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Transcript for September 18

Bill Clinton, Thad Allen, Gwen Ifill, Eugene Robinson, Judy Woodruff & Byron York
/ Source: NBC News

MR. TIM RUSSERT:  Our issues this Sunday:  former President Bill Clinton convenes leaders from around the world to discuss poverty, religion, the environment, and more.  Speakers include King Abdullah of Jordan, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and, of course, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.  Policy and politics through the eyes of our guest, the 42nd president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton.

Then, President George W. Bush makes a big promise.


PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH:  There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Can he deliver and at what cost?  Plus, the politics of Hurricane Katrina:  deficits, Iraq, the Supreme Court, and more.  Insights and analysis from Gwen Ifill, moderator of PBS' "Washington Week"; Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post; Judy Woodruff, veteran political reporter; and Byron York of the National Review.

But, first, Hurricane Katrina, day 20.  How goes the recovery?  With us live from New Orleans is the man in charge of the federal relief efforts, Coast Guard Vice Admiral Thad Allen.

Admiral, good morning.

VICE ADM. THAD ALLEN:  Good morning, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT:  Discussion between you and the mayor of New Orleans.  The mayor is saying, "Let's repopulate our city with 180,000 people in the relatively very near future."  You're saying, "Mr. Mayor, go slow."  You issued a statement yesterday that I want to ask you about it, and let me read part of it for you and our viewers.  It says:  "We have advised state and local officials of the preliminary findings of scientific testing to determine the public health and environmental concerns that exist in the city."

Exactly what did those findings show?

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Well, Tim, preliminary sampling was done in conjunction with the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control on the standing water in New Orleans.  Indicated really high levels of E. coli and fecal coliforms, creating a significant health hazard if you come in contact with it.  In addition, there is no potable water in the city at this time.

MR. RUSSERT:  Also, are you concerned that the levees may not hold if there's another storm--not a hurricane, but a storm?

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Well, Tim, I think in their weakened state, any significant weather event is going to be problematic for the city of New Orleans, at least the East Bank.  I've had extensive consultation with the Corps of Engineers. They've done assessments.  They continue to do more extensive technical assessments.  But the fact of the matter is, the levees are in a significantly weakened state.  Any plan to repopulate the city must be accompanied with a detailed plan on how the individuals will be notified, how they will be evacuated in time so they are not impacted by any type of storm.  That planning has been progressing with the city.  It's not yet complete and it's one of my concerns with the repopulation that might proceed sooner than we would like.

MR. RUSSERT:  You do not believe that New Orleans has an evacuation plan right now that's workable?

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  We are working on an evacuation plan on how we would evacuate the general population as part of an overall re-entry plan.  We had been working that in a very deliberate process with the city.  The announcement to move the repopulation up ahead of any of those completed tasks, in our view, puts the city at risk.

MR. RUSSERT:  When you meet with the mayor tomorrow, Admiral, if he says, "I'm sorry, Admiral, I'm the mayor, we're moving people back in and you can't stop me," what do you say?

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Well, Tim, that's a discussion we're going to have.  I promised him on Friday when I met with him that I would get all the available scientific data, I would consult with my federal partners.  I have personally had discussions with the administrator of the EPA and the director for the Centers for Disease Control.  Tomorrow I promise him a frank and unvarnished report on the status of the city and its ability to accommodate a general repopulation.  We are not prepared to do that in the near term.  We really support his plan to restart New Orleans.  We are right in sync with his vision.  It's a matter of timing and creating and enabling the structures that will allow us to do this safely.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you could not order the U.S. military to stop people from coming back in against the mayor's wishes, could you?

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Decisions within the city are within the mayor's purview. The federal government has a couple of general roles.  We have a lot of analytical data that is collected by folks such as the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control.  We can issue advisories, and, in certain circumstances, we are a rule-making body and can enforce regulations.  But my hope is we will sit down with the governor-- excuse me, the mayor--have a very frank conversation, and develop a logical plan forward to repopulate the city.

MR. RUSSERT:  How long would you like him to wait, in an ideal world, to begin to repopulate the city?

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Well, Tim, it's clear that the mayor wants to do that as soon as possible, and, actually, we support that.  There is no difference of opinion on the in-state or the vision.  It's to create the environment that will allow to us do that safely.  I wouldn't want to attach a time limit to it but it includes things like making sure there's potable water, making sure there's a 911 system in place, telephone, a means to notify people there is an approaching storm so you can evacuate it with the weakened levee situation. We can do that, and we can do that fairly soon, but it's very, very soon to try and do that this week.

MR. RUSSERT:  Another series of headlines greeted you this morning when you woke up.  Here's one:  "Lack of Cohesion Bedevils Recovery.  Three weeks after Hurricane Katrina struck, red tape and poor planning have left thousands of evacuees without basic services, according to local and state officials, public policy experts and survivors themselves."

Three weeks, and yet people still don't have access to basic needs.  Why not?

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Well, Tim, as I was assigned the larger responsibilities for the principal federal official for the entire Gulf response a week ago, I've been consulting with FEMA and other agencies.  We have some significant challenges ahead of us.  One of them is that, with the evacuation of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, these folks went to a lot of different areas.  And trying to reach out and find out where they're at, touch them and give them individual assistance is becoming a challenge because of the broad geographical area that's been covered.

