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Interview with Dick Durbin, Mitch McConnell

Aired March 7, 2002 - 19:30   ET



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is not good for the Senate. And it's not good for the country.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, a judicial showdown. Will the president get his man on the bench? Is partisan politics over the courts about to boil over? Then, the Clinton presidency, does a new book, "The Natural," explain anything about those confusing Clinton years?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Tucker Carlson. In the crossfire, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, member of the Judiciary Committee and fellow committee member, Republican Senator Mitch Mcconnell of Kentucky. And later, Joe Klein, author of "The Natural."

PRESS: Yes, this is CROSSFIRE. But if you watch the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier today, you might have thought CROSSFIRE had moved to Capitol Hill. Watch this.


SEN ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Don't play games with me.

SEN PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: We will certify to the White House your strong dissupport in there, guy.

HATCH: I think they know that.

LEAHY: One, two, three...

HATCH: I'm just tired of it all. I'll tell you.

LEAHY: That was uncalled for.

HATCH: Well, it's uncalled for...


PRESS: That was Democratic chair Pat Leahy and Republican Orrin Hatch squabbling over Judge Charles Pickering, President Bush's pick for the federal appeals court. Pickering's nomination opposed by civil rights groups will probably be shot down in committee.

Republicans demand a floor vote, accusing Democrats of playing politics. Democrats say they're doing nothing more than Republicans did under President Clinton. Republicans today want another week to try to round up more votes. So much for fuzzy bipartisanship. Nothing like a battle over judges to get those good old partisan juices flowing. Great!


TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Senator Durbin, welcome.


CARLSON: Charles Pickering's a familiar member to many members of the U.S. Senate. He was there in 1990. He was up for a judgeship then. He was district court.

All 100 members of the Senate voted for him, including four members, current Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee. All voted for him and thought he was fine. Same record, same man, same history, same life experiences. 12 years later, he's a racist. Democrats are saying this guy is a racist. Look at his past. He's unacceptable and he's not going to make it. "The Washington Post" said the other day, "opposing a nominee should not mean destroying him. And yet, Democrats have set out to destroy Charles Pickering.

DURBIN: I disagree. And let me tell you, I don't know of a single member of the Senate who has called Judge Pickering a racist. I certainly haven't and I wouldn't. That is a conclusion I wouldn't reach, although there have been some elements in his background that raise question. There are certainly some elements. Senator McConnell brought him to the attention of the committee, where he has stood up in favor of civil rights and showed courage in doing so.

But since his appointment to the district court, he's been involved in some decisions that have raised some serious questions. One in particular involved the cross-burning case, an activity by him after the decision was reached by the jury, activity which frankly raises many ethical questions.

I think Judge Pickering should not complain that he hasn't been given a fair opportunity to present his point of view. He's been given a fair hearing. He's had all his opinions considered by the committee. He's been brought back in a timely fashion. And it's the opinion of most of my colleagues on the Democratic side, that he shouldn't receive a lifetime appointment to a higher level position.

CARLSON: Now senator, you know as well as I do, that bringing up a cross-burning case is a way to imply the guy's a racist, but that's just one among many unfair charges. Let me just give you another.

Kate Michaelman, head of NARAL, the abortion lobby, really part of the Democratic party. This is a quote from her. "Pickering, he's part of a continuing effort to hasten the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the end of legal abortion." Now Judge Pickering has had 4,000 cases since he's been on the federal bench. How many of those do you think involved abortion? Zero. And yet, the smear against him that he's sometimes willing to -- wants to overturn Roe v. Wade continues as baseless.

DURBIN: It's not baseless. And frankly, if you take a look his background, Judge Pickering's views on this subject are very clear. He was the one who authored the platform, the Republican platform in a provision which said that we should oppose Roe v. Wade and we should reject any judicial interpretation that supports Roe v. Wade.

