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CNN CROSSFIRE

Is Mideast Peace Mission Impossible?; Cronkite Agrees to Write Syndicated Newspaper Column

Aired June 3, 2003 - 16:30   ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left: James Carville and Paul Begala. On the right: Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson. In the CROSSFIRE, making the turn from warmaker to peacemaker.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am committed to helping all the parties to reach the hard and heroic decisions that will lead to peace

ANNOUNCER: But in the Middle East, and for this president, is that mission impossible?

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: He had wonderful personal interaction with these leaders today.

ANNOUNCER: Plus, Walter Cronkite comes clean on his politics. And, would you believe Senator Katherine the Great? Today on CROSSFIRE.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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

(APPLAUSE)

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Hello, everybody. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. President Bush today took a personal role in the search for peace in the Middle East, meeting with Arab leaders. But back at home a Bush administration official told "The Washington Post" the president, "does not have the knowledge or the patience" to master the Middle East.

Is our president in over his head, or are his own officials misunderestimating him? In a minute, we'll ask a couple of members of Congress to debate that. But first, the best political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE Political Alert.

Both parties here in Washington are scrambling to deal with the revelation that President Bush broke his word and denied tax cuts to the parents of 12 million children. Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas has proposed giving a child tax credit to the parents of every child in America. It would cost $3.5 billion. But Republican Senator Charles Grassley's version costs $80 billion. Why? Because the Republican would hold help for poor children hostage to making some of the Bush tax cuts for the rich permanent.

Said Grassley, "Maybe I'm trying to take advantage of a political uproar to get as much permanence as I can and be as expansive as I can." Maybe?

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Paul, you know you bring this issue up every night, so I have to explain it to you ever night. And I want you to listen to me this time. As a matter of fact, the people who don't pay taxes do not get income tax cuts. And the people without children, even if they do pay taxes, do not get a children's tax credit. Why can't you understand that?

BEGALA: Because it's not true.

NOVAK: It is true.

BEGALA: These people pay taxes and they pay income taxes. And according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who analyze this with experts, Bush misled us. He promised a tax cut to everybody that pays taxes. He broke his word. Tens of millions of Americans.

NOVAK: That's a left-wing organization.

BEGALA: It's an accurate organization.

NOVAK: Democrats have always prided themselves on being a welcome to all party that welcomes all kinds of oddballs and deviants. It still does, with one big exception. The Capitol Hill newspaper, "Roll Call" reports that the Web site of the Democratic National Committee links Internet users to 279 political and advocacy groups. But it has turned down number 280, an anti-abortion group called Democrats for Life.

Pleas from Democratic Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska and 17 Democratic House members have been to no avail. The message? We don't want no pro-lifers around here. So much for the party of the big tent.

BEGALA: Well it is the party of the big tent. That is a mistake; you're right to raise it. But not only Ben Nelson, John Breaux. There are a whole lot of Democrats out there who are pro-life and have a place in the Democratic Party.

NOVAK: So they made a mistake.

BEGALA: Yes, they did. But the Republicans make a mistake when they believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth, as Barney Frank says. We should take care of children after they're born as well.

NOVAK: Can I make a suggestion? Why don't you call your friend Terry McAuliffe, Democratic national chairman, who has done nothing right since he's been in office. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) I'm going to put that link on the Web site.

BEGALA: He's been a great chairman. But the Republicans should prove that they care about children by supporting...

NOVAK: I don't think you really believe that.

BEGALA: Why do they (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tax cuts to children whose parents need them?

Well the election-stealing former secretary of state of Florida, Katherine Harris, has only been in the Congress for five months. But already some of her supporters are talking about running her for the United States Senate. You see, Florida's senior senator, Democrat Bob Graham, is running for president and he's doing quite well. So if Harris runs, she's expected to be opposed, of course, by liberals who can't forget her role in rigging the 2000 election in Florida, as well as Dalmation owners who confuse her with her look-alike, Cruella Deville.

Of course it would be poetic justice if Senator Graham, a national security genius, really, who is an expert on the use of botulinum toxin as a weapon, was replaced by Katherine Harris, who is an expert herself on the use of botulinum toxin as a cosmetic.

NOVAK: You know, one of the lowest forms of political criticism is to criticize the appearance of a person. And when you criticize a woman's appearance, you're really going to the low decks.

I think Congresswoman Harris would be an excellent candidate for the Senate. And the only people who don't are the people who can't get over the fact that George W. Bush is in the White House and she helped to put him there.

BEGALA: That she stole. She helped him steal the election. Winning fair and square is fine, but she helped him steal it. I can't get over it.

She deserves ridicule; she deserves (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And Al Gore deserves the White House.

