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Crossfire

Will Democratic Senators Support George W. Bush's Cabinet Picks?

Aired January 15, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Controversial confirmation hearings, Clinton's final days, and countdown to a new president. Tonight: a look at the week ahead.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington: CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire: in Philadelphia, Ed Rendell, Democratic National Committee general chairman, and in Atlanta, Republican strategist Ralph Reed.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

With just five days remaining of his presidency, do you think Bill Clinton was taking it easy for the Martin Luther King holiday? Don't be silly; he gave a holiday speech and took possession of a new presidential limousine, noting his propaganda license plates boosting congressional representation for the District of Columbia.

President-elect Bush was in Houston, also marking the holiday. And, in an interview "The New York Times," he threatened to void President Clinton's last minute decrees.

The Senate begins 10 confirmation hearings this week, starting tomorrow with a tough battle for former Senator John Ashcroft to be attorney general; expected to last three contentious days. The only other nominee facing tough opposition is Secretary of the Interior- designate Gale Norton; her hearing is Thursday.

The inaugural celebrants will start pouring into town Thursday, and I'll make a fearless prediction: Bush's Republicans will spend a lot more money here than Clinton's Democrats did four years ago.

And there's more coming: a farewell address -- can you believe it -- from the Oval Office Thursday night -- Bill Press.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Thank you, Robert.

Here's a man who's going to be spending tons of money in Washington starting Thursday; Ralph Reed, good evening.

RALPH REED, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Good evening, Bill. Good to be with you.

PRESS: Bring your fat wallet, Ralph. REED: The credit card is probably more appropriate.

PRESS: Yes, the D.C. economy needs it.

Ralph, as Bob indicated, it's going to be a tough battle for John Ashcroft; hearings start tomorrow. Certainly he's going to be asked questions about receiving an honorary degree from Bob Jones University and the speech that he gave down there when he accepted his award, which, thanks to Larry King, the entire nation got to see the other night.

He made one extraordinary statement. Let's let our viewers hear it, then I want to ask you about it, please -- John Ashcroft.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL NOMINEE: Unique among the nations, America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different: We have no king but Jesus.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: Now, Ralph, maybe I got it wrong; I felt what made America different is we had no king, period, and no state religion.

How can Ashcroft say that?

REED: Well, Bill, I think what John was talking about there was the fact that there is a religious strain of thought within the ideological origins of the American Revolution and American independence. That, by the way, is not a controversial finding at all.

As you know, I have a Ph.D. in American history, and I studied this. And whether you look at Pulitzer Prize-winning authors like Bernard Bailen (ph), who wrote the -- really the key work on this, or many others, like Alan Heimert, who wrote a book on the Puritan clergy and how they drove America toward independence.

I don't think John is saying there -- or Senator Ashcroft is saying that that's the only strain of thought. Clearly there were others: Whig opposition to the king, Montesquieu, Locke, ancient Greece and Rome. But as much, Bill, as some would like to take an Exacto knife and carve out the religious and faith-based character of the origins of America. It is a historical fact.

And that's really all Senator Ashcroft was talking about. He was not saying at all that those who do not worship the way he worships or believe as he believes don't have a place in the conversation we call democracy. And any suggestion to the contrary is a total misrepresentation of his views.

PRESS: Well, Ralph, I'm familiar with that rigorous strain as well, and a lot of those among the founding fathers, starting with Thomas Jefferson, did not believe in the divinity of Jesus.

But this is John Ashcroft speaking last year at Bob Jones University -- not back in the days of the founding fathers. And let me just finish -- I mean, so he's saying we have no king but Jesus. What does that say to American Jews, to American Moslems, to American Buddhists? That they just don't belong, right?

REED: No, that's not what he's saying at all. In fact, that direct quote, by the way, is from a pamphlet circulating in the colonies during that period and it's quoted in Bernard Bailen's book, which is the central work on the ideological origins of the Revolution.

