CNN LARRY KING LIVE
Interview With Robert Byrd
Aired March 7, 2003 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, exclusive. The always outspoken Senator Robert Byrd, the dean of the Congress. A strong and passionate opponent of the administration's Iraq policy. He'll respond to last night's presidential news conference and we'll cover 50 years in office. He rarel y does interviews, but he's with us for the hour. Senator Robert Byrd next on LARRY KING LIVE.
Welcome to a very special edition of LARRY KING LIVE -- well, actually sort of semi-live. We taped this program at 2:00 p.m. this afternoon. Developments were still going on at the U.N., if everything major -- anything major broke after that, we apologize for not covering it during this segment.
We did request an administration official to appear, and they declined.
Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, 50 years of congressional service, six in the House, 44 in the Senate. Former Senate majority and minority leader, president pro tem emeritus of the Senate, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, and a member of the Armed Services Committee.
We thank you very much for being with us. As always, senator, it's good to see you.
SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Thank you.
KING: And what -- first, one news that broke late today was that Britain circulated a draft resolution that would give Iraq until March 17 to disarm. The French say no to that. What do you say?
BYRD: I think that Tony Blair and Britain are exactly right.
I think it would require at least that long, and I think that the -- that Tony Blair is really under great pressure here. He's taking great chances in his constituency. We all listen to our constituencies, but his constituency is about 85, 90, 95 percent against a war in Iraq at this moment.
KING: So he's right in asking for a date?
BYRD: Absolutely, he's right. And I think that the date of March 17 is not waiting too long at all. And I would hope that it would be that -- would turn out that way.
KING: Do you favor, that if that date is not met, we do go to war?
BYRD: Well, I'm not in favor of war in Iraq at this point. I don't see Iraq as being directly and imminently an enemy or an attacker or a danger to the United States. Iraq is not an imminent -- an imminent -- I mean, directly ready to attack the United States.
KING: But how about long range?
BYRD: Well, maybe. There are others that are more imminently threatening, for example, North Korea.
But we just ought to lay this out on the table. Iraq does not directly constitute an imminent threat to the United States or to the American people.
KING: But obvious, though, he's a despot, right? It's obvious there are a lot of things there that shouldn't be there for peace in the world.
BYRD: Yes, there's no question. He's a liar, he's a prevaricator, he delays, he -- I don't -- I hold no brief for him as an individual or for his policies. There's no question about that. But here we are, about to make war on a nation that has not provoked us into war. We're not under an attack. We're not under the threat of an imminent attack from Iraq.
KING: Have we ever started a war before?
BYRD: Certainly no major war as this -- as this -- as this -- as I see this.
Now, I would say that it's something to be concerned about, Iraq and Saddam Hussein. There's no brief for him. He's not to be trusted. He's not being forthright in coming up with the destruction of weapons. But he is doing it. Even under pressure, he's doing it.
KING: So why, then, you're -- you appear to agree with the French and the Germans, not with the British. So you say it's right for Tony Blair to want to set a date, but even with that date, you would not go in.
BYRD: I don't think we should at this point. At least we ought to give more time for the destruction of the weapons.
KING: And why do you...
BYRD: And that's being done in Iraq right now.
KING: Why do you approve, then, of the setting of a date?
BYRD: Well, I approve of that over what we're faced with otherwise.
We're faced with an imminent attack on Iraq, unilaterally, if it has to be, if we're (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if we're to listen to the president of the United States. He has said if the U.N. doesn't do it, we will.
And so when I think of a date, I think that's at least...
KING: Buying time.
BYRD: Buying time. And it gives Iraq that much time to get rid and to show that it's willing to go all the way.
KING: Do you think this is a fait accompli? Do you think we're going to war?
BYRD: Well, if I heard the president last night correctly, and if I've heard him repeatedly in recent months, I think he has his mind made up. I think he has had his mind made up to attack Iraq. And...
KING: Nothing he said last night persuaded you?
BYRD: Not -- to the contrary, no.
KING: Opposite of what he said.
BYRD: He talked last night like a man who is not willing to listen any further. He has stopped listening. And a president can't do that. A president of the United States has to listen, ought to listen.
KING: What do you make of Colin Powell, who used to be sort of more and more going for diplomacy, and now less and less?
BYRD: Well, I think he is being a good soldier.
KING: You think he doesn't agree with what they're doing, but because he's a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) general...
