Video: Dodged a bullet

NBC News
updated 9/25/2005 11:48:20 AM ET 2005-09-25T15:48:20

Guests: Governor Rick Perry, (R-Texas); Dr. Ivor van Heerden, Director, LSU Hurricane Center; Aaron Broussard, President, Jefferson Parish, Louisiana; Tom Friedman, The New York Times; Maureen Dowd, The New York Times; David Brooks, The New York Times

Moderator/Panelist: Tim Russert - NBC News

Mr. Tim Russert: Our issues this Sunday: Hurricane Rita, devastation and destruction in her path. What now? With us, the governor of Texas, Rick Perry. From Louisiana State University Hurricane Center, Dr. Ivor Van Heerden, and the president of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, Aaron Broussard. Then insights and analysis from three New York Times columnists with very different views, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd and Tom Friedman, together only on Meet the Press.

But first, with us now is the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, who's in Beaumont, Texas.

Governor, good morning.

How widespread is the devastation? How many Texans are without water and power?

Gov. Rick Perry, (R-TX): Well, it is widespread. It's probably as big an area as you would think it would be, a storm of this size coming in. And almost everyone in an eight-county area through the coastal region where this came in, Jefferson County, Liberty, Chambers, Polk, all the way up into Jasper, Newton and particularly hard hit Orange County, all of those without electricity, water, the necessities of life, if you will, or the necessities of normalcy. A lot of that coming in on the back of trucks this morning as we speak. Last night, generators arriving at the hospital, so over half a million gallons of gasoline brought in to southeast Texas in the last 24 hours. So there's a lot of relief coming into this area.

I just want to caution people that folks who have left, stay where you are. It's still a dangerous place for just the average citizen to be. We've got the place secure. We've got a lot of troopers. We've got a lot of folks in uniform here, so we're trying to get the electricity and the generators, if you will, back on for those that either decided to stay here or that were forced to stay here.

Mr. Russert: How many deaths have been the result of this hurricane?

Gov. Perry: Well, from the direct impact of the hurricane, it appears at this particular point in time that it's zero. I know that's a miraculous number, I mean, the idea that you had a storm of that size come in with that power. Now, I can't speak over in Louisiana 'cause I haven't been in contact with their officials. But in the state of Texas, we have not had a death directly associated. Obviously, we had a tragedy up in--just north of Dallas with the mass evacuation that was going on and that freak accident with the truck--or excuse me, the bus that caught fire and those individuals there lost their lives. But it's been from the standpoint of loss of life--and that's what you got to look at. We'll rebuild. We have truly dodged a major bullet here.

Mr. Russert: Regarding that burned-out bus outside of Dallas, The Dallas News reports today that that bus had--registration had expired in July and that you signed a waiver to allow buses like that to go back on the road for the evacuation. Any regrets?

Gov. Perry: Well, we didn't sign any waivers to allow for any safety standards to be overseen, so the fact of the matter is we were trying to get as many people out of harm's way as we could. And that type of registration didn't have anything to do with the safety standards that are required. So if we had to all do it again, probably do the same thing because it's important to get people out of harm's way. And again, when that investigation is fully completed, then we'll know exactly what happened and transporting those patients with oxygen cylinders. There may be some type of changes that need to be made there for all motor vehicles of that form, but we'll wait until the investigation is done.

Mr. Russert: All the world, all the country watched as people, millions, fled Houston; hundreds of miles of cars backed up on the freeways. Miraculously so many people got out of the way of the storm. But Houston Mayor Bill White said that the state should have prepositioned gasoline along the highways so people didn't run out. Is that a lesson that you've learned?

Gov. Perry: I think it's obviously one of those recommendations that makes a lot of sense. The idea that you're going to move two to two and a half million people in 36 hours, I'm not sure anyone ever envisioned that occurring. Yes, it was a possibility. But there's going to be a lot of look back, take recommendations so that when this is done again in the future and, you know, in Texas most likely it will with the coastal region that we've got. But the fact of the matter is, we moved two and a half million people with a relative small amount of problems: 15 hours on the road. We understand that. But you just--you can't force that many people down a--those highways. One of the reasons that we're going to be building more highways in the state of Texas is to handle the huge population growth that we've had over the last decade and a half.

Mr. Russert: Governor Rick Perry, we thank you. And good luck on your recovery.

Gov. Perry: You're welcome, Tim. Thank you. Keep us in your prayers.

Mr. Russert: I will do that.

Now, let's go to Louisiana, in Baton Rouge, Dr. Ivor Van Heerden of the LSU Hurricane Center.

Doctor, welcome back to Meet the Press. How extensive is the flooding in Louisiana as a result of Hurricane Rita?

Dr. Ivor van Heerden: Very, very large. Large sections of Calciseau and Vermillion and St. Mary's parishes in the western part of the state are flooded. In addition, the--Rita pushed about seven feet of water into Lake Pontchartrain, which, in turn, eroded the levee plugs, some of them that the Corps of Engineers had put in. So we've reflooded large parts of New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. Video: Levee favoritism?

