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CNN CROSSFIRE

Fleischer Steps Down as White House Spokesman

Aired May 19, 2003 - 16:30   ET

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala. On the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE, President Bush loses his voice.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It was my privilege to stand at this podium and do my best to explain what was happening in each of these cases.

ANNOUNCER: White House spokesman Ari Fleischer is leaving. Are we sorry he's going? And should we believe everything the White House tells us?

You're not going to believe who is backing Al Sharpton for president. Today, on CROSSFIRE.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Live, from the George Washington University, Paul Begala and Robert Novak.

(APPLAUSE)

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Hello, everybody. Welcome to CROSSFIRE. We're going to break new ground in the coverage of politics today. Beginning this afternoon, CROSSFIRE will be using the latest technology to poll our studio audience here in Washington on issues of the day. Sort of like "American Idol" except these folks are going to vote on something that really matters.

In the wake of the resignation of White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer, today's question for the studio audience is this: Do you trust White House press secretaries to tell you the truth? Our audience will watch our live debate, then render its decision in our "Fireback" segment at the end of the broadcast. So let's begin the broadcast with a little political briefing, our CROSSFIRE Political Alert.

About one out of every eight graduates of St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia walked out on the commencement speaker yesterday. The speaker was Rick Santorum a member of the Republican leadership in the United States Senate. Senator Santorum ignited a storm of controversy when he compared people in committed, loving, adult, gay relationships to those who practiced incest, polygamy and something he called -- and I quote the senator here -- "man on dog."

Now, unlike Trent Lott, whose racist comments caused him to be removed from leadership, Santorum's homophobic hatemongering has only caused President Bush to embrace him in a manly, macho, not at all gay way. Different kind of embrace.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: You know, Paul, I've explained this to you several times, but I'll have to do it again. You misquote Senator Santorum every time. All he was that if the courts cannot rule against -- cannot police this kind of behavior, they can't police any kind of behavior.

And you know who made that first opinion? That was in 1986 by Justice Whizzer White, appointed by John F. Kennedy. This is an attempt by the Democrats to pick the leadership of the Republican Party, and you're not going to get away with it.

BEGALA: Forty-two years ago he was. If Rick Santorum can't tell the difference between adult gay relationships and incest, I can't help him. He has no moral compass. Shame on Rick Santorum.

NOVAK: Yes, it's very early in the 2004 election cycle, but the polls convey some really bad news for the Democrats. It's not just that the Republicans are looking good in their own red states. The GOP is displaying astounding strength in the bluest of the blue Democratic states.

An Associated Press survey shows George W. Bush running ahead in these Democratic strongholds: Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and California, where the growing Latino vote is moving toward the Republican president. That's a steep mountain for any of the charismatically challenged Democratic candidates to climb.

BEGALA: It is a steep mountain, you're right. I think that's an interesting poll, but we are an awful, awful long way from the election. It's a very good point.

You've covered more elections than anybody I know, Bob. But you also then know that the real problem here is not whether the Democrats have charisma. It's whether Bush can create any jobs. And so far, we've lost 2.5 million new jobs. I think George Bush is going to lose his job before this thing is all over.

NOVAK: Bill Clinton was not that far ahead at this point in his cycle, and you know George Bush's father in one-on-one ratings was not that far ahead of Bill Clinton in 1992. So this is a long way to go. It's going to be very hard for Al Sharpton to make it.

BEGALA: Well, we're not even into the election year yet. We've got a long way to go.

According to the Children's Defense Fund, the Bush budget will cut 30,000 kids from child care, remove 570,000 kids from after school programs, and dismantle Head Start. But "The Washington Times" today reports the Bush Administration's National Institute of Child Health and Human Development is spending $137,000 of your money not on kids, but to "provide the most comprehensive picture to date of the sexual behavior of aging men."

Now, why the party of Strom Thurmond needs to study horny old men is beyond me, but perhaps, maybe, just maybe, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others look at those frisky days of the Clinton Administration with a severe case of testosterone envy.

NOVAK: You know, Paul, you may be surprised that I agree with you that this is a disgraceful waste of taxpayers' money. But this little government agency, this little national institute where the doctors sit around thinking how can we spend the hard-earned tax money, this was going on in the Clinton administration as well. The same kind of stuff, the same kind of projects. Shame on the Bush Administration for not cleaning out these fuzzy-headed liberals.

BEGALA: But you can't -- no, they're not liberals. They work for George Bush.

NOVAK: They work for the government. They don't work for George Bush.

BEGALA: When is a Republican ever going to take responsibility for their actions?

NOVAK: They should get rid of them.

BEGALA: They blame Clinton for everything.

