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CNN CROSSFIRE

Carville Forgives Lott; Blix to Give Assessment of Iraq Declaration to Security Council

Aired December 18, 2002 - 19:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE: On the left: James Carville and Paul Begala. On the right: Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson. In the CROSSFIRE tonight: he's still fighting.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MINORITY LEADER: I am hanging in there. We are going to work through this in a positive way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: And look who he's convinced. James Carville steps into the CROSSFIRE to tell us why. But what about the White House?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president does not think Senator Lott needs to resign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Plus, what every politician needs to know about damage control.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP -- FEBRUARY 1998)

BILL CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ANNOUNCER: Advice from this Clinton administration veteran.

Tonight on CROSSFIRE.

From the George Washington University: Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

(APPLAUSE)

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Tonight, Trent Lott vows to stay and fight. You may have trouble believing who has decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. We'll tell you in just a minute. Also, lessons in damage control from a man who knows political damage. But first, the CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

Tomorrow, weapons inspectors will give the UN Security Council their analysis of Iraq's accounting of its programs to build weapons of mass destruction. And as soon as that happens, the US will deliver its own verdict on the thousands of the documents Iraq turned offer to the Bush administration. The administration is ready to say Iraq is falling short in their full and complete accounting, and Saddam Hussein has missed his last chance to disarm.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, while not going quite that far, signaled the US position this afternoon. He told reporters Iraq's declaration has gaps and omissions, all of which, says Mr. Powell, is troublesome. Senior administration officials say there is no effort to push for an immediate military confrontation with Iraq, but White House spokesman Ari Fleischer adds, "I assure you this president does not bluff."

And the Iraqis have known that, Paul. And Bush's critics, who said he was marching head long into war unilaterally, I think have to admit that that's not true.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: I do. You're right. People like me bang on Bush, when first he said he wasn't going to go to the Congress, he then did. We then criticized him because he said he wasn't going to go to the UN, or his aides did, and then he did.

And so I do have now an investment in a process that I support that says try inspections. If the inspections fail, if it turns out Iraq is lying and the inspections fail and it is a material breach, then we have to build the allies and go in and do what we had to do.

CARLSON: And that's exactly what the president had to do, was to get America itself invested in the process. And I'm glad he did it.

BEGALA: All right. But in this process that was insisted upon by Democrats and resisted by Republicans.

CARLSON: Yeah, I noticed that, Paul. It must have been a different country. I guess I wasn't there.

BEGALA: Well, another day, another revelation of another Trent Lott comment. Turns out that, on least three occasions -- three, mind you -- the Mississippi Republican and incoming Senate majority leader has said he wishes Strom Thurmond had been elected president instead of Harry Truman. The latest example came at a bill signing ceremony just two years ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LOTT: Now this is the famous signature right here. Yeah. He should have been president in 1947, I think it was.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BEGALA: Yeah. As if that weren't enough, Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island became the first Republican senator to call on Lott to step down as majority leader today. Lott's defenders point out that his comments, all three of them, were taken out of context. The context being that Lott also said America would have been better if George Wallace and David Duke had also been elected president. Well, not really, but...

CARLSON: No, not really. You'll notice on that tape that Trent Lott said that Senator Thurmond should have been elected president in 1947, which, of course, was not a presidential election year, it was 1948.

BEGALA: Making him a poor historian and a poor analyst of race relations.

CARLSON: More (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tonight for the Trent Lott scandal. According to "The Washington Post," the Bush administration may decide not to take sides at a major debate over racial preferences now being heard by the Supreme Court. The case centers on two students who were denied admission to the University of Michigan because of the color of their skin.

Before Lott, the White House planned to take a stand for the students and against preferences, on the grounds the government discrimination on the basis of race is always unfair and immoral no matter where it occurs, no matter who seems to benefit from it. But post Lott, some in the White House believe that position, the principled one, is politically unattainable.

So Trent Lott gets in trouble for appearing to endorse racial discrimination. The effect: the White House finds itself hesitant to denounce racial discrimination. You figure it out.

And I must say, I've spent all week pounding on Democrats for being politically unprincipled, and they are, that's a fair criticism. But I have to say, I don't see the political principle in this decision.

BEGALA: Yeah. I think the president should go further. He should follow Trent Lott's lead. Lott, on Black Entertainment Television, said he now supports affirmative action. The University of Michigan admissions program is affirmative action at its best. It takes into account a variety of factors, like whether your daddy went to Michigan; they give you more points if your mama did.

But also, your ethnicity, your race, so you can have a more diverse student body. So I think it's terrific.

CARLSON: Yeah, but racial discrimination is always wrong. A color blind society is our goal. And I think we've lost sight of that. And I'd hate to see the White House lose sight of that, too. It is distressing. That ought to be our goal right there.

BEGALA: Bush, of course, is a beneficiary of affirmative action for the money (UNINTELLIGIBLE) elite. That's how he got into Harvard and Yale.

CARLSON: Come on. It's a serious conversation. And it should be taken seriously by everybody.

BEGALA: I take it very seriously. He was the beneficiary of affirmative action for legacies, the children of other rich white guys.

Well, Lloyd Grove (ph), "The Washington Post's" reliable source columnist, reports today that Republican Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma, rumored to be one of the top contenders to succeed Trent Lott as majority leader if Lott is asked to quit, is a member of the all-male exclusive burning tree country club.

