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Karen Hughes Discusses Bush's First 100 Days in Office

Aired April 28, 2001 - 17:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: From Washington: EVANS, NOVAK, HUNT & SHIELDS. Now, Robert Novak and Al Hunt.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: I'm Robert Novak in Concord, New Hampshire.

Al Hunt, in Washington, and I will question one of President Bush's closest advisers.

AL HUNT, CO-HOST: She is presidential counselor Karen Hughes.


HUNT (voice-over): George W. Bush marked his first hundred days as president by answering how he had done.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know, the American people will make the decisions as to how a president does or doesn't do. The only thing I know to do is just to give it my all, put my whole heart and soul into the job.

HUNT: Democratic leaders, however, gave the new president failing marks.

REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: We want a second hundred days that is very different from the first hundred days.

HUNT: The Democrats complain that President Bush will not compromise, but he signalled this week for the first time that he will give ground on tax reduction.

BUSH: It's time for the White House to help bring the parties together to get real, meaningful, substantive tax relief done.

HUNT: Karen Hughes, a reporter for station KXAS-TV in Fort Worth, left television in 1984 at age 27 to handle press relations for the Reagan re-election campaign in Texas. She later became executive director of the Texas Republican Party and joined George W. Bush's first campaign for governor in 1994 as his principal spokesman. Karen Hughes at age 44 is one of President Bush's leading political advisers.


HUNT: Karen Hughes, thank you for being with us.

I think the general consensus of more detached analysts is that President Bush is off to a pretty good start. He's elevated the moral and ethical standards in Washington and has a fairly unambitious agenda. Is that a fair assessment?

KAREN HUGHES, ADVISER TO PRESIDENT BUSH: No, I think the last part -- I think the first part's right on.


HUGHES: The last part I'd quarrel with. I think what people have seen, Al, during the first hundred days is a preview of what's to come in the next hundred days and the hundred days after that, and that's that President Bush is a steady and strong leader who is doing in office exactly what he said he would do.

And to the contrary, I think his agenda is ambitious. And I like to compare it -- it's the difference between school uniforms and fundamental school reform. School uniforms is a small matter that under President Bush's philosophy is best left to local districts to determine. President Bush is determined, however, to fundamentally reform America's public schools.

He's taking on the energy. We've lacked a long-range, comprehensive energy strategy. He's taking on that problem. He's taking on Social Security. He's taking on tax relief.

So he's really tackling the big, tough problems, and I think the American people appreciate that.

HUNT: These are all things he hopes to achieve. Over the first hundred days, what is the most significant specific achievement that he's accomplished?

HUGHES: Well, I think if you asked me to name one thing, it would be that both the House and the Senate have passed budget frameworks very early in the process -- and the American people recall all the wrangling and bickering that always goes on about the budget. They've passed budget frameworks that provide a significant amount of tax relief, and President Bush -- somewhere between about 1.3 and 1.6 trillion.

And Al, I don't think there was anybody in the country a year ago, with the possible exception of President Bush -- even some of his closest advisers weren't exactly sure whether we'd be able to convince everyone that tax relief was the right thing to do. It's also, now that we have a bit of an economic downturn a very necessary thing to do.

HUNT: Is there a biggest single disappointment or failure in the first three months?

HUGHES: Well, I think, Al, I'll have to say that I'm disappointed from the public relations standpoint that I think there's been an unfair perception that's developed that somehow tries to paint the president as being anti-environment, when, in fact, he is pro- clean air, pro-clean water, and has a very good record in Texas and will have a good record as president. In fact, even in the early days of his administration has a good record on the environment. In fact, I was joking before we started here that I think he's managed to make both you and Bob Novak a little bit concerned about environment, which seems to me like he's striking a very good balance.


HUNT: Robert Novak, jump in.

NOVAK: Karen Hughes, the Democratic National Committee welcomes the 100th day anniversary of this presidency with this commercial. Let's listen to it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: May I please have some more arsenic in my water, mommy?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: More salmonella in my cheeseburger, please.

NARRATOR: George W. Bush tried to roll back protections against arsenic in drinking water and salmonella in school lunches.


NOVAK: Can we say, Ms. Hughes, that whatever accomplishments the president has had in these first 100 days, this commercial indicates he has not improved the level of discourse in politics in Washington?

