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PAULA ZAHN NOW
CBS Document Scandal Intensifies; President Bush Defends Iraq War at United Nations
Aired September 21, 2004 - 20:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening and welcome to PRIME TIME POLITICS tonight.
Dan Rather, CBS, the Bush documents, the storm that just won't blow over. And, of course, now the campaigns are getting caught up in it.
Plus, the president at the United Nations defending the war in Iraq, staying the course and taking plenty of heat.
We begin tonight exactly there. It is now six weeks away until the election. It has been another dreadful day in Iraq, explosions and roadside bombings, including one on the road to the Baghdad Airport, the city's link to the outside world.
Also, the military confirmed that two U.S. Marines died in fighting. And insurgents beheaded a second American hostage, their announcement accompanied by the message, Bush, eat your heart out.
As for President Bush, he defended his Iraq policy today before a very tough audience, the rest of the world.
ZAHN (voice-over): The U.N. General Assembly is not the audience George W. Bush usually sees on the campaign trail. These are the heads or representatives of nations that in large part disagree with and disapprove of the path he's chosen in fighting the war on terror. In the face of such skeptic,s the president's address stayed upbeat and optimistic.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When it comes to the desire for liberty and justice, there is no clash of civilizations.
ZAHN: The president left no doubt he believes Iraq is a key element of a much larger goal, destroying terror networks wherever he operate.
BUSH: Eventually, there is no safe isolation from terror networks or failed states that shelter them or outlaw regimes or weapons of mass destruction.
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Hello, everybody. ZAHN: While John Kerry says Iraq is a diversion from the war on terrorism, the president continued to link Iraq and Afghanistan to what he sees as a worldwide turn towards democracy.
BUSH: Today, the Iraqi and Afghan people are on the path to democracy and freedom. The governments that are rising will pose no threat to others. Instead of harboring terrorists, they're fighting terrorist groups.
ZAHN: The president hailed Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who was in the assembly hall, and called on U.N. members to help the new Iraq prosper.
BUSH: The U.N. and its member nations must respond Prime Minister Allawi's request and do more to help build an Iraq that is secure, democratic, federal and free.
ZAHN: The president said difficulties will not shake his conviction that the future of Iraq and Afghanistan is a future of liberty.
BUSH: We will stand with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq until their hopes of freedom and security are fulfilled.
ZAHN: Later, the president met with Iraq's interim prime minister. Both men condemned the latest round of terrorism in that country.
IYAD ALLAWI, IRAQI INTERIM PRIME MINISTER: It demonstrates how much these criminals are wanting to damage our worth across Iraq, as well as in the civilized world.
ZAHN: The president then took the opportunity to be more pointed and political.
BUSH: And I believe we'll have a free society in Iraq, and I know that a free society in Iraq makes America safer and the world better off. My opponent has taken so many different positions on Iraq that his statements are hardly credible at all.
ZAHN: Needless to say, Senator John Kerry disagrees.
KERRY: The president of the United States stood before a stony- faced body and barely talked about the realities at all of Iraq.
ZAHN: In Florida this afternoon, he kept up his criticism of the president's Iraq policy.
KERRY: He does not have the credibility to lead the world, and he did not and will not offer the leadership in order to do what we need to do to protect our troops, to be successful, and win the war on terror in an effective way.
ZAHN: And for more reaction to the president's speech at the U.N. as well as his comments afterwards, I'm joined from Washington by Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware. He is the ranking senator on the Senator Foreign Relations Committee.
SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: Hey. Hey, Paula.
ZAHN: The president knew going into the speech today he had a tough audience on his hands. The only applause he got was at the end of his speech. Did he gain any support at the U.N. today?
BIDEN: Well, actually, I think he undercut his own case, Paula.
He made it sound like the U.N. met their obligation. The irony of all ironies is, if there was only time he could legitimately criticize the United Nations for not keeping their commitments, it was today. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution promising that they would provide forces, promising that they would protect the U.N. electorate folks that went in there, promising the they would provide more money. Yet all this time, all the people that have made the commitment in the U.N. have only come up with 10 percent of the money they promised Allawi.
They haven't promised any of the 3,000 forces needed to protect the electors to set up 25,000 polling places. I mean, it reminds me of that calypso song that used to be around. Don't worry, be happy. I mean, I don't understand the president, quite frankly, in terms of the way he's going about this.
ZAHN: So you think it was the president's job today to beat up the U.N.?
BIDEN: It was his time to tell the truth, to level, to just flat level with the American people, with the United Nations and say, look, you may not have liked my going in. You may not have liked how I have handled it since then, but just two months ago you made a firm commitment when you voted for the U.N. Security Council resolution that you'd help Allawi train his forces, that you would help him financially, that you would forgive debt, that you'd provide protection for the U.N. security force.
