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Campaign Countdown: Does Bush Have the Experience to be President?

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


MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST: Tonight, noted journalists Bob Woodward and Joe Klein on Bush -- does he have the experience to be president?


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: I will challenge the status quo, he is the status quo.


MATALIN: Gore -- will voters ever fall in love with him?


TIPPER GORE, AL GORE'S WIFE: It's not "The Dating Game," you know, you don't have to fall in love with Al Gore, I did that.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Article one is adopted.


MATALIN: And Clinton -- should Republicans apologize for impeaching him?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Mary Matalin. In the CROSSFIRE, Bob Woodward, "Washington Post" assistant managing editor; and in New York, Joe Klein, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" magazine.

MATALIN: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The candidates kicked off the final full week before Election Day campaigning in unlikely key states. Governor Bush, appearing on Jay Leno tonight, will stump in California, a Democratic stronghold where Al Gore's lead has shrunk. The vice president along with his running mate Joe Lieberman was in Wisconsin also closing out the campaign in traditional Democratic states. The electoral map is up for grabs as national polls continue to show a race too close to call, but with Bush holding the lead, he is up 3 in the latest "USA Today"/CNN/Gallup poll, it's dead even in the ABC News poll, Bush by 1 in the "Washington Post" poll, and Bush up by 3 according to MSNBC-Reuters- Zogby.

In the final stretch, two men who cannot possibly be president in 2000 may determine who will be. Ralph Nader refused to back down to Democratic charges of egomania, and President Clinton rode to the rescue of Democrats urging he pump up the base by bringing his own special brand of the party gospel to black churches and radio shows.

So, on the final lap, will bashing Bush close the gap for Gore? Is ignoring Gore a risky choice for Bush? And will any candidate ever compare to Clinton?

Bill Press will be spinning all week in CNN's election special, "THE SPIN ROOM," with Tucker Carlson at 10:00 p.m. So joining the CROSSFIRE homestretch huddle tonight, the former public servant and current commentator extraordinaire, former White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.

Welcome, Joe.

JOE LOCKHART, GUEST CO-HOST: Thank you. Good to be here.

Bob, there's a great debate here in Washington now, what the president's role should be. You've been watching this for a while. What should the president do, what shouldn't he do, and how should he -- what should he go about doing over the next couple days?

BOB WOODWARD, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I don't know, but, I mean, the reaction always to Clinton, as you know as well as anyone, is who ever meets him and who ever listens to him feels better about himself or herself because of the encounter. Now, he can't transfer that to Gore, but somehow Gore has to figure out in the last week of the campaign, how is he going to go out, talk to audiences and the audiences will say, gee, I really kind of like that guy, or I have a positive feeling. You were running Tipper Gore saying it isn't "The Dating Game." But being president, as you know, working in the White House to a certain extent is "The Dating Game."

LOCKHART: Well, there is another great debate now about "Esquire" magazine and an article about the president, and let me just say for the record that there was an ironclad agreement between "Esquire" magazine and the White House -- me at the time -- that this article wouldn't come out until after the election. They sent us a letter saying it would be in December. So, how do you feel about when your brethren break a promise like that? But more importantly, there are -- there have been several long articles about the president where there has been passing references to impeachment. Why is the media so obsessed? Why do they go right to that and only discuss that issue?

WOODWARD: Well, first of all, Clinton is obsessed with it, as you know, and Clinton really brings it up himself. And in this "Esquire," I think your complaint about the article is exactly right and right on target, it is the December issue and normally that comes out in mid-November. Now it's the end of October and they are distributing it around. But it's one of those things where Clinton goes to the soft tissue of the issue and says, when are the Republicans going to apologize -- I think it's going to be a long wait.

LOCKHART: Let me ask you a media question, which is Gore's running as the Democrat, Bush as the Republican. Do reporters apply the same standard to two of them, or is it, as it appears to me, Gore is somehow held to a slightly higher standard? When he makes a mistake it's -- there is something devious in it. When Bush misspeaks, well, he's just -- he's inexperienced, he's a bit of a bumbler.

WOODWARD: Well, as you know, the best reporters really play it straight and I think there are lots of really good reporters who don't let their ideology get in the way or their own predisposition. But I think Gore is getting a straight shot as is Bush. I think Gore's big problem is that he's got to present himself as the real candidate he is, which is a blend, some Republican, some Democrat. He is a new Democrat, but he is running as kind of a traditional Democrat and people sense -- they say, well, where is the Gore we saw who did lots of Republican things like supporting the -- let's get the deficit down.

