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CNN CROSSFIRE

Interview With Dennis Kucinich

Aired February 21, 2003 - 19:00   ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE.

On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala.

On the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE, he's one of the most outspoken liberals on Capital Hill, and one of the fiercest opponents of a war with Iraq.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D) OHIO: This administration has been spoiling for a war with Iraq, whether or not there's been any evidence at all.

ANNOUNCER: Is there any evidence he has a chance of moving into the White House?

The Bush administration plays "Let's Make a Deal" with a Middle East ally.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: This is a serious matter and our good friend and ally, Turkey, is taking it seriously.

ANNOUNCER: Seriously, is this anyway to prepare for a war?

To some it's a symbol of racial hatred. To others it's a symbol of cultural heritage. Does it belong back of Georgia's state flag?

Tonight on CROSSFIRE.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

Live from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.

ROBERT NOVAK, CNN HOST: Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Tonight we'll talk with one of the longest of the many long shots among the Democratic presidential want-to-be's.

Also, Turkey and the Bush administration get down to some good old fashion haggling. They've got the military bases, we've got the money.

But first, we have an offer for you, our CROSSFIRE POLITICAL ALERT. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK (voice-over): The United States and Turkey appear to be nearing agreement on a deal for basing American soldiers in Turkey for an attack on Iraq, although agreement might still be days away.

The Turks have been dialing for dollars, asking for billions to let the America invasion force use the country.

Why are our long-time allies and valiant comrades from the Korean War acting this way?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

With 95 percent opposition to the war showing in Turkish polls, maybe the government wanted to present the war as a good commercial deal.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN HOST: That may well be, Bob.

I think it's embarrassing now that President Bush is down to his bully-and- buy strategy to try to get allies, because with the exception of Great Britain, nobody wants to be for this war. Nobody else is committing any troops or any money. That should tell us something.

NOVAK: I think Luxembourg is with us, isn't it?

BEGALA: All the way.

Well, the government funding bill that President Bush signed into law yesterday was supposed to have at least $3.5 billion to help first responders, police, fire-fighters, EMS and the like, to deal with terrorism. President Bush promised at least that much; Democrats tried to increase it.

But what Mr. Bush and the Republican Congress are actually delivering is only about 1/3 of what our president promised, just $1.3 billion.

Mr. Bush persuaded the Republican Congress, of course, to deliver every penny of his tax cut for the rich. That was a real priority. Why then is he not keeping his word on helping the fire- fighters he hugs in photo ops? Maybe because George W. Bush is really just a man of his most recent word.

NOVAK: You know, I've got to compliment you, Paul. You have the Democratic talking points memorized perfectly. I can hear from what you said, on the House floor, when they come back next week, tax cuts for the rich, no money for responders. It's all Democratic propaganda.

BEGALA: It's all true, though.

NOVAK: The Democratic National Committee heard Sen. Joe Lieberman and Congressman Dick Gephardt, along with the parties other presidential hopefuls today, but they got a cold shoulder. The reason was their vigorous support for President Bush's Iraq resolution.

The cheers were reserved for lesser Democrats who oppose the war. Carol Moseley-Braun, who ended her scandal-scarred single term in the U.S. Senate in disgrace, and Howard Dean, the former governor of the People's Republic of Vermont.

How should a pro-war Democrat react? Characteristically, war- hawk Joe Lieberman waffled, attacking Present Bush's preparation for the war.

BEGALA: Well, I do think that Democrats are approaching this in good faith. Some people support this war, some people oppose it.

I oppose it, but I think that the Democrats who say that we should support this attack should stick by their guns. They ought not waffle.

NOVAK: But they're not. Joe was waffling, and that is the worse thing you can do on a big issue. After all, Bill Clinton waffled on the war in '92 and hey, what happened -- he was elected, wasn't he.

BEGALA: Of course we remember what Governor Bush said about the war in Kosovo, and I quote, "I'm for winning." That was his statement.

NOVAK: I'm with that. I'll go for that.

BEGALA: Al Cayman (ph) of the "Washington Post" reports today that the panic buying of duct tape brought on by the Bush administration has benefited one company more than any other.

Mr. Cayman (ph) reports that 46 percent of all the duct tape made in America comes from a corporation founded by a man called Jack Caul (ph). He donated more than $100,000 to the Republican Party in the last election cycle.

Now, look, nobody believes that the Bushies pushed duct tape to help their fat cat contributor. I certainly don't. But I'll get suspicious if President Bush tells us to seal up our windows with Enron stock certificates instead of plastic sheeting.

NOVAK: You know, I think the greatest use I have found of duct tape was when your colleague, Mr. Carville, put it over his mouth the other day.

Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York has been relentless, demanding internal legal memoranda written by judicial nominee Miguel Estrada when Estrada was a lawyer in the U.S. Solicitor Generals Office.

Now Sen. Schumer is getting some of his own medicine. The New York state Conservative Party is asking Schumer to release his internal office memos in order to see how much he has been influenced by far-left pressure groups to oppose the Estrada nomination.

The usually voluble Sen. Shumer was unusually silent, declining calls from the "Washington Times," who were trying to gauge his reaction. He wouldn't return the calls.

BEGALA: You know, now the Republicans who are claiming there should be some executive privilege are the same ones who want to paw through everything that President Clinton ever did.

I'm going to be consistent. The Solicitor General's Office should not turn those memos over. I disagree with the Democrats on this.

But Mr. Estrada should testify truthfully about his views on the law and they wouldn't need those memos. That's what he ought to do, is just tell the truth about his views.

NOVAK: They're just trying to trap him, and that's what the whole thing is. And you is, I could say that one of the great Supreme Court Justices, Scallia, refused to answer any questions, and he was confirmed by the Senate unanimously.

BEGALA: And it was a disgrace that they did that. He should just tell the truth, and then if the Senate agrees with his views, put him on the court. If they don't, don't.

But, you know, it's a radical notion for Republicans to just tell the truth, but...

NOVAK: I know your game. I know your game.

BEGALA: ... that's what I think they should do.

Well, a Republican state representative in Iowa has proposed a new government commission to study the condition of an oppressed minority, the American male.

Seems Republicans are worried that we men are losing our grip on power. After all, a mere 98.9 percent of the "Fortune 1000" corporations are run by men, the U.S. Senate is only 87 percent male, the House 86 percent male. The oh-so-macho Bush cabinet is 81 percent male. And, of course, every single president and every single vice president in the 212 year history of America has been a man.

You know, maybe my Republican friends should scrap the elephant as their symbol and adopt something more accurate, a whiny, whimpering, white male. Get over it, guys.

NOVAK: You know, Paul, if you continue to attack, abuse and make fun of white men, the Democratic party will continue its continued decline that has occurred during the Clinton-Gore era.

BEGALA: But surely you don't think we need a government commission to study (UNINTELLIGIBLE). You know, we're doing just fine, thank you very much. I mean, I think government should help the poor, and not just worry about the men.

NOVAK: Just keep attacking white men. Please.

BEGALA: Every presidential candidate knows there's an obligatory stop on the road to the White House, the first toll booth on that road, right here on CROSSFIRE.

Tonight, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich gets ready to take his turn. And later, Turkey tells the Bush administration "show me the money." We will debate who's going to get the best out of that deal.

And in our CNN "News Alert," the very latest on a horrific night club fire in Rhode Island.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Promising to be the people's president and live in what he calls a worker's White House, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich this week formed a presidential exploratory committee.

Mr. Kucinich was once the mayor of Cleveland. He's among a handful of lawmakers who has filed suit to stop the Bush administration from going to war with Iraq. He told voters in Iowa that his first act as president would be to repeat the North America Free Trade Agreement.

Tonight, presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich steps into the CROSSFIRE.

KUCINICH: Good to see you again.

NOVAK: Congressman Kucinich, I want to start off by asking you about a quote which is attributed to you, and we're going to put it up on the screen, and see if you actually said it -- I want you to explain it.

"It would be a cold day and probably a snowy day in hell before a liberal Democrat could back to the White House, but it looks like my time has arrived."

What does that mean?

KUCINICH: Well, that meant that when I arrived in Iowa, they had a snow storm that hit the city, and when I heard the report was covered in Washington, snow storm hit this city, so my time is here. Thanks.

NOVAK: Do you think it's time for somebody as far to the left as you are to get into the White House?

KUCINICH: Well, you know, when I was playing baseball when I was a kid, I could throw with either hand, and I can tell you that the American people want someone who is familiar with the scope of the political debate from both sides, but who's dedicated towards a transformation of our politics that deals with healthcare, education, retirement security, jobs, doing something about our trade deficit, and the kind of change the Franklin Roosevelt brought to this country in 1932. NOVAK: Congressman Kucinich, there's one thing I used to admire you for. You are a pro-life liberal. You had a perfect, 100 percent anti-abortion voting record, and last year you completely switched. You didn't vote for a ban of partial birth abortion and other proposals you voted against. What -- were you -- do you think to get in the Democratic Party now you have to be pro-abortion?

KUCINICH: Not at all. I think that one who leads and who intends to lead from an even higher office has to show a capacity for growth. And as you pointed out, I was...

NOVAK: You changed. You did a switch-over.

