JIM LEHRER: Good evening, I’m Jim Lehrer and welcome to a special broadcast of the News Hour. In a few moments, President George W. Bush will speak to the nation and formally resign. It’s only the second time in American history a president has resigned. Richard Nixon, our 37th president resigned under pressure from the Watergate scandal on August 8th, 1974. With me tonight are David Brooks of the New York Times and syndicated columnist Mark Shields. Mark what was the turning point? Only five days ago the White House was defiant after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Bush. White House spokesman Tony Snow made it clear the President intended for a trial in the Senate to go forward. What happened between now and then?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim in 1974, Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater - conservative stalwart led a Republican delegation that told Richard Nixon he no longer enjoyed the support of his own party and needed to resign for the good of the country. Two decades later, Arizona Senator John McCain joined Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Orin Hatch …
JIM LEHRER: Orin Hatch of Utah.
MARK SHIELDS: And a respected conservative and senior member of the Senate Judiciary committee. My sources tell me they candidly and straightforwardly told the president he was hemorrhaging Republican support in the Senate and his duty to the country was to resign.
JIM LEHRER: David does that square with your reporting?
DAVID BROOKS: It does Jim. I would add that the President was hearing from friends, family as well as Capitol Hill that he had to spare the country from further trauma. He would only lose in the Senate anyway. Democrats are unified and the Republicans are fractured. Also, September 11th allows the President to remind everyone that he made tough decisions to protect the nation in a time of war. I’m hearing the President will emphasize he’s sacrificing himself for national unity just as he’s asked soldiers to sacrifice their lives for freedom.
JIM LEHRER: And now President Bush.
Camera focuses on President Bush sitting nervously behind his desk in the oval office.
Good evening. Tonight I speak to you on the 6th anniversary that evil attacked us. It was a wake up call. America was put on notice that our enemies hate us, hate our way of life and want to kill us. For six years I’ve spent every waking moment working to protect our way of life from people who despise freedom and hope.
My administration removed a brutal dictator from Iraq and toppled a regime in Afghanistan that supported the very terrorists who attacked us. We’ve strengthened homeland security and paved the way for a new mid-east based upon freedom and self-determination. Oppression is retreating and the terrorists haven’t attacked us since that horrible day. It is a record I’m proud of and I will never apologize for defending freedom.
In the early days after 9/11 we had unity and purpose. Over time that resolve of patriotism eroded in a wave of partisanship and political vendettas. Let me be clear: I do not agree with the recent activity of congress. It is a distraction from the global war on terror that emboldens our enemies. I believe congress has overreached and their unwarranted encroachment upon executive power is dangerous. They’ve undermined national security. The ability of future presidents to protect our country is compromised by the virulent partisanship in Washington today.
I believe God has entrusted our country with the sacred duty of spreading freedom and democracy. It is a divine trust that requires sacrifice and continued vigilance. We are at war and the cause of freedom is larger than any one person.
Many have given their lives to protect our freedom. Freedom comes with a price. Both the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan are learning this. Our solders and their families understand this. I too understand.
I’ve labored for six years to defend freedom. I would’ve preferred to continue the fight until my term’s final day. I’ve seen plenty of tough days and don’t believe in quitting. But I do believe sacrifice is sometimes required for the greater good. I believe that is so today.
That’s why I’m resigning the Presidency at noon tomorrow. Vice President Cheney will assume the duties of this office upon my resignation.
I do this to restore the unity and resolve needed for victory. Given the stakes I have no problem relinquishing the power and prestige of the Presidency. It is an office I was honored to serve and I gave everything I had for my country. It is in the spirit of unity that I resign the Presidency so we can heal as a country and move forward.
I ask that all Americans come together now and support Vice President Cheney in the days ahead. The cause of freedom and our way of life is at stake. He will be in Laura’s prayers and mine. I hope he will be in yours.
To those who steadfastly supported and prayed for me, I thank you. Your support gave me strength. To those who opposed my policies I’ll simply say this: our opinions may have differed but I know we all care passionately about our country. As your President I did my best to serve everyone and I feel bonded to all Americans.
