Washington Heats Up for Attorney General In this edition of Political Junkie, Ken Rudin, NPR's political editor, talks about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the grilling he took at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee. On the campaign trail, Fred Thompson shakes up his campaign, while Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to battle it out in the press.
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Washington Heats Up for Attorney General

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Right now, it's Wednesday, and time for another edition of the Political Junkie.

(Soundbite of past political speeches)

President RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.

President JOHN F. KENNEDY: Ich bin ein Berliner.

Senator LLOYD BENTSEN (Democrat, Texas): Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: But I'm the decider.

Governor HOWARD DEAN (Democratic, Vermont): Byaah.

NEARY: Things are heating up here in Washington, especially for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, faced with another grilling at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday. It got so tense one senator said she had never heard anything quite like it.

At the same time, a new poll puts President Bush in the running as one of the least popular presidents of all time.

And in the race to be the next president, Fred Thompson hasn't officially jumped in yet, but he's shaking up his campaign staff already.

And after the YouTube debate on Monday, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are still going at it in the press.

Ken Rudin, our political junkie, is back. And if you have questions for him about the attorney general's troubles, the presidential primary election, or the rest of the week's news, give us a call.

We're also going to talk a bit about the CNN/YouTube debate last Monday. There were some interesting questions, but are there still things you didn't hear that you would like to ask the candidates?

800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And the email address is talk@npr.org. And of course, always feel free to send your comments on the blog, npr.org/blogofthenation.

Ken Rudin is NPR's political editor. You can read his weekly column and download his podcast at the NPR Web site. And he is here with me in Studio 3A. Always good to be with you.

KEN RUDIN: Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: All right. Let's start with this scandal surrounding the Attorney General. He went before the Judiciary Committee yesterday, and I think it's safe to say things got a little testy. Let's hear some tape.

(Soundbite of excerpt from Senate committee hearing)

Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Did the president ask you to go?

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General, Department of Justice): We were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

Senator SCHUMER: I didn't ask you that.

Mr. GONZALES: I understand…

Senator SCHUMER: Did the president ask you to go?

Mr. GONZALES: Senator, we were there on behalf of the president of the United States.

Senator SCHUMER: Why can't you answer that question?

Mr. GONZALES: That's the answer that I can give you, Senator.

NEARY: Neither one giving an inch.

RUDIN: Well, that was Charles Schumer, Democrat from New York, grilling Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in yesterday's hearing.

But you know, it's interesting, the fact that Alberto Gonzales is still the Attorney General is really pretty remarkable given the fact that, you know, his credibility is long gone, even with the Republicans, even apparently within his own Justice Department, you know? Everything between the questionable surveillance by the NSA, the firings of the eight, nine U.S. attorneys, I mean, there's a whole litany of stuff there that people are just, you know, really not happy with. But, while you do need the majority of the senators to confirm an Attorney General, you only need one vote to keep you as Attorney General, and that's the vote of President Bush, and that vote is still there.

NEARY: And he's got the backing of President Bush, and so he can diss the senators as much as they want to diss him, I guess.

RUDIN: Well, the contempt was so palpable. I mean, on both sides that, you know, there will be questions even from both parties that Gonzales just refused to answer, saying, I don't recall, I won't answer, or I will not answer that question.

And, you know, if you look at the eyes of the - those questioning him, again, from both parties, is just realizing that neither side was getting anywhere. It was actually a day of futility.

But again, it just shows the fact that, if Gonzales were to leave, if he was to resign or President Bush would ask him to leave, which it doesn't seem like to be in the cards, then President Bush would have to have a new attorney general with more questions submitted by a Democratic Senate, and I think that's probably more objectionable than keeping Gonzales on.

NEARY: Yeah. Let's take a call from Nick(ph). He's calling from Norman, Oklahoma. Hi, Nick. Go ahead.

NICK (Caller): Hi, Lynn. Thank you for taking my call. Ken, I look forward to your segment every week.

RUDIN: That's great. Thanks.