KUCINICH: No, I expanded my view, Bob. Because what I believe is this -- this is a very divisive debate, and I think that it's important to simultaneously affirm that a woman has a right to choose under the constitution, and at the same time work, as I have my whole life, to see that abortions are not necessary by having sex education and birth control and then prenatal care, postnatal care and childcare.

NOVAK: But you voted for every single anti-abortion proposal in the Ohio legislature.

KUCINICH: My voting record is clear, and you're right about that, but I will tell you this, there is a move on in the Congress today to try to criminalize abortion, to repeat Roe v. Wade. I've never been for a constitutional amendment that would overturn Roe v. Wade.

I think that we need to have someone who can take a unifying position, who said that we'll do everything we can to make abortions less necessary and at the same time to protect a woman's right to choose, which is constitutionally protected.

So I think that it's possible to take that kind of acrimonious debate and try to heal this nation so that we're not divided and that we can accomplish two things, and that is, protecting life within the constitution and making sure that a woman's right to choose is also protected.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Let me ask you now about a more fundamental issue than that, and that is experience, qualifications.

We now know the price of the on-the-job training in the Oval Office. We used to have peace and prosperity. We put a guy in there who wasn't experienced or qualified, and look what happened.

You've got two years as the mayor of Cleveland, two years in the Ohio state senate, six years in the Congress. Is that enough experience to be the president of the United States?

KUCINICH: Well, actually, my political experience goes back to 1967 and my first race for office in the city of Cleveland. I served in the Cleveland City Council. I served as clerk of the Cleveland courts. I served as mayor of Cleveland. I served in the Ohio senate, and I've served at every level of government: local, state and federal.

I've served in executive and legislative and a quasi-judicial office. I actually have broader experience in government than anybody in this race.

BEGALA: You mentioned Franklin Roosevelt a moment before. He had been the governor of a state, the assistant secretary of the Navy, he had run for vice president of the United States. He brought a wealth of experience that -- do you think you have the sort of experience FDR had coming into the office?

KUCINICH: Absolutely. Well, you know, I'm not going to compare myself to FDR. What I am saying is that my aspirations for this country would be on the scope of what Franklin Roosevelt brought to this country in 1932 when he saw a nation that was broken economically. He looked for a dramatic restructuring of the government to make sure that government served the people, not the corporations. To make sure that government produced jobs instead of let the corporations run the economy and result in cutting jobs. To make sure that retirement security was guaranteed and to do something about uplifting the quality of life for every American.

That's the kind of president I aspire to be, and I will tell you, if I get the nomination, I will bring in a whole Democratic Congress with me, if they follow that platform.

NOVAK: Congressman Kucinich, CNN/"TIME" took a poll this week of the nine candidates for the Democratic nomination for president. We'll take a look at it. You know who was dead last? Dennis Kucinich. Dead last. Carol Moseley-Braun, who was in disgrace in Illinois with scandals, she was defeated for reelection, has twice as much support as you have.

KUCINICH: This is great news. You know, I got 2 percent without even filing my petition. That's great.

NOVAK: Doesn't that show that you've got tremendous problems?

KUCINICH: Well, you know, Bill Clinton was at 1 percent when he started. Jimmy Carter was at 1 percent. I mean, the American people wait for a campaign, and when I bring my campaign to the American people, you're going to see my support rise.

We're already seeing on this Web site that I've established, kucinich.us, people from 47 states contacted us the first day saying they wanted to help. It's a grassroots campaign. That's what will cause the numbers to go up.

BEGALA: You mentioned President Clinton. When he was Gov. Clinton and I went to work for him in 1991, he had 12 years as a governor and a host of accomplishments.

You're running against a field, your colleagues in the Congress particularly, who have a good deal of accomplishment. Joe Lieberman helped write the Homeland Security Bill, and John Edwards is a big proponent of the Patient's Bill of Rights. Dick Gephardt leads on taxes and trade and other issues.

What legislative accomplishment do you point to as a source of pride and accomplishment for you?

KUCINICH: Well, I would say that I've worked on, as a chairman of the Progressive Caucus, I've worked on saving the position of Social Security when some in our own party were talking about working towards privatizing it. I led the way in challenging NAFTA, which I said and did say that it will be my first act in office to cancel it and return to bilateral trade, which has workers rights, human rights and environmental quality principles.

I was able to work with President Clinton to get him to state in Seattle that he would abide by those kind of trading principles. I led the way in the Congress to organize 126 Democrats, almost 2/3 of the Democratic caucus, to vote against the war in Iraq, this Iraq resolution.