But let me get down to the bottomline question here. We just approved an appointee to the same circuit by President Bush, a lady by the name of Edith Clement, a conservative Republican woman who passed with a unanimous vote of the committee. We're not out to get anybody or any president. We happen to believe, at least some of us, that Judge Pickering really is not in a position where he should be elevated for a lifetime appointment.

PRESS: Senator McConnell, may I just start with two factual things that could get lost here. Number one, Judge Pickering is a federal judge with a lifetime appointment. So whether or not he gets to a higher bench, he's still going to be a federal judge for the rest of his life. I think it's important that people know that.

And secondly, that Judge Pickering got a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. The committee is debating whether or not to approve him. Senator, that's a lot more than President Clinton's nominees ever got from Orrin Hatch.

There's a guy named James Beatty, African-American, North Carolina, waited two years for a hearing. Richard Paez, Latino from Los Angeles, waited over four years for a hearing. Bill Ann Lee, President Clinton named to the Justice Department, never got a hearing. How dare you whine about Judge Pickering not getting a fair shot after the way you treated the Democrats?

SEN MITCH MCCONNELL (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, if we want -- if the standard is to treat judges the same under President Bush as we did under President Clinton, let's look at the second year of the Clinton presidency. He got roughly 90 judges in the second year. I'm assuming that that's what will happen this year.

In order to equalize what Clinton got from a Republican -- from the Senate in the second year he was president, we're going to have to have almost a hearing a week. And we're going to have to get with it, if we want to keep up to meet the very same standard that President Clinton was allowed to meet.

With regard to Judge Pickering, my good friend Dick Durbin is talking about his performance on the bench. Well, the Democrats insisted that the ABA rating was the goal standard. We need to look to the ABA. They felt very strongly about that. Judge Pickering got a well qualified. I'm sure that that was based in large measure on his performance on the bench over the last 12 years. They gave him a well qualified. PRESS: Well, I want to get to Judge Pickering when we come back, but I'm just trying to get through this process because the president, himself, and Senator Hatch and others are accusing Democrats of playing politics. I point out again, when he was chairman, Senator Hatch shut down the confirmation hearing for months because his crony from Utah didn't get an appointment. Once he did, he opened it up again. My point is, maybe this is political tit-for-tat, senator, but what's wrong with that?

MCCONNELL: Well, Bill, the point is we need to make sure that President Bush is treated just as well as President Clinton.

PRESS: He's been treated better.

MCCONNELL: President Clinton got almost as many judges, just a couple short of what President Reagan got over an eight-year period. We hope that this Senate Judiciary Committee will treat President Bush in the second year, as well as the Senate Judiciary treated President Clinton in his second year. I'm optimistic that that will happen. Dick is not ruling that out. And regardless of how the Pickering nomination may ultimately be resolved, we've still got a chance here to do the right thing over the remaining months of this year. And I'm looking forward to seeing an awful lot of judges, both district and circuit confirmed -- approved by the committee and confirmed by...

PRESS: Just not Pickering.

CARLSON: Now wait, Senator Durbin, Bill Press is suggesting this is political tit for tat, and that it's okay. Now that is so low, so appallingly low, that I'm not even going to pose that question to you because I know it would be insulting.

DURBIN: No, let me tell you, it is entirely unfair...

CARLSON: Well of course it is.

DURBIN: hold the Democrats to the same standard as the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

CARLSON: That's clever.

DURBIN: I think that frankly, we have to rise to a more civilized level.

CARLSON: Well indeed, so far, it might seem that way. But listen to this. This is my theory and I think you'll confirm it. This is part of a broader strategy to prevent the president from putting forth conservative nominees toward the Supreme Court. So that is, you squash someone like Pickering early, you send the message to the White House, we're not going to put up with right wing nominees. And they put forward someone you're happier with.

DURBIN: Tucker, trust me, all of the judges that we approved, so far from the Bush White House, have been conservative nominees. They are Republican conservative nominees, including Edith Clement in this same circuit. We know what her positions are. They're conservative on issues.