He's just simply stating a historical fact, and I really don't think that's the issue in the confirmation. I think the issue in the confirmation is, do we have somebody who has high integrity, has overall management skills and has sound judgment. Those are the three things you look for.

And Senator Bob Torricelli, a Democrat, not me, said those are the three things we need in an attorney general and he said we are lucky to have found that rare combination in John Ashcroft. And that's why I think he's going to be confirmed as our next attorney general.

NOVAK: Ed Rendell, I'm going to disappoint you by terminating this pseudo-theological discussion...

ED RENDELL, GENERAL CHAIRMAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE: Well, I have a Ph.D. in history.

NOVAK: No -- or anything else, I guess, huh?

But I'm going ask -- I'm going to pose a question for you, but the guy who poses it better than I would is a very sharp politician named Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky. And let's listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), KENTUCKY: His views are more conservative than a majority of the members of the Senate, but Al Gore didn't win the election. I mean, what did they expected to be appointed, a liberal?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: That is my question: John Ashcroft is sure a conservative. I don't know whether his views differ from George W. Bush's in any way, but did you expect Bush to name a -- who? Ed Rendell?

RENDELL: Well, two quick answers to that, Bob.

No. 1, this is -- wasn't the ordinary election. The majority of Americans did, in fact, vote for Al Gore by over half a million. And given that, there was some thought that George Bush would try to get a Cabinet that reflected the very closeness of the elections, the deep division; and he said that he was a uniter, not a divider.

And the second problem I have with the selection of Senator Ashcroft is, of all the positions in the Cabinet, the one that should not be an idealogue, should not espouse a philosophy, is attorney general. That person should be a good lawyer, ready to enforce the laws of the land as they exist.

And John Ashcroft has said that, even in the case of incest and rape, that abortion should be illegal. Well, is he ready to protect abortion clinics from people who intimidate and commit violence? Those are the questions...

REED: Ed, yes he is; and, Ed, he's on record saying that he would do that. In fact, in 1994, when he ran for the U.S. Senate he stated that, had he been in the Senate, he would have voted for the Freedom of Access to Clinics Act. So he's really already on record as saying...

NOVAK: You know, Mr. Rendell...

RENDELL: I don't anybody should prejudge Senator Ashcroft. And anybody on our side who's done it, I disagree with; they should listen to his answers.

But, for example, "The St. Louis Post-Dispatch" said that he was an opponent, a strong opponent of voluntary desegregation orders in Kansas City and St. Louis. Well, if that were true, I would vote against him.

NOVAK: Those Kansas City segregation orders were terrible and they finally did away with them; and you probably don't know as much about the Kansas City situation as you should, Ed.

But I'm going to -- I'm just going to point to you, that Senator Pat Leahy, the temporary democratic chairman of the Judiciary Committee conducting these hearings says that we can't have an attorney general who wants Roe v. Wade overturned -- and thinks it should be overturned.

Now, I'm going to give you a little history: Your fellow Pennsylvanian, Dick Thornburgh, who everybody thinks was a pretty good attorney general, thought it should -- Roe v. Wade -- should be overturned. And, in fact, he predicted on this network to me on two occasions, incorrectly, that it would be overturned.

I mean, that's a ridiculous statement to say that if you believe a ruling of the court should be overturned you're ineligible to be on the court -- I mean, to be attorney general...

RENDELL: I think what Senator Leahy should have said, or might have said -- and I don't know if he did -- is that if he goes out and advocates that an existing law be overturned, that's not the job of the attorney general. That may be the job of the president of the United States... NOVAK: But Thornburgh took that position.

RENDELL: Well, I think if you're an advocate that an existing law be overturned, you shouldn't be attorney general.

NOVAK: You didn't say anything about it when Dick Thornburgh was saying that.

RENDELL: No, no; it's not that. I think, while you're attorney general, you should not be an advocate.

NOVAK: Well, he was attorney general, though.

