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What Effect Will Testimony From Ronnie White Have on John Ashcroft's Nomination?

Aired January 18, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET



JUDGE RONNIE WHITE, MISSOURI SUPREME COURT: I do believe he seriously distorted my record, and I'm here this morning to attempt to try to set that record straight.


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, the Senate hears from Judge Ronnie White. What's the impact on the Ashcroft nomination?

Plus: President Clinton says goodbye.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press; on the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a member of the Judiciary Committee, and fellow committee member, Republican Senator Sam Brownback from Kansas.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. Day three of John Ashcroft's confirmation hearings: The star witness, Missouri Supreme Court Judge Ronnie White. who testified that then-Senator Ashcroft misrepresented White's record when he led the Senate into rejecting him for a federal judgeship. But Judge White would not say flatly whether Ashcroft should be confirmed as attorney general.

Meanwhile, inaugural festivities were officially open tonight at the Lincoln Memorial by the potent combination of George W. Bush and Ricky Martin.

And after watching CROSSFIRE, stay tuned for Bill Clinton's farewell address. Will it last just seven minutes as he promises? Maybe miracles do happen. Lisa Caputo, former press secretary to first lady Hillary Clinton, is sitting in on the left tonight -- Lisa.

LISA CAPUTO, GUEST CO-HOST: Nice to be with you, Bob. Let's get right to it. Senator Brownback, on the Hill today, your colleague Senator Durbin pointed out that Senator Ashcroft lied about Ronnie White's record, saying that he was pro-criminal and reluctant to impose capital punishment.

Let's take a quick look at Ronnie White's record as a member of the court. Let's go to the graphic. He's the first African-American, as you know, to serve on the Missouri Supreme Court. He upheld 41 of 59 death sentences; voted to reverse 18 death sentences, 10 of which were unanimously reversed. He was a lone dissenter on three death sentences, and four of Ashcroft's appointees reversed death sentences more than Ronnie White.

Why in the world, based on this record, would he lie about Ronnie White's record?

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R) KANSAS: Well, I don't think you're putting it correct in saying that John Ashcroft lied about Ronnie White's record, and I also want to say, I think Ronnie White's a quality individual. This is a good man, and I thought he presented a good testimony today.

But what you did see that took place today, and what you saw take places when he was going through the confirmation process was a lot of questions about his willingness to convict criminals, and had, then, groups coming forward like the Missouri Order of Police Officers opposing his appointment to the bench. You had the National Sheriff's Association opposing his lifetime appointment to the bench.

And they were looking at a pattern of willingness or a lack of willingness to put people behind bars if they committed crimes, and those are powerful groups when you're looking at lifetime appointment on the bench.

CAPUTO: But senator, the facts are the facts, and the record speaks for itself. And let me add: Recall, if you will, that the Senate Judiciary Committed voted almost unanimously -- I believe it was 15-3, voted him out of committee, approved him. The ABA also approved him as a nominee, and the Missouri police groups across state approved him.

Is this the sense of justice that you want head of the Justice Department to really uphold?

BROWNBACK: Well, and look at Sheriff Jones that was there today that was not allowed to testify in front the committee and his was the wife who was shot by Mr. Johnson, who Mr. White said -- Ronnie White, Judge White then said I'm going -- I want to order a retrial in this particular case; the only judge willing to do that. That witness wasn't heard from.

It was gruesome murder that took place. Four people were killed by this particular defendant, and he had a star team of lawyers defending defendant Johnson at that particular time. Now, Ronnie White said, I don't think that he particularly got the type of representation he should have.

Yet all the other justices saw something else and on top of all that, you have all these law and order organizations that are saying this man shouldn't go on the bench. There's reasonable doubt that can be engaged in on either side, but if you're looking at lifetime appointment, I think John Ashcroft was OK in raising these doubts.

NOVAK: Senator Dick Durbin, senatorial courtesy being what it is, the Republicans really didn't say what was going there; what's been going on in that committee. It took a member of the other body, the House of Representatives to come over and tell the truth about the outrage that was being perpetrated.

Let's listen to Congressman J.C. Watts right now.


REP. J.C. WATTS (R), OKLAHOMA: We have to understand when we go through these confirmation processes, some people consider themselves hunting dogs that are supposed to say things that try to bloody up the candidate or the nominee and try to make them look bad or try to make them look racist or anti-woman or anti-whatever, and that's unfortunate about the process. And, you know, Republicans do it; Democrats do it.