Now all-male golf clubs have been especially controversial this year, as feminist groups have led the fight to integrate the all-male Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters. A spokesman for Nickles said, Membership in the he-man, woman-hating country club was very, very different from Lott's statements on race. Racial prejudice, he said, is so retro. Gender discrimination, now that's the future for the Republican Party.

CARLSON: So is the future for the Democratic Party sort of join the witch hunt on what golf clubs you belong to? I mean, who cares if his golf club doesn't have women? I mean, seriously, shouldn't people...

BEGALA: I don't know.

CARLSON: Who cares? This is not -- you know what I mean? Leave the guy alone.

BEGALA: It's not the biggest thing in the world, but I don't like anybody that belongs to a club that excludes women. I just think it's wrong.

CARLSON: OK. So the nine women...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: What's he scared to play with them?

CARLSON: Maybe he doesn't want to.

BEGALA: Maybe the CDC should develop a cooties vaccine so these Republicans won't be scared to play golf with girls.

CARLSON: This is the Democratic platform 2004. Taking on the issues of the day.

Over the past two weeks, countless news stories have carried quotes from NAACP officials denouncing the Republican Party. It wasn't until this morning in an op-ed in "The New York Times" by Abigail Thurmstrom (ph), of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, that anyone pointed out the obvious. That despite its proud and very honorable history, the NAACP has become, in effect, a political action arm of the Democratic Party.

Nothing wrong with this, necessarily. But it does mean that that group has an obvious motive for attacking Republicans. Since it's a civil rights group, you'd expect the NAACP would grade members of Congress based on their positions on civil rights. Instead, politicians are judged whether they support Democratic issues like extending benefits to aviation workers, which explains why on the NAACP's latest congressional report card every Republican in the House and Senate, every single one, from the most fiery conservative to the wettest (ph) liberal, got a failing grade, every Republican.

The NAACP would like to you believe Republicans oppose racial justice and that's the reason. But it simply is not. They're just not Democrats. That's the reason.

BEGALA: They are an interest group. As such, they have a right to pick which interests they are interested in. It calls to mind the Christian Coalition and other groups that say that Jesus would have preferred these Republicans. And you see...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: And that's wrong, and I've never defended it. What bothers me about the NAACP, they have a right to endorse anybody they want, but the implication is, if you get an "F" from the NAACP, you're against racial progress. That's a very, very heavy charge to level against anybody. And in this case it's very unfair and it hurts people. And you shouldn't say that if it's not true.

BEGALA: Anymore than the Christian Coalition says you're against the baby Jesus if you vote against their issues.

CARLSON: They don't say that. And if they did, I would denounce it.

BEGALA: The NAACP doesn't say they're against racial progress. They say they're against issue one, two and three.

CARLSON: No they don't.

BEGALA: You can look up the votes.

CARLSON: They say they're against the civil rights agenda, which is like saying you're a bigot.

BEGALA: No, they look at the particular votes. They do it in...

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Which have nothing to do with civil rights.

BEGALA: If Republicans would vote with those, then they would get better grades. Very simple.

A poll released today by "The Los Angeles Times" said that most Americans think an economic agenda focused on rebuilding schools, roads and bridges, would be more effective at stimulating the economy than more Bush tax cuts for the rich. In fact, 77 percent of Americans say that the Bush tax cuts should be halted if they require the government to tap into Social Security funds to pay for them.

Of course, every analysis shows the Bush tax cuts will spend down the Social Security surplus despite Mr. Bush's promises not to do so. When asked to comment on the American people's overwhelming rejection of his economic ideas, Mr. Bush said, Have I told you lately about how outraged I am by Trent Lott's comments? And when that didn't work, he told his audience that Saddam Hussein is an evil, evil man.

CARLSON: Well, he is an evil man. But I love the idea that money and tax dollars would be better off going to, I don't know, the federal department of big buildings, so some federal bureaucrat can decide how to spend it. I think ordinary people -- this is a talking point, but it's actually a true one -- are probably better qualified to decide how to spend their money.

BEGALA: They just decided in this poll that they would rather have the government do things to create jobs directly than give more tax breaks to the rich. They were rejecting Bush's economic program, and I think it's a huge mistake for Bush.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: ... quite that clear.

BEGALA: Seventy-seven percent, man. That's as clear as it gets in my business.

Coming up: one of Trent Lott's harshest critics has had a change of heart. He'll be here to tell us why. Also, could Lott's political career actually survive? We will look for signs to see if the storm will blow over.

Finally, he helped save Bill Clinton. What's he going to do for Trent Lott? Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. You know ever since Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond's segregationist campaign for president, one man has been on Lott's case like white on rice, like ugly on an ape, like stink on -- well, you get it. He was, I believe, the first person to raise comments of Lott on national television, but now James Carville has changed his mind. He's ready to accept Trent Lott's apologies and he wants to come on the show tonight to tell us why.

Please welcome my partner on the left, our guest tonight, unusually in the CROSSFIRE, James Carville.

(APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: James, thanks for joining us on your own set. Yes, well it -- now, it's not that your viewers don't love you, but I would bet at least 50 percent don't believe you. You've come to make a kind of peace with Trent Lott. Sum it up from portions...