HUGHES: Well, no, Bob, I think actually what the commercial says is that it reminds all of us of how successful the president has been in changing the tone in Washington, because that seems very old style and very discordant. I think people are tired of that kind of thing.

And I'm glad you brought up the arsenic thing, because I was looking forward to the opportunity to gig Al a little bit that I am shocked -- I mean, I am shocked that for eight years your president did absolutely nothing to reduce the levels of arsenic in drinking water. Now, your son and mine were both in eight very formative years during that period, yet he did absolutely nothing until, on the way out the door, along with some other questionable things he did on the way out the door, he imposed a standard that was not even based on sound science.

And I think the American people certainly understand that the president wants to look at that, wants to make a decision based on science. We have said, and EPA Administrator Whitman has said. that the arsenic level in water will be somewhere between three and 20, which is far lower than the current 50, which President Clinton allowed to stand for eight years.

NOVAK: Ms. Hughes, Congressman Gephardt, the House Democratic leader, his complaint about the first hundred days is that the president just didn't compromise enough. He didn't go far enough toward the Democratic position. He seemed to be going toward them on the environment, but on legislation, including taxes and the budget, he didn't go far enough. So in the second hundred days, do you think we will see the president more apt to compromise, more apt to meet Dick Gephardt halfway?

HUGHES: Well, I don't know about halfway, Bob. I think bipartisan does not mean that you have to agree all the time. Bipartisanship means that you work in a constructive way, in a spirit of respect and cooperation, and clearly that is what President Bush has done. He has reached out to the Democrats. He has had 300 members of Congress come to the White House to meet with him on a whole-- to discuss a whole range of issues.

And on tax relief, I think he felt very strongly that as a representative of the taxpayers, as he put it in his joint session speech, he was here asking for a refund. And I think it was through the president's persistent and insistence and gentle persuasion that we were able to end up with both the House and the Senate -- and a lot of Democrats voting with us, 65 -- the vote in the Senate was 65, which included 15 Democrats -- voting for a tax cut of almost $1.3 trillion. I don't think that would have happened without President Bush's leadership.

NOVAK: But the president wants to get a higher tax cut, closer to what he asked, and he spent a lot of this past week talking to Democrats and so-called "moderate Democratic senators" -- that he used to talk to moderate Democrats in Texas. As far as I can see, he ended up with a goose egg. He didn't get one more vote. Can you say that this failure -- can you say that is a failure of trying to get these Democrats to even give an inch on moving closer to his position?

HUGHES: Well, I think we're now in the situation, Bob, where the House has passed a budget framework, the Senate has passed a budget framework, and the president is getting personally involved to try to work with the House and Senate to come up with a responsible budget that provides significant tax relief. And I don't think anyone in America is going to say a tax cut of between $1.3 and $1.6 trillion is in any way a failure. In fact, it's a terrific success: not for the president, but for the American people, who are facing high energy prices and who need some of their own money back.

And the point President Bush keeps making -- and one of the points I heard him make earlier this week -- there was a very interesting meeting with Republicans from the House and the Senate and the leadership. And the House was saying, you know, "We want responsible budget growth of about 4 percent." The Senate was saying -- they had passed a budget with a higher budget growth of 8 percent.

And the president was making the case that the biggest threat to future deficits, the biggest threat to the surplus is not tax relief. It's excessive government spending. If we keep spending at the rate of increase, that the surplus will be spent and we'll be forced to make decisions that no one wants to make, like looking at dipping into Social Security.

The president is committed that he will not dip into Social Security, and therefore, he wants to hold the line on excessive spending. And that's the case he was making.

HUNT: Karen Hughes, let's talk about China for a minute. The president this week became the first president in 22 years to explicitly say that if necessary and Taiwan were attacked he would commit American forces there. You said the president said what he meant, meant what he said. So are we right to say that if Taiwan is attacked, American men and women will be sent to combat in Asia, if necessary?

HUGHES: Well, Al, what the president said is exactly what he meant to say, and he's a straightforward, plainspoken person, who basically said what has been the policy of our country since the enactment of the Taiwan Relations Act. And that is that we are committed to helping Taiwan defend herself, and nothing has changed. This administration has not changed policy.

What has changed is that China has engaged in a buildup of its military forces. And the president sent a signal, and meant to send a signal, that we will uphold the Taiwan Relations Act and help Taiwan defend herself.

