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JUDY WOODRUFF'S INSIDE POLITICS

Bush's Defense of State of the Union Drawing Comparison to Clinton

Aired July 14, 2003 - 16:00   ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: The questions keep coming. And the Bush administration keeps tweaking it's defense.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: I think this remains an issue about did Iraq seek uranium in Africa. We don't know if it's true, but nobody, but nobody can say it is wrong.

ANNOUNCER: Critics wonder is the Bush White House starting to sound Clinton-esq?

Howard Dean's campaign chief waxes about his candidate's sudden surge and warns Washington is too liberal with political labels.

JOE TRIPPI, DEAN CAMPAIGN MANAGER: It's left, right, conservative, liberal, McGovernite, Goldwater. Talk is meaningless.

ANNOUNCER: On the stump, with Jerry Springer. What does the talk show host hope to get out of a campaign for Senate?

JERRY SPRINGER, WOULD-BE SENATE CANDIDATE: This job isn't going to make me rich, famous or put me on television.

ANNOUNCER: Now, live from Washington, JUDY WOODRUFF'S INSIDE POLITICS.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for joining us.

In recent days it seems the Bush administration has stirred the controversy over its pre-war claims about Iraq every time one official or another offered an explanation. Today, the president tried again to put the uproar to rest during a photo-op with the U.N. secretary- general. Mr. Bush said his State of the Union remark that Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa was relevant at the time. And even though the CIA signed off on that disputed line, Mr. Bush expressed confidence in the information he's getting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the intelligence I get is darn good intelligence. And the speeches I have given were backed by good intelligence. And I am absolutely convinced today like I was convinced when I gave the speeches that Saddam Hussein developed a program of weapons of mass destruction.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: Well, Democrats, though, aren't letting up in their criticism of the administration and their questions about its credibility.

Let's bring in our congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl. Jonathan, the White House keeps saying or is now saying the story's over. What's the big deal? What are people saying on the Hill?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the White House certainly says this whole situation -- the president's moved on from this question about uranium in Africa. But the Senate Intelligence Committee continues its work. As one Republican on that committee told us, We continue to do our work. Nothing has changed here.

And for Democrats, the fact that the CIA director has accepted responsibility for the line getting into the president's speech raises more questions than it answers. Democrats are asking, OK, if the CIA director failed to take it out of the speech, who put it in in the first place?

And the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, Jay Rockefeller, is aiming his fire squarely at the National Security Adviser. In an interview on National Public Radio, Rockefeller said, quote, "Condoleezza Rice has her director of intelligence. She has her own Iraq and Africa specialist. And it's just beyond me that she didn't know about this and that she has decided to George Tenet the fall person, I think it's dishonorable."

So clearly Democrats are gearing up for a fight on this. That's in the committee. And politically, as you well know, Judy, they are talking a lot about this. At the NAACP Forum which is going on right now in Miami, already you've had John Edwards say, essentially, that the president has a hard time with the truth. And he wasn't just talking about the 16 words. But that's clearly the reference which drew the applause down there in Miami -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Oh, I'm sorry, Jon. I expected something to come up here.

Jon, what about -- you just mentioned George Tenet. He is going to be up on the Hill this week. So is the British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Given all this, what sort of reception should they expect?

KARL: Well, there will certainly be a lot of activity on the Hill. George Tenet is going to be up here on Wednesday, testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee. That will be a closed hearing. No cameras, no reporters present. It is a classified hearing.

But we've been told that all of this meeting was previously scheduled. Tenet will be talking about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He will face some very tough questions on this. Although there has been some circling of the wagons up here among Republicans. Ted Stevens on the floor of the Senate just a short while ago came out and defended Tenet, had this to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. TED STEVENS (R), ALASKA: I can assure the Senate that he's always been fair and just and open with us. Mr. Tenet is responsible for the accuracy of intelligence information that his agency provides to the president and the Congress, and he has now acknowledged the CIA's error in interpreting data related to the president's state of the union comment about Iraq.

