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Capital Gang

Sen. Byron Dorgan Discusses Al Gore's Fund Raising, the Rising Price of Gas and Capital Punishment

Aired June 24, 2000 - 7:00 p.m. ET




I'm Mark Shields, with Al Hunt, Robert Novak and Kate O'Beirne.

Our guest is Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee.

It's great to have you back, Byron.


SHIELDS: Thank you for coming in.

A Justice Department prosecutor has asked Attorney General Janet Reno to name a special counsel to investigate Al Gore's 1996 campaign fund raising. That overshadowed the vice president's attempt earlier this week to counter George W. Bush's proposed initiative to partially privatize Social Security.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm proposing to create new retirement savings-plus accounts, tax-free voluntary nest egg accounts that let you save, invest and build on top of the guaranteed foundation of Social Security, not at the expense of Social Security.


SHIELDS: Bob Novak, where does this entire week leave the Gore campaign?

ROBERT NOVAK, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, it shows the Gore campaign that anytime a nerdy little redistribution of wealth scheme is trumped by scandal -- any time. This is -- for a candidacy that...

SHIELDS: Are you talking about Mr. Bush's ideas? No.

NOVAK: No, I'm talking about Mr. Gore's.

SHIELDS: OK. NOVAK: The candidacy at any rate is eight to 12 points behind in all the polls, and just bringing up the scandal again is bad news. Now, if they actually, wonder of wonders, for the third time -- being asked for the third time the attorney general would actually permit the -- a special prosecutor to be named, then this candidacy may be down the dump. Of course they're fighting against that. That's why on Friday afternoon they quickly released the transcript, the 150-page transcript of the interview with the new head of the special section of the Justice Department on campaign reform, Robert Conrad, the guy who called for a special prosecutor.

SHIELDS: Byron Dorgan, is the vice president's campaign in risk of being down the drain?

DORGAN: Oh, I don't think so at all. I mean, this is a political rerun, and I guess reruns work from time to time in Washington. A Republican senator releases information he says he has from inside the bowels of the Justice Department...

SHIELDS: Arlen Specter.

DORGAN: ... inside the bowels of the Justice Department, saying that someone has made a recommendation to Janet Reno. Look, this has been the most investigated fund-raising event in the history of humankind.

And I noticed in the paper the other day that there's a little tiny story, I think three-quarters of an inch, that says the special prosecutor, independent counsel, has decided there's nothing to Travelgate. You know all the stories you probably did on Travelgate on this show? Nothing to it gets about three-quarters of an inch.

All of these charges I suppose the political opponents think work. Frankly, I'm much more interested in what Al Gore talked about in terms of incentivizing savings in this country, Social Security- plus, which, incidentally, I think is an awfully good proposal.

SHIELDS: I thought was a good proposal, too. Kate, tell me your reaction to it.

KATE O'BEIRNE, "NATIONAL REVIEW": I think a good proposal and A tribute on the part of Al Gore playing catch-up with George Bush to the power of the idea of permitting private investments. Now I think in this sense, one thing that's frustrating people who are now more familiar with the market because they're more inclined to be investing in it themselves with over 50 percent of households having stocks, is the crummy 2 percent return from Social Security when they see what they're getting from the private market.

So Al Gore will no longer be calling it risky, now that he's permitting it himself in this new retirement savings plan of his. So I think there is, as I said, it's a tribute to the enormous change George Bush had first spotted with the new investor class.

I do disagree, though. I think that this latest prosecutor, and the latest string of prosecutors to recommend an investigation is a problem for Al Gore. The public doesn't want a rerun. The single most damaging thing to Al Gore might be when all of the old Clinton defenders take to the airwaves again to defend Al Gore's either breaking of a law or lying under oath. And if people just want it to go away, the remedy is not get another investigation. I don't even think the Clinton administration and Al Gore's critics want another investigation. The remedy is an election in November, and I predict George Bush's pledge to restore integrity to the White House is going to become one of his most popular promise.

SHIELDS: Al Hunt, Al Gore's problem all the way through is to establish independence, identity, separate himself really in a positive sense from Bill Clinton. This latest development doesn't help.