RENDELL: Well, if Dick did that, then I think he was incorrect. I think Dick Thornburgh wag a good attorney general, but if he did that, he was incorrect. Attorney general is the lawyer who enforces our laws in a dispassionate way.

PRESS: Ralph Reed, I want to pick up on that point, because I do think -- I mean, I've hear people opposed to Ashcroft say if he were nominated for transportation secretary, fine; but for attorney general, it's got to be someone who we can count on to enforce all the laws.

President-elect Bush was asked by "The New York Times" what confidence he had that John Ashcroft, for example, would enforce the civil rights laws and he said, well, he was elected four times in Missouri, I mean, which doesn't really answer the question.

So I want to ask you, Ralph: Here's a man, as a governor, an attorney of Missouri who opposed the school desegregation orders from the federal courts -- he even, three times, went to court to try to block them himself. How can you trust him now to enforce the civil rights laws of this land.

REED: Well, I think that's a total distortion of John's record. The fact of the matter is the federal government, when it was issuing an order against the state of Missouri, and John was bound by law as attorney general of the state to represent the state as its advocate in court; and, in fact, a democratic attorney general did the same thing.

That wasn't his position. His state, which was his client, was being sued and he was bound by law as attorney general of the state to represent the state as its advocate in court, and in fact, a Democratic attorney general did the same thing. That wasn't his position. His state, which was his client, was being sued, and he was bound by law to defend them. So, it actually proves the opposite of what you are trying to argue, Bill, which is, when he is in a job, he does his job and upholds the law, even when he disagrees with it.

This is a man who appointed the first African-American to a state appellate court in the history of Missouri; he was one of the first governors in America to sign a Martin Luther King holiday. He has been praised for his diversity, so I think you are really being unfair, and that's part of the Borking that's going on. PRESS: I don't think so at all. I think it proves a great insensitivity on the question of race relations. Let's look at his record, Ralph, in the United States Senate; his record, you know he opposed Ronnie White for federal district (UNINTELLIGIBLE), an African-American member of the Missouri Supreme Court. He also led the opposition to Bill Lann Lee as deputy attorney general, a Chinese American, for civil rights --the assistant attorney general for civil rights. And he led the opposition to Jim Hormel, a gay American businessman for ambassador to Luxembourg. Doesn't prove much tolerance on this guy's part, Ralph.

REED: That's a lot to cover, but let me begin. First of all, on Ronnie White, the reason why he opposed Ronnie White is because Ronnie White dissented in a death penalty case for a cop killer, who shot a sheriff's deputy in cold blood in the back, went to the deceased man's home and shot his wife through a window when she was having a church meeting. And every other member of the court supported that death penalty.

Meanwhile, Senator Ashcroft supported 26 out of 28 Clinton nominees who were African-American, and by the way...

(CROSSTALK)

REED: Every single nominee that he supported was confirmed. The only two that he opposed were rejected by the Senate or withdrawn. He also, by the way, Bill, held hearings -- the first hearings in Congress on racial profiling with Russ Feingold as a judiciary subcommittee member, and he co-sponsored the Violence Against Women's Act, so I think you ought to say the whole record here and point out that Senator Ashcroft has been a leader in racial diversity and has been a leader in racial justice, and I think anything to the contrary...

PRESS: All right, we will see what the hearings show over the next three days. Meanwhile, we will take a break, and talk about the outgoing administration. What might Bill Clinton have up his sleeve for the next five days? And good news here; Ralph Reed is going to hang around after the show and step into the CROSSFIRE chat room. Join him by logging on to cnn.com/crossfire, and we will be right back with Ralph Reed and Ed Rendell.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

