MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: The war in Iraq, are there any good options? With us, the former special envoy to the Middle East and author of “The Battle for Peace,” retired General Tony Zinni. Then, the debate over Don Imus and his comments about the Rutgers women’s basketball team. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales goes under oath before the U.S. Senate this week. And the very latest on the 2008 race for the White House. Insights and analysis from David Brooks of The New York Times, John Harwood of The Wall Street Journal and CNBC, Gwen Ifill of PBS’ “Washington Week,” and Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post.
But first, the war in Iraq. Joining us is the former commander of the U.S. Central Command, General Anthony Zinni.
GEN. ANTHONY ZINNI (RET.): Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Your new version of “The Battle for Peace,” new edition, is out, and let me read from the afterword, which you write: “Nearly four years after our country invaded and occupied Iraq, Americans are facing the painful truth that our nation has failed to achieve the Bush administration’s ambitious goals for that tragic land.
“We promised the Iraqi people freedom, democracy, security and a new and far better life.
“Yet, here we are, long and difficult years into that conflict,” ... “we still have not created the state we promised them. On the contrary, our costly and valiant efforts have produced an outcome our government did not predict or intend—a failed state spinning out of control into anarchy and civil war.” What happened?
GEN. ZINNI: Well, I think, first of all, tremendous underestimating of what you would face in here. Those of us that know this region, have been involved in the planning, knew that this was a fragile society, that if you did not intervene in a way to gain control of the borders, the population, you could cause all sorts of internal issues to erupt into the kind of violence we saw.
MR. RUSSERT: You write also the following, general: “We promised to build a new Iraqi state in all” aspects “and the Iraqi people are still waiting for us to deliver on our promise.
“We now know the answers to that question: Poor intelligence, lack of planning, faulty political motivation, incompetent or inexperienced people placed in key positions, flawed assumptions, lack of understanding of the Iraqi culture, arrogance, spin, and the list goes on and on.” That’s quite a list.
GEN. ZINNI: It is. And unfortunately, it’s true. I mean it—we, we did not prepare ourselves for this intervention. We threw away decades worth of planning and understanding of the situation. We discounted those that warned that the assumptions were too optimistic, and we have the results we have now.
MR. RUSSERT: I want to take you back to August of 2002. You were being given an award by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and there you are. Vice President Cheney’s addressing the group. You have just been decorated. And this is what the vice president said on that day. Let’s listen:
(Videotape, August 26, 2002)
VICE PRES. DICK CHENEY: Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies and against us.
MR. RUSSERT: The next year, The Washington Post, Tom Ricks wrote this story: “Cheney’s certitude bewildered [retired General Tony] Zinni. ... ‘In my time at Centcom, I watched the intelligence, and never—not once—did it say, “He has WMD.”’
“Though retired for nearly two years, Zinni says, he remained current on the intelligence through his consulting with the CIA and the military. ‘I did consulting work for the agency, right up to the beginning of the war. I never saw anything. I’d say to analysts, “Where’s the threat?”’ Their response, he recalls, was, ‘Silence.’
“Zinni’s concern deepened as Cheney pressed on. ... Zinni’s conclusion as he slowly walked off the stage that day was that the Bush administration was determined to go to war. A moment later, he had another, equally chilling thought: ‘These guys don’t understand what’” they’re “‘getting into.’” Why do you think that they wanted to go to war?
GEN. ZINNI: Well, I think, obviously after 9/11, they saw a need to change our approaches in the Middle East, to do something dramatic. Unfortunately, I think this was the wrong place at the wrong time. And, and the philosophy or the theory behind this change that this liberation would cause a rising up and a, a, a drive for democracy in the Middle East, it, it didn’t square with the way the culture or the way the thinking and the, and the situation was that we had seen in my time. I think the WMD problem, we’d always had a suspicion of WMD programs, but never any hard evidence. And, as time went on, it seemed less and less likely there was an existing program. I mean the vice president’s term was he was “amassing” weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, there was no evidence of even an existing program, let, let alone amassing of weapons of mass destruction.
MR. RUSSERT: As you know, there’s a widely publicized search for a war czar. One of the people who turned the job down was retired General, General John Sheehan, and let me read this to you: “‘The very fundamental issues is, they don’t know where the hell they’re going,’ said retired” Gen—“Marine General John ‘Jack’ Sheehan, a former top NATO commander...
“Sheehan said he called around to get a better feel for the administration landscape. ‘There’s the” resitue—“residue of the Cheney view--‘We’re going to win, al-Qaeda’s there’—that justifies anything we did,’ he said. ‘And then there’s the pragmatist view—how the hell do we get out of Dodge and survive? Unfortunately, the people with the former view are still in the positions of most influence.’” What does that tell you?
GEN. ZINNI: Well, I know Jack Sheehan very well, and he’s a extremely competent and capable former commander of the Atlantic command. And I think he’s expressing a view that, that many of us feel. We are in a situation now where we have to rethink our strategy on how we handle this. We have caused in the center of the Middle East a place where the—we could have a sanctuary for extremist groups, where Shia and Sunni strife can spill over, where we could have an Iranian or Persian/Arab conflict, and we have to find a way to contain this now. We can’t walk away from it. We cannot continue on the same course.
What has disappointed me is there hasn’t been this debate on the strategy, on the policy, a regional strategy and policy, let alone an Iraq policy. We’re, we’re debating the tactics. The surge is a tactic. In what context is the surge? You can make an argument for a surge if you were going to withdraw, to cover the withdrawal, for example, or to contain, to reposition forces or to re-engage in a different way and a stronger way. And why we got caught up in the tactical debate, in my mind, is an indication that we don’t understand what we want to do. What should our Middle East policy be? What should our policy be in terms of Iraq and, and the war against the extremists out there or the conflict against extremists? We seem to be strategically adrift, in my view.
MR. RUSSERT: The Democrats have proposed legislation which would set benchmarks or guidelines for the Iraqis to meet in terms of stepping up, but also a firm date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Is that wise?