And we expect the president to bring those nominees forward. But to ask for someone to be appointed to this bench, I mean, I have a responsibility to take a close look at this judge and to see what he's done. We have given him two fair hearings in a timely fashion. We have considered 1200 unpublished opinions. I mean, this man has been given a opportunity. The process hasn't failed Judge Pickering. Judge Pickering has failed the process.

CARLSON: I am so glad, Mr. Durbin, that you denied the strategy, because it turns out that your colleague, Chuck Schumer of New York, has already admitted in public that this is the Democratic strategy for nominees. He admitted it following the Ashcroft confirmation.

I want you to listen to Senator Schumer of New York sort of detail what you all are up to. Here he is.


SEN CHUCK SCHUMER (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: It's a shot across the bow. It's a shot across the bow in terms of the Justice Department and how it conducts itself. It's a shot across the bow in terms of Supreme Court nominations. It's a shot across the bow in terms of the push and pull within the Bush administration to be moderate and bipartisan, or to play to the hard right.


CARLSON: This is the first day in prison theory. Somebody gives you a hard time the first day in prison, you punch him out to send the message you're not going to put up with it. That's what you all are doing, isn't it?

DURBIN: Well, to use your analogy, the first day in prison was the approval on a unanimous vote of Edith Clement, a conservative Republican to this same circuit. And I think what Senator Schumer is saying, we are prepared to accept and approve conservative Republicans. We expect that from the White House, but Judge Pickering crosses that line.

Senator Schumer said repeatedly, we look for excellence, moderation and character. And there are some serious questions about Pickering.

PRESS: Senator McConnell, probably time for just one question. I want to come back to the case that, you know, Judge Pickering said some stuff when he was a young man that I'm sure he regrets today. I'm willing to wipe all that off the books. We all did some dumb stuff when we were 21.

But let's talk about this case Senator Durbin mentioned, which is 1894. As a federal judge, here's this guy who's been convicted of burning a cross on a home of a mixed race couple and firing bullets into the house. And as a judge, he goes to the Justice Department and says, "Can't you give them a lighter sentence?" I mean, doesn't that raise legitimate questions? I'll say it about his commitment to race issues and also about his ethics as a judge. That's a legitimate serious question.

MCCONNELL: The ABA took a look at all of that and they found him well qualified after that. They've made up their mind on Judge Pickering. I think the most significant thing I've heard Dick Durbin say tonight is that they're prepared to support conservative judicial nominees. That's what the president's going to send up. And I look forward to having a lot of them confirmed in the coming months.

PRESS: All right, enough disagreement over Charles Pickering. I want to ask you to listen here to something that we can all agree on.

That's this. President Clinton was such an outstanding president,he might even be called the natural. That's what author Joe Klein says. And when we come back, Tucker and I are going to convince him he's wrong.


CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

He spent his last year in office self-consciously building a legacy. But even now, the rest of America isn't sure what it is. Bill Clinton, the most polarizing president in living memory. How will the first paragraph of his obituary explain him to future generations? Eight booming years of peace at home and abroad or Monica?

That's the question. Joe Klein believes he's answered it. A long-time political reporter now at "The New Yorker," Klein has interviewed, pondered and written about Bill Clinton for close to 15 years. His new book, "The Natural" sums it up this way. "The Clinton era is likely to be remembered more for the ferocity of its prosecutions than for the severity of its crimes."

True? We'll ask the man himself. Joe Klein joins us from our bureau in New York City.

JOE KLEIN, AUTHOR, PRIMARY COLORS: Hi, Tucker, how are you? Bill, good to see you.

CARLSON: Hey, Joe.

PRESS: Hi, Joe, good evening. I want to ask the first question, Joe, about you, not about Bill Clinton. You know, in the beginning of your book you talk about the fact that you met Clinton. You're impressed with him, his intelligence, his personality.