Additionally, because of the wide swath that the storm cut, our ability to put disaster recovery centers out there has been somewhat limited.  In some cases, we do not have a permissive environment to operate in.  Until yesterday, general re-entry into St. Bernard's Parish, for example, is not possible.

So what we are doing is looking at where we have infrastructure, where we can get leased space to put our disaster recovery centers in there and we're working at best speed.  I've consulted with David Paulison, who's the acting director of FEMA, and have asked that all available FEMA employees that are not otherwise engaged, that are capable of this type of activity, are trained in it, be sent this direction.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you believe that you have recovered most of the bodies that you will, in fact, find in the New Orleans area?

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Tim, I would hope so.  Just to recount where we're at, we are going through the city in a three-phase process.  The first phase was called a hasty search.  That's a quick house-to-house accounting to make sure there weren't any survivors still on rooftops or in attics that needed to be rescued.  And whatever remains that we encountered, we removed those with respect and dignity.  A hundred percent of that hasty search has been done. We are over 90 percent complete of what we would call a primary search, that is a house-to-house sweep of local law enforcement officials with DOD forces supporting them.  And that's making a complete accountability of every house that we can reach.

There are still houses that are underwater that will have to be returned to, and that will be called a secondary search.  And then there will have to be decisions made by local law enforcement authorities about which houses need to be entered and assessed.  Until that's done, I'm not sure we're going to have a total count on the fatalities.  We continue to work towards that.  I will tell you, though, that, in general, we've encountered fewer fatalities than we had expected.

MR. RUSSERT:  It sounds as if the death toll could be below 1,000.

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Wouldn't want to speculate, Tim, because we still have a number of houses that are underwater.  But I think we're all hopeful that that will occur.

MR. RUSSERT:  One of the things that's most troubling to people around the country, Admiral, 2,000 children still have not been reunited with their parents.  What are we doing about that?

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Well, I think the best thing to do if there's a problem is to contact the Center for Missing and Exploited Children.  They're doing a phenomenal job of trying to reconcile families that have been separated.  And I think that if you are--if you come in contact with a family that is either missing a child or you have a child that hasn't been reunited with a family, the best way is to contact that center.

MR. RUSSERT:  Admiral Thad Allen, we thank you very much for joining us this morning, and sharing your views.

VICE ADM. ALLEN:  Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, in his first MEET THE PRESS interview since 1997, former President Bill Clinton reflects on poverty, religion, and politics 2008, right here on MEET THE PRESS.


MR. RUSSERT:  Former President Bill Clinton on Katrina, Iraq and his wife's possible run for the White House after this station break.


MR. RUSSERT:  Yesterday in New York, I sat down with former President Bill Clinton who's overseeing his own three-day global summit seeking solutions to some of the world's toughest problems.

(Videotape, September 17, 2005):

MR. RUSSERT:  Mr. President, welcome back to MEET THE PRESS.

FMR. PRES. BILL CLINTON:  Thank you, Tim.

MR. RUSSERT:  How would you describe the Clinton global initiative?

MR. CLINTON:  It's an effort to bring people together from all walks of life with national leaders from all over the world to discuss four of the subjects that will shape the 21st century, especially in the poorer countries, how to help people escape from poverty through their own efforts, how to use global warming as an economic opportunity, not an economic burden, how to use our religious differences in a positive, not a negative way, and how to build better governance in poor countries, and then to do something most of these conferences don't do, to ask every participant here to make a personal commitment to do something in one of these four areas in the next year. That's really the thing that's been different and thing people find exciting.

So we tried to organize the whole conference with fewer speeches, more conversations, smaller groups, and then we have people sitting around a table like this talking about what they could do.  And a lot of the commitments I'm announcing now actually grew out of these table-top conversations after people made presentations on these matters.

MR. RUSSERT:  Accountability, how can you enforce it?

MR. CLINTON:  Well, we're going to take some of the funds that we made here and set up an office, an ongoing office, because I think we'll probably have 100 to 300 commitments, something like that, coming in after the conference is over, because the whole purpose was for people that hadn't done this before to be able to see and get ideas from people who knew more than they did.  And then we will then, on a regular basis, get reports from people on what they're doing to fulfill their commitments.  And several times between now and next year, we will report on the progress of not only obtaining commitments, but fulfilling them.  So a year from now we'll be able to know what was done.  And then we'll do this all over again and then we'll continue to make reports. I--the--we don't have any way of forcing the commitments, but I think the fact that everybody knows we're going to make public whether they've kept them or not will have a salutary impact.

MR. RUSSERT:  When you talk about religion, how concerned are you that we are, in fact, in a religious war, Islam vs. Christianity?

MR. CLINTON:  A little bit, but I think the important thing--you know, we had the king of Jordan here, who did an astonishing thing several months ago.  He brought in the leaders of every major sect of Islam, and none of them would say that the Koran justified the killing of innocent civilians, whether they were Muslims or non-Muslims.  My experience has been that most of these terrorists have political objectives which can be clearly defined, and then try to give them a religious overlay.  Now, maybe some of the people they get to go do suicide bombings are in the grip of a religious fervor or have been convinced that God wanted them to do this, but religion has been used by people for political reasons, just the way Milosevic used ethnic differences in Bosnia.  I still believe behind a lot of this is just cold-blooded power concerns and people fighting over land and resources and all the things people have fought over since the beginning of time.