You have done none of that. You owe it to Mr. Allawi. You owe it to everyone to keep your commitment and get over -- basically, get over the fact you're mad at me. This is about all of our interests.
ZAHN: All right. But, Senator, if you believe the U.N. has been so woefully inadequate, what makes you think John Kerry's plan that he announced yesterday would extract more cooperation from the U.N.? What would be different?
BIDEN: Well, by the way, by the time John Kerry is president, as he says, if he is, this may be Lebanon. There may be no plan. The president keeps dumbing this down so much, that it makes it harder and harder.
ZAHN: So do you think the U.N. is totally irrelevant now? BIDEN: I think the president's becoming irrelevant. You're sitting out as a delegate from any one of your countries. What did the president just do today? He let you off the hook. He let you off the hook. He said everything's going fine.
ZAHN: Why don't you think the president took on the U.N. today? Is there a political calculation?
BIDEN: You know, Paula, I swear to God, I don't know. This is so much bigger than George Bush or John Kerry. I just don't get it.
I just simply do not -- and, by the way, it's not just that I don't get it. It's not just that I don't get it. Dick Lugar doesn't get it. Chuck Hagel doesn't get it. John McCain doesn't get it. All of us who deal with foreign policy up here, we don't get it.
ZAHN: Senator, here's what I don't understand. We've heard members of your party turn up the heat on the president, as well as your Republican colleagues in the Senate, Senator Hagel saying this is a war we can't win. We are in big-time trouble over there. Given how heated the tensions are around this issue, can you explain to us tonight why John Kerry has the numbers he has when it comes to the public trust in him vs. the president to control the situation in Iraq? They have much greater faith in the president than they do in John Kerry.
BIDEN: You know, I know this is going to sound corny to you. That's above my pay grade. That's about politics. I'm talking about substance. I don't care what John Kerry's number is.
I care about the kids that we have sitting over there. I don't give a damn whether John Kerry wins or loses or George Bush wins or loses. All I know is, this entire program to try to win the peace in Iraq is, in fact, going down the drain, because the president keeps saying stay the course, instead of change the course. What is the plan, Mr. President? I don't care whether you win or lose. What's the plan you're going to have in January? How are you going to hold elections, Mr. President? How are you going to train these forces, Mr. -- what are the two things he says, Paula?
We have to train the Iraqis to supplant the Americans, No. 1. And, No. 2, we have to hold elections in order to have a free and Democratic Iraq. Neither are happening. The secretary of defense said in February on your program, we've trained 210,000 people. I told you then that was malarkey. Last Friday, he said we've trained 95,000 Iraqis. That is malarkey. He said we trained 32,000 Iraqi policemen. Not one single solitary Iraqi policeman has completed the 24-week training program, not one single solitary one.
So why aren't we telling the truth? And what's going to happen, Paula, you continue this happy talk, and after the election, all hell breaks loose, and there's no elections, the American people are going say, no matter who is president, I have had enough. And then, Paula, we're not going to have red alerts. We're not going to have orange alerts. We're not going to have bronze or whatever the color alerts are. We're going to have a decade of red alerts, because you're going to right in the middle of the Middle East, another Afghanistan.
ZAHN: Senator, final question for you, is a civil war all but inevitable in Iraq?
BIDEN: Absolutely not inevitable, if we move now, if we do the four or five things that not just John Kerry's said, that Dick Lugar said, that Joe Biden said.
If we do that, we have a genuine chance of keeping on track the elections and actually being able to do what we need today do, which is have a strategy, the exit strategy, of holding elections next December, and over -- gradually over the next three years drawing down our commitment there. That is still possible. But if we continue to -- quote -- "stay the course," Katie bar the door. Who knows what's going to exist in January.
ZAHN: Senator Biden, thank you so much for spending time with us tonight. We appreciate it.
BIDEN: Thank you, Paula.
ZAHN: And when we come back, the White House reacts to Senator Biden's criticism, and much more.
ZAHN (voice-over): Tonight, the CBS documents and the presidential campaigns. Both sides fire accusations. We'll step right into the middle of it.
Can a serious senator turn himself into a political Prince Charming? Can this be the star of John Kerry's everyman makeover?
Plus, our voting both question for tonight: Will the CBS document scandal affect the election, yes or no? Just logon to CNN.com/Paula and cast your vote -- the results at the end of the hour.
ZAHN: Welcome back.
As we have seen, Senator John Kerry and Senator Joe Biden are not letting up one bit in their criticism of President Bush's Iraq policy or of his speech today before the United Nations.
For a different point of view, I spoke with White House communications director Dan Bartlett.