BYRD: I have problems believing that he does agree to the limit -- that those others who are around the president agree.
KING: Because of past disagreements?
BYRD: In part because of the past and his history as a soldier, as secretary of state. He has held many positions, and I've always found him to be open and very articulate and very -- I think he has exercised good judgment at all times. He's a very competent person.
KING: Well, he said today he finds the catalogue of noncooperation by Iraq, Iraq's small steps are not initiatives. They've been pulled out or pressed out under the threat of force. Cooperation is often more apparent than real. U.N. credibility is at stake.
BYRD: Well, I don't agree with that with respect to U.N. credibility being at stake, in the context that this administration says that. I think this administration is underlying -- undermining U.N. credibility.
KING: But the president keeps referring to 1441. BYRD: He does, 1441's there. But that is not a sufficient pretext to attack a country that constitutes no direct and imminent threat to this country.
KING: But 1441 does say comply, does it not, or...
BYRD: Well, it does that use that word of compliance. And there's no question but that Hussein is very slow to comply.
But we are seeing some compliance, and it is under threat, of course, and all that is to be said. But when we talk about war, we talk about the most serious issue that can face our country, war and peace.
And I think that we -- I think that history will show that if we attack this country, Iraq, that it was unwise and based on hasty thinking and thinking that is not willing to listen further.
KING: You've lived through a lot of history. Were you opposed to Vietnam?
BYRD: I was probably the last person out of Vietnam. I supported Lyndon Johnson, I supported Richard Nixon to the very last. I offered amendments on the floor of the Senate...
KING: Do you regret that?
BYRD: ... that were supportive of Nixon and his decision to defend American boys over in -- from attacks from Cambodia. And I took the position that a president has a duty and a responsibility to do everything he possibly can to protect American fighting men and women. When they're sent abroad to make war, he has a duty to protect them.
KING: This president says he has the duty to protect the interests of this country. Whether that's going to happen tomorrow or next year, he has to defend this country.
BYRD: The point is, this country isn't being attacked. The president is setting up a straw man here when he says that he has taken a constitutional oath to defend the constitution and so on, and it's his job to protect the American people.
Protect the American people from the -- from what? We're not -- the American people aren't being attacked, nor are they under threat of direct or imminent attack by Saddam Hussein and Iraq.
But they are under attack here at home. They're living daily and nightly under a constant threat here at home from unseen attackers who are right among us.
KING: Let me get a break and come back with more. Senator Robert Byrd is our guest tonight. We'll be back right after this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: I regret that not much has changed. Iraq's current behavior, like the behvaior chronicled in Dr. Blix's document reveals, its strategic decision to continue to delay, to decieve, to try to throw us off the trial, to make it more difficult to hope that the will of the international community will be fractured, that we will go off in directions, that we will get bored with the task, that we will remove the pressure, we will remove the force. And we know what has happened when that has been done in the past.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: By the way away on Monday evening, Senator Robert Dole, former leader, will be our guest for the full hour. Senator Robert Dole on Monday night.
Our guest tonight is Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia.
Has he shown you any link, the president, between al Qaeda and Iraq?
BYRD: No, absolutely not.
More than half of the American people, I would wager, believe that the attacks on the Twin Towers were carried out by Iraqis. Not a single Iraqi was among those attackers, those terrorists, those hijackers. There was not one Iraqi among -- in the whole group.
And the American people probably feel that one or more of them were attackers.
KING: And why do they feel that?
BYRD: Well, because they've been led to believe that. And this administration continues to try to construe something as a link when there is no evidence that Saddam Hussein or Iraq had anything to do with al Qaeda and that attack.
KING: But the administration has never said an Iraqi was involved, or an Iraqi...
BYRD: No, no.
KING: But you think they -- by the way they presented it led you to believe that?
BYRD: Well, it would be easy to jump to that conclusion with all the things that have been said about Iraq and its threat to the American people, and tying that in with al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks.
KING: But I asked you, I don't think I -- did you regret your feelings on Vietnam, in (UNINTELLIGIBLE)... BYRD: No, no, I don't regret (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
KING: You don't.
BYRD: No, not at all.
KING: The protests going on around the world, what do you make of that?
BYRD: Well, that -- to me, that's a strong indication that people around the world don't want this war, and that they don't -- and that they fear this administration, where it's leading us. They fear America.
When our friends get to the point that they fear us, then it's time we should sit up and take notice. And our friends fear us today.
