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Armstrong Williams on the Defensive

Aired January 7, 2005 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.


ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: People look at the article and say, we were paid $240,000. It was in advertising. They used our media.

ANNOUNCER: The White House pays a political pundit to promote its No Child Left Behind law. The popular talk show host says it's just business. At least one lawmaker says it may be illegal.

And just in time for Inauguration Day, a California atheist who fought to have God removed from the Pledge of Allegiance now wants prayer removed from the president's swearing-in.




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



Enemies of the Bush administration are harping on payments to a popular talk show host.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: But we will go -- we have that source right here. Armstrong Williams will be here stepping into the CROSSFIRE alone to take on Bob and I. He is a stand-up guy, but he is definitely in the CROSSFIRE today.

And then, the man who sued to have the words "under God" taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance is suing again. Michael Newdow will also step into the CROSSFIRE later.

But let's begin, as we always do, with the best little briefing in television, the CROSSFIRE "Political Alert." Well, as Bob mentioned, a couple of radio talk show hosts are in the news today. "USA Today" reports that the Bush administration has paid radio host Armstrong Williams, who will be on the set in a few moments, almost a quarter of a million dollars to promote President Bush's No Child Left Behind act. Mr. Williams will be here to answer questions about it himself.

But, in the meantime, let me suggest that there's really no defending a different radio show host, Michael Savage, who said this on his show about the tsunami that claimed 155,000 lives -- quote -- "I wouldn't call it a tragedy. We shouldn't be spending a nickel on this as far as I'm concerned" -- unquote.

The group Media Matters For America reports that Savage made those comments eight days ago, but, to my knowledge, no one from the Bush administration or the Republican right has disavowed them. Why? Because, without the kook right haters, Mr. Bush might not have won. And so they stand silent as Savage spews his hate. Now, are those the moral values you voted for, red staters?

NOVAK: I guess what you're saying, Paul, is that, without people saying ridiculous things and there was no ridiculous things on the left for people who supported Senator Kerry.

You know, I think you know as well as anybody, Paul, that the reason people say outrageous things on television is, it's profitable.



BEGALA: Well, that's a fair statement.


BEGALA: But I do think conservatives ought to be held to account, just like liberals are.

NOVAK: Good news for George W. Bush doesn't often hit the headlines, but it's still worth reporting. The U.S. Labor Department reported today that 2.2 million new jobs were added during the past year.

What's more, government economists see more good news ahead, an increase of 2.1 million new jobs next year, over four million new jobs in two years. Now, the Democratic politicians and some of their voices in the news media grumble that these numbers don't mean anything, but take a look at American polling numbers.

A new Gallup poll shows the president's approval rating climbed to 52 percent. And that's pretty good for a politician who has been under nonstop battering from the left wing and the Democrats and their media allies.

BEGALA: Come on, Bob, you've been around long enough to know that's not very good. President Clinton was reelected in 1996 with 49 percent of the vote, vote about the same as Bush. But by this point, just a few weeks later, going up to his inaugural, he was up to 60.

President Bush, if he were doing even a decent job, should be at 60, 65. This is his honeymoon, his second honeymoon, albeit. But he should be at 60 or 65. The fact is, the American people don't support his agenda.


NOVAK: What it is, is that you people are much better than the Republicans in attacking.

BEGALA: Oh, it's the power of CROSSFIRE


NOVAK: That's right.


BEGALA: I doubt that. No, he should be doing a lot better. But people just -- the dog is not eating the dog food. You know, he won the election. Good for him.


NOVAK: I think he's doing fine.


BEGALA: Well, one place where he is not doing fine is in Iraq.

While American troops are heralded as rescuers in the tsunami- affected areas of Asia, the news from Iraq is not as heartwarming. In fact, it is heartbreaking. Seven Americans were killed Thursday in a roadside bombing in Baghdad. Two Marines were killed in western Iraq. The commander of American forces say roughly half of all the people who live in Iraq are in areas that are not sufficiently secure to hold an election, although Election Day is just three days away.

A retired four-star general is being sent to Iraq to review every aspect of the mission in that country. But if the general really wants to see the incompetent and dishonest people responsible for this mess, he shouldn't go to Baghdad or anywhere in Iraq where heroes are serving. He should instead go to the White House.