GEN. ZINNI: No. I mean, you know, people that talk about benchmarks and withdrawals, what are we going to do, disband Centcom? You know, this was created in the, in the early ‘70s when we assumed most of the foundation for the security in this region. Centcom was created by President Carter because of our interests in this region—economic, political, security interests. They haven’t changed. If anything else, at the end of the Cold War, they were actually, I think, heightened in many respects.
We’re going to be in this part of the world. We aren’t going to leave. Now, we can readjust our strategy for Iraq. We can extricate our troops from the sectarian violence. But we’re going to have to contain the problems that could spill over and the—and cause this critical part of the world to spin out of control.
We need to rethink that kind of strategy, that kind of positioning. But more importantly, we need to rethink our relationships in that region. We have to build a collective security arrangement, a coalition arrangement to replace the one we destroyed by going into Iraq now. The, the Gulf coalition was fragile, it supported our containment of Iran and Iraq before. Most of the leaders in this region that I talk to are asking me, “What’s the new arrangement?” They are at least thinking past Iraq. They’re thinking in strategic terms, and no one’s engaging them on that level of, of discussion. There should be more in the way of burden sharing, more in the way of cooperative defense, more in the way of security assistance programs that help build the kind of region that can take care of itself with our help and with our involvement. There’s no way out of that.
MR. RUSSERT: In a briefing paper you’ve written for the World Security Institute and also in “The Battle for Peace,” you write about realities. You say our “first reality we should acknowledge is that” there’s “no brilliant short-term strategic option or stroke of genius waiting to be unveiled.
“The second reality is that we cannot simply pull out, as much we may want to. The consequences of a destabilized and chaotic Iraq, sitting in the center of a critical region of the world, could have catastrophic implications.
“The third reality is that there is no short-term solution. It will take years to stabilize Iraq. How many? I believe at least five to seven.
And “the fourth reality is that the” problems “cannot be solved by simply addressing the security issues.”
We’re in the middle of a presidential campaign and people are saying, “Stay in Iraq, support the surge,” or “Set a date certain for withdrawal.” Is either view, in your mind, tenable?
GEN. ZINNI: No. First of all, I think any attempt to fix Iraq, if you will, to commit to a larger involvement or intervention probably went away when we didn’t adopt the, the Baker-Hamilton recommendations. I thought that would be a start. Certainly didn’t go far enough. I think, now, the American people are becoming disillusioned. I think it’s, it’s clear, though, that we cannot leave the region, we shouldn’t naively think we’re pulling out, that this is Somalia or Vietnam. And I think the debate should be, amongst the candidates is, is how do we redesign the strategy for this region, protect our interests, create the kind of coalition involvement that would help support this and share the burden. We need that kind of imagination out there. And it isn’t just about Iraq. It’s about how we engage or what do we do about Iran and Syria, our involvement in the Middle East peace process, the rebuilding of relationships with former allies that has been stressed and strained, and, and how we deal with, a cooperative way, to counter the extremism that’s on the rise. The current bombings in, in Algeria and Morocco should, should be of great concern to us and, and to that part of the world.
MR. RUSSERT: If the president brought you in and said, “General Zinni, for one day be my war czar. Go down and talk to the Democrats in the, in the Senate and the House,” what would you tell them and what would you tell him?
GEN. ZINNI: Well, I, I would go back to the realities that, that I wrote and you mentioned. Let’s face it, we’re not going to pull out. We can’t continue to go it alone, And we can’t continue to go it the way we are doing this now. We need to redesign a strategy. We need support, bipartisan support, on that strategic design. We need to engage our, our allies in the region. We need to think through who we’re going to have a dialogue with and who we’re not, what we’re going to do about engagement in the peace process more formally and, and, and more directly involved in the mediation.
I think all these pieces that make up a strategy are necessary. We need to think through things like our security assistance programs out there. We want to build allies with the capability that can join us on any battlefield. We need to rethink how we operate in the international and regional community. We have, we have a, a United Nations that, in many ways, is broken. There’s been just criticism of the United Nations. But the United Nations offers international legitimacy in what we might do. We need to reconstruct the kind of involvement that allowed us to do the intervention in the interim years between the first Gulf war and this Gulf war. All these things and all these pieces are what goes into making up a foreign policy and a regional policy for this critical part of the world.
MR. RUSSERT: Many have suggested that the Army is near broken because of the constant redeployments. Can we sustain the number of troops we have in Iraq for years to come?
GEN. ZINNI: No. You know, what’s, what’s shocking about all this, if you look at past wars, in, in three to four years into a war, we’ve had remarkable transformations of our military. Just think about World War II, where we were when Pearl Harbor was attacked, what our military looked like. I mean, all our equipment was inferior to our enemy, the size of our forces, our organization, our tactics. Three and a half years later, we were a superpower. We dominated in all those areas. Even in Vietnam, at the tactical level, we made adjustments and adaptations, and, and we increased the size of the force to meet the commitment.
Although we’ve mouthed the words about this being a long war and a long struggle, the very forces that it places the greatest demand upon, our ground forces, our, our soldiers and Marines, we’ve seen no increase, no change, no adaptability on the battlefield. We’re still confused about the enemy. We’re, we’re, we’re stifled by the IED attacks and, and the problems we face. And, and these adjustments, over four years, have not been made. We have to ask ourselves why. What happened to transformation? Why was the design not right? What have we done to adjust? Our military, especially our Army and Marine Corps, are not going to be able to continue this kind of rotation. Traditionally you need three units for every one you have deployed. That’s the ideal, in terms of training, reconstructing the unit, the kind of quality time, the quality of life and family time necessary to rebuild the unit before it goes out. We’re down to almost one-to-one.
MR. RUSSERT: Realistically, how many American troops do you think will be in Iraq by the end of 2008?