So I will say this, that what I have been able to demonstrate is that I can come right off the floor of the Congress without any kind of official position within the party structure and organize and lead, and the kind of leader that I'll be as a president is one from the grassroots up.

NOVAK: Congressman, I've got a question I've got to ask you before we take a break. You may not remember this, but 24 years ago I interviewed you when you were the mayor of Cleveland.

KUCINICH: I do remember that.

NOVAK: And you had been in office seven months, and there was already a recall election out for you, and I asked...

KUCINICH: I remember that.

NOVAK: And I asked who was trying to recall you, and you said "Real estate and banking, the privately owned electric utility, the regular Democratic party of Cuyahoga County and organized crime, mostly."

Are those people all still against you?

KUCINICH: You know what, as president, I will be independent and be able to challenge the corporate interests who right now control a good part of the Democratic party.

NOVAK: You didn't say no to what I asked you, did you?

KUCINICH: Well, Bob, come on. I mean, look...

BEGALA: We have a few seconds -- we we're going to hold you over for the next segment too, but I want to ask you this very important question: if you're president, when will you commit U.S. troops -- you mentioned you oppose the war in Iraq. You opposed President Clinton's war in Kosovo as well.

We'll have to ask you that when we come back, I'm sorry.

NOVAK: Why don't we save that for the next...

KUCINICH: What, you've got a question?

NOVAK: All right, Iraq's vice president today offered to open a dialogue with the United States if the United States stops threatening to make war.

In a minute, we'll debate Iraq policy with Dennis Kucinich and a Republican congressman who, believe it or not, is not interested in running for president.

And later, the battle over the Georgia state flag. Don't civil rights groups have anything better to do?

And in our CNN NEWS ALERT, several millions of gasoline go up in smoke.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: President Bush called U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan this morning and told him the U.N. Security Council is playing an important role in the Iraq situation, and the United States will continue to work with it.

A new Iraq resolution is expected to be introduced Monday. Meanwhile, Iraq is suddenly interested in opening a dialogue with the Bush administration.

Democratic president candidate Dennis Kucinich, a Democratic congressman from Ohio, remains in the CROSSFIRE. And joining us, from New York City, is Republican Congressman Vito Fossella.

BEGALA: Congressman Fossella, thank you for joining us, sir.

Before the break, I was asking Congressman Kucinich when America should commit troops. Governor Bush -- then governor, in one of the presidential debates, was asked about this. Here's what he said, when he said he would commit troops and how. I want you to listen and then respond.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, U.S. PRESIDENT: I'm going to be judicious as to how to use the military. It needs to be in our vital interest. The mission needs to be clear, and the exit strategy obvious.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BEGALA: Congressman, what's our exit strategy from Iraq?

VITO FOSSELLA (R) NEW YORK: Well, I think fundamentally, what the president is doing is upholding his constitutional obligation and that is to protect the American people.

He has stated repeatedly that war is the last option, that Saddam Hussein, who has systematically evaded inspections and we believe engaged in developing weapons of mass destruction that one day, God forbid, could be used against the United States or its allies. We are going to seek to remove those, and put an end to this regime, so the American people can live in peace and security.

So I think the president has done the right thing, despite the criticisms from some. The reality is he's been moving judiciously. As you just eluded to again, he's working closely with the Security Council of the United Nations and building support for what I believe is in the best interest of the American people.

BEGALA: Congressman, with respect, what's our exit strategy? You just didn't answer the question. I mean, those are important points, but how do we get out?

FOSSELLA: Well, I think that -- first and foremost, I think we need to bring an end to Saddam Hussein and his reign of terror, and I think the president is committed, along with the Congress, to help the Iraqi people once they are liberated to form a free and open society, a Democratic government that you and I benefit from every single day.

So I think the commitment will be there and is there.

NOVAK: I want to play for you a sound bite from Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, at the White House briefing in Crawford, Texas today. Let's listen to it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FLEISCHER: The United Nations Security Council must enforce its own resolutions. If the United Nations Security Council passes a resolution that says Iraq must disarm, Iraq cannot have chemical weapons, Iraq cannot have biological weapons and Iraq cannot have missiles that exceed 150 kilometers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: What is wrong with that? If there is United Nations -- if the United Nations Security Council unanimously passes resolution, and the Iraqis don't obey it, what alternative do we have but force?

KUCINICH: Iraq should be disarmed, and I think that Iraq should have a regime where all of the weapons are gone. And I also think that the United Nations has a responsibility to continue inspections.

But, having said that, the administration has not made its case to invade Iraq. They haven't -- Bob, they haven't proven that Iraq was connected to 9-11, to al Qaeda's role in 9-11.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: What about Iraq not obeying the resolution passed by the United Nations? KUCINICH: I think that the United Nations is clearly being pushed in the direction of war by the Bush administration. And I also think that that's not in the best interest of the world, that we -- the Bush administration is threatening to destroy the United Nations over this, just as they threatened NATO, just as they are threatening other nations to go along.

