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Is Gore or Bush Better Prepared to Lead America in an International Crisis?

Aired October 16, 2000 - 7:30 p.m. ET


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, as George Bush and Al Gore prepare for their third and final debate, we ask, which man is better prepared to lead America in an international crisis. Then, is either candidate using the situation in the Middle East to score political points?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak.

In the CROSSFIRE, in San Francisco, Congressman Nancy Pelosi, a Gore supporter, and in Little Rock, Congressman Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas vice chair of the Bush campaign.

PRESS: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Well, if you think there's a lot of talk about foreign policy in last week's debate, just wait until tomorrow night. This time there are real crises to deal with, not just imagined ones.

Off the coast of Yemen, investigators are still trying to find out who is responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole, and on the West Bank today, renewed violence, even as President Clinton, Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat huddle, trying to hammer out the cease-fire. So far, no success.

But soon, it won't be Bill Clinton at table anymore. It will be Al Gore or George Bush. Both candidates spent most of today prepping for their last debate, tomorrow night in St. Louis, where they'll have their chance to tell how they would deal with the Middle East chaos and the USS Cole bombing without seeming to exploit either one for their own political gain, God forbid. And we voters will get our last chance to take their measure on the big, new all-important question, which one is better-equipped to lead this country on foreign policy?


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, honestly, do you think either of these candidates is low enough to try to take advantage of this crisis, this national/international crisis for their own political ends?

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), GORE SUPPORTER: I don't think either of them would do that. But I know that Al Gore would not. I think that we have an opportunity here to put in that seat that Bill was talking about, a person who has been magnificently prepared to represent our country on the international scene. And the strength that he brings to that table is because he has such a close relationship with the American people, understands their priorities, and their connection to the international scene.

NOVAK: I hate to disagree with you, but I wouldn't ever disagree with you, Congresswoman, unless I had some hard evidence.

And I want to show you now a little soundbite of Al Gore in Cedar Rapids, Iowa last Friday. Let's take a look at it.


AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: On the way out here on airplane, I was visiting with Tom Harkin and a telephone call came. I'll tell my traveling party that they have called a national security council meeting of the principals for 5:00 p.m. today, so I'm going to be leaving from Cedar Rapids to go straight back for that meeting.


NOVAK: Now, Nancy, we all know that he said last June he was giving up vice presidency, he wasn't going to do any more vice presidential work because he was running for president, and suddenly, after abandoning his job for all of those months, we have a double crisis with the USS Cole and the violence in the holy land, and he is running off to his first meeting as vice president since June. You're going to tell me that's not trying to use this crisis for political ends.

PELOSI: I am indeed. I think it proves the exact opposite point. You have to admit that the bombing of the USS Cole is an extraordinary occurrence, especially compounded with violence in the Middle East. It is -- I think that even George Bush would want the vice president of the United States to be at the table when the Security Council would come together to -- the National Security Council would come together to discuss this.

I think that leaving the campaign trail is evidence of that he was not going to go around and exploit the situation, as opposed to your view that it -- but Al Gore, you know Al Gore...

NOVAK: Wait a minute, just a second here, you trapped yourself. Because he left it, went back and made some speeches, and then played the same little trick -- I've got to go back to sit down at the National Security Council. You know, seriously, they didn't need him there, did they?

PELOSI: Bob, they did need him there. Quite frankly, I think they both should have been there. I think they should invite the candidate who may be the president. I don't think so. I feel very confident that Al Gore will be the president of the United States. But I hope that the administration is briefing Governor Bush on these issues, because this isn't about politics. But we have a magnificent opportunity now to put in the presidency, in the White House, a person who for 25 years and plus that he has been in politics has understood the connection between the American people and the international scene. He has made our national security a top priority, because it's important to the American people, whether it's stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, promoting our economy through trade, whether it's of international environmental issues. The list goes on and on.


PRESS: You know I hate to interrupt such a magnificent string of compliments for Al Gore, but I do want to get Congressman Asa Hutchinson in here.

And, Congressman, you know, I know you as a real conservative. I also know you as someone who is always fair, unlike my esteemed colleague, Bob Novak. So I -- I want to ask this question.


PRESS: Al Gore is -- he is running for president, that is true. He is also vice president of the United States. And when there is a foreign policy crisis, don't you believe, Congressman, in all fairness, that it is not just his right, it is his duty to be there when the president says, "I need you"?