GEN. ZINNI: Oh, I think by the end of 2008, you may see a slight reduction of what we have now, but I think it’s going to be pretty close to the same. I would say they may not all be in Iraq. We may see a realignment. We may go into a containment strategy that helps us control the borders. We may position troops where we can react under certain circumstances, where the rules of engagement would have us go after al-Qaeda, reinforce the Iraqis, probably, by then, extract ourselves, certainly, from any of the sectarian violence in the areas where it’s Sunni on Shia or, or places where the Iraqis should be taking the lead in, in dealing with it.
MR. RUSSERT: That could be a real bloodbath.
GEN. ZINNI: It could be, but, you know, and I have nothing to base this on, but I have a sense the Iraqi people, the vast majority have been sickened by the violence. I think the vast majority want this to end. It’s how you build their confidence. The enemy wants fear, apathy or support from the populous. You have to change that around. If we start getting jobs, if the economic conditions improve, if they start having some faith in their, in their government, if policies of mediation and reconciliation are put into play in some more formal way, you could start winning that battle. And I think that’s the key in the end.
MR. RUSSERT: You write, in “The Battle for Peace,” about an obsolete, dysfunctional government. It could apply to the war in Iraq; it could apply to Katrina. One of your suggestions is a one-term six-year presidency. Why?
GEN. ZINNI: Well, I, I—I’m, I’m disturbed, as most Americans I talk to, that the president—and it isn’t based on whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican or this administration or another one—the president is, is spending too much time and is fully committed in politics, in campaigning. I really believe we need a president that needs to become an elder statesman, that needs to rise above politics. When the American people know the political adviser in the White House better than they know the national security adviser—and I’d offer to you, take that test and, and see how many can identify Hadley vs. Rove—then something’s wrong with our system. We want a president that’s governing, governing all Americans, that, that isn’t bound up in politics, and I think that’s one way to accommodate that.
MR. RUSSERT: Would you ever seek elective office?
GEN. ZINNI: No.
MR. RUSSERT: Never?
GEN. ZINNI: Never.
MR. RUSSERT: If someone said, “I want you to be my vice president”?
GEN. ZINNI: No.
MR. RUSSERT: That’s it?
GEN. ZINNI: That’s it.
MR. RUSSERT: General Tony Zinni, we thank you very much for sharing your views, and the book again, “The Battle for Peace.”
GEN. ZINNI: Thank you, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Coming next, Don Imus, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and the 2008 presidential candidates. Our roundtable weighs in next right here on MEET THE PRESS.
MR. RUSSERT: Insight, analysis from our political roundtable after this brief station break.
MR. RUSSERT: And we’re back. Welcome all. What a week for those of us here at NBC, I think, in the media community, in the country at large, debating the situation of Don Imus.
Gene Robinson, you wrote this on Friday: “Now that the networks have pulled the plug on Don Imus, let’s have no hyperventilation to the effect that the aging shock jock’s fall from undeserved grace raises some important questions about just who in our society is permitted to say just what.” But Time magazine, as you’ll see, picture of Don Imus on the cover with tape on his mouth, saying “Who Can Say What?” Why not have that discussion?
MR. EUGENE ROBINSON: Well, first of all, this isn’t a free speech issue. You know, there’s lots of constitutionally protected speech that gets you tossed off the air. You could pull out an American flag right now and set it on fire and that would be protected by the Constitution, but you would soon be the former host of MEET THE PRESS. So, so...
MR. JOHN HARWOOD: Oh, no, I think he could survive that.
MR. ROBINSON: Well, maybe Tim could, but...
MR. RUSSERT: I don’t think so.
MR. ROBINSON: But, you know, this, this was, a, a, you know, an issue of offensive speech, speech that offended a lot of people. And I think, most crucially, it offended a lot of people who work at NBC and who work at CBS and who work at the, at the, the major corporations that advertised on Imus’ show. And, and so what we have here, really, is a story about how the country has changed about diversity and about—you know, this, this could not have happened 50 years ago in quite the way it happened this week.
MR. RUSSERT: David Brooks?
MR. DAVID BROOKS: I—while I think there was that racial element, there’s also a cruelty element to it. You know, Imus was a shock jock. He entertained people by shocking, at least in some small part of the show he was on. If he was talking about African-Americans, he used racist language; talking about Jews, he used anti-Semitic language; with women, misogynistic language; his co-workers, cruelty; his wife when she was on the show, cruelty. So there was that whole culture that has arisen, that has entertained by being shocking and cruel. And I think we have the racial element of this story, but we also have the broader discussion which you’re seeing in statements by Barack Obama, statements by Republicans, by Democrats, by everybody, which is this culture of cruelty, this culture of shock, is something that’s polluting the public culture, and we got to bring it back. And so I think that’s actually where the debate is spinning out to, a broader discussion of Howard Stern, of all these other guys who are doing similar sorts of schtick.
MR. RUSSERT: Can you distinguish between Imus overseeing a comedy hour, or entertainment hour, and the serious political discussion that he had?
MR. BROOKS: Well, you know, I did the show about a half a dozen times, and Gwen and I have talked about this. But I, I, I have the lamest excuse for why I did it, which is I didn’t know what he said. And when I did the show, it was like C-SPAN. You’d go on, you’d talk about Iraq. And I confess, I didn’t listen to the show except for the five minutes before when I went on, and I’d hear it over the phone. And what struck me—the last time I was on, which was, like, three or four weeks ago, his wife was on with his kid. And he insults his wife as a moron, and he—his wife insults him as an idiot, and his kid is, is laughing there. And what struck me is how much of the show was not literal. And I think the audience was sort of playing. But that’s not much of a defense, because he was spewing racist stuff. I’m not sure whether he meant it or not. I personally think he didn’t mean it. But as Mark Shields, my buddy, said you know his defense is “I’m not a racist, I just play one on TV.” Not much of a defense, but I think that there is some element of truth to that.
