up, but now a look at some other top stories.
Seven people are dead in suburban Boston, the victims of a workplace shooting rampage. The suspected gunman: a fellow employee. The killings occurred this morning at the national headquarters of a firm called Edgewater Technologies. Law enforcement authorities say they were inundated with emergency calls around 11:00 a.m.
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JOHN MCEVOY, MIDDLESEX COUNTY CHIEF PROSECUTOR: Wakefield police responded and surrounded the building. They then entered the front lobby of the building, and they discovered an employee by the name of Michael McDermott, age 42. Mr. McDermott was heavily armed with an AK-47, a shotgun, and a semiautomatic handgun. The Wakefield police were able to subdue Mr. McDermott, wrestle him to the ground, placed him in custody and to disarm him.
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MESERVE: Authorities say the suspect, Michael McDermott, was hired by Edgewater in March, and worked as a software tester. And they say the shooting was work related. A fellow employee describes McDermott as "friendly" but "quirky." He faces arraignment tomorrow on seven counts of murder.
Parts of Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas are frozen solid today under a slippery sheet of ice. The storm has caused havoc on highways, with cars and trucks abandoned this morning along stretches of road in Arkansas. In Oklahoma, nonessential state employees were told to stay home today. And officials at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, said he gave an emergency day off to nonessential personnel there.
Coats of ice downed power lines, leaving tens of thousands of customers without electricity in northwest Texas. In addition to Arkansas and Oklahoma, the power outage extended into northeastern Louisiana. And for more on the ice and where it's headed, here is Karen Maginnis. Hi Karen. Arson is suspected and four teens are being questioned about a wildfire that Karen mentioned that spread through 600 acres near Thousand Oaks, California, west of Los Angeles, today. Flames, fanned by strong Santa Ana winds, creeped within 100 feet of some homes overnight. Firefighters began to get the upper hand as the wind and flames subsided near daybreak. They're watching, in case windy conditions return and stir up remaining hot spots.
At least 309 Christmas revelers are dead, after becoming trapped in a burning fourth-story nightclub last night in central China. The department store housing the disco had been declared a safety hazard. Emergency exits were reportedly blocked by boxes of merchandise or construction materials. Officials say the fire apparently began in a basement construction area. Most of those killed died of smoke inhalation.
When INSIDE POLITICS returns, a new cloud over Hillary Rodham Clinton. Plus: a new job for a woman who exceeded the spotlight to the first lady.
MESERVE: Representative Nita Lowey of New York reportedly is on tap to become the first woman to head the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Roll Call" reports House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt is expected to announce Lowey's appointment on January second. She would succeed Representative Patrick Kennedy, who is stepping aside after the DCCC made impressive fund-raising gains under his leadership. The appointment would boost Lowey's national profile, after she decided against seeking the Democratic Senate nomination eventually won by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Turning now to Senator-elect Clinton; it was disclosed today that the first lady toured four Washington area homes this weekend with her husband and daughter in tow, but not the media. The Clinton's made an offer of nearly $2 million on one home, but the owners told CNN they wanted more; so the Clinton's withdrew the offer. The Clintons' search for a pricey second home has drawn some fire from some critics, but others are more concerned about Mrs. Clinton's new $8 million book deal and the ethical questions it raises. Let's talk about that now with Michael Wolff of New York Magazine and Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Mr. Ruskin, let me start with you. You've written a letter to Senator-elect Clinton, I understand, recommending that she submit her book contract to the Senate Ethics Committee. Do you think it would pass muster with that committee?
GARY RUSKIN, CONGRESSIONAL ACCOUNTABILITY PROJECT: Well, it's hard to say. that's why we want the Senate Ethics Committee to review it, simply -- it's probably a conflict of interest for her to accept an $8 million advance, the largest book advance ever by an elected official in the history of the world, from Simon & Schuster, which is owned by Viacom, the second largest media conglomerate in the world.
What she ought to do is merely take book royalties from books actually sold and not take the book advance.
MESERVE: Well, her staff says there was an auction, and that set the fair market value for her book. Does that calm any of your concerns?
RUSKIN: It really doesn't. If her staff is so sure that this thing will pass muster with the Senate Ethics Committee, well, why don't they just merely submit it to the Senate Ethics Committee for review? But they haven't done that yet, and there's no -- it doesn't mesh with what they are saying, regarding the fact that they think that it does meet Senate ethics criteria.
MESERVE: Michael Wolff. let me ask you, do the voters of New York state care about this?