I mean, the fact that Turkey is ready to join for what, $26 billion? There's no checkout counter in the world big enough to hold all those nations that are going to get into line to take money from this country in order for us to go into Iraq. And at what cost? At a cost of $1 trillion when we're not meeting all the needs I this country? I don't think so.

BEGALA: Congressman Fossella.

FOSSELLA: I think -- yes. Well, first of, I think...

BEGALA: Go ahead -- congressman.

FOSSELLA: I think the United Nations can serve a purpose, but clearly when it can't enforce its own resolutions -- just a few weeks ago, for example, one of its committees on disarmament, of all things, the chair of that committee was supposed to be Iraq, of all countries.

So I think they do a good enough job of really making themselves somewhat irrelevant, but ultimately what I think we need to do altogether as Americans and those who love freedom and democracy, is to bring an end to this reign of terror so that the American people can live in peace.

You know, we saw on September 11, when terrorist can strike imminent, unexpected, taking the lives of thousands -- too many men and women, many of whom I represent. And I never want to see that again -- I never want to see that again. I never want to see that again. And we should be doing all we can. We should be doing all we can to bring an end to those who harbor terrorists, support terrorists, sponsor terrorism and nations that sponsor terrorism. That is, I believe, the fundamental responsibility.

NOVAK: Let's let Congressman Kucinich in.

KUCINICH: OK. There's a lot of buzz words here, and in the whole campaign to go after Iraq is just made-up of buzz words. It's not made of any facts.

They cannot prove that Iraq had anything to do with 9-11 yet. The day after those planes hit the World Trade Center, according to Bob Woodward in a book, "Bush at War," page 49, Donald Rumsfeld was already talking about attacking Iraq.

They're just trying to create a pretext to go after Iraq for any reason whatsoever. They haven't made their case, and yet they're going to cost, you know -- invasion or bombing, invasion, occupation, it's going to cost this economy $1 trillion. We don't have that money. We have money to blow up bridges over the Tigress and Euphrates and we don't have money to build bridges in our major cities.

We have money to destroy the health of the Iraqi people and we don't have enough money to repair the health of our own people in this country. There is something fundamentally wrong with the direction this administration is taking its foreign policy, and I intend to change that if I am elected president of the United States.

BEGALA: Congressman Fossella, let me get to the -- what you just said -- and you used some very, very emotional language about 9-11. I lost friends on that day as well, and Iraq had nothing to do with it whatsoever.

But the argument that you...

FOSSELLA: I don't think you know that at all.

BEGALA: We haven't seen a shred of evidence, sir, with respect. But the argument is, we need a preventive war or this will happen again, that's the gravamen of what you just said. It's what President Bush has been telling us.

Let me read to you from a guy who knew a little something about war, Dwight David Eisenhower, five-star general, general of the army, president of the United States of America. This is what he said about this doctrine of preventive war.

He said, "All of us have heard this term "preventive war" since the earliest days of Hitler. I recall that's about the first time I heard it. In this day and time, I don't believe there is such a thing, and frankly I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing."

Do you know more than Dwight Eisenhower, sir?

FOSSELLA: I never profess to know more than anybody, but all I have is my own judgment. And my judgment is that when -- at the end of the Gulf war, Saddam Hussein agreed to allow unfettered inspections and agreed not to develop weapons of mass destruction. We have evidence, we believe that he has biological, chemical and nuclear weapon capabilities, not that he could only use them but offer -- perhaps offer them with blackmail or, ultimately, to a terrorist organization. I don't want to wake up one day and know that we did nothing about that. And if the next generations of Americans have to live in fear of this...

(CROSSTALK)

(APPLAUSE)

KUCINICH: And wait a minute. I don't want to -- I don't want to wake up one day -- I don't want to wake up one day and see we have given our civil liberties away in this country to a phony war campaign that's going to go everywhere around the world with an American imperium! I'm not...

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: We're out of time.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: ... Mr. Kucinich. No time, Mr. Fossella. Congressman (UNINTELLIGIBLE) just one quick question. When the fighting starts and our men and women are in harm's way, will you be continuing to attack this policy, or will you support the troops?

KUCINICH: I support the troops, and I'd say support the troops, get rid of the administration and bring the troops back home!

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Democrat who's running for president, thank you very much for joining us. Congressman Vito Fossella from New York, thank you, as well, sir.

Well, the grim search is finally over at the charred ruins of a Rhode Island nightclub. We'll get the latest on the disaster next in a CNN News Alert.