For this, I think he should be commended, and that's why I come to the floor to commend him for his actions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KARL: As for Tony Blair, he will be up here addressing a joint meeting of the Congress. This is the opportunity for the Congress to thank Tony Blair for Britain's support during the Gulf War something that's been on the books for awhile. As a matter of fact, when he was supposed to be up here was to receive his Congressional Gold Medal that both houses voted to give him.

The medal's not been minted yet, so he will not actually receive his medal. But he will be addressing the joint session and getting a warm reception. But you can imagine these questions will once again be dogging Tony Blair, as well as the president, as he makes this trip here.

WOODRUFF: Not going to go away it sounds like by the time he gets here. All right, Jon, thank you very much.

Well in this controversy over weapons of mass destruction, the Bush administration's efforts at damage control have evolved over the past few days. On Friday, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice first said that the disputed State of the Union line had been cleared by the CIA. And she added that, quote, "knowing what we know now, the reference should not have been included."

Later that day, CIA chief George Tenet took responsibility, as we've been reporting. Nonetheless, President Bush expressed his confidence in Tenet the following day.

Well yesterday, another line of defense emerged with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others saying the questionable statement was quote, "not necessarily inaccurate."

Let's try to sort through the spin and the White House strategy with Ron Brownstein of "The Los Angeles Times." Ron, given all this, how is the White House handling it?

RON BROWNSTEIN, "L.A. TIMES": Well, Judy, as you say there's been a lot of stopping and starting and moving in different directions. But I do think they are devising the line of defense really on two distinct levels: the narrow and the broad. And in the end I think they think the broad line of defense is more important for their cause than the narrow. The narrow deals specifically with the allegation about the line on the attempts, the alleged attempts to obtain uranium in Africa from the State of the Union. The argument has been over the weekend, one, it wasn't that important to our overall case of going in to Iraq.

Two, that it may still, as you pointed out, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld both argued it may still in fact, be accurate. They make that case. The British stand by it.

And third, from the Friday comments, if it wasn't accurate, don't look at us, look at the CIA. I think, though, more importantly, it was what the president said in South Africa on Saturday when he argued about moving really from rational to result. And said, Look, I still think this was the right thing to do, I still think the world is a safer place as a result of our action.

And in the end I think the White House believes as long as Americans accept the rationale for the overall mission into Iraq that this will not prove a truly -- they can contain the danger from this one line in the State of the Union.

WOODRUFF: So, Ron, I mean for example, we just saw a poll come out, the ABC/"Washington Post" poll. We just saw it today or yesterday, poll done at the end of last week, 50 percent of people say they think the administration intentionally exaggerated the evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. So are you saying the White House isn't concerned by this?

BROWNSTEIN: No, I think they are concerned about that. And I think we've seen all of these polls move up. The backdrop for this is not only, of course, this dispute over the uranium purchases, but the fact that we simply have not found the weapons of mass destruction which in many ways is a larger political problem on that front.

But also in that same poll, you saw approximately three quarters of Americans, which is the same as we've seen in a series of polls over the last two weeks, saying that it was important for us to maintain our presence in Iraq, even with casualties for as long as it took to stabilize the society and build a democratic Iraq that'll be less of a threat to the United States.

This is not Somalia, Judy. The American public has crossed a threshold here where they see this mission as being important to American national security. And I think the White House feels that in the end, it is that foundation on which they must stand, and that's the one they have to try to reinforce.

WOODRUFF: OK, Ron Brownstein, thank you very much.

BROWNSTEIN: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: We're checking the headlines now in our -- I'm sorry, one other comment here. Another way to gauge the administration's efforts at damage control is to check the polls. Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider joins us now from New York.

Bill, are you seeing a change in the president's approval rating as a result of all this?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Judy, let's do a poll of polls. All of these polls taken within the last week. Gallup puts President Bush's job approval rating at 62 percent. CBS News at 60. And the ABC News/"Washington Post" poll at 59.