Mr. Russert: There seems to be a debate going on, Doctor. The Corps of Engineers said that the flooding is caused by overtopping, water going over the top of the levee. But I want to read a story from The Washington Post for you and our viewers. "Louisiana's top hurricane experts have rejected the official explanation for the floodwall collapses that inundated much of New Orleans, concluding that Hurricane Katrina's storm surges were much smaller than authorities had suggested and that the city's flood-protection system should have kept most of the city dry. ... With the help of complex computer models and stark visual evidence, scientists and engineers at Louisiana State University's Hurricane Center"--that's you--"have concluded that Katrina's surges did not come close to overtopping those barriers. That would make faulty design, inadequate construction and some combination of the two the likely cause of the breaching of the floodwalls along the 17th Street and London Avenue canals--and the flooding of most of New Orleans."

Is it the overtopping or faulty design? What is going on in New Orleans?

Dr. van Heerden: Well, I think in terms of the London Avenue and the 17th Street Canal, those flood walls weren't overtopped. We're still in the middle of a forensic investigation. It is starting to look like they were underdesigned. We did get an e-mail and a phone call from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers out of Maryland, and they have asked to join our forensic team. So hopefully between their resources and ours, we'll be able to go grab those wall sections and, as they do in an air crash, bring them to a hangar and really do a thorough investigation so we can know exactly why they failed.

Mr. Russert: You know, whenever there's this kind of devastation, there's always the undercurrent debate between the have and the have nots. This story, the "St. Bernard Parish President Henry `Junior' Rodriguez...said the repair job on the Industrial Canal levee was shoddy and accused the [Corps of Engineers] of exerting more of an effort to repair a breach on the 17th Street Canal at the Orleans- Jefferson parish line because it protects more wealthy neighborhoods than those in the 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. `It's rich and poor,' Rodriguez [said]...adding that St. Bernard Parish and 9th Ward residents are treated like, `second-class citizens.'"

Is there any evidence that more care, more effort was given to certain levees in affluent neighborhoods than those in poor neighborhoods?

Dr. van Heerden: Well, I can't talk to the motives of the Corps of Engineers. But certainly the 17th Street Canal and the London Avenue Canal, they drove sheet piling in at the bridge because that bridge offered them the opportunity to put in sheet piling so that it would last. From our perspective, we felt the plug--the two big plugs on the Industrial Canal weren't high enough, weren't robust enough, and in addition, they'd used limestone chips, which are very easily erodible. So that's our--those were our observations.

Mr. Russert: When you were on Meet the Press a few weeks ago, you predicted that if a storm, a tropical storm hit New Orleans, that we very well could have the flooding we're seeing today. How many more weeks are in the hurricane season, and how vulnerable is New Orleans to another tropical storm?

Dr. van Heerden: Well, there's a number of weeks. You know, the season now extends, many of us believe, until the middle of December. New Orleans is extremely vulnerable. There are a large number of levees that are highly degraded, especially in St. Bernard Parish and parts of Plaquemines Parish. And then obviously the plugs, the mechanisms of sealing these plugs hasn't worked, so the Corps is going to have to come up with something better. But New Orleans is extremely vulnerable. All we need is something to push six or seven foot into Lake Pontchartrain and we could well see the flooding again. You know, this is--six to seven foot, that's a tropical storm to a Category 2 hurricane.

Mr. Russert: Is there any worth in bringing people back into the city until all the levees have been repaired and the coast restored?

Dr. van Heerden: I think those parts of New Orleans that didn't flood during Katrina and haven't flooded in Rita, certainly one could bring those folks back and help them get started. One would hope that as they drain some of these areas, say even the lower 9th Ward and once they've finished with the clearing of the bodies, that they would allow some families in to come and get their possessions because we saw many, many treasured items in some of the homes, photograph albums and that were high enough, hadn't gotten wet, so you know, even if they let those people in for a day just to get their treasures and then truck them out again.

Mr. Russert: Doctor, we thank you again for joining us on Meet the Press and we'll stay in close contact with you and hope for the best for the people of New Orleans.

Now, let's go to...

Dr. van Heerden: Thank you.

Mr. Russert: ...outside New Orleans where Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard has agreed to return to Meet the Press, and he's with us now.

Mr. Broussard, what is the situation in Jefferson Parish?

Mr. Aaron Broussard: Well, for us, this was a tidal surge event. We didn't have a lot of rain. We did have tropical storm winds that caused power outages and more debris for our area. But primarily, this was a great challenge for us in meeting these tidal surges. Poor Grand Isle, which is the last inhabited barrier island in Louisiana, they got pounded again; four feet of water across the road and in houses. They were already about 50 percent decimated. They get punched again. And then up in Lafitte area, which is where the famous pirate Jean Lafitte, and the Battle of New Orleans--Yul Brynner played that role, if you'll remember; that town is named after him--a lot of private levees were breached. We evacuated over 100 people by boat and put them in deuce-and-a-half, we put them in buses and we provided a shelter for them. The Harvey Canal, which is really the Achilles' heel of our West Bank community, it was up to the top. I mean, it was very, very close as to whether or not we would have had to evacuate people or not.