And then: a Republican governor's determination to drag his state into a debate over one of the most racially divisive symbols of the old South. Sonny Perdue got elected because Democrat Roy Barnes took that racist symbol off the Georgia flag. Now he's got to deliver. We'll debate how when CROSSFIRE continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BEGALA: Anderson, thank you for the tragic but important news update.

Well, one of our viewers has done the math about how much money per soldier the Bush administration is going to be paying Turkey. We will get to that in just a bit.

But next: After Georgia Democrats brought their state's flag into the 21st Century, why does the new Republican governor want to drag it back to the 19th Century? You're watching CROSSFIRE on CNN, the most trusted name in news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. We're coming to you live from the George Washington University in Foggy Bottom, D.C.

The unemployment rate among African-Americans is 10.3 percent, twice the rate among whites; 26 percent of African-Americans in the U.S. live in poverty, only 14 percent over age 25 have a college degree, and even though blacks account for only 12 percent of the U.S. population, 40 percent of the U.S. prison population is African- American.

Facing these and a host of other problems, what is the top priority for leaders of the black community? It's opposing the old Confederate battle flag. They're howling with rage because Georgia governor Sonny Purdue is keeping a campaign promise to let the state's voters say what flag design they want. Then-Governor Roy Barnes and other Democrats rammed through a design change a couple of years ago.

Let's run this up the flagpole with Georgia state senator Vincent Fort and Dan Coleman, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans. They join -- they both join us from the CNN Center in Atlanta.

BEGALA: Gentlemen, thank you both. Mr. Coleman, a quick history lesson. The Confederate cause which you seek to honor with that battle flag was built on one thing, the moral abomination of slavery. Here's what the vice president of the Confederacy said about why they created the Confederate States of America. He said, Alexander Stephens, and I quote, "Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth."

Why would you honor such a sinful legacy?

DAN COLEMAN, SONS OF CONFEDERATE VETERANS: Well, let me just tell you -- it was -- you know, that was something that was a symbol of the times. I've got similar quotes by Abraham Lincoln, quite numerous of them, that said that the two races could never mix and that he was a member of the superior race and that they should not be allowed to vote or to intermarry or to ever hold political office. The difference in the races at that period of time was something that was -- was accepted by all people in this country.

NOVAK: Senator Fort, I'd like to play for you a little sound bite by the left-wing candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Let me repeat, this is the left-wing candidate, Governor Howard Dean of the people's republic of Vermont -- former governor. And let's listen to what he says.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: White folks in the South who drive pick-up trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us, not them because their kids don't have health insurance, either, and their kids need better schools, too!

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: So as I understand Governor Dean, he is appealing to the Confederate flag decal bearers. Do you think that's smart?

VINCENT FORT, GEORGIA STATE SENATOR: Well, I don't know what his intent is. All I know is that this Confederate flag is a symbol of division and hate and intolerance. It was 100 years ago, 135 years ago. It is today. African-Americans, to many of us, the Confederate flag and its symbol is nothing less than a Confederate swastika.

COLEMAN: Oh!

FORT: And it's a high priority. Is it the highest priority? Maybe not, but it is a priority, and it is something that we need to tend to.

BEGALA: Mr. Coleman?

COLEMAN: Yes, I'd like to respond to that. That is the most offensive thing that anybody could say in this country. I have an uncle myself who is buried over in France, who died fighting against Hitler. And to compare Southern people who went over and fought against those people to Nazis is just ridiculous. That is the most ridiculous statement you could possibly make. That symbol stands...

BEGALA: Mr. Coleman?

COLEMAN: ... for freedom and independence.

FORT: Well, let me...

BEGALA: Mr. Coleman, I'm sorry to interrupt, but let me -- let me give you another statement that is at least as offensive, maybe worse. It's from you. Here's what you said on CNN. You said -- about the NAACP, one of the great organizations in American history, you said, "Unfortunately, a once proud organization that asked for Civil Rights has now become basically a terrorist organization."

COLEMAN: That is true.

BEGALA: Weren't you wrong to...

COLEMAN: I said...

BEGALA: ... equate the NAACP to a terrorist organization?

COLEMAN: I said they had become economic terrorists, Mr. Begala. They have become...

BEGALA: I'm reading word for word...

COLEMAN: ... economic terrorists.

BEGALA: ... what you said on January 25, 2001, on CNN.

COLEMAN: OK.

BEGALA: You say, "a terrorist organization extorting money not only from corporations, but now extorting states into passing laws that the people of those states don't like by the threat of a boycott."