Hey, all right around 60. The outlier is the "Newsweek" poll taken Thursday and Friday, where the "Newsweek" rating is a little bit lower 55 percent approval.

WOODRUFF: Is that a number that's gone down, Bill?

SCHNEIDER: Well, they all have. All the polls point in the same direction, down. Why? Well, the president's ratings on the economy are not good, but they haven't been good for some time and they haven't changed.

His big problem is Iraq. Both the Gallup poll and the ABC/"Post" poll show mounting criticism of the president's handling of the Iraq situation starting before the controversy over flawed intelligence.

What's driving it seems to be concern over American casualties in Iraq. About one American killed a day since the war ended. Why are Americans still getting killed over there? That's the main source of public discontent.

WOODRUFF: And, Bill, on the campaign side, the Democratic race, are you seeing anything new there in terms of where the candidates stand?

SCHNEIDER: Yes, we are. Here are the top four Democrats in the "Newsweek" poll, all of them tightly bunched together. Dick Gephardt, Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean and John Kerry. None of the other five candidates is in double digits.

Since January, Gephardt and Kerry haven't changed much. But Dean has gone up, and Lieberman down. A lot of Lieberman's early support was based on name recognition since he was on the ticket with Al Gore in 2000. And he hasn't been able to sustain that support.

You can't see it here, but John Edwards also slipped. He went from 14 percent in January, just after he got into the race, to 6 percent now.

So, who's got momentum, or what President Bush's father once called the "big mo"? Answer, Howard Dean. He's gained support among Democrats this year, while the big losers have been Joe Lieberman and John Edwards. None of the candidates has changed much.

Oh, except for an increasing number of Democrats who say they don't know which candidate they would vote for. That shouldn't be happening six months into the campaign. Democrats are supposed to be making up their minds. But it looks like the more they see of the contenders, the less sure they are -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Very interesting numbers. Bill Schneider, thanks very much.

SCHNEIDER: Sure.

WOODRUFF: Well, a gathering of Democratic presidential candidates in Florida today is causing something of a stir, because of those who showed up, and those who did not. After originally planning to skip the event, John Kerry and John Edwards were there, along with four other contenders, after the civil rights group said their absence would be -- quote -- "an affront." President Kweisi Mfume said the three no-shows at the event were -- quote -- "persona non grata" with black voters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KWEISI MFUME, NAACP PRESIDENT: Mr. Lieberman, Mr. Gephardt, Mr. Kucinich and to anybody else who the shoe fits, those who are just finding religion and finding themselves, we say this: candidates who somehow believe that black people and black votes are always going to be there, you are in for a rude awakening.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: Apparently the no shows are in a bit of a political bind. Kerry and Edwards' decision to attend broke an agreement that several of the candidates had made to share a stage only at debates sponsored by the DNC. Joe Lieberman says he told the NAACP more than a week ago that he could not attend, and he says his commitment to racial equality is as strong as anyone's.

Checking the headlines in our "Campaign News Daily," the House committee whose job it is to elect more Democrats is targeting eight Republicans who voted for the GOP-backed Medicare reform plan. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is running TV ads that criticize the eight members in their home districts, warning seniors the bill is a bad deal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, AD)

ANNOUNCER: The Republican plan has no limits on premiums and a massive gap in coverage that will still cost many seniors thousands.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: No word on how much the Democrats are spending on the ad, which are expected to run for at least 10 days.

Talk show ringmaster Jerry Springer insists that he has not made up his mind about a run for the Senate. But he's spending a lot of time on the campaign trail in Ohio. Over the weekend, in Delaware County, Springer told a Democratic gathering he is not worried about what his opponents might say about his often tawdry TV show.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SPRINGER: Look, there will be a lot of garbage I'm going to take if I run. I know that. I'll take it. The skin is getting thicker every day.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: A spokesman at the U.S. Senate Clerk's Office says Springer's statement of candidacy arrived at the Capitol today by certified mail.