REP. ASA HUTCHINSON (R-AR), BUSH ARKANSAS VICE CHAIR.: Well, certainly, if the president says, "I need you," you know, he, as vice president, should go. But I think, at the same time, we recognize when he goes to a political rally and he announces that "I'm going to be leaving to go to attend a meeting of the National Security Council," that he is trying to gain some benefit there.

But I think, quite frankly, that both candidates recognize that there is one president at a time, and that President Clinton has to lead our nation at this particular time. I think the candidates, both Vice President Gore and George Bush, have handled it well. But this plays well for Governor Bush, because it is not just this last two weeks he has been talking about the importance of strengthening our defense, it has been for months and months and months.

And now it shows the wisdom of his approach to governance.

PRESS: Well -- but, Congressman, so do you think that George Bush has exploited this situation or not?

HUTCHINSON: No, I don't think he has exploited it at all. I think he has been very reserved and supportive of this administration in what they are trying to handle with the Middle East. Now, what he has done, though, again, months and months ago, he recognized that this administration has cut national defense spending. We need to bolster it. He has been talking about that.

And I think it gives people confidence in the direction he wants to take America. PRESS: All right. But, Congressman, on the one hand, he said: I support the administration. On the other hand, he is really slamming away on this crisis. Let me just point out to you, last Friday, campaigning -- campaigning on the campaign trail, George Bush said, about what's happening in the Middle East: "Yet Vice President Gore's administration failed to act. Under Clinton-Gore, under their watch, America has lost credibility with OPEC nations."

Campaigning last Thursday, Dick Cheney said about the USS Cole -- not in general -- USS Cole bombing, he said: "It proves that this administration has let down a military preparedness and didn't give the military the resources they need to protect themselves." Both candidates are using these two crises to try to score political points. And that is cheap stuff, isn't it, Congressman?

HUTCHINSON: No. Listen, it is very important that the candidates, Governor Bush, continue to talk about his view of the Middle East, what we need to do to protect ourselves against terrorism, because this is on the minds of the public. You are going to hear it tomorrow night in the debate. And people -- you know. foreign policy, national defense issues will -- are moving to the forefront because of what's happened, this extraordinary crisis in the Middle East, with the violence there, with the USS Cole.

So it's appropriate. It's right. And I think that he shows the strength of his leadership when he has been talking about strengthening national defense, not for a week, but for months and months on end.


HUTCHINSON: And I think it goes to show that he is right.

NOVAK: Now, Congresswoman Pelosi, we have -- the main thing that has been done on the oil crisis has been to release oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. It was done by President Clinton after candidate Gore proposed it. And I want you to hear what George W. Bush had to say about that in Pontiac, Michigan on Friday.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Every barrel released today is one less barrel available to protect us against threats to our security, threats that are becoming more vivid with this week's turmoil and violence in the Middle East.


NOVAK: Hard to disagree with that, isn't it?

PELOSI: No, I think that President Clinton has our national security at -- in the forefront of his decision-making, and that he would not release any more oil than was in our national interest to do so. I think he did what he proceeded, as you said, after the vice president suggested. I don't think that really had that much to do with it. NOVAK: Yes, it wasn't political at all.

PELOSI: I think the president made his own decision about the oil. And he released enough to relieve the price situation in our country, but not so much as to jeopardize our national security. I don't think that you would agree that President Clinton would jeopardize our national security by releasing that oil. And he didn't. And I think that that is unfair.

NOVAK: Well, it's hard to tell. Let me ask you this: Does the name Lance Stroud mean anything to you? Lance Stroud.

PELOSI: Remind me.

NOVAK: Well, I'll tell you, you know, three tiny, tiny little firms got 10 million barrels of this oil. And one of them is called Lance Stroud Enterprises. Lance Stroud lives in a -- with his mother in Harlem. He has one employee: himself, Lance Stroud. He calls Jesse Jackson his mentor. He has no cash, so he is getting a letter of credit to get this millions of barrels of oil.

You are a member of Congress. Do you think we should have a little Congress -- congressional oversight to find out what in the world is going on there?

