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State of the Union

Interview With Senators Boxer, Shelby; Interview With Tom Ridge

Aired May 24, 2009 - 09:00   ET


KING: I'm John King. This is our "State of the Union" report for this Sunday, May 24th.

President Obama promises no dangerous terror suspects will be set free in the United States, but there's bipartisan anguish in Congress because the White House still can't say what will happen to detainees at Guantanamo Bay. We'll look for solutions with Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer and Republican Senator Richard Shelby.

In dueling speeches, the president defends his approach to national security, and former Vice President Dick Cheney says America is less safe. The Bush administration's first homeland security secretary, Tom Ridge, breaks down the competing claims.

And on this Memorial Day weekend, we visit the hallowed grounds of Arlington National Cemetery and remember the true meaning of this somber holiday.

That's all ahead in this hour of "State of the Union."

You see a live picture there of Arlington National Cemetery. President Obama tomorrow for the first time as commander in chief will address the traditional Memorial Day ceremonies at that remarkable, remarkable place.

Washington was captivated this past week by a remarkable drama. Back-to-back national security speeches by President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney. Disagreements over whether to close Guantanamo Bay and whether waterboarding and other extreme interrogation tactics worked provided plenty of conflict. But it was more than a debate between the old and the new. Mr. Obama didn't answer the festering question over where to relocate terror suspects held at Gitmo, and he reversed a campaign promise by announcing some will be held indefinitely, without trial.

With us to discuss where this national security debate goes from here, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer, with me here in Washington, and Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. He's joining us this morning from Tuscaloosa.

I want to begin on the Gitmo debate, and take a moment first to remind our viewers how this has played out. Back on his first full day as president, on January 22nd, President Obama signed an executive order keeping a campaign promise. That order would close Gitmo down within one year. But then, after months of controversy, because he has not said where the detainees will go, the Senate majority leader, a Democrat, Harry Reid, said the president won't get the money to shut Gitmo down until he gives the Congress a plan to where the detainees will go.


SEN. HARRY REID, D-NEV., SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Democrats under no circumstances will move forward without a comprehensive, responsible plan from the president. We will never allow terrorists to be released into the United States.


KING: Just two days later, the president gave a big national security speech in which he tried to answer his critics.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We are not going to release anyone if it would endanger our national security. Nor will we release detainees within the United States who endanger the American people.


KING: Senator Boxer, I want to begin with you. The president was trying to calm his critics and quiet his critics, but he did not answer the key questions. This is "The Gazette" in the Pikes Peaks region of Colorado. "What about our backyard?" Or, put simply, where are the detainees going? How can you help the president get out of this political mess?

BOXER: Well, I think we're doing it. We basically said that we agree with him, that, in fact, Gitmo has become a real problem for us. As Secretary Gates says, it's an advertisement for recruiting Al Qaida. Al Qaida is stronger than ever. That's why, when I see the vice president out here, he handed us this god-awful mess. He has a right to talk about it, but let's see what we can do here. We want to close it down, but we want to wait and see what the plan is. And I think...

KING: Bring some to California, are you comfortable with that?

BOXER: Well, we only have one maximum security prison in California, and it's right now overbooked. That's the case. And the other thing that Congress voted to do is to make sure that whatever this plan is -- we don't know -- by the way, we already have 350 terrorists in the United States. So, clearly, we've been handling it. But, still in all, we are worried and we want to see what the plan is.

So I think we're helping the president here. And, you know, many of these prisoners may be sent out of the country. Some of them may be executed. Maybe we wind up with 10 or 15 or 20 or 5. We don't know yet. So I think we are helping the president. We're saying, Mr. President, give us the plan. I think it's sensible.

KING: Senator Shelby, I know you oppose closing Gitmo. You think they should stay right where they are, but the president has said he is going to keep this promise. So help him. How do you convince the American people some of those detainees are coming to a prison near you?

SHELBY: Well, I don't think you can convince the American people that you can bring the people from Gitmo to their states and they will be safe.

Now, we realize that there are terrorists in a lot of our prisons that have gone through trials and so forth, they are in maximum security prisons, but we don't need these hard-core, some of the worst of the worst to come to this country. We can do better.

First of all, John, we have a state-of-the-art facility at Gitmo. We spent over $200 million down there. There's no reason at all to move them. But I do believe that we need to evaluate them and see which ones that we need to for long-term detention, which ones need to be turned loose, which ones could be turned loose, but not in America.

KING: That speech became, in many of the media accounts, and maybe I deserve some of the blame, and Obama/Cheney back-to-back duel. But in it, was a very significant policy announcement by the president. During the campaign on the issue of keeping people indefinitely, terror suspects indefinitely without trial, during the campaign, the president said this. "Our greatest tool in advancing democracy is our own example. That's why I will end torture, end extraordinary rendition, end indefinite detentions."