KING: What do they fear -- what is France or Germany worried about?
BYRD: Well, of course, they're concerned about this doctrine of preemptive attack.
KING: And you think the average guy on the street, then, in Paris or in Berlin, fears us?
BYRD: I think they fear where we're going. They don't trust us. And the fact that this administration is building its military more than ever and applying more and more of its money, its budget, to the military, the fact that the president has said, in essence, to the U.N., If you don't, we will, and the doctrine of preemption that has been enunciated -- Our friends don't trust us. They don't know what -- where we're going with this.
KING: You've criticized Congress for not being more involved. In fact, on February 12, on the floor of the Senate, you said, "As the nation stands at the brink of battle, this chamber for the most part silent, no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and the cons."
Last night on this program, Senator John Warner of Virginia conceded that maybe the rafters of the Senate aren't ringing with rhetoric, but there've been more than two dozen Armed Services Committee meetings and briefings about Iraq since October.
BYRD: Well, say what they will, Congress has not lived up to its responsibility, and especially the Senate, where we can debate these things at length if we will, has not lived up to our duty under the constitution to ask questions. It is -- the administration leaves the impression that to ask questions is to be unpatriotic. It's not unpatriotic to ask questions.
And we have not asked enough questions. Congress has been recreant in its duty to ask questions of the administration. And we didn't do it prior to our vote on the resolution last October. We -- in the Senate, there were 23 of us who voted against the resolution. But here was the Senate of the United States -- can you imagine, the chamber in which the voices of John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, Benton of Missouri -- those voices -- and even at the time when I came to the Senate 44 years ago, the senators then would not have allowed themselves to be quiet.
KING: And why now?
BYRD: Well, I think that members felt that they would be charged with being unpatriotic. They saw the president as being very popular on this issue. And I think -- I don't -- I just think they were afraid to ask questions. And we -- and they were -- they felt that if they asked questions, if they debated it, they would be seen as being unpatriotic.
KING: All right. Let's discuss some of the things that the president said last night. The Security Council, he said, demanded this 12 years ago. So this is not just now they're not complying. You're talking about 12 years of noncompliance.
KING: When do you put a stop to that?
BYRD: Well, is it worth going to war?
KING: He says it is, apparently, when diplomacy fails.
BYRD: Well, I think he has stopped listening. He doesn't hear the protesters. He doesn't hear the people of the United States. I don't think the polls that we read are necessarily accurate.
When I made those speeches against the resolution last October, ceding, as it were, ceding the congressional constitutional responsibility and authority to declare war, ceding that to the president, when I made those speeches against that resolution, there were more than 20,000 telephone calls to my office in those four or five days. There were more than 50,000 e-mails.
The people out there -- what I said was -- the people were hearing it, they listened to it. And I don't think the administration is listening. I think the administration has its eyes closed, its ears closed, and its mind closed. Its mind is made up, has been made up for quite a long time.
And I don't think, regardless of how -- you can go back to the 1990s, but is this worth a war? We're accomplishing everything we need to.
KING: Well, what's your alternative? Keep inspectors there ad infinitum? What?
BYRD: I wouldn't say ad infinitum, but it's working. There need to be more inspectors, more time. And that's far better than killing people, killing innocent people, children, women, old people, putting our country into massive deficits, massive deficits, debt, sending American men and women across the seas. Watch them on television as the National Guard goes. I see the tears rolling down the cheeks, I...
KING: But tears always roll down cheeks (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
BYRD: Oh, of course they do. But something is being done, I think, here that is not necessary. Having a war, going to war, sending our people -- These people come from all walks of life. And what does that do to the -- to our protections here at home, when we send these National Guardsmen and -women off to war, we're sending firemen, policemen, we're sending health personnel, and we're leaving huge gaps here at home and giving the terrorists a wide-open opportunity to attack us here...
KING: So you think it makes us more vulnerable.
BYRD: I do, I do.
KING: We'll be right back with Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia.
Bob Dole Monday night. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BYRD: What would these signers of the constitution have to say about this Senate, which they -- they -- they created when they note the silence -- the silence that is deafening and emanates from this chamber on the great subject -- the great issue of war and peace. Nothing. Nothing is being said except by a few souls. Yet this chamber is hauntingly silent -- hauntingly silent.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My job is to protect America, and that's exactly what I'm going to do. People can ascribe all kinds of intentions. I swore to protect and defend the constituion -- that's what I swore to do. I put on the Bible and took that oath. And that's exactly what I am going to do. I believe Saddam Hussein is a threat to the American people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: We're back with Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Do we know the costs yet? What is this costing us so far? What have you approved in the Senate, or didn't you approve?
