Guests: Sam Donaldson, Janet Langhart Cohen, William Cohen
ANNOUNCER: Deborah Norville tonight.
DEBORAH NORVILLE, HOST: A view from the top. He covered three administrations and made a name for himself as the reporter who never shied away from the tough questions.
SAM DONALDSON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Does any of the blame belong to you?
NORVILLE: Tonight, former White House correspondent Sam Donaldson speaks his mind again. His thoughts on how President Bush is handling the political fallout from the war in Iraq and how the Oval Office beat has changed since his days in the White House as a gadfly.
DONALDSON: If you don‘t want to answer my question, I understand.
I‘ll find another one then.
NORVILLE: Plus the Pentagon‘s power couple. He used to be the top gun at the Defense Department, but she sometimes stole the spotlight.
JANET LANGHART COHEN, WILLIAM COHEN‘S WIFE: I think you ought to give yourselves a big hand.
NORVILLE: You‘ll understand why when you hear the remarkable story of her rise from poverty to the top of Washington‘s social elite.
Tonight former Defense Secretary William Cohen and his wife Janet Langhart Cohen share their own thoughts on the war in Iraq and how this former first lady of the Pentagon found a new calling, rallying behind America‘s troops.
ANNOUNCER: From Studio 3-K in Rockefeller Center, Deborah Norville.
NORVILLE: And good evening, everybody. Lots to talk about tonight, with my first guest, legendary ABC News White House correspondent Sam Donaldson. Sam joins us tonight from Washington, D.C.
Thanks for being with us. Good to see you.
DONALDSON: Good to be here. Pleasure to be here, Deborah.
NORVILLE: The story that continues to make headlines is the whole spreading net that‘s connected to the Iraqi prison abuse. Now the latest that‘s come from “The New Yorker” is that there was a secret plan to do the kind of interrogation and humiliation that we‘ve seen this photographic evidence of approved by Secretary Rumsfeld, with the permission of Condoleezza Rice, and the knowledge of the president.
How far is this going to extend?
DONALDSON: Well, I don‘t know. The Pentagon, as you know, flatly denies that there‘s any such plan as described by Seymour Hersh. But when you say, well, was there any plan at all, any secret plan, they‘re silent about that.
So I don‘t know whether we‘re just going semantics or in fact, Hersh doesn‘t have the story right. We‘re just going to have to see.
NORVILLE: And there were denials, as well, from people at the CIA and elsewhere.
But today at a commencement address, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that there will be multiple investigations conducted by the Department of Defense.
I mean, clearly, there‘s—there‘s a move on the part of the Defense Department to find out what the specifics are and get that out in front of the public.
DONALDSON: Deborah, they‘re all up to their eyeballs in investigations, I mean, all over town, beginning with the president, and the Defense Department. I mean, this is going to drag on all summer and into next year, as you know. So this is just one more to add to the president‘s problems.
NORVILLE: And in the meantime, it clearly is a problem, if you look at the latest poll numbers that are out today. Across the board, the “TIME”/CNN poll, the “Newsweek” poll, the Zogby poll all showing a significant percentage drop, although it could be within the statistical margin of error on a couple of these. But clearly the president is taking a hit on this.
DONALDSON: Absolutely. You know, you look historically and you find that a president running for re-election with the poll numbers like our president has at the moment is not re-elected.
But then we used to say that if you didn‘t win in the New Hampshire primary you couldn‘t be elected president, and along came Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. So I‘m not sure that the historical record is something that we ought to pay attention to.
NORVILLE: And all of those truisms come from a day when the new cycle wasn‘t as lightning fast as it is now. Things change in a minute, a nanosecond in some cases, news wise.
DONALDSON: Absolutely. I mean, I don‘t know how everyone can keep up with it. I certainly can‘t. I mean, I‘ll give it the old college try. But we are deluged with news.
And one of the problems, Deborah, as you know is there are people who try to check the facts. Sometimes we get it wrong, but we make the effort. And then there are a million web sites. You can find almost any cockamamie theory that you want on a website, and if you think it‘s true there it is challenging those of us who try to check the facts. It‘s a real problem.
NORVILLE: But let‘s look specifically at how the president‘s numbers have come down.
What do you attribute that to, just the growing number of stories with regard to the Iraqi prison situation in specific, or general concern that Iraq is not going the way this country thought it would have been by this point in time?
DONALDSON: Well, it‘s almost like a Chinese water torture, drip by drip, drip by drip. If by the end of the strike in Iraq, which was brilliantly executed by our military in, what, less than three and a half weeks in the center of Baghdad, if at that point things had begun to work out.
And in fact, if we had been greeted as liberators by the great mass of the Iraqi people, we wouldn‘t be where we are today, but things immediately started going wrong.
And I think from the standpoint of the president, he now is under the gun in the sense that people say, well, you know, he thought he was going to be this way and told us it was going to be that way but it doesn‘t look that way to us.
And all of the people who can stand in Washington—and Deborah, I‘ve seen them for years and years, administration after administration, saying but don‘t you understand, it‘s all going to work out. I think people are losing faith in that.
NORVILLE: Compare this crises for this president with some of the others that you‘ve covered, with the—the Iran-Contra crises with President Reagan, with the Iraqi hostage situation that Jimmy Carter had to deal with.