JAMES CARVILLE, HOST, CROSSFIRE: I'll read you two paragraphs just to give you a sense. "You've asked for forgiveness. This letter is to inform you that, on the heels of a statement by my dear friend, Congressman John Lewis, a man I admire and respect as much as any living American, I do forgive you."

"As a result of that forgiveness, I will never criticize or attack any of your past actions or remarks concerning matters of race relations or civil rights. Remember Senator, we all make errors. Committing errors is not a tragedy, but failing to learn from them is a great one."

"You say you've learned, I believe you. That settles it."

CARLSON: Now I don't -- let me just -- a quick follow-up here. I'm speaking again for the people watching at home who are thinking, well, this is part of an elaborate strategy to keep Trent Lott thing there to benefit the Democrats.

CARVILLE: That's because Larry Craig and Mike Emsey (ph) are just waiting with baited breath to see what James Carville said. If anything, I probably hurt Trent Lott by saying this. The more I attack him, I would suspect the more Republican senators I would drive in his corner.

This is part of a real simple strategy that John Lewis woke me up. And ever since I was in a child in the Catholic Church, we were taught that Hitler and Stalin themselves on their death bed, that if they sought forgiveness that it would be granted to them. And John said -- you know, I said, here I am, the guy has five times asked, it's not up to me to judge. And I will need forgiveness in my life.

And I said, you know what, we did this show and it was you that put up John's letter. I went to dinner with my wife...

CARLSON: John Lewis.

CARVILLE: The congressman from Georgia. I went to dinner with my wife and I came home. And it was put on one of the tables (ph) that the guy was taking a pounding. You know, he's got a wife, he's got kids, he's a human being. And I just said, you know, I'm just -- we know what he did, it was wrong, he said it was wrong.

It's up to the Republicans to do -- that's not in my hands. But if I wanted to ensure him to be majority leader, I would keep attacking him. There's nothing to make those Republican senators, you know, rally around anybody other than me savaging him. I'll guarantee you that.

BEGALA: Well, let me take a look also at what John Lewis said. I mean, like you, he's one of my political heroes. Actually, several years ago, "Esquire" magazine asked me to write a story, who's your hero? I picked John Lewis.

CARVILLE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) viewers, John Lewis is a congressman from Georgia who was called the living saint of the civil rights movement. A man who was literally almost beaten to death. BEGALA: By George Wallace's thugs. He led the march from Selma to Montgomery, across the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) bridge, where he was set upon by George Wallace's thugs and beaten almost to death.

He's today a congressman from Georgia. He issued this press release two days ago that moved you and many other Democrats, including me. He said this: "Just like so many leaders of the old south, Trent Lott has the potential to become a better person and a better political leader. It is my hope that Senator Lott's words and his actions from this day forward demonstrate that his apology is sincere."

Right in the Christian tradition, we say go forth and sin no more. In other words, what kind of deeds are you looking for? Should he file a friend of the court brief from the University of Michigan's affirmative action (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

CARVILLE: No. I mean, I don't expect him to become a Democrat. He said he wanted to do an outreach thing, he said he learned from his mistakes. He said he wanted to get people together and talk about this. He certainly is in a unique position to speak about this issue.

You know, one of the things that, if we think about it, in terms of racial and ethnic strife or things, if we don't forgive, we'll just stay the same. If we don't forgive people, we can never make any progress. And certainly, just like Congressman Lewis, who I spoke to this morning, who said it is the essence of non-violence to forgive.

If we can't forgive people in this, all of us, myself included, I have had thoughts about -- frankly, I've had thoughts about black people that I shouldn't have. I have said words about black people when I was young that I shouldn't have said. But you move on, you mature, you grow.

And the idea that somehow Trent Lott is 61 years old and he's incapable of growing, I reject. And if he says he learned and he says he did...

BEGALA: What deeds are you looking for to...

CARVILLE: I'm looking for him to -- I'm hopeful that he goes out -- there was an article in the paper that he never went to black churches, he's starting to do that. I hope that he does that. He said he wanted to put people together and do something about the dialogue.

I'm looking for him to walk down to the Republican National Committee and tell them to cut the crap in terms of suppressing people's votes and making these idiotic phone calls in trying to get people not to vote. I'm looking for him to take that kind of leadership. I don't expect him to become -- he doesn't have to become the great sort of champion of civil rights or affirmative action or anything like that, he's a conservative, I understand that. But there are things he can do.

He can reach out to minority business people, as he said that he wants to. They have a lot of people in his district that feel like -- in his state, that feel like he doesn't represent them. Congressman Thompson from the Black...

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: ... said he never hears from Trent Lott, only from Senator (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Well, he can start establishing contact there.

CARLSON: Well, one of the reasons that this strikes me, as someone who works with you, as significant, is because you are taking his word for motive (ph). He said, this is -- I made a mistake. And you take him at his word. And I think that's a positive development.

And I wonder if you'll apply -- we can all agree to apply that same standard to all other political issues. Not to judge a man's motive, because you can't know it. So when the Republicans push a tax cut, for you to get up there and say they're doing this because they don't care about the poor, can we agree...

CARVILLE: That's an asinine analogy. He sought forgiveness.

CARLSON: Let me finish my question.

CARVILLE: OK. Finish your question.

CARLSON: The difference is you are judging motives you can't know. And I just want to know if you will agree from now on not to do that.

