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Battle of War Records

Aired February 12, 2004 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE: the battle over war records. Vietnam was a long time ago. Should the actions of George W. Bush and John Kerry then be getting so much attention now?



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


PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST: Hello, everybody. Welcome to CROSSFIRE.

The Bush White House today strongly denied an allegation from a former lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard that top Bush aides improperly removed material from Mr. Bush's Guard records back when Mr. Bush was governor. The White House did release proof that Mr. Bush once had his teeth cleaned by a National Guard dentist...


BEGALA: ... but refused to release other medical, criminal or disciplinary records.

ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Did anybody really think that the Democrats' smear campaign would just go away?

A lot of veterans, however, haven't forgotten about John Kerry's days as a Vietnam War protester, right with Jane Fonda. And what does go around might just come around, but not before the best political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."

As John Kerry has moved closer to clinching the Democratic presidential nomination, Howard Dean has stepped up pounding on him. Here's what Dr. Dean prescribed in Wisconsin -- quote -- "When you act the way Senator Kerry does, he appears to be more like George Bush than he does like a Democrat" -- end quote.

So, Dean said, Senator John Edwards would be a stronger nominee than Kerry. "Wait until the public has time to take a good look at Kerry," the doctor continued, "when we don't have a primary election every week." Was Howard Dean suggesting he knows something about John Kerry the rest of us don't? And, if he doesn't know anything, is it dirty politics straight from Vermont?

BEGALA: Yes, the governor of Vermont started this race very strong on the principled stand of being against President Bush's unjust, unwise, unwarranted war.

I hate to see him ending the campaign with this kind of name- calling. Comparing John Kerry to George Bush is the worst thing you can do in a Democratic primary. It's not going to work. And Dean would do well to get back on the high road that made him the front- runner at the beginning of the race.

NOVAK: Well, I always try to understand what you're saying Paul. I have trouble sometimes. But what you're saying, it's OK to smear the president of the United States with any unjudged accusation...


NOVAK: ... but you can't smear the Democratic front-runner?

BEGALA: No, my accusations are well-grounded and well-founded. You will see as we proceed with the show.

Well, when I was a boy, "The Washington Post" fearlessly followed the story of a cover-up directed by a corrupt Republican president. That was, of course, Richard Nixon. Well, "The Post" today is more of a lapdog than a watch dog for the current Republican president. While "USA Today" and "The New York Times" have full stand-alone stories today about explosive new allegations that Bush aides may have destroyed records from Mr. Bush's National Guard files, "The Washington Post" only mentions the shocking allegation in paragraph 20 of a 21-paragraph story.

And the mention is on page A-9. Well, what did "The Post" think was more important than an allegation of an official cover-up straight out of Watergate? Well, the stunning news that George W. Bush had some dental work done 30 years ago in the National Guard. Thank God it wasn't root canal. "The Post" would have put out an extra.

NOVAK: You know, Paul, I wonder whether you and your compatriots have taken leave of your senses.

Do you know, the American people do not care about a story that happened 30 years ago on whether or not he went to three drills, two drills, or six drills? And, anyway that was all hashed out in the unsuccessful Gore campaign of 2000. You must be bankrupt for real issues to dig into this issue.



BEGALA: What is new is that, six years ago -- a man wrote a letter six years ago saying that Mr. Bush's aides ordered those files to be altered.


NOVAK: John Kerry does not look much like George W. Bush, as Howard Dean claims, but he does resemble Bob Torricelli.

Former Senator Torricelli did not run for reelection from New Jersey, after being rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee for questionable fund-raising. And Torricelli is at it again. "The Washington Post" reports that Torricelli contributed $50,000 to a secretive group that ran over half-a-million dollars in attack ads against Dean.

That follows a revelation that Senator Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, gave more than $50,000 to the League of Conservation Voters, which endorsed her husband for president. Anything wrong with cash- and-carry politics? Not if you're a liberal, I guess.

BEGALA: Well, look, of course, that's a smear. You mentioned a smear before. I'm just pointing out that George W. Bush didn't show up for his National Guard duty, which is in the records.

It's a smear to suggest that somehow Teresa Heinz Kerry, who was a philanthropist and environmentalist when she was Teresa Heinz, married to a Republican senator, is still one today. John Kerry has got a 30-year record of being strong on the environment. He earned that endorsement. I know the League of Conservation Voters. And that's a real smear, Bob.

NOVAK: Wait a minute. You're just saying it's OK to hand somebody $50,000...


NOVAK: ... after you get their endorsement?