How is this president doing in handling this particular issue?
DONALDSON: Well, let‘s go back and say it‘s not as bad as Watergate.
NORVILLE: I didn‘t go that far back.
DONALDSON: I know you didn‘t.
In the case of Mr. Carter, I mean, he just—the ayatollah just got him, along with other things, gas lines, what have you.
In the case of Iran-Contra, I think and a lot of people think that Ronald Reagan, for all of his support in this country, would have been the subject of a serious impeachment investigation in the House of Representatives if he hadn‘t done one important thing.
I think it was Howard baker, remember the former senator from Tennessee who was then his chief of staff, who helped persuade him to go on television on March 6 and say, “I was wrong. I did it and I‘m sorry.”
Now, when presidents say “I‘m wrong,” it is a historical event. And so far, in the case of George W. Bush, he hasn‘t been able to say that.
NORVILLE: He hasn‘t been able to say that. He was given the opportunity pointblank at the most recent press conference that he had. And he actually made a joke about it at the correspondence dinner a couple of weeks later.
He said, “Yes, the mistake I made was calling on you that night at the press conference.” But he hasn‘t been able to say some of the prognostications that we made going into this have not panned out as of yet.
DONALDSON: Well, that‘s the problem. I mean, if everything works out, if between now and election day in November, things get much better in Iraq, but look at it, Deborah.
We say we‘re going to turn over in, what, 42, 43 days, sovereignty to a new Iraqi interim government. We don‘t know who that is. We don‘t even have names yet, let alone their exact ability to do something or something else. I want you to think of what Colin Powell said the other day, though.
Do you remember when he was pressed on whether we would withdraw our forces if this interim government asked us to? He said, “Well, I don‘t think that will happen but if they do, we‘ll withdraw.”
Now listen to that. It seems to me the president is on a two-track situation here. On one track he‘s saying publicly we‘re going to stay the course; we‘re going to see it out. And on another track they‘re desperately looking for a way to get out.
NORVILLE: Well, doesn‘t that give them the out, if you say publicly if asked, we will leave and...
DONALDSON: Yes, but it‘s a fig leaf that I don‘t think anyone will believe if, in fact, we leave chaos and continued killings and a government which can‘t function.
I mean, we‘ve got to leave to succeed. And the president described the mission himself early on. We‘ve got to leave a Democratic government in Iraq that represents the people and with freedom that is no longer a menace to anyone in the region or to ourselves.
If we leave chaos or a government that clearly collapses because we knew the bad guys were still there, we‘re going to be, what, if I only thought we‘d be laughingstocks, I guess we could, you know, survive that, but we‘re going to make our ourselves less secure, not more, for having struck.
NORVILLE: Let‘s talk about the press coverage of this—this latest wrinkle in the Iraqi situation, the prison photos from Abu Ghraib prison.
The other day Sean Hannity on his national radio show actually played the audio recording of the killing of Nick Berg, the American over there looking for telecommunications work.
And then later the “Dallas Morning News” had the cover—had on its cover a photograph which we have blacked out, as did the newspaper, holding this young man‘s head. Presumably this was his murderer.
Is the news media just completely wacky here? What‘s going on?
DONALDSON: Well, yes, I think we‘re often completely wacky. I‘ll plead wackiness on occasion, Deborah.
But what I think is going on is a struggle for the propaganda percentages here in the United States. And it kind of—I think it‘s strange.
I think a lot of people that want us to show this terrible beheading of Nicholas Berg—I‘m for freedom of the press. Believe me—Do so because they think it will stiffen the will of the American public to prosecute that war.
Well, they might be right. But it also might cause the American public or some significant percentage of it to say, you know, that‘s another reason why we should get out.
I think they‘re playing a dangerous game, because when you say to them, all right, then you‘re also for showing the caskets with flags draped on our heroes coming back...
NORVILLE: You can‘t have it both ways.
DONALDSON: Oh, they don‘t want to do that. I think they‘re trying to use pictures, many of them, in order to prosecute a certain view.
And if we in the press say, all right, we we‘ll do that. We‘ll use this picture but not that picture because we have a particular ideological view or a position in mind, we‘re lost.
NORVILLE: Do you believe that this is just the press making these decisions or in a way that Ronald Reagan‘s administration did to great effect, the administration helping to determine which photographic images get out there?
DONALDSON: Oh, you‘re right. Ronald Reagan started the modern use of the pictures. Before that presidents would say, “Well I want you to cover this. I hope you do. But if you don‘t, there‘s nothing I can do about it.”
Beginning with Mr. Reagan, presidents have said, “This is what we‘ll show you. You can take it or leave it. But if you leave it, there‘s nothing else.” And they direct the coverage.
Well, I guess that‘s fair. I‘m not charging a crime, maybe a slight misdemeanor but not a crime there. But they do it expertly.
But in the case of Ronald Reagan, he used pictures so brilliantly.
And I thought the other day when we were talking about this business of the caskets of how we went out on June 22, I think it was 1983. The record will show. And he pinned Purple Hearts on the caskets of four Marines who‘d been killed in El Salvador. He saw nothing wrong with showing those pictures.