ZAHN: I'm going to start off tonight with Senator Biden's criticism. He said the president is becoming irrelevant by letting the delegates off the hook today at the U.N. Does the president really think the U.N. has lived up to the commitments it made when it came to the issue of training troops and then financially providing for their protection?
DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, Paula, I think Joe Biden is being a loyal Democrat trying to defend and articulate a pretty incomprehensible position by Senator Kerry.
President Bush has very much kept the pressure on the world and on the United Nations to step forward, to bring their support. Regardless of past decisions, regardless of the fact that they may not have agreed, that everybody might not have agreed on the decision to go to war with Iraq, that now it's in everybody's interests to come forward. That's how President Bush brought the U.N. together to pass U.N. Security Council resolutions. That's when President Bush traveled this past summer to the NATO summit to get NATO training.
The very strategy, the very substance in what Senator Kerry and Joe Biden and these other Democrats are talking about is exactly what President Bush is doing. So it's not letting anybody off the hook. I think they're arguing over process.
ZAHN: That's not the answer to my question. My question is whether the president really thinks the U.N. has lived up to its promises, or has it broken its commitments, as Joe Biden just charged?
BARTLETT: Well, this is a process under way, Paula, as everybody knows, that the election is going to be in January. They have an initial team on the ground. President Bush and Prime Minister Allawi, for that matter, is urging the United Nations to fulfill it's commitments. It's not a matter of black and white right now, whether it has or hasn't. They can do more. We're urging them to do more.
And the president has taken that leadership to the United Nations today. So, again, I think that they're trying to grasp for these process points because they can't win on the substance, because Senator Kerry has demonstrated that he doesn't know substantively where he stands on the issue of Iraq.
ZAHN: But Senator Biden said the president missed an opportunity to turn up the heat on the U.N., because he really believes that part of the solution for this chaos in Iraq rests with the U.N.
BARTLETT: Well, Senator Biden heard President Bush urge the nations of the United Nations, the member states of the United Nations, to do just that, to bring their support to the Iraqi people. The prime minister of Iraq was there. There's a strategy in place. They are training forces on the ground. Reconstruction funds are being spent.
We're encouraging other nations to participate. The very things that John Kerry calls in his so-called four-point plan 45 days before the election is exactly what President Bush is doing. So missed opportunity, these types of process points that you're hearing from people like Joe Biden I believe is more about frustration with their own candidate when it comes to his own position and the fact that it's changed so many times.
ZAHN: Let me come back to a point you just made about reconstruction funds. Why is it that less than 5 percent of the money allocated has been spent? Even Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, has called that -- quote -- "beyond pitiful. It's beyond embarrassing. It is now in the zone of dangerous."
BARTLETT: Lots of money is being spent on different projects. We're giving quite a bit of autonomy to commanders on the ground to help work on local projects.
Paula, it's also important to remember that the prime minister's government, this new Iraqi government, has only been in place for three months. We want to make sure that their government sets the priorities for its own sovereign country. We're going to get the money there quickly. If there are bureaucratic problems in place that hindered that money, we are removing them. President Bush is insistent on that. He's talking to the prime minister himself about those points.
So nobody's here to say that everything has gone by the book. It never does during a time of war, when there's the violence that we're seeing on the ground. But I think what they're trying to depict is a situation that's not happening. When you're trying to move a country from a tyranny of 30 years to a thriving democracy, it's going to take time. It's going to be difficult. But we're there. We're sending the right signal to the Iraqi people, to the coalition, and to the enemy.
And I think that's where the dangerous point is about Senator Kerry's comments.
ZAHN: Let's talk about something else Senator Biden had to say tonight. He said -- let me say it -- I don't want to mischaracterize this.
Let's come back to one more of Senator Biden's charges. He's not so sure you can have elections in Iraq in January. And he basically said the U.N. only has in place now a quarter of the monitors you're going to need to have successful elections. Is he right?
BARTLETT: Well, that's important. I think it's interesting to do a little reviewing of the history. Senator Biden and other critics of the administration were making the very same comments about the June 30 sovereignty date. Can't make it. Can't do it. Don't have their act together. We've heard it all from them.
ZAHN: What about those numbers? If you only have a quarter of the monitors selected and ready to do their jobs, is that a problem?
BARTLETT: Well, remember, in Afghanistan earlier in the summer, they were saying, well, you've only registered two million people. And now we've got 10 million people. These statistics are not static points of time. They are moving. They're evolving. They're going to get better.
Prime Minister Allawi discussed this with President Bush today. There's going to be elections in January. The U.N. needs to pick up its pace. The president is talking to them about that. But for them to just sit on the sidelines and second-guess every move that's made I think is probably the only role that a Democrat Senator supporting John Kerry can do at this point, because the leader of their party has been not able to articulate his own position on such a critical issue.