BEGALA: She contributed to environmental causes for 30 years. She's a great environmentalist and a great philanthropist, and a very, very independent woman, I think even you would agree.

Well, the strain of having helped President Bush mislead us into war is clearly getting to Secretary of State Colin Powell. At a House hearing yesterday, Secretary Powell verbally attacked a lowly and obscure congressional staffer. His crime? Well, he shook his head as General Powell testified.

You know, for a four-star general and secretary of state to berate a mere congressional staffer because he doesn't like his expressions is nothing less than abusive. What is Colin Powell now, the gesture police? And which gestures are appropriate, sir, when our leaders are misleading us about a war? May we raise our eyebrow? How about just one eyebrow, like John Belushi in "Animal House"?


BEGALA: Can we roll our eyes? How about throw up our hands? Well, for now, I will just shake my head in sadness as a genuine American hero ruins his reputation.

NOVAK: I love -- I love for you to attack Colin Powell. That is really smart.

You know, Paul, I'm going to tell you what happened at that time. One of the nastiest, most partisan Democratic congressmen started bringing up this business about Bush and the ROTC. And Powell says, don't go there. Don't go there. He insisted going there. Then, he starts asking him substantive questions. And this smarmy little aide sitting in the back starts -- starts making gestures.


NOVAK: I don't blame Colin Powell. That is not the place of an aide. And you know that, because you were one.

BEGALA: It's not the place of a senior official like that to dress down a lowly -- it's fine for him to fight with that congressman. That's fine. Those are two big boys. But for -- this is what Republicans believe, that people in power should stomp on little people. It's Republican ethics at its worst.


NOVAK: Little people like you should be stomped on.


BEGALA: Well, military credentials have become issue No. 1 in the campaign to become America's commander in chief in the post-9/11 world. So, next, we will debate the battle of military records between Lieutenant George W. Bush and Lieutenant John Kerry.

Stay with us.



NOVAK: George W. Bush served in the Air National Guard, flew 102 fighter -- F-102 fighter planes and got an honorable discharge. The White House has released pay and dental records proving the president did his duty. But does anyone think the Democrats will call off attack dogs, like leftist agitator Michael Moore and Democratic hit man Terry McAuliffe, who have been smearing the president with labels like deserters and AWOL?

In the CROSSFIRE, from New York, Democratic Congressman and decorated Korean war veteran Charles Rangel. He's just enlisted as a John Kerry supporter, because his first choice, General Wes Clark, crashed and burned.

(LAUGHTER) NOVAK: And here with us is another decorated veteran, Indiana Republican Congressman Steve Buyer. He was called to duty during the first Gulf War and is still a member of the Army Reserve.


BEGALA: Thank you both very much.


BEGALA: Congressman Buyer, thanks for coming out here. It's good to see you again.


BEGALA: Our president was on "Meet the Press" on Sunday. And Tim Russert, in interviewing him about this matter of whether he can show that he showed up for duty to the -- to the requirements, asked him if he would release all the records.

Here's the exchange. I want our viewers to see it for themselves.


TIM RUSSERT, HOST: But you authorize release of everything just to settle this?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, absolutely. We did so in 2000, by the way.


BEGALA: Authorize the release of everything, absolutely.

Since he said that, the president's aides have said, no, they will not release criminal records from his military service, nor medical records, nor disciplinary records. Why isn't the president of the United States a man of his word?

BUYER: I believe he is a man of his word.

BEGALA: So why won't he keep his word?

BUYER: And let me just say this. I don't understand why you want to make this an issue.

BEGALA: Call me crazy. It matters if the president lies.


BUYER: No. That's -- that's not, in fact, the issue.

The issue here is, is there's a gamesmanship that goes on in the veterans community, for which I always refuse to play. And that is, if you have someone who served in a war. I served in a theater war and I would never say that my service is more important than someone that served stateside. And there was a oneupmanship that goes on here. And that's what John Kerry is trying to play. I'm serious. They're trying to play the game.


BEGALA: But let me press you. The question was, shouldn't the president keep his word?


BEGALA: He told Tim Russert and the whole world he would release all the records. And now he won't. That's a simple question.


BUYER: No, no, what you're trying to do here is create an issue where there is none.

Those of us who serve in the Reserve -- Paul, listen to this. Those of us who serve in the reserve components, if you can't make it for a weekend drill, it is the responsibility of a commander to say, Paul, can you be there this weekend or not? You say, no, I can't be here this weekend. You get an authorized absence. And then you have a certain amount of time for you to make it up.


BUYER: If the president made up his time, then it's honorable service.