MR. RUSSERT: But he also would say he’s equal opportunity, and I got, of—one who went on a lot on “Imus,” poked fun at for being Irish, for being Catholic and a whole lot of other—for being “husky,” as my mom would say.
But Gwen Ifill, yours truly, most of the major people at NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, CNN, PBS, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, New Yorker, and yet, you, you write this: “Why do my journalistic colleagues appear on Mr. Imus’ program? That’s for them to defend, and others to argue about. I certainly don’t know any black journalists who will.”
MS. GWEN IFILL: You know, it’s interesting to me. This has been an interesting week. The people who have spoken, people who have issued statements, the pop—the people who haven’t. There’s been radio silence from a lot of people who’ve done this program who could’ve spoken up and said, “I find this offensive” or “I didn’t know.” These people didn’t speak up.
Tim, we didn’t hear that much from you.
David, we didn’t hear from you.
What was missing in this debate was someone saying, “You know, I understand that this is offensive.” You know, I have a seven-year-old goddaughter. Yesterday, she went out shopping with her mom for high-top basketball shoes so she can play basketball. The offense, the slur that Imus directed at me happened more than 10 years ago. I like to think in 10 years from now that Asia isn’t going to be deciding that she wants to get recruited for the college basketball team or be a tennis pro or go to medical school and that she’s still vulnerable to those kinds of casual slurs and insults that I got 10 years ago, and that people will say, “I didn’t know,” or people will say, “I wasn’t listening.” A lot of people did know, and a lot of people were listening, and they just decided it was OK. They decided this culture of meanness was fine until they got caught. My concern about Mr. Imus and a lot of people and, and a lot of the debate in the society is not that people are sorry that they say these things. They’re sorry that someone catches them.
When Don Imus said this about me when I worked here at NBC, when I found out about it, his producer called and said, “Don wants to apologize.” Well, now he says he never said it. What was he apologizing for? He was apologizing for getting caught, not apologizing for having said it in the first place. And that, to me, is the debate that we need to have. David’s right, about the culture of meanness, about the culture of racial complaint, about the internal culture in our community, about the way we talk to one another. But this week, just this week, it was finally saying “Enough.”
MR. RUSSERT: There were passionate, emotional debates within, within NBC, as you, I’m sure...
MS. IFILL: I know.
MR. RUSSERT: ...you were aware of that. And yet, I thought it was important and helpful because it was civil as people worked their way through it. I don’t think anyone felt that what Don said was defensible, including himself. I mean, I feel profoundly sad for the team. They went to the pinnacle of the basketball, into the finals, and this is what they had to talk about all week.
I also feel sadness for Don Imus and his wife and his family. I think he said a terrible thing. I think he regrets it. She’s a former college athlete. They’ve done a lot of good things for a lot of good people. And I think the discussion was not whether or not he said something terrible or offensive, but what should be the magnitude of his punishment, which I think is a fair discussion to have.
MS. IFILL: I don’t know Don Imus personally. I’m not going to say—I’m not going to say I wish bad things on him and his family or that he’s always done bad things. I’m saying that this—we were given a national moment, a moment to decide what we were going to discuss and what was going to be acceptable, and that if that national moment had concluded without real punishment, without real punishment that people could, could grasp within the corporations and within the media corporations and around tables like this, then it would’ve been a lost opportunity.
MR. ROBINSON: You know, there was one, one word that you used earlier that I think is important in this discussion, you used the word “casual.” And, you know, in discussions this week, people have said, and I, and I also do not know Don Imus and certainly don’t know what’s in his heart, but people have said, you know, “Don Imus is not a racist, he doesn’t—he doesn’t hate black people.” And I’ve tried to, to, to make the point that you don’t have to wear a sheet to be a racist. You don’t have to burn crosses to be racist. You don’t have to consciously think, “In, in my heart, I hate black people.” If you think black people are different or lesser or open to ridicule or, or some sort of quote “other,” other than yourself then, you know, I think that qualifies. So maybe it’s an educational moment, as well...(unintelligible).
MS. IFILL: The fact that you’re even capable of summoning those words out of your mouth alone—in front of an open microphone, let alone in conversations with friends, I don’t know anybody who could do that.
MR. BROOKS: But, you know, I got—I have XM radio, and there’s an adult comedy channel there, which is snippets from comedy clubs all around the country. It’s like this—what Don Imus said wouldn’t even qualify for remarkable, what’s going on on that comedy show.
MS. IFILL: That’s why it’s on XM. That’s why it’s on satellite.
MR. BROOKS: But what I’m saying is there is a culture that has risen, risen, risen where this sort of stuff—and again, I think it’s more about cruelty and shockingness than about racial prejudice. So I don’t know Don Imus’ soul is any better than the others. But I think that culture has risen, and I think the blame that some of us have who appeared on the show was that we got acclimated to that culture. And this sort of exposed it. But it does merit a broader discussion about it, and it, it hit home to me that—I quoted a colleague of your’s, a Ruth Marcus...
MR. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
MR. BROOKS: ...a very fine columnist. And he savaged her. I thought it was a great column she’d written about John Edwards, and he savaged her. And that was a level of cruelty. It wasn’t about race, it wasn’t about anything, it was just about, boom, she doesn’t deserve to live. And, and there’s that element of the, of the culture that does build ratings because it fills the air. It’s exciting, and I think a lot of us, you know, have been, in some way, accomplices of that.
MR. RUSSERT: And, and because you participated in political discussions that for, at least from my perspective, you couldn’t have anywhere else, or you couldn’t hear anywhere else. And yet, now, this last week, as people talk more and more and point out things about, rightfully, what concerned them it’s triggered this discussion. It is interesting the political people who’ve appeared on “Don Imus” as well, and I think that’s part of what we should talk about. Here’s just a handful of the Democrats: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chris Dodd, Joe Lieberman, Bill Richardson, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, John Edwards, Bill Bradley, Howard Dean, Harold Ford, Jr. Republicans: Dick Cheney, John McCain, Bob Dole, Mitt Romney, Huck—Mike Huckabee, Orrin Hatch, Pete Domenici, Rick Santorum, John Ashcroft, Rudy Giuliani.