COLEMAN: Well, we were talking about economic terrorism. That organization had just extorted $190 million from Coca-Cola. They were going to Delta Airlines. The greatest mistake that a state government could do would be to yield to a form of economic terrorism by any organization.

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Senator Fort, the...

FORT: Yes, sir?

NOVAK: The -- today was the debut of a Ted Turner picture, "Gods and Generals." I saw it. It's an excellent movie, and it really shows that the Southern people were fighting to protect themselves from a Northern invasion.

FORT: Well...

NOVAK: And I interviewed Robert Duvall, the actor, who was -- plays Robert E. Lee in that movie. And let's listen to what -- a little bit of that interview right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, CNN "THE NOVAK ZONE")

NOVAK: The Confederacy has been getting a bad press lately, the attack the old Confederate battle flag, even people saying memorials to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson should be removed.

ROBERT DUVALL, ACTOR: No, they shouldn't be removed.

NOVAK: You're kind of going against the political correctness and...

DUVALL: Well, if you're going to make a film like this -- you know, so many Hollywood movies rewrite history for political correct reasons, and that to me is -- that's wrong.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: Do you disagree? Do you oppose, Senator, making Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson heroic figures?

FORT: No. No. No. They may be heroic to Mr. Coleman and to other people, but they're not heroic to me. You have to understand that the Confederacy was fighting for a cause. It was fighting for a cause to keep black people unfree, keep them in slavery. That's the historical record, and we shouldn't deviate from that. But I'm just very concerned that Governor Purdue has chosen to reopen this issue. The flag was changed two years ago. It doesn't need to be reopened. It's going to divide this state. It's not a matter of economic terrorism, but African-Americans are going to make choices about whether or not they are going to boycott this state...

NOVAK: Senator...

FORT: ... and it's going to be a boycott that's going to... NOVAK: Senator, I didn't quite get -- I didn't quite get the answer to my question. I'm sorry to interrupt you, but are you -- are you saying it is wrong in this movie, which is getting a lot of publicity, to -- just a minute. Let me ask the question, and then you can answer it, sir.

FORT: Sure.

NOVAK: Is it wrong to portray the General Lee and General Stonewall Jackson as heroic figures defending their homeland?

FORT: I have not seen the movie. After I've seen the movie, I'll be able to answer your question. I have not seen the movie, unfortunately.

BEGALA: Senator Fort, Mr. Coleman, keep your seats just a minute. We're going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we're going to ask our guests what they thought about what George W. Bush's favorite Democrat said about the Georgia flag. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Segregationist lawmakers put the Confederate battle emblem on Georgia's state flag in the 1950s. In 1993, Democrat Zell Miller became the first governor to declare that symbol offense and call for it to be removed. He was defeated in the legislature, but his effort paved the way for his successor, Roy Barnes, to change of the flag two years ago. Barnes's courage cost him reelection, and now new Republican governor Sonny Purdue wants to refight the flag battle.

In the CROSSFIRE to do just that, from Atlanta, Georgia state senator Vincent Fort and Dan Coleman, spokesman of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

NOVAK: Senator Fort, I don't know how far this campaign against the battle flag goes, but Dick Gregory, the comedian and social activist, wants to remove the name of one of the great sons of Georgia, Senator Richard B. Russell, from the Russell Senate Office Building. And he said the other day, "If I was in Germany and saw a building named after Adolf Hitler, I'd know something nasty was going on inside of that building."

Do you want to take Senator Russell's name off that building because he was a segregationist?

FORT: I -- that's not something that I'm concerned with right now. I'm concerned with Governor Purdue reopening the Confederate flag issue here in Georgia. It's not the right thing to do. It's going to cost $2.5 million for this state to put that on the ballot. It's a convoluted referendum question. It'll be non-binding. It's not going to help. It's going to open up wounds that were resolved two years ago. So I'm focused on Georgia. I'm focused on Governor Purdue and his appealing to people who are intolerant.

BEGALA: Mr. Coleman, I want to read to you from then Governor Zell Miller, now senator, the greatest governor, in my opinion, your state ever had, and a damn good historian. Here's what Zell Miller said about that flag. "The current Georgia flag was adopted by the state legislature in 1956 that wanted to show scorn for integration being mandated by the federal government and courts. Legislators who voted to change the flag in 1956 were prepared to defy the supremacy clause of the Constitution, prepared to eliminate our public schools and even prohibit our college football teams from competing in bowl games in order to maintain segregated schools, segregated public transportation, segregated drinking fountains and segregated recreation facilities."

Wasn't Zell Miller right? And wasn't segregation evil?