ZAHN: Strong reaction you just heard from the White House. Our senior White House correspondent puts it all in focus coming up next.
ZAHN: It was certainly an important day for President Bush at the United Nations. It was a chance to be presidential and political at the same time.
Senior White House correspondent John King joins us now.
Welcome back, two nights in a row. How do we get so lucky here?
JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Nice to be here. The stools -- I think I like the couch better, but the stools are great.
ZAHN: And then he critiques our set. It's the last time you get to do that.
Let's go back to the substance of Senator Biden's criticism of the president's speech. He said the president had an opportunity to put pressure on the U.N. to live up to some of the commitments it made and he essentially said he blew it by not doing that. Does he have a point?
KING: The president did make the point that you need to give more help. You need to put more observers on the ground. You need to decide that the United Nations was not only founded to only go into resorts. It was founded in part to go into countries that are a mess.
ZAHN: But, John...
KING: What the White House is saying is, you can't you -- it's not an excuse of security. It is a dicey security situation, but that's the U.N. mission. Go in. Did the president make it forceful enough? Senator Biden..
ZAHN: Well, that's the question. It's one point to say we need your cooperation, another thing to say you better live up to your commitment and live up to your promises here.
KING: I think in part the president's not expecting much help from the United Nations. And that's perhaps why he did not dwell on the point.
What is most interesting to me today is, the theater usually is the speech to the General Assembly. The president made a tactical decision. His more important business was in the meetings on the sidelines, including his bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Allawi.
ZAHN: Did he make any progress?
KING: Well, he hopes -- this was much more about the election six weeks from now than the Iraqi election scheduled in January.
The president is hoping that Prime Minister Allawi is essentially his rebuttal to John Kerry that this is a colossal failure and that this president has mismanaged Iraq into a chaos. Prime Minister Allawi, a speech to the U.N. He will be in Washington to speak to a joint session of Congress on Thursday. But the president is putting so much investment in this interim prime minister -- is to make to the case to the American people, sure it's a mess, but it's getting better. I'm the guy to fix it. Trust me. Trust your president.
ZAHN: But this prime minister has even conceded he's not sure whether he wants to be a part of the permanent government. No one could get him to commit to that this weekend.
KING: Some might argue he's stronger in the short term...
ZAHN: So is the president putting too much faith in this one guy?
KING: There are many, and even including some Republicans, who wonder privately if you're putting too much faith in this guy. But he is the horse right now. And the president probably has no choice.
ZAHN: Let's come back to some of the other criticisms waged against the president today, that he is just not coming clean with the American public about the statistics, that the administration is inflating the number of troops that have been trained, the number of police officers that have been trained. What is fact? What is fiction?
KING: It's hard to get absolute facts, because, as Dan Bartlett said, the situation is fluid. It's also hard to get facts because our reporters, CNN reporters and other reporters in Baghdad, are largely confined to their hotels. They can't get out and do a lot of reporting because the security situation is so bad.
There is no question, they are way behind schedule training the police, training the new Iraqi army. No question, they are even more behind schedule in getting the reconstruction up. And that is, to many, psychologically, the thing they need to do most urgently to show the Iraqi people there are tangible benefits of this new government and of the United States spending all this money in Iraq. And they are way behind.
They concede that point. They say they cannot get the projects built because of the security situation. So, essentially, you have a domino effect. You don't have a security situation that is acceptable to building new roads, bridges, new public works projects because it's simply not safe for the contractors to be outside.
ZAHN: What is the Bush administration's greatest fear about what can happen between now and our election in November?
KING: That the psychology in this country changes, and that when you have two beheadings of Americans in a period of 24 hours, that people start to think, this is a mess. This was a mistake.
ZAHN: They already think it's a mess.
KING: But they think it is a mess, but, somehow, and it is counterintuitive, the more dicey the situation in Iraq has gotten in the last month, the president's ratings on Iraq have gone up. To many, that makes absolutely no sense. But it is proof to the Bush people that so far, their argument has worked that Senator Kerry is weaker.
ZAHN: I don't get what you're saying. What does that mean?
KING: That the American people, even though Iraq is a mess, they somehow trust President Bush more to deal with it. That is counterintuitive, since he is the incumbent president and this was his plan and his war.
But the Bush people have succeeded so far in convincing the American people that, whatever you think of this president's handling of Iraq, Senator Kerry is weaker. Senator Kerry has to change that dynamic to win the election.
ZAHN: John King, good of you to drop by. I don't have any more furniture to share with you. This is it. These are the two locations you're ever going to sit at.
ZAHN: Sorry, bud.
KING: I like it.
