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Is Secret Bunker Government Necessary?; Should ABC Replace 'Nightline' With David Letterman?

Aired March 1, 2002 - 19:30   ET



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Should somebody be successful in an attack on Washington, D.C, there's an ongoing government.


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, President Bush's secret bunker government. Is it really necessary? And should ABC say goodnight to "NIGHTLINE" and turn its late night to David Letterman?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the crossfire, retired army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Maginnis from the Family Research Council and radio talk show host Bernie Ward. And later, "Newsweek" columnist Steve Brill and former TV news director and former "POLITICALLY INCORRECT" executive producer, Jerry Nachman.

NOVAK: Good evening. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

Are government bureaucrats really gnomes who never see the light of day? That's what some of us poor beleaguered taxpayers have suspected for a long time. But since the September 11 terrorist attacks, we learned today, from 70 to 150 senior government officials actually have been working and living in secret underground locations, somewhere in America.

Long ago, when we worried about a Soviet nuclear attack coming any minute, these plans were drafted to keep the federal government functioning, even if the rest of us were dead. So when the terrorists attack America, the bunker government was immediately put into operation with senior officials rotated in and out of the bunkers.

Did the government overreact? But even if it did, why are liberals like Bill Press so exercised? Do they begrudge Republican appointees the ability to protect themselves?

Bill Press?

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Colonel, I'll tell you why I'm so exercised. Call me a cynic, if you will. I don't think this has anything to do with national security. I think it's all about politics. Like those scare tactics that we heard from the terrorist warnings from Ashcroft and from Tom Ridge. Nothing happened. This is just one more attempt to scare the American people, to keep the focus on the war, and to let George Bush play commander in chief as long as we had can get away with it. I'm right. ROBERT MAGINNIS, LT. COL., U.S. ARMY (RET.): Well, Bill, no doubt the president's poll numbers are high. And of course, the recession is, you know, melting away. So Democrats are having -- looking for something to go after the president on.

But the facts are that things changed with regard to the threat on 9/11. The reality is, as we hear from George Tenet, who is not necessarily Republican obviously, we hear from Mr. Rumsfeld and others that this threat continues.

The Attorney General was on the Hill saying, look, we have a real and a present danger. We aren't exactly sure today that where bin Laden is, much less whether or not he has weapons of mass destruction. That was a real possibility.

We had teams in Washington, D.C., roaming around looking for nuclear weapons last fall. They may, in fact, still be here. So we have a credible concern about the future, if we were to be attacked in this city. So we need to have some sort of alternative.

PRESS: Wait, wait. You can't have it both ways. One day we read, oh, this effort has been successful. We've obliterated al Qaeda. We don't know where Osama bin Laden is, but he can't do anything because we've destroyed his network. There was also reports just the other day that said we went in there. We looked at his former headquarters. We examined all of that. We saw zero evidence that he had any nuclear weapon. Some of it, they say, was even bogus stuff that he probably paid money for and he got outsmarted on.

So where is the threat? This thing is made up by the Bush White House.

MAGINNIS: Well, I don't see any evidence that it's made up by the Bush White House. Certainly we're doing our homework.

PRESS: Where's the evidence?

MAGINNIS: We didn't find a nuclear source, but that doesn't mean, based on all the literature we've gathered, that they weren't trying to get it. And keep in mind, 60 countries, the president's told us, that they're all over the world, Bill.

Quite frankly, there is a lot of diversion of plutonium and uranium. We know that some of the culprits, like Saddam Hussein and others, have managed to get some of this material. And that's what we're concerned about is the two coming together.

NOVAK: Bernie Ward in San Francisco, Bernie, you're a famous and illustrious Bush basher. And so I would like to hear what the president said to justify this bunker government. Let's listen to the president speaking today.


BUSH: We take the continuity of government issue very seriously, because our nation was under attack. And I still take the threats that we receive from al Qaeda killers and terrorists very seriously.


NOVAK: So I take it, Bernie, you don't take it seriously. Or you just, anything the president says, have you to disagree with?

BERNIE WARD, KGO RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I'm just glad these guys weren't around during the Cuban missile crisis. I can't imagine where they would've been putting people.

I mean, when I worked on the Hill, every time the Park Service was threatened, they would threaten to close down the Washington monument. And it became known as the Washington monument drill. And everybody knows about it.

This is the Washington monument drill on steroids. These guys have a budget in front of the house. Robert Byrd said yesterday that he doesn't see any reason to give the Pentagon a blank check. Other Democrats and members of Congress are saying, when is this thing going to be over with? And are we going to be writing these checks forever?

And the Bush administration comes off a terrible trip to China and to Asia. They come off a terrible situation in the Middle East, where they have no credibility whatsoever. And all of a sudden surprise, surprise, we have a bunker where we're putting 150 government employees, who contemplate their navel, waiting to see if there's going to be an attack on the United States of America.