NOVAK: I've been telling you for two and a half years, get over it, baby, because nothing is going to change.

BEGALA: That's because (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

NOVAK: After decades of saying no, Walter Cronkite has agreed to write a syndicated newspaper column. Good for Walter, at age 86. But get a load of what he told "Washington Post" columnist Lloyd Grove.

"I would call myself a liberal," Mr. Cronkite said. After all those years, opposing is a down the middle objective CBS anchor. And then he said his first column would be devoted to "pointing out what is a liberal and explaining why I think most reporters are liberals."

We all knew that, of course. But what will Walter's friends say when Walter exposes them? BEGALA: Walter Cronkite is a great American. I'm glad he's doing this at age 86. I welcome him to the debate. But the notion that the media is anything but dominated by right wing conservatives is nonsense.

NOVAK: Is he wrong, then?

BEGALA: He's uninformed; he's wrong. He's been out of the business for 25 years. Today's media is dominated by Rupert Murdoch and a bunch of knuckle-dragging thugs on the far right. We need another (UNINTELLIGIBLE). God bless Uncle Walter.

NOVAK: Everybody knows that everybody in this media are liberal...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Rupert Murdoch...

NOVAK: Can I talk while you're interrupting?

BEGALA: Yes, sir. Forgive me.

NOVAK: All the people who work at CNN are liberals. And you know it's really something that Walter Cronkite is calling a spade a spade.

BEGALA: You're not a liberal. You're one of the finest minds of the 12th century, but you're not a liberal. You're a conservative, Bob.

NOVAK: Sooner or later, every U.S. president has to deal with the mess in the Middle East. Next in the CROSSFIRE, can George W. Bush succeed where so many others have failed?

And later, in "Rapid Fire," the search for Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: President Bush met with moderate Arab leaders today in Egypt. The meeting was a prelude to tomorrow's peace summit in which the president will sit down with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The road map to peace is supposed to end with the state of Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side.

Is that mission impossible? In the CROSSFIRE from Capitol Hill are Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings of Florida and Republican Congressman Peter King of New York.

(APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Gentlemen, thank you both for joining us. REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Thanks, Paul.

REP. ALCEE HASTINGS (D), FLORIDA: Good to be here.

BEGALA: Congressman King, if, hypothetically, you were our president, even though you're a Republican and I'm a Democrat, I have to say you have a deep knowledge of the pursuit of peace. You were one of the leaders in bringing peace to northern Ireland. You know an awful lot about the Middle East. But that's not what our current president's own aides are saying about him.

It's quite stunning. The front page of today's "Washington Post" quotes a Bush administration official, not a partisan opponent, saying the following -- and I'm quoting from a Bush official. "President Bush does not have the knowledge or the patience to learn this issue enough to have an end destination in mind."

That's stunning, when even his own officials say he's not up to the job. Isn't it, Congressman?

KING: Paul, what's more stunning, after all your years -- first of all, thanks for the compliments, but now I have to attack you. After all your years in politics and you're going to pay attention to an anonymous source, a malcontent in the administration.

If the person doesn't have the guts to say it up front, then I really just don't pay any attention to what they said. The reality is the president is making progress. All the talk with demonstrations, the Arab streets, how the Arabs are going to turn against us. The fact is, the president was greeted by the Arab leaders today.

The fact is, there's already been a regime change among the Palestinians and that Arafat is not the negotiator. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is, and he has already gotten Ariel Sharon -- or persuaded Ariel Sharon to say much of the things the Palestinians were looking for and the Arabs were looking for as far as occupation and as far as the willingness to sit down and negotiate honestly with the Palestinians.

So I think this is already off to a good start. But you know more than anyone, this is a treacherous path. But he's going the right way.

NOVAK: Congressman Hastings, I'm sure that, unlike Paul Begala, you can get away from the Bush bashing for a moment. And can't you give him credit for the fact that it looked very much like the road map to peace with -- a Palestinian state was dead? And the president has breathed new life into it. Don't you have to give him credit for that?

HASTINGS: I think that you raise a good point, Bob. And I think anyone is to be credited at that level.

However, I do feel that it's two and a half years that have passed in the Bush administration without any commitment from him. The question is, is he going to have the staying power? You and I know that it is critically important that the final stages dealing with the return of refugees, dealing with the removal of illegal outposts -- if they are to be called that -- I just call them settlements -- or dealing with Jerusalem are going to be the tough issues. And is President Bush going to stay? But, yes, I give him credit for starting. I just think it's two and a half years too late.

BEGALA: Congressman King, I want to come back to this, though. You said that this Bush aide who said that he wasn't up to the job, you know, that wasn't credible because he didn't give his name. Well, of course, in Washington, that is how White House officials and other officials in the government protect themselves when they want to criticize the boss.