John Harwood, it was a place where politicians did appear to talk.
MR. HARWOOD: People thought it was a cool place, an edgy place to get a different kind of audience than they would to watch their one-minute speeches on the floor on C-SPAN. But, look, let me make a couple of points. First of all, Gene is right. This is not a free speech issue. He has a right to say anything he wants. He doesn’t have the right to get millions of dollars from major broadcast companies to say those things. And I kind of suspect at the end of the day Don Imus is going to come out OK despite what has happened here.
Secondly, there is complexity in the issue of different media forms, things that blend comedy and news. What exactly is it? When is somebody lampooning the prejudices of the culture? When is somebody amplifying the prejudices of the culture? The problem is, when you start talking about specific people, especially specific people like these incredibly amazing women on the Rutgers basketball team, then, when people read the words and look at the individuals, it looks terrible and there’s no way to defend it. The other thing I wanted to say is it’s not just people on the left. I’ve heard a lot of commentary, “Wow, how did Al Sharpton become the moral authority to demand Don Imus get off the air.” I was talking to one of the major religious right figures in Iowa on Friday who said, “Look, we need more love and respect in the culture. What happened to Don Imus is exactly what should have happened. We need less of that.”
MR. RUSSERT: It is interesting how times have changed. Imus, as you know, was inducted into the Broadcasters Hall of Fame. Here’s the cover of Time magazine in ‘97. The most influential people in America. Newsweek: “The Importance of Being Imus: How the King of Irreverent Radio Turns Politics into Entertainment.”
Is—those, those recognitions were done in a very public way, Gene.
MS. IFILL: Can I just say something about Newsweek for a second?
MR. RUSSERT: Yeah.
MS. IFILL: Newsweek, which put all of its journalists regularly on Imus and had no problem with that and was really quiet all week until after MSNBC pulled the plug, and then put out a statement saying, “Oh, we’re not going to put our journalists on Imus anymore.” People did not cover themselves with glory in this. They waited until the heat was off and then said, “Ah, this is a terrible thing.” I’m talking about people in our business and politicians as well. I mean, Harold Ford Jr., who thought he was saving his Senate campaign by appearing on Imus, and it didn’t work in the end, stayed very, very quiet and didn’t return a whole lot of phone calls this week until after the shoes began to drop. And then he put out a statement saying, “Well maybe what he did wasn’t so good.”
MR. RUSSERT: But if he’s inducted in the hall of fame, he’s on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the late ‘90s when people were very aware of the content of the show. Is it because times have changed?
MS. IFILL: It’s because things happen. And sometimes things just bubble to the surface. I sometimes think about what he said about me and think, “Eh, not a big deal.” But you know what, it was supposed to come around till now and be part of a larger argument, and that’s what this has tapped into. People just have this core of pain in them that this tapped right into. The mail I got was astonishing.
MR. HARWOOD: Tim, it’s kind of like the difference between a political fight that is under the radar between Washington lobbyists and one that all of sudden gets elevated into public view and it’s seen in a different light. I was reporting a, a story the other day about telecommunications legislation, the most boring thing possible, and one of the people involved with MoveOn, the grassroots political networking group, said the most consequential event for us in that debate was when Jon Stewart started mocking the other side on “The Daily Show.” So when we’re in a culture when that kind of alternative medium can lift stories to the spotlight, to the stage, that changes the dynamic.
MR. RUSSERT: Gene Robinson, the debate, the discussion has moved to rap music, hip-hop music. Here’s the cover of today’s New York Daily News: “The Rap on Dems: They rip on Imus, but woo foul-mouthed hip-hop stars.” And they’re talking about March 31st, that Timbaland had a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton, and March 27th Barack Obama had a fund-raiser with Ludacris. And there they are earlier, in ‘06, talking about AIDS. Is it appropriate for these rap stars, who use the words like ho and bitch and the N-word, to be raising money for politicians, the same politicians who are condemning Don Imus?
MR. ROBINSON: Well, I could point out that 50 Cent has said lots of complimentary things about George W. Bush, that he’s a gangsta, too, just like 50 Cent is, and he respects that.
MR. RUSSERT: I missed that.
MR. ROBINSON: But back up, back up a step. I mean, we should have the discussion about, about rap music, about gangster rap and, and, and that language, and, and I—and that’s a discussion, for example, those are issues that Al Sharpton has raised, that Jesse Jackson has raised. And, and, by the way, I got a lot of mail on—when I wrote about the Imus situation as well, and, and one strain of it was, was, “Well, who appointed Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to, you know, to be spokespeople?” And my answer was this business did. You know, we’re, we’re the ones who call them up every time anything happens and kept going back and kept going back. And what does he think today and what does he think tomorrow? So...
MR. RUSSERT: And it was fair to ask Jackson about "Hymietown," and it was fair to ask Sharpton about Tawana Brawley.
MR. ROBINSON: Of course, it—of course it’s fair, but, but the idea that, that, in this case, they were self-appointed is not really quite right because that was certainly abetted by, by a news media establishment that, that went to them, you know, 50 times a day.
MS. IFILL: And it, and it should be added that it wasn’t just Jesse and Al—Reverend Jackson and Al Sharpton talking about this. It was C. Delores Tucker, who took this. It was Calvin Butts, who steamrollered CDs. It was, it was, it was Essence magazine, which did an entire series of articles about what was happening to girls. Now, everybody who’s suddenly so concerned about what Ludacris and Timbaland have had to say, they weren’t concerned two weeks ago. So if this means we’re going to have this conversation, that’s fine. But let’s not pretend that certain elements in our community haven’t been trying to have this conversation with much less success.
MR. BROOKS: I’m not sure that’s fair. I mean, the evangelicals have been talking about rap music and...