CARVILLE: No. That's an asinine analogy. The man asked forgiveness five times. I said, you asked for forgiveness, I think John Lewis...

BEGALA: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for helping the rich and screwing the poor...

CARVILLE: Yes, I would forgive him. I'd say, finally you've come around to understand that your policies are a disaster to the middle class.

CARLSON: But that's the difference.

CARVILLE: Well, if he wants to ask for my forgiveness, I'll give it to him.

CARLSON: You're saying your policies are bad for the middle class. That's a fair point. Don't you understand how poisonous it is to question a man's motives when you don't know what they are?

(CROSSTALK)

CARVILLE: Again, I know this, I know that his policies are a disaster for the middle class. I know that his policies have been a disaster for this economy. I know that his policies have been a disaster for the deficit. I know that his policies have been a disaster for trade policy.

I know that the people that he's appointed have not been up to the job. And I'm going to say that, and I'm going to say that again and again. That is all the difference in the world between a man making a colossal racially -- no, there's a...

CARLSON: A distinction between attacking a person's policies and saying he's doing these policies because he doesn't like the poor or because he doesn't like this.

CARVILLE: I never said Bush didn't like the poor.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: ... a long time. At least, my own person experience is that the question of motive comes much more from the press than it does from either political party. The press every day writes, Al Gore, in a desire to get more votes from women changed his clothes. Or George Bush, trying to suck up to the military, said this.

CARVILLE: Exactly.

BEGALA: It's really -- I think the motive analysis comes much more from the press than it does from either side's partisans.

CARVILLE: I can't judge his motive. I can't judge whether he's telling the truth or not. That's above my pay grade. All I know is the man stood up on five different occasions and said that he's sorry for what he said, he better understands how the issue of race relations work, he's made some errors in the past, he wants people to forgive him. It's that simple. I forgive him.

I don't forgive people -- I'll continue to point out where I think there is bad economic policy. I'll continue to talk about how the Republicans use campaign tactics that go to suppress African- Americans from voting. I'll continue to talk about everything.

I'll continue to attack Trent Lott on tax policy, environmental policy, education policy, foreign policy. And the thing I will not do is criticize him for prior statements and actions he's made on race relations...

CARLSON: And do you expect to hear from him on this letter?

CARVILLE: No. I don't really need to hear from him. He's got a lot of people he needs to talk to other than me. He's got to get 26 senators -- and I don't know whether he -- that's up to them. Frankly, I think Tom Daschle ought to be the majority leader, but that's not going to happen either.

CARLSON: Thankfully not. James, thanks for joining us.

CARVILLE: Thank you.

CARLSON: Well done.

(APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: And if James Carville is willing to forgive him, what about his fellow Republicans? What about the White House? We'll ask if Trent Lott has turned the corner in his fight to stay in power.

Later, he helps politicians do it with Christmas coming. Maybe you ought to learn how to. Pointers on the fine art of damage control. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Senate Republicans are choosing sides. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island today became the first to publicly call for Trent Lott to step down as majority leader. And other Republicans, including possible successors for the leadership post, have been maneuvering furiously behind the scenes.

What happens if Trent Lott ends up staying? There's a lot on the line. And stepping into the CROSSFIRE tonight to debate it, Democratic strategist Peter Fenn and Republican consultant Charlie Black.

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Peter, good to see you. Charlie, good to see you.

Charlie, let's get right to the news of the day, none if it good for Senator Lott. Another quote surfaced, where he...

CHARLIE BLACK, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: You don't consider James newsworthy?

BEGALA: We'll get to that, too. That's very newsworthy. But, before I get to my pal, Senator Chafee of Rhode Island, a Republican, has now said Lott should step down as majority leader. And the media has found another time that Lott has whimsically reminisced about how Strom Thurmond should have beaten Harry Truman for the presidency. Is it for him?

BLACK: It's not only not it for him, he's actually had a pretty good week, Paul. Of course, it's not news that he said the same thing to flatter and humor Strom Thurmond. We all know that he said it more than once, and we know that's all it was, flattering and humoring an old man.

Now, there have been a number of senators who came out and stood up with Senator Lott this week, including some very senior Republicans, the leadership of the Senate, as well as moderate and liberal Republicans, like Arlen Specter, Ted Stevens, John McCain is out supporting Trent Lott.

If we had that caucus today, he would keep his job by a large margin. And I suspect that will also be the case on January 6.

CARLSON: Now Peter, it seems to me that our fellow co-host James Carville just made news a moment ago. PETER FENN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Correct.

CARLSON: Hard to think of someone who is more a hardened partisan than James. And yet he has said, "I take Trent Lott at his word and I'm not going to attack him every again for statements he made in the past that pertain to race." Will you take that same pledge?

FENN: Well, I'll tell you, I'm going to do a lot of criticizing of Trent Lott as majority leader if he wins on a lot of issues, and they may even be issues of civil rights and civil liberties if he doesn't live up to his promises and what he talked about on BET. But, you know I think one of the things about this town, as Harry Truman said, if you want a friend, get a dog.

And, you know, I think one of the things that's interesting now about this whole dynamic is that people are coming to defend him, people are criticizing him. It's going to be interesting to see what happens with the press, how they begin to play all this. And also -- well, go ahead.