ZAHN: Despite apologies from CBS and Dan Rather, the National Guard document story is not losing any steam -- the latest twist, plus White House reaction when we come back.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) ZAHN: We turn now to the latest development in the controversy over CBS and the now discredited documents about George W. Bush's National Guard service.
CBS says it can no longer vouch for the authenticity of the documents, which it got from a man named Bill Burkett. Burkett says he did not forge any documents. So where did they come from?
Jeanne Meserve is tracking that part of the story. She joins us from Washington tonight.
JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Paula.
The key question is the credibility of Bill Burkett, who has acknowledged misleading CBS about where he got the disputed documents.
In an interview with Dan Rather Saturday night, Burkett gave a second version of how they came into his hands. CNN cannot verify the fact of his new story given to us by his lawyer, David Van Os.
Van Os, though present for the Rather interview, has no firsthand knowledge either. But his rendition may tell us more about Burkett, who last February was alleging publicly that damaging information had been removed from President Bush's National Guard record.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID VAN OS, LAWYER FOR BILL BURKETT: During this time that Bill was getting lots of phone calls, one of the phone calls that he got when he picked up the phone was an individual, a female, who told him that he had some -- that she had some documents that -- that she would like to give to him.
The caller, identifying herself as Lucy Ramirez, told Bill that she had been an employee of the National Guard and had had access to files. He told the woman that he was going to be in Houston for the Houston livestock show around March 21 or on March 21, and if she wanted to come talk to him, she could find him at the Sematol Association Booth.
A random gentleman, like many other random people that day walking up to the booth, but then this man says to Bill, "Are you Bill Burkett?"
And Bill -- Bill tells him, "Yes, I am."
Then the man places in front of Bill a sealed manila envelope. Bill looks down at the manila envelope and looks up to try to talk to the man and ask him some questions, or engage him, and the man is gone.
He's thinking, "Oh, my God! Here -- here we go again. Here -- here I'm going to end up once again in the middle of a storm of controversy, and I don't want to be there." The person he assumed to be Lucy Ramirez told him that she was so worried about her confidentiality that she didn't want anybody to be able to trace her by being able to get DNA samples off the -- off the pieces of paper.
So she told Bill that she wanted him to make copies of the -- of the -- of the documents that she gave him and burn her copies. And he made the copies at a Kinko's in Waco, Texas.
Waco is about, roughly, halfway between Houston and Abilene. Then he went back in the parking lot. And Bill doesn't smoke, but his wife -- but his wife, Nicky, had left a cigarette lighter in the car. And he used Nicky's cigarette lighter to burn the -- the actual document that was -- that was in the envelope, and he saved his next generation copy.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MESERVE: Van Os says Burkett told Rather that he then took those documents and put them in a cold storage locker like those that hunters use for meat. He put them there for safekeeping.
Asked whether this story was fanciful, Van Os said he agreed with Bill Burkett's own description, which is that it sounds farfetched.
Van Os, who is, of course, Burkett's lawyer, said he did not know that his client had told CBS a different story about where the documents came from until last Saturday night's Rather interview. Van Os was not happy, but believes Burkett was trying to protect the woman he knew as Lucy Ramirez.
Van Os says he has never seen the documents firsthand, does not know if they're authentic, does not believe Bill Burkett forged them. If he had, Van Os says, why would he have insisted CBS authenticate them before airing them?
Paula, back to you.
ZAHN: What a wild ride. Jeanne Meserve, thanks so much.
There's also political fallout from the CBS story, and that is where we pick up from my earlier interview with White House communications director Dan Bartlett.
I wanted to know his reaction to the Kerry campaign's charge that the White House is keeping this story alive to avoid answering questions about the president's record's.
Among those making that accusations is Kerry's adviser Joe Lockhart, who told CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING" that the Kerry campaign had no hand in the CBS story at all.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JOE LOCKHART, KERRY CAMPAIGN ADVISER: The campaign had nothing to do with these documents, nothing to do with this story. And two, you have to question the motives of those people who are raising these questions. The White House is raising questions about this because they don't want to answer questions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ZAHN: You heard what the Democrats had to say. That that call did take place, that the Kerry campaign had nothing to do with the story. Do you buy that?
BARTLETT: Well, it seems like the old Clinton spin cycle is cranking back up. I mean, this is unbelievable. Somehow we're trying to detract from the issues at hand when news organizations are pointing out obvious links between the "60 Minutes" story, this now discredited source, and the Kerry campaign.
Each day that more revolutions come out, the more ties we see to the Kerry campaign. First they said they had nothing to do with it, didn't know about it until it aired.
Now we're hearing that there was high-level communications between this very source, Mr. Burkett, with Joe Lockhart, the new top adviser to the campaign.
ZAHN: Aside from this phone call that Joe Lockhart admitted to making, is there any evidence of you have that any other members of the Kerry campaign were in some way involved with an orchestrated effort with CBS to get this story on the air?