NORVILLE: When we come back we‘re going to talk more about politics and what the impact on the Kerry campaign of all this is. Sam Donaldson is my guest. And more with Sam right after this message.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALDSON: Let‘s just check it right this minute, Smarty-pants. Get in there and check it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALDSON: Do you support Senator Dole‘s call?
RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me just say without whether I supported it or not...
DONALDSON: Do you support Senator Dole‘s call?
REAGAN: I said that I wasn‘t going to comment whether I supported it or not.
DONALDSON: If I don‘t want to answer my question, I understand but may I try another one then?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
NORVILLE: That was Sam Donaldson back in 1982, covering the Reagan White House. Back now with the White House correspondent who was never laid back when he did his job.
Sam, it doesn‘t seem like press conferences are as interesting these days as they were back then.
DONALDSON: Can you imagine I was that cheeky as what you just showed?
NORVILLE: You were. It was—it made for good TV. I‘m not sure if it made for good information.
DONALDSON: Well, you know, press conferences aren‘t as numerous as they used to be.
Now, Ronald Reagan didn‘t hold a lot of conferences. I‘d better not try to correct the historical record. But other presidents have. This president hasn‘t held many at all. So when he holds one, like once a year for prime time, it‘s a real event.
And reporters have, what a year‘s worth of questions built up, plus the fact that there‘s something immediate like Iraq. And so they ask all the questions on Iraq and don‘t get a chance to ask other questions.
But I think that‘s one of the reasons this president who, like his father, doesn‘t like news conferences doesn‘t hold many of them.
NORVILLE: Does he like the press, do you think, George W. Bush?
DONALDSON: I don‘t think he likes—I think he likes individual reporters, but as a institution I think he‘s very suspicious of it.
All presidents dislike being—seeing themselves in the press in ways they don‘t like. But Ronald Reagan understood it was our job. I never saw Reagan get angry at a reporter. I think he understood what we were doing.
And Jimmy Carter sort of did. Toward the end of his administration he wasn‘t happy.
DONALDSON: But I think this president—you know, I‘m from West Texas, Deborah, and I understand us West Texans. I think he says, “I‘m trying to do the best job I can for this country. Now I‘ll let you know when you need to know something. Other than that, butt out.”
NORVILLE: Well, that‘s going to go right against the grain of any reporter...
DONALDSON: Oh, boy, does it?
NORVILLE: ... because our job is to get the information.
DONALDSON: Yes, that‘s right.
NORVILLE: Tell me about what you think happened yesterday on “Meet the Press.” I want to roll the tape when Tim Russert was talking to Secretary of State Powell and there was this little interlude where one of his press agents apparently intervened.
Let‘s take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TIM RUSSERT, MODERATOR, “MEET THE PRESS”: Finally, Mr. Secretary, in February of 2003 you placed your enormous personality credibility before the United Nations and laid out a case against Saddam Hussein citing...
COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: He‘s still asking the questions.
Tim, I‘m sorry, I lost you.
RUSSERT: I‘m right here, Mr. Secretary. I would hope they would put you back on camera. I don‘t know who did that. I think that was one your staff, Mr. Secretary. I don‘t think that‘s appropriate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
NORVILLE: And then, of course, the camera did go right back to Secretary Powell and he finished the interview. What happened there? What‘s the behind-the-scenes story?
DONALDSON: I‘ll tell you what I think happened there. Tim faced him down, and he won.
Now, as you know, Deborah, everyone has a slot. Fifteen minutes and then it goes to Fox or then it goes to CBS or somebody like that. The secretary does these numerous interviews one after another.
And Tim had gone a little long. Now we all do that. I can‘t criticize, you know, the pot calling the kettle black. But the press aide decided, well, he‘d exceeded his time. We told them that they‘re over their time. And when he kept questioning, then they moved the camera off.
And Tim was alert enough to say what you just saw: “What‘s going on here?” And it looked like—and Powell is very smart. He understood...
NORVILLE: He‘s not going to look like the bad guy on national television.
DONALDSON: It looked like he didn‘t want to answer the questions, he couldn‘t face a tough question of Tim Russert, so he says to his press secretary, get the camera back here and he answers the question.
So Tim simply faced him down. Whether he‘d gone over or not is not his concern, and if Fox loses out, that‘s too bad, and he won.
NORVILLE: And I guess the press aide got a little dressing down from somebody, probably, after everybody went their separate directions.
DONALDSON: You know, her name is Emily Miller, and I can never prove this unless one of them confesses, but I‘ll bet when it was over she didn‘t get a dressing down from Colin Powell except to say, “Well, you see that didn‘t work.”
NORVILLE: Let‘s try it differently next time.
I want to talk about John Kerry. He—he has been unable, given the fact that President Bush‘s polling ratings are going down, he seems to be unable to capitalize on a lot of the disarray that the administration is having to deal with right now.
What‘s going on?
DONALDSON: Well, Deborah, someone else made the point with which I agree, that first of all, it‘s about the president.
Any incumbent running for re-election, here in the United States, we decide do we want to keep him? Because even though we don‘t have a king, regicide is something that people don‘t want to do. They want to keep a president if they can.
And so at the moment, people are deciding they don‘t like what they see. They‘ve not yet made up their mind they‘re going to abandon George W. Bush completely. And so John Kerry is standing there.
Remember Iowa? Remember what happened? Remember who was ahead?