But we had the cooperation of Thad Allen. You know, Admiral Thad Allen is a warrior down here that was appointed to oversee FEMA. And with the cooperation of Thad Allen and the Corps of Engineers, we were able to give some relief to that canal, the floodgates right at the Mississippi River. And with our own levee district personnel and our own brave parish personnel and volunteer firemen, we had sandbags ready to handle any breach situations. Wherever we had problems, we closed the breach quickly, and we were able to maintain integrity overnight. This storm caught us by surprise in the sense that it slowed down, went more to the east than we thought and it kept pounding us with these southern winds coming right up through the Gulf, evidencing why, without any marshland, the devastation that coastal erosion has done to us and left us so vulnerable to hurricanes because we don't have that marsh to protect us anymore.

Video: Comment controversy

Mr. Russert: Your comments this morning are in stark contrast to three weeks ago. You're praising the federal government today. That was not the case. As you well know, Mr. Broussard, when you appeared here last time, very difficult time, very emotional time. You made some accusations that ricocheted around the country and have created an enormous response. I want to go back and play those for you. And then some things written about them and give you a chance to respond. Let's watch.

(Videotape, three weeks ago):

Mr. Broussard: It's not just Katrina that caused all these deaths in New Orleans here. Bureaucracy has committed murder here in the greater New Orleans area and bureaucracy has to stand trial before Congress now. It's so obvious.

Mr. Russert: Hold on. Hold on, sir. Shouldn't the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of New Orleans bear some responsibility? Couldn't they have been much more forceful, much more effective and much more organized in evacuating the area?

Mr. Broussard: Sir, they were told, like me, every single day, "The cavalry is coming." On the federal level, "The cavalry is coming. The cavalry's coming. The cavalry's coming." The guy who runs this building I'm in, emergency management, he's responsible for everything. His mother was trapped in St. Bernard Nursing Home and every day she called him and said, "Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?" And he said, "Yeah, Mama. Somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday." "Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday." "Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday." "Somebody's coming to get you on Friday." And she drowned Friday night. She drowned Friday night.

Mr. Russert: Mr. President...

Mr. Broussard: Nobody's coming to get us. Nobody's coming to get us. The secretary has promised. Everybody's promised. They've had press conferences. I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody.

(End videotape)

Mr. Broussard: I've never watched this. Why are they taking me here?

Mr. Russert: Mr. Broussard, obviously that was a very painful, emotional moment, but let me show you some of the...

Mr. Broussard: Sir, I've never looked at that. I've never heard that. I'm sorry. You take me to a sad place when you let me hear that.

Mr. Russert: Well, it was important, I think...

Mr. Broussard: Go ahead. Go ahead, sir. Go ahead, sir.

Mr. Russert: Thank you very much.

Mr. Broussard: Go ahead.

Mr. Russert: All right, sir. Thank you very much. Take your time. But it's important I think...

Mr. Broussard: Go ahead.

Mr. Russert: ...that our viewers see that again because MSNBC and other blog organizations have looked into the facts behind your comments and these are the conclusions, and I'll read it for you and our viewers. It says: "An emotional moment and a misunderstanding. Since the broadcast of [Meet the Press] interview...a number of bloggers have questioned the validity of Broussard's story. Subsequent reporting identified the man whom Broussard was referring Thomas Rodrigue, the Jefferson Parish emergency services director. ...Rodrigue acknowledged that his 92-year-old mother and more than 30 other people died in the St. Rita nursing home. They had not been evacuated and the flood waters overtook the residence. ... When told of the sequence of phone calls that Broussard described, Rodrigue said `No, no, that's not true. ...I contacted the nursing home two days before the storm [on Saturday, Aug. 27th] and again on [Sunday] the 28th. ...At the same time I talked to the nursing home I had also talked to the emergency encourage that nursing home to evacuate...' Rodrigue says he never made any calls after Monday, the day he figures his mother died... Officials believe the residents of St. Rita's died on Monday, the 29th, not on Friday, Sept. 2, as Broussard has suggested."

Your comments obviously... Video: Abandonment charges

Mr. Broussard: Sir, this...

Mr. Russert: Go ahead.

Mr. Broussard: Sir, this gentleman's mother died on that Friday before I came on the show. My own staff came up to me and said what had happened. I had no idea his mother was in the nursing home. It was related to me by my own staff, who had tears in their eyes, what had happened. That's what they told me. I went to that man, who I love very much and respect very much, and he had collapsed like a deck of cards. And I took him and put him in my hospital room with my prayer books and told him to sit there and cry out and pray away and give honor to his mother with his tears and his prayers.

Now, everything that was told to me about the preface of that was told to me by my own employees. Do you think I would interrogate a man whose mother just died and said, "Tommy, I want to know everything about why your mother just died"? The staff, his own staff, told me those words. Sir, that woman is the epitome of abandonment. She was left in that nursing home. She died in that nursing home. Tommy will tell you that he tried to rescue her and could not get her rescued. Tommy could tell you that he sent messages there through the EOC and through, I think, the sheriff's department, "Tell Mama everything's going to be OK. Tell Mama we're coming to get her."