You hung out with him for all this time. You even say you're just about political soul mates. On page 26 you say, "We were, in fact, from the same part of the ideological jungle, a rather obscure, eclectic tribe known as the 'New Democrats.'" You were one, he was one. I guess my question, Joe, is, did you go over the line here as a journalist and end up writing a valentine to Bill Clinton, based on your admiration for him?

KLEIN: You know what, I...

PRESS: It reads like it. Hey, it's called "The Natural."

KLEIN: He's a natural politician, that's for sure. You guys, I know, come from the left and the right. I'm a flaming moderate. And this book is a balanced account.

I think that he did some really important things on the domestic side and some on the foreign policy side that needed to be noted, especially in the avalanche of scandal and nonsense that we all immersed ourselves in during the '90s. But I'm also extremely critical of him for things like the Lewinsky scandal, which I believe had a profound impact on policy during his second term and maybe even on the events of September 11, and also for the Marc Rich pardon, which is utterly unconscionable.

And also for healthcare, giving it to Hillary, we would have a national system of health insurance now if he had followed the Republican plan that was proposed in 1994. So there, Bill.

PRESS: All right, Joe.

KLEIN: How about you, Tucker?

CARLSON: Well, I'll tell you. One criticism in your book waits until, by my count, page 189. Let me read you the exact quote. "One global issue that Clinton did not address, sufficiently, was terrorism." Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play? I mean, isn't this really the headline of Clinton's eight years? I mean, nobody remembers what Neville Chamberlain did with the British economy. They remember what followed his term.

KLEIN: No, I don't think it's the headline. I think it's an aspect of what he dealt with, just as it's going to be an aspect of what President Bush deals with over the next four or eight years. For example, he's going to have to deal with his economic record and his turning around on free trade as he did this past week. But I do believe, you know, Jonathan Yardley in "The Washington Post" called Clinton's presidency an empty presidency. And I'm sure that it felt that way to a lot of Republicans.

But if you are among the working poor, and you're receiving a lot more money now, so that you can make work pay because of the earned income tax credit, then it wasn't an empty president. If you're one of the 10 million people who take advantage of tax credits, to go to college every year, because of Clinton, which he passed in 1997 as part of the balanced budget agreement, that is not chopped liver, Tucker.

PRESS: All right, yes, but, Joe, you know, I hear you singing the praises. And again, toward the back of your book, you kind of sum up and you say, Bill Clinton conducted a serious, substantive presidency. His domestic policy achievements were not inconsiderable, and were accomplished against great odds. You go on and on about he rescued the Democratic party.

You know, the Republicans are saying we ought to put Ronald Reagan on Mount Rushmore. Is that what you're suggesting for Bill Clinton?

KLEIN: Absolutely not. I don't consider him a great president. I thought he was a good president who had the misfortune to govern in times that were extremely vituperative, extremely vituperative.

And also, he never had -- I mean this was -- whatever you think of him, this was -- and I've heard Republicans say this for years. This is the most naturally talented stand-up politician of his age, of our age. In 33 years of covering politics, I never saw one better. And that's what "The Natural" refers to.

His presidency was plagued by his inability to control his appetites, his lack of discipline. Now what I try to do, I know it's hard to understand if you come from the left or from right, is to give a balanced account, just give him credit for the things he did well and to hit him on the things he didn't like.

In fact, if Bill Clinton were here right now, he'd probably throw me up against the wall as he once did with Dick Morris.

CARLSON: Now Joe, one of the things you gave him credit for, I was very struck by. Right toward the front of the book, you describe this scene in Manchester, New Hampshire in '92, during the first campaign. It's late at night. You're bowling. And Bill Clinton, for reasons you don't fully explain, rubs up against you. You describe the sensation, "as a strange feline sensation."

KLEIN: I gave him credit for that, Tucker?

CARLSON: Revolting? Wouldn't it be revolting? I mean, Bill Clinton rubs up against you, you call it strange and feline. I mean, doesn't that sort of nauseous-making?