HUNT: Oh, it doesn't help. Let me go to the Social Security thing first.

SHIELDS: OK, sure.

AL HUNT, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": I agree with Kate and with Byron. I think this was a very good proposal, far better than George W. Bush's...


HUNT: ... because it's an add-on. It is not a partial replacement of Social Security. And it helps those people who most need help. So I give Gore tremendous credit for this.

You know, I first wrote a column in September of 1997 calling on Janet Reno to name a special counsel to investigate all 96 fund- raising scams, principally Clinton-Gore, but also the Republicans. And I think she made a dreadful mistake in not doing that. But to call for this now, Mark, is an absolute political travesty. There is no way in the world an inquiry could be complete by the November election, and this is just a rehash of old charges that should have been investigated earlier. They were not. I have no idea the motives of the Justice Department career official who privately proposed...

NOVAK: It is a career official.

HUNT: ... but let me tell you this. Senator Arlen Specter was playing cheap politics.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak, you have castigated, crucified, vilified Justice Department senior officials and all sorts of professionals. Now we're going to canonize one. But, Bob, Al makes a telling point here. Is it fair on the eve of an election this close, when we can't get an investigation back...

NOVAK: Listen, this guy is non political to listen to Byron talk about it.

SHIELDS: No, but seriously, on the merits.

NOVAK: Just a minute. SHIELDS: On the merits.

NOVAK: Just a minute. To listen to Byron talk about it, it's like the Republicans are calling for this investigation. Because Specter released it didn't mean it didn't happen. It happened. And there's -- this guy is a straight arrow. There was a lot of rumors that when he was named head of the department, the administration was going to be in trouble because he wasn't a political hack in there. That's something that the White House didn't want.

HUNT: Who named him?

NOVAK: Now, let me just say this. I think this...

HUNT: Who named him?

NOVAK: It came up through the -- through the ranks of the bureaucracy. I mean, they got a lot of good people in the Justice Department. They're not all like Lee Radick, who's been doing the whitewashes on Gore. But let me just say, I've got to say this is a terrible plan. I'm so disappointed in Kate thinking this is a good plan. This creates a new entitlement, doesn't do anything for Social Security, and it's a redistribution of income.

SHIELDS: Bob, you ducked the question, though.

NOVAK: Terrible plan.

SHIELDS: Is it fair at this point in a presidential campaign...

NOVAK: I'm not interested in fairness, I've never been interested in fairness.

SHIELDS: Well, we've got that on record -- Byron Dorgan.

DORGAN: Can I make just the brief point that the Justice Department official, if you can believe what's being said these days, is not suggesting that Gore did something wrong, he's saying that he doesn't believe the Justice Department can investigate it...

NOVAK: Right.

DORGAN: ... so someone else should investigate it.

O'BEIRNE: Well we're not sure what he's saying. I mean, nobody's seen it. We're not sure what he's saying, and in the past others who've looked at it have expressed concern that the vice president was not honest in his responses to questions about either the Buddhist temple or the phone calls.

DORGAN: And many who have looked at it have said there's nothing there.

SHIELDS: I think there's no question, no question at all, that this should have been investigated before. To do it now tilts this election, and I have a sense of fairness, even if Novak doesn't. NOVAK: Thank you.

SHIELDS: Byron Dorgan and THE GANG will be back with the politics of rising gasoline prices and the death penalty.


SHIELDS: Welcome back.

Gasoline prices went over the $2 a gallon level in the Midwest.


REP. EDWARD MARKEY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The president must announce his willingness to use the strategic petroleum reserve on behalf of American motorists.

SEN. TOM DASCHLE (D-SD), MINORITY LEADER: My advice to the White House was to get to the bottom of it. Get this investigation under way, get as many answers as quickly as we can, and decide what it is we can do.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We need an aggressive inquiry by the FTC. There is no economic explanation I can think of for the run-up of prices, particularly in the Middle West.


SHIELDS: But Republicans had in mind other culprits.