MS. IFILL: And Tipper Gore. Can we talk about Tipper Gore?
MR. BROOKS: And Tipper Gore, exactly. I mean, and, and the big picture is that cultures are organisms and they change. For a while in our little world of talking heads, we had the world of “Crossfire,” and I think that’s waning, the, the real shouting shows. In the movies, we had the “Porkys” movies, a lot of boob movies. And that waned as, as audiences got sick of it. Things come, and then people realize we’re in an environment, it affects us all, we’re all connected by it, and let’s police it, let’s clean up the environment. And I do think this is a step, a big step in a motion of cleaning up a certain sort of a rottenness, and then a new form of rottenness will arise.
MR. ROBINSON: But I think it was, it was arguably going on. Sales of rap music are, are down substantially year to year, and not because of, of downloads. I mean, if you, if you count everything, there, there was, when last I checked, something like a 20 percent drop-off in the kind of gangster rap genre, which—so, so, you may be right, this may be part of this process that’s going on.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah, I feel compelled to add that it’s white suburban kids who drive, who drive that.
MR. ROBINSON: Exactly, right, we should point that out, that’s, that’s who drives the market.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Jonetta Rose Barras has an interesting piece in The Washington Post today, “We’re Our Own Imuses.” And she talks about how the NAACP awarded R. Kelly the image award in 2001, and said, “Why would that happen?”
MS. IFILL: Good question. Good question.
MR. RUSSERT: And she quotes Kojo Nnamdi in saying the, you know, the denigration of women sells, and there’s a double standard, and we have to confront it and deal with it. It was—I remember it, and we were able to go to the archives and find this. This was an ad for Chrysler with Lee Iacocca and Snoop Dogg. Let’s just take a look at that.
(Videotape of Chrysler ad)
MR. RUSSERT: This is what the head of Chrysler advertising said, a spokesperson. “It’s a great way to continue to break through the clutter. Snoop is a hip-hop icon, a lot of people know him and recognize him, so it’s a fun complement to Lee.” It’s the same Snoop Dogg who uses the B-word, the N-word, the, the H-word. He, on MTV, appeared with women on dog collars.
MS. IFILL: So we’re all hypocrites, Tim. Let’s see what we can do to get past it. We can go back and we can say, “Look, everybody else has done this.” That doesn’t take any away—anything away from the, the moment of what we are seeing right now. And matter of fact, it gives us a chance to—I never saw the ad with Snoop Dogg and Lee Iacocca. Great ad. But I’m just saying, I know what he was trying to do. It was a business imperative. They’re trying to reach—they’re trying to survive. They’re trying to reach a different kind of, of car buyer who wouldn’t otherwise pay attention to a Chrysler commercial. It’s not acceptable.
MR. BROOKS: And there’s useful—it’s also comedy.
MR. RUSSERT: And businesses—was the sponsors that bailed on Imus.
MS. IFILL: Exactly. You know why the sponsors bailed on Imus? Not because it was just a—but because black—just look at what happened here at NBC. Black officials, black vice presidents, black corporate directors said, “No, this isn’t worth it.” And that’s what you—they were—didn’t—they weren’t there 10 years ago in these companies. So, you know, it all trickles.
MR. HARWOOD: And, Tim, there’s willful avoidance by a lot of us of exactly what is the content of some of this material that we embrace in different ways for the things that are advantageous. A year ago, the White House correspondent’s dinner, it’s coming up this week, I met Ludacris, the rapper, and I came home and told my teenage kids. They thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I’m sure that they have listened to Ludacris’ music. I don’t have the slightest idea what’s in his music, but maybe if this, the effect of this is I pay a little more attention and everybody gets a little bit more involved, that might be a good thing.
MR. ROBINSON: One of his, one of his big songs, you know, is “Pimpin’ All Over the World,” so just to—just for reference.
MR. HARWOOD: I’m sorry you told me.
MR. ROBINSON: I should, I should point out, for the record, Snoop Dogg was called for reaction to, to, to this, and his reaction is not repeatable on, on MEET THE PRESS, but...
MR. RUSSERT: He should college women should be talked about differently than those in the ghetto.
MR. ROBINSON: Exactly, he basically did not—right. Not, not these women. We wouldn’t have said that about these women. And that should be obvious.
MS. IFILL: Great.
MR. BROOKS: We can only pick on the downtrodden.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: That’s it.
MR. RUSSERT: David Brooks, do you believe that this kind of review, discussion, debate will now be, for syndicated columnists, for people with cable shows, with radio talk shows, with network shows?
MR. BROOKS: I think if you’re Howard Stern, you're Bill Maher, you're Glenn Beck, you're Michael Savage, you got to watch out. I mean, I mean, this, what happens is people change their standards. The only caution I’d, I’d, I’d say there’s comedy. A lot of this is comedy. And when you look at “Borat,” for example, Frank Rich....
MS. IFILL: Doesn’t comedy have to be funny, David?
MR. BROOKS: Well, it, it tries to be funny. But, but there is a, there is sometimes, like, for the example of Borat. Borat’s a guy who spews anti-Semitic stuff. Everybody knows he doesn’t mean it. And I’m not comparing Borat to Don Imus, but there is a carnival atmosphere, and that if we judge everything by the standards the comedians, the carnival people in our culture, by the standards of politicians, well, then we’ll have no comedy because all of the stuff that they say is, is nonliteral.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, exactly, and “Saturday Night Live” last night begins the show with a send-up of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Do people, you know, flyspeck a presentation like that for what, what kind of stereotypes are they playing to? Yeah, it’s hard to know where you draw the line in the entertainment realm.