But then on Thursday, he said something very different. Let's listen.


OBAMA: But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes. In some cases, because evidence may be tainted, but who, nonetheless, pose a threat to the security of the United States. These are people who, in effect, remain at war with the United States.

Let me repeat. I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people.


KING: So, Senator Boxer, he will have some indefinite detentions. In the language of campaigns, we would call that a flip- flop. I think more politely, we would say that sometimes being president, presidents learn, is a little more difficult than running for president. Are you OK with that? Are you OK with indefinite detentions, and would that be here in the United States?

BOXER: I'll tell you what I'm OK with. I'm OK that the president of the United States says that our security comes first and foremost. I agree with that.

But he went on to say, which you didn't show, that he is going to figure out a way how to do this under the rule of law. So he is going to make sure that nobody is released into the United States who will be a threat to us, and that these indefinite detentions will be, somehow, under the rule of law.

And I want to give this president the credit for this. His wife said, one thing about my husband, you know, he's not going to be afraid to change his mind or to nuance an issue. I applaud that, frankly.

KING: Senator Shelby, the Bush administration won some and lost some in the courts on this issue, what rights do they have when you're holding them, and that's in Guantanamo. If you bring those people to the United States, are the constitutional questions different for people you're trying to hold indefinitely? Do they have more rights, and might the president lose?

SHELBY: I believe the courts basically have said once you're here in the United States, that the Constitution or a blanket of the Constitution perhaps cover you. I know that's a general statement that I just made, but I think we better be careful bringing people to this country.

One, the most incorrigible, I would say, of the groups, and, secondly, nobody wants them. We got all kinds of places in the world we can house these people. Other -- if we have to move them from Cuba, from Gitmo, we have got other territory that we can bring them in, but don't bring them to the United States of America.

KING: I want to focus now for a moment on the other speech on Thursday. That was Vice President Dick Cheney, former Vice President Dick Cheney. And on a question that has been in the news, especially up in the halls of Congress about the role of the CIA in all this, the former vice president had this to say.


DICK CHENEY, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: Some members of Congress are notorious for demanding they be briefed into the most sensitive intelligence programs. They support them in private, and then head for the hills at the first sign of controversy.

As far as the interrogations are concerned, all that remains -- all that remains an official secret is the information that we gained as a result.


KING: Many took that, Senator Boxer, as a shot at the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, from your home state of California, who has said that she was never told waterboarding was being used. Now concedes an aide did tell her that he was at a briefing in 2003. Did the speaker make a mistake in escalating this by saying the CIA has repeatedly lied to Congress? BOXER: Well, the speaker didn't say that. The press said to her, "did the CIA lie?"

KING: She said misled, and they said "do you mean lie," and she said yes.

BOXER: And she said, yes, they misled. But let me tell you who out and out said that they lied. Peter Hoekstra, a Republican, who was the head of the Intelligence Committee at the time she was as well.

So this is so political. It's really, to me, you know, just knowing all the players, it's clear what it's about. They want to get Nancy Pelosi.

This whole issue is a matter of not who knew what when, but who did the wrong thing. Who, in fact, broke American law. Who, in fact, broke faith with treaties, international treaties, one of which Ronald Reagan signed, against waterboarding and torture.

So they want to turn it around. They want Nancy Pelosi gone because she's a very effective leader. I've known her for 30 years. Listen, and I've known Bob Graham for that long a time. And both of them said that the briefings were very, very vague.

So I will cast my lot with those two, and, frankly, Newt Gingrich, who said the CIA misled the country; Peter Hoekstra, a Republican, who said they lied; Boehner, who said he agreed with Hoekstra. Come on! This is just a back...


KING: Let me bring Senator Shelby in, because I want to talk about the Supreme Court choice and I want to close the loop on this subject. Senator, you were a senior member on the Intelligence Committee back in the relevant timeframe here. Nancy Pelosi said she would be fine with the memos being released because she says they prove she wasn't told, or at least don't contradict her account.

KING: Vice President Cheney wants other memos released. Should we just have full disclosure on all fronts here, transparency, let the American people decide?

SHELBY: Well, that's a tough road to go down. What we are basically doing is weakening our intelligence agencies and we will pay dearly for that. I was in that meeting, Senator Graham, Congressman Goss, Congresswoman Pelosi at that time, four of us were in the meeting.

And I came away from there believing that the enhanced interrogation techniques were working, they were getting good information. This was in '02. I thought we had a pretty good description of what was happening by the CIA.