BARTLETT: Well, we also learned a couple days ago that Senator Max Cleland, a top surrogate and adviser to Senator Kerry also several weeks ago was in communication with Bill Burkett.
The other thing that's interesting about this is that now that we know that they had such previous knowledge of this story coming, it all makes sense why we have this coordinated attack coming out of the Democrat Party and Senator Kerry's campaign.
We now know from press reports today that even Senator Kerry knew about the conversation that Joe Lockhart had with Bill Burkett. So each time we look a little bit closer into this we're finding more ties and more coordination.
So the point of the matter is, Joe knows this better than anybody. When you're in a crisis like this, the best thing to do is just get all the information out on the table and let the public judge.
ZAHN: Is the president satisfied with the CBS apology?
BARTLETT: Well, I think President Bush appreciates the fact that they're getting over that first hump of admitting that it was -- the story wasn't accurate, but he believes that everybody ought to redouble their efforts to try to find the truth. And it seems like the truth is dripping out each day as we learn more and more about the Kerry's campaign involvement in this. So it's important we know all the facts.
The public has grown -- grown weary of these type of attacks. Every time President Bush is on the ballot, these type of things surface, about his guard service. So it's not as if he's not used to it. He's dealt with this before.
But he's going to stay focused on the war we're fighting today, not the one from 35 years ago.
ZAHN: Dan Bartlett, thanks so much for your time. Appreciate your joining us.
BARTLETT: Thanks, Paula.
ZAHN: That interview with Dan Bartlett from earlier this afternoon.
We were struck by something Dan said that we're seeing, quote, "unprecedented coordination" between a news organization and a political campaign to advance a political attack against the president.
We asked CBS News to respond. A spokesperson called the accusation, quoting again, "absolutely untrue."
Joining me now from Washington is the Democratic National Committee senior adviser, Howard Wolfson.
Good to see you, Howard. Welcome.
HOWARD WOLFSON, DNC SENIOR ADVISER: Good to be with you.
ZAHN: Thank you.
Let's talk a little about what Joe Lockhart admitted to on CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING" this morning. He said, yes, he did make a phone call to Bill Burkett, the man at the center of this controversy.
But maintains the only thing they talked about in their three to four-minute conversation were Mr. Burkett's concerns about the swift boat ads and his concern that they damaged John Kerry and Mr. Burkett's concern that the Democrats weren't fighting back aggressively enough to the attacks on Mr. Kerry's Vietnam War effort.
Do you really expect people to believe that they did not address the issue of the CBS story when it just aired several days later?
WOLFSON: Well, you know, Joe Lockhart went on each of the three cable networks this morning. He answered questions fully and completely from anchors on all three, and he told his story. He told it clearly and consistently. The fact is that there was one phone call. It was a short phone call, and that the subject of the documents really didn't come up.
ZAHN: Do you think Mr. Lockhart was aware that the story was going to air on CBS?
WOLFSON: Well, I was watching CNN all day, and Wolf Blitzer earlier said that it was well known around town that "60 Minutes" was working on a story. There was a lot of talk about it. We didn't know what was going to be in the story.
But, look, there have been many, many news organizations. The Associated Press, "The New York Times," "U.S. News & World Report." The "Boston Globe," who had done front-page stories on the president's lack of service in the Guard and questions about his service.
So this was not just something that "60 Minutes" was looking into. This is something that as far as I know, lots of news organizations are looking into and have looked into, because there are all kinds of unresolved questions about the president's lack of service that he refuses to answer.
ZAHN: So we shouldn't be surprised John Kerry, then, knew, about this story breaking? That's what Dan Bartlett just said.
WOLFSON: Well, I don't know anything about that. That's the first that I've heard about that. You know, Dan Bartlett has been making all kinds of charges. And it's interesting.
We were hoping all day to put Joe Lockhart live on the show this evening with Mr. Bartlett. Mr. Bartlett wasn't interested in coming on live with Joe. It's easier to make baseless allegations when you don't have to face the person that you're attacking.
But we're happy to talk about these issues. We're happy to talk about them every night, and I hope that the White House will be as forthcoming with information about the president's lack of service, all the unresolved questions about why he missed his physical and why he didn't show up for duty in Alabama, and even if he deserved his honorable discharge, as we have been talking about this issue.
ZAHN: We should make it clear to our audience that we did invite Mr. Lockhart, and were hoping he would come on tonight. But he would only come on if he could directly debate Mr. Dan Bartlett.
Let's move on to the broader charge Mr. Bartlett made tonight about the appearance -- he didn't call it an appearance. He said the out and outright effort of your campaign, basically, to collaborate with CBS to politically attack the president?