MATALIN: Bob, while we're trying to fix Joe's mike there, I want to ask you something since you have been through quite a few "Esquire" covers with quite a few of us in this town. And, Joe, we feel your pain, I've also been there when I told my principle not to get involved in this.

But this cover of "Esquire" that has everybody all abuzz -- you are not a psychologist certainly, but what would possess a person, a president to take such an unpresidential pose?

WOODWARD: Well, I suspect, and Joe can answer this, they took lots of pictures. It's like when they get somebody picking their nose and you say, well, why would somebody pick their nose when they're in front of the camera -- he may have been in front of the camera 20 minutes or a half hour.

LOCKHART: Much longer than that, he was there for, I think, a half an hour to 45 minutes, so it's...

MATALIN: Well, Joe is not responsible for this, but...

WOODWARD: But it's the worst cover for Clinton and it's the worst cover for Gore...


WOODWARD: ... because it essentially says, I am basking in self- contentment, and people who don't like the president want him to feel his own pain.

MATALIN: Well, Joe Klein in New York, joining us...


MATALIN: How are you, darling? We are happy you are here.

KLEIN: Fine.

MATALIN: We have been talking about the "Esquire" piece, and why don't you give your commentary on that cover that everybody is abuzz about, hardly presidential, not Joe Lockhart's fault, but what -- you have been in the mind of this president and have actually written a more definitive peace than this. What possesses him to even want to tell his story to "Esquire" magazine?

KLEIN: I think he wants to tell his story to everybody at this point, because he feels that his true story hasn't gotten out over the years because of all of the scandal coverage. You know, the reason why Clinton talks about impeachment so much, why reporters are so obsessed by impeachment is because Clinton talks about it. When I interviewed him extensively this summer, he kept on raising it and he kept on raising the great right-wing Republican conspiracy. He is pretty obsessed with that.

I went in there trying to do a piece about the substantive record of the last eight years and I was surprised by how much he wanted to talk about how angry he was at Republicans, how angry he was at the press. That having been said, I don't know whether the Republicans owe Clinton an apology, or whether Clinton should be asking for the apology, but the Republicans owe someone an apology because, I mean, they diverted the country for a good six months for a vindictive stupid act -- you know, the outcome of which was clear from day one.


KLEIN: I mean, I think...

MATALIN: You are showing your stripes here, buddy. Let me just ask you...


KLEIN: No, no, no, no. Mary, I think that everybody, most people, the vast majority of people in Congress were in favor of censuring the president for the things that he did wrong, but that didn't happen because of a few extremists, especially in the House, people like Tom DeLay, and they allowed the country's business to be diverted by this nonsense and that is why they owe an apology.

MATALIN: OK, can I -- let me ask you something, you know what? I am not an extremist, there is a lot of us who are part of the vast right-wing conspiracy who actually think that a president lying under oath is something worth bringing some closure to. But let's move on, because we're really talking about Clinton...

KLEIN: Well, how about a president lying under oath about the kind of thing that, you know, the vast majority of people who engage in such activity lie under oath about?

MATALIN: OK, guess what? Guess what? Clinton, although he can never be president again, sure would like to run, and Bob Woodward's colleague here had a very interesting thing to say about him this weekend on "Meet the Press," that he was born to run, he loves to run, he'd love to run for president himself this year, he'd love to run against Hillary for the New York Senate Race. What is it about this man that you have studied so deeply, I mean, is there -- what -- running makes him tick.

KLEIN: Well, I think, that he is probably the most adept politician that I have ever covered and -- but there is a tendency on our part to overdo that.

I mean, one of the things that I learned in looking over the last eight years when I studied them really closely was that there were a lot of times that he made decisions, especially on the economy, where immediate political considerations were pushed in the background and he did things that would have been considered -- were considered impolitic, you know, bailing out Mexico, the deficit reduction program in 1993, supporting free trade in a party that essentially opposes it.

I don't think that Clinton gets enough credit for that stuff, but that is because he will slip up at times and allow himself to be photographed the way he was in "Esquire" and allow himself to rant about a right-wing conspiracy that I don't believe exists, Mary, by the way, I don't know if you remember, but you should let me know if I'm wrong.

LOCKHART: Let me do a public service now and talk about the candidates who are actually running for president this time. Joe Lieberman is now openly questioning Governor Bush's readiness, his experience. This is what he had to say yesterday on one of the Sunday shows.


SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D-CT), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look, it's a big job, and with all respect, if you look at his record, if you look at his plans, if you look at his experience, if you compare them to Al Gore's record, experience and plans for America, maybe some day, but not now, now, George Bush is not ready to be president of the United States.


LOCKHART: Well, obviously, that was today, but how important is experience? And when you are weighing it up as a reporter, shouldn't it be hour important than something like likability? And last, will the tactic work?

WOODWARD: Well, first of all, the issue of inexperience has been in the air about Bush since he announced his candidacy. And the question always was, in the campaign, will there be events or will thing happen, will George Bush go on television and someone will ask him about HUD? And he will say: Oh, I haven't seen the movie, instead of recognizing that that's...

LOCKHART: That's a pretty low standard for electing president. WOODWARD: No, but the idea is: Would there be things that would visibly occur that would cause people to say: Wait a minute he has only been in politics six years? Unfortunately for Gore, those issues have not arise that often in the campaign.

LOCKHART: Or has the press missed them?

WOODWARD: Well, I think the press has been tough on both candidates. And I -- there is a factor here of -- and really is worth spending half a minute on, that when Gore makes a mistake, it's almost like he is playing a video of what he thought he saw, namely he went down to Texas with the head of FEMA, turns out it didn't happen. And it was related with such authority that when it turned out to not be true, people said: Wait a minute, what goes on here?

When Bush makes a mistake, it's about policy and about numbers, and quite frankly, we think we have better memories than we are able to deal with policy and numbers.

MATALIN: All right, there is experience and there is experience. We are going to to talk about what kind of experience voters want when we come back. And, at the end of show, or after our show, if you want the inside political scoop, we are so delighted that Bob Woodward, himself, is going to do our chatroom on Don't miss this and stay tuned for more of the star-studded journalists and Joe Lockhart.


LOCKHART: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE, I'm Joe Lockhart sitting in for Bill Press.

There's just eight days to the election, and this race is as tight as any presidential campaign since 1960. The primaries, conventions and debates haven't settled it. What are the important undecided voters looking for over the next week, and who's to blame for a lackluster campaign: the candidates or the media?

Two veteran reporters and best-selling authors help us put it into perspective. Tonight, Joe Klein from "The New Yorker" and Bob Woodward from "The Washington Post."

Joe, there are real differences between the candidates in this race, from health care to taxes, patients' bill of rights. Why are so many voters complaining that they don't feel like they have a choice? Have the media let down the voters in this campaign?

KLEIN: I think the candidates have let done the voters. I feel a little bit let down. I mean, the media's always easy to blame, Joe, as you know. But I was very optimistic at the beginning of this campaign because both of these candidates came out with a series of really sophisticated, really rigorous and sometimes courageous position papers. But they haven't delivered on those, in part because the issues we're talking about, things like Medicare, are so complicated that it's difficult, you know, for most of my colleagues at "The New Yorker," for example, to tell the difference between the two.

You know, in the case of Medicare, for example, Bush, I believe, has a far more sophisticated and responsible position than Gore, but he was not able to defend his own position in the debates, which I found kind of disappointing.

On Gore's side, I think that there's a larger issue, and it isn't the issue of likability. I mean, you know, that's a red herring. The real issue in Gore's case is character. It's who he is. He's a guy who showed up with a different personality in the second debate from the first debate, and I think that that's what causes people to have pause here. Who is this guy? Can we trust him to lead us under pressure?

LOCKHART: But the press focuses so much on process. You wrote earlier this year that reporters love staff shakeups but endure substance. And we have a Pew research study that says that 50 percent of people get some to most of their information from late-night comics, and people under 30, that number guess up to 80 percent.

Doesn't that indicate that somehow the media isn't giving the voters what they need?

KLEIN: It may indicate -- can we blame the voters every once in a while for their phenomenal apathy? I mean, Joe, these are very good times. There isn't a war or an economic recession on the horizon, the kind of thing that would get people really roused and interested, and there isn't a candidate who isn't speaking in a way that doesn't seem market tested and canned, the way, say, John McCain did last winter, when people went out to vote in droves in New Hampshire and Michigan.

So I think that, you know, we're only the messengers. And, yes, we could do more about substance from time to time, but in my reading of the coverage of this campaign, I think we've been more responsible than we have in the last couple.