MAGINNIS: Yes, Bernie, quite frankly, during the Cuban missile crisis, I was in Florida. And I remember, we took a lot of precautions. But the reality is that we have a very credible threat. We've seen plenty of that evidence presented out there.

WARD: Colonel, you don't have a credible threat.

MAGINNIS: We do have a...

WARD: You just admitted you don't have a credible threat.

MAGINNIS: You know, you can't be an armchair general out there in California, and make a judgment against George Tenet and Mr. Rumsfeld with regard to the credibility of the threat.

WARD: Lieutenant Colonel, you work for the Family Research Council. You don't work for the Pentagon. There is no credible threat.

NOVAK: Let's not get personal.

WARD: George Tenet has already said there's no credible threat. The National Security Council has said there isn't.

NOVAK: Oh, goodness.


NOVAK: Wait a minute, wait a minute, Bernie. Wait a minute. You just went through a tour de raison on why you don't like the Republicans, why you don't like George Bush.

WARD: Oh, Bob. I love the Republicans, except when their stupid.

NOVAK: You're in the 17 percent of the country who don't think that the president is doing a good job. This is just an effort for you to take something that is -- making a point, make a big deal out of it.

WARD: Bob, September 11 was the best thing that ever happened to George Bush's political standing. The day before, he had 50 percent popularity rating and his domestic programs were in the tank. He needs to perpetuate this. And he perpetuates it by paying 150 people to pea nuckle, while we wait to see if a bunch of terrorists are going to bring an atomic weapon into Washington D.C.

PRESS: Well, colonel, I want to ask you about that. I mean, look, we all remember 9/11, you know. I was impressed with how fast people reacted to a real threat. We moved leadership of Congress out of there. The helicopters were there. Cheney goes down in that underground bunker. They keep Bush flying all around the United States, until it's safe to come back.

They had a plan. They put it into attack. Not even during the Cold War, not even when we had Soviet missiles aimed at the United States, did we have 150 24/7 in these bunkers. This is a waste of taxpayer dollars. As Bernie said, what are they doing out there, except playing cards and playing computer games?


MAGINNIS: The president, I assure you, is not looking at his poll numbers when he did this. The credibility issue is here.

WARD: Oh God, no.

MAGINNIS: We have a capability of looking for ballistic missiles coming in. We don't have... WARD: From where?

MAGINNIS: From wherever in the past.

WARD: Oh, colonel, stop it!

MAGINNIS: Wait a second, Bernie. But the reality is, we do not know when we're fighting an enemy in the shadows we don't know where they're coming from.

WARD: You are paranoid.


WARD: Wait, during the Cold War, we had a five minute warning. The Soviet subs off the coast...


WARD: A nuclear -- five minute warning. We never put anybody into a bunker.

NOVAK: Bernie.

WARD: Now colonel, why didn't we put anybody into a bunker?


NOVAK: Wait a minute, Bernie. Bill Press told me something about you. You know, Bill is a fellow Californian or transplanted Californian.

WARD: You're kidding. I didn't know that.

NOVAK: Yes. And he says that you're more liberal than he is.

PRESS: Hey, Bernie, that's a compliment. That's a compliment.

NOVAK: I didn't know anybody was to the left of Bill Press, but he says you're more liberal than he is. And let me, just wait a minute, let me just give you what my theory is on why you're so exorcised about this -- apart from Bush bashing.


NOVAK: This gives memories of the Cold War. And one thing you liberals can't stand is, we won the Cold War. You just like coddling the Communists.


WARD: Well, you might be right, Bob. But Bill Press told me about you that you're the right of Buchanan. So I -- you know, let's talk about theories for a minute. Let's talk about the fact that there's a budget on the Hill, and we need to have some impetus to keep people in line. Let's talk about the fact that during if the Cold War, we didn't put a single person in a bunker. Not one. And now all of a sudden we are.

PRESS: All right, Bernie, I've got a quick last one for colonel here. Listen, there happened to be three branches of government. How come in this bunker, there are only executive types?


PRESS: When the bomb comes, they don't want the Congress, they don't want the Supreme Court. Again, this is all Bush's baby...

(CROSS TALK) MAGINNIS: The Judiciary, the Congress, each have a similar plan. You have to talk to Mr. Daschle, why they haven't executed theirs and to the Supreme Court.

WARD: I'll guarantee you, the IRS is down there. I guarantee you the IRS is down there.

PRESS: Yes, you know that. You know they're probably the first ones there, in fact.

WARD: Absolutely. Remember...


PRESS: Hey Bernie Ward, fellow liberal, thanks so much for joining us from San Francisco. Colonel, good to have you here.

WARD: Thank you. Hey Bob, say hello to Pat for me, will you?

PRESS: All right, back to the bunkers, guys.