REP. JAMES SENSENBRENNER (R), WISCONSIN: The EPA is costing consumers somewhere between 25 and 50 cents per gallon.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: The administration doesn't want to explore or develop any kind of oil production inside the United States.


SHIELDS: A CNN/"TIME" poll found that Americans blame oil- producing countries and the U.S. government more than they do the oil companies.

Al Hunt, what is the political fallout of $2 gasoline?

HUNT: If it stays at that level, it's a problem for Al Gore. But I think the issue may well be overrated, Mark, for two reasons. One, I think with the pressure coming from Washington and with wholesale prices coming down anyway, my guess is that by Labor Day that there will be a return to close to normalcy.

And secondly, there's plenty of blame to go around: the oil companies, environmental standards, a whole host of other issues. But George W. Bush, apparently sensitive to the political albatross of his ties to big oil contributors, isn't making an issue of this. A, he supports the FTC inquiry, B, he opposes any kind of environmental waivers, and is left with babble about they should have been tougher on OPEC. So my guess is this isn't going to be a big issue.

SHIELDS: Big issue, Bob Novak?

NOVAK: I think it's a big issue in the Midwest if it stays at $2 -- Al said that.

I really love politicians who don't understand the market and don't understand how the world works when they set up on their own little hill in Washington, and they're screaming when there's too much demand for oil. They don't let the oil be produced in Alaska. They want those animals to run around there instead, instead of having oil that people need.

And also, these tremendous environmental restrictions, so I don't think it's a big issue, but the idea that this is price gouging by the companies kind of makes me sick. It's always attack private enterprise by certain politicians in Washington.

SHIELDS: Byron, the reformulation that we hear so much about that Bob is referring to implicitly here includes ethanol. Now if I'm not mistaken, the giant sucking sound I heard during the Iowa caucuses was every presidential candidate except John McCain -- including George W. Bush -- endorsing ethanol. Now they're criticizing ethanol? What's the deal?

DORGAN: Well, ethanol makes sense. I mean, it makes sense to take a drop of alcohol from a kernel of corn and still have the protein feed stock left. You can extend your energy supplies. All that makes sense to me. But I'm still sitting here in shock at Bob Novak talking about the OPEC companies representing the markets system. I mean, that's not a market system, that's a monopoly.

And, you know, I mean, there's a little truth on all sides here. The fact is OPEC cuts production. That's caused some problems. We've probably had some dislocation with respect to the oxygenated fuel issue, we probably have some price gouging here and there. I think we ought to investigate all of that. But this ought to be a wake-up call for this country. We're far too dependent on foreign source energy, and we ought to do a lot in this country to develop additional energy supplies, including renewable energy.

SHIELDS: Far too dependent on foreign energy, Kate?

O'BEIRNE: Well, I agree with the senator. And the administration might have done better to have focused on busting up OPEC and leaving Microsoft alone.

This is a wonderful opportunity for Republicans to say to voters in the Midwest, the current high prices are just a small taste of what is to come, given Al Gore's long and explicit history on energy prices. Their first budget proposed an energy tax of $300 per family. An explicit policy of Al Gore's, who's now fashioning himself as some big consumer advocate, has always been higher gas prices are good. He wants us all walking and on bicycles. He's hostile to the car. He backs a global warming treaty that would dramatically increase the cost of energy. This is exactly the case the Republicans ought to be making, but I agree with Al, there seems to be some timidity in their making it.

SHIELDS: Well, the timdity in my judgment is on the Democratic side. I mean, when you look at the fact that in the first quarter, 437 percent profit increase for Texaco, a 371 percent profit increase for Conoco...

NOVAK: What's wrong with profit?

SHIELDS: ... a 296 percent profit for BP/Amoco, the biggest profits ever for ExxonMobil and Shell. Now you add to that the fact that the idea that this administration has when this goes on is to have an FTC investigation. I have great respect for the FTC, but Jack Kennedy had an idea in 1962 when steel broke its word and raised prices after the labor settlement. He sent out FBI agents to find out what was going on, what kind of collusion was going on. And that's exactly.