But, you know, they are the ones that were there. It has been seven years. But I believe that we ought to err on the side of national security, I thought then and I know it now.

KING: Let's close on the issue of the big Supreme Court pick the president will make likely in the week ahead. He did an interview with C-SPAN this weekend. And as you both know, there is a lot of pressure to add diversity to the court, perhaps add another woman to the court.

The president was asked, did you talk to Michelle, your wife, maybe your daughters about whether it's time to put another woman on the court? There is only one at the moment, Justice Ginsburg. Let's listen to what the president said on that issue.


OBAMA: My job is to just find somebody who I think is going to make a difference on the courts and look after the interests of the American people. And so -- so I don't feel weighed down by having to choose a Supreme Court justice based on demographics.


KING: Michelle Obama says he doesn't have to pick a woman. What does Barbara Boxer say?

BOXER: Of course, he doesn't have to, but Barbara Boxer and Olympia Snowe across party lines have written to the president, said, Mr. President, there is only one woman on the court and there are eight men. Frankly, if it were reversed, I would be saying, appoint a man. You just need that point of view. But, of course, it has got to do be the best possible person and we think there are so many great qualified women out there.

So I guess it's Michelle and his daughters versus Olympia and Barbara, so we'll let...


KING: That's a duel for next week. Senator Shelby, I want to close with you. When Republicans were in the majority and President Bush was in the White House, they said 60 days from the announcement to the confirmation. Senator Sessions, who will be the lead Republican on the Judiciary Committee is now saying he needs much more time than that. That he thinks the hearings should be not in July but maybe in September. Is Senator Sessions right or should the White House get...


KING: Go ahead.

SHELBY: We have a lot on our agenda. I don't know the time frame. But what we need on the court is not necessarily a woman, not necessarily a man, but the best person that's going to follow the law, not somebody that is going to radicalize the Supreme Court.

KING: And will you push for a quick timetable if there are no big issues, questions in the vetting?

SHELBY: Well, I would leave that up to the Judiciary Committee. They have their rules and they have hearing dates and I think we should listen to them. KING: Senator Richard Shelby is in Tuscaloosa, Senator Barbara Boxer here with us in Washington, thanks both for coming in and enjoy the rest of your Memorial Day weekend.

BOXER: Thank you.

SHELBY: Thank you.

KING: And up next, a man at the table in those harrowing days after 9/11, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge assesses former Vice President Cheney's claim that President Obama is making America less safe.


KING: Joining me now, the former two-term Republican governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge, who was tapped by President Bush in the days just after 9/11, first, to come to the White House as homeland security adviser, and then as the first secretary of the new Department of Homeland Security.

Governor Ridge, thanks for joining us on STATE OF THE UNION.

There has been a fascinating debate playing out the couple of months now, but this past Thursday, dueling speeches, the president of the United States and the former vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney.

On the threshold question Vice President Cheney has raised, he says because of the changes in policy that President Obama has made the American people less safe. Do you agree?

RIDGE: Well, I agree that both men in principle are saying the right thing to the American public. President Obama has said we must conduct ourselves and combat terrorism in a way that's consistent with our value system, and I think he is spot-on.

I also think the vice president in his retort saying, look, we need to do everything we can, everything possible to protect American citizens, and I think Americans in large agree with both.

I think the interesting...

KING: But do you -- you had the intelligence. You served in a very sensitive position in those days after 9/11. Do you believe we are less safe today because of steps taken by President Obama?

RIDGE: I do not.

KING: You disagree with Dick Cheney then?

RIDGE: Yes, I disagree with Dick Cheney, but I also disagree with the approach both men are taking.

KING: OK. Let's get to the crux of the matter... RIDGE: Because at the end of the day, it's -- at the end of the day, John, it's -- the 9/11 event required us to do certain things in response to a threat and an enemy we had never seen before. We did those things. We've made adjustments since that time.

Waterboarding is no longer a matter -- it's a matter of debate but it's no longer an issue because we don't do it. At the end of the day, we're continuing the same policies in Afghanistan and Iraq and the debate around memos and waterboarding does not make us less safe.

What I'm suggesting is that both men in principle are correct. The real issue is what do we do with these prisoners and what do we do with -- when we capture or apprehend other similar individuals in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the future. That's nowhere in the debate.

And if you believe it's a global scourge, you had better figure out a way to deal with it.

KING: Well, then let's deal with that question in just a moment. But I want to focus on the policy difference on the issue of the interrogations because in his speech, the president of the United States says that he is categorically, emphatically convinced that no high value intelligence was gained from enhanced interrogation techniques, waterboarding, slamming people against walls, other extreme things.

He says it didn't work and it undermined our moral authority. Let's listen to the president.