NORVILLE: He waited for Howard Dean to just flame out.
DONALDSON: Right. Howard Dean was ahead by 20 points until the last several days, and then Democrats decided for various reasons “I don‘t want this guy to run. I don‘t think he could win.” And John Kerry was standing there. And he won.
NORVILLE: Do you think Iraq is going to be the campaign issue this year?
DONALDSON: I‘m an old-fashioned guy. I think the economy almost always controls these kinds of elections.
Now if Iraq is in flames, if we really, clearly are getting—getting to have to leave without accomplishing our mission, I think a lot of people would be terribly upset.
But this president needs a booming economy to come back from that 46, 47 percent. If he doesn‘t have it, that‘s what I think might sink him.
NORVILLE: And depending on whether the jobless recovery has given you a job or not and, depending on whether it really hurts when you fill up the gasoline tank, those are the issues that voters feel and care about every day.
DONALDSON: Deborah, I hate to quote Ronald Reagan again, but he said a lot of interesting things, which was, you know, “When the other fellow is out of work it‘s a recession. When I‘m out of work, it‘s a depression.”
NORVILLE: It‘s a depression. Absolutely.
Sam, I want to talk about you for the last couple of minutes we‘ve got left.
NORVILLE: Mois? Yes, vous. You‘ve just ended your radio program on the ABC radio network. Was that a bittersweet ending for you?
DONALDSON: I enjoyed it thoroughly. I had a great time. Listeners would call in. I wanted to let all flowers bloom. In other words you wanted call and say, “I love George W. Bush; he‘s a great president.” Fine, I wanted to listen to that.
If you wanted to call in and say, “Hey, I don‘t like him. I think we should throw him out,” I want to listen to that.
But talk radio today, as you know Deborah, is all on the right. Can you name—now if you want to say Al Franken, I think he hasn‘t proved himself yet.
DONALDSON: Can you think of anyone who‘s not following in the path of Rush Limbaugh? Brilliantly created. I mean, you have to hand it to Rush, whether you like his style or his ideology or not.
And then after Rush came people like Sean Hannity and Michael Reagan and Neal Boreshan (ph) and Oliver North and G. Gordon Liddy. I don‘t have time to name them all.
I‘m not in that mode. I really—I don‘t think I‘m extreme left. You can think whatever you want, folks, out there. But I wanted to let all flowers bloom.
NORVILLE: And how is your health? You had a very publicized situation a few years ago.
DONALDSON: Cancer. I‘m a member of the melanoma club within the great cancer club.
You know, when cancer strikes, it‘s always stalking. But if you‘re lucky, and so far I am, you know, you‘ll be hit by a truck at age 100 running after someone across the street. And so far so good for me.
NORVILLE: And you have absolutely no intention, I‘m guessing, of going out to the ranch in New Mexico and watching the sheep grow fur or whatever sheep do on ranches in New Mexico?
DONALDSON: There‘s no rain. There‘s no rain in New Mexico. We sold all of the sheep. We have some cattle. We sold most of them. Because without rain. I see Ann Venemen, the secretary of the agriculture, once in awhile say, “Madam Secretary, I think you‘re doing a great job except you don‘t bring the rain.”
So Deborah, let‘s face it: if you really retire, you die. And I‘m not going to retire. I intend to live forever.
NORVILLE: Well, Sam, I think once upon a time you said if television hadn‘t been invented you would be simply going door to door, and we‘d love for you to knock on our door any time you like.
DONALDSON: And I‘d love to do it, Deborah. Always a pleasure to see you.
DONALDSON: Nice to have you with us. Sam Donaldson, thank you so much.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANNOUNCER: Up next former, Defense Secretary William Cohen and his wife Janet Langhart Cohen, with their thoughts on how the Bush administration is handling the war in Iraq and Janet‘s never-ending mission to boost the morale of America‘s fighting forces.
J. COHEN: Couldn‘t be No. 1 in the world without them. They‘re America‘s finest.
ANNOUNCER: Deborah Norville tonight is coming right back.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
NORVILLE: William S. Cohen served as secretary of defense during the Clinton administration. His wife, Janet Langhart Cohen, was known as the first lady of the Pentagon.
They are a true power couple. The former senator from Maine, a Republican, and the former television personality, anchor, a Democrat. In her new memoir called “From Rage to Reason: my life in Two Americas,” Janet Langhart Cohen chronicles her own incredible journey, a child bridging the era of segregation and integration, a fashion model using the black‘s only facilities, a young television journalist who was told that she was too white for a black audience and too black for a white audience.
Now the wife of a Washington power broker, she‘s making her own mark in a very insular and very white world. And with me tonight is Washington‘s power couple, Janet Langhart Cohen, and former secretary of defense William Cohen.
It‘s good to see you both.
J. COHEN: Thanks, Deborah.
WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Good to be here.
NORVILLE: I want to talk all about the book, because it‘s really great. I had a great time with it this weekend.
But I‘ve got the former defense secretary here, so I‘ve got to ask you, Mr. Secretary, about what‘s going on in Iraq. Do you think that the situation could be stabilized enough that the hand-off on June 30 can go through as planned safely?