MR. RUSSERT:  Are you concerned that Iraq may wind up with a fundamentalist Islamic regime?

MR. CLINTON:  A little bit.  I think there has been an effort to make it a representative constitution, and I think the American ambassador there has exerted extraordinary positive efforts.  And keep in mind there are very few countries in the world that have the kind of separation between church and state that we do.  It's been a blessing to us.  And one of the reasons America is the most religious big country in the world in terms of participation in religious services and devotion to one's faith is that we don't pretend that politics is religion.  We don't pretend that politics is perfect and we don't mess up people's ability to practice their faith.  On the other hand, Iraq can have a recognition of the role of Islam in the Sunni and Shia traditions and the presence of non-Muslims in Iraq and still have--be a freer place than it was before.  We just have to watch it and encourage them, work with them.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think the war in Iraq has hurt the U.S. image in the world?

MR. CLINTON:  I do.  I think it's been a net negative, partly because we went in there before the United Nations finished the job of the inspections, which undermined the credibility of the original argument for needing the authority to use force.  I think that was a big mistake.  And on the other hand, Saddam is gone and 58 percent of those people voted.  That's an even higher percentage of people than voted in America in 2004, when we were proud of our turnout and when nobody's life was at risk.  So there's still a chance this will work.  And if it does, there's still a chance it will be a net plus for the Middle East.  But it--I think that most people saw it as premature, unilateral and taking away from the real fight against terror in Afghanistan and against bin Laden and al-Qaeda.

MR. RUSSERT:  Global warming:  There used to be a deep philosophical, ideological debate about it.  Do you think that has dissipated?

MR. CLINTON:  It's dissipated quite a bit, and I think a good deal of the credit belongs to business leaders like Sir John Brown, the head of British Petroleum, and most recently in our country, Jeffrey Immelt, the head of General Electric.  And I'm not pandering here to NBC, but when Immelt said, you know, that building a clean energy future was going to be at the center of GE's profit strategy within America and around the world for the next several years, it tended to undercut all those naysayers who said, "There's nothing to this."  And so I think that's changed.

I think we deserve--that the Republicans in the Senate who are trying to do something serious on this deserve a lot of credit.  You know, Senator McCain has taken two trips with Hillary, one to northern Norway and one to northern Alaska, to monitor the measurable visual effects of climate change and to know what the consequences are going to be.  So I think the fact it's becoming more bipartisan in the Congress and that American business leaders are joining in the campaign has really helped in our country.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think global warming influences, effects, creates hurricanes or the severity of them?

MR. CLINTON:  I think that the--whenever there's a marked change in the weather, it has ramifications across a whole wide range of activities.  I don't think there's any question--I don't think any person with a straight face can tell you that Katrina was caused by global warming.  But what we do know, what the evidence shows, is that there is an increase in the number and severity of bad weather events all across the globe.  We know that.  So--and that will continue.

Keep in mind, in the last decade, 12 blocks of ice the size of the state of Rhode Island have broken off the South Pole.  We now have some significant evidence that the North Pole and, even worse, the ice cap on Greenland, the massive island of Greenland, are thinning.  This is going to lift the water levels.  It's going to complicate the rebuilding of New Orleans.  If we don't reverse it within 50 years, we'll lose 50 feet of Manhattan Island.  That--one of these little countries I'm working with, the Maldives, the water will just roll over it; we'll never recover it.

So I think that we just need to face the fact that the climate is changing. and this is one of the consequences.

MR. RUSSERT:  John Lehman, the Republican, former secretary of the Navy, who was on the September 11 Commission, said that the woefully inadequate lack of preparation for the hurricane, he believes it will embolden terrorists to know what kind of havoc they can wreak on the United States.  Do you buy that?

MR. CLINTON:  Not necessarily.  Let me say, I think that John Lehman did a good job on that 9-11 Commission.  He questioned me for four hours and I think he did a good job.  I have a high respect for him.  So it's not a partisan thing.  But I think what really happened with this is that when the Department of Homeland Security was created, it seemed natural enough to bring FEMA in because somebody releases a biological weapon on a subway in New York or drops a chemical weapon from the top of a big building in Chicago or, God forbid, explodes a small-scale nuclear weapon in a barrel full of fertilizer in Washington, the human consequences look like a tornado or a hurricane or whatever.  The problem is that most of the people at Homeland Security are like Mr. Chertoff.  We want smart, tough, law enforcement people working with these intelligence agencies around the world and all that.

We are going to have some natural disasters.  And there's a special expertise involved in dealing with them, so it may have given aid and comfort to our enemies, but it shouldn't, because we're getting better.  We were pretty good at it by my second term and we'd gotten better and better and better at stopping bad things from happening.  It's just that dealing with a natural disaster and the aftermath is different, and we inadvertently reduced our capabilities to do that by blurring the two functions of Homeland Security and emergency management, in my opinion.

MR. RUSSERT:  So we should take FEMA out of Homeland Security and make it an independent agency again?

MR. CLINTON:  Yeah.  We--in my opinion, we should either do that, I have a bias for that because that's the way it worked under me.  But if they want to leave it in Homeland Security, they should at least restore its disaster preparedness function, which was diverted, and have a requirement that I think should be in the law that the FEMA director should be qualified by previous experience in disasters.  And then when a disaster occurs, he--if it's natural, he or she, the FEMA director, should be in charge of that.