MS. IFILL: You know, except that it’s really not hard to know where you draw the line. We know where the offense is. We know what’s acceptable and what’s not, and the best way to dilute the argument in the moment we’re in is to say, “What about this? What about this? What about that?” The fact is, we have a moment where we can talk about the things which have been bugging us. I know a lot of people who aren’t really crazy about something—about, about “Pimpin’ All Over the World” or about what—something that Snoop Dogg would say. And you know what they do, they’ve been doing? They swallow it. They just turn off the TV. I got—I don’t watch these shows. I don’t listen to these videos. I, I just don’t watch it. But somewhere deep inside these girls becomes this little—you’ve heard what the Rutgers basketball players said when they were asked about this. They didn’t say, “Oh, well, yeah, I think it’s fine.” They don’t think it’s fine. And after a while it builds in them. And that’s what we saw happen this week. So if we want to—you know, we can, we can say it’s not a big deal because it’s happened all the time or it’s been happening for a long time. It’s precisely because it’s been happening a long time that...
MR. BROOKS: But I’m not, I’m not saying it’s not a big deal.
MR. HARWOOD: Look, Gwen, I think it’s harder than you think. And take the example of “Borat,” which David mentioned. I’ve not seen that movie, but I’ve heard people intensely on both sides of that issue. Some think it’s hilarious and fun, and some think it’s grossly offensive and racist and all sorts of things.
MR. BROOKS: Right, and I mean, I’m not saying, I’m not comparing “Borat” to, to what Don Imus said. What Don Imus said is so obviously over the line that it’s not worth debating. But the hard choices come further in, and “Borat” is a good example. I thought it was a very funny movie, extremely cruel. He is picking on people who aren’t good on TV or in the movies. And so I think those are the hard cases. And I don’t think it’s unfair to ask the question of this case, of that case, how much of it is just make believe. Human beings are extremely good at separating make believe from reality.
MS. IFILL: Yeah, unless they’re the targets. And when you’re the target, somehow it seems a lot more real.
MR. BROOKS: Well, again, with Imus. Well, OK, personally, he said something about another colleague of ours who’s Jewish, as I am, and I’m not going to repeat it, but it was about the hook noses, it was the normal anti-Semitic stereotype.
MS. IFILL: And that colleague said it was fine.
MR. BROOKS: Yeah, I don’t know what he said, but I do know, personally, I thought what he said is different than what a Nazi says. Because a Nazi mean its—means it in his soul. Him, it’s offensive, it’s polluting the culture. It’s the difference between reckless manslaughter and homicide.
MS. IFILL: It’s like people saying to me this week, “You know, he’s not really a racist, Don isn’t.” It doesn’t matter. Take the word, set it aside, and just judge on the actions. I don’t, I don’t, I don’t call the man a racist. I just say his actions have that effect and the words have an effect. And words matter whether they’re considered to be comedic or not.
MR. ROBINSON: How else can you tell?
MR. BROOKS: Right.
MR. ROBINSON: I mean, what, what, what other indication do you have? What, what do you get from a person other than what they, what they say in that sort of for instance?
MR. BROOKS: Well, that’s why, that’s why my emphasis today has been on the public culture and the public environment.
MS. IFILL: Understand.
MR. BROOKS: And we all agree that it’s pollution of the public culture and has effect on young people, and it has effect, and makes it easier for the Nazis and the real racists—or whatever Imus is—it makes it easier, because we get acclimated.
MS. IFILL: I, I agree with that.
MR. ROBINSON: Yes.
MR. BROOKS: But I’m saying there is a, there is a world of, of entertainment, which the, the, the standards are different than the world of seriousness, and I think we all know the difference between...
MS. IFILL: And I hope our standards have shifted this week.
MR. BROOKS: I agree. I thought that...
MR. RUSSERT: Gwen Ifill, you mentioned turning off the, the rap music. How do you respond to people who say, “Turn of Imus? If you don’t like him, turn him off”?
MS. IFILL: I never watched Imus, never listened to Imus.
MR. RUSSERT: Well, but to others, if people want to watch it, they watch it.
MS. IFILL: But, but here’s the thing...
MR. RUSSERT: “If you don’t want to watch it, you turn him off. It’s the marketplace that should govern.”
MS. IFILL: But here’s the thing—you know what, that’s—there’s something to that. But here’s the thing, for parents of kids, like your—like John, here, he needs to know what these, what these kids are listening to. He needs to hear what the words are. You need to make your judgment. I don’t completely turn it off, I watch it just to know. Now, I don’t watch it for long, because I find it so offensive, but I need to know. And that’s what everybody—people can’t say, “Oh, I had no idea.” Especially when you’re trying to raise a generation of right-thinking kids.
MR. RUSSERT: John...
MR. HARWOOD: But, Tim, what you said is exactly what’s going to happen. The marketplace is going to settle, and there is going to be a place in the marketplace for what Don Imus has to say. There’s a, there’s an audience for Howard Stern. Some of the stuff—Opie, Opie and Anthony, there’s a market for that, even though it may be disgusting and ridiculous.
MR. BROOKS: But those, those guys didn’t exist 20 years ago. There’s no reason they have to exist. They didn’t—they weren’t there 30 years ago.
MR. ROBINSON: Well, 20 years from now, they won’t probably.
MR. BROOKS: Maybe.
MR. ROBINSON: You’re probably right
MR. HARWOOD: That would be nice. I wouldn’t get my hopes up too high.
MR. ROBINSON: But, but the market, the market did work, though. I mean, the marketplace worked in this, in this instance, when, when, when the networks decided they no longer wanted to carry this program, when the advertisers decided they no longer wanted to be associated with this program...
MR. HARWOOD: Right, and then...
MR. ROBINSON: And so, you know, there’s, there’s the constitutional right to the speech, but not to having it subsidized by major corporations.
MR. RUSSERT: And if Don, Don Imus takes time off and comes back and says, you know, “I was an addict, and I embraced that and tried to educate people about that and educate people about autism. I’m now going to dedicate my life to racial reconciliation and healing, and I’m going to talk about that on my new program”?
MR. ROBINSON: Well, people will decide whether they want to sponsor, you know, whether they want to put it on the air, and whether they...