OBAMA: I categorically reject the assertion that these are the most effective means of interrogation.


OBAMA: What's more, they undermine the rule of law. They alienate us from the world. They serve as a recruitment tool for terrorists. And increase the will of our enemies to fight us. While decreasing the will of others to work with America.


KING: That's the president there. Just moments after that speech, the former vice president comes out with a completely different take. He says those tactics were legal, necessary, and saved lives. Let's listen.


CHENEY: For all that we've lost in this conflict, the united states has never lost its moral bearings. When the moral reckoning turns to the men known as high-value terrorists I can assure they were neither innocent nor victims. As for those who asked them questions and got answers, they did the right thing. They made our country safer and a lot of Americans are alive today because of them.


KING: It is that last point, Governor Ridge, Dick Cheney says a lot of Americans are alive today because of them. The Obama administration disputes that. You were there, you saw the intelligence. Did those enhanced interrogation techniques save lives, prevent attacks on this country? Is Dick Cheney right?

RIDGE: I never saw the intelligence at that depth. We were a consumer of information. We didn't generate it. But I do believe that since President Obama has released the memos that are substantially redacted, then perhaps there may be information that should be released to show that they actually received substantive information that enabled America to better protect itself. You can't have it both ways. I think that's one of the things that the vice president is arguing. Don't delete or redact parts of the memos to gird your point of view. There may be other information. I don't know what it is that may also support the vice president.

At the end of the day, we haven't been attacked since 9/11 in the United States of America. At the end of the day we've had a lot of professionals working very hard around the world to make sure that it doesn't happen.

KING: He should release the memos in full?

RIDGE: I think he should. I mean, I think -- one of the things I've always thought when I was secretary was that we used classification in a way sometimes just to deny access to those who need to know or should know and one of the group of people that should know are 300 million Americans. So to the extent that you could take a look at those, those memos, the information we gathered from these terrorists and present it to the public in a way that you don't compromise your sources and methods, I happen to think you can do that, and now that there is so much of that material that is redacted I think the vice president is spot-on. Maybe we ought to tell America what we learned. KING: I want you to listen to one more speech of the president on Thursday. Because he was damming in his characterization of how your administration, the Bush administration went about the business of fighting terrorism after 9/11. Let's listen.


OBAMA: I also believe that all too often, our government made decisions based on fear, rather than foresight. That all too often, our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions.


KING: You're at the table with the president and vice president and others involved in this fight just after 9/11. Did you make decisions, based on fear rather than foresight? Did you trim the facts and the evidence based on ideological predispositions? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RIDGE: Yeah. I'm surprised that President Obama who I really truly believe knows better would make such a statement. The men and women in charge of America's security, whether the military or the intelligence community, the president, the vice president, the attorney general, the FBI director, did everything they could at the time to prevent another attack on America. And it did it consistent with the Constitution and the rule of law.

KING: So are you disappointed in him? And in that speech he also said this gets too tied up in politics too often. Is that politics?

RIDGE: I think it is. It's just the whole notion of a Republican vice president giving a speech after the incumbent Democrat president. It's got to go beyond the politics of either party. At the end of the day, as Americans, e pluribus unum, we're in this together. At the end of the day, it is a challenge that we are going to need to confront together. I'm a little disappointed in the president because he said many, many times in the past, now is the time -- we need to look forward, not backwards but the pattern for the first 100 plus days as it relates to this, to the war on terror and the tactics that were used has been not progressive and forward- looking, it keeps looking backwards to justify what he is doing now. And I don't think that becomes more politics than policy and I don't think it is a kind of approach that we need to bring America together on this very important issue.

KING: He's in a bit of hot water when it comes to closing Gitmo, Guantanamo Bay. He said in the campaign -- you support closing Guantanamo Bay and you have to some time but he's in a bit of a problem. The Democrats in Congress have denied him the money to shut it down because they don't think he has a plan. Where did he go wrong?

RIDGE: He doesn't have a plan. I think the outcome, most people would agree with. The outcome is something that if he had a plan, I think he would be able to build consensus. But reaching a conclusion you can shut it down without determining the manner in which you are going to adjudicate those who should stay somewhere -- I had a couple of people involved in the interrogation early on and one individual told me at one time, some of these people should never be out of this piece of God-awful barren rock and how are we going to dispose of them. At the end of the day doesn't the world community have another problem? If you think we're dealing with international terrorism in many forms the next decade or two or three aren't we going to encounter this again not only in the United States but elsewhere around the world? How are we going to deal with it? Let's take care of the 240 that are in there now. What is the process? We better think about how we're going to deal with it in the future unless you think the war against terrorism is over. And I don't think it is.