BYRD: The administration's asking for $399 billion, almost $400 billion, for -- in '04, and this year it was about $10 billion less than that. So we're spending lots of money, and we're increasing the military expenditures to over what has already been an extraordinarily huge military budget.
We are spending more on the military than all of the seven rogue nations put together, all of the remaining 18 NATO nations combined, plus China and Russia. The United States is spending more in its military budget than all of these nations combined.
KING: We're the only superpower.
BYRD: Well, we're the only superpower, but that's why we should be willing to sit down and listen. A superpower doesn't have to...
KING: Be super.
BYRD: ... doesn’t have to be the bully on the block, and that's exactly what we're appearing to be in the eyes of the world.
KING: What's the role of your party in all of this?
BYRD: Well, my party should ask more questions. My party should have stood with the 23 of us. I think one of those 23 was -- it was. One of the 23 was a Republican, a senator from Rhode Island, Mr. Chaffee, and that took courage.
But I think our responsibility as parties -- not just my party, but as the Republican Party as well and those who are Independents -- have a responsibility to listen and to ask questions and to raise -- and to challenge the administration in its head-long pursuit of war.
KING: But yesterday, your leadership -- Daschle and Pelosi -- slammed the Iraq policy, said it would be premature to invade.
BYRD: Well, I've been saying that. Yes, I've been saying that all along.
KING: Do you think more people in the Democratic Party should be speaking out against the president?
BYRD: Oh, I think so. I think -- I regret that the Senate as a whole rolled over and played dead and went along with the administration. Of course, the House was under the control of the Republican Party, the party of the administration. But the Senate failed in its duty, and I think history will charge us with having failed.
KING: Has the president lobbied you?
BYRD: No. It would do him absolutely no good, and I'm sure he knows that.
KING: So, he has not called you on this?
BYRD: No, indeed.
KING: Even early in the game? BYRD: Nor much of -- he hasn't called me on much of anything for that matter.
KING: What is the status as you see it...
BYRD: And I don't mind that.
KING: Let's -- I gather. Let's talk some other areas, the status of the war on terror. We caught a top al Qaeda operative, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Is that encouraging?
BYRD: Absolutely. Now, here...
KING: Over in Pakistan.
Here we see the CIA and the FBI doing their job. They didn't do this as a result of this creation of the Department of Homeland Security. These people have been on the job. This is the approach I think we need to continue to use. Having the FBI and the CIA continue to work with other countries and within other countries seriously, quietly, working with those countries, the people in those countries to track down the terrorists, to arrest them, to go after the finances of the terrorists. This is the way it ought to be done.
KING: Do you agree with the Department of Homeland Security?
KING: Do you like the idea of putting them all into one...
BYRD: No, I don't. I think that these people were already on the job, they were doing the job, and as we have gone about creating this new department, putting 22 agencies -- some say 27 or 8 or 9 -- into one huge department creates chaos, it distracts the people who have been doing this work all along. And I think it was a mistake.
I do think that the director of the Homeland Security effort should be confirmed by the Senate. I think you should come up before the Senate committees and the House committees and answer questions. But the president would not let Mr. Ridge come before the Senate Appropriations Committee back spring a year ago, and I think this was a mistake.
We were wanting to know what it would cost to wage an effective war against terrorism, so we were going to the administration's point- man, Mr. Ridge, trying to get him to come up before. And then so Ted Stevens and I wrote language into an appropriations bill requiring the director of Homeland Security to be confirmed by the Senate.
KING: This was a cabinet post.
BYRD: This was our way of saying you've got to come before the Senate. The administration saw that coming down like a big Mack truck and got ahead of the wave, proposed this big secret out of the bowels of the White House, a big secret organization of a huge bureaucracy as being...
BYRD: ... as being the answer, and that he was (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
KING: A lot of rumors around today about Osama bin Laden and a possible capture. Do you think we're going to get him?
BYRD: Well, I think we will, if he doesn't -- do you remember Hannibal? Hannibal was determined that the Romans...
KING: You probably knew him.