MICHAEL WOLFF, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE: No, I don't think they do at all, actually. Now, the question is whether the media will care about it. And, it's a wait-and-see. Right now, the media has not cared. That's, I think, partly because of the holidays. As I recall, it was certainly a couple of weeks before the Newt deal. The Newt book deal really started to -- a fire storm started to surround that deal. But it very well may turn into a fire storm over the next few days.
MESERVE: So a wait-and-see, sort of, stance at this point?
WOLFF: Yes, definitely.
MESERVE: Mr. Ruskin, back to you; is one of your concerns that Simon & Schuster, the publishing house here, is owned by Viacom, which has a lot of issues of substantial interest before the Congress?
RUSKIN: Absolutely. Simon and Schuster owned by Viacom, the second largest media conglomerate in the world. It has major holdings in radio, TV, book publishing, the Internet, video stores; it has a wide variety of interest before the Congress: things like regulation of media violence, media ownership, intellectual property and copyright issues, public interest duty of broadcasters, they have a major lobbying shop here in town.
Over the last five years, they've spent about $9.3 million lobbying the Congress. They're a major campaign donor; gave about $500,000 in the 2,000 election cycle. So there's no question that they tried very hard to influence both the Congress and...
WOLFF: If I can interrupt just a second, though. Isn't this a question of perception more than reality? I mean, I actually publish books myself with Simon & Schuster; I can't think of a mechanism in which, number one: anyone from Viacom has ever spoken to a Simon & Schuster author. I'm not even sure they know they own Simon and Schuster.
MESERVE: You are not a U.S. Senator either, are you?
WOLFF: Yes, but what would they say? I mean, a book contract calls for very precise things; you have to deliver a book. I'm not sure I can imagine the context in which they say, OK, we've given you this money, now you have to do this for us. MESERVE: Well, would they say that, Mr. Wolff? Can an industry simply curry favor with a Senator without saying anything explicit to them.
MESERVE: Mr. Ruskin, let's let Mr. Wolff respond.
WOLFF: Well, I can see the perception. It looks terrible. But, nevertheless, let's look at the reality. What can they do? At what point can they actually exert influence? And I can't see it.
RUSKIN: Mr. Wolff, senators are supposed to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing and the appearance of impropriety. And this book deal just simply does not pass that test.
WOLFF: Well, there is the appearance -- it looks bad, but just because something looks bad, does not mean it's the appearance of impropriety. It's just sort of bad taste -- is different from impropriety.
MESERVE: Well, is bad taste important to a politician?
WOLFF: Well, yes. I mean, I think it could very well mean that she is tone deaf; she has always been tone deaf. You know, it does seem, a little smarmy. I mean, $8 million is $8 million. But again, I assume, number one: she probably needs the $8 million. And number two: I would assume that she looked at this and made an analysis which was, I'm not really in a conflict position here. There is no point in which they can -- they have any kind of legitimate fulcrum on which to exert influence on me.
RUSKIN: I think you missed the point entirely, Mr. Wolff. Basically, book deals for a U.S. Senator have to meet usual and customary contractual term, And, an $8 million book advance, the largest one ever for a public official in the history of the world, simply is not usual or customary contractual issues.
WOLFF: Well, I don't know. I have spent a lot of time in the book business. I've been actually, a book publisher, and I could probably make the economic case that this book is worth $8 million. I can certainly make the case that Simon & Schuster -- it was in their economic interest not to lose this deal.
RUSKIN: Maybe so, and if so, then if you think she's going to make a lot of money off of it, well then she can make it off her royalties, which nobody has any disagreement with. The problem is, the $8 million advance, which may have nothing at all to do with the sale of the books.
WOLFF: Well, I understand that that would look better, but that's not the way the book business works. I mean, you don't -- you don't say, pay me on, essentially, on a per-book basis. It's just -- there haven't been deals like that. People don't do deals like that. And if you have ever seen book accounting, you would -- I would be cheated out of all of your money if you did a deal... MESERVE: Mr. Wolff, whether this conflict here is real or whether it's an illusion, is this something that's likely to dog Mrs. Clinton throughout her political career, simply because she is such a polarizing figure?
WOLFF: We don't know. This will either go down and go down badly over the next couple of weeks, or it will blow over.
MESERVE: Michael Wolff and Gary Ruskin; thank you both for joining us today.
RUSKIN: Thank you.
MESERVE: And we've heard a lot about George W. Bush's political style. But what about his personal style? We'll take a look when INSIDE POLITICS continues.
MESERVE: The president-elect is getting ready to move from Austin, Texas to Washington, D.C. But will he be able to take along his Texas lifestyle?