NOVAK: The election is three weeks away.

BEGALA: Right. Did I misspeak?


BEGALA: Sorry.

NOVAK: But, you know, you use every opportunity you can to attack the president. But I want to ask you a question, Paul. Do you think the election should be postponed? Do you think should we give in to the terrorists?

BEGALA: No. No, I don't.

NOVAK: Then why put out the impression, that, boy, oh, boy, the sky's falling?

BEGALA: It's a disaster. The policy is a disaster. It's a total disaster, Bob. And I have an obligation to say that.


NOVAK: But you wouldn't pull the troops out and you...

BEGALA: The disaster is not because the election is set for January 30. It's because the invasion was set for 2003. That was Mr. Bush's mistake.




NOVAK: But you wouldn't pull the troops out and you wouldn't change the election.

BEGALA: No, I would pull Bush out.

NOVAK: You wouldn't do anything.

BEGALA: I would pull Bush out.

NOVAK: We had a vote on that.

BEGALA: Well, we should have gotten rid of him.

NOVAK: Maybe you don't understand how it works.

BEGALA: Well, we should have gotten rid of him.

NOVAK: What a farce yesterday when, under the law, Congress considered challenging Ohio's election returns and the election of George W. Bush.

The Congressional Black Caucuses has claimed fraud in Ohio, although John Kerry did not, and just one senator, Barbara Boxer of California, forced that ridiculous debate in both houses. Why did Senator Boxer do it? It turns out it was all Michael Moore's fault.

His propaganda film "Fahrenheit 9/11" attacks the failure of any senator to challenge Florida in 2000. Boxer says the film gave her guilty feelings about not signing a challenge four years ago. The Senate voted 74-1 -- the one was Boxer -- against this year's challenge. Michael Moore ought to pay for the expenses of this charade.


BEGALA: The right -- the right wing loves to attack Michael Moore. Let me tell you what.

Michael Moore didn't lie us into a war. Michael Moore didn't inflate the deficit.


BEGALA: Michael Moore didn't get these kids stranded over in Iraq. He's a filmmaker. I liked parts of the film. I didn't like others. But why does the right just bang on Michael Moore, instead of President Bush, who's the president of our country and ought to responsible for the mess that we're in?


NOVAK: Michael Moore is not responsible for you either.

BEGALA: Right.

NOVAK: But let's talk about the thing that he is responsible for. He's put out this propaganda that no senator had the guts to stand up and make a challenge.


BEGALA: He's got a point. He was right.

NOVAK: Which is ridiculous.

BEGALA: He was right.

Well, we'll come back to that later. But, as you have heard, the Bush administration has been paying a well-known political commentator to promote its education agenda. Next, we'll ask that commentator, Armstrong Williams, why he took the money as the Government Accountability Office, says the Bush administration violated the anti- propaganda law in pushing its anti-drug law as well.

And Michael Newdow made a name for himself opposing the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Now he wants to change President Bush's inauguration ceremony. We'll explain why and ask him about it later in the CROSSFIRE.




NOVAK: The Department of education says it followed standard government procedures when it entered an agreement with TV and radio commentator Armstrong Williams. The government paid Williams nearly a quarter of a million dollars to promote its education reform plan.

Joining us now in the CROSSFIRE, Armstrong Williams.


BEGALA: Mr. Williams, good to see you again. First, thank you for coming.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

BEGALA: You're a stand-up guy. As I was saying off the air, you're in the soup today, but you're willing to come into the CROSSFIRE. That makes you a stand-up guy in my book.

Someone who's not a stand-up guy is our current education secretary, soon to be replaced, Rod Paige, who was asked about this today and ran from the podium, rather than answer tough questions about it. So, that puts you higher on my list than Secretary Paige.

But let me start, did you disclose this payment relationship to your listeners and viewers when you talked about the No Child Left Behind law that you were paid to promote?

WILLIAMS: Yes, consistently on our syndicated television show.

BEGALA: There's been reporting that you haven't done so. Can you tell me how you disclosed it?

WILLIAMS: Well, we're associated with many different media outlets.

We were subcontracting with Ketchum Communications. And they subcontract...