You know, the first couple days, I mean, my heart almost went out to him because if you looked at him, it was like should the FEMA director be the spokesperson or should the Homeland Security director be the spokesperson? Who's going to do this?  And I think that this exposed the fact that there really is a difference in handling the aftermath of a natural disaster and stopping a biological or chemical attack--you know, inspecting more of the containers at the ports and all of this sort of stuff.

MR. RUSSERT:  The president said we're going to rebuild New Orleans.  It's estimated to cost probably close to $300 billion.  How can we afford that? What is it going to do to the deficit?  And what should we do about tax cuts and spending cuts?

MR. CLINTON:  Well, I don't think the--it may cost $300 billion, but a lot of it will be borne by the private sector.  And New Orleans, I think, will be repopulated at about the level that it was before the tsunami--I mean, before the hurricane, but it'll be different people.  Not all the people that left will come back.  But it will take a certain population density to support the tourism, to support the French Quarter, to support all the people who will live there doing other things, and the Port, which is still a major force. And I think it will cost a significant amount of money.  And whatever is appropriate for the government to spend, I think, we should spend.

I don't think we need to just throw money at this.  We need to really be careful now to make sure that we take care of the needs of the really poor people that were dislodged.  They should be first.  Then having the area clean and safe should be second.  Then giving a little time to have a serious rebuilding plan should be third.  Right now we're all just flying blind with these numbers.

Now, in terms of the budget deficit--you know what I think.  I mean, I think it was always a mistake for people in my income group to get tax cuts.  I think before it was terrible.  I think that we shouldn't be-- this--Katrina is going to force us to go back and think about three things.  What are our obligations to the poor, there, and in America?  What is the role of government?  And who's going to pay for it?

Right now our position is--the American government's position, and everybody in the world knows this, this hurts us, is that we should be able to fight a war in Iraq, be aggressive in Afghanistan, deal with this massive expenditure of Katrina, have a big new benefit for senior citizens on drugs, and it should be paid for largely by borrowing money from countries, except for Japan and the U.K. that are not as wealthy as we are.  The rest of the money we're borrowing from China, from Korea, from the Middle East.  So we go into the debt market--we borrow this money every day to cover our deficit.  In effect, we're borrowing the money to pay for Katrina, pay for Iraq, and pay for Bill Clinton's tax cuts.  I don't approve of that.  I think it's ethically not good, and I think it's terrible economics.

MR. RUSSERT:  Do you think these are the kind of issues that will be front and center in 2008?

MR. CLINTON:  Yes, but I don't think they should wait till then.  I really believe that these--in the congressional elections, I would like to see an honest debate.  You know, we don't have to call each other names anymore.  We have honest differences.  We don't really--we don't have to be mad.  We don't have to, you know--we don't have to be angry at each other on a human level. But we got honest differences.  What are our obligations to the poor?  Did some of these things happen in Katrina, in the aftermath of Katrina, not so much because of race but because of class?

You know, St. Bernard Parish in--next to New Orleans is largely poor white people.  The disproportionate number of poor who were really hurt were African-Americans.  But, you know, you just can't give poor people living like those folks were living an evacuation order.  A lot of them didn't have cars. If they did have cars, they had kinfolks who didn't.  They didn't have any flood insurance.  We could have had--there were no vans down there so they--everybody could at least take a few of their life's belongings away. There were lots of things going on.  We need to rethink what are our--how are we going to relate to the poor, how are we going to--what's the role of government, who's going to pay for it?

MR. RUSSERT:  And that's the theme of this initiative?

MR. CLINTON:  Yeah.  It is.  And I don't think the government has to do it all.  I think there are lots of things that can be done through the private sector, and there are lots of things that are going to be done in Katrina through the private sector.  I think--you know, I've been just overwhelmed. Former President Bush and I, we've already gotten nearly $100 million in our fund.  I never dreamed that would happen.  And we've had to give a lot of thought to how we can spend this money to maximize the fact that it will go to help the people who were hurt the worst.  And we're going to have an announcement on it in a week or so.  We're trying to figure out how to work with religious organizations and others to really help people put their lives back.

MR. RUSSERT:  Did you ever hear of the Dennis Thatcher Society?

MR. CLINTON:  Yeah, he used to be the object of jokes on late-night shows.

MR. RUSSERT:  He was the first man of Great Britain...


MR. RUSSERT:  ...when Margaret Thatcher was the prime minister.

MR. CLINTON:  And a very nice man, he was.

MR. RUSSERT:  And first men all around the world formed the Dennis Thatcher Society.  Are you about to apply?

MR. CLINTON:  No.  I can't answer that.  I don't know the answer to that. I--you know, Hillary's got this re-election coming up.  And I have always said to other people, so my family's going to observe the rule that I've observed in my life, you know, you look past the next election, you might not get past the next election.  She's got to get her service ratified before she can even entertain this.  I think she'll be re-elected, and I think she'll be re-elected because she's done a really good job.  And I know I'm biased, but I got pretty good judgment about what makes a good senator, and I--she's really been--I knew she'd be good.  She's been better than I thought she would. She's been effective in your area of New York, upstate New York.  She's been effective at--as a first New York senator ever on the Armed Services Committee.  She's been effective for New York City on health care and in the aftermath of 9/11.  I think she's been great.  But she's got to go through a big campaign.  And then she'll have a decision to make like probably a dozen other Democrats will.  And whatever she decides, I'll be for.  But I think we've got to get through this campaign first.