Now, we also will work for a peaceful resolution and we also support the one-China Policy, which says that Taiwan -- we do not support Taiwanese efforts to seek independence. We support a one- China Policy.

HUNT: Robert Novak?

NOVAK: We're going to have to take a break soon, but let me just ask one quick question. I hope I get a quick answer.

Do you think the president did make a mistake in his ABC "Good Morning America" interview in not saying in that interview that the U.S. supports the one-China policy? He immediately came back and added that to his formulation on Taiwan. Was that a mistake not to mention it in the first place?

HUGHES: A quick answer, Bob, no. I think he sent the signal he meant to sent.

NOVAK: OK. We're going to have to take a break. And we'll come back, we'll find out whether Karen Hughes thinks the Washington press corps has it in for George W. Bush.


HUNT: Karen Hughes, the Bush camp was very critical of what they considered the perpetual campaign of the Clinton presidency. Yet, we read news accounts that your colleague Karl Rove has weekly political strategy sessions, that for all the criticism of poll-driven policies of Clinton, that there's a pollster, Matthew Down (ph) at the RNC. Is anything really different?

HUGHES: Well, I think a lot of things are different. I think the tone that you're hearing from this administration is different, and I think there's been a little bit of, you know, I think a mischaracterization of what we jokingly call the "strategery group." It's an office of strategic initiatives. And it really is not so much political as it is long-term planning.

For example, most of the time in the early sessions we spent talking a lot about energy and about the concerns we had about the energy situation in the country this summer. We spend a lot of time talking about potential airline strikes and their potential effect on the economy.

The point of that is it's a meeting to get the senior members of the team away from the White House a little bit -- we're not in our daily offices -- and give us a chance to think a little more long term. I mean, when you're in the White House, there's so much that happens on a daily basis that you really have to focus on that long- term planning in the White House can sometimes be next week.

And the point of this is to take a step back and think about three months down the road and this fall. For example, last week we talked about some initiatives that we want to launch this fall.

HUNT: But you would agree the charge was that Clinton perpetually politicized everything, and yet, now, the vice president of the United States is calling the state of Minnesota to talk to which candidate should run for the Republican nomination -- does it, he says, in the name of the president. The president has dinner the other night with a South Dakota congressman to try to get him to run for the Senate. Again, isn't that exactly the sort of thing that Clinton was so criticized for?

HUGHES: Well -- well, obviously, to some extent, part of our ability to be successful in delivering on the president's agenda will depend on our ability to be able to have a Republican Senate, for example: not only now, with the 50-50 split and the vice president able to cast the tie, but in the future, after 2002, so that we can take on some of the tough reforms that are down the road.

So I think that's part of the job, is to try to make sure that we enact the public policy agenda by making sure that we have Republicans in place, good candidates, to run for office during the next election.

But I do think that the atmosphere in Washington, and a lot of veterans -- you've been here a lot longer than I have -- but many veterans have told me the tone here is much different. It's not the kind of gridlock, and divisive and harsh and strident rhetoric -- and you're certainly not hearing that from the president.

HUNT: Robert?

NOVAK: Karen Hughes, the Clinton people claim that the press corps was very hostile personally to Bill Clinton. You have gotten a lot of criticism of George W. Bush, of his capability. Do you think you have gotten a fair treatment, a fair deal from the press corps in Washington?

HUGHES: Oh, Bob, I guess -- I love all my friends in the press. I guess the best way to say that is that we don't always like what the press writes and they don't always like what we do. But I think overall, yes. I think overall the media coverage of the administration has been responsible. We sometimes don't agree with some of the editorial writers, but I think overall, by and large, the press that covers us has been fair and has covered us accurately.

NOVAK: There was an interview that the president had with John King of CNN the other day, and I was told that the White House negotiated a break in the interview so that the president, apparently, could take it easy for a minute, and that was taken as a lack of confidence in the president. Actually, during the break, he kept talking to the CNN reporters about foreign policy. But is there a feeling that the president is going to make some mistake and he needs a relaxation when he's doing the high -- the trapeze without a net?

HUGHES: Absolutely not, Bob. In fact, that's an example of how a little, little, little bitty thing gets blown totally out of proportion sometimes, with the microscope that is on the president of the United States. I think what happened was a junior member of our staff asked the producers, "By the way, is there a break in this interview?" And she took that to mean we wanted a break, and therefore there was a break. But he did -- had just come from a 30- minute interview without a break in his office.