I was going to say, the major thing, though, I think -- and Charlie can correct me if he thinks I'm wrong -- the White House's role here is absolutely key. If they start sending the signals up there, ditch Lott, he is in deep trouble. For a while, it looked like they were doing that. They may have pulled off it.

I find that unbelievably hypocritical from the guy who went to Bob Jones University, from the guy who wouldn't take a stand on the confederate flag, from the guy who race baited during the campaign. So I have a little trouble with the White House.

(CROSSTALK)

BLACK: Well, one out of three ain't bad. He did make a speech at Bob Jones, but they have not in any way sent any signals to the Hill about what ought to happen to Senator Lott. Presidents don't get involved in leadership contests.

BEGALA: But let me come back to this point that James made earlier. Earlier in the day, when he and I were talking about this, he said to me -- because I said, why are you going to do this, and he said -- if I can quote him on the air -- he said, "If I can forgive someone I like, Bill Clinton, who did something that I'm not terribly bothered by, which is have sex, I have to also forgive something who I don't politically support who did something I don't like who said something horrible about race."

And I was moved by that. I was very moved by what John Lewis said in asking for forgiveness. I've been struck by how many people on the left have been there to at least give forgiveness, certainly not political support, but at least forgiveness.

Why has the right been so unforgiving? Same people who couldn't excuse Bill Clinton for an affair that many others have had, tragically. Also won't forgive Lott when he's begging their forgiveness. What is it about the right that is so harsh and unforgiving?

BLACK: Well, you know there are several high profile conservatives who have taken a position against Senator Lott. But nearly (ph) conservative grassroots in this country I think support him. What counts is the other 50 Republican senators, who I think will end up by an overwhelming margin supporting him. And then even those who doesn't will be willing to forgive, because Senator Lott will follow through on the things he has said.

He will spend time with African-American leaders learning more about their concerns and their issues. And he will follow through and take some initiatives.

BEGALA: John Lewis also, in his press release, invited Lott to join him on a pilgrimage that I've made with him. He takes a bipartisan group, it's generally sponsored by the Faith in Politics Institute, and they take a bipartisan group of leaders to recreate the civil rights era.

He takes to you Montgomery, he takes you to Birmingham, he takes you to Selma. And you cross that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) bridge with John Lewis. I mean, my goodness, it's like, you know, going back to Rome with St. Peter. Would you advise...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: In my eyes, he's a living saint.

CARLSON: Well, I know. But he's still a member of Congress.

BEGALA: Would you advise Lott to take that pilgrimage?

BLACK: Well, I would. And I haven't asked him if he'll do that, but I hope he will. I know -- you know our former Republican National Chairman, Jim Nicholson (ph), went on that pilgrimage with him and was greatly moved by the experience. So I hope Senator Lott will do that and a lot more.

And let me just interject on a personal note. As you know, James Carville has been a personal friend of mine for 18 years. And even though we disagree on almost every issue on the air and off, I've also told my conservative friends he's an honest man and a man of conscience. And he's demonstrated it here, and I appreciate that.

CARLSON: Amen. Peter, there was a point made by a conservative strategist in "The New York Times" today that part -- the Democratic agenda is partly, to attempt to confuse in the public mind, conservatism with racism. And that strikes me as a strategy that, if true, out of bounds and (UNINTELLIGIBLE). For instance, implying that, because conservatives -- some -- take a stand against race preferences on the grounds that they're racist, that those conservatives are somehow bad on civil rights.

That's a pretty low tactic, don't you think?

FENN: Not when you're talking about affirmative action, ti's not. Not when you're talking about using the flag to...

CARLSON: Wait, wait, just at a time.

FENN: OK.

CARLSON: It's fair to call someone a racist for opposing affirmative action...

FENN: I didn't say racist. I think that using that phrase you're (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

CARLSON: OK, I just want to know what (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is all I'm asking.

FENN: No, no, no. All I'm saying about this -- and I think it's very important that Trent Lott has said that he's for affirmative action and will for affirmative action. I'd like to see the same from Don Nickles. I'd like to see the same from this White House.

I think if anything can happen here, with this -- with this back and forth over the last couple of weeks and the next couple of weeks -- it is hopefully that folks can come together on this and agree to end a lot of racially charged lawsuits. We try to give people equality in this country...

CARLSON: But what about agreeing to disagree without impugning another man's motives.

FENN: This is fine...

CARLSON: Is that fair? Can we agree on that?

FENN: Yes, I mean, sure. I mean I think, you know, we have disagreements. I don't impugn your motives.

CARLSON: No, you don't. I agree.

FENN: And I think that's very important. I mean, I think you can disagree without being disagreeable too, sometimes, although I get disagreeable.

But, but..

BEGALA: Back to your earlier point about the president, because I want to hear Charlie's defense of this. I'll show you two things back to back.

First the White House spokesman, speaking from that podium several days after Lott made his comments, had this to say.

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FLEISCHER: The president has confidence in the Republican leader, unquestionably. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BEGALA: Unquestionably. It took unquestionably -- he has confidence in him, he said. And it took a week for Bush to develop the moral outrage against racist statements. I suspect that he probably had it in his heart, but maybe he didn't have the political courage to say so. Maybe he was consulting pollsters. I don't know.

Newsweek has this theory though. Here's what Newsweek says: "White House officials afraid of offending the base, the Southern white conservatives who elected Lott and Bush, were careful not to openly work for Lott's ouster."