Listen, sir, somebody wants to nitpick a man's tragic loss of a mother because she was abandoned in a nursing home? Are you kidding? What kind of sick mind, what kind of black-hearted people want to nitpick a man's mother's death? They just buried Eva last week. I was there at the wake. Are you kidding me? That wasn't a box of Cheerios they buried last week. That was a man's mother whose story, if it is entirely broadcast, will be the epitome of abandonment. It will be the saddest tale you ever heard, a man who was responsible for safekeeping of a half a million people, mother's died in the next parish because she was abandoned there and he can't get to her and he tried to get to her through EOC. He tried to get through the sheriff's office. He tries every way he can to get there. Somebody wants to debate those things? My God, what sick-minded person wants to do that?

What kind of agenda is going on here? Mother Nature doesn't have a political party. Mother Nature can vote a person dead and Mother Nature can vote a community out of existence. But Mother Nature is not playing any political games here. Somebody better wake up. You want to come and live in this community and see the tragedy we're living in? Are you sitting there having your coffee, you're in a place where toilets flush and lights go on and everything's a dream and you pick up your paper and you want to battle ideology and political chess games? Man, get out of my face. Whoever wants to do that, get out of my face.

Mr. Russert: Mr. Broussard, the people who are questioning your comments are saying that you accused the federal government and the bureaucracy of murder, specifically calling on the secretary of Homeland Security and using this as an example to denounce the federal government. And what they're saying is, in fact, it was the local government that did not evacuate Eva Rodrigue on Friday or on Saturday. And they're making that, in fact...

Mr. Broussard: Sir...

Mr. Russert: Let me just finish. I'll give you a chance to respond.

Mr. Broussard: Yes.

Mr. Russert: And, in fact, the owners of the nursing home, Salvador and Mable Mangano, have been indicted with 34 counts of negligent homicide by the Louisiana state attorney general. So it was the owners of the nursing home and the local government that are responsible for the lack of evacuation and not the federal government. Is that fair?

Mr. Broussard: Sir, with everything I said on Meet the Press, the last punctuation of my statements were the story that I was going to tell in about maybe two sentences. It just got emotional for me, sir. Talk about the context of everything I said. Were we abandoned by the federal government? Absolutely we were. Were there more people that abandoned us? Make the list. The list can go on for miles. That's for history to document. That's what Congress does best, burn witches. Let Congress do their hearings. Let them find the witches. Let them burn them. The media burns witches better than anybody. Let the media go find the witches and burn them. But as I stood on the ground, sir, for day after day after day after day, nobody came here, sir. Nobody came. The federal government didn't come. The Red Cross didn't come. I'll give you a list of people that didn't come here, sir, and I was here.

So anybody that's saying, "Oh, they were all here," you know, they weren't living on my planet, there weren't living in my parish. They did not come. I can't make it any more clearer than that. Did inefficiencies, did bureaucracy commit murder here? Absolutely, it did. And Congress and the media will flush it out and find it out and those people will be held accountable. You've already given an example. These people in the nursing home in St. Bernard, they're getting indicted. Good. They ought to be indicted. They ought to get good old-fashioned Western justice. They ought to be taken out and administered to like they did in the old West.

Yes, there's a lot of people that they're going to find that are going to be villains in this situation, but they're also going to find for the most part that the Peter Principle was squared. The Peter Principle is you promote somebody to the level of incompetency, but when you promote somebody to the level of incompetency in a life or death department, then those people should be ousted. Those people should be strung up. Those people should be burned at the stake. And I'm sure Congress and the press is going to do that.

Mr. Russert: At the local, state and federal level.

Mr. Broussard: Sir, at every level. Are you kidding? This is a jigsaw puzzle. This is a mosaic. The blame will be shared by everybody. The heroic deeds will be magnified as individual stories of heroics come out from different people and agencies that did eventually come here. Sir, this is chaos. It's organized chaos at best. There are plenty of heroes that have to be uncovered. There are plenty of villains that have to be uncovered. Let the process go on. Let it happen. I don't have time to do it, sir. I didn't even watch my own broadcast that you played to me in my ear. It pained me to hear that again because Tommy Rodrigue is a friend of mine. He works for me. I was at his mother's wake.

When somebody wants to nit-pick these details, I don't know what sick minds creates this black-hearted agenda, but it's sick. I mean, let us recover. Let us rebuild. If somebody wants me to debate them on national TV, hey, buddy, be my guest. Make my day. Put me at a podium when I got a full night's sleep and you will not like matching me against anybody that you want. That person is going to be in trouble. If this station or anybody else or any other station wants to do that, you just give me a full night's sleep, sir. I haven't had one in about 30 days. But you wind me up with a full night's sleep, I'll debate every detail of everything you want, sir.

Mr. Russert: Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, we thank you for coming on and correcting the record and putting it in context. And we wish you well and to all your people in the recovery. And we hope to talk to you again.

Mr. Broussard: Thank you, sir.