BEGALA: Which is a P.R. agency, for people who don't know.

WILLIAMS: Yes. Right.

And they subcontracted with us to promote No Child Left Behind as part of an advertising campaign, where we gave them two one-minute commercials within our syndicated television show. And we made it clear to our audience oftentimes that, even though that we're being paid by Ketchum as an advertising to promote this, we promoted this long before there ever was a Ketchum contract.

So, we consistently did that with "The Right Side." But in terms of with other...


BEGALA: That's your TV show.

WILLIAMS: The television show.

BEGALA: Called "The Right Side." WILLIAMS: But with "America's Black Forum," I never discussed it with Byron Lewis, because we never asked America's Black Forum to do anything with No Child Left Behind.


BEGALA: Which is an association of African-American journalists?

WILLIAMS: Right. They never knew about my contract because I never asked them to do anything, nor did I make recommendations.

BEGALA: So you didn't promote it with African-American journalists?

WILLIAMS: No, nor did I ask their producers to do anything centered around No Child Left Behind, nor did I ask CNN or MSNBC.


BEGALA: But if you were on -- I can't recall, frankly, if you'd been on CROSSFIRE talking about it. But say you were on CNN talking about that issue, did you tell viewers, hey, you should know, I'm a consultant to help promote this for the president?

WILLIAMS: Well, no. And I'll tell you why.

It's different with CNN and MSNBC, because I'm invited to commentate on issues they want me to discuss. I was on CNN this morning with Bill Hemmer. And I may have been on 75 times over the last year. And they could only recall last October 18 that we ever discussed No Child Left Behind. That's a decision they made. I did not even think it was necessary to disclose it, because I don't decide the topics.

NOVAK: Armstrong, let me give -- just in the interests of full disclosure, I want to tell the audience that I'm a friend, personal friend, of yours. I greatly admire you. I think you're one of the foremost voices for conservatism in America. So I just want to start off on that point.

Now, having said that, if you had it all to do over again, this whole situation, what would you do differently, or would you do anything differently?

WILLIAMS: Well, I wouldn't have the experience I've had today if I didn't have this experience.

When I made that decision over a year ago, it was something that I believed in, No Child Left Behind. They asked us to advertise. It's something that we wanted to do. They said it would only be six months. When the six months was up, Ketchum came back to us and said, to their amazement, that the No Child Left Behind Web site had over three or four million hits and they wanted to renew the contract.

We were flattered because we delivered what we were asked to do. But, on hindsight, I am a media pundit. My problem, unlike other journalists, is that I own my product. I own the Graham Williams Group. I own the syndication. And, as the CEO, I made a decision that we would run these advertisements on our show. I used bad judgment.


NOVAK: What was the bad judgment you used?

WILLIAMS: Because...


NOVAK: I mean, what should you have done differently?

WILLIAMS: Well, as a media pundit, people have to trust what I say. They have to believe in what I say. And they must believe that I'm saying it not because I'm being paid.

And there's this perception that I was paid to advocate No Child Left Behind.

NOVAK: So you wouldn't have taken the money?

WILLIAMS: No, I would not have done it. I just would not have taken advertisements. It's the first time we've done business with the government, but I just would not do it again.

NOVAK: Now, I just want to add, one other thing is that you are not a member of the congressional daily press gallery, periodical press gallery or radio/TV press gallery. So, you are not officially a journalist and you are not bound by some of the requirements on journalists.

WILLIAMS: You know, that's a good point.

Actually, today I was speaking to Anne Applebaum from "The Washington Post," and she was telling me about the rules and guidelines. And I had to say to her, I never knew about the rules and guidelines. They never considered us as serious press and media. I'm a pundit. We syndicate this program.

But you know something? Let me tell you something. This has been a great lesson for me. I apologize to my audience. I regret the fact that people are impugning my character on an issue that is legitimate. I should be criticized and I crossed some ethical lines. I've learned from this. It will never happen again. But this is a great lesson to me that we are serious journalists. Even though I'm a commentator, I'm not a journalist, I should be held to the same standards, because it impugns the institution that we're so closely associated with.

And I apologize.

BEGALA: God bless you for that.


BEGALA: Let me shift to where my real beef is, though. And that is with the administration.