So this is all political for Bush.

BLACK: Well, no, it's not. That's a lot of nonsense. Remember that this happened on the 5th. On the 6th it wasn't even a news story. Over the weekend it became a story. On Monday, Senator Daschle said it was "Just gaffe; give him a pass."

So it was only the middle of the week when it became a big national issue. And on the Thursday, was when Bush spoke out very strongly against the substance of Senator Lott's remarks.

So there is no conspiracy here.

BEGALA: Why did it take, when for example, when Sister Souljah said that black people should kill black people, in a press conference, not in a song. And then she was given a podium by Jesse Jackson at the Rainbow Coalition -- Bill Clinton spoke after her the next day and said, "That's wrong. It's racist to say black people should kill white people. It is racist."

And it was the right thing to do. And it offended Jesse Jackson, one of the strongest people in the Democratic Party...

CARLSON: Not a tough call, is it?

BEGALA: Offended somebody, strong in his party. It was not a tough call for Bush to stand up against racist statements by Lott. But it took him a week to find the courage. Why?

BLACK: Within 48 hours of the time it became a front page story, Bush made the speech...

BEGALA: Oh, so it's the papers and the polls that determine his courage.

BLACK: If it's not an issue, it's not an issue. The president can't deal with stuff on page A-21. When it became a big issue, he spoke out forcefully so. And what he said was right.

FENN: But Charlie, he should -- if he's going to be true to principles, not true to politics, true to principles, he should reject the use of the American -- the Confederate flag as an effort as was -- I mean this Georgia campaign was pathetic. He should reject places like Bob Jones University. He should...

BLACK: The president said at the time that that's up to the states what kind of flag they (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

FENN: I understand, but it was...

BEGALA: That has to be -- but you know what it's up to me to say we have to go to commercial. I'm sorry to do that do you. But Peter Fenn from the Democratic Party, thank you very much. Charlie Black from the Republican Party, thank you very much for the civil discussion.

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: New plans for replacing the World Trade Center. We'll take a look at them next in the CNN news alert.

And then a man who went to college with George W. Bush, and served in the White House for Bill Clinton, joins us to offer Trent Lott some pointers on political damage control.

Stay with us.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Next, the man who the book, or a book anyway, on damage control, offers his advice to Trent Lott and Republicans.

And later, a poll that has nothing to do with Trent Lott and everything to do with who will be our next president. Who will beat George W. Bush in 2004 you will learn tonight on CROSSFIRE.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. We are coming to you from the friendly confines of George Washington University here in downtown Washington, D.C.

Trent Lott's rhetoric and his record on race have him on the ropes. The question now immortalized by the great philosophers, the Clash, faces Trent Lott, "Should I stay or should I go?"

Our next guest knows something about damage control. As an attorney in the Clinton White House. He helped defend the Clinton- Gore team against charges irregularities and in the 1996 election. After leaving the White House, he became one of President Clinton's most reliable outside defenders.

Please welcome attorney and my pal, Lanny Davis.

(APPLAUSE) CARLSON: Lanny, good to see you, friend.

(APPLAUSE)

LENNY DAVIS, ATTORNEY: Thank you.

CARLSON: All right, Lanny, I haven't always agreed with some of the appalling things you've defended, but...

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: ... I've always agreed with the way you defended them. And you're theory has not worked for Trent Lott: "Get it out at the beginning, don't obfuscate, don't wag your finger at people and lie. Just tell the truth."

That's pretty much what he did, and it hasn't worked.

DAVIS: Well, first of all I agree with James that we ought to accept Senator Lott's apology. I think he's sincere. I think he's a man of honor. I hope that this will be a pivot the way it was for Lyndon Johnson. And I think that people ought to hang in there and take a breath and let Senator Lott have some time to work this out.

The damage control rules are three. And one, you have to accept the problem and explain. Second, you have to apologize. And third, you have to try to fix it.

That applies to a corporation that's suffering from accounting issue, which I do as well, as political and personal crisis.

In the case of Senator Lott, he clearly has apologized. He's clearly showing that he's ready to pivot and look forward in a different direction. I think he still needs to do more to explain the culture, the background, the neighborhood, the upbringing that lead to the attitudes that explain all of the votes and all of the statements in the past that he now regrets.

BEGALA: Well, let me also quote from a guy that I admire greatly, probably who I disagree with as much as Tucker disagrees with you, Tony Blankely. He's the new editorial page editor of the Washington Times.

He wrote an editorial -- I suspect he did. I see his hand in any good piece of writing in that paper. The editorial of the Times, a very conservative paper here in our nation's capital, said this yesterday.

"Since our original rebuke of Lott's comments, he has made two attempts at apology. Both on the Sean Hannity show" -- a guy I've never heard of -- "and at the later home town press conference. His words and demeanor disappointed many of his friends and supporters. The tone was peremptory and oddly upbeat.

Whatever the original intent of his words may have been, his subsequent comments disclosed little appreciation for the depth of civic passion they aroused amongst conservatives as well as liberals."

So the Washington Times, a conservative paper, says he has muffed his damage control.

DAVIS: First of all, Tony Blankley has been in the middle of that feeding frenzy when he did his best and did pretty well in trying to defend News Gingrich. It's real difficult when you're in the middle of that frenzy. And I think Trent Lott is experiencing that. His family is.