George Bush is on his way in, but Bill Clinton has five more days, a new presidential limousine, Air Force One, and a speech to the nation before he steps out. So, does Clinton have any surprises in store for his last week in office? Are there more pardons in the air? Are we looking at a smooth or a rocky transition? Wrapping up the Clinton presidency and bringing in the Bush administration with Republican political consultant Ralph Reed, who joins us from Atlanta, and still, general chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Ed Rendell in Philadelphia -- Bob. NOVAK: Chairman Rendell, a lot of my Democratic friends ask me, why do Republicans get so aggravated by Bill Clinton? I'm going give you an example; just listen:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want you to know that the secret service delivered to me, this morning, so I get to ride around in it for five days, the newest presidential limousine, which I might add is an enormous improvement in terms of its -- workability of its inner space. But we still have the license plates on it...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: What he had was the propaganda license plates, "no taxation without representation" for, D.C. representation in Congress, very offensive to lot of people, including residents of the District, such as me. And he knows he's only going to have the car for awhile; he puts that on, so Bush has to make the decision of leaving it on or taking it off; that's obnoxious, isn't it, Ed?

RENDELL: Bob, leaving that aside; I think the real reason that Bill Clinton irritates all of the people on the right-wing and a lot of Republicans is that, they've thrown everything in the book at him for eight years, and he's leaving office with the highest job approval rating of any president in history. Plain and simple as that. They've tried to get him, he's popular, people think he did a good job. Let's deal with it and get on.

NOVAK: You didn't answer my question, but I know you wouldn't have played a trick like that with the license plates.

RENDELL: I believe the D.C. residents should you have the right to be represented.

NOVAK: Well, I don't, and I'm a D.C. resident.

RENDELL: You don't think the majority of D.C. residents agree with you, do you?

PRESS: No, they don't.

NOVAK: Any way, Chairman Rendell; I have been in this town for 40 years. I have seen six presidents leave at the end of their terms: Eisenhower, LBJ, Ford, Carter, Reagan, and the senior Bush -- none of them have acted like Bill Clinton, running around, making speeches, giving orders, acting like he's going to be president; do you think, give me a straight answer on this Ed; do you think he is going to try to be a shadow president living in that mansion up near Al Gore's old house in the embassy district, because he is not fading away, is he?

RENDELL: No, he's not fading away and that's not in his nature, Bob. But I don't think he's going to be a shadow president. I think you will be pleasantly surprised how the president conducts himself when he leaves office, but I don't think there is anything wrong with taking advantage of every day of your term. As you know, Bob, I was a term-limited mayor. But -- I was working on an economic development deal and, in fact, sealed it up at 8:00 p.m. on my last day in office.

The people of Philadelphia elected me to serve for four years in my second term, every day of four years. They didn't say, take off the last month; Bill Clinton is using that time and using it to do what he believes in and what the people who voted for him believe in.

PRESS: Ralph Reed, by the way, this resident of the District and I believe most residents of the District -- if not, most Americans, believe in "no taxation without representation."

Ralph, I want to move on to ask you about Bill Clinton and whether you will join an unusual call coming from more and more conservatives -- and you're an adviser to the president-elect -- whether you would join your fellow conservatives in advising that George W. Bush, in one of his first acts as president, would be to issue an executive pardon to President Bill Clinton?

REED: Well, I believe the president-elect and his transition team have already answered that, Bill, and that is, outgoing President Clinton has said that he does not want one and does not seek one and wants to defend himself in any court of law in which he may subsequently be tried, and therefore, President-elect Bush has said that he takes him at his word. I think it's a valid answer.

PRESS: Well, it's not the question of whether President Clinton wants it or not. It's whether it's what's best for the country. Let me let you hear the words of one of your fellow conservatives, Orrin Hatch, chairman of Judiciary in the Senate, who said on "Meet the Press" Sunday -- quote -- and here's his reason for why he thinks it ought to be done. "Do we want to spend the next two or three years just having nothing but moaning and groaning about Clinton being indicted? Do we want to spend the next couple of years talking about that? No. I think we ought to get it all behind us."

Isn't that the point, Ralph? Get it behind him right away, pardon Clinton, get it over with so he doesn't have to deal with it for the next two or three years.