BYRD: Hannibal -- Strom Thurmond may have known him. But Hannibal was determined that the Romans would never get him alive. And I don't know what Osama bin Laden may be thinking or whether he's carrying around poison in a ring or a bracelet...
KING: Did Hannibal get captured or not?
BYRD: No. No, he killed himself when he saw the Romans closing in on him. But I do think, in your words, we'll finally get him if he doesn't get killed by somebody else.
KING: What's you're -- you've seen 11 presidents while in Congress. You served under 11 presidents.
BYRD: No, I haven't served under any of them. I served with them.
KING: With them. You serve under no one. How do you...
BYRD: Not under presidents.
KING: How do you assess this administration overall?
BYRD: I don't think it's listening. I perceive that it looks upon the legislative branch as a subordinate branch to the executive branch. I don't think it fully understands the separation of powers, checks and balances. And I think that the president is surrounded by a group of super hawks, and I think that he gets some wrong advice many times, probably in this very situation. And...
KING: Do you think there are no dissident voices in the administration?
BYRD: I think the administration is -- oh, I'm sure there are some dissident voices. Secretary of State Powell was a dissident voice. He was. And there are some. But I think that it's an administration that's secretive and...
KING: Domestically as well?
BYRD: Domestically as well. It is secretive. It likes to operate out of the White House, out of a close level group of dominant figures, and I don't think it's -- I don't think it comes forthright and above the board with the American people. I don't think it tells them the truth.
KING: Of the 11 presidents you have served with, does any compare?
BYRD: None. No. This is the most partisan administration that I can remember having served with.
KING: So, you're including Reagan, Eisenhower?
BYRD: I am. I think Eisenhower -- I liked Eisenhower. As a Republican, he's my favorite during my time. And Truman is my favorite during my time.
Now, back on this problem that we're seeing here. Here we've seen this administration come forward with another big idea of having a war in Iraq as a way of bringing peace to the Middle East. I think that's a pipe dream. Here's another area in which the president has not asked the Congress any questions, has not sought...
KING: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in his speech last week.
BYRD: He hasn't (UNINTELLIGIBLE). He has not thought this out with the Congress. He has not thought it out -- the administration has not thought this out with the American people.
What's the cost of this thing? After this war, what's the cost of the war in terms of casualties, in terms of dollars and cents, in terms of our image before world? What's the cost to us? And then after the war, the morning after, what's the cost of rebuilding Iraq. If we're going to destroy the country, we have a responsibility to rebuild it and help rebuild it.
KING: You've said that repeatedly.
BYRD: What's going to be the cost? We've asked for dollars and cents, but the administration says, well -- it pretty much says, well, we'll let you know when we send up the supplemental.
KING: The truth is, we may not know the cost.
KING: Let me get a break. We'll be back with more with Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HANS BLIX, CHIEF U.N. WEAPONS INSPECTOR: How much time would it take to resolve the key disarmament tasks? While cooperation can, and cooperation can and is to be immediate, disarmament (UNINTELLIGIBLE) verification of it cannot not be instant. Even with a proactive Iraqi attitude induced by continued outside pressure, it will still take some time to verify sites and items, analyze documents, interview relevant persons and draw conclusions. It would not take years, nor weeks, but months.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: We're back with Senator Robert Byrd.
You're talking about cost, but isn't it true in all wars, you never know how long a war's going to last? Did Roosevelt estimate in 1941 how long World War II would last...
BYRD: Of course, you don't know what these costs are going to be, but you can level with the Congress. You can say as of to now, this is the way we see it. Instead of that, we get the idea in listening to the administration, well, what's the use of telling them. We'll let them know when we want to let them know. When we sent up...
KING: You think it's that arrogant.
BYRD: Yes, it is arrogant. Arrogant! We'll let them know when we send up our supplemental. I saw the same thing in the war on -- in the business of Homeland Security. They told me in a letter, we'll let you know what we think the cost, what we think we need. But we think you're asking for too much, you see.
They turned their back on me when I offered an amendment to add $5 billion for Homeland Security in the Omnibus Appropriations bill. They turned their back on me when I offered an amendment to add $3 billion to...
KING: Why didn't they want that?
BYRD: ... to help the firefighters, the policeman, the local health emergency people and to help patrol the borders and to protect the nuclear facilities.