NOVAK: Senator Durbin, you know that nobody exceeds me in my admiration for you, but isn't that exactly what you were doing? You are a very skillful politician. I was watching you, senator. You were really trying to rough up John Ashcroft for the last three days.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Bob, when John Ashcroft called me the day he was nominated by President-elect Bush, he said he would like my vote for attorney general. I told him point blank, the first question you're going to have to answer for me is what -- why you did what you did to Ronnie White, a member of the Missouri Supreme Court. John said I'd like to come by and do that, and I said I'd be happy to meet with you.

Well, he didn't come by, but I know he's a busy man. But I will tell you this: I still believe that he distorted Ronnie White's record. If you would have sat in that hearing room today and heard the story of Ronnie White's life...

NOVAK: I heard it. It was pathos -- pathos

DURBIN: Well, let me tell you what, it was compelling and it should have been compelling to everyone. This man came from nowhere, from the humblest of origins; worked his way through college and law school; the first African-American on the Missouri appellate court; the first African-American on the Missouri Supreme Court; and to have his record distorted as pro-criminal based on one case -- the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police endorsed him, all 4,500; 465 chiefs of police and law prosecutors across Missouri endorsed this man, and to have him called soft on crime and dismissed was unfair.

NOVAK: But a bad judge for all of his compelling stories. Senator Durbin...

DURBIN: Do you think he's a bad judge?

NOVAK: But senator -- but I've been around here -- this is my seventh full transition, one party -- one president to another and I have... DURBIN: Starting with Woodrow Wilson?

NOVAK: I have -- no, starting with John F. Kennedy in 1960. I have never seen a nominee, a former senator put on the griddle for his conduct in a confirmation -- do you realize the can of worms you're opening up for at future when was once a venerated Senate?

DURBIN: Bob, let me tell, do you realize what's at stake here? It's a question about who will be attorney general of the United States; who will be in charge of the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, one of most important in Washington. Yes, there were tough questions, and I think John Ashcroft...

NOVAK: Mean questions.

DURBIN: Well, I don't think they were mean. I think they were tough and they should have been.

NOVAK: You don't think Senator Kennedy was mean?

DURBIN: Let me just say this: I think John Ashcroft was chosen by President Bush and he understood when he did it that he was picking a controversial man. John Ashcroft is not just another conservative. He is ranked by your party as one of the most conservative senators, and he had to understand when he brought positions on issues forward there were going to be tough questions asked and answered.


BROWNBACK: This is a quality individual. I mean, I think we get this all clouded around in. OK, where is John Ashcroft's position on this? What's position on that? This is a gentleman that's probably the most qualified nominee for attorney general in recent memory, arguably in the history of the country: Yale undergraduate; Chicago Law School; two-term Missouri Attorney General; two-term governor in Missouri. He was president of the National Governor's Association; president of the Attorney General's Association.

This is a high-quality individual, and you're saying OK, now, we're going to look at the political positions that this individual took, which hasn't been entered into before, and now we're going to look at that and determine, are they qualified for this position based upon the political positions they've taken, and I think that's a dangerous step for us to take on presidential appointees to the Cabinet. The Cabinet -- the president should be able to pick his Cabinet.

CAPUTO: To that point on political positions, when you have John Ashcroft calling Ronnie White, you know, soft on crime; isn't this really, you know, the pot calling the kettle black. I mean, really, when you think about it, he opposed the Brady Bill, which the FBI Supported. He opposed the assault weapons ban, which all police forces wanted. I mean, isn't really John Ashcroft the one who is pro- criminal?

BROWNBACK: Well, I don't think he's pro-criminal, and I think if you look at his record as attorney general, I don't think you could draw that conclusion. And plus, if you're looking at it that way, then should we look at Janet Reno and her being for partial-birth abortion? I mean, is that the sort of thing that we should start considering then on nominees, and you flinch, and I think rightfully so, because we shouldn't being going down those lines on presidential appointments.

DURBIN: Sam, the standard is whether he will be fair and impartial in the administration of justice?

BROWNBACK: And this man will.