But let me get beyond that and take someone who was quoted by name in the story. His name is George Bush himself. Our president was quoted in "The Washington Post" today describing the issues of the borders of Israel, the borders of Palestine and the status of Jerusalem as -- and I'm quoting him -- "all of those old issues." What does he think he's going to work on, the colors of the Palestinian flag?

KING: The fact is that, despite what my good friend Al said, the last two and a half years have been a prelude to what's happening this week. After what happened at Camp David -- remember, I fully supported what Bill Clinton tried to do at Camp David in 2000. But once Arafat showed he was incapable of leading the Palestinians and accepting the offer that was on the table, President Bush gave Ariel Sharon the opportunity to clear the battlefield, if you will, in Israel. He also said a year ago that Arafat had to be removed as the main negotiator for the Palestinians.

All that's happened. Plus, the victories in Afghanistan, the victories in Iraq have paved the way for this.

No, I think what President Bush is saying is he does not intend to personally involve himself in every last detail. If Sharon and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) will be at the table, the United States being there as an honest broker, working with them, along with the other countries who make up the quartet, the fact is those issues can be resolved by people of good faith if they want to.

Obviously, if the United States has to come in on different issues we will. But ultimately the idea is to get parties who are willing to talk, negotiate in good faith. And then those issues can pretty much not resolve themselves but be resolved by men and women of good will.

HASTINGS: But you see, Peter, we got off to an ominous start -- yes, Bob?

NOVAK: Congressman Hastings, in today's "Washington Post" Yoseph Alfer, who is a distinguished defense analyst in Israel, former intelligence officer, was quoted as saying this. And we'll put his quote up on the screen. "What's infusing a sense of optimism more than anything is Bush's rhetoric and the sense of just how determined he is. Washington is a far more important decision-making place than Jerusalem and Ramallah."

I think it's always been clear that this thing is not going to go without the president. You say he waited two and a half years, but my goodness, let's give him credit for really, as Mr. Alpher says, as really breathing life into the whole situation.

HASTINGS: Yes, but following off of what Peter said, Bob, you wouldn't want us to ignore the ominous signs that took place even in the meeting that you want to give the president credit for and I think he rightly deserves for a start. The fact of the matter is that Ariel Sharon wasn't permitted to come to Egypt because Mubarak didn't want him on his soil.

The fact of the matter is that the European Union, the part of the quartet that Peter was talking about, are still dealing with Arafat and have made it very clear. I think when the president's signs show that he has Russia and the European Union actively engaged after the meeting on tomorrow, and when there are meetings that follow up on that, I think that that's going to be important.

There are some wild cards out there. And Arafat is definitely one of them.

BEGALA: Congressman King, when the president passed his education bill, No Child Left Beyond, he said he had a commitment to funding it. He broke that commitment. When we went to war in Afghanistan he said he had a commitment to rebuilding that country. He's walked away from that commitment. How can anybody in the Middle East depend on this man to keep the commitments that he's making today?

KING: Well, first of all, we won the war in Afghanistan. We are keeping the commitment there. It's going to be a long, hard road, but we are keeping it, just as we're keeping it in Iraq.

And the fact is, those results bring about results. And that's why the Arab leaders met with President Bush today. That's why Ariel Sharon obviously is taking President Bush very seriously.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE) is. He's getting results. Those in the area -- you know, all you people on the left were talking about the Arab streets, how the Arabs walk away from us. The fact is, after the war in Iraq, President Bush is being greeted with open arms by the Arab leaders, which is a testament to his strength and a it's a testament to the great victory the United States has achieved. And the fact is, we now have brought about a situation where, for the first time in two and a half years, there is a real chance to make progress.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Keep that thought for just a second, Congressman. We're going to have to go to a quick break. But after that break Wolf Blitzer will have all of the headlines for you, including the latest on Martha Stewart's legal problems. And then we will come back and have "Rapid Fire," where we will ask our two congressmen if President Bush has blown his credibility by claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

And then later, how can the Feds go after poor Martha Stewart but leave the corrupt CEOs alone? Stay with us.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Time now for "Rapid Fire," the quickest question-and- answer session on television. When President Bush said that Saddam Hussein had WMD, he meant, of course, weapons of mass destruction. Now that no weapons have been found, some are questioning whether Mr. Bush was telling us whoppers of massive dimensions.

We are debating weapons and credibility with Florida Democratic Congressman Alcee Hastings and New York Republican Congressman Peter King.

NOVAK: Congressman Hastings, even if they never found any weapons of mass destructions in Iraq, are we or are we not better off with Saddam Hussein out of power?