MR. RUSSERT:  She should avoid making a pledge that she'll serve another full six-year term.

MR. CLINTON:  Yeah, I think she should say she wants to be judged on both her record and her plans for the future, but I think, you know, for figures that are large figures in their parties who honestly don't know and can't know this early whether they're going to run, we have no idea what facts will unfold.  I don't think they should make commitments.  President Bush didn't make a commitment when he ran for re-election as governor of Texas and he was remarkably candid.  He said, "You know, the voters will have to take this into account if it bothers them," but I think that that's where big figures in both parties are in a position where two years in chance, they may think they will, they may think they won't, but the truth is they don't know because there could be lots of intervening events.  So I think she should just run, put her service out there, put her plans for the future out there and trust the voters of New York to make a judgment.

MR. RUSSERT:  Mr. President, we thank you for joining us and sharing your views.

MR. CLINTON:  Thank you, Tim.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT:  Coming next, George Bush's second term:  Katrina, deficits, Iraq, John Roberts and more.  Our political roundtable is next.


MR. RUSSERT:  And we are back.  Welcome, all.

What a news cycle we have all through and continue to deal with.  Let's look at the latest NBC News- Wall Street Journal poll for the latest numbers on President Bush.  Job approval:  40 percent.  That's the lowest we've ever had for George Bush in his five years as president.  Fifty-five percent disapproval.  Handling of Iraq?  Only 37 percent approve of the way he's handling Iraq.  Fifty-eight disapprove.  And how did the Bush administration do with Katrina?  Satisfied, 38; dissatisfied, 58.

Gwen Ifill, twin challenges confronting this president, Katrina and Iraq.

MS. GWEN IFILL:  And all of them are unpalatable for him.  The approval numbers are almost less interesting to me than the last two because the approval numbers have been knocking around in the 40s for a while.  Not good but he was willing to survive with that and to work with that.  The real problem is that this president--the way he has always been praised is for his ability to lead and his ability to protect us.  And it looks like in the last couple of weeks neither of those things seem true.  When you look at what's happening in Iraq--we were just saying before we went on if it weren't for Katrina, that would be on page one and none of the headlines for Katrina are good.  Everyone is kind of crossing their arms and waiting to see what he pulls off now.  So he is in a much more difficult position than he anticipated mostly because he has to reassert himself as a strong leader who can actually dig us out of a hole, something that he never had to prove before.

MR. RUSSERT:  Judy Woodruff, what's your take?

MS. JUDY WOODRUFF:  I do think these numbers are significant, because as Gwen said, it's been rolling around, around 40 percent, but this is the first time the negative job performance has outweighed positive.  On the feeling thermometer, as you call it, negatives outweigh the positives.  When it comes to conservatives, the president is still holding his own.  But when you look at, except for conservative Republicans, moderate so-called Republicans are only--What?--a third of the Republican Party--the president's support is eroding.  He's got real concerns now among his base.  And, as Gwen said, he is dealing with two enormous problems.  He's dealing with Katrina, the reconstruction of that.  How is he going to demonstrate that he can come across as a strong leader on that and, at the same time, hold Iraq together at a time when we've been--we were just sitting here saying, if it hadn't been for Katrina, the numbers on--the deaths in Iraq would have been all in the headlines the last week.

MR. RUSSERT:  Gene and Byron, let me add two more numbers to this and then bring you in the conversation.  How should we pay for the cost of Katrina? Look at this:  Reduce Iraq spending, 45 percent; repeal the income tax cuts, 27 percent; keep the estate tax in place, 15 percent; and then 12 percent say cut federal spending.  And then this:  What should be the highest priority? Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, 33 percent; job creation/economic growth, 14 percent; then Iraq, then terrorism.

When people were asked to choose which should have a higher priority, Katrina or Iraq it was 60:5 Katrina.

MR. EUGENE ROBINSON:  What those numbers do is put the president in a box, in my view.  I mean, he--you have this basic issue of competence.  Can this administration follow through?  Can it get a job done?  You have no money. All the money is now way, way overcommitted.  And people would essentially like to use the money that's being spent for Iraq--to the extent that it is real money, they'd like to use it for Katrina.  Of course, the president is going to continue spending in Iraq.  So the deficit will soar yet again.  The president has already said he's not going to raise taxes.  He wants to presumably go through with the estate tax repeal and everything.  It's kind of a box of his and nature's creation, but it's a--but it's really confining and I don't know exactly how he's going to get out of it.

MR. RUSSERT:  Byron?

MR. BYRON YORK:  But the priority numbers are a snapshot in time.  The poll was taken from September 9th to September 12th.  The previous NBC-Wall Street Journal poll, of course, had Iraq being the most pressing issue.  And I think as weeks go by, people will have a more balanced term--Iraq--view of this. Iraq did not become suddenly less important.  The other thing is, I think New Orleans and Katrina in general have the possibility of--potential of getting better a lot faster than the situation in Iraq.  And I think that when more of the relief efforts kick in, when people return to the city, when some degree of normalization occurs, then that Katrina number is going to go down.