REED: Well, good try, Bill, but I'm afraid the answer is the same. I mean, the president has clearly stated his intention on this. He couldn't have done so in more unequivocal terms, and I think President-elect Bush takes him at his word.

I will say that I do think...

PRESS: So Orrin Hatch is wrong?

REED: No. Look, I have a lot of respect for Senator Hatch; I just think that President-elect Bush has already made his views known on this, and they're consistent with the outgoing presidents.

I do think -- what I do agree with Senator Hatch on is this: I think the American people are tired of a season of cynicism, they're tired of partisan warfare in Washington, and they're tired of scandal after scandal. I think that's why President-elect Bush was elected, and I think that's the kind of leadership he's going to bring us. And that's how you put it behind you.

You know, the truth of the matter is, Bill, you know, Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. It didn't put an end to the hangover of Watergate. What does it is leadership with integrity and principle, and that's what we're going to get out of the new president beginning Saturday.

NOVAK: Well, maybe -- maybe he ought to pardon both Hillary and Bill. That might not be a bad idea. But anyway, we'll move on from there.

You know, in these last five days, Mayor Rendell, as you say using every last hour, a lot of people who believe in the private enterprise system are terrified of the additional executive orders by President Clinton. He's -- he's tied up most of the Western lands already. He's taken whole states out of production. But I'd like to read to you what President-elect Bush said in an interview with "The New York Times." It appeared in yesterday's paper.

He said: "I'm interested in every one of these executive orders and regulations, reviewing them, which we will do, and I will let you know what I intend to do the day after I am sworn."

Do you see anything wrong with that?

RENDELL: Well, I don't know, and again I'm not a constitutional scholar. I don't know if you can do that. But if he can and he has the legal right to do it, so be it. I know when I issued executive orders, they could be repealed by a subsequent mayor.

I think President Clinton has the right to do what he's done and I think he's done the right thing. Theodore Roosevelt had, I think, up until a couple of weeks ago had issued executives orders to preserve the most land in history. He was a good Republican. I don't think there was any squealing about it back then.

NOVAK: Why is it Democrats always cite Theodore Roosevelt when...

RENDELL: He was a good Republican.

NOVAK: Was he -- was he....

RENDELL: He was a good Republican.

NOVAK: Was he a real Republican? We're going -- we're going take -- we're going to cut it off right there. Thank you very much, Ed Rendell, and thank you, Ralph Reed.

REED: Thank you, Bob.

NOVAK: And Bill Press, who is no Republican, and I...

PRESS: Got that right. NOVAK: ... will have closing comments.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NOVAK: Sitting in on the right tomorrow night, special guest host Linda Chavez. You won't want to miss that. And don't miss Ralph Reed online. He'll be in the CROSSFIRE chatroom right after the show at cnn.com/crossfire.

Bill, there's a lot of nonsense about special qualifications for the attorney general different than any Cabinet member. I've never heard that before. But let me tell you what the real story is. Part of this left-wing conspiracy -- doesn't have anything to do with race relations -- it's afraid that John Ashcroft is going to clean up Janet Reno's mess in the Justice Department and remove some of these dormant criminal cases.

PRESS: I don't think so, Bob, at all. It's just that John Ashcroft is about as extreme a right-winger as you can get, and there are serious questions about his willingness or ability to enforce the law when it comes to race relations, when it comes to a woman's right to choose. And if he were energy secretary or transportation secretary, fine: not attorney general. He should not be confirmed.

NOVAK: There's no such -- there's no such (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And you just said something wrong, because you said he's as far right as you can get. He's to the left of me.

PRESS: Well, Bob, nobody is to the right of you.

NOVAK: Well, you were wrong, as usual. Not for the first time.

PRESS: From the left, I'm Bill Press. See you in "THE SPIN ROOM" at 10:30. Good night for CROSSFIRE.

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

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