WOLFSON: Well, as someone who honorably was proud of my work for Senator Hillary Clinton, I find it ironic that we're now being accused of engaging in a vast left-wing conspiracy with CBS News. It's really laughable and pathetic.
Does Dan Bartlett suspect that we're colluding with CNN and AP and the "Boston Globe" and "U.S. News & World Report" and "The New York Times" and all the other news organizations that have written extensively on the president's lack of service? Of course not. It's laughable.
They would rather point fingers and make baseless accusations about some vast left-wing conspiracy than answer the questions about the president's lack of service.
ZAHN: Got a couple more questions for you. Did Mr. Burkett ever have any informal role with the campaign, either as an adviser or some kind of consultant?
WOLFSON: Not that I'm aware of.
ZAHN: And why was Mr. Lockhart interested in talking with him? I know you -- you all get peppered with thousands of calls every day from people who want to complain, you know, about what they want the candidates to do on the campaign trail. Why did this particular call peak his interest?
WOLFSON: Well, it's been reported that the folks at "60 Minutes" asked Joe to talk with Mr. Burkett, and Joe complied.
ZAHN: And in order for Mr. Lockhart to take that call, wouldn't he want to know why the "60 Minutes" people were asking him to do that?
WOLFSON: Well, I don't know exactly what kind of conversation Joe had with the "60 Minutes" folks. I've got to tell you that in this job we are on the phone all day with lots of people.
We talk with dozens of reporters all day. We talk with people who have advice. It is not unusual to get on a -- on a phone call for somebody, with somebody, who has some thoughts or suggestions for you.
ZAHN: And do you understand why the majority of Americans are saying in polls that they could care less about this whole controversy?
WOLFSON: Well, actually, I'm not sure that's true. "The New York Times" reported that 71 percent of the American people don't believe that the president has told them the truth about his National Guard service. So I think that's a staggeringly high number of people to doubt the president's veracity.
This is an issue that goes to the president's credibility. It goes to the fact that he isn't telling the truth about his service so many decades ago, but it also goes to his credibility today in Iraq. We saw the president go before the U.N. today and once again refuse to level with them.
ZAHN: All right. We've got to leave it there. Howard Wolfson, thanks for your time tonight.
WOLFSON: Thank you.
ZAHN: Appreciate it.
ZAHN: Some curious questions still to be answered in the CBS document story. Where did they come from? Who did they come from? Two veteran campaign strategists take a stab at that and a whole lot more.
Don't forget our "Voting Booth" question tonight: Will the CBS document scandal affect the election? Yes or no?" Logon to CNN.com/Paula and please vote now.
ZAHN: The president's appearance at the U.N., John Kerry's response, the CBS fiasco, a lot to talk about with our next two guests, Republican strategist Ed Rollins and Democratic strategist Lisa Caputo. Both got the green memo this evening.
You probably heard Senator Biden's criticism of the president. He felt, and even his spokesman, the president's spokesman, admitted that the U.N. hasn't lived to all of its promises, but we should understand that because of the ongoing toll that the war has taken in Iraq.
Did he make a mistake by not coming down harder on the U.N. to come through with what it's committed to?
ED ROLLINS, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I don't think he can do that in a public forum. I think he's going to do that behind the scenes and, obviously, if he would have stood up there and been harder today, I think to a certain extent, there would not have been a good reception. It was a very lukewarm reception. It would have been a very, very hostile reception.
ZAHN: Wouldn't that have undercut the president's message, that everything is rosy with this coalition that was built? If he'd gone up and come down hard on the U.N.?
LISA CAPUTO, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I actually agree with Ed on this. I don't think he could have done that today. Not the right forum to do it.
And I'm not so sure it would have undercut his message. I mean, look, I think he has a lot of questions to answer on the issue of Iraq. When you look at it, we're in -- we're paying $200 billion in this war. He's had a go-it-alone foreign policy. He hasn't engaged the allies.
We don't even know what his plan is, you know, post-war, whenever that is. A thousand of our kids have died; 7,000 are injured. What is the game plan post-Iraq?
At least John Kerry has come out with a coherent plan, a four- step plan that tells the American people where we're going.
ZAHN: Coherent plan? Even Leon Panetta has said, John Kerry -- who was the chief adviser to President Clinton -- find a message here. Even members of his own party think John Kerry's been inconsistent.
CAPUTO: Well, I think there's no doubt that Kerry has struggled with a message, but I think he struck a real chord yesterday in his speech and laid out a very clear plan that he would internationalize the burden and the sharing of the burden.
He would set forth reconstruction. He would train Iraqis, and he would make sure that the elections would be held in Iraq.