A new grand total in the California recall, just ahead. Organizers unveil their final tally and say they are looking ahead to an election in the fall.

Will the president's credibility take a hit over the disputed line about Iraqi efforts to get weapons of mass destruction? I'll talk with GOP Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

And later, one last briefing for Ari Fleischer. The president's loyal lieutenant exits his post at the White House Press Office.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: An update now on the recall effort facing California's Democratic governor, Gray Davis. Over the weekend, "The Sacramento Bee" newspaper called on senior Democratic Party leaders to ensure that state voters have a choice in a recall vote. The paper singled out Senator Diane Feinstein by name. Feinstein has said that she will not enter the race, and Democrats say they will not offer a challenger to Davis.

Meanwhile, recall organizers today report collecting 1.6 million signatures, far more than the almost 900 000 needed to force a vote. Leaders of the group called Rescue California say they hope for a recall election by October or November.

More on the continued questions surrounding U.S. intelligence in Iraq next when I'm joined by GOP Senator Chuck Hagel.

Also, inside the surging campaign of Democrat Howard Dean -- a conversation with his top adviser, Joe Trippy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: As President Bush continues to insist that he had what he called "darn good intelligence" before the war in Iraq, I'm joined now by a Republican senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He's a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator, you said on Friday that the case for going to war was looking -- quote -- "weaker and weaker," in your words. Could it possibly turn out that the United States, when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, which the administration said were imminent threat to the U.S. -- could it be that the U.S. went to war under false pretenses? SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: Well, I think you have to go back and judge what the basis was that the administration, the president, used to make the case to the United States public, and the world, as to why it was so urgent to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

Now, there's credibility involved here, there's our word, there's the trust of this country involved. But probably most fundamentally, most importantly, what we're talking about here is our intelligence network. Was our intelligence faulty? Was the process faulty? Did, in fact, individuals high up in the administration shape and mold this analysis of intelligence to serve their own purposes? I don't know. That's what we're doing here in Washington, in the House and Senate intelligence committees, looking at the facts. We need to get the facts out, because this is in the interest of this administration. There's a cloud hanging over this administration.

WOODRUFF: But is it -- Senator, to interrupt -- isn't it pretty clear that the CIA tried to get this language not only out of the State of the Union, but also out of previous speech that the president made?

HAGEL: Well, Judy, from what we know now I think that's an accurate assessment. It wasn't something new. We know, in fact, last fall the CIA was saying, this is bad intelligence. This is faulty intelligence.

But we need to go a lot wider and deeper. Listen, it wasn't just the CIA involved here. We had the vice president and his office involved, Secretary Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Secretary Powell's people. This wasn't just a one-man show. And this is too serious here, for this country, to not know what happened. And America will want to know what happened, as the world will.

Now, as far as going to war with Saddam, I think most people are glad Saddam is gone. But, there's a fundamental point here. Did, in fact, we base our reasons for going to war on something that was faulty intelligence, or abused intelligence?

WOODRUFF: Let me ask you to listen to something that Condoleezza Rice said yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATL. SECURITY ADVISER: It is 16 words, and it has become an enormously overblown issue. The president of the United States did not go to war because of a question of whether or not Saddam Hussein sought uranium in Africa. He took the American people, and American forces to war because this was a bloody tyrant who, for 12 years, had defied the international community.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: Senator, is the administration just backing away from the whole weapons of mass destruction argument for going to war?

HAGEL: Well, you'd have to talk to someone in the administration to answer that question. But obviously the administration last week stepped up and acknowledged that that was a mistake, that 16 words in the president's State of the Union message.

Now, of course I think anybody who knows anything about this understands that we didn't go to war because of 16 words in a speech. But this is a part of a bigger mosaic here, a bigger framing of an issue, that we need to know more about.

And I think, again, it's in the interest of our country, it's in the interest of this administration, to clear it up, and get on with the business of dealing with these great threats that face this country and the world.