So I think that's an example of how little bitty things get blown way out of proportion sometimes.

HUNT: You were, as we said in the introduction, in Austin for six years with Texas Governor George W. Bush. You've now been in Washington for three or four months. Is the difference between Austin and Washington one of kind or one of degree?

HUGHES: That's an interesting question. In fact, I was talking in the White House mess the other day with one of my colleagues from Texas, and we were talking about how much of what we do here is -- the skills required are the same: working with the legislature, discussing, negotiating, trying to build consensus, communicating with the press. Some of the skills are the same. The difference is the scope, as you can imagine. I mean, it's just -- you literally have an entire world to deal with, and it's just -- the range of issues is just immense.

I went home one night last weekend and told my husband, you know, you wouldn't believe what all I've talked about today, from energy- efficient washing machines to religious freedom in the Sudan. I mean, so the scope of issues is just enormous. But it's challenging and a lot of fun.

NOVAK: One more question, Ms. Hughes, before we take a break, and that is that every place I go a lot of people are saying that what this economy needs to really get it going again is a cut in the capital gains rate. I was at a fund-raiser for the Truman Library in Kansas City on Thursday night, and a lot of people there say, well, we really need a capital gains tax.

Why is the president of the United States so hostile to this when the people in his own party and in the business community want that action?

HUGHES: Well, Bob, I think what this economy really needs is President Bush's tax relief package. He wants to put more money back in the hands of people. And as you know, he feels it's very important that both in the short term and in the long term that people have confidence that tax rates are indeed going to go down. And I think his proposal is fair. It is balanced. And he wants to enact that first, and he thinks that's what the economy really needs right now.

NOVAK: OK. We're going to have to take another break, and when we come back, we'll have "The Big Question" for Karen Hughes.


NOVAK: "The Big Question" for presidential counselor Karen Hughes.

Ms. Hughes, President Bush is scheduled to make a visit to China this year. Has the deterioration in U.S.-Chinese relations made it less likely, made it less of a sure thing that he will make that trip?

HUGHES: No, I don't think so, Bob. In fact, as far as I know, our plans are continuing for him to visit Shanghai. I think it's in October. And one of the things I think the president was very proud of was that during the tension with China, during the period of time that our crew was on Hainan Island that he warned us all. He said: Don't let this escalate. Don't let this accident become a big incident that forces a crisis that has long-term harm to the relationship. And so, no, I don't think it will affect the trip in any way.

HUNT: And he will go to Beijing also?

HUGHES: Well, again, I don't know that the trip is fully planned. I believe the invitation was for Shanghai and I don't know about Beijing.

HUNT: Does this White House care whether the 2008 Olympics are in Beijing or not, Karen?

HUGHES: That's a very interesting question, Al. I don't think the White House has weighed in one way or other. I've not heard the president address that issue.

HUNT: Karen Hughes, thank you very much for being with us.

HUGHES: I enjoyed it.

HUNT: We're going to take a break, and Robert Novak and I will be back with a comment or two in just a moment.


HUNT: Robert Novak, there is no one more important to George W. Bush than Karen Hughes. She's the most important woman White House adviser probably ever. Her main achievement, I think, has been to keep this White House, with very few exceptions, on message. That's a tough policy to sustain over the long run, however.

NOVAK: And her message with us, Al, was very much the environment. We didn't even ask her about the environment, and she kept bringing it up. They're worried about the idea that the president is anti-environment, less worried about conservatives who say he is getting too green.

HUNT: Well, they also are going to compromise on taxes, though, and Bob, you know, when the family and her visits the grocery stores and baseball games and the like, she's not hearing what all your friends are telling you about the demand for a capital gains tax cut.

NOVAK: Well, you ought to go to the Truman Library. But I would say this, Al, that Karen Hughes did tell us that they want to maintain this relationship with China despite the hard times. They say -- she revealed that the president is going to China this year despite all the difficulty and the deterioration in relations. And I think that was very interesting.

I don't know how the Chinese feel about it.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt.

Coming up in one half-hour on "RELIABLE SOURCES," the media avalanche over President Bush's first hundred days. Is it overkill?

And at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, "THE CAPITAL GANG" talks about Bush's first hundred days, defending Taiwan, and Bob Kerrey's painful memories.

That's all for now. Thanks for joining us.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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