That's a lot more than we've heard from this president, who said, you know, we're going to stay in Afghanistan. We're going to say in Iraq and now Iran seems to be coming into the picture.
So I think John Kerry can have a very strong message on this issue, and really take President Bush on.
ZAHN: The president made it clear he put a lot faith in Mr. Allawi to change things for the better in Iraq. And there are a lot of people out there, even people within your own party, who think that's a big mistake?
ROLLINS: Well, I don't think there's any other choice at this point in time. I think he's got to have a strong man there, at least in the interim, and he's got to have a democracy, at least in the sense of a vote.
He's got to train an army. He's got to train a police force. And it's going to take someone who's extremely strong-willed to do that. And I think -- I think he's the man.
I think the critical thing here is the mistake Kerry made, we were just talking about here. There's two fronts in this campaign. There's an economic front, and there's an Iraq front, and Kerry -- Kerry took the wrong one initially.
ZAHN: Ten seconds apiece on the issue of CBS. You and I both worked for CBS at one point. Does the story end up affecting the election in any way at all?
ROLLINS: Absolutely not. What it's done, it's distracted from Kerry's message for a week. And certainly it's damaged Dan Rather and CBS.
CAPUTO: I don't think it has any impact on the election. I think the Republicans have been brilliant in trying to keep it on the front pages and steer the story off the real issues.
ZAHN: And I think the only alignment we will ever see between Ed and Lisa are the green shirts. Thank you both for coming in.
Ed, Lisa, appreciate it.
ZAHN: The pressure's building on the Kerry campaign to energize as many voters and viewers as possible, and searching for votes on the talk show circuit. That's next.
ZAHN: Speeches and town hall meetings are the staples of presidential campaigns. But there is also the TV talk show circuit. John Kerry has been making the rounds this week.
It seems to be working, at least for David Letterman. Kerry's appearance on the "Late Show" last night gave Letterman his biggest season opening ratings in 11 years.
Here's Tom Foreman.
TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Forget the debates. Forget the ads. Campaign strategists say one of the toughest and most rewarding stops for candidates these days is talk TV, and John Kerry is hitting it hard.
On "Regis & Kelly"...
SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: On the campaign trail!
FOREMAN: Taping with Dr. Phil, and running through a list of Bush tax proposals with Letterman.
KERRY: W-2 form is now Dubya-2 form.
FOREMAN: And political consultants say all of this is aimed, for Kerry particularly, at young people and women. The target: viewers who may or may not watch the news, may or may not vote, but who, like Holly Hat (ph) from Nebraska, might be persuaded.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It didn't necessarily sway me, but it really did increase his -- the perception I had of him as a candidate.
KERRY: Eliminate all income taxes. Just ask Teresa to cover the whole damn thing!
DAVID JOHNSON, STRATEGIC VISION: When you're seeing poll after poll showing that you're trailing, and one of the major things is, voters do not like you, you go for the home run. You try something like this, hoping that this Hail Mary pass will change the tide.
FOREMAN: Talk shows routinely offer much bigger audiences and much softer questions than news shows.
KELLY RIPPA, CO-HOST, "REGIS & KELLY": You're very, very handsome, Senator. Is that an inappropriate thing for me to say?
FOREMAN: But candidates are expected to poke a little fun at themselves and to endure the jabs of others.
MOLLY IVINS, AUTHOR: Kerry, fun guy normally. You haven't noticed that? Come on. Barrel of laughs.
AMY WALTER, COOK POLITICAL REPORT: You have to be able to, you know, look like you're just a regular person when you've been in a bubble for the last few months, trying to buy (ph) Secret Service and consultants and everybody else. So you aren't normal, because you can't be in that job.
FOREMAN (on camera): Still, for challengers in the presidential race, there is a unique advantage that outweighs the pitfalls. You are going where your opponent cannot follow.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Distinguished delegates...
FOREMAN: Analysts say it is simply not an accepted practice for presidents, once in office, to appear on such shows. Remember, Bill Clinton played the sax as a contender only.
So, for the moment, John Kerry can mix a little serious politics with a little light humor.
KERRY: And George W. Bush gets a deduction for mortgaging our entire future!
FOREMAN: And he can hope he laughs last.
ZAHN: That was our Tom Foreman reporting.
We will have the results of tonight's "Voting Booth" question right after the break.
ZAHN: Now onto tonight's PRIMETIME POLITICS "Voting Booth" results. We asked, "Do you think the CBS document scandal will affect the election?" Thirty-two percent said yes. Sixty-eight percent said no.
Just a reminder, this isn't a scientific poll, just a sampling of what you think. And we'll have a different question each night on our web site, CNN.com/Paula.
That wraps it up for all of us here. Thanks again for watching PRIME TIME POLITICS tonight. Hope to see you tomorrow night.
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