MATALIN: Bob, Joe -- let me paraphrase a very important final question the voters will be asking themselves that Joe mentioned. Can Gore lead under pressure? A colleague of yours, John Harris, yesterday in "The Washington Post," a very long peace which revealed a lot, and namely that Gore labors doggedly but not necessarily efficiently. He doesn't delegate, he goes into minutiae. There are at least a half a dozen people quoted, not by name of course, but all agree, quote, "He always needs to prove he knows more than anybody else in the room."

The result of that kind of leadership, as Harris reported, is often disarray. So these attacks on Bush's leadership style, he gets people together, he forges a consensus, he gets things done, what's so good about Gore's leadership style, according to this piece?

WOODWARD: Well, a little bit of contest of ideas is not a bad thing in the White House. So it's OK. I think there's a positive side to the John Harris story, namely that Gore is out there, intimately involved in the details, getting them in his head. But at the same time, I would agree with you. I read that story. I thought it was a very powerful peace, because it said Gore will labor over things, then he's the, to a certain extent inside the White House, the Gore we saw in first debate, raising his hand, sighing, wanting to be at the center of things, wanting to be the one who comes up with the brilliant idea.

But, at the same time, you can't look at Gore and know Gore as a lot of us do and not realize that he is capable of being president and leading.

MATALIN: But we are looking at -- we are looking at the issue and the question of temperament and judgment and those presidents that have been less than best educated, from George Washington through Abraham Lincoln -- they thought Andrew Jackson was a hick, those guys -- FDR second rate intellect, I think somebody said about him -- those presidents were the best because they had good judgment. They knew how to bring people together. They knew how to make decisions.

Don't we -- aren't we spending too much time on this campaign talking about some intellectual process as opposed to your ability to have the kind of temperament that a leadership -- that office requires?

WOODWARD: Well, but the buck does stop in the Oval Office and the buck has to get there with lots of information and lots of ideas and you don't want a president who is tuned out or not interested in the policy debates because those are absolutely critical issues. And I -- you know, probably the biggest difficulty Gore has in the coming eight days is getting a fair hearing. He should demand a fair hearing himself and kind of get off some of these sound bytes and the cliches and the consultant driven message and come out and talk personally about why he wants to be president.

MATALIN: So much to discuss, such a little time.

WOODWARD: I know you are not convinced but who expected you to be?

MATALIN: No, I'm not even remotely convinced, although we appreciate your joining us. Always impressive, and you're not working in the White House anymore. Joe Klein, you are wonderful to join us, wish you were here.

We are all going for dinner after this. But not Bob Woodward. He's going to stay and do the chatroom, so stay tuned for that after Joe and I finish with our closing comments after this quick break. Stay with us.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Coming up at the top of the hour, a special report: "Countdown to Election 2000." We'll take a close look at the presidential race eight days and counting. We'll talk with the Democratic political strategist James Carville and with his wife, CROSSFIRE's own Mary Matalin. Also, we'll hear from our correspondents on the campaign trail and get the latest poll numbers from our own Bill Schneider. Please join us tonight and every night for "Countdown to Election 2000," right after CROSSFIRE's closing comments.

MATALIN: OK, friends and viewers, a very special treat. Don't miss it, your chance to get the inside story on campaign 2000, "The Washington Post"'s Bob Woodward takes the CROSSFIRE on-line right after the show at

Joe, fabulous, wonderful, you were great.

LOCKHART: Why thank you.

MATALIN: I would much rather discuss with you than fight with you as has been the past.

LOCKHART: It's a little bit easier this way.

MATALIN: But that doesn't mean I have agree with you and I disagree with this point that your party is trying to make: that people out there consider 25 years of experience in Washington the only kind of experience they want to see in the Oval Office. Bush has led, brought people together in a myriad of experiences and they have been successful.

LOCKHART: I don't think that that's the only kind of experience. But Joe Klein wrote a very good piece and it talked about all the difficult decisions the president had to make to keep this prosperity going and I think voters should go out and read that story and imagine George W. Bush sitting in those meetings, having to make those critical decisions, and if they are as uneasy as I am, having watch it up close, then I think they will vote for Gore.

MATALIN: You know what? You are about to be a one percenter, so you should be happy that George W. Bush is going to the next president because will you be able to keep so much more of what you earn.

LOCKHART: From the left, I'm Joe Lockhart sitting in for Bill Press. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

MATALIN: Bill Press will be on "THE SPIN ROOM" at 10:00. Don't miss it. From the right I'm Mary Matalin. Join us again for the rest of the week on more CROSSFIRE.



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