And next up, to the media. Rumors of a big shakeup at ABC. Will Ted Koppel be forced to walk the plank to make room for crazy Dave? And what's that mean for TV journalism?


PRESS: CROSSFIRE, round two. Warning, late night news junkies. It may be night time for "NIGHTLINE." Yes, ABC is negotiating with David Letterman to move his late night show from CBS. And to make room, they're reportedly willing and ready to toss overboard Ted Koppel's "NIGHTLINE" and Bill Maher's "POLITICALLY INCORRECT."

After all, one ABC executive told "The New York Times" "the relevancy of 'NIGHTLINE' is just not there anymore." That report sent shivers through TV newsrooms today. Our TV bosses phasing out serious news to make room for more and more entertainment shows? And if that's what viewers want, so what?


NOVAK: Steve, the editors of "NIGHTLINE" sent out an e-mail to viewers today, saying what a dark, dark day this was. But let's get serious, Steve, nothing lasts forever, not even Brill's content.


NOVAK: But nothing lasts forever. This program lasted for 22 years. You got to admit "NIGHTLINE" had kind of lost its high hardware.

BRILL: Oh, I don't think so. I think it's still a very good show. I think the dynamics that work here have to do with the networks no longer having even to bow to the notion that part of their obligation is to the public service, instead of to their shareholders. That's not necessarily a terrible thing, but that is the reality. And I think it's a shame, because "NIGHTLINE" is different. "NIGHTLINE," among all the shows on the broadcast networks and arguably even among the cable networks, is the one show that takes a serious topic and deals with it in a serious way. And it's too bad that it's going. It's not the end of Western civilization. It doesn't mean that the people at Disney are bad people, but it's not a good thing.

NOVAK: Oh, there's a lot of shows on this network, maybe we're not one of them, who take a serious subject and deal with it...

BRILL: No, I'm talking about...

NOVAK: a serious way. But you know, it's not like this show is going off into limbo if it's replaced by the Disney people with "HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE" or whatever the hell the name of it is. I mean, this -- I would say that unless CNN is over the salary cap, it could take Mr. Koppel on and see if CNN didn't want Mr. Koppel, some other cable network would be on, And it would probably get a better class of viewers than watch ABC. Wouldn't you say that's true?

BRILL: Well, the cost to put on a half hour like "NIGHTLINE" might be too much for a cable network. Because the fact is, that as good as CNN is, and as good as the other ones are, they get a fraction of the eyeballs that the broadcast networks do. That's just the realty.

PRESS: Jerry Nachman, let's first start here by maybe agreeing on what this is all about. I was actually surprised today, and I know you probably knew this, that in terms of ratings, in terms of viewers, "NIGHTLINE" actually outpulls David Letterman. The last figures we have are from last fall, where "NIGHTLINE" was getting 5.6 million viewers. David Letterman, 4.7 million a night.

So it's clearly not about ratings. This is all about the bottomline, isn't it? That Letterman gets a younger audience. They can sell spots at a higher rate. Therefore, Disney makes more money. Right, Jerry?

NACHMAN: Yes. It's called demographics. And those of us in the big business ignore what the big number is and look at how many younger people are watching. It's a theory I disagree with, because I don't know many kids who are buying certificates of deposit or Cadillacs or refinancing homes.

But Madison Avenue thinks it's more easy to change the soft drinks they like, or the beers. So they like to advertise to them. I think what we're all forgetting here, that it's called the news business. And no matter how sentimental we like to get about it, it is a business. And that these companies have become kind of like baseball teams. And those of us who practice journalism have become kind of like baseball players.

Because while on days like this, we like to get up there and drip what I call journalistic stigmata, when it comes to contract times, these same on air journalists are as hardball as any infielder for the Texas Rangers in terms of what they earn.

PRESS: But Jerry, there was a time when we thought -- I believe that CBS and NBC and ABC had a real commitment to serious news, to public service broadcasting, as part of their line up. When Disney bought ABC in 1995, a lot of us said, you watch, it's going to become the Mickey Mouse network. They have no commitment to serious news. And this proves it, right?

NACHMAN: Well, but you can't single out ABC. Yes, there were the good old days when three guys named Paley, Sarnoff and Goldenson owned and ran those companies. And then a guy like Turner came along and did the same thing on the network we're on now.

But those days are over. They're owned by corporations and there are economic realties. And while I can mourn the possible demise of "NIGHTLINE" as much as anyone, hey, Ted invites me on more than you guys do, I do understand that it's a business.

And Bob, you work at "The Chicago Sun Times." You remember newspapers like "Chicago Today" and "The Chicago Daily News.: And we all remember "The Washington Star." And we all remember "The L.A. Herald Examiner." And those papers are gone, not because they failed to forge journalistic inroads, but because the market condition changed.