W. COHEN: The handover is going to be political only. They‘re not handing over the security. They‘re trying to create a new governmental architecture, as such, with Mr. Brahimi of the United Nations, organizing this architecture.
So it‘s going to be a handover of political authority. It will not be full-fledged, because that‘s going to take place once there is an election next year.
But nonetheless, the troops are going to remain there in significant numbers. In fact, there are some stories coming out that we may even increase the level of troops beyond the 137,000 and increase it another 4,000, possibly, and beyond that.
NORVILLE: Well, today the White House announced that about 3,700 troops are going to be coming from South Korea cycling in to take off, as they put it, some of the pressure on the people that are serving in Iraq right now.
W. COHEN: And it may take more. It may take more.
NORVILLE: What do you think it really needs to do the job correctly, safely, effectively, to ensure democracy in Iraq?
W. COHEN: Well, you don‘t want to second-guess the commanders on the ground. They will make that determination in terms of what they need. But what is missing right now most of all for the Iraqi people is a sense of physical security.
The goals of the coalition are pretty—pretty well stated. No. 1, they want to rebuild the infrastructure so you have oil, gas, water, all of the necessities of quality of life.
Secondly, you need to have your own police force, as such, for the internal security and then a well-equipped army that can serve as a security force and then finally political legitimacy. All of those three sides of the triangle are under attack, and the key element is security for the Iraqi people.
NORVILLE: They can‘t even—I mean, today there was the current head of the Iraqi Governing Council. It‘s a rotating position. The guy who‘s been in there for just a very brief period of time was blown up in a car bomb on the side of the road.
W. COHEN: Well, a number of Iraqis are being killed, quite a few Iraqis are being killed in this process. That‘s why you need to have—basically you need to show the Iraqi people that you are there to win. Because you can‘t win unless you have the support of the Iraqi people.
It‘s one of these...
NORVILLE: But it‘s like this circle that just keeps going and going and going.
W. COHEN: And that‘s why you‘ve got to have, in my judgment, additional forces to send the signal that we are not on our way out. We are on our way in in numbers that will be sufficient to tell you that we‘re going to provide the kind of security that is not fully there right now.
NORVILLE: I want to bring up an excerpt from Bob Woodward‘s new book in which you are quoted as having weighed in on the whole Iraq situation.
He says: “Cohen believed that the new administration would soon see the reality about Iraq, that they would not find much, if any support among other countries in the region or the world for strong action against Saddam, which would mean going it alone in any large-scale attack. When everything was weighed, Cohen predicted the new team would soon back off and find—quote -- ‘reconciliation‘ with Saddam, who he felt was effectively contained and isolated.”
Do you feel any differently?
W. COHEN: I‘m not sure they would have found reconciliation with Saddam. That was not possible.
At the time that we were there and I was serving as secretary of defense, we felt that Saddam was reasonably well contained. He couldn‘t move in the north, couldn‘t move in the south. We had him basically pinned down. He was cheating, to be sure, on the oil-for-food program and we understood there was oil going out through southern Iraq, also going through the north even through Turkey.
But we felt that he did not pose a threat to the region because we had him under control; 9/11 obviously changed the thinking of certainly the administration and perhaps others on that.
NORVILLE: The thinking has certainly has changed since those terrible photos of the Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib came out. And there‘s one photo in particular that “Newsweek” magazine singles out in its article week. It‘s the one with the black hood. And what they specifically say is, this kind of torture wouldn‘t have been thought up by just some rank-and-file soldier, that this is someone who was skilled in the art of interrogation.
What does this photograph tell you?
W. COHEN: Well, it may very well be that this investigation or a
series of investigations are going to really try to get to the bottom of
how wide this circle of influence was, whether it was simply a few people -
· rather unlikely. But how wide and how far and up the chain of command did it go, that‘s what the investigations are for.
But this is a serious, serious issue that the administration has to contend with. It has undermined that effort of winning the hearts and minds. Certainly, it‘s compromised it. And so hopefully, it can be corrected. But it‘s going to take a vigorous action on the part of the administration to hold people who were responsible, hold them accountable. And that‘s the purpose of the investigation right now.
NORVILLE: And, Janet, I wonder, in terms of undermining, I wonder what the impact has been on just the soldiers out there trying to do their jobs and do that good fight?
J. COHEN: Oh, I think Deborah, I think it has hurt their morale just a little bit. But they know that is a small percentage of the people who have dishonored the finest military in the world.
I come from a group of people who understand what it‘s like when one person does something bad and the whole group gets brushed with that. That is not the military that we know, that we saw. These are honorable men and women. They stand out there on the front lines for us every day. And we here at home get to sleep under a blanket of freedom because they‘re there lacing up those boots and fighting for us and our interests.
NORVILLE: One of the things that you did that I don‘t recall any other secretary of defense‘s wife doing is, you put your boots on. You put on the combat fatigues on and you accompanied your husband on tens of thousands of miles of road trips out there rallying the troops.
What would you say today if you had the opportunity to do what Secretary Rumsfeld did the other day, pop into Baghdad and do a meet and greet, if you will, with the men and women there?
J. COHEN: Oh, well, you‘re asking me to do something above my pay grade, to do what a secretary of defense would do. That‘s probably a better question for Bill.
NORVILLE: But if you were in the job today as the first lady.