KING: Up next, we'll turn to politics. Governor Ridge shares his thoughts on the influence of Rush Limbaugh and the future of his Republican Party. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: A moment of reflection and tribute just moments ago at Arlington National Cemetery just outside of Washington. As vivid reminder as you can get of the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. Before joining the Bush administration, Tom Ridge was twice elected governor of Pennsylvania as a Republican. He has plenty to say about his party's identity crisis.

Let's turn the page to politics. You were a two-term governor of a pretty important state in American politics. You would be viewed as pragmatic, a moderate on social issues, a conservative on fiscal issues.

As you know, there is a big huge debate within your Republican Party about what to do. Thumped in 2006, thumped in 2008. I want your thoughts, going forward. And as I do so, I want to bring into the debate, there has been a lot of chatter about this. Colin Powell who was the secretary of state when you served in the Bush administration gave a speech in Boston this week where he was responding from criticism to the right and Colin Powell said this: "Rush Limbaugh says, 'Get out of the Republican Party.' Dick Cheney says, 'He's already out.' I may be out of their version of the Republican Party but there's another version of the Republican Party waiting to emerge once again."

KING: Where's Tom Ridge?

Are you in the Rush Limbaugh/Dick Cheney version of the Republican Party or the Colin Powell version of the Republican Party?

RIDGE: I'm in the Tom Ridge version of the party. And my version of the party is simply, when you're asked to serve, as I have been by two Republican presidents -- one gave me a draft notice and sent me to Vietnam and the other called me away from the office I had led as governor, and neither one asked me where I stood on gay rights or abortion. They said, "Will you serve?"

And I think, for the American public -- for the Republican Party to restore itself is not as a regional party but as a national party. We have to be far less judgmental about disagreements within the party and far more judgmental about our disagreement with our friends on the other side of the aisle.

KING: You've used those terms, "need to be less shrill, less judgmental." Who's being shrill? Who's being judgmental?

RIDGE: Well, I think a lot of our commentators are being shrill. I mean, I don't disagree...

KING; Rush?

RIDGE: Yes, I -- listen, Rush Limbaugh has an audience of 20 million people. A lot of people listen, daily, to him and live by very word. But words mean things, and how you use words is very important.

KING: I want to be clear, though. You think Rush is among those being too judgmental, too shrill?

RIDGE: Well, I think -- I think Rush -- Rush articulates his point of views in ways that offend very many. It's a matter of -- matter of language and a matter of how you use words. And it does get the base all fired up, and he's got strong following. But, personally, if he would listen to me -- and I doubt if he would -- the notion is, express yourselves, but let's respect others' opinions. And let's not be divisive.

Let's lead our party based on some principles that have been very much a part of who we are for decades, and let's be less shrill, in terms of -- and, particularly, not attack other individuals. Let's attack their ideas. Let's explain, in a rational, thoughtful, responsible and reasonable way why our ideas and our approach are more acceptable, why they should be more acceptable to the average citizen.

KING: Let's finish the conversation about politics over at the wall, if you will. Because I've known you for a while and I've come to see you in your stated from time to time.

And I want to take you back in time, a little bit, as we pop out -- this is the great state of Pennsylvania. And I want to take you back. When you were governor, I came to see you once. And that's Tom Ridge, right there. That's Tom Ridge, leading the bike.

This was your annual tour of Pennsylvania.



KING: You would get out, show tourist attractions. This is outside the Utz potato chip factory.

When you look at this -- you're, again, the two-term governor of a state. And I'm going to put to pictures over here for a minute, although you can marvel at your biking skills, there.

First, what do you remember of those days?

RIDGE: Well, I think having -- being governor of a state where the constitution -- the people give you a lot of authorities, it's one of the -- it is the best political job in America. So I loved being governor. I think everybody understood that.

KING: No disrespect intended. I'm going to move the picture off the screen there for a minute.


Because I want to show you something about your state, here. This is the last election that just happened, and I'm going to use green, down here, to draw a line around the city of Philadelphia, out in those suburbs that you know all that well.

The last time a Republican carried this state for president was back here in 1988. And look at the difference. Look at the difference Republicans carry the suburbs. They carry Pennsylvania. Where has your party gone wrong in the suburbs?

RIDGE: Well, first of all, a lot of the -- there's been a lot of demographic changes in the demographic changes in those four collar counties.

KING: All right. Let's stretch them out.

RIDGE: And you've got to give credit where credit's due. I think, for the past couple of years, the party apparatus within Pennsylvania, the Democrat party apparatus, with Governor Rendell, have done a much better job of registering more voters. KING: You just decided not to run for Senate. You could have run as a Republican. Some polls said you would have won. You decided not to run for the seat.

