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Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol defends House Speaker Denny Hastert

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

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HH: Joined now by William Kristol. He is editor of the Weekly Standard. You see him on the Fox News Special Report, and on Fox News Sunday. Bill, good to talk to you again.

BK: Hey, Hugh. How are you?

HH: Well, I’m good. I’m much better today, because I think the Foley thing’s burning itself out. But I have not been able to get over to see what you think about it. Give me your assessment.

BK: I think the turning on Denny Hastert is idiotic, both by some of his colleagues and some of our conservative friends on editorial pages, and on TV and radio. I mean, Hastert did nothing wrong, and I think Foley’s a creep, and he has now been…left the House, which is good. And I don’t think…if the Republicans would just get off it and get back to taxes and terror, and the actual issues, I think it’ll be fine. But they’re making this story last longer than it has to.

HH: Well now, there’s one counter argument here. I agree with that assessment completely. But I’m beginning to wonder if we don’t want the Democrats to dig around in this slop a little bit longer. Up in Minnesota’s 6th, for example, Patty Wetterling, has issued a completely false ad. Howard Kurtz earlier on this program said point blank that the Minneapolis Star Tribune has to denounce it and investigate it, because it’s just so fraudulant. It’s the Wellstone funeral effect, Bill Kristol, as my colleague and Standard contributor Dean Barnett put it. Do you see the Democrats doing this again to themselves?

BK: Well, that would be nice. I mean, the trouble is here that Foley is a creep, and he’s a Republican, so they can at least…and with several Republican and conservative voices saying this is a bigger problem that Republican leaders have to leave. I think as long as they have cover, so to speak, from Republicans, it’s harder to say…and this is being demagogued. It’s really become McCarthyism, I would almost say. I mean, it’s almost incomprehensible when Gerry Studds had relations with a page in 1983, or Dan Crane for that matter with a female page, I think it was the same year, no one thought the leaders should resign. I mean, there’s no evidence that, I don’t think, that Hastert did anything wrong, or could have known what he now knows at the time. So I really…it’s a little bewildering. I mean, I understand it’s a tabloid story, and it’s going to be in the headlines. I’m doubtful that it’ll have an effect on the actual election, I’ve got to say.

HH: Well, I agree with you. The only effect I see is people overplaying their hands. Michael Barone, by the way, has made that same point, comparing Gerry Studds’ censure, which Barone believed to be the appropriate sanction, with the calling down of the clouds. And he thinks it’s a double-standard. I don’t even want to argue against it. I just think it’s important to focus on the overreach. Now I’ve been quoting to people a lot, Bill, and I hope you’ll remember this, because otherwise, people will think I’m delirious.

BK: Uh-oh.

HH: At the Claremont panel we did…

BK: Right.

HH: One of your closing remarks was I don’t think we know yet the impact of 9/11 on the United States. And I’ve often said that in the respect, especially of elections. And people might moan and groan and complain and vetch, until they get in there. And then, the prospect of what we’re involved in comes and rushes back into the voting booth. Is that possibly going to work itself out in these elections, in a surprising way again?

BK: It could. I mean, I think the one argument…and it could, and it could help the Republicans. And I think Bush and Rove did a good job in setting up the vote last week, and getting a clear partisan split on one aspect of the war on terror, detainees rights, and interrogation, the possibility of serious interrogation or not. The problem is I think it’s certainly true for presidential elections. People know when they’re electing a president, they’re electing our commander in chief, and they’ll take that vote seriously, and they’ll vote differently than they would pre-9/11. Congressional elections, they may still feel look, Bush is still president, they’re not really, the Democratic Congress isn’t really going to cripple him in any fundamental way, and we can send a message of annoyance at the Republicans for 18 different reasons by voting, by staying home, or by voting for the Democrat in this particular Congressional or Senate race. Roosevelt lost seats in ’42. Truman lost seats in ’46. You can have…people can think of a Congressional election differently from a presidential election. I think that’s what we don’t know. Bush in 2002, obviously broke the usual rules, and turned an off-year election into something more like a presidential election. And that’s why Republicans did well. I don’t know that they can do it again this year.

HH: Now the greater asault on the Republican strategy was not launched by the Foley revelations, or by those embracing it. It was launched by Bob Woodward, and that’s what I want to spend a lot of time talking with you about. I had Thomas Edsall on the program yesterday talking about Woodward’s State of Denial. Have you had a chance to read that, by chance?

BK: I’ve read excerpts that are of course, all about it. Yeah, no, I haven’t read the book itself.

HH: And so my question…I want to play a couple of clips and get your reaction as to whether or not you’re surprised by what Edsall’s particularly saying about Woodward. Number one.

HH: Okay. Do you believe everything Bob Woodward writes?

TE: No.

HH: Do you believe he saw Bill Casey at the hospital bed scene in Veil?

TE: I have real problems with that.

HH: Bill Kristol, I don’t know anyone who believes that scene in Veil. But I also don’t think that Woodward’s credibility has particularly suffered as a result.

BK: It is amazing. I mean, I guess he’s had enough stuff that turned out to be more or less accurate, and of course, the first two books, the president cooperated with him. He instructed his staff to cooperate with him. Maybe that was a huge mistake. It makes it harder, unfortunately, either way, for the Bush team to then say hey, the guy’s totally disreputable. Really? How come the president spent hours with him? You know that’ll be the argument.