HASTINGS: We are better off without Saddam Hussein out of power. But with the central argument being that there were weapons of mass destruction as the reason for why we went into the war, we certainly need to know whether or not there was a misinterpretation of analysis.

BEGALA: Congressman King, it is indisputable that Saddam Hussein did not use weapons of mass destruction in the war. Was that because either, A, he didn't have them, or, B, he was just too nice a guy?

KING: Well, like you, he is a nice guy. No, the reality is, Bill Clinton said he had weapons of mass destruction, Al Gore said it. Even Hans Blix said, yes, they had thousands of tons of chemical and biological weapons can't be accounted for.

It would be absolutely irresponsible for any leader of the United States to assume that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction. If he got rid of them, why didn't he show it? So I believe George Bush and I believe Bill Clinton, and I will leave you and the left wing of the Democratic Party to resolve that.

NOVAK: Congressman Hastings, do you think it's possible that Saddam Hussein or his confederates took the weapons of mass destruction and carried them into Syria?

HASTINGS: Anything is possible, but there is nothing definitive in the intelligence community that suggests that, Bob.

BEGALA: Congressman King, do you support a full public investigation of the information the president was given and the information the president gave the American people on weapons of mass destruction? KING: Yes, I would support a full investigation. How public it should be, I don't know, since we're talking about sources of information. But, no, I have no problem at all with an investigation.

BEGALA: Congressman Peter King, Democrat of New York, thank you very much. Congressman Hastings, thank you as well.

NOVAK: It's time for today's CROSSFIRE Ask the Audience question. Do you think weapons of mass destruction will be found in Iraq? Members of our studio audience, vote on your audience voting devices.

Press one for, yes, you think weapons will be found. Or, two, for no, you don't think weapons of mass destruction will be found. We'll tabulate the results -- Paul and I will -- and give you the answer in just a moment.

And in "Fireback," one of Martha Stewart's defenders suggest a different target for federal prosecutors.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Time now to look at our audience poll. We asked the audience members here in our studio to tell us whether they believe weapons of mass destruction would be found.

Look at this red line, Bob. Almost all the Republicans, 84 percent, say, you bet, yes. And almost all the Democrats, 80 percent, say, no. The Republicans must be listening to Don Imus who says they'll find the weapons when they arrive from Federal Express from the CIA headquarters.

(APPLAUSE)

NOVAK: It's amazing night after night how these things break down on party lines.

BEGALA: It is. It's amazing.

Jan in Omaha has our first e-mail. "When will the deception of this administration end? From tax cuts, to WMDs, to support for the assault weapons ban, their noses are growing longer each day. And last week I think I actually saw one of their pants on fire."

Well...

NOVAK: I think you're writing Jan's material.

BEGALA: No, it's too good for me to do it.

NOVAK: OK. Gary Black of Hickory, North Carolina, says, "Paul, how is this for a devious plot? Bush lets you Democrats whine about not finding WMDs in Iraq for a year and then huge stockpiles are found in August of 2004, making the Democratic nominee look like a fool? That won't be hard." BEGALA: No, I believe Bush when he said they have weapons. I just always argued he wouldn't use them. And we know he didn't use them, even if he had them. So we didn't need the war.

Marvin Higgins in New York City writes: "Bush's U.S. Attorney in New York is going to indict Martha Stewart. Hey, where is Ken Lay, Bush's good friend?" Well, that's a good question, Marvin.

NOVAK: You just don't like (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

OK. The last e-mail is from Norberto Duenas of Montreal, Quebec. "Novak has been insisting that those earning $20,000 or less are not paying taxes. In his demagogic mentality, shouldn't these people be charged with tax evasion?" You know, I have found nothing but ignoramuses from Canada. And Norberto fits the mold -- question?

BEGALA: Thank you for your -- yes, sir, your comment or question?

BRIAN: OK. Brian (ph) from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. My question is, do you think the president is actually committed to peace in the Middle East or that he's using it as a political ploy for re- election?

NOVAK: I think he is committed to peace in the Middle East, but it's going to be very hard. I don't think there's any doubt about it, but you have to try, and he's trying.

BEGALA: As the chief Bush critic -- and I take a backseat to no one -- I think he's honestly and 100 percent committed to peace in the Middle East. I think his efforts are noble there, but I'm stunned that his own advisers say he doesn't have the brains or the willpower or the capacity to do the job. That's what's stunning to me...

NOVAK: Well, I'd like to know the names of those people.

BEGALA: Well, Glenn Kessler (ph) of "The Post" wrote that. He's a good reporter. He wouldn't make it up.

From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak. Be sure to tune in tomorrow, when Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton in person steps into the CROSSFIRE. "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" right now.

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