May God continue to bless the United States of America.
JIM LEHRER: President George W. Bush formally resigned his office in a short speech. He criticized congress for partisanship and overreaching and he appealed for unity. David what did you think of his speech?
DAVID BROOKS: I thought he ended on a high note and was true to himself. He hit on the themes of unity, resolve and fighting for freedom. Those were his themes during the early days after 9/11. I liked the appeal to unity for both supporters and his critics. I think it’s fair that he accused congress of partisanship. In many ways his impeachment was an act of political vengeance. Partly to avenge Bill Clinton’s impeachment and partly I think to punish Republicans for their previous political dominance.
JIM LEHRER: Mark is that how you see it?
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t Jim. I thought the speech was delusional at best and disingenuous at worst. Bush campaigned in 2000 and again in 2004 as the straight talking, plainspoken person who knows what he means and means what he says. But delusion and disingenuousness have been the hallmarks of this administration and it was in this speech. He laments the politics of vendettas but it was his administration that challenged the patriotism of those who dissented. It was his administration that exposed a covert CIA operative. The Scooter Libby trial revealed there was much more than an innocent leak from Richard Armitage.
And justification for the Iraq war wasn’t about spreading democracy. It was about protecting Americans from weapons of mass destruction. The House of Representatives made a compelling case that President Bush knowingly and willfully misled the country to war – apparently believing it would be a cakewalk. 4,500 Americans are now dead and our international prestige is at an all time low.
They also made a compelling case the President knowingly and willfully violated the law with the domestic surveillance program. Forty Republicans joined Democrats in supporting all counts of impeachment Jim. At least 18 Republican Senators are on record as supporting conviction before a single day of hearings in the Senate. This wasn’t partisanship and it wasn’t vengeance. This was supported by the mainstream.
JIM LEHRER: David?
DAVID BROOKS: Well … (smiles sheepishly), I think Republicans caved after a torrent of harsh publicity. And it’s troubling. It’s troubling for the constitutional process. I don’t see how one can prove intent on Iraq. Yes one may critique the administration’s judgment about Iraq. They had bad intelligence and after 9/11 didn’t want WMD’s winding up in the wrong hands. A lot of us shared that view (laughs and shrugs). I’ve lost count how many times the Senate intelligence committee reported the administration did not mislead about Iraq.
As for the domestic surveillance program – I’m on record for criticizing the administration for not working with congress on a new legal framework to replace FISA. As the majority party in the House, Democrats had the leverage to compel the administration to negotiate over a new legal framework that protected security and civil liberties. They opted to impeach the president instead of proposing solutions. This was not their finest hour.
JIM LEHRER: What about the appeal to unity Mark? Is that possible after everything that’s happened?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim first I want to address David’s points. The hearings in the House uncovered evidence we didn’t have all these years. I might question the wisdom of impeaching President Bush and leaving the White House in Dick Cheney’s hands. But testimony from intelligence analysts, the redacted memos from the Pentagon … I think the intent was quite clear. As for domestic surveillance – the hearings uncovered a troubling pattern of utilizing surveillance for purposes other than national security. We didn’t know that one year ago or two years ago. Again, I reiterate that impeaching the President and forcing his resignation may not be the wisest or best course. But it was certainly justified on evidentiary grounds.
As for unity – Vice President Cheney was Chief of Staff to a unifying figure in Gerald Ford who just passed away. I knew Gerald Ford. He wasn’t a friend but I knew him and admired him. Dick Cheney is no Gerald Ford. He’s not a unifying figure. His approval ratings are even lower than the President’s. Most believe Cheney was the real power behind the throne these past six years Jim. But they couldn’t get Cheney. They couldn’t get Rumsfeld who finally resigned to buy the President time. Now Cheney’s the President.
JIM LEHRER: You never agreed with impeaching President Bush.