Mr. Russert: Coming next, New York Times columnists and author "On Paradise Drive," David Brooks, New York Times columnist and author of "Bushworld," Maureen Dowd, and New York Times columnist and author of "The World Is Flat," Tom Friedman. Brooks, Dowd and Friedman talk hurricanes, deficits, Iraq, George Bush's second term right here on Meet the Press.


Mr. Russert: David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, all New York Times columnists. They are next together right here after this.


Mr. Russert: And we are back.

Welcome, all. There they are. You have to pay online to read these guys, but they're free right here on Meet the Press, from The New York Times.

Here's George Bush on Friday at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C., Saturday morning at the Northern Command, Colorado Springs, Colorado; later Saturday, down in Texas at the Emergency Operations Center. Very much engaged in this Hurricane Rita.

Maureen Dowd, yesterday in The New York Times you wrote, "What Katrina exposed was a president who--remarkable as this may sound--seemed bored after his reelection... The more tuned-in W. is now, the more obvious it is that he tuned out as New Orleans drowned. There's a high cost for presidential learning curves."


Ms. Maureen Dowd: Well, I think it's hard for any of your viewers to believe that a president could get bored because what could be more fun than picking up the phone, calling the 82nd Airborne and saving a bunch of American lives? But this happened to Clinton right after his re-election. The Times had a front-page story with Senator Breaux and others quoted as saying, "He's drifting. He's lost his way." He was playing golf at night in storms. And Monica, the chaos of Monica then caused him to focus. Unfortunately it was on impeachment. But a lot of people who cover Bush think he was bored. He was exercising on the mountain bike under his iPod, listening to "My Sharona." You know, his aides did not have the nerve to tell him to cut his vacation short even after Katrina started.

Mr. Russert: A stark contrast to the government reaction for Rita as opposed to Katrina.

Ms. Dowd: Right. Well, as one Republican said this week, "Now, we've got a president who's the head of FEMA," you know, which is not where they want to be, either. He has inverse ADD. Now, he can only pay attention to one thing.

Mr. Russert: Tom Friedman, you wrote on Wednesday, "Katrina deprived the Bush team of the energy source that propelled it forward for the last four years: 9/11, and the halo over the presidency that came with it. The events of 9/11 created a deference in the U.S. public, and media, for the administration, which exploited it to the hilt to push an uncompassionate conservative agenda on tax cuts and runaway spending, on which it never could have gotten elected. That deference is over."


Mr. Tom Friedman: Well, I believe 9/11 truly distorted our politics, Tim, and it gave the president and his advisers an opening to take a far hard right agenda, I believe, on taxes and other social issues, from 9/10, that was not going anywhere from 9/10, and drove it into a 9/12 world. It put the wind at his back. And Katrina brought that to an end. It put the wind in his face. And I believe that unless the president steps back now and does what I would call his own version of Nixon to China, that is, a fundamental recasting of his position and his administration, I think this is not going anywhere.

What's really struck me in the last couple of weeks is how the whole--the tectonic plates of politics in this country have all shifted to the left. That is, people on the far left who dislike the president hate him even more venomously. People in the sort of center left who, you know, weren't happy with the president, you know, now hate him. People, you know, left of center now dislike him. And people right of center now, many Republicans, I think, are wondering where is this going? So I think we've seen a fundamental shift now that the winds of Katrina are in this administration's face rather than the winds of 9/11 at its back.

Mr. Russert: When you say the deference of the public and the deference of the media--post- September 11th, there was a fear of terrorism, an inability to know whether there were weapons of mass destruction by the public or by the media. George W. Bush said there were. Bill and Hillary Clinton said there were. The Russians, French and Germans, who opposed the war, said there were. Hans Blix of the U.N. said there were. But now with a hurricane like Katrina and the objective reality of what happened down there, has the media changed? Has the public changed or found its voice because of the reality or because it's not terrorism?

Mr. Friedman: Well, I think there was a huge amount of projection after 9/11. We really wanted to believe, you know, that the president knew what was going on, had a plan for what was going on and how to respond to the events of 9/11 and Iraq afterwards. Because in moments of insecurity, that's a very natural thing. You want to project onto your leader. Surely he knows what's going on on WMD or any of these other things. And I think what Katrina has done, Katrina in combination with the rising deficit, in combination with an Iraq War not going well has really ripped the curtain away and we see the guy back there behind the curtain like in "The Wizard of Oz," and I think there's a lot of people now stepping back and saying, "Oh, my God. Maybe he doesn't know what's going on."

Mr. Russert: And it's not just liberal or moderate voices, David Brooks. Peggy Noonan, who wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan, a conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal, wrote this on Thursday: "George W. Bush is a big spender. He has never vetoed a spending bill. When Congress serves up a big slab of fat, crackling pork, Mr. Bush responds with one big question: Got any barbecue sauce?"

The president has said he will spend whatever it takes in New Orleans and now more devastation in Texas, the war in Iraq, tax cuts. Is there any truth anymore to the notion that a conservative Republican is someone who believes in fiscal responsibility?