Arlen Specter has switched from a Republican to a Democrat now. In this race, come November, if Arlen Specter is the Democratic nominee and Mr. Toomey the conservative Republican, the former congressman, is the Republican nominee, Tom Ridge will vote for who?

RIDGE: Tom Ridge has a secret ballot and -- and Tom Ridge will discuss it at the election. I'm going to wait, on the Republican side of the aisle, to see how the field -- I hear a couple of names out there. And I'm going to wait to see if the people that I know whom I might support decide to make the difficult decision to run.

KING: But in the end...

RIDGE: At the end of the day...

KING: At the end of the day...


KING: You just offered the Republican Party all this advice: be less judgmental; be less judgmental; open your mind on these issues, if you want to be competitive in states like this.

Why should any Republicans listen to you if you won't commit to voting for the Republican nominee?

RIDGE: Well, it begins on the message and the messenger. You know, I'm a strong, strong, Republican, but I'd be -- I've never, ever, ever voted straight Republican ticket in my life and I never will.

My mother was a Republican committee woman. My dad a lifelong Democrat who switched once in a primary to vote for me.

(LAUGHTER) But, at the end of the day, I think it's -- when you close -- close a curtain behind you, it makes America very unique. It's a secret ballot.

KING: And when Tom Ridge, son of (inaudible)


KING: ... Vietnam veteran, former governor, former congressman, former Cabinet secretary -- when you close the door on this race for Senate, have you closed the door on running again?

Might Tom Ridge say he wants to change his party by running for president in 2012?

RIDGE: Tom Ridge us going to do everything he can to make sure that we have a Republican governor in 2010 in Pennsylvania and will work within the Republican Party so that we win the presidency in 2012. And we'll just leave it at that.

KING: That wasn't a no.

RIDGE: Well, you can interpret it any way you want to, John.


That's -- those are my present plans.

KING: Tom Ridge, former Cabinet secretary, former governor, thanks for joining us today on "State of the Union."

Thank you very much, sir.

RIDGE: My pleasure. Thank you.

KING: And straight ahead, I'll be joined by two veteran political observers, Republican Ed Rollins and Democrat Bob Shrum. "State of the Union" will be right back.


KING: I'm John King and this is "State of the Union." Here are stories breaking this Sunday morning.

The Space shuttle Atlantis is heading home today. The big question, though: Where is it going to land?

NASA scrubbed today's first landing attempt because of bad weather in Florida. It's the third day in a row thunderstorms have prevented a landing. The shuttle could also land out in California. No matter which landing site NASA picks, CNN will bring it to you live.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is proposing a major change at the State Department, giving partners of gay diplomats the same benefits spouses of heterosexual diplomats enjoy. That includes health insurance.

An administration official, though, says an interagency review must be conducted before any change is made formal. That and much more, ahead on "State of the Union."

A shot of the White House, there, on a Sunday morning, a beautiful Sunday morning, Memorial Day weekend, here in Washington.

Let's check in with two veteran political strategists for their take on how the president might solve the thorny debate over relocating terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay and whether Dick Cheney's high profile helps or hurts the GOP.

CNN contributor and Republican strategist Ed Rollins is in New York and Democratic strategist Bob Shrum joins us from Boston.

I want to start, gentlemen, with what I found a very interesting construct in the president's language this week.

KING: We have heard him repeatedly, repeatedly, when it comes to the economy, say, don't blame me; I inherited a mess from George W. Bush.

KING: Let's listen to a sample.


OBAMA: ... the fiscal mess we've inherited and the costs of this financial crisis, I've proposed a budget that cuts our deficit in half by the end of my first term.


KING: Now, we've all heard that many times, a mess on the economy that he inherited.

But in his big national security speech on Thursday, trying to clean up a political mess he's in, over Gitmo and what to do with the detainees there, the president used very similar language, saying he didn't start this; he inherited it. Let's listen.


OBAMA: We're cleaning up something that is, quite simply, a mess, a misguided experiment that has left in its wake a flood of legal challenges that my administration is forced to deal with on a constant, almost daily, basis.


KING: No question, Bob Shrum, that the -- it was a campaign promise to close it. Some of the legal cases began in the Bush administration, but the biggest mess at the moment was he signed the executive order before he had it planned to dispose of the detainees or where to relocate them.

Isn't that a mess of his own making?

SHRUM: No. Because if he'd done it the other way around, everybody would say, when's he going to sign the order?

Look, I think the Republicans, who don't have a lot to say on most other things, are conquering a tactical mole hill. The big issues on the horizon are the economy, national security, health care. He's going to put a plan forward. That plan will get approved. Some detainees will come to the U.S. They won't escape from super-max prisons, and this issue will go away.