BRILL: I do think we should keep some of this in perspective. "NIGHTLINE" is a successful show. "NIGHTLINE" makes money. What this is about is, it's about a publicly held corporation fulfilling an obligation to shareholders, I admit, by maximizing its profits, not by finding profit where there isn't any, but by increasing its profits by changing the show.

That's real, that's understandable, but that doesn't take away from the fact that this is the end of something that's very important, which is broadcast television doing a show that really was an oasis, is an oasis, on the broadcast networks.

And you know, I'm not gripping stigmata, whatever it is. What I'm saying is, it is a change. It's not for the good for those of us who care about, you know, the kind of journalism that Koppel and his team do.

NACHMAN: On the other hand, Bill Carter and others have pointed out in covering this story is that we, being this network, are partly to blame, because in that interstitial period between 6:30, when the network newscast ended, and 11:30 when "NIGHTLINE" comes on, until 20 years ago, there were no options. And now, because of CNN and Fox News channel and MSNBC and CNBC, people have alternatives. And those of us who...

BRILL: That's for sure. You're right about that.

NACHMAN: And those of us who are junkies...

BRILL: And you're also right that, you know, if Ted Koppel wanted to make "NIGHTLINE" still more profitable, he could take a cut in pay and, you know, maybe keep the thing on. But...

NACHMAN: I'm not blaming...

NOVAK: Steve, do you see anything? You're a capitalist, you're a businessman. Do you see anything wrong with the Disney people and ABC -- I mean, this is not public television. And it's not some kind of public service operation, where working for the public good of trying to maximize their stockholders, particularly since there's so many alternative ways to give news on the cables and on the Internet and elsewhere?

BRILL: Well, no, you're right about that, but you've left something out, which is the reason that Disney has a license to use that frequency to broadcast over the airwaves, which you and I own, is because the government gave it to them. The government licenses them.

NACHMAN: Well, let me correct you. I'm sorry, the government doesn't grant licenses to networks. The government...

BRILL: The government grants licenses to affiliates.

NACHMAN: television stations.

BRILL: That's exactly right.

NACHMAN: And some of those are owned by ABC. And most of them, actually, are not owned by ABC.

BRILL: But...

NACHMAN: So you know what? You started a network. And you sold it at a profit, as part of this same broadcast corporate governance.

BRILL: That's right.

NACHMAN: And you didn't need any government permission to either start that network or sell that network.

BRILL: That's a cable network. You know, there is a difference.

NOVAK: You guys have just had the debate of the week, but time is up. Jerry Nachman, thank you very much. Steve Brill, we appreciate it.

Up next, fire back, your chance to fire back at us, me and Bill. And I can't wait to tell Lawrence White what I think of the ridiculous e-mail he sent to me.

PRESS: I like that e-mail.


PRESS: And now time to check the mail bag. We get to vent every night. It's only fair you get to vent once a week. Tonight's fire back starts with this comment on Democrats starting to question where the war on terror is heading from S. Simon. "Political spin is way out of line! Daschle and Byrd should be ashamed spitting at our service people who are trying to do a great job. How dare they try to minimize what they are doing for us in a bad country."

No, Mr. Simon, it is you who are out of line. Senator Daschle supports the effort in Afghanistan, supports the president. He just asked a good question. What's the exit strategy?

NOVAK: On the same subject, Barbara Krull sends me an e-mail saying, "It is patriotic to debate foreign policy, especially when we have troops on the ground whose lives depend on our making sound policy." Barbara, it was people like you who undermined our forces in the Vietnam War and brought Communist tyranny to a country that doesn't deserve it.

PRESS: Tucker had Al Sharpton had Al Sharpton on the other night from Iowa. Got this e-mail from Todd Magel, "Asking Al Sharpton if he encountered many hog farmers while in Iowa is a sign of ignorance and stereotyping at its worst. Of the nearly 3 million people in Iowa, only 95,000 farm. There is more to Iowa than pigs and windmills."

Who says? I spent two weeks in Iowa in the year 2000 in the primaries. All I saw were hog farmers and windmills, except for the 801 Steakhouse in downtown Des Moines.

NOVAK: And this from Lawrence White of New York City, who writes, "It frustrates me to no end when I hear Bob Novak moan that we may have to adapt to a future where foreign oil no longer runs the world. Those days can be over forever if we simply have the will."

Well, Lawrence, you're from New York City. I bet you don't have a car. I am pretty sure that you don't like cars, that you don't share the great love affair of the American people with the automobile and my love affair with a black Corvette sport car. Foriegn oil, if necessary. We need it.

PRESS: Bob, Bob, relax. You don't have to sell your Corvette.

NOVAK: Thank you, Bill.

PRESS: All right, have a good weekend, everybody. That's it for CROSSFIRE tonight. Thanks for watching. I'm Bill Press.

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


'Nightline' With David Letterman?>



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