And I think even observers like us who aren't with him philosophically have sympathy for what it is to be in that feeding frenzy.

Today Reverend Jesse Jackson called the Sean Hannity radio show and said the same thing that John Lewis.

BEGALA: You now, we need to talk about CNN people.

CARLSON: Well, but also, Jesse Jackson has got some -- obviously he's got some free time on his hands. But here's the problem that I have.

DAVIS: But no, what I'm suggesting is that there is some thing about empathy and sympathy to what he's going through without agreeing with him philosophically that I think you're hearing from James Carville and myself and a lot of other Democrats.

CARLSON: But can't you over do it? I mean isn't there kind of a cringe making Oprah quality to someone like Trent Lott, who after all is a politician, makes policy, makes laws, getting up there and saying, "You know I had this tough childhood" and sort of weepy and talking about what's on his heart after all. People are going to say, "Look, we're going to judge you by what you do. Please stop talking about your heart."

DAVIS: Look, here's the key thing that Senator Lott is trying to do and which if I were a professionally advising him I would say, you've got to keep doing.

He's got to admit that this crisis has caused some changes, that this is something that he'll never be the same because he's going through having made this mistake. And that the suggestion in the Washington Post editorial that there's something shocking about someone going through this kind of traumatic episode and actually causing him to change as a result of it. That is what most people understand. I think that's the reason why there's empathy out there, even though people obviously are as harsh about what he said as he has been himself.

BEGALA: Well, there's another strategy some of his defenders are trying the doomsday scenario, basically threatening that Lott would resign the Senate entirely, not just the majority leader, if he's pushed out. There's a Democratic governor in Mississippi his supporters point out, and the Senate would then go back to 50-50. And the pressure would be enormous on the couple of moderate Republicans to switch parties.

They're basically saying, "If you lose -- if we lose Lott as leader we could lose the entire Senate." Is that a smart damage control strategy?

DAVIS: No, it isn't. And I hope Senator Lott continues to be positive and that there is no implication that there is anger or even a sense of retaliation against those that are troubled by what he said.

I think any Republican, and really for me, Paul, as a Democrat, it seemed a little unseemly how quick some of his colleagues were ready to throw him over to the side, not even give him a chance. This is a matter of days he's trying to work through with his family trying to react here. And they didn't even give him a breathing spell before they started to run against him or talk about resigning.

CARLSON: We're almost out of time. Really quick, in your professional assessment, can he hang on?

DAVIS: Yes. My professional assessment is he's doing right thing now. He's still trying to do better. I think he still can do more. But I do think in the end of the day, there's a lot of sympathy in the country for this man, and I think at the end of the day his colleagues will rally around him.

And I'm a Democratic, and I wouldn't vote for him if were on the ballot. But I do respect him greatly. And I believe that for that reason he'll be maintained as majority leader.

CARLSON: Fascinating. The wave has crested.

Thank you, Lanny Davis. That was really interesting. We appreciate it.

(APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: Thanks.

Still ahead, you chance to "Fireback" at us. One of our viewers has a new use for James Carville's trash can. But next, a look at how the Democratic wanna bes stack up in the post-Al Gore world. And what a great world it is.

It's truly frightening. You won't want to miss it.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(APPLAUSE)

CARLSON: Welcome back.

The Democrats don't have Al Gore to kick around anymore and fortunately neither does the rest of the country. So gets the early nod for the 2004 presidential nomination? A new CNN-"USA"-Gallup Poll shows Joe Lieberman is the front runner among registered Democrats, but just barely.

Lieberman is the choice of 25 percent of those polled, followed by Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts with 21 percent. Dick Gephardt and Tom Daschle are farther back. Senator John Edwards, the Reverend Al Sharon and Vermont Governor Howard Dean are in a tight race for last place.

But wait, somebody is missing. Look what happens when pollsters give Democrats the choice of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. It's no contest. Hillary Rodham Clinton, 40 percent. Everyone else, we can't even remember their names.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: God bless, Hilly. I love that.

CARLSON: She's not running.

BEGALA: And disappointing millions of Americans...

CARLSON: Me, particularly, I can tell you that.

BEGALA: ... continuing to beat with -- of course, that poll the head to head today is not even worth the millions that CNN and USA Today paid to conduct that poll. It's useless. It's interesting to yak about, but I have a different list. And I think a much more relevant one, because my single criteria...

CARLSON: How much did you pay for his list?

BEGALA: Well, it was free. And it's worth every penny you're paying for it.

Who's tough? Bush and his team are tough, and I admire that. Who's tough?

Here's a list of people that have been tough enough to come on CROSSFIRE and take your best and your worst and Bob's best and worst -- John Kerry, Tom Daschle, Dick Gephardt, Al Sharpton. Howard Dean will come on in a few weeks. By the way, Al Gore is going to come on on January 23rd.

CARLSON: By this definition Al Sharpton who has been on many times, is the toughest.

BEGALA: Tough enough for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: Therefore, therefore the most promising Democratic.

BEGALA: Tough enough for CROSSFIRE. Now there's a couple of gutless wonders who say they're running for president, never come to CROSSFIRE -- Joe Lieberman...

CARLSON: Is that true?

BEGALA: ... supposed front runner, John Edwards. Good men, both. Let me tell you, the road to the White House -- right here. Goes right through CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: Paved with CROSSFIRE. I totally agree with that.