MR. RUSSERT:  And do you think the president will then be able to take credit for, in fact, rebuilding New Orleans?

MR. YORK:  You know, I think that the credit--in the credit and blame situation, the White House and the president deserve some of the blame for this; so do the mayor and the governor in New Orleans.  And I think when the credit starts coming, they're all going to share in that, too.

MR. RUSSERT:  What about Iraq, Gwen?

MS. IFILL:  What about Iraq?  If you take Byron's formulation and things turn around and Iraq becomes the primary concern again, there's nothing good to be pointed to there.  Two hundred people killed in this latest wave of anti--of insurgency; 600 people wounded; 30 more overnight in Baghdad.  There isn't a whole lot of good headlines out of this.  And that's not even talking about the political situation, which- -everybody has said this is really a political solution which has to happen in Iraq, and that hasn't sorted itself out.  We just aren't paying the same kind of attention.  The president of Iraq was in the United States this week.  He was telling people he's going to trust George Bush's decision about when to withdraw American troops, but he has said that he wouldn't mind seeing them go at the end of 2006.  I don't know that there's any sense that they're going to be ready for that.

MR. RUSSERT:  If, in fact, however, a constitution is adopted and democracy begins to emerge from Iraq, is there an opportunity for good news to come from Iraq, at the same time good news from New Orleans and the president can mount a comeback?

MS. WOODRUFF:  Tim, I think that's an enormous "if."  Yes, they're about to vote on this constitution, but with the continuing violence, it just seem--when we in the United States open our newspapers every morning and we see these numbers, and they are going to--they are going to take a larger place in the news whole, if you will.  We're going to be covering more of Iraq as New Orleans gets better.  That's not good news for the White House.  And I think what's a real jolt to the White House is in this poll that you just described, to look and see that the public thinks that we should be paying for New Orleans by cutting back on the American commitment to Iraq.  I think that--that has to have them lying awake in the middle of the night.

MR. RUSSERT:  Fifty-five percent of our respondents, Byron and Gene, said we should pull troops out of Iraq, start scaling down, if you will.  Will there be pressure within the Republican Party, come the 2006 midterm elections, to proclaim victory and start withdrawing troops?

MR. YORK:  You know, before Katrina happened, I was doing a story for National Review about where the Republicans, who had been in their districts over August, where they were on this.  And they were-- they were pretty solid and they felt that the upcoming elections on October 15 were very important and that they should continue to support the president on this.  So as far as any sort of peeling off of Republicans on that, I just haven't seen it.  And I will align National Review with Bill Clinton on this.  I think there is still the possibility of good things happening out of this.

MR. RUSSERT:  What's your take, Gene?

MR. ROBINSON:  You know, I'm not nearly as optimistic about good things happening in Iraq.  I don't see how even, you know, the electoral process in Iraq really advances the cause of a unified Democratic Iraq in the real world. You've got the Shia/Sunni/Kurd split in Iraq, and that's just going to persist.  And to my eye, it's going to get worse, which means worse headlines for the--for the White House.  And I think you will see some peeling off.  I mean, you know, if you look at the Sunni insurgent strategy, it's working pretty well.  They're trying to foment what looks like a civil war, make the country ungovernable.  And at the moment they're doing very well at it.

MS. IFILL:  It should be noted that The Washington Post disagrees with Bill Clinton and the National Review agrees with Bill Clinton.  I think there's something happening here.

MR. RUSSERT:  The cost of the war is considerable.  The cost of Katrina is considerable.  Byron, the National Review's view of record deficits--I mean, we are looking at no end in sight.  And Tom DeLay, the Republican leader in the House, said, "Well, you know, there's just no place left in the budget to find any more cuts.  We've done our very best."

MR. YORK:  Conservatives just laughed at DeLay when he said that.  And clearly George Bush is going to pay for Katrina recovery by borrowing the money. There's going to be talk about some offsets and cuts in spending.  And there will be some but it won't be anywhere near what it costs.  One thing I would tell you in determining how politicians will look at this is in The Wall Street Journal poll, which asked:  "What is the most important priority facing us?," and everyone said, "Katrina."  Reducing the deficit was at the bottom. It was the last one behind Social Security, which is somewhat dead these days, and illegal immigration.  So you have those two different things.  People say, "How are we going to pay for it?," and yet they don't seem to be totally concerned about the deficit.

MR. RUSSERT:  The deficit doesn't cut as an issue.

MS. WOODRUFF:  No, it doesn't.  And just to refer back again quickly to your poll.  By 4:1, people who were asked if they'd rather see--they'd rather do away with the tax cuts, rescind them than cut some of these precious spending programs.  And, you know, I talked just in the last couple of days, Tim, to Jerry Lewis.  He's a prominent Republican in the House, he's chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.  He is already expecting Republican resistance to extending Bush's precious, beloved tax cuts.  There's already anticipation. And then you have a very--one of the most conservative Democrats in the House, whose name is Gene Taylor, Mississippi, saying, "We ought to repeal all of the Bush tax cuts..."

MS. IFILL:  He also lost his...

MS. WOODRUFF:  " pay for Katrina."

MS. IFILL:  Lost his house in Katrina.