They opposed my amendments, and then they opposed -- the president turned his back on my proposal and the Appropriations Committee proposal, which was unanimous, which was voted for by 15 Democrats and 14 Republicans to add $2.5 billion as an emergency for the people on the local levels. The administration turned its back on that, and that $2.5 billion was never sent because of the administration's arrogance and their stubbornness.
KING: Senator Dodd of Connecticut, a Democrat who voted for the goings on in Iraq and still favors it, said last night that he fears the North Korea situation much worse. Do you?
BYRD: Yes, I do. North Korea constitutes a direct and imminent threat to the American people. Now, we had the CIA director just in open session a few days ago in the Armed Services Committee state that North Korea has a nuclear -- has the ability to deliver a nuclear weapon now. Now, there's the imminent threat.
KING: What would you do about that?
BYRD: Well, I think that this administration ought to be willing to sit down and talk with the leader of the North Koreans.
KING: You mean, propose a summit of some sort?
BYRD: Why not? We're the superpower. We ought to sit down and talk with him. Talking is better than fighting. And at the moment, we're being stubborn, and we're saying we won't talk with him.
Now, we need to get off that high horse. If we want -- if the president wants to really deal with a direct threat to the security of the American people, then he needs to talk with North Korea. But instead, this business of fighting a war in Iraq is distracting our attention from that imminent threat, Iraq.
It's also doing this: if we have a war in the Middle East, we're going to be -- we're going to be instead of helping the war on our homeland, homeland security, war on our on soil, we're turning these people against us. They fear us. They don't know what we're going to do, where we're going with this doctrine of dropping the first bomb.
KING: If you got nowhere with North Korea, would you consider action against them? Would that be a preventative war you would favor?
BYRD: I favor talking. Talking beats fighting. We're not talking. The president spoke last night of North Korea as being a regional problem. That's a world problem, not just regional.
Well, then if that's just a regional problem, what is Saddam Hussein and Iraq? That is a regional problem. It is taking place in a region that is volatile and that throughout history has seen these enmities come and grow. And yet...
KING: Do you feel...
BYRD: I think what we're doing when we go into Iraq, we're going to turn nations away from us that we need as we proceed with the war on terrorism.
KING: Do you feel safe in America? Do you feel...
BYRD: No, I do not. I do not. And I've never felt this way since the Cuban crisis in 1962, but I feel it now.
KING: Where were you on 9/11?
BYRD: On 9/11, I was driving to my office, talking with my office in Charleston, West Virginia -- the offices in Charleston, West Virginia. I was driving to my Washington office, and the lady in the Charleston office said, "They've just bombed the Twin Towers." That's the first time I had heard it.
KING: We'll be right back with Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Bob Dole on Monday night. Don't go away.
KING: We're back with Senator Robert Byrd.
The president spoke optimistically last week about the possibility of peace in the Middle East with the Palestinians and the Israelis, the forming of a Palestinian state, the guarantee of Israelis right to exist. You see that coming?
BYRD: Not in his pipe dream I do not. I think he should long ago have gotten back to this being an honest broker in the Middle East...
KING: Mr. Clinton was.
BYRD: ... between the Israelis and the Palestinians. They want to see an honest broker. We are not perceived as an honest broker. We're perceived as being -- as not being even-handed. And that's what we're going to have to be. We're going to have to be even-handed if we can bring -- if we ever bring those two forces together.
And I think it's all important that we do this. I think this is at the root of the problem in the Middle East, the volatility, the killing in the Middle East.
KING: After Iraq, do you think we'll get back to it?
BYRD: I don't know. We may so poison, the feelings of nations in the Middle East, peoples in the Middle East, we may so poison them that they won't -- that we will have made things very much worse, and they don't trust us now. The key word is "trust."
KING: Let's touch some other bases. Do you have a favorite candidate among the announced Democrats?
BYRD: I do not at the moment.
KING: Are you leaning toward anyone?
BYRD: No, I'm not leaning.
KING: Do you think you have a chance to defeat this president?
BYRD: Oh, I think if the people are able to concentrate on domestic matters -- homeland security, the dangers that confront us here in this country...
KING: The economy.
BYRD: ... the budget, the deficits, the economy, jobs -- yes, I think he can be defeated.
KING: What did you make of the whole Trent Lott thing? I know you didn't speak out much on it. And you've had your -- the thing you regret the most in your life was having once been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I guess everyone you knew was at that time. But that's your biggest regret, isn't it?
BYRD: It is.
KING: What did you make of the Trent Lott thing and the Thurmond thing?
