Week In Politics Reviewed

This week, Iran demanded an apology from President Obama and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford admitted he engaged in an extra-marital affair. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times offer their insight on the week in politics.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As the week winds down, we're joined for our Friday political chat with our regular commentators: columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and David Brooks of the New York Times. Welcome back to you both.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE (Columnist, Washington Post): Thank you.

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Columnist, New York Times): Good to be with you.

BLOCK: And before we turn to things political, why don't we just pay a bit of attention here to Michael Jackson? And David Brooks, I'm curious if you have something in your personal memory bank that connects you with a Michael Jackson song.

Mr. BROOKS: I found myself, actually, surprisingly moved by his death. He was like - for those of us, I'm roughly his age, it's like every pop culture trend of our lives, he personified them. And I guess the theme of the week is the loneliness of people in public life, and you can get the adoration of the crowd that doesn't satisfy your needs. I went to a concert once of his, and it was different from most concerts in that, most concerts - at least the really good ones - the artist converses with the audience. This was more or less a performance above the audience that we all admired. And so I think that emotional lack was obviously there throughout his life.

BLOCK: E.J., what about you?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I wish he had taught me how to dance, and alas, he never did. He was a troubled man, but he was really gifted. I liked his songs very much. And I guess proving that you can politicize anything you want to, I have particularly loved the song "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough," which I think - I've thought of, actually, for a while as a perfect ballad for those active in politics, and maybe now we can make it the anthem for health care reform.

BLOCK: You need a little more rhythm in that, E.J.,. Better work on that. Let's move on to broader world concerns, and let's start with Iran, and specifically, the U.S. position on the disputed election there. We heard Iranian President Ahmadinejad this week saying that President Obama is using the same rhetoric as President Bush, and he called on President Obama to show repentance or apologize. President Obama was asked about that at a news conference today at the White House. Let's listen.

President BARACK OBAMA: I don't take Mr. Ahmadinejad's statements seriously about apologies, particularly given the fact that the United States has gone out of its way not to interfere with the election process in Iran.

BLOCK: Okay, David, leaving aside this question of apology, is President Obama in the same situation as we talked about, say, a week ago on this program in terms of how he is confronting Iran, what words he's using and the language he's choosing to talk about the government and the repression there?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, he's moved. He's moved quite a lot in the week and a half. And we've learned from - about President Obama, that when there's a highly emotional situation, I think his first instinct is pull back from that emotion and proceed cautiously. And - but he got, after a week or two, to the sort of tough rhetoric that I think he should have had a few days earlier. But the more important thing is where we go from here. And the question for the administration now is we know we have an Iranian regime which is not going to compromise. We also know they're much more reckless and clumsy than maybe we might have thought. So the lesson is we can't go back to the old engagement policy we envisioned. So where do we go from here? And that's really the big question.

BLOCK: Well, E.J., President Obama had made it a point during the campaign that he would be open to direct talks with Iran. Do you think he has to completely rethink that position now?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, I think the administration is rethinking its position, but it's not necessarily coming to the conclusion David has. It is possible that the regime will harden and that no talks are going to be possible. There's at least, you know, one chance in three that their regime is so discredited that they might actually choose engagement, maybe put something on the table in order to restore their standing in the world. And I think that might be difficult for the administration to walk away from. But I think Ahmadinejad's comments today really were evidence for why Obama was right to be cautious in the first place. He held off on strong words until the regime really showed its hands, where oppression got very severe. And then he said what I think most Americans feel in attacking that regime.

BLOCK: We were talking about apologies, and there has been contrition aplenty coming from another corner. We're moving back to this country, now, and we're talking about South Carolina, of course, and Governor Mark Sanford. Let's listen to what he had to say when he met with his Cabinet today.

Governor MARK SANFORD (Republican, South Carolina): I've made general apologies to the people of South Carolina or to staff at large, but you all are really the epicenter of that team that, you know, through about 65,000 state employees, serves the people of South Carolina.

BLOCK: And Governor Sanford went on to single out several members of the Cabinet, apologized personally to each - this, of course, after he went incommunicado from his office. His staff said he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, it turned out he was in fact visiting his lover in Argentina. And he's been apologizing right and left. David Brooks, hard to know where even to begin on this subject, but what do you make of what's going on with Governor Sanford and what it means to the Republican Party?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, I have a high tolerance for people in public life who commit affairs because I think they're morally uncomfortable or wrong in private life. But, I think people do compartmentalize. And they can perform a public role. And so, I'm always - my tendency is always to want to forgive. But then you draw another distinction and that's between the people who commit illicit, sleazy affairs where they don't actually care about the person, and the people who actually fall in love. And I - in one way the people who fall in love are less totally immoral than the sleazy ones.

Yet they do more damage to themselves, more damage, I think, to their families and more damage to their ability to perform publicly because they've totally unmoored themselves. And I think Governor Sanford is clearly unmoored now. And should at least take time off, if not resign totally, because he's clearly showed as the press conference showed, a person who's not quite in control of his life.

BLOCK: That was a remarkable press conference he did. And it went on and on and more soul bearing I think than we have seen from just about any politician.

Mr. DIONNE: In some sense more soul bearing than you get from your best friend. I mean, it was really remarkable. I broadly sympathize with the theologian David Brooks, of what he - how he analyzed this. Although you look at Senator Ensign and Governor Sanford…

BLOCK: Senator Ensign from Nevada.

Mr. DIONNE: Senator Ensign from Nevada, who had his own problem earlier. And I agree with David that this affair seemed much more serious than - and the problem Senator Ensign has a more serious because they seem to be linked to money and other things. But the Republican Party's latest new idea is open marriage. I mean, I hate sex scandals, even though I follow them intently. And I wish we could collectively back away from them. But, that would probably be -require politicians to be more reluctant to trot out their perfect families and also they'd have to stop publicly judging the rest of us.

BLOCK: But is this more than a sex scandal? I mean the Governor Sanford is now saying he'll have to - he will repay some of the public funds that were used for one of these trips during which he visited his lover. I mean, this is beyond just is he hurting his wife and his family, isn't it, David?

Mr. BROOKS: Right. Well, that's why I think that the profundity of the affair judging by the emails, it's like an addiction. He lost all mooring. And so, one can't totally trust that he's making any decisions right at this point. It also affects the Republican race in 2012. And it's really reduced, by a large percentage, the share of people who are really plausible front running candidates - not that it was ever going to be great shakes. But, now we're stuck, we're left…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROOKS: … let's put it that way, with Mitt Romney and a few others. And that's actually not good for the Republican Party.

BLOCK: Do you think he'll resign E.J. Do you think Governor Sanford will step down.

Mr. DIONNE: He seems to be trying to resist it. I agree with out, it does go beyond the sex. It's not only whether public money was used. Disappearing on your state, not even telling your staff where you are, that's troublesome sort of behavior.

BLOCK: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution and David Brooks of New York Times. Good to talk to you, have a great weekend.

Mr. BROOKS: You too.

Mr. E.J. DIONNE: Thank you.

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