(APPLAUSE)

NOVAK: Confounding Democratic skeptics who look down their noses at Al Sharpton's presidential candidacy, the preacher from Harlem has picked off his first delegates. The "Roll Call" newspaper reports it's his fellow New Yorker, Congressman Jose Serrano of the Bronx. Serrano says he plans to endorse the reverend Al.

Since every member of the House of Representatives is a super delegate to the National Democratic Convention, that's one vote for Sharpton. He ought to appeal to Serrano, whose ideology is on the far left, while he wins pork barrel appropriations for his south Bronx district. It's a start, anyway, for the Al Sharpton bandwagon.

BEGALA: I am amused night after night as you promote Sharpton. The truth is, he's run in his home city of New York many, many times in Democratic primaries, never won a single thing. And that's a big contrast between the aforementioned Rick Santorum, who is a leader of the Republican Party -- you've said they've chosen him -- who is a homophobic hate monger.

Now my party has rejected Al Sharpton. When will your party reject Rick Santorum?

NOVAK: Well, they haven't rejected Al Sharpton. I see him up on the balcony. They treat him with respect. They're scared to death of scaring off the African-American vote. If they're mean to Al Sharpton, not all of are as bold as reckless as your you are, Paul.

BEGALA: They ought to take him on, but he's not going to be a serious candidate anyway.

NOVAK: OK. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said he's ready to move on. Next, we'll debate why he's leaving. And the bigger question: how any administration gets its message out to the public.

(APPLAUSE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer today announced he's resigning his post effective this July. With the Bush budget headed for gridlock, with Iraq in chaos, and the Bush reelection just kicking off, not exactly the best time for our president to be losing his mouthpiece. Mr. Fleischer, though, says he wants to relax a little, make some money from speaking engagements, and eventually move to New York and find a private sector communications job.

Of course, all of those options would still be available a year or two years from now. So the question is, why is Ari leaving now? More importantly, though, can we trust any White House press secretary in an administration that promises straight talk but has given us nothing but double talk?

In the CROSSFIRE to debate all this, former National Republican Committee communications director Cliff May, and Dee Dee Myers, who was White House press secretary during the greatest president of my lifetime. Who might that be but Bill Clinton.

DEE DEE MYERS, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Bill Clinton. Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

NOVAK: Dee Dee Myers, apart from all the insinuations and implications in Paul's introduction, we know that Ari just got married after the age of 40, he wants to raise a family. He never has made money in his life. He would like to make a little money.

Two and a half years at a grueling job. And really more than that. It's four years. Is there any reason to think that there is any sinister motivation behind his leaving?

MYERS: No, I actually don't think there is. I think that Ari left at a time of his choosing. I think that had he stayed a few months longer, he would have had to stay through the campaign, and we all know how it feels to get sucked into a campaign and you can't get out.

So I think, you know, Ari's had his ups and downs, he's been sort of in and out inside the White House. But it seems to me that this is pretty much a time of his choosing and it makes perfect sense to me. And I wish him all the best.

I know from experience, and as many of you do, what working in the White House feels like. It is a very grueling job and I don't blame him one bit for wanting to make a little money. In the public sector you don't make very much money.

NOVAK: You made a fabulous amount of money when you left the White House, didn't you?

MYERS: I am so loaded now, it's unbelievable.

BEGALA: And yet you pay your fair share of taxes.

MYERS: I pay my fair share of taxes and I feel blessed to live in a nation that has treated me so well. And so I pay them happily.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Let me do something that you may find unusual and defend Ari Fleischer. Today, a lot of critics are going through the many factual misstatements that Ari made. But, in point of fact, I think that we need to change not the monkey, but the organ grinder.

Somebody sent him out there to say these things that were false. For example, it was George W. Bush and Vice President Cheney who said that, for example, Iraq has a nuclear weapons program. We now know for a matter of fact that they do not. Why are some blaming Ari Fleischer, when it's the president and the vice president who misled us about a war?

CLIFF MAY, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: Just to correct you, Khadir Hamza was the father of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. He's been on this program; I've talked to him any number of times.

There's no question that there was a nuclear weapons program in Iraq. What we don't know and we still don't know is what happened to all of it. Every place we've gone unfortunately has been looted and burned and taken out.

BEGALA: You can't hide a nuclear facility, though. You cannot.

MAY: Oh, you can.

BEGALA: And our president said -- and I'm quoting him -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Mr. Cheney said he has in fact reconstituted nuclear weapons. That's not Ari's fault.

MAY: Let me explain to you how you can. For example, we know right now, and you know this as well, that Iran is building nuclear weapons. Do you know where that facility is? We don't, because what has been done is nuclear facilities can be broken up in many components.

BEGALA: But we don't have 150,000 troops in Iran. We know everything that's going on in Iraq now; we own the country.