The Bush administration has now on two occasions been cited by the Government Accountability Office for violating something called the Publicity and Propaganda Act, spending our taxpayers' money on propaganda, that is, putting out information, but not telling you that it's from the government. Now there's calls for this relationship to be investigated in the same way.

Don't you think that the administration has a problem when, on two prior occasions, they've been cited for violating the Publicity and Propaganda Act?

WILLIAMS: You know, I am -- can easily sit here and criticize the administration. And I'm sure you have your reasons for criticism.

But you know what? The issue today is about my integrity and my character. I came on this show not to get into -- I'm a strong supporter of the Bush administration. The fact that I used bad judgment, it's not about Bush. It's not about anybody. It's about Armstrong Williams today. And that's why I'm here today as someone who wants to be responsible and set the right example.

Yes, there may be issues. But those are not the issues I'm dealing with today. I've got my own problems today and that's what I'm trying to deal with.


NOVAK: Congresswoman Louise Slaughter, Democrat of New York, she is the ranking minority member of the House Rules Committee. She has just put out a statement saying that she sent a letter to the CEOs of the Sinclair Broadcasting Group and TV One, both of which syndicate you -- or use your syndicated services, and asking to -- if they should, because of this incident, end their contracts with you. What do you say to that?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know what? I think the marketplace should decide that. Sinclair and TV One must look at this situation. They know me. I do have contractual relationships with them. That's the decision they must make. That is not my decision.

But I want to make it clear that if I ever thought that I would do anything to impugn the integrity of those institutions or my own, it never would have happened. I used bad judgment. And on hindsight, I shouldn't have used that judgment. I'll learn from this. And I'm sure I'm going to pay some price. I'm willing to pay that price. I made the mistake. I used bad judgment.

And whatever happens to me as a result of this, I accept the consequences of it.

BEGALA: Well, good for you. I have to say, I'm very impressed at what a stand-up guy you're being, Armstrong.

Do you think that -- what do you think your friends on the right would do if a similar thing had happened with Bill Clinton? Jonah Goldberg was on the program that precedes us, "INSIDE POLITICS." He suggested that steam would be coming out of his ears if a liberal had done this under Bill Clinton.


BEGALA: Do you suspect that is true?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, I hear the applause, but it's different. It is different if you are a CEO. People forget sometimes that I am an entrepreneur. I run a business. I have to deal with the marketplace.

BEGALA: You have got a P.R. and advertising agency, as well as being a pundit.

WILLIAMS: And in syndication, syndicated. I'm a syndicator. And we do seek advertisements.

And sometimes, in making the decisions, we don't make the best decisions. And so it's unique for me, because you work for someone. You work for CNN. So, they made the decisions on advertising. Unfortunately, for me, I have to make those decisions. But it forces me to go back to the drawing board and reexamine the way we do business as a firm. And we must do it differently.

BEGALA: That will have to be it.

Armstrong Williams, a stand-up guy, as I said, in taking responsibility for his actions.


BEGALA: I can't ask for anything more from the left.


BEGALA: But thank you for coming on the program.

Well, first, he wanted to get under the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. And now Michael Newdow wants to get rid of prayer at President Bush's inauguration. We will ask him why next.

And then, just ahead, Wolf Blitzer tells us about the teenager who shot this dramatic video of the tsunami.

Stay with us.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting from Washington. Coming up at the top of the hour, tourists mesmerized as the sea pulls back, then pushes forward with incredible power. We have the amazing images, brand new pictures just coming in.

And more never-before-seen pictures. The moments after a tsunami strikes are moments of shock and horror for a coastal community.

And, after 40 years, an arrest in the Mississippi civil rights murders which inspired a movie. All those stories, much more, only minutes away on "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

Now back to CROSSFIRE.

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Thank you, Wolf, for that update.

Michael Newdow is, of course, the California atheist whose two- year battle to have the words "under God" stricken from the Pledge of Allegiance was tossed out recently by the Supreme Court. Now he's filed suit to bar prayer from President Bush's inaugural ceremony in about two weeks.

Mr. Newdow joins us now in the CROSSFIRE from Sacramento, California.

Mr. Newdow, good to see you again.