HH: Okay, second cut from Edsall. Number two.

TE: I’m not sure that Bob Woodward makes things up. That’s…I’m…

HH: Is it possible for people to infer that, based upon both the Final Days and Veil?

TE: Well, you can always infer.

HH: Is it a reasonable inference?

TE: It’s a possible inference. I wouldn’t say…

HH: But you know…

TE: But certainly, it’s not something that a jury would conclude as conclusive evidence.

HH: Bill Kristol, do you think Woodward makes things up?

BK: I think he uses thin sourcing and you know, writes dramatic accounts of things that one person may have remembered, or may have, under some prodding, elaborated. And you know what your memory is like if something had happened a year or two before. Look, at the end of the day, there’s nothing in the Woodward book that surprised me that much. I mean, you and I may differ on sort of Rumsfeld. I’ve actually always been a critic of his, so I’m not so…but there’s certainly been tensions among them. But you know, these little piquant details could be made up. That is, someone might have told Woodward that Rumsfeld doesn’t return Condi Rice’s phone calls. There could have been one instance where Condi placed a call, and Rumsfeld had four meetings and called her back five hours later, instead of 22 minutes later, you know? From that, Woodward kind of generalized the two. Rumsfeld wouldn’t respond to Condi Rice’s phone calls, which as Condi said, is ridiculous in any general sense. I’m sure that it’s not true. So I think that’s the way in which he exaggerates, and elaborates.

HH: Okay. Now the Rumsfeld portrait that emerges at least at the beginning, of a determined, almost radical reformer of the Pentagon, who has in fact engendered a great deal of hostility. I don’t think that that’s not admirable, Bill Kristol, in some respects after eight years of Clinton fecklessness at the Department of Defense. I know you disagree with Rumsfeld over the amount of troops committed, and the way the war’s being run. But as to how he’s attempting to reassert civilian control, is that a problem for you?

BK: No, he’s a strong Secretary of Defense. He’s doing what he and the president have discussed. They want a chance to reform the Army. I might do some things slightly differently. I’m a little less critical of the Pentagon bureaucracy than he is, and think a little more highly of ground toops, as opposed to sort of high tech modern modes of warfare, but that’s a reasonable debate. But look, he’s entitled to pursue those ideas. He’s Secretary of Defense, and the president has asked him to do this. So yeah, he’s a strong leader, and again, Bush wants him there, and so that’s fine. And so I don’t think there’s anything much in the book that really seems that surprising in a sense about Bush or Rumsfeld, do you?

HH: No. That’s what I’m getting back to. I don’t think the Woodward…I think that’s a blank, too. I think Foley’s not a blank. It stunned people, like a concussion grenade, but people are getting over it now. But I think Woodward missed.

BK: Yeah, I agree. Look, here’s where I think you and I agree. 9/11, we don’t know what the impact is, but I do think the Danish cartoons, and the Pope’s speech, and maybe even the German opera, if you want to get into slightly less important things, the cancellation of the Mozart opera because it had the severed head of Mohammed at the end that the director stupidly added, but still, he had added it, along with a severed head, I guess, of Jesus and Buddha or something, and then they cancelled it out of fear of Muslim terror. I think the American public understands that we’re fighting something very different from one nation, or one disgruntled group of terrorists, or one group of people with some very discreet, concrete demand. And the question is, how much does that come home to bear in this mid-term election? And I mean, I think if people get serious about the jihadist threat, it’s very hard, the Republicans have made some mistakes, the Bush administration has made some mistakes, but I think it’s very hard to say the Democratic Party has the foggiest idea of the enemy we’re fighting, and how we have to be serious about fighting it.

HH: This is exactly right, because Ahmadinejad and Chavez were actually the greatest things to happen to the Republican Party in this season, not that we wouldn’t wish them off of the Earth immediately. But in fact, they focused the mind dramatically when they came to New York.

BK: But let me give you a contrarian point of view. Here’s the problem. The problem is not that Bush has been too bellicose, or too soft. The problem is the voters might look at what we’re doing right now with Iran and say hey, you know what? He’s pursuing all these diplomatic alternatives, he’s going to the Security Council, so will the Democratic Congress continue to do the same thing. In a weird way, if Bush were being, as I think he should be, a little bit tougher on Iran, if he were saying this is going to have to be…this will be a confrontation that’s going to happen, and we hope it’s not military, but it could be. If Bush in a way were being more hawkish and alerting Americans more to the threats down the road, now this is very contrarian, but it’s obviously the normal advice to presidents, a month before an election, is reassure people, calm people down. If Bush were being more hawkish, and alerting people to the challenges and the threat, I think they would be a little more hesitant to vote for Democrats for Congress. In a funny way, the domination of the State Department, the resorting to diplomacy, North Korea says they’re going to have a nuclear test, and we say ooh, that sounds very bad. It might endanger the six party talks, I mean, in a funny way, it’s precisely the State Department dominance right now in the Bush administration that I think is making it harder to get voters to understand what’s at stake.

HH: Bill Kristol, I think you’re exactly right. Clarity is what is necessary now. And hopefully, in five weeks, or over five weeks, we’ll get more of it, not less. Bill Kristol from the Weekly Standard, always a pleasure.

End of interview.

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