DURBIN: Well, that's your conclusion and we can raise the questions as to his record on civil rights; as to his record on law enforcement; all of those are legitimate inquiries.

NOVAK: This is all about politics, and I want to ask a political question. Isn't it true that every Democrat, mainstream Democrat from a tightly-contested state has been put on notice by the pro-abortion lobby, by the racial quota lobby, by all the left-wing pressure groups that if you vote for this man, you're going to be in trouble?

DURBIN: They haven't put me on that spot, Bob, and they'd better not try to because I don't care whether from the right or the left, if they say we're going to get you if you vote the wrong, it doesn't work.

I have been around this business long enough to tell those people to get lost. You have got to do what you believe. And what I believe is we have a responsibility to ask the tough questions of John Ashcroft, or any nominee to be attorney general. This is a critically important part of the Cabinet.

NOVAK: OK, we are going to have to take a break. My co-host, Lisa Caputo -- the famous Lisa Caputo -- will be in the CROSSFIRE chat room at 8:15 Eastern Time. And you can you join in by logging onto

When we come back, we are going to talk about the long goodbye from Bubba.



CAPUTO: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Lisa Caputo, sitting in on the left.

If a few minutes, my favorite president, Bill Clinton, will say goodbye to the nation. Stay with CNN for live coverage of the president's address.

Tonight we are asking our guests, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois and Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, how much they will miss Bob Novak's best friend, Bill Clinton -- Bob.

NOVAK: Senator Durbin, I have always missed the president, even when I aim at him.


NOVAK: But let me tell what you the American people think, according to an NBC News/"Wall Street Journal" poll taken just this week. Going to miss him: 43 percent. Won't miss him: 53 percent.

In other words, they think he was a good president. I don't. But they do. But even though they think he is a good president, they say: We are not going to miss you. We have had enough chaos and scrum turmoil. What do you think?

DURBIN: Well, it's interesting, too, Bob, because I think he has the highest approval rating of any president in modern times...

NOVAK: That's even with Reagan -- even with Reagan.

DURBIN: ... leaving office, in terms of approval of his job, and not so hot numbers when it comes to personal approval. And I think the American people reached a point where they say: Let's move on. It's time for -- to turn the page and see what the next administration will be. But if you look at his administration, you have to suggest the most dramatic and positive economic expansion in our history. A lot of social indicators went the right way: crime down, welfare rolls down. America is a better place than it was eight years ago.

NOVAK: Well, a lot of people don't think so, but -- but I don't want to get into that. I want to ask you this question, Senator. A lot of people feel that, even though there's been so many goodbyes, it isn't really goodbye. It's not even sayonara. A lot of people think that the president is going to open up a little salon with Senator Clinton, his wife, in this mansion that they have purchased.

And when foreign visitors come to town, they will visit there. There is going to be a shadow president overshadowing all the other Democratic leaders. Do you think that's going to happen?

DURBIN: I don't know. I mean, he's 54 years old. Let's put this in context. I mean, he's a young man, one of the youngest to leave the presidency. Certainly, he has something in store in his future. And my new colleague, Senator Hillary Clinton, is going to be a force in New York and in the Senate. And I don't think you can count him out. I don't know what they are going to do. The first thing he'll do probably is build his library. I know that's number one on his mind.

CAPUTO: Senator Brownback, I want to cite another poll, which is an ABC News/"Washington Post" poll, talking about the Clinton legacy, which shows that 51 percent of the American public feel that Bill Clinton is an above-average president. Why is it, after you just heard the record touted by Senator Durbin -- the economic record, 22 million new jobs, crime down, unemployment down, home ownership up -- why will the Republican Party not accept the legitimacy of Bill Clinton? Why is that?

BROWNBACK: Because most of those things were accomplished because of Republican policies, is why.


BROWNBACK: No, let's take it for what it is.

CAPUTO: How can you say that?

BROWNBACK: Welfare reform: Bill Clinton vetoed welfare reform twice, would have a third time, but it was too close to his reelection. So he said: I've got to sign it. I'll go ahead and do that.

Balancing the budget -- one of his great legacies, balancing the budget -- he fought us and fought us against setting a timeline in which we would balance the budget.

I mean, that's what the whole fight about the government shutdown was about. Dick and I were both in the House at that time. We wanted to set a time period in which we would balance the budget. The president said: No, I don't want a time certain.