PELOSI: Well, you know, what I wonder in the world, Bob, is what is the point of all of this? Here we have a very important election ahead of us. This is center stage for American politics, every four years. The most important decision the American people have to make. They have to make a decision about the person whose leadership they regard as the better of two, or the best of the four, to take us into this new millennium.

We have Al Gore, a person of experience, judgment, vision, and here you are -- however important that may be to you, I think to the American people, it is important to know.

NOVAK: I'm very disappointed because I thought you would explain what Lance Stroud thing meant. We are going to have to take a break.

Tonight's on-line audience vote is on which candidate is using the Middle East crisis to score political points? Log on to, and let us know with think.

And after the break, Bill Press and I will be back to talk about how the candidates are dealing with guess who? Saddam Hussein.


NOVAK: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

At the second presidential debate last week, George W. Bush and Al Gore each warned that Saddam Hussein was just the kind of belligerent tyrant who would try to take advantage of the current Middle East crisis. But what would they do if elected president about the beast of Baghdad? They didn't exactly say. So we will ask Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of California, who is in San Francisco, and Republican Congressman Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, who is in Little Rock -- Bill.

PRESS: Congressman, to the beast of Baghdad in just a second, but first let's get back to the Middle East for a second, because, if this is bad news for the American people, it seems to me, it is particularly bad news for one American, and I think Senator Christopher Dodd put his finger right on it yesterday, outside of NBC News.

Please listen to what senator had to say.


SEN. CHRISTOPHER DODD (D), CONNECTICUT: With all due respect to the governor of Texas, this is new area for him. And he, by his own admission, is not terribly well versed or experienced in the conduct of foreign affairs. And so I, to the extent this tragedy, this crisis in the Middle East highlights anything, I think it highlights the differences between both of these candidates and their ability to move in immediately to become the commander in chief and to manage a major foreign policy crisis.


PRESS: Isn't that the issue, congressman, one man has 24 years experience, the other one has zip?

HUTCHINSON: Bill, I think Senator Dodd is dreaming right there. Whenever you look at the polls, whenever it comes to defense, foreign policy, handling a crisis, the people of America right now in the polls are putting confidence in Governor Bush, and I think there is a reason for it because, one, he can surround himself with very good people, Dick Cheney, General Colin Powell; but, also, more importantly, he has good instincts.

Remember the debate, I think it was the first debate, they asked about the situation in Yugoslavia, and Governor Bush mentioned that the Russian president had a good opportunity to assert himself there. Vice President Gore almost mocked him on this, but that is exactly what the administration was doing. So he has good instincts. He has a good grasp of these foreign policy issues, and because he understands the importance of the military, being strong in the national defense, defining the mission, having a clear exit strategy, limiting our engagements, I think people had confidence in that kind of leadership.

PRESS: Congressman, it takes more than boning up for a debate, which we have seen that George Bush can do, it takes again experience, and the ability to lead. You know not everything is seen on the political shows necessarily these days about the campaign, they are also the comedy shows "Saturday Night Live" better than anybody else. And last Saturday night, again they did a little sort of mock debate between Bush and Gore.

And here is their take on George Bush on foreign policy. Please listen up.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You see, I've been very impressed with the new leadership over there, President Olesegun Obasanjo.


Vice president Atiku Abackar.


His special assistant, Mr. Tunde Alusunye, even the director general of public enterprise, Mr. Malam Nasier Alir Al-Rufat. They're all top notch.


PRESS: Top-notch leaders of Nigeria, congressman. It takes more than being able to rattle off a bunch names, doesn't it, to be a foreign policy leader?

HUTCHINSON: I will concede that is funny, but I think the most important thing is trustworthiness, and that is why the American people are looking at Governor Bush, and saying we trust him and his leadership. And whenever you look at, the foreign leaders, the credibility and the trustworthiness of the United States is really our best asset. And I think that people are looking at the two candidates, Vice President Gore and Governor Bush, and saying: Who do we trust to lead us? Who has the credibility? And when those -- that important criteria, it is Governor Bush that is off the charts, because people do trust him, and I think that is a weakness of Vice President Gore. And that is clear as well. And that is something that the Saturday night shows are talking about as well.

NOVAK: Congresswoman Pelosi, after the debate last week, Vice President Gore said he would give robust aid to the groups trying to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Now, I thought that the vice president knew something about what's going on, what's going on in Iraq, does he really believe there is an opposition in Iraq? that we should waste taxpayer dollars on? do you really believe that?