BYRD: Well, this was a thing that the Republicans had to deal with, and they dealt with it.
KING: Were you shocked when he made the statement?
BYRD: Well, I thought it was a mistake.
KING: Mistake on his part. How's he doing in the Senate? Do you see him?
BYRD: I see him. He's showing -- I think he's busy working at trying to be a senator from the state of Mississippi.
KING: Isn't that hard to come down a peg?
BYRD: I would imagine so.
KING: Senator Frist, how's he doing?
BYRD: Fine. He came to see me and asked to come to see me prior to his being chosen as -- by his caucus, and we spent about two hours or two-and-a-half hours talking. And he asked my opinion as to how things should be done, and wanted to know my views on what I saw as the important things that we ought to talk about.
I told him that I thought the best thing he could do was to ensure that there was adequate debate on all questions, and I didn't think there -- I had thought that there had not been. And I thought that the Senate as the forum for debate and for amendments and as being the foremost upper body in the world today was not debating things enough...
KING: What did he say?
BYRD: ... and I would hope that he -- I expressed the hope that he would conduct the programs in such a way that senators would not be shut out of debate and offering amendments.
KING: What did he say?
BYRD: He -- I think he approved of that, and thus far, I think he's moving in that direction.
KING: Because you held that job.
BYRD: Yes, I did.
KING: Back with our remaining moments with Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, right after this.
KING: We have only a few moments remaining.
There's another side about -- of Senator Byrd you may not know. He is a fiddle of some repute. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the minority leader of the United States Senate from West Virginia, the Honorable Robert Byrd. So here they are, the CMA's silver anniversary, the Blue Grass Band.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hit it, fiddles.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: I believe that was at the Country Music Awards. You're pretty good. Did you ever record?
BYRD: No, not to amount to anything.
KING: How good a fiddler are you?
BYRD: I was a pretty good fiddler. I enjoyed it, but I can't fiddle anymore because I have this benign essential tremor in my fingers.
KING: You do? It doesn't show.
BYRD: Well, it does if you watch closely.
KING: You have a cameo role in "Gods and Generals," Ted Turner's new movie which got great reviews. Who do you play?
BYRD: I play General Semmes.
BYRD: Confederate general.
KING: Do you die? Do they kill you in the movie, or are you...
BYRD: I'm 85 and I'm still living.
KING: No, but in the movie.
BYRD: No, I don't die in the movie.
KING: How is your health?
BYRD: Well, it's fine, I think. It's good for a person who has seen as much as I have seen and traveled as long as I've been traveling. KING: We ran a statistic. Of the 11,707 people who have sworn a congressional oath of office, only three served longer than you. And on March 17, the date the British want to be the date, you will surpass the late Georgian Congressman Carl Vinson and become the third longest serving member of Congress. How does that make you feel?
BYRD: Well, I'm proud to be a member of the United States Senate. As long as there is a forum in which questions can be asked of men who do not stand in awe of a chief executive, questions can be asked and one can speak as long as his feet will allow him to stand, the liberties of the American people will be secure.
KING: Where are you in the current term?
BYRD: This is my third year in a six-year term.
KING: Will you run again?
BYRD: Only God knows.
KING: If your current state of health remains that it is now, would you run again? Assuming three years from now, you're still the same?
BYRD: Well, I don't know. I'll reach that creek, and I'll roll my bridges up when I get to that creek.
KING: That's cute. That's a cute line.
What do you make, by the way, of former President Carter winning the Nobel peace prize?
BYRD: I was glad to see that happen. I think he has done very well as an ex-president. And I think that he did better as a president than many of his contemporaries, including myself, were willing to accede at the time.
KING: In retrospect.
KING: Senator Byrd, it's an honor having you with us.
BYRD: Thank you.
KING: And next time you come back, we hope that you'll be a little more outspoken on issues. You know, it's so hard to get you this wishy-washy attitude.
KING: Senator Robert Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, 50 years of congressional service, and on March 17, he will be the third longest of point of service ever.
Be back in a minute and tell you about the weekend and tomorrow. Don't go away.
KING: Tomorrow night Ozzy Osbourne and his wife Sharon will be the guests. On Sunday night on LARRY KING WEEKEND, La Toya Jackson. And Monday night, Senator Robert Dole, former United States senator, former presidential candidate.
"NEWSNIGHT" with Aaron Brown is straight ahead.
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