To me, this is a, kind of, Beltway replay of what we were talking about during stimulus, when people were saying, oh, he's lost control of the stimulus bill; he's in real trouble.

He's in a mess. I think that word was used. He's in a mess and he's going to have real political problems. The next set of polls come out, he's in the mid-60s. I think that will continue.

KING: That right, Ed, much ado about nothing?

ROLLINS: No. I think, you know, the president can't spend the next four years blaming George Bush. There's a lot of Republicans who weren't happy with George Bush, a lot of Democrats, obviously. That's what the election was about.

But, at the end of the day, our national security is an American problem. It's not a Republican; it's not a Democrat problem.

I'm often reminded of great Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, who one day said, "The worst meeting I have every week is the Monday booster club."

And he finally addressed them on time, by saying, you know, "By Monday, I've got the game plan figured out, the mistakes I made on Saturday afternoon. When I really need help is when I've got 30 seconds to get the play in and a 100,000 screaming fans."


Hindsight is very kind. And I think, to a certain extent, I hope President Obama never has to go through what President Bush did. I hope there's never another 9/11. But the bottom line is, you've got to move forward. And, obviously, at this point in time, as Americans, we've got to basically figure out where we move from here and how to fight terrorism.

KING: You guys have both been around for a couple of campaigns just because you started so young.



KING: I want to share something the president said. The president gave an interesting interview to C-SPAN this weekend. And he talked about the Supreme Court pick. He talked about his agenda. But he also talked about how he approaches big issues. Let's listen to the president for a second.


OBAMA: I'm willing to tinker and borrow and steal ideas from just about anybody if I think they might work. If they're only bringing me options that have been dusted off the shelf that are the usual -- usual stale ideas, then, a lot of times, I'll ask them, you know, well, what do our critics say? Do they have ideas that, maybe, we haven't thought of?


KING: Ed Rollins, you were there in the early days with Ronald Reagan. President Obama, there, trying to say, hey, look, I'm not an ideologue; I don't just going the Democratic playbook. What do you think of that?

ROLLINS: Well, I think -- I think he's absolutely right. First of all, a president's got three or four very big decisions he has to make every day. They're in conflict.

A perfect example is the whole Gitmo. The secretary of defense has basically said Gitmo is a bad thing; we need to shut it down. The FBI director said, no, we can't bring those prisoners here. That's a very serious -- two heads of agencies coming to the White House. The president has to make that decision.

Those are the kinds of decisions the president makes every day. This president, I think, is off to a good start. Obviously, the public still likes him. A lot of very tough decisions ahead.

The key thing is, don't get bogged down in a bunch of details and don't get bogged down in too much advice. You've got to basically find people you trust, listen to them, make the correct decisions and move forward.

KING: Bob, this is still a young administration. What are we learning about President Obama?

You know, you win the nomination by being the most pure Democrat, but what are we learning about the president?

SHRUM: That he's responsible, that he -- very smart guy, really wants to explain issues to the American people and cares about that oath of office he took.

You know, all of this to-do about why hasn't he released the photographs, when, in fact, we know the waterboarding went on -- Dick Cheney is out there bragging about it -- shows us the real character of the Obama presidency.

Yes, he's broken a campaign promise and he's put the safety of our soldiers ahead of that campaign promise. And I think that's the right thing to do. It's what a commander in chief does. Look. Ronald Reagan wasn't all that ideological. I don't know how Ed's going to feel about this.


He cut taxes drastically in 1981, and when he had a real budget problem in 1982, he agreed to raise taxes. I think that's what presidents who do a good job are open to.

KING: I want to close, again -- often, on a busy week, we lose track of one or two events that are actually quite remarkable, and then, when we're trying to assess the week, we forget about them.

The president gave his first commencement address at Annapolis. The president rotates the military academies. And Barack Obama is up there at the dais giving the speech, and out in the audience is Senator John McCain, whose son Jack was among the graduates. You see a picture there of Senator McCain and Cindy McCain, just moments ago, President Obama shaking Jack, John S. McCain, the fourth John S. McCain to graduate from Annapolis.

Bob, what must it be like to be the winning candidate, standing up there, knowing the losing candidate is out there in the crowd and you're about to meet his son?

SHRUM: Well, it's a lot better to be the winning candidate than to be the losing candidate.


Ask Al Gore about counting the ballots in Florida in 2000.

But I think that there was sense of pride there and that Barack Obama really does feel that he wants to try to transcend some of these partisan divisions.

He's reached out. He's reached out to McCain, who, frankly, for example, has supported him on the torture issue. The person who's really supported him, by the way, as Dick Cheney's criticized him, is George W. Bush.