J. COHEN: If I were the first lady of the Pentagon—and it‘s funny you say that term, first lady of the Pentagon.
NORVILLE: Who thought that up? That sounds kind of weird.
J. COHEN: I don‘t know where they—because I thought of myself more as their mother. That‘s a higher calling. I cared about their lives and the quality of their lives.
And I felt the secretary of defense and General Myers did the right thing by going over there to lift their morale and look them in the eye and tell them, they are supporting them and what happened in that prison does not represent them. And I think when you look back on this Iraqi war, I think that the people in Iraq will say to their children and their children will say to their children, you have freedom and democracy and a different way of life because we were here and we sacrificed with you.
I think history will be the one to decide whether or not we‘re doing
the right thing. I was one of the ones who questioned the wisdom of our
going in. But now that we‘re there, we must prevail and we must support
the men and women
J. COHEN: ... and the coalition. Absolutely.
NORVILLE: Secretary Cohen, what do you think is going to happen with Secretary Rumsfeld? Do you think it is conceivable that the abuses that we have seen documented in these photos could have been approved by the secretary of defense?
W. COHEN: Well, Secretary Rumsfeld has contradicted and denied those allegations that are contained in the most recent reports, Sy Hersh, great reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner. So he carries a lot of credibility.
But Secretary Rumsfeld indicated that under no circumstances did he authorize this type of conduct. So we will have to wait and see exactly what the investigations prove out.
NORVILLE: Isn‘t the credibility, though, somewhat tarnished? The Pentagon knew at certain levels at least of the abuses that were going on. An investigation did not begin until January, at least two months after that knowledge was fairly well-known, at least within the higher levels of the Central Command in Iraq.
W. COHEN: The real question is, to what degree did the secretary or his direct associates know, or was it simply report coming up there, allegations of abuse? How but information did they have? Did they or should they have gone further to request more detailed information?
I don‘t think we know enough about that at this point. He has the support of the president. That‘s critical. He serves at the pleasure of the president.
W. COHEN: No. 2, can he be effective in his job? That means, does he have the support of his colleagues in the Pentagon, both uniform and nonmilitary? And then can he work effectively with the Congress? That all remains to be seen, but it would be premature to make a judgment. He is tough. He has been a loyal, dedicated public servant during much of his lifetime.
So I think that we have to wait. The jury is still out on this one.
NORVILLE: How long should the jury be out—I‘m sorry. I‘m losing my voice. Excuse me.
How long should the jury be out? Isn‘t this something where time is of the essence in making a determination?
W. COHEN: I think time is of the essence and that‘s why Senator McCain and others are calling for an expedited inquiry into this, so it can be resolved as quickly as possible. I don‘t think there‘s too much time to lose on this one.
NORVILLE: All right. I have lost my voice.
J. COHEN: I don‘t know where we are. Are you going to break because I have a question he won‘t answer at home.
NORVILLE: OK. Well, you know what? Can you hold that because I‘m going to find my voice during the commercial break.
J. COHEN: OK.
NORVILLE: When we come back, we are going to talk more about what is going on in Iraq, and also this incredible story of Janet Cohen‘s life.
Back in a moment.
NORVILLE: Growing up during the civil rights movement to becoming the wife of a U.S. senator and secretary of defense, Janet Langhart Cohen‘s remarkable story in a moment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to thank his wife, Janet, who, more than any other American citizen, has tirelessly traveled this world to show the support we all feel for our troops.
Thank you, Janet Cohen. I appreciate it. Thank you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
NORVILLE: That was President Clinton in his final State of the Union address in 2000 saluted Janet Langhart Cohen for her patriotism.
I‘m back with the former Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen and his wife.
Her new book is called “From Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas.”
You didn‘t know he was going to do that, did you?
J. COHEN: That was a moment, because, when we got into the limo to go to the Capitol, they always give you—as you know as a journalist, they give you what the president is going to say. So I was kind of reading through it. And Bill sat next to Janet Reno that night. And when I heard the name Janet, I didn‘t think anything of it. I thought he was going to acknowledge Janet Reno.
And somebody behind me was pushing me, saying, Janet, get up. He is talking about you. I love Bill Clinton. He gave us an opportunity of a lifetime. He gave bill and me a chance to serve this country. And we found out that anything is possible here in America, from travels, from meeting the people. I am going to let you talk, Deborah.
NORVILLE: No, no, no, but the road that you took to get there is extraordinary. You grew up in a single parent home. Your father was absent. Your mother struggled.
J. COHEN: She was mother and father to us.
NORVILLE: Mother and father to you and your siblings. And you made it through some incredible odds. What was the toughest part of your childhood growing up poor in Indiana?
J. COHEN: I don‘t know what the toughest part was then. But when you look back on it, you say, I was poor. I did live in a very segregated, hate-filled America.
But we have come a long way. And despite that, we have a long way to go. But I remember hearing stories about my father coming home from World War II, having served in the military that fought the Nazis, and coming back to have to sit on the back of the bus and fight the Klan, members of his own citizenry. He had to fight the Klan and the haters.
And then, of course, I grow up and I become the wife of the secretary of defense and get to represent that military and this country all over the world.
NORVILLE: You write in your book, on page 28, you said: “Deep in my heart, I believed it was my destiny to transcend the limitations of a racist society and reach a pinnacle of success.” This was when you were 18 years old, that you had this epiphany.
How did you know that despite what was a difficult time for blacks in America that you were going to persevere and triumph over?
J. COHEN: Because my mother, who was really the hero in my life, my mother told me, she said, there are things that you won‘t be able to do, or there are things you will be able to do that we can‘t do now. She was teaching me my prayers and my ABCs, but she was also teaching me that I was colored and there were people in this country who wouldn‘t like me because of it.
But I must not judge people or measure people by something they can‘t help. And she said, get your education. Practice abstinence, because America will change. Be ready. Mother had faith in this country and confidence in me. And she was right. So I knew the sky was the limit.
NORVILLE: So fast forward. Janet becomes a fixture on the Ebony Fashion Fair, which was a really big deal back then.
J. COHEN: It still is a big deal, but especially then in 1962,
because black models, women who aspired to be
NORVILLE: God, were you good-looking. You still are, but, boy, are you hot.
J. COHEN: Thank you, a lot thinner then.
J. COHEN: But we aspired to be same things that other models wanted to be. But Ebony, Ebony Fashion Fair was our outlet. Mr. Johnson, who owns “Ebony” and “Jet” magazines, gave me the opportunity.
And that opportunity would not have happened if not for Cordi King (ph), a beautiful black model who came along. She‘s the same age as my mother. And she said the same thing to me: I want you to have the things I can‘t have. And she gave me that opportunity. And I can track my whole life up to meeting Bill from that moment. My mother gave me life, but Cordi King gave my career life.
NORVILLE: And it was when you were a news entertainer, presenter, local talk show host in Boston that this good looking guy from Maine wondered through. But you didn‘t get to interview him.
J. COHEN: No, they wouldn‘t let me. Deborah, you read the book.
NORVILLE: I read the book.
J. COHEN: They wouldn‘t let me interview him, not because of anything between us, but in those days, women were in the kitchen and they had me doing the cooking segments and some of the entertainment segments.
And when it came to substance, the men got to do that. So I called Andrew Young, who is a mutual friend of ours. Andy was serving—Andy—
I knew Andy from the civil rights movement with Dr. King. But Andy was serving in the Congress at the same time Bill was. He was a representative from your state, Georgia.
NORVILLE: Right, Georgia.
J. COHEN: And I said, Andy, I have got to do these heavy interviews because Watergate is big news up here in Boston. It‘s big news everywhere. Can you help me? He said, well, there‘s a young man that‘s passing through, Bill Cohen. He lives up in Maine. He has got to go to Boston. He will do the show. Talk to him. I will call him for you.
And I would talk to Bill and say, help me? What do you say? Who is he, E. Howard Hunt? Who is Chuck Colson? Who is G. Gordon Liddy?
NORVILLE: And when did you know that there were sparks between you and Janet?
W. COHEN: Almost from the moment that we met. I saw beauty, but I saw brains. I saw a strong woman who really was extraordinary. And the people who have all read this book and commented about it, that‘s the one word that you will find, remarkable, extraordinary, the combination of beauty and brains and strength, moral strength, someone who rages at injustice.
That is all captured in this book and in this person.
NORVILLE: In the book, Janet talks about being an interracial couple
and how that has had moments when people are incredibly insensitive,
comments that people have made. You may not want to comment. Just, my
J. COHEN: One, he came home and he stunned me. I won‘t say the name of the U.S. senator, but one U.S. senator that was serving with Bill said, which one of Janet‘s parents is white? And so Bill said, neither one. Why? Well, she is so intelligent. That just took my breath away. I couldn‘t—he didn‘t mean any harm. One other...
NORVILLE: Didn‘t you want to just go jack his jaw?
NORVILLE: ... an official Washington thing to do.
J. COHEN: No, I wanted to go and enlighten him and do a little bit of psychology 101 and cognitive dissonance because I think a great many people in this country, mostly, white people feel that black people are just a certain way.
And when they see some that don‘t fit that picture, rather than changing their picture, they want to change me and make me something different. So he didn‘t mean any harm. And I think he has been enlightened since. He‘s been in our company quite a bit.
W. COHEN: I sort of liked the comment, we were at Ronald Reagan‘s birthday party and a gentleman looked at Janet and he said, which island are you from? And she said, Manhattan. That was a great comeback.
NORVILLE: Very good.
J. COHEN: But things are changing, as we‘re witnessing with the 50th anniversary of Brown Vs. Board of Education and we‘re witnessing those changes. We still have a long way to go, as I say.
NORVILLE: A long way to go, but it‘s kind of a delicious coincidence that we‘re having this conversation.
I want to take a quick break.
J. COHEN: OK.
NORVILLE: When we come back, we will talk about all of the different changes in the civil rights movement, many of which—and you knew so many of the players—Janet Langhart Cohen can share.
We‘ll be back with Janet Langhart Cohen and her husband, Secretary Bill Cohen, in just a moment.
NORVILLE: This is a monumental day in American history.
It was 50 years ago today that the Supreme Court made its landmark ruling in Brown Vs. the Topeka Board of Education, opening the way for the nation‘s public schools to be integrated.
I‘m back with former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and his wife, Janet Langhart Cohen. Her new book is called from “Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas.”
And there‘s a really interesting section in here where you talk about the Brown decision and the doors being open. But you ended up choosing to stay at the mostly-black high school.
J. COHEN: I did indeed.
Brown was in ‘54. And my sister had a choice. She‘s a year and a half older than I. And then, in 1955, I was entering high school. And my mother said, which school do you want to go to? Do you want to go to the integrated school, which was predominantly white in those days, or do you want to stay at Crispus Attucks? And I said, I think I better go to Crispus Attucks, because Emmett Till had been murdered down in Money, Mississippi. I don‘t know if you remember that case.
J. COHEN: They are reopening it. That‘s the other irony of our doing the show tonight. They‘re opening that case.
And it wasn‘t the Brown V. Board decision that had me decide where I was going to go. It was the murder, the brutal murder of that young man who, at 14 years old, all he was alleged to have done was look at a white woman and they threw him in the river after beating him and militating him.
So I said if that‘s the kind of people I am going to go into the world of, I better stay in an all-black school where I can get nurtured and get a real genuine education, because those kids who went into integrated school had courage. I didn‘t have that. I had rage.
NORVILLE: You were angry.
J. COHEN: Absolutely.
And I know, if anyone called me out of my name, called me the N-word, there would go my grades and my scholarship, because mother said, I‘m not going to be able to afford to send you to school, so you better keep your grades up and get a scholarship. So I chose to go to Crispus Attucks High School.
NORVILLE: How frightening was it, because you also were 14 when Emmett Till was liked? How frightening was it to be a black kid the same age as this boy that this horrible thing had happened to?
J. COHEN: I saw fear in the eyes of the men and the women, the adults. But I wasn‘t afraid. I was angry. Sometimes rage and anger takes over that fear. I was determined to do what my mother said, get my education, because once it‘s up here, they can‘t take that from you.
And I was going to make it. And I think the environment that we grew up in those days, black people, that we were told by our parents and our teachers and our communities at the Y that you can be anything you want to be. This larger society we knew would limit us. But I remember what mom said. America would change. And America has.
NORVILLE: Most moms are usually right. It sounds like your mom definitely was one of those.
J. COHEN: She was.
NORVILLE: Bill, did you learn things about Janet that you didn‘t know in the process of her working on this book?
W. COHEN: Oh, I learned some new things. As she was going through and discussing this, for example, when she learned to play polo and the fear that she might have had or the reasons she had to get on the back of that horse, and it called to mind her experience when she was visiting her relatives down in Kentucky, that the Klan used to ride through where she was staying and they‘d have to shut the lights out and get down on the floor, because they would sometimes shoot shotguns through their houses.
So this getting on the back of that horse meant not only conquering
any fear of the horse itself, but it brought back the galloping hoof beats
of the Klansmen coming through the small town where she
J. COHEN: Yes, we used to go to Kentucky in the summertime and visit my...
NORVILLE: And you actually saw a cross-burning.
J. COHEN: I did, not in Kentucky. I saw it in Indianapolis, Indiana, up-South.
I must have been 4 or 5 years old. My mother did domestic work. They called it living on the place. And she lived in home of white people, very nice white people. You know, I‘m finding that the real minority in this country are the haters, are the bigots.
NORVILLE: And they come in all colors.
J. COHEN: Yes, they do.
And this is a great and living land. But I remember their kindness to me, these two little girls that my mother worked for their mother. It was Sally and it was Jane, and they were 10 and 12 years old. And they took me out on an outing one Indian summer night. And I saw these people all dressed in white and I couldn‘t believe it. And then when the sun started going down, they put on these hoods with cutouts to breathe and see.
J. COHEN: And then all of a sudden, this flame, this cross burned. And I thought it was amazing and exciting, as most children do when they see fire. And the two girls said to me, Janet, you have to be very quiet, because we‘ll get into trouble for having you here. And for some reason, I never told my mother until I saw a Klan meeting on TV, and I told her I actually witnessed one of those. And she said, no way.
NORVILLE: The book is great. I really enjoyed it. What do you want people to take from this?
J. COHEN: I want, oh, so many things, because I‘ve lived the span of a lifetime to see two Americas. I‘ve been blessed to see two. I want to contribute to the dialogue. The one thing we‘re so afraid to talk about in this country is race, and I want to contribute to that and to believe that anything is possible in America.
NORVILLE: Well, the two of you are perfect proof of that. And it‘s just a pleasure to have you on. I hope you‘ll come back again.
J. COHEN: Thank you, Deborah. Thank you.
NORVILLE: Janet Langhart Cohen, William Cohen, great to see you both.
Congratulations on the book.
J. COHEN: Thank you.
NORVILLE: We‘ll be right back.
NORVILLE: We‘d love to hear from you, so e-mail us at NORVILLE@MSNBC.com. That‘s our program for tonight. I‘m Deborah Norville. Thanks so much for watching.
Tomorrow night, believe it or not, it‘s been 10 years since Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died. And tomorrow, we will remember her. We‘ll spend the hour looking at the legacy of Jacqueline Onassis‘ incredible life with people who knew her, including world famous fashion designer Oleg Cassini. That‘s tomorrow night.
Coming up next, Joe Scarborough and “SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY.”
Thanks for watching. We‘ll see you tomorrow.
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