George W. Bush is scared stiff. The Democrats ought to be on the offensive. This is a guy who's in the pockets of the oil company, $12 for every...

NOVAK: Can I make a suggestion?

SHIELDS: Of course you can't.

NOVAK: Just...

SHIELDS: No, but the reality is, there is, Bob, 550,000 Americans went to save that damn OPEC's fanny just nine years ago. You've forgotten that. You think it's a market.

NOVAK: I was against it.

SHIELDS: You think it's a market today.

NOVAK: I was against going there, but I would suggest you call up Vladimir Putin in Russia. He knows how to run a fascist state...


NOVAK: ... and have him crack down on the oil companies. He'll tell you how to bully -- that's what you want to do is bully the corporate leaders, don't you?

SHIELDS: No, Bob, what I want to do is genuflect before the cartel of OPEC just like you do.

Next on CAPITAL GANG, an execution in George Bush's Texas.


SHIELDS: Welcome back. The Texas Board of Pardons rejected convicted killer Gary Graham's last appeal.


LARRY FITZGERALD, TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CRIMINAL JUSTICE: A majority of the board has decided not to recommend a 120-day reprieve, a commutation of the death sentence to a lesser penalty or a conditional pardon.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I support the board's decision. Mr. Graham has had full and fair access to state and federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court. After considering all the facts, I am confident justice is being done.


SHIELDS: The execution's critics did not include the vice president.


GORE: I do not know the record in Texas. I have not examined the cases.

I've always tried to stay away from issues in criminal courts.

As a supporter of the death penalty, I am deeply troubled by any false convictions for obvious reasons.


SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne, does the furor over this execution hurt the George Bush candidacy?

O'BEIRNE: Let me first note, Mark, that this furor over, recently, Gary Graham is certainly a case of selected outrage. Where were all of these people protesting when Bill Clinton in 1992 left the campaign trail to go down to Arkansas to make sure he presided over the execution of a brain damaged black man? Well, it was buried in the newspapers and nobody was interrupting coverage for -- to show it. So there's a lot of that going on here.

There's a campaign by Gore's allies, although Gore's afraid to lead it, to portray George Bush as bloodthirsty and Texas as barbaric. But you don't have to be a supporter of the death penalty to recognize that Gary Graham is not a very sympathetic character. He is a vicious predator. He had 19 years of appeals, 33 judges have heard all of his claims.

And I think what this is showing -- and I think George Bush will be given some credit for it -- he's an executive who's got to make these tough decisions. He has to make these tough decisions. When no one was looking, he commuted the sentence of Henry Lee Lucas, an admitted convicted murderer. He's making some really tough calls.

SHIELDS: Byron Dorgan, tough calls?

DORGAN: I think so. I mean, I -- but I have supported the death penalty, but I believe it ought to be used rarely. And we're running into circumstances here where the facts show that there are people being put to death, convicted in the criminal justice system and sentenced to death without adequate representation, without trials that are fair. I mean, defense counsels sleeping, defense counsels who are not qualified.

I think all of us in this country ought to pay some attention to this issue, and I think Governor Bush, obviously, presides over a state that has the largest number of executions by far. And this is going to be an issue for some long while in my judgment.

SHIELDS: Just a personal note, I am opposed to the death penalty. But I have to say that when George W. Bush, the doubts that are expressed about him, whether he is presidential enough, heavy enough, big enough for the job, I thought in his handling of this, he showed more presidential leadership or sort of a sense of self than he has in any other instance -- Bob Novak.

NOVAK: Let me suggest what's really going on here, and that is the anti-death penalty people lobby, use this execution, which is really not much different than any of the others, to make their point because they were able to get a wedge into the presidential election. And, of course, this titillated the media. It's a slow time, and all of the news media have gone bananas on this case like this is one -- this is something like a Dreyfus case, somebody who's been railroaded, which is nonsense. And you get Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson going down there and demagoguing, I think that the biggest outrage of this, however, is the media, which allowed itself to be used in this case.

SHIELDS: And John Paul II, too. Is that right?

NOVAK: No, I didn't say it. But wait a minute...

SHIELDS: No, no...