MARK SHIELDS: Well Jim I question the wisdom of it. Not the justification but the wisdom. Bush was going to be gone on January 20, 2009. What happens now? Cheney has expressed no interest in standing for election. So for the next two years we have a commander and chief who isn’t trusted and has no incentive to earn trust or build consensus. Six years ago Cheney was regarded as the grown up with gravitas. He added maturity and judgment. Well it’s his misjudgments that resulted in the resignation of his President.
DAVID BROOKS: Cheney is an experienced operator. Behind the scenes he’s signaled to congressional leaders his willingness to be conciliatory. He knows congress is a lot more assertive right now and that he has to tread more carefully. The real question is whether Democrats will meet him half way or do they want to shed more political blood going into 2008.
JIM LEHRER: You think the Democrats are out for blood?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, the far left of the party, the liberal bloggers - they smell blood. The fringe of the Democratic Party was at first critical of Speaker Pelosi for standing in the way of Bush’s impeachment. When impeachment went forward they were critical of John Conyers for not going after Cheney too. They risk appearing as if they want to overturn the national elections of 2000 and 2004. The public is sick of partisanship. They want fresh ideas on how to win in Iraq, win the war on terror, improve education, solve immigration and reduce our dependence on foreign oil. So far all they’re getting from Democrats are investigations, hearings and impeachment.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim the Republicans investigated Bill Clinton to exhaustion over a land deal and an illicit affair. The public was against Bill Clinton’s impeachment but Republicans did it anyway. Democrats if anything were more restrained than the public wants right now about war and peace. Polls overwhelmingly show they want both Bush and Cheney held accountable. Again, I question the wisdom of impeaching Bush if you can’t remove Cheney as well. But this is far beyond a small fringe of the Democratic Party. I suppose in that sense we do have unity.
JIM LEHRER: David any sense about whom congress would consider approving as the next Vice President. For our viewers benefit - the Constitution requires that a majority of both houses of congress approve the next Vice President.
DAVID BROOKS: Two names I’m hearing are Jack Danforth and Tom Kean.
JIM LEHRER: Jack Danforth the former Senator from Missouri and former New Jersey Governor Kean …
DAVID BROOKS: Was the Chairman of the 9/11 Commission and very critical of the Bush Administration. This is an interesting dance. Democrats have leverage as the majority in the House and don’t want to give a prospective Republican nominee in 2008 a leg up. And plenty of ambitious Republicans interested in the White House don’t want someone like John McCain selected as Vice President. Or Condi Rice for that matter. Danforth and Kean may be seen as safe but unifying choices.
JIM LEHRER: Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I think Kean would be an inspired choice. Too good a choice might make Cheney feel more vulnerable. The public I’m sure would much prefer a Tom Kean in the White House over Dick Cheney. It’s hard to imagine Kean having much influence in a Cheney Administration. I’m sure Cheney would pick Rumsfeld if he could get away with it. As for John McCain – I’m not sure he would want it. At this point being associated with this administration is not viable for one’s political health or presidential ambitions.
JIM LEHRER: What about policy David? Are we likely to see many changes?
DAVID BROOKS: Well … Cheney’s advisors have spoken on deep background that they plan to propose a round of new tax cuts as a way to rally and unify their conservative base heading into an election year. They know the Republican caucus will be fractious with a wide open primary season and tax cuts might help provide some cohesion. On foreign policy Cheney is just as determined as Bush to stay the course. Even more so (laughs).
JIM LEHRER: Mark what about the possibility of a pardon as Ford pardoned Nixon?
MARK SHIELDS: I think that’s inevitable Jim. Cheney will use a pretext of moving forward and avoiding further distractions with a pardon. Bush and his lawyers are certainly aware of any evidence than might implicate the Vice President. It’s common knowledge a rift now exists between Cheney and the Bush families. Cheney can mend fences, protect himself from a potentially dangerous witness and unlike Ford he’s not running for anything and won’t care about any backlash.
Jim Lehrer invites historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, Haynes Johnson, Michael Beschloss, Richard Norton Smith into the conversation. And they pontificate further about the speech, Bush’s legacy and future repercussions. Bottom line: Dick Cheney could wind up in the White House. Something to think about.