Mr. David Brooks: No. Listen, George Bush, his administration, has spent more on domestic discretionary spending, non-defense spending, twice as much as Bill Clinton, more than Lyndon Johnson. It is not what Republicans expected. I put most of the blame on Congress. But I wouldn't say--I mean, I think it's a mistake to say it's all about Bush. I sort of differ with Tom in that the party--the country has shifted left. I'd say the country has shifted in a direction where it wants authority. What 9/11 exposed was a desire to have authority, some authorities we could trust. Since 9/11, we've had a whole series of cascading authority failures: the WMD failures, the Iraq failures, the church failures, the accounting failures, now the Katrina failures, which wasn't just the failure of Bush. It was a failure up and down government.

There are agencies in Louisiana and New Orleans that were built to respond to a hurricane. This was the most anticipated natural disaster in American history and we failed on every single level. So what we've had is a whole series of institutional failures, starting with the president, but going up and down. So to me, I think there's a huge moment. I think things really--people are impatient and want to reject the president and get to something different, but I wouldn't say it's left-right. I'd say what they want is order and authority, and if I were thinking of a candidate, in a way those would be the words I'd want my candidate to project.

Mr. Russert: The Republicans control both houses of Congress, and as you said, President Bush has been encouraging spending. But the Democrats have not been standing up saying, "Wait, stop." They're still in there fighting for their own projects. David Brooks, you wrote on Thursday: "On one side are those who believe that the [Democratic] party's essential problem is with its political style. The Republicans win because they are simply rougher"--excuse me--"so the Democrats must be just as tough in response. They must match Karl Rove blow for blow. Democrats in this camp are voting against John Roberts" for the Supreme Court "just to show the world, and their donors above all, that they are willing to give no quarter. On the other side are those who believe that the Democratic defeats flow from policy problems, not from campaign style or message framing. They don't believe that Democrats can win wrapped in their own rage ...For them, the crucial challenge is to come up with policies more in tune with voters."

Who's winning that debate within the Democratic Party?

Mr. Brooks: The haters. You know what? You look across the party and you see some Democrats who really are working on policy ideas. I think of John Edwards, Steny Hoyer, one of the House leaders who had a foreign policy document come out this week. But most Democrats seem to be acting as if the main problem with the country is that the country doesn't hate George Bush enough. And if we only shout louder, they'll hate him more like tourists in Paris who think they'll understand us if we scream a little louder. And to me, it's led to the brain death of the Democratic Party. I don't know where the party stands on Iraq. I don't know where it stands on entitlement spending. On issue after issue, I really don't know where that party stands. So we're having a joint race to the bottom here between the two parties, and I think the result is what you're seeing is a dealignment. Voters flaking off the Republicans but not going over to the Democrats. They're just sort of stuck and floating in the middle. Stan Greenberg, Bill Clinton's old pollster, called them dislodged voters. And to me, that means the '08 election is gonna look very different than the '04 or '00.

Mr. Russert: We perhaps saw some evidence of that theory yesterday. More than 100,000 anti-war protesters came to Washington. And you can see there on the screen, one of the speakers was Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died in Iraq. There she is with Jesse Jackson. She denounced George W. Bush but then had a message for members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans. Let's listen.


Ms. Cindy Sheehan: We're going to Congress, and we're going to ask them, "How many more of other people's children are you willing to sacrifice for the lies?" And we're going to say, "Shame on you. Shame on you for giving him the authority to invade Iraq."

(End videotape)

Mr. Russert: Giving the president the authority. Before she came to Washington, Knight Ridder reports this. "En route to Washington for the rally, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan protested outside [Sen. Hillary] Clinton's New York office. `She knows that the war is a lie, but she is waiting for the right time to say it,' Sheehan told about 500 cheering supporters. `You say it or you are losing your job.'"

This is Cindy Sheehan to Hillary Rodham Clinton who very well may be the Democratic nominee in 2008, Maureen.

Ms. Dowd: Well, Hillary's plan has been to lay back and not lead and just let everyone else, all the other Democrats, you know, have stronger voices. But the minute she announces, she's going to have to have a plan about how to get rid of Iraq. I mean, she's actually suggested maybe we should send in more troops and she better have a Nixon-esque secret plan or I think she's in trouble. But I think that, you know, for the Democrats, the problem is that Katrina exposed the incompetence of Iraq and Americans were able to see them on a split screen and the same exact problems existed. They were warned by experts before they went in. They blew it off. They failed to send enough troops early enough to stop the law and order and chaos problems. Then they gave all the no-bid contracts to Halliburton and staffed everything with incompetent Bush loyalists and cronies. So the public can see that this administration has always been incompetent, but the Democrats aren't in a position to take advantage of it because they went along with Bush on authorizing a war based on false premises.

Mr. Russert: In fact, Tom Friedman, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, John Edwards, Joe Biden, Evan Bayh all voted to authorize the president to go to war in Iraq. Those--only senator opposed who's thinking of running for president was Russ Feingold. And there's been some discussion in liberal circles about Al Gore mounting an anti-war campaign for president in 2008. How do you see the divide within the Democratic Party on Iraq and how does that affect the president's ability to execute the war?