NOVAK: ... wait a minute, wait a minute...

SHIELDS: He's against the death penalty, he's not a showboat, he did it in St. Louis. I didn't hear.

NOVAK: I didn't say -- now that's unfair. I didn't say that you were showboating. You can be against it. But it's another thing to go down there and make this a civil rights issue. That's nonsense.


HUNT: I don't think this is going to hurt George Bush, and I agree with Kate, there's a lot of hypocrisy. What Clinton did with Ricky Rector, you know, eight years ago was really horrendous, and he never was chastised the way he should have been for it.

I think it was a mistake, this execution. But, Bob, I must admit I was embarrassed by some of the people who were down there, the Bianca Jagger, the beautiful crowd. For Jesse Jackson to draw a parallel to Pontius Pilate, so, therefore, you know, ipso facto, Gary Graham as Jesus Christ, is outrageous. This guy was a thug. He was a terrible man.

But, Mark, he was executed on flimsy circumstantial evidence. No. 1, he had terrible legal representation, which is rather commonplace unfortunately in the state of Texas. Two, three of the four -- three of the 12 jurors say if they knew what they know now, if they had those facts, they wouldn't have voted. Three, there was only one eyewitness and there are two others who directly contradicted. It shouldn't have happened.

SHIELDS: Thank you. Last word, Al Hunt

Thanks for being with us, Byron Dorgan.

DORGAN: Thanks, Mark.

SHIELDS: THE GANG will be back with the "Outrage of the Week."

ANNOUNCER: Our viewer "Outrage of the Week" is from Jeff Budney. He writes:

"Within all of the debate about eliminating the estate tax, I find it an outrage to hear certain politicians arguing that just because few people are required to pay a tax that it is OK for the government to impose it. For the government to forcibly take possession of so much of a person's wealth is unjust, no matter how much wealth a person may have.

If you have an "Outrage" for next week, our e-mail address is Or call the toll-free number at 1-888-847-8660. We'll choose one "Outrage" to air at this same time next week on THE CAPITAL GANG.


SHIELDS: And now for the "Outrage of the Week."

As many as to out of three Americans report they get most of their news from television. Well Americans seeking to learn more about the two major party presidential nominees will get next to no help from the big three TV networks. ABC, NBC and CBS will do only cameo coverage of the Democratic and Republican conventions. So much for the noble traditions of John Chancellor, Ed Murrow and Sander Von Ocher (ph). But thanks to PBS, C-SPAN, CNN and other cable news, conscientious citizens will still be able to see the full proceedings. But NBC, CBS and ABC ought to be embarrassed -- Bob Novak.

NOVAK: The news media reported that basketball fans went on a rampage in Los Angeles Monday night, burning and looting after the Lakers won the NBA championship. Some fans -- they were vandals and thugs. It's like describing their predecessors in L.A. 32 years ago as revolutionaries. The late, great urbanologist Ed Banfield said they rioted not for ideology but for fun and profit. To abscribe either political or athletic motives to these bums is an outrage. SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne.

O'BEIRNE: This week, the Supreme Court struck down a school district's attempt to permit student-led invocations at sports events. Chief Justice Rehnquist's dissent correctly claimed that in rushing to block a policy that hadn't even been implemented, the majority's tone bristled with hostility to all things religious in public life. Particularly outrageous is Justice Souter, who agreed that the public square should be bare of religion, but recently found nude dancing must be constitutionally protected.


HUNT: Mark, Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum burst onto the national scene some years ago by attacking Democrats' ethical transgressions. "The Philadelphia Inquirer" reported this week that Santorum, his wife and four kids went to Rome last year, but he won't say what private fat cats picked up the tab for his children. The trip, he claims, was related to his wife's religious work. And we've heard of real men hiding behind their wives coattails, but hiding behind their spouse's religion is blasphemous as well as hypocritical.

SHIELDS: This is Mark Shields saying good night for THE CAPITAL GANG.

Next on CNN, "SPORTS TONIGHT" reports on the battle for first place in the American League East between the Boston Red Sox and the Toronto Blue Jays.



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