NICK: My question is, what's the political calculation on the part of the White House in keeping Alberto Gonzales in office? It seems the longer this kind of congressional stew boils over, especially looking forward to the '08 elections, seems to not work out in their favor. I'm just curious, if there is a political calculation, what is it?

RUDIN: Well, you wonder how much lower President Bush can go in the polls. Lynn alluded earlier to a Washington Post poll that just came out in today's paper that showed President Bush with a 65 percent disapproval rating, which rates among the worst or the lowest and - or highest disapproval rate in history.

It's a good question. I mean, it hasn't helped the Republican Party by helping - by keeping Gonzales on. Even questions from Arlen Specter and other Republicans, it just shows that there's so little patience left with Gonzales as Attorney General.

But as I said earlier, I think the price that the Republican Party and President Bush would have to pay if Gonzales was gone might be even greater given the fact that we're already in the middle of a presidential election. Iowa is six months away. The election is a little more than a year and a half away, and the Democrats don't seem too eager to approve any kind of a replacement of attorney general for President Bush. So I think it's a lose-lose situation for the president. Probably keeping him on might be the least objectionable.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Nick. You know, in terms of these numbers, what is that reflecting? Is it just reflecting the deep satisfaction with the Iraq war? Bush fatigue? What does it reflect?

RUDIN: Well, there is a lot of Bush fatigue. And, you know, it's very interesting, we always say this, but the day after the 2004 election, when President Bush won a second term, he said, I have political capital and I intend to use it. And I - you know, it's pretty rare to see a president loose that political capital as quickly as he did.

But, given the fact that he's pushing a war, that a majority of the people - majority of the country is opposed to, and he's supporting an immigration party(ph) that an overwhelmingly - overwhelming majority of his own party is opposed to, it's really not much support left. Now, you could say that, well, you know, Harry Truman, when he left office in 1953, you know, January of '53, he also had 65 percent disapproval ratings and today, he's one of the more respected and beloved president of all time. But it's kind of hard to see President Bush recovering the way Harry Truman did in history.

NEARY: Well, how is this unpopularity, the president's unpopularity going to play out in next year's elections, the presidential elections and congressional elections?

RUDIN: Well, that's a very good point. I mean, President Bush, obviously, will not be on the ballot in 2008, but we could see what happened in 1976, you know. Richard Nixon was no - was gone from the scene in 1976. He resigned in '74. Gerald Ford took his place. But a lot of Republicans had Watergate fatigue, Richard Nixon fatigue, and a lot of them stayed home in 1976 when Jimmy Carter was elected president.

So, you know, it's very interesting to look at the Republican field. First of all, if you look a lot at the polls, a lot of Republicans say that this - they like none of the above.

NEARY: Yeah.

RUDIN: And I think part of it is a reflection of just how much - how disappointed they are with the Republican Party and it's standing in the world today.

NEARY: All right. Well, that brings us to Fred Thompson, who at the moment seems to be the most popular candidate. But he hasn't even declared that he's running yet and he's already shaking up his campaign. What's happening there?

RUDIN: Well, the fact that he has not announced and the fact that he's very popular, I'm sure, is not a coincidence. I kind of think - look at what happened to John McCain who has gone through, you know, $20, $30 million, has fired, you know, or had let go many of his top aides and is plummeting in the polls.

NEARY: Yeah.

RUDIN: Fred Thompson has not - been involved in one debate. He has spent as very little money comparatively, and yet, he's up there on the top, you know, with the top one or two contenders. I think it's part of the reflection of a disappointment with the candidates who are already in the field. And I think he really hasn't been tested.

I mean, you don't get tested by watching "Law & Order" on NBC TV, but you know, his record as a lobbyist, his record - his questionable lobbying activities on behalf of an abortion rights group, his speeches have not been that great. I've seen two or three of them and they really leave me kind of under whelmed. But - I guess…

NEARY: And why is he already shaking up his campaign?

RUDIN: Well, that's a good question. I mean, a lot of people will say why hasn't he even got in the race yet?

NEARY: Right.

RUDIN: But perhaps, maybe, why - maybe he'll - if he stays