Mr. Friedman: Well, I'd say two things, Tim. One is to pick up on something David said. The Democrats generally have had what I would call a drive-by policy. You drive by the White House and you say George Bush and everyone simply is supposed to laugh. It's supposed to be self-evidently obvious that it's wrong and funny and stupid, but there hasn't been a lot of concrete policy-making on Iraq, on a lot of these domestic issues that we've talked about, number one.

Number two, on Iraq. I think we're in the end game now. I don't believe we're going to be in Iraq a year from now in the numbers that we are now because one of two things is going to happen. That's why I think it's all going to pre-empt the next presidential election. Either this process that's unfolding there now of first a referendum on the constitution and then a parliamentary election is going to play out in some decent way. And if it does, I think you're going to see not only a new Iraqi government want us to reduce our numbers there but there's going to be a huge domestic push here to do that, or it's not going to play out. In which case, it's going to be obvious that this is a fiasco and we're going have to fight our way out of there. But I think we're in a six-month window here where it's going to become very clear and this is all going to pre-empt I think the next congressional election--that's my own feeling-- let alone the presidential one.

Mr. Russert: It reminds one of Senator George Aiken of Vermont who advised President Nixon to proclaim victory and withdraw.

Mr. Friedman: Yeah, but there's no--you can't do that in Iraq basically. And that's where the Democratic alternative, whether you agree with how we got here or not, just pulling out, you know, would lead to its own kind of disaster. I just want to say one thing, you know, on the domestic spending. What we're really debating about Katrina in this bidding of--"I'll give you $50 billion. No, I'll give you $60 billion"--and we should call it by its real name. We are debating how much money we are going to borrow from China--OK?--because we're running a deficit, OK? And we're clearly not going to cut spending to make up that money. So the real debate--we should call this by its real name. It's the, "How much money are we going to borrow from China act to rebuild New Orleans?"

Ms. Dowd: Also, Tim, Hillary is going to have to answer the question about why she voted for an invasion that ended up curbing women's rights. I mean, it's not good enough to have women's rights the way we had them 218 years ago with our Constitution which is what they're saying and...

Mr. Russert: Allowing Islam to be the prevailing religion in the state and allowing husbands to take cases to religious courts.

Ms. Dowd: Right. I mean, that's what all the experts predicted and Hillary voted for it anyway.

Mr. Russert: Let me cite something from Tom Friedman's column and then open it up starting with David. This is what Tom wrote on Wednesday. "If Mr. Bush wants to make anything of his second term, he'll have to do his own Nixon-to-China turnaround, reframe the debate and recast the priorities of his presidency. He seems to think that by offering to spend billions of dollars to rebuild one city, New Orleans, he'll get his leadership halo back. Wrong. Just throwing more borrowed money at New Orleans is not leadership. Mr. Bush needs to frame a new agenda for rebuilding all our cities and strengthening the nation as a whole. And what should be the centerpiece of a policy of American renewal is blindingly obvious: making a quest for energy independence the moon shot of our generation."

David, we have a situation in Iraq. We have Saudi Arabia perhaps in a difficult disposition. We have a terrible relationship with Venezuela. Gasoline is now heading to $4 a gallon. Is it possible for Democrats and Republicans to come together, to bring in the automobile executives, the oil executives, the gas executives, energy executives and sit down and say, "We need a Manhattan Project to wean ourselves off of foreign oil"?

Mr. Brooks: Once again, no. You keep asking me questions I have to say no to. Well, it's possible, but it ain't going to happen. I think the Bush administration thinks the price signals will be the thing that creates the most important change to alternative forms of energy. With gas as high as it is, there's just tremendous incentives. And their argument will be, that will create the move to alternative energy sources.

What I think Bush needs to do over the next couple of years--first of all, I don't think he wants to embrace the Nixon analogy, building a Nixon to the 21st century. Not a good slogan for him. But I think he has to go with his heart. And the best part of George Bush has always been a sense of being a Republican who cares about the poor and has an actual instinct about it and a compassion about it. And I think that's why he's gone into this ridiculous spending. So I think what he has to do is build on the New Orleans speech and actually take some of the ideas about poverty and actually execute them effectively with a sense of priorities.

Because we're at a moment in this country where we had a debate for 20 years about: What's the cause of poverty? Is it joblessness, which the liberals were saying? Is it family breakdown, which is what a lot of conservatives were saying? Now, we're at a point where the experts really are seeing the interplay between these two forces. And I saw a hint of it with Bush when he talked in New Orleans the other week. And he understands it, too, and really wants to do something pro-active. And as I say that, you always got to go back to competence. And sometimes in my dark moments, I think he's "The Manchurian Candidate" designed to discredit all the ideas I believe in. And so he has to follow through on that. That's the crucial thing for the next two years for him.

Mr. Russert: Is the imagery of the have v. have nots, the black faces desperately seeking help on rooftops in New Orleans, so indelibly stained in the American consciousness that George Bush could not overcome that?

Mr. Brooks: He built his career on that. You go back to the 2000 campaign, you go to that convention in Philadelphia, it was built on that. Those were the problems he built his campaign on, compassionate conservatism. And so he--that's what he really cares about. In his heart, the things-- Maureen said he gets bored by. There are some things he gets bored by, but this is not one of them. So to me, this is what he has to galvanize around domestically and show that there really is a conservative alternative to addressing some of these problems in response to some liberal alternatives which haven't worked.