MS. IFILL: Would you go back on his program if he did that?
MR. ROBINSON: ...want to sponsor it, and whether they want to listen to it.
MR. RUSSERT: I, I—I’d, I’d certainly listen to it. Absolutely. I mean, if he is dedicating himself—if the, if the Rutgers women’s basketball team said they have forgiven him and they’re trying to seek reconciliation, and he dedicates himself to racial healing, that is, to me, is a very positive step.
MS. IFILL: We’ll see.
MR. HARWOOD: Honestly, Tim, he’s going to find a market either way. If he does that, I think he will find a market someplace, whether it’s on broadcast television or radio or on satellite. And if he doesn’t, if he does the same kind of show that he just got booted off CBS radio, he’ll find a marketplace there.
MR. RUSSERT: John McWhorter, a young black academic from The Manhattan Institute who’s been on this program, said that this is debate about street theater and takes away from a discussion of real issues affecting the black community. What would you say about that, Gene?
MR. ROBINSON: Well, I, I don’t see—I see a false choice there, basically. I don’t see that just because, because there are other issues, economic and, and other issues of—that, that face black Americans, it—the existence of those issues is not a reason to refrain from addressing the offense that Imus gave.
MR. BROOKS: I would also say that one thing that struck me about the Imus audience, it was not a mass audience, it was an elite audience.
MR. ROBINSON: It was, it was.
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. BROOKS: I actually—I never listened, I hate talk in the morning because I’m in such a bad mood, I don’t need his bad mood on top of mine. But, but, but I, I went on the show the first time, and I got response from, like, everybody in our business. I was amazed by how many people listened to this thing. I think Bill Bennett has, has bigger ratings in the same time slot, but I don’t know too many people who listen to it. But Imus had the New York, the Washington media audience, and...
MS. IFILL: And that’s why it took so long for him to fall, honestly. That’s why it took an entire week for someone to decide—I mean, nothing really changed between the time he uttered the words, and the time he was fired, except the reaction. And that’s why—and it took so long for, I think, the media elite to see what was wrong about this because they had been complicit.
MR. HARWOOD: But if you want to look at the positive on this...
MR. RUSSERT: But I, but I also think—it’s also people—one person who’s been on the program a lot said he got hundreds of e-mails from the very people who then—who are now calling him an enabler for going on. When he went on, people praised him for his performance.
MR. BROOKS: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: I had, I had one black American say to me, you know, “He’s got to go off.” And I said, “I understand your view, you’ve laid it out very clearly.” And I said, “Do you listen to the program?” “Regularly.” He said, “I love when Bernard McGuirk puts that FedEx box on and mocks the cardinal.” And I said, “You do? You think that’s funny? Those are my people.” But it, but...
MS. IFILL: You can’t, can’t account for everyone’s sense of humor.
MR. RUSSERT: No, but it is interesting how people, I think, learned a lot this week...
MS. IFILL: I think so.
MR. RUSSERT: ...about other people’s attitudes, sensitivities, and I think...
MR. ROBINSON: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: ...and I know that Don Imus and his wife learned an awful lot...
MR. HARWOOD: Well...
MR. RUSSERT: ...and I think that’s important.
MR. HARWOOD: And one other thing people learned, and it goes to your question about Gene. Did this—was this street theater or—that distracted from more serious debates? One of the takeaways from this whole discussion is the holding up these young women on the basketball team as some of the best of our society. That is a powerful statement that many millions of people in this country have received.
MR. RUSSERT: That news conference with those student athletes...
MR. ROBINSON: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: ...and, Gwen, you talked about their names and how it had a musical...
MS. IFILL: They were great. These girls, I was weepy. I mean, when are we going to see...
MR. RUSSERT: Essence Carter.
MS. IFILL: ...roadblock—Carson. When are we going to see roadblock live coverage...
MR. RUSSERT: Carson.
MS. IFILL: ...of black teenagers who are about something, who are, who are straight A...
MR. ROBINSON: Exactly.
MS. IFILL: ...classical pianists. We’re not going to see that.
MR. ROBINSON: And that’s part of the reason it hit home so hard was that these are the best of our society. We—you know, we hear so much about, you know, dysfunction and you know baggy pants and the whole kind of...
MS. IFILL: Yeah.
MR. ROBINSON: ...I hear. These are—you know, there are so many fine young African-Americans who, often despite, you know, having had to overcome really difficult circumstances—sometimes not—are, are, are doing just great and are, are, you know, going to be the leaders of, of society in, in the next few years. And, you know, we like to celebrate that. We should celebrate that more.
MR. BROOKS: The paradox, of course, is that—I think the generation under 30 is tremendously wholesome. You look at the crime rates, divorce rates, teen pregnancy rates, they’re all going down, and they’re behaving in a way when the public culture is more rotten than it has been before. And in some ways they’re doing it despite a lot of the stuff they listen to and talk and watch on TV. But it’s the nature of who they are, and that’s the difference between reality and make-believe.
MR. HARWOOD: And, by the way, it’s my belief that also, among those young people, racial prejudice is so much reduced from what it is with people Don Imus’ age. The kids who go to my daughters’ high school, very diverse high school, not a majority in any racial group, their attitudes are so much different than their older—than their parents.
MR. RUSSERT: Amen. You know, we were supposed to talk about Alberto Gonzales...
MR. ROBINSON: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: ...and we were supposed to talk about 2008 presidential race, this is a lot more important. We’re out of time. We’re out of time. Thank you for bringing your candor and your honesty and your intelligence to the table, Gwen Ifill, John Harwood, Gene Robinson, David Brooks. We’ll be right back.
MR. RUSSERT: Find out who’ll be meeting the—MEET THE PRESS right on your cell phone. Text MTP to 46833, 46833. Receive weekly alerts on Friday afternoon with Sunday morning’s—Sunday’s guest lineup.
That’s all for today. We’ll be back next week. If it’s Sunday, it’s MEET THE PRESS.