I want to get back to the question of credibility. Doesn't our president have a credibility crisis in firing Ari or Ari leaving of his own volition? It's not going to solve that, is it?

MAY: Only with you. Now with the American public...

(APPLAUSE)

MAY: You look at the American -- look at -- Paul, nobody reads the polls better than you do. You know that the American public overwhelmingly knows Bush is a straight shooter.

NOVAK: Nobody said that George Bush fired him. I don't think anybody -- Dee Dee Myers, Paul brought up the organ grinder and the monkey. And I'm going to give you a sound bite from one of the best monkeys I've ever seen. Let's listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE MCCURRY, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Don't twist my words. Let's making it very clear what the president has said in this statement. He said he had no improper relationship with this woman.

That clearly means there would be things that would be improper. And I think you all know what they are, and I don't need to parse it any further.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NOVAK: That was a terrible lie and you can't blame the monkey, a good friend of mine, your successor, Mike McCurry. But my question, Dee Dee, is how in the world can any Democrat, former White House staff members talk about lying in the White House when that was one of the great presidential lies, just a total blatant untruth?

MYERS: There's no question that that was a lie. And I don't defend it and I didn't defend it then. I don't defend it now.

And my friend, Mike McCurry was in a terribly difficult situation, which I think he handled well. But I think that Paul's larger point, that whoever the press secretary is going to reflect the press culture, the communications culture of this White House, which is the press is a disease to be managed, not a legitimate part of the process.

And so they will never provide information from the podium of that White House briefing room. They shut down reporters. They browbeat them. They challenge them. And I have to say, it has served them in some ways, sure.

MAY: If I may, I think what Ari understands -- and I think it's important -- is that the press secretary and the president are not there to feed the needs of the White House press corps. There are there to address the American people through the press corps. This is about communicating with the public, not the reporters. MYERS: I agree with that, but this White House could do a lot better job of communicating with the American public through the press corps. There aren't a lot of other options.

MAY: It's a very disciplined White House. What this White House is trying to do, like the Reagan White House did -- I'm not making all the associations. I know Bush is not the communicator Reagan was. But this White House has certain messages it wants to get across and doesn't want to be distracted.

MYERS: There's no question about it.

NOVAK: Don't you think that the reporters -- I think the reporters like Ari, as a matter of fact. I think they liked Mike McCurry. They even liked you, Dee Dee. But isn't what they resent is this is an organized White House. There isn't much leaking.

MYERS: No question.

NOVAK: I don't think there was much leaking in the second half of the Clinton administration after they got rid of Paul.

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS: He was the one bad seed in the second half of the Clinton years. But, no, I think you're absolutely right. I think Ari bears the brunt of the animosity that the press feels toward the strategy of this White House.

I think the press plays an important role in our national life, and I think this is where Democrats and Republicans sometimes part company. The Republicans again see the press as a disease. It's just something that you're stuck with. But I don't think they even see it that way.

BEGALA: Here's the difference. Republicans and people on the right very rightly saw that it was wrong for a man to lie about having a girlfriend. Why do you make it so difficult to see that it's wrong for a president to lie about a war that 137,000 American heroes lost their lives in? Why is that so difficult to make that distinction?

(APPLAUSE)

MAY: I absolutely reject your allegation that there has been any lie told...

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Let him answer, Paul.

MAY: Look, first of all, most Americans understand this war in Iraq was justified. I know you disagree with me.

BEGALA: By lies?

MAY: No, not by lies. BEGALA: You mean (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

MAY: No, because this was a rogue dictator, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) terrorists building weapons of mass destruction.

NOVAK: You guys can continue off camera. We're going to take a break.

Coming up, a quick check of the hour's top stories, and then "Rapid Fire," the quickest question-and-answer segment in television.

Later in "Fireback," find out if your audience trusts White House press secretaries to tell the truth.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

NOVAK: It's time for "Rapid Fire": short questions, short answers, no filibustering from the podium. We're talking about White House press secretaries with Dee Dee Myers, who did that job for President Clinton, and former Republican National Committee communications director, Cliff May -- Paul.

BEGALA: Cliff, was everything President Bush told Ari say to the country true?

MAY: I think to the best of his knowledge, it was, yes. Absolutely.

NOVAK: Who should replace Ari Fleischer?

MYERS: Victoria Clark, the present Pentagon spokeswoman, is fantastic.

BEGALA: Let me throw in another name. Scott McClellan, a great guy from Austin. This will kill his chances, but a great guy, a straight shooter, a young press aide in Bush's -- is he up to the job? I think he is.

MAY: I think he is and I think he definitely has a shot. I think he has a good shot. It will be somebody who works for Ari right now who will get that shot, but there are a couple of other people. Ed Gillespie comes to mind, if they're interested in it, who will be very good for the position.