Mr. Friedman: I just want to say one thing in response to market forces--letting market forces send the signal for you to go buy a hybrid. When market--when you leave that to market forces, what you do basically is take all that money that we could be galvaniz--that we could be gathering with a gas tax, and you transfer it to Saudi Arabia. We are funding, Tim, both sides in the war on terrorism. And we had a gas tax on the morning of 9/12, 2001, a $1 a gallon gas tax--that money would have gone to our deficits, our schools, our budgets, our infrastructure. Instead it has gone to the infrastructure of Saudi Arabia, some of the worst regimes in the world, who are using that money to kill our soldiers on the ground. We are funding both sides in the war on terrorism. That's what happens when you leave it to the market.

Mr. Russert: Is there the political will for Democrats and Republicans to come together and try to wean ourselves off of foreign oil?

Mr. Friedman: Well, there should be. It's obviously the centerpiece of something that could solve many problems at once. It can deal with the climate change issue. It can deal with our status in the world. It can be an inspiration to get young people to go into math, science and engineering, which we're desperate to do. I'm not saying it's the cure-all of everything, but it can be the centerpiece of an administration which, clearly, to me, not only has no agenda going forward but no way to respond to the real problems facing this country today.

Mr. Russert: Maureen Dowd, be counterintuitive here. Karl Rove calls you up and said, "Maureen, I've been reading your column for the last couple years. Give us advice. What should we do in the second term?"

Ms. Dowd: Well, I think, you know, given what David said, people have talked about whether the Bushes are racist, and I don't think they're racist, but their problem is about class, because they never have understood that when they have this story arc where they go down to Texas and pull themselves up by their bootstraps, that that is--they think that's a true pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. They didn't accept the fact that they always have Daddy's friends to help them. And until they can see reality, then--you know, Bush's--say he's a good third- or fourth-quarter player, after Katrina. Well, that's not good enough for people who don't have Daddy's friends to help. And until he accepts that about himself, you know, he can't move on, I don't think.

Mr. Russert: The president's been very resistant to talk about tax cuts or certainly the repeal of them. Is there any possibility he would say, "We have these massive deficits. I believe in the war in Iraq. It's going to bring democracy to the Middle East. I believe in rebuilding New Orleans and helping the people of Texas. But to the people in my income bracket, I have to freeze the tax cut I had planned"?

Mr. Brooks: I don't know how many ways to say this--no, non, nyet. Listen, Bush believes in the tax policy of his administration. I don't. I think in time of war, you don't cut taxes. That's me, personally. But Bush's argument is that we need to grow. That's the most important thing. Tax revenues went up this year by $262 billion, the quickest revenue gain maybe in American history. And his argument is we got to keep that revenue coming in and we need a strong economy, we need low taxes.

Mr. Russert: Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, what do you think?

Mr. Friedman: Well, I think that if you look at the amount of money that we have cut taxes and the incredible contribution it has made to the deficit, you would think we would have gotten a little more buzz in this economy, Tim, than what, 3 1/2, you know, percent growth, 3 percent growth. We have gone into debt, OK, at a massive level, and the result of that has not been a great improvement in our infrastructure, in our engineering, in the number of young people empowered and able to compete in the world tomorrow. So I just don't buy that. I think we have--we are now in a position where China has-- they're heading for $1 trillion, OK, of our--in reserves that they're going to be holding, basically. And the leverage that is going to give China over the United States in the coming years, God knows where-- how that's going to play out. Everyone says, well, it's going to be fine. It's going to be fine, Tim, until it isn't, and you're never going to know when that's going to happen.

Mr. Russert: Would there have been less growth without these tax cuts?

Mr. Friedman: I--probably. But you know, Clinton certainly proved you can grow with a much more responsible fiscal policy than Bush has.

Mr. Russert: Do you see a more energized George Bush because of the hurricanes and focusing on the issues that David talked about?

Ms. Dowd: No. I mean, he's running around acting like a "Today" show weatherman. I think he's looking for a photo op. He doesn't realize that Americans are in an identity crisis. We're wondering, if we can't take care of our own, our most vulnerable in society, who are we? If we can't, you know, deal competently with Iraq, who are we? We blew off the allies on global warming and helping us with Iraq and we bullied them. And The Post had a story about how Bush is looking--you know, you have presidents who are trying to--you fight for their soul or their brain, but in this case it's his cowboy. Laura wants him to be less of a cowboy and his other aides want him to be more of one to get back the White House confidence. But that's not what it's about.

Mr. Russert: To be continued. Three New York Times columnists with very different views. Thank you all for joining us.

Congratulations to the Boston College Eagles. Their first ACC victory. Went to Death Valley and beat Clemson.

We'll be right back.


Mr. Russert: For more information on today's guests and topics, check out the Meet the Press Web site. You can also download the audio of today's entire program on your computer or MP3 player. Meet the Press podcast, all at

That's all for today. We'll be back next week. If it's Sunday, it's Meet the Press.

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