PRESS: Tell us about it, Joe.

KLEIN: It was unbelievably weird. And I do not think that Bill Clinton would like, you know, is happy about the fact that I've recounted that scene. I mean, to me, it just showed very clearly his neediness. I mean, this is a guy who is needy all the time.

I mean, you know, that's a lot of what the Marc Rich pardon was about. He needed courtiers. He needed people like Denise Rich and Beth Duzorits to come in and tell him he was the most wonderful thing in the world, and they were raising gazillions of dollars for his library. That's an outrage.

CARLSON: It was an outrage, but you're being on is something we're grateful for. Thanks, Joe. PRESS: Thank you, Joe.

CARLSON: We appreciate it.

PRESS: All right, anonymous no longer.

CARLSON: And next up, what to Marian Barry and Rudy Giuliani have in common? You guessed it,they're both former mayors. You passed the test. If you guessed they're both featured in tonight's CROSSFIRE police blotter, give yourself a gold star. And stay tuned.


CARLSON: Welcome back and welcome to Thursday night police blotter, when public figures intersect with law enforcement, CROSSFIRE is there.

First on the blotter tonight, you may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you can book a judge for his behavior. That's Ronald Klein, a superior court judge in California. In November, the Orange County Democrat was charged with child molestation, ruled a danger to kids. Klein was placed on house arrest. This has prevented him from going outside. It has not kept him for running for re- election.

Yesterday, Klein took 33 percent of the vote against a field of 11 write-in candidates. The runoff is scheduled for November. In the meantime, the 33 percent who voted for Klein have respectfully been asked never to vote again.

PRESS: And for a while, it looked like O.J. Simpson was back at the Atlanta airport. But no, it was Georgia football fan, Michael Lassiter, late for a flight to a game, dashing past security guards and down an up escalator.

The airport was shut down for four hours. Thousands of passengers were evacuated. And today, Lassiter paid the price, 10 days in jail, a $3,000 fine, 500 hours of community service. And worst of all, he's been banned from all future Georgia football games. The moral of the story, don't mess with Atlanta.

CARLSON: A moral we know well. No man is a hero to his valet or it turns out in a custody hearing. Rudy Giuliani has learned this lesson. Yes, Giuliani had a successful career as a prosecutor. Yes, he enjoyed two wildly popular terms as mayor. And of course, he won international acclaim following September 11, even becoming "Time's" man of the year. And that, said a judge in Manhattan yesterday is exactly why Rudy Giuliani hasn't been a very good father. He hasn't had time.

Only partial visitation, ruled the judge, to the apparent delight of Giuliani's estranged wife. And no bringing the kids to the house when the girlfriend's over. Another day in the life of an international hero.

PRESS: And a night. And he's back. Former D.C. Mayor Marian Barry shocked Washington today by announcing he's making a political comeback, running for city council and presumably, next time around, for a third term as mayor.

Barry served time in prison, you remember, for possession of cocaine and is now fighting charges of exposing himself to a female cleaning woman. What's going on? First, Washington welcomes Mike Tyson back to the ring. Now it welcomes Marian Barry back to politics. The nation's capital has become the nation's recovery center for former felons.

But you know what, Tucker? If he runs, when he runs, he'll get re-elected.

CARLSON: Exposing himself to a female cleaning woman.

PRESS: He'll still get re-elected.

CARLSON: The man has style, if nothing else. And in fact, nothing else. He has nothing else whatever.

PRESS: I would not exactly call that style.

CARLSON: And he's a Democrat.

PRESS: But thanks. Tomorrow night, e-mails. If you haven't already sent them in, get them in. Attack Tucker mercilessly. Send them into And be nice to me. That's it for tonight. Thanks for watching. We'll see you tomorrow night. I'm Bill Press, never in the middle.

CARLSON: And from the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night, Friday night, for another edition of CROSSFIRE. See you there.




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