NOVAK: Congressman Rangel, I think you and I can agree,this is a ridiculous debate when we have a presidential campaign.

And, in 1992, when the Republicans were haranguing Bill Clinton for being a draft dodger, you went on "CAPITAL GANG," a great program on CNN, and we talked about you being a Korean War veteran.

And here's what you said then. You said: "I was volunteering to get off the street because times were rough. And it's hard for me to think of anyone who had the resources to avoid the draft that didn't try to do it."

So, since I'm sure you haven't changed your mind since 1992, isn't this a stupid discussion?

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: I haven't changed my mind.

And under normal circumstance, it would be a very stupid discussion. But, you see, on that very same program that you showed the clip President, Bush said he was the war president. He impersonated a combat veteran fighter pilot.

He landed on a fighter ship. And we do have over 530 people dead that's been killed in this war, 2,000 wounded. And we don't even know how we're getting out of it. So, when you act like you're a fighter, a combat fighter, and then you find out that you lost your wings to fly, you didn't take a physical, you -- under normal circumstances, I agree with you, Bob.

NOVAK: Oh, I understand.

RANGEL: But he has blown this thing up.

And all he has to do -- and it should be no problem, because...

NOVAK: I understand, then, that...

RANGEL: He's not a fighter pilot. He's a president. Just throw the records out there, get it behind us and let's get on.

NOVAK: I understand now. See if I can summarize it. If you're a Democrat, it's off the board because you were a draft dodger and you were not in the service at all. But if you were a stateside Air National Guard guy, if you're a Republican, it's fair game. Is that the -- is that the fair thing?

RANGEL: If I saw -- if I saw Bill Clinton dressed up as a combat soldier, saying he's the war president, I would have strong reservations about him doing it.

BEGALA: Congressman Buyer, again, as matter of the records, not what happened 30 years ago, but what happened a few days ago, our president said he would release all the records. They won't release the medical records.

Let me zero in on that, because "The Boston Globe" today committed the sin of journalism. They talked to two retired National Guard generals about the fact that then Lieutenant Bush refused to take a flight physical. He was an aviator who refused to take a flight physical. Here's the first one they talked to.

Major General Paul Weaver Jr. says -- quote -- "There's no excuse for that. Aviators just don't miss their physicals." "The Globe" then talked to Brigadier General David L. McGinnis, who is a top aide -- a former top aide to a assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs. He said to failure take a physical would be tantamount a violation of the pledge that Lieutenant Bush signed.

Here's his quote: "Failure to take your flight physical is like a failure to show up for duty. It is an obligation you can't blow off."

Why did George W. Bush refuse to take a flight physical?

BUYER: I can't tell you that.


BEGALA: Shouldn't he release the records that will tell us why he refused to take a physical?

BUYER: Sure. I wouldn't see why he wouldn't.

BEGALA: I agree.

BUYER: We've got military records of our pay. And if you don't show up for something, admit you didn't show up for something.

But here's what -- I'm not going to get lost in the high weeds here.

BUYER: The question -- Paul, the question for the American people is, who do you trust to lead America's forces?


BUYER: John Kerry -- the proudest I've ever been in my life is when I put on the American uniform, because it represents the pride of a nation. John Kerry, when he came back with his medals, what did he do with them? He desecrated the uniform and threw them into the yard at the White House.

NOVAK: Let me -- let me


BUYER: That does not sound like someone that I would believe -- and, as a matter of fact, John Kerry has a long and consistent record not supporting America's military.

NOVAK: All right, Congressman Rangel, since...

BEGALA: He got three times.

NOVAK: Congressman Rangel, since we've gone back to this Air National Guard question 30 years, let's go back to John Kerry as an anti-war resister when he was associating with "Hanoi" Jane, Jane Fonda, who was a disgusting performance in time of war.

And let's -- let's just see what John Kerry said about American troops. He said -- quote -- "They rape, cut off ears, cut off heads, tape wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Kahn."

Is that a disgusting statement by an American veteran about the conduct of his comrades in time of war?

RANGEL: You know, Bob, when I hear you use the word smear and then start off these discussions like that, you truly make me proud to be a politician and not a television personality. But, the...



NOVAK: Well, that's a cute statement, Charlie. But why don't you...

RANGEL: The truth of the matter is -- the truth of the matter is that the picture that I saw was a crowd in a demonstration. And there was some distance between Jane Fonda -- and this was long before she went to Vietnam. And there was a guy that looked like it was Kerry that was a part of the crowd.

You know, I've had a lot of pictures taken with a lot of people, including some with you and your gang. And I just hope that you wouldn't just identify me with your politics just because I took a picture with you.