NOVAK: You were press secretary for a year and a half. Ari is press secretary for two and a half years. Is that too short a time to be a press secretary?

MYERS: I think it depends upon the individual. I was there the first two years of Clinton's first time. Ari's been there two and a half. And, again, once you hit a certain point, you're in for the next two and a half years. So I certainly am sympathetic with his decision to leave, and I think it depends on the press secretary, how long seems like the right amount of time.

BEGALA: Cliff, would you take the job? MAY: No, I'm very happy doing what I'm doing right now, thank you very much.

NOVAK: Would you ever -- you're a very young person, Dee Dee. Would you ever like to be press secretary for another president?

MYERS: You never say never. I feel like I've been there, done that. It doesn't work at his point in my life. But I think it's a great job. I would commend anyone to do it.

You will have no life. After a couple years, you'll have a wonderful experience that will stand you in good stead for the rest of your life.

BEGALA: Cliff May, 10 seconds. Any truth to the rumor this the president is looking for Mohammed Saeed al Sahaf to take the job? Baghdad...

MYERS: I think he's perfect.

MAY: My understanding is Isuzu wants him as the next Joe Isuzu.

NOVAK: Quickly, yes or no, did you ever tell an untruth from the podium?

MYERS: No.

BEGALA: Wonderful. Cliff May, Dee Dee Myers, thank you both very much.

Keep your seats, because we're going to ask our audience to vote on this question now. We've given you this cool gadget. Do you trust White House press secretaries to tell you the truth? Push one for yes, push two for no.

And then, the audience at home, we will you their vote when we come back. That's today, CROSSFIRE. Then we'll have our Fireback segment. There's our graphic up there.

Stay with us. We'll give you the results when CROSSFIRE returns. Thanks.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Our studio audience has voted. Sort of a 21st century version of the old Roman coliseum of thumbs up and thumbs down. The question today was this: Do you trust White House press secretaries to tell the truth?

Here's the vote. Forty-seven percent said yes, 53 percent said no. It's split down the middle. Sort of a sad commentary, but still almost half of us think they'll tells us the truth. May this new one will.

NOVAK: OK. A new "Fireback." Dennis Kaiser of Loveland, Ohio, says. "Bob, you keep telling us that giving a tax cut to the wealthy will create jobs. If that's so, please explain to me how many jobs you will be creating."

Dennis, baby, I won't create any. President Bush won't. President Clinton didn't create any. The American private enterprise system creates the jobs, and with the money provided for investment, they will provide millions of jobs.

BEGALA: Bob, you need me to mow your lawn? Cliff Grayson writes from Chouteau, Oklahoma -- Cliff, anyway, writes "If Bush comes up with weapons of mass destruction and two tons of deadly powder he has my vote. It looks like I will vote Democratic."

Well, that's true. We were promised weapons of mass destruction.

NOVAK: I got a feeling Cliff is a rare Oklahoma Democrat. I think that was a put-on.

Now this is from Matt Gigot of Green Bay, Wisconsin. Must be related to Paul Gigot, the "Wall Street Journal" -- was also from Green Bay "Does anyone else agree with me that Paul Begala should throw his hat in for the presidential race? With his ability to criticize Bush and his tax cuts, which obviously support the wealthy, Begala would crush Bush in any debate."

I don't know if he would or not, but I know this: he impersonated Bush in the debate rehearsal with Gore, and he crushed Gore, but that wasn't hard.

BEGALA: I wonder, he must not be too closely relate to Paul Gigot at "The Wall Street Journal," who has a different view about tax cuts -- yes, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Cory Nicholson (ph) from Decatur, Illinois. And my question is, why is it important who the press secretary is?

NOVAK: It is unimportant who it is. He is a functionary, not even a high functionary, but the press is so important that they make a big deal out of him.

BEGALA: No, it is important. I think Ari Fleischer served the country well. I think on many occasions he was told things that were false and he repeated them. I don't blame him for that, I blame the president.

NOVAK: Question?

BEGALA: Yes, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chris Olson (ph), Decatur, Illinois.

NOVAK: Man, Decatur.

OLSON: Decatur. Will the Democratic efforts recently to bash Bush on the war on terrorism backfire, or will it give him them positive momentum? NOVAK: I say if the Democrats keep talking about how bad he's doing on the war on terrorism, it just builds up George Bush more and more.

BEGALA: How are we doing? Have we caught Osama bin Laden? How's democracy in Afghanistan?

How's democracy in Iraq? Have we got Saddam Hussein? Does anybody here feel safer because we have color-coded guides now?

(CROSSTALK)

NOVAK: Are you going to use all your talking points in three seconds?

BEGALA: From the left, I'm Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

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

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