WOODRUFF: One question about the post-war situation. Senator, as you know, American soldiers are still dying in Iraq almost one a day, sometimes more. Today, India became one other country that is not going to be sending troops to join the U.S. Is the U.S. going to end up shouldering this burden alone in Iraq?

HAGLE: Judy, I hope not. We can't shoulder this burden alone. We are stretched so thin in so many areas that we just can't carry it. That's why we need the United Nations. We need NATO. We need our friends in this. It's serious. We didn't think through this very well before we got into it and we're now dealing with the consequences of not thinking through this.

But we can't fail here, Judy. There's too much at stake for our country, our security, our stability, not just the United States, but the world. And our credibility. And that's going to require an immense amount of leadership from the president and all of his people to try to convince our allies to help us in Iraq. It's in their interest, as well as ours.

WOODRUFF: Senator Chuck Hagel. We appreciate you joining us.

HAGLE: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: Always good to see you. Thank you.

WOODRUFF: How is Howard Dean doing it? Up next, campaign manager Joe Trippi tells us how the former Vermont governor plans to surprise the experts, all the way to the White House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: Howard Dean's fund-raising success and recent surge in opinion polls have moved him from political outsider to bonified contender among the Democratic presidential hopefuls.

Late last week while I was in Vermont I talked about Dean's early success with his campaign manager Joe Trippi. I started by asking him how the Dean campaign will be able to compete without the backing of organized labor and other benefits of the party establishment.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TRIPPI: We'll have the resources, we'll have the grassroots component that has been lost in politics since television came along and sort of flooded that out of what's going on in America. And we'll defeat Bush.

And I guess the other thing that's going on is the stronger we get out there, the more people who join us. We're finding out state representatives are showing up to meet-ups, want to give -- we find out that we've been endorsed by a state representative not because of the traditional call from Howard Dean to a state representative but because they showed up at a meet-up and wanted to give a talk about why they decided to be for Howard Dean.

So I think, if we build a campaign from the bottom up, we will, over time, win over many of these people that you're talking about that we need support of.

WOODRUFF: So you could do it without, for example, organized labor, the kind of labor support that we expect Dick Gephardt's going to get? Without those phone banks and those people who are working day in and day out for their candidate? I mean...

TRIPPI: We know that about 20 percent of the people that are joining on the Internet are members of labor or union households. So members out there, people out there, are signing up. You know, they're responding. They see him speak and they go to the Web site and they sign up and there's a little tab you can click to, Yes, I belong to a union household.

WOODRUFF: Howard Dean, for many people, represents the left left. I mean he talks about being the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party, the left of the Democratic Party. It's one thing for him to excite all these liberal Democrats, people who come from the left, it's something else altogether for him to appeal to a broad swathe of Americans who don't think of themselves as left or liberal. Anti-war, for example.

TRIPPI: Well, that's part of what's going on. I mean, politics has become vacant and the vocabulary of Washington is left, right, conservative, liberal, McGovernite, Goldwater. Talk is meaningless. Absolutely meaningless. It's produced a politics that has become meaningless.

This campaign is about returning to a politics of meaning where it's not just simple, ideological tags that you put on people. The govern government cannot be defined ideologically.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WOODRUFF: Joe Trippi is the campaign manager for Governor Howard Dean.

Still ahead, thanks for the memories. Ari Fleischer delivers his swan song as the president's chief spokesman. He had nice things to say about Mr. Bush, surprise. But what about the media?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

WOODRUFF: On his last day as White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer got a cake, and a near one-hour grilling by reporters. But that didn't stop Fleischer from offering a fond farewell. Surrounded by his staff he gave an Academy Award-style thank you speech citing everyone from White House phone operators to the president to the reporters he's sparred with for 2 1/2 years.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FLEISCHER: As sometimes messy as it can be, in the 225-year history of our country, the fact that there is a free press who can ask whatever it wants, and a government that is accountable has kept our nation strong and free. And it will forever more.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WOODRUFF: Ari Fleischer, we wish you well.

That's it for INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Judy Woodruff.

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