NOVAK: OK, we have to take a break, Congressman. And I don't want to have you guilt by association with me, by any means.


NOVAK: When we return, we'll ask Congressman Rangel if he is willing to admit he made the worst mistake of his long and illustrious political life.

And right after the break, the U.S. military's top leader in Iraq comes under enemy fire. Wolf Blitzer will have the latest details.

ANNOUNCER: Join Carville, Begala, Carlson and Novak in the CROSSFIRE. For free tickets to the live Washington audience, call 202-994-8CNN or e-mail us at Now you can step into the CROSSFIRE.



BEGALA: Thank you, Wolf.

Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. It's time now for "Rapid Fire," where questions and answers are about as short as a George W. Bush appearance at an Alabama National Guard Base.

In the CROSSFIRE, from New York City, the great Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel, and here in our studios with us, the equally great Indiana Republican Congressman Steve Buyer.

NOVAK: Congressman Rangel, was your endorsement of General Clark the biggest political blunder of your political career?

RANGEL: I was so proud to endorse Wes Clark. I think he made an outstanding contribution to the debate. He was a four-star general and a hero in the United States Army.

And he said that this president put us in a war that we shouldn't have been in. Everyone was saying it. But he brought credibility to the charge. Even Colin Powell has indicated that he would not have supported the war if he had known the information. We have the secretary of defense saying he doesn't know whether we're winning or losing. And the president of the United States has to admit that, either willingly or unwillingly, he relied on bad intelligence. And so, when Wes Clark says it, I think everybody listens. BEGALA: Congressman Buyer, "The New York Times" today reports that a lieutenant colonel from the Texas National Guard alleges that top Bush aides removed material from Bush's record.

Those aides vehemently deny it, but they do tell "The Times" that they did talk to the Guard about Bush's records. Their goal, "The Times" says, to ensure the records would be helpful to journalists who inquired about Mr. Bush's military experience. Do

you believe they were trying to just make the records available and this colonel says that they were trying to alter them?

BUYER: I can't speak for that. I'm serious.

BEGALA: That's not a very credible defense, is it?

BUYER: Credible defense? Listen, I don't -- I don't go where you go. Those of us that -- those of us that serve in the military do not do this to each other.

You're having fun with this. But if you had served in the military, you would never do this to someone else who had been there. You don't make innuendo. You don't attack someone's military service in the manner in which you are doing.

BEGALA: I'm attacking his lack of service, actually.


NOVAK: Congressman Rangel...

BUYER: No, I don't think so.


NOVAK: Congressman Rangel, are you happy with Congressman Torricelli...


NOVAK: Senator Torricelli raising funds for your candidate?

RANGEL: I haven't picked a candidate as yet.

But those of us that supported General Clark in Washington had agreed that, at some point, we will be meeting and endorsing Senator Kerry. But, as for me, I have to meet with our New York City people that were with Clark. I spoke with them today. And we expect to be endorsing Senator Kerry sometime next week. So, so far


BEGALA: Congressman Charlie Rangel from New York, I'm sorry to cut you off. We're out of time. Congressman Charlie Rangel, Congressman Steve Buyers from Indiana, here in our studio, thank you both very much. (APPLAUSE)

BEGALA: Next, our audience will fire back at us. And a couple of them apparently want to know whether Vice President Dick Cheney should stay on the Republican ticket.

We'll let you know our thoughts right after this.


BEGALA: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

Time now for "Fireback," where our audience -- well, you get the picture.

Yes, ma'am, question or comment?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. Novak, based on suggestions that Vice President Cheney poses a liability to the campaign, do you believe he will remain on the presidential ticket for 2004?

NOVAK: Well, you say he's a liability, and you may know more than I do. But I think he's an asset. I would just suggest he be more visible and speak out more.

BEGALA: As a Democrat, I hope he stays on the ticket and I hope he's very, very visible, because he's been a disaster for this country and he ought to be held accountable.


NOVAK: Yes, sir.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, guys. My name is Mark (ph) from Charlotte, North Carolina.

And with Kerry apparently having the Democratic position, who do you think is going to be vice president? Will it be Dean? Will it be another candidate?


NOVAK: Well, my choice is Al Sharpton. I think they would make a terrific team, Kerry and Sharpton.


BEGALA: How about Novak? You're actually a registered Democrat here in Washington, D.C. How about Kerry/Novak? That would be pretty interesting.

No, it's a long way off. I'm not going to speculate.

From the left, I am Paul Begala. That's it for CROSSFIRE.

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

"WOLF BLITZER REPORTS" starts right now.



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