CNN White House correspondent Kelly Wallace takes a look.
WALLACE: As the future first couple packs up the governor's mansion, just what from Texas will they bring to Washington? Every president takes along his likes and dislikes. Lyndon Johnson brought along his favorite kind of Texas sausage. And the Bush's?
ALBERTA BROOKS, AUSTIN "AMERICAN-STATESMAN": I think mostly the Bush's will be shipping in their friends and lifestyle in that regard.
WALLACE: Like a certain other southern governor, Mr. Bush will bring lots of old friends from home, many from the days when he was a young oil man in midland; pals like Don Evans, the Commerce secretary nominee. But one thing the Bushes won't take from Austin to the White House: a need for nights out on the town.
PAUL BURKA, "TEXAS MONTHLY": The Bushes are homebodies.
WALLACE: So don't expect Laura Bush to plunge into the Washington social scene, as Nancy Reagan did after the Carters, another couple that liked to stay at home. But for a capital city that's gotten used to the current occupants of the White House being late, the Bushes are likely to make being on time fashionable again.
BURKA: In fact, Mrs. Bush once told me, we are Mr. and Mrs. prompt -- they're early to arrive. The president-elect does not believe it is good manners to come late to a party."
WALLACE: The incoming president is an avid baseball fan, so the former Texas Rangers owner may be spotted at Baltimore's Camden Yards from time to time. He may also be spotted jogging along the Washington Mall, like his predecessor in his first term. Most of all, observers say he and his wife will try to duplicate the laid-back, informality of their Texas life in the much more formal nation's capital.
BROOKS: This is Austin, that's Washington, D.C. I, quite frankly, am a little skeptical about whether or not they'll be able to pull that off.
WALLACE: So, in a little less than a month, Washington will say good-bye to a man known for his mastery of all things political, his passion for golf, and friends, including the Hollywood elite.
WALLACE (on-camera): Arriving will be a man known for showing his emotional side publicly, of simple tastes, with a soft spot for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a keen interest in batting averages.
Kelly Wallace, CNN, Austin.
MESERVE: Over the past week, have you spent a lot of time thinking about the presidential election or the Florida vote recount? If you've had other things on your mind, that's just fine with Bruce Morton. And he'll explain why when INSIDE POLITICS resumes.
MESERVE: During the height of the Florida vote dispute, some people predicted that a Constitutional crisis would hang over the holidays, menacing the merriment like the Grinch who tried to steal Christmas. The Grinch, of course, could not steal Christmas.
And, as CNN's Bruce Morton points out in his "Journal," neither could the election.
MORTON (voice-over): It's the day after Christmas, and all through the mall -- that's not how the poem goes, of course, but it is traditional; folks out looking for the post-Christmas sales, even bigger discounts than the pre-Christmas post-Christmas sales, or so they say, anyway. People looking for bargains, exchanging the gift from their Aunt Susie that they really couldn't stand, doing the usual stuff.
And football: the pros are getting ready for the playoffs, and the college teams are posing one of American life's most urgent questions -- not, how pregnant is this chad, but how many bowl games can you play during one short holiday week? We must be up to three digits for the number OF bowl games now, mustn't we?
Anyway, the usual stuff. What's happened, and it shouldn't surprise anyone, is that normality has broken out. Was it really just a couple of weeks ago that we were reading about how the system was in trouble, and the country at risk? And then the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, and it was over. Lots of people objected to the ruling; others objected to the way the votes had been counted, or not counted.
And fair enough, there was plenty to object to, and there will surely be proposals for making voting better in Florida and other states. But almost at once, most Americans, having applauded the process or criticized it said, OK, that's that, where do I line up to get a Playstation 2? -- or whatever. People took the court and the election seriously, but they also got on with their lives, and that shouldn't surprise us. They got on with their lives after Richard Nixon resigned as president a generation ago, and that was a much bigger flap than this one, and the football season hadn't even started.
So the country is going on about as usual. The incoming president is on vacation. Is that a portent of things to come? The outgoing president is house hunting. Well, he's new to that. He's lived in public housing a lot. And the country is shopping and watching football. And Chad? Small country in Africa, right? Just south of Libya?
Bruce Morton, CNN, Washington.
MESERVE: And that's all for this edition of INSIDE POLITICS. But, of course, you can go online all the time at CNN's allpolitics.com: AOL key word, CNN.
This programming note: tonight on "CROSSFIRE," the topic will be: How safe are cell phones? You can hear that question debated at 7:30 p.m. Eastern.
I'm Jeanne Meserve.
"SHOWBIZ TODAY" up next.
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