NOVAK: Mr. Newdow, thanks for being with us. Since you lost in the Supreme Court in this other battle, is this just another -- going up against the president's oath, I've found no particular academic or popular interest in it. Is this just another way to get attention on yourself?

MICHAEL NEWDOW, ATTORNEY/ACTIVIST: I don't think so. I'm trying to uphold the Constitution. If -- you can impugn my character, but the fact is that it's a violation. The man is about to take an oath of office to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and as he's doing it, he's violating its principals, it seems to me, sir.

BEGALA: Mr. Newdow, let me be clear. Your concern is with the content of the oath or is it with the invocation and benediction in the ceremony?

NEWDOW: The invocation and the benediction. That's under his direction. He's decided to bring in this religious dogma in the middle of the ceremony. This is a ceremony for all Americans.

BEGALA: Well, the Constitution, though, as you know, prohibits the establishment of a religion, not the expression of any religious faith at a ceremony. So, I've got to ask, first off, as a big liberal, the one part of that...

NEWDOW: I don't think that's correct.

BEGALA: ... inaugural I'm going to participate in is the pray. I'm going to be wearing out the knees in my jeans praying for this guy because he's got four more years to ruin the country.


BEGALA: Why did you pick that focus on?

NEWDOW: You can do that as an individual. The government can't do that. When government acts, it has to do so without expounding any kind of religious belief.

And it's clearly doing it. It's saying there is a God and we're going to have these two Christian ministers saying that Jesus Christ is lord. And guess what song they're going to play? "God Our Father." Imagine if you happen to be an atheist in the United States. We're supposed to have the same rights as everybody else. And it seems ridiculous to sit there at an inauguration, as the man tells us he's going to protect and defend the Constitution and have him violate it and tell us that we're outsiders in this community. It's wrong.

NOVAK: Mr. Newdow, let me read from Chief Justice Burger's Marsh vs. Chambers decision, July 5, 1983: "In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more then 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making laws is not, in these circumstances, an establishment or a step toward establishment. It is simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."

That's the chief justice speaking.

NEWDOW: That's the chief justice speaking.

NOVAK: This is something you disagree with?

NEWDOW: Well, yes. James Madison disagreed with it. He said it was violation of the Constitution and the pure principle of religious freedom.

And you can bring some other things that the justices have said, like Justice Scalia, who said that giving sectarian religious speech preferential access to a forum close to the seat of government would violate the establishment clause.

Or a Santa Fe case in 2000, where they said that the religious liberty protected by the Constitution is abridged when the state affirmatively sponsors the particular religious practice of prayer. These are clear violations. If you look at any of the principled statements of the Supreme Court, which you will find none in Marsh v. Chambers -- as a matter of fact, in Marsh v. Chambers, in the majority opinion, there's not a single statement about what the establishment clause means, because you know that, if you talked about what the establishment clause means, having legislative body start off their sessions with prayer is clearly in violation, as James Madison said.

NOVAK: Mr. Newdow, thank you very much. We appreciate your time. NEWDOW: Thank you.

BEGALA: Thank you, Mr. Newdow.

NOVAK: It's a strange pair.

Next, we'll tell you why actress Julia Roberts and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld are being linked in the headlines. How about that one?




BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Now, here's a couple of names you never thought we'd say in the same breath, Julia Roberts and Donald Rumsfeld. Well, the famous actress has bought 37 acres in the beautiful state of New Mexico, usually no big deal, when a famous movie star buys some land.

But what makes this deal particularly interesting to CROSSFIRE, she bought the land from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Now, nothing wrong with that. I mean, Julia Roberts, by the way, is no real fan of Republicans. She once said -- and I'm quoting her here -- "Republican comes in the dictionary just after the words reptile and just before repugnant."



BEGALA: She's not only a pretty woman. She's a wise woman.

NOVAK: Do you think, Paul, that Julia and Donald will become best buddies now, huh?


BEGALA: Well, I certainly hope so. She's a wise woman. If she's -- a repugnant and reptile Republican...


NOVAK: He's a pretty charming guy.

BEGALA: Well, that makes one of us. I can't go with you on that. No, sorry.


BEGALA: Although he can always go invade if he wants the land back.

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

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

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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