PELOSI: Well, first, I would like to just address the question of leadership, and who should be commander in chief.

NOVAK: No, wait, I asked the questions here, and I would like an answer to my question.

PELOSI: Well, let me answer your question and then I will go to the next part of it.

NOVAK: No, I would like you to answer my question, congresswoman.

PELOSI: As a matter of fact, in the bill -- I am the senior Democrat on the Foreign Operations Committee, and giving some assistance to those groups is part of a proposal from the Republicans in that bill. So giving aid into opposition groups -- in opposition to Saddam Hussein is a child who has parents in both parties.

I happen to have debated Al Gore at the time of the Persian Gulf War, and he and I were in disagreement you might be interested to know. At the end of it, he was in favor of proceeding on to Baghdad. I was not. I think he was probably right in retrospect.

But let me say this. In terms of leadership, and who should be commander in chief, it is one thing for Governor Bush to talk about it, and his supporters to talk about, it is another thing for Al Gore having have to have done it.

For 25 years, he has been a leader in the Congress and in country on disarmament and stopping the proliferation of weapons of destruction and promoting democratic values throughout the world, in protect our -- shoring up our alliances with other countries, and trying to make friends of former enemies, of enhancing our relationships with our allies.

This is a man of experience, judgment, knowledge, and a plan on how we should go forward to promote Democratic values and to advance the pillars of our foreign policy, which spring from the American people.

So I think that -- there is no comparison if you talk about who says they are not going to do and who has done it and who has a record of performance.

NOVAK: All right, I would like to give the most specific thing that the vice president has done in foreign policy leadership, and that's his commission with the former, the then-Prime Minister Chernomyrdin of the Soviet Union. And his relationship with Chernomyrdin, he bragged about bragged and bragged and about.

Now on October 13th in "The New York Times," John Broder had a very interesting story. He said a secret deal was cut between Gore and Chernomyrdin to stop the shipment of arms from the Soviet Union -- not the Soviet Union, from Russia to Iran. Now there should have been sanctions levied against Russia under the Gore-McCain act, but he didn't do that. And when at the end of the deadline, at the end of 1999, the Russians kept sending the arms to Iran, he didn't release information. Is that the kind of man we want running the foreign policy, or are you familiar with that story?

PELOSI: Well, first of all, "The New York Times" story did not tell the full story. Second of all, the kinds of weapons that were being sold to Iran did not rise to the level of being sanctionable, sales. Yes, I think that we should do everything in our power, to stop the proliferation of weapons. And as I say, these were not of the level that would have called for sanctions.

I have not been bashful in past criticizing the administration when they have not issued sanctions. For example, the proliferation of weapons from China to Pakistan, for example. but in the case of this U.S.-Russia relationship,, I think you're wrong, because you're just basing it on a newspaper story that didn't tell the whole story.

PRESS: Congresswoman, I'm sorry to interrupt. We are out of time. And there are lots more questions we have for both of you. We'll have to come back. Thank you very much for joining us tonight.

PELOSI: My pleasure.

PRESS: Nancy Pelosi in San Francisco, Asa Hutchinson in Little Rock.

Bob Novak and I will have a final word or two, we call them closing comments, coming up.


NOVAK: Now the results of our online audience vote. We asked: Which candidate is using the Middle East crisis do score political points? Twenty-four percent of you said Bush, 69 percent Gore, and 7 percent said neither.

Bill, in between the great part of America, in between your two places of Delaware and California, there is a lot of Americans who really just want to keep out of war. They're not interested in micro- managing the disputes of Palestinians and Israelis. And this is not a big deal for most -- most -- Americans.

PRESS: Well, I would say for those Americans who want America to pull back and who don't want us to use our military to do important things like keep the peace in Bosnia and in Kosovo and in Korea that they ought to vote for...

NOVAK: And Haiti. And Haiti and Somalia and Montenegro.

PRESS: ... George Bush. He's the ultimate isolationist, which is why I don't trust him on foreign policy. Bob, you know what the score is: 24 years for Gore, zero for Bush.

NOVAK: Twenty-four bad years are worse than no years.

PRESS: Twenty-four good years, man.

From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, join us again next time in St. Louis, Missouri tomorrow night for the debate for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



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