MS. WOODRUFF:  He did.  So he's got a very emotional stake in all of this. But you're hearing voices in both parties saying, "We've got to take another look at the tax cuts."

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me talk about an issue that has now really come front and center, the fault lines that we've seen in this story according to race.  And here's the question:  "Would there have been greater speed if the areas affected were white/suburban rather than African-American/inner city?"  Thirty percent of whites say, "Yes, there would have been greater speed." Sixty-seven percent say, "No."  Seventy percent of African-Americans say, "Yes, there would have been greater speed."  Twenty-seven percent say, "No."

Whites and blacks looking at the same set of facts very differently, Gwen Ifill.

MS. IFILL:  You know, I'm going to take a line from Gene Robinson's column this morning where he talked about Kanye West, the rapper, coming out and saying George Bush doesn't care about black people.  Well, even though what--to a lot of people--and Condoleezza Rice has said, "Oh, come on, that's ridiculous"--the question is the wrong question, whether he personally cares. This isn't about whether the president is a racist or whether anybody in his family is.  It's a question about whether this catastrophe exposed a divide that was already there in a way that allowed not only black folks but a lot of white folks, too, to say, "There is a real problem here."

Heretofore, the Republicans and Ken Mehlman, the head of the Republican National Committee, and the White House, had been approaching this in a purely political sense.  "Let's see if we can peel off some black voters, black conservatives, go at them through the churches."  What this has exposed is that this is not a political solution.  This is not a political problem.  This is a social concern, which has been roiling for a while.  But that it took something this catastrophic for the president to address, in the way he did, in his speech Thursday night, and, even then, only addressing it as a regional concern.

MR. ROBINSON:  One thing it shows is that--is that problems of race and class don't get better if you just kind of ignore them and pretend they're not there, which is, essentially what--you know, what this country has done for a while.  And it--Katrina certainly did kind of pull back the facade.  I was stunned in New Orleans at how many black New Orleanians would tell me with real conviction that somehow the levee breaks had been engineered in order to save the French Quarter and the Garden District at the expense of the Lower Ninth Ward, which is almost all black.  You know, I don't for a minute think the Corps of Engineers or the city of New Orleans would be clever enough to do that at this point.  But these are not wild-eyed people.  These are reasonable, sober people who really believe that.  And that tells you something about our racial divide in New Orleans.

MR. YORK:  Well, there's, obviously, a huge division in the perceptions.  But there is a reality here, as well.  And a lot of the areas that were affected by Hurricane Katrina were majority white area.  St. Bernard Parish in New Orleans area is 88 percent white.  Harrison County, Mississippi; Gulfport, Biloxi, is 73 percent white, and Hancock County; Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, 90 percent white.  Now, the big question is:  Did FEMA do a good job in those areas?  Was Michael Brown a good administrator in those areas?  And I think it's hard to argue that FEMA was incompetent and ill-prepared, on the one hand, and then to say that they somehow would have been more competent and better-prepared if the victims had been white.  I think this was just a major, major government mess-up.

MS. WOODRUFF:  And picking up on that point, I talked to Haley Barbour, the governor of Mississippi.  Tim, you talked with him, I think, a week or so ago. And he was making the point that this was a disaster, a no respecter of race or economic class.  He talked about homes along the Gulf of the wealthy, the middle class and the poor.  They were all wiped out.  One interesting point about Haley Barbour, he's very much against this idea running around in Washington of creating a federal czar.  In fact, he says it would be harmful. He said it's fine to use the federal government as a partner, but he said, "I'm in charge of Mississippi.  And," he says, "I'm sure other governors feel the same way."

MR. RUSSERT:  The breakdown at the local, state and federal level was just staggering, when you learn more about it.  And the mayor of New Orleans happens to be black.  He cut a public service announcement in July, saying, in effect, you're on your own.  And the police were not given assignments.  Bus drivers were not preassigned.  The federal government did not preposition troops or help.  It was an absolute disastrous response to a disaster.

MS. IFILL:  On every level.  On every level.  And one of the things which is important to remember is that it's not that the reaction or that the lack of reaction was based on race.  It's that over the years, and the president acknowledged this the other night, there has been a series of policies which have allowed people to stay out of sight, poor people, white people, black people, out of sight, a problem that nobody addresses.  It's interesting that so many of the president's solutions the other night were Jack Kemp's solutions 20 years ago when I covered him...

MS. WOODRUFF:  The opportunity's gone.

MS. IFILL: Housing and Urban Development.


MS. IFILL:  And he must be somewhere saying, "Yeah, yeah, I was telling you we should do this."  And that's what they're--it's a Republican solution put on a national problem.

MR. RUSSERT:  And Jack sent e-mail out making sure people remembered that.

MS. IFILL:  I'll bet.

MR. RUSSERT:  As he should.

MS. IFILL:  As he should.

MR. RUSSERT:  Let me turn to the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts to be chief justice.  Here's how The Washington Post wrote about it on Friday. "In 20 hours of questioning that ended [Thursday] morning, Democrats were unable to bloody [John Roberts] significantly.  With Republicans in possession of enough votes to confirm Roberts--and no skeleton peering from the nominee's closet--the fourth and final day of hearings into Roberts left the firm impression that senators were just going through the motions."

Fair enough?