We have held government spending down slightly. The economy has grown. We are balancing the budget. And we're into surplus. What you have got are some Republican policies that he has been advantaged for. And he was doing poorly in his first two years in office, when he had the Democrat House, Democrat Senate and Democrat presidency. He was.

CAPUTO: So eight years, you are saying, really that that wasn't his doing at all. So let me ask...

BROWNBACK: Six years.

CAPUTO: OK, fine, six years. Then let me ask you this: If indeed you feel that way...

BROWNBACK: Which of those policies did he put forward?

CAPUTO: He put he them all forward.

BROWNBACK: Welfare reform? Oh, come on. Give me a break.


CAPUTO: There are more people off the welfare rolls today than there were eight years. You can't challenge that fact. And if you want to...

BROWNBACK: Absolutely. But who put the policy forward, Lisa?

CAPUTO: Bill Clinton put the policy forward.

BROWNBACK: He vetoed it twice before he signed it the third time.

(CROSSTALK) DURBIN: What I find interesting is, when Jimmy Carter left office in 1980, for the next 12 years, the Republicans blamed every problem in America on Jimmy Carter.

CAPUTO: I couldn't agree more.

DURBIN: And now that Bill Clinton is leaving the country in good hands, in good shape, they are saying: He had nothing to do with it.

NOVAK: Let me ask you this. You talked about -- I guess Lisa talked about questioning the legitimacy of Bill Clinton. Last week, Bill Clinton was questioning the legitimacy of the president-elect. That is something else I have never heard. I have never heard the outgoing president...

BROWNBACK: And that shouldn't happen.

NOVAK: And that -- I think -- I think that really blots his signature on the nation.

DURBIN: To ignore it is to ignore reality. This is the closest election in our history.

NOVAK: Do you question the legitimacy?

DURBIN: Let me tell you, President George W. Bush lost the popular vote. He won the Electoral College by one vote after a decision by the Supreme Court. That is a fact.


NOVAK: Do you question his legitimacy? DURBIN: No, of course not.

NOVAK: But don't you think the president was?

DURBIN: No, I don't think at all. I think he raised a valid point about what this election meant to America. And I think all politicians -- Democrats and Republicans -- should be sensitive to that in this

(CROSSTALK) NOVAK: I have never seen the defeated party as angry and as bitter as they are this week in Washington. They are getting out of town. Did you see that trail of covered wagons getting out of town?


(CROSSTALK) DURBIN: I will be there. I believe that that new president deserves our respect. And I will be there at the inauguration.

NOVAK: You will be there. Well, you are a patriot. And thank you. You're a patriot for being on this program.

DURBIN: I face with you regularity, Bob.

NOVAK: Thank you, Senator Dick Durbin. Thank you, Senator Sam Brownback. And Bill Clinton's friend Lisa and I will be back with closing comments.


NOVAK: Joining us in the CROSSFIRE tomorrow on the eve of the inauguration, North Carolina Senator John Edwards and New York Governor George Pataki. Don't miss it. And don't miss guest host Lisa Caputo in the CROSSFIRE chatroom. She'll be online at 8:15 Eastern Time at

Lisa, I know you love President Clinton, but let me tell you this: He is not going to go away. He is going to hog the spotlight. He is going to suck up the oxygen. Poor Al Gore will be asphyxiated. But more important, new people in the Democratic Party who might have something interesting to say will be shoved away because the old Bubba will be hogging the stage.

CAPUTO: But that's because, Bob, he knows that you and Brownback want to have him around, because what are you going to do if he isn't around. Who are you going to have to pick on? You've got to have Bill Clinton around. I expect him to stay around. I think he'll be a de facto of the Democratic Party.

NOVAK: Is that good for the Democrats?

CAPUTO: I think it is. He rallies the base. I think he's great for the party. And I think his wife will, too, emerge, and that's good for all Democrats. She'll help get Democrats elected to both houses. So I'm looking forward to it.

NOVAK: We almost agree. I think it's great for the party, too. I think it's great for the Republican Party, because they -- they -- that is what they pray for, Lisa: to have this guy around some more, gin up contributions and get the base energized.

CAPUTO: And it's good for the Novak airtime.

From the left, I'm Lisa Caputo. Good night from CROSSFIRE.

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



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