COLEMAN: No, absolutely not. Senator Zell Miller was a good Georgian, and he still represents this state well. However, on that issue, he was completely wrong. In 1992, the "Atlanta Journal- Constitution" studied the issue, and they said that they could find no link whatsoever to desegregation and the flag. That was on the July the 5th, 1992, issue. They could not find that. All -- there is no evidence whatsoever that it was changed for that reason.

BEGALA: Well, I'm just curious...

COLEMAN: And I would like -- I'd like to say one other thing...

BEGALA: Was segregation evil?

COLEMAN: Pardon me.

BEGALA: Was segregation evil?

COLEMAN: Segregation was something of its time. That's not something that -- it's a thing of the past, and it's not something that we should go into now. But now, Governor Purdue did not call to bring back that flag.

BEGALA: Mr. Coleman...

COLEMAN: He asked to let the people of Georgia have a say in what the flag of the people of Georgia should look like. He has not expressed any opinion...

NOVAK: Senator...

COLEMAN: ... on which flag the state should adopt. The previous governor...

NOVAK: Briefly, a final...

COLEMAN: ... adopted -- all right, go ahead.

NOVAK: Senator Fort, a final word.

FORT: I just think it's unfortunate. That flag was changed for one reason, to repudiate the Civil Rights movement. Segregation was evil. It's not -- wasn't -- it's just a thing of the past. We have to admit now that segregation was evil, and the Confederate flag represents those kinds of evils.

NOVAK: All right, we're out of time...

FORT: We don't need to reopen this issue.

COLEMAN: With all due respect...

NOVAK: We're out of time, gentlemen. Mr. Coleman, thank you. Senator Fort, thank you.

Next in "Fireback," one of our viewers has noticed a similarity between Iraq and -- would you believe it -- Paul Begala's forehead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: Time for "Fireback," when you fire back at us. Our first e-mail tonight, Gabe DePace of Springfield, Mass. "I was listening to the DNC winter meeting today, hoping to hear some new ideas and solutions to usher in a new era. Instead, all I heard was whining about how bad things are. Is this a political party or a crybaby club?"

(LAUGHTER)

NOVAK: Gabe, that's a good question. Now, what Democrats ought to do is get some tapes of John F. Kennedy -- and may I burn in hell for saying this -- even Bill Clinton. And you got to be a little bit positive, Paul.

BEGALA: I think the more optimistic party usually wins. Democrats are the party of optimism.

NOVAK: You couldn't tell that today.

BEGALA: Oh, you'll see. You'll see. Rick Cairns of Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, writes, "Paul, I must have heard incorrectly. I thought I heard you say we were paying Turkey $26 billion to stage our troops there. Let's see -- 40,000 troops, $26 billion. That's $650,000 per man to base our troops. Boy, I hope King George isn't able to line up any more allies. I don't think we can afford them."

Actually, Rick, your math is correct. You heard right.

NOVAK: Twenty-six billion is not a correct number there.

BEGALA: It'll be higher. It'll be more like $30 billion by the time we're done.

NOVAK: It isn't a correct number.

OK, next question. Is Cathy Ryan of New York City. "Bob Novak doesn't think putting the wrong heart and lungs in a young girl qualifies as malpractice, merely an unpleasant situation for trial lawyers to exploit the poor doctors. Please! I'm sure he would go searching for a trial lawyer in a second if he got a bad bottle of Metamucil!" (LAUGHTER)

NOVAK: Cathy, let me tell you something. I don't sue. I stay away from trial lawyers, believe me.

BEGALA: Oh, that's a great one. I can't even comment.

Dan Wallace of Pasadena, California, writes, "You know, the Iraqi desert and Paul Begala's forehead have a lot in common. Both are massive, desolate and filled with hot air."

Well, Dan!

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: You know, he's saying that because I make fun of Rush Limbaugh because Rush Limbaugh is a whole lot like the Bush tax plan, fat, bloated and appealing only to rich Republicans.

(LAUGHTER)

NOVAK: Question -- question -- let's go! Let's go! Come on! Let's go!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. My name's Andrew (ph) from Chicago, Illinois. My question's in regards to the French. Since the entire process (UNINTELLIGIBLE) going from the United Nations, the French have always opposed the United States. Why do Bush need to prove to the French what the war is about, and what do they offer the United States?

NOVAK: Well, the French have a lot of interests in the Middle East, oil interests, other interests. They -- so and -- but all I know is that Tony Blair is falling like a rock in the polls in England, and President Chirac is at 65 percent, which is incredible for Chirac.

BEGALA: This president needs to show some leadership, the way his father did in the last Gulf war, the way President Clinton did in Kosovo. The reason the world's not with us is because Bush is wrong.

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

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Join us again next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

"CONNIE CHUNG TONIGHT" begins right now.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com




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