BEGALA: You want to see these guys come on?

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Absolutely.

Lieberman and Edwards, come on this show.

CARLSON: I'm not voting for either one until they show up on our show. That's my pledge to you, our viewers...

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: ... at home.

Coming up, your chance to "Fireback" at us. One of viewers came up with a perfect description of our hosts on the left. See if you agree.

We'll be right back.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Welcome back. And now time for "Fireback." And boy, the Trent Lott controversy had occupied your time as well as ours.

Harlan Howard of Springfield, Louisiana says, "I would really like to see Trent Lott on CROSSFIRE with a trash can on his head. It wouldn't make me think better of him, I'd just like to see it."

Well, Harlan, he'd look better with a trash can than that helmet head hair spray he wears. I can still attack his hair even though in an act of Christian forgiveness, I forgive his racial comments.

CARLSON: Keep forgiving, Paul.

Bruce Solsky (ph) of Maple, Ontario, Canada, a foreign country writes, "What I find offensive is that there is something like Black Entertainment Television for Senator Lott to be interviewed on. How segregationist is that?"

Unless, you're a segregationist, a little creepy, a little weird.

BEGALA: It's terrific. It's a great American success story.

CARLSON: Well, I'm not saying that. It's just...

BEGALA: This guy, Robert Johnson, came from nowhere, built this enormously successful commercial network. People want to watch it.

We have country music television, which I happen to like.

CARLSON: Yes, I love the videos.

BEGALA: All right, Richard Burger (ph), Cashiers (ph), North Carolina writes, "Paul, both you and James are terrific actors for the hypocritical Democrats. Empty heads, bit mouths, and no manners."

My goodness. I will prove you wrong. I do have manners, Richard. I won't say what I think about you.

But thank you for your comment, nonetheless.

CARLSON: OK. And next up, Albert Alter (ph) from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida writes, "If you believe that Al Gore was a joke in the hot tub scene on Saturday Night Live,"-- and I do -- "were you also disgusted by the 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole becoming wealthy from advertising his penal dysfunction?"

(LAUGHTER)

CARLSON: And the short answer is, Albert Alter, "Yes, I was." As much as I like Bob Dole, I thought that was unseemly and embarrassing, horribly embarrassing.

BEGALA: Let me defend them both. Gore was making a joke. There's nothing wrong with doing that. Rudy Giuliani dressed up on women's clothing and went on Saturday Night Live.

CARLSON: Don't mind that either, actually.

BEGALA: And he wore them the rest of the night actually because he felt pretty. And that's nothing wrong with that.

And -- and Bob Dole called attention to serious medical -- he had prostate cancer like millions of other men and he gave a lot of men the courage to deal with that.

CARLSON: If you're impotent, you shouldn't talk about it in public.

BEGALA: Bob Dole, I'm sorry, is an American hero. I'm glad he lost the election, but God bless him, people.

CARLSON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) think he should talk about in front of other people.

Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michael Castelano (ph), Boca Raton, Florida. I just wanted to say that I think Mr. Carville's comments were just a ploy to try to convince Americans that Senator Lott actually needs forgiveness. Senator Lott's comments, all three times, were out of respect and admiration for his friend and colleague Senator Thurmond. I think it's ridiculous that this has escalated to such a big issue. And I don't think it's our right to try to figure out Senator Lott's intentions.

CARLSON: Well, I agree that it's been blown into proportions it doesn't deserve. However, Senator Lott himself, has apologized and said he needs forgiveness and gone completely overboard. As to James' ploy, I always assume a ploy with James. I'm not sure what this one is, though.

BEGALA: Anybody, anybody doesn't recognize that what Trent Lott said was racist, needs to get their ass to Selma or Montgomery or Birmingham and learn about what the civil rights movement...

CARLSON: Oh, come on.

BEGALA: ... was all about. We are a better country because Harry Truman won that election and moved us on the path of civil rights. And Strom Thurmond even thought so. And Trent Lott should have never, never said so. And to say that...

CARLSON: Well, obviously...

BEGALA: ... all he was doing was buttering up an old man, is false and outrageous.

CARLSON: ... the sanctimony alarm is going off again. All he was saying was simply that it was a joke.

BEGALA: We would have been a better country if a racist, segregationist...

CARLSON: No, that's not true.

BEGALA: ... had been our president.

CARLSON: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, Rowley Vaughn (ph) from Lynchburg, Virginia. Is Senator Chaffee's recent call for Senator Lott to step down a signal that he might switch parties should Lott be re-elected leader?

CARLSON: I don't think so. I don't think Senator Chaffee is going to switch parties, though he had said earlier that he might if Republicans got control of the Senate. Of course now that they have control of the Senate, he realizes maybe being on the other team wouldn't be quite as fun. So apparently he has no plans to switch.

BEGALA: Well, he's long been disgusted with the Republican economic and environmental policies. Now he doesn't like Trent Lott's comments about race.

CARLSON: Well, he's only been like minutes in the Senate. What are we talking about? BEGALA: Let's watch him and see if he does switch. I hope he does.

From the left, I'm Paul Begala. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

CARLSON: From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again next time for yet more CROSSFIRE.

We can't wait. "CONNIE CHUNG TONIGHT" begins right now.

Have a great night.

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