Because Cheney's real quarrel is not just with Obama; it's with Bush. Bush also ordered the waterboarding stopped. Don't tell me that George Bush and Barack Obama don't care enough about the national security of this country to save lives when they make a decision on an issue like waterboarding.

KING: Ed Rollins, I want to go back to the moment at Annapolis for just a minute. Now, you might expect President Obama to say something to John McCain, but Senator McCain sent word to the White House he wanted the president not to do that. What do you make of that?

ROLLINS: I think it was his son's day, his son and his fellow classmates. The toughest decision this president will have to make in the next four years is those young men and women that he saluted yesterday and gave that degree to, in addition to the others at the other academies, those are the ones he's sending into combat.

That's a tough decision to make. Obviously, looking them in the eye, knowing how the young men, great young men, young women, that's what -- that's the toughest decision a president has to make.

KING: Ed Rollins, Bob Shrum, Republican and Democrat, gentlemen, thank you both for coming in this morning. Take care.

And, coming up, an Iraq war veteran guides us through the honor and the emotions of a very different mission, burying his fallen comrades. A Memorial Day weekend visit to Arlington National Cemetery when "State of the Union" returns.


KING: This is the part of the program where we normally take you outside of Washington. And as you know, meeting new people and finding new stories is the part of this job I love the most. But some steps are worth retracing. On Monday, President Obama will lead the Memorial Day ceremonies right here. This is a live picture of Arlington National Cemetery. It will be the first time as commander- in-chief he presides over those ceremonies. It is a place that is at the same time numbing and uplifting.

And on this weekend three years ago, I met an army captain named Mike Bandzwolek, then a member of the elite unit that for generations has escorted heroes to their final resting place.


CAPT. MICHAEL BANDZWOLEK, U.S. ARMY: I spent a year in Iraq during the invasion and then up into February '04 with 101st airborne division. So, it was different.

KING: Does that experience enter your thoughts at all when you're here, serving, when you're seeing people who served alongside you?

BANDZWOLEK: It does, just because, we've walked already, I saw two graves of guys that I went to high school with, other ones that I recognize, guys I went to college with or guys that I went to college with, soldiers that they've had. So you do think about it, when you see, you know, someone that you knew, and here they are. KING: You do a job here in which you are trained to almost be dispassionate, to pay no attention to what's going on around you, to not be distracted by what's going on around you. You get quite emotional walking through there, because you said you're passing the graves of friends. How difficult is it to do what you do?

BANDZWOLEK: It is difficult. I think at first it is more difficult because you're not only learning a job, but you're dealing with a very emotional situation. As you grow a little bit more comfortable with doing your job, it becomes easier to focus on that and not so much the families that are surrounding you.

But it never gets easier. It's difficult to see someone who, you know, like I said, particularly, someone whose husband or wife or son or daughter just died in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to stand in front of them, and to do that job, and to try to remain, not necessarily dispatched but to remain focused on what your job is.

KING: Is it what you expected, or can you not think in advance or study in advance what the experience is going to be like?

BANDZWOLEK: I don't think at the time, when I came here, I knew what to expect. The longer I've been here, it's definitely been an honor to be able to provide a service on the other side of the Army. And there's a lot of people in Iraq and Afghanistan that are doing their job. And there need to be some people on this side that are representing what the Army does and what the military is doing and also provide honors for a fallen soldier from Iraq or Afghanistan.

So it is an honor to do this job, and I'm proud to say that I've done it.


KING: A reminder there to remember the true meaning of this Memorial Day. Later on "State of the Union," more tributes to the men and women who paid the ultimate price for their service, including a remarkable new tool that allows you to find those you know and leave a personal tribute. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: I'm John King and this is our "State of the Union" report for this Sunday, May 24th. This past week saw both President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney give serious policy speeches. Did the media turn an important debate into a political fistfight? Howie Kurtz puts that question to three veteran journalists.

Politicians, particularly conservative politicians have been the prime target for Bill Maher's biting humor for years. But is he running out of materials now the Democrats are in power? The host of "Real Time with Bill Maher" sits down for an in-depth conversation.

And as you just heard, former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says Dick Cheney is wrong when he says the Obama administration is making the American people less safe. Is Cheney helping or hurting the Republicans with all that criticism? We'll hear both sides, from Democrat James Carville and Republican Mary Matalin. That's all ahead on "State of the Union."

We're keeping an eye on the space shuttle "Atlantis." It is due to land sometime in the next hour. When it does, CNN will bring it to you live. But for now, we'll turn to how the press saw this past week's high drama. And for that, Howie Kurtz.