Week In Politics Examined

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Political commentators David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution offer their insight on the week in politics. Topics this week include the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, the naming of a prosecutor to investigate the CIA's interrogation practices and President Obama's decision to nominate Ben Bernanke to a second term at the Federal Reserve.


Joining us now, our two political observers: E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times. Welcome back to both of you.

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

Mr. DAVID BROOKS (Journalist, The New York Times): Good to be here.

SIEGEL: And we do have some other political developments to talk about. But first, you were both here earlier this week when Senator Kennedy died. You've both written about him this week: last thoughts about Ted Kennedy - first E.J.,.

Mr. DIONNE: You know, politics being polarized as it is, people are already arguing about the true meaning of Ted Kennedy's legacy. On the one side, you have people saying he was an outspoken crusading liberal, a friend of the dispossessed. The other says, he was a warm bipartisan figure who could work with anybody. And of course, he was both of those. He was an empathetic and warm human being who could work with anybody. But he could make deals precisely because he knew what he wanted and where he wanted to move the country. And I think the lesson that Ted Kennedy teaches is that politicians with strong principles are better at compromise than people who don't know what they really want or what they believe.

SIEGEL: David, you agree with that?

Mr. BROOKS: I do agree with that and he was formed by the constitution. That's what the constitution wants. We have this, I think since even, since his brother John F. Kennedy, we've had the stream of the dominating politician, the charismatic leader who will sweep all before him, and I have to say, I think George Bush and Barack Obama are sort of captured by that image of what a leader is. But if you're in the Senate in particular you can't do that. You have to bring people together. It takes a different set of skills, a different set of intelligences.

And it's a much more team-oriented sport, politics at that level. And I think Kennedy was raised with one style of leadership but emerged to find that he was very talented at the much more team-oriented style of leadership.

SIEGEL: A different subject. This week, the Obama Justice Department decided to investigate CIA interrogation techniques. That cheered many liberals - the ACLU wanted it. It dismayed a lot of people who claimed it was focusing on the past. E.J., what do you make of that decision?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, you know, among the people who didn't seem particularly cheered by it were people inside the Obama White House. And I think the first thing that needs to be said about this is that the decision by Attorney General Eric Holder to do these investigations is a sign that this is not a politicized Justice Department, because if he had been following the leadership at the top, I don't think he would be doing this. There were risks here. One risk is that they will only go after lower-level officials and be sort of constrained in going all the way to the top. I think that would be unfortunate.

And obviously, the CIA is worried worry that - well, we did the job that we were supposed to do, that we were told to do, and now we're getting hit for it. But there is, I think, relief at the CIA for being out of this business because a lot of the folks at the CIA did not like these techniques at all.

SIEGEL: That interrogation will now be run out of the FBI.

Mr. DIONNE: Out of the FBI.

SIEGEL: David Brooks, the CIA interrogation and the White House?

Mr. BROOKS: Well, it's still a little bit unclear why they're reopening. This matter has already been looked at by career prosecutors, non-political people. And they decided not to prosecute. So they're going to prosecute now some, but it's not clear why. There is, as E.J. says, the political effect. One long-time, Washington operative told me today, you do not want to declare war on the CIA. If you're a White House, you do not want to go to war against those people because they keep every piece of paper ever…

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BROOKS: …and they will - they will really be effective at any…

SIEGEL: They win is what you say.

Mr. BROOKS: They tend to win.


Mr. BROOKS: And there is a sense that the Obama administration, especially the White House, has done several things to the CIA, which the CIA does not appreciate. I'm not defending the CIA against Nancy Pelosi's charges in this. After a lot of people at the CIA thought they had a deal where they wouldn't get prosecuted. Now reopening this - sort of opens that back up again. And so I think the White House had better be careful as much as a lot of people want to see what happened prosecuted.

SIEGEL: E.J., it sounds like a Washington novel that David's spinning here.

Mr. DIONNE: Allen Drury is not with us anymore. It's a classic by him. It is -I mean, David's right that the CIA often wins. It doesn't always win. I mean, you go back to the 1970s and the investigations that were done to the CIA. I think one of the questions here is, in the end, is this best dealt with as a criminal matter or is this something that you really wanted a serious look back by the Congress…

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DIONNE: …to say this is in the past. We're not going to do it again but let's figure out what happened.

SIEGEL: David, another subject: Ben Bernanke was reappointed by President Obama to be a chairman of the Fed. He was appointed initially by President Bush. What does that say about President Obama?

Mr. BROOKS: Continuity, trust and that he did a good - Bernanke did a good job. One of the things I liked about Bernanke is when he came in, Alan Greenspan, when the Fed would meet, Greenspan would always speak first at the meetings and sort of set the tone. Bernanke would always speak last, allowing there to be an open conversation. In the midst of the crisis, when he and Tim Geithner and Paulson were there trying to deal with this unprecedented crisis, one of the things Bernanke would always do is keep the conversation going. They had these very complex things. They didn't really understand what was going on but he always would call and conference call and talk and talk again. And he kept that process going amidst great stress. I thought - a great - not only intelligence but social intelligence that he showed then.

SIEGEL: E.J. what do you make of the president not taking the opportunity to put his own man at the Fed?

Mr. DIONNE: Well, market actors like stability. And in the middle of this mess I think Barack Obama decided that he did not want to shake up the Fed. And that Bernanke, first of all, let's cheer him for speaking reasonably plain English…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DIONNE: …which is not something that always goes with being a head of the Fed. And Bernanke was obsessed in his academic career with the Great Depression. And I think that turned out to be a great blessing for the country. That he was determined that whatever he did, he was going to take every step he could - and pretty adventurous steps, steps he was criticized for - to keep us from falling of the edge. And I think he succeeded in keeping us out of a much worse situation.

SIEGEL: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, David Brooks of The New York Times, thanks to both of you.

Mr. DIONNE: Thank you.

Mr. BROOKS: Thank you.

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