MR. ROBINSON:  I think that's fair enough they went through the motions at great length.  Well, most of them, but sure, there's no danger that John Roberts is not going to be confirmed.

MR. RUSSERT:  The Washington Post editorial page endorsed him today.

MR. ROBINSON:  Yeah, isn't that interesting?


MR. ROBINSON:  And The New York Times did not.

MS. WOODRUFF:  The New York Times--yeah, there was.

MR. YORK:  I covered the hearings, and the sense of energy and the air just kind of leaked out of the room...


MR. YORK: you went into the second day and then there was a brief third day for Roberts.  The interesting thing was on his first day of testimony on Tuesday, there was a lot of confusion about what he had actually said about Roe vs. Wade and the precedent.  He was questioned by Arlen Specter.  And he seemed to be saying very sort of positive things about precedent in the Griswold decision and Roe and so much so that a lot of his conservative supporters were very concerned and some of his adversaries were kind of encouraged.  After the hearings, Senator Orrin Hatch was leaving and I walked up to him and said, "Senator, what precisely did Roberts say about Roe?"  And Hatch said, "He didn't say anything."  And Hatch was very happy about that, and he did that on a lot of issues.

MR. RUSSERT:  But you're right, some people were not happy on the conservative side, and it looks as though both conservatives and liberals are now really looking at who's going to replace Sandra Day O'Connor, and that could be the big battle royale that we thought we were going to have with this one.  Here's Time magazine this morning, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff. "...conservatives stepped up pressure on George W. Bush to choose his next Supreme Court nominee more squarely in the strict- constructionist, Antonin Scalia mold.  Another Roberts, according to conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, would be `a betrayal.'  Why?  Because Roberts left it unclear whether he would uphold Roe v. Wade..."

MS. IFILL:  There are rocks and hard places all over Washington right now. For Democrats, they've got to decide as Orrin Hatch said, "If you're not going to vote for this guy, who would you vote for a Republican president would nominate?"  For Republicans, it's, "Well, what does he really stand for?  I'm not quite certain, but I'm going to vote for Roberts but what's going to happen next?"  Everybody's in this position where someone's going to beat them up.  The liberals on the far left are going to beat up the Democrats if they do vote for Roberts based on this notion that he's pretty acceptable, and the conservatives on the far right are going to beat up the Republicans if they don't get what they want next time.  The president who's got other things on his plate isn't looking for another fight.

MS. WOODRUFF:  Tim, it's so interesting what's going on in the midst of the Democrats right now.  I'm going to use a sports metaphor.  My son Benjamin is a big...

MS. IFILL:  Not baseball please.

MS. WOODRUFF:  No, he's a boxing fan...


MS. WOODRUFF:  ...and he likes to explain to me that if you're going to soften up, you beat up--you jab at your opponent in order to soften him up. And that's what Teddy Kennedy and the other liberal Democrats are trying to do.  They're arguing, "We've got to vote against this guy.  We soften up the White House in order to send them a message that the next nominee is somebody that we are going to be watching very closely."  On the other hand, you've got moderate Democrats saying, "Wait a minute, if we're voting against this guy purely on the grounds of ideology, where do we stand when the White House sends the next one down the line?"  So it's very interesting.  Right now you've got four or five Democrats, as Gwen was suggesting, on the Judiciary Committee undecided.  Very interesting to watch, Tim, Dianne Feinstein, who was frustrated the first day but now it's not clear where she's going to go. And if she votes for Roberts, I think the opposition crumbles.

MR. RUSSERT:  And the class of 2008 presidential hopefuls, what do Hillary Clinton, John Kerry...

MS. IFILL:  Yeah.

MR. RUSSERT:  ...Bayh, Russ Feingold--what do they all do?

MS. WOODRUFF:  Very good.

MR. ROBINSON:  That's a good question.

MR. RUSSERT:  How much pressure is on George W. Bush to appoint a woman to replace Sandra Day O'Connor?

MR. YORK:  I think there's a lot of pressure because obviously now, you know, Roberts had originally been nominated for the O'Connor seat, but now, of course, O'Connor's seat is still open.  Appointing a man would reduce the number of women on the Supreme Court by half.  So I think that you're going to see a lot of people looking at Priscilla Owen who was confirmed to the filibuster and then confirmed to the 5th Circuit, Edith Brown Clement and some other women.

MR. RUSSERT:  We've got 20 seconds.  What do you think?

MR. ROBINSON:  I think he's under pressure to nominate a woman or the first Hispanic to the court.


MR. ROBINSON:  You know, this president likes to do that.  He likes to break those kinds of barriers.  I think he would--especially appointing, you know, maybe Gonzales, although he's not acceptable perhaps to the conservatives.  I think he would like to do that.

MR. RUSSERT:  I was very surprised last week when Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, "No, Gonzales, I don't think he's ready for the Supreme Court."

MS. IFILL:  Pete Williams is reporting, however, that Mel Martinez's name is being floated.

MR. RUSSERT:  Another name on the table.  To be continued.  Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff, Byron York, Gene Robinson.

We'll be right back.


MR. RUSSERT:  Start your day tomorrow on "Today" with Katie and Matt, then the "NBC Nightly News" with Brian Williams.  That's all for today.  We'll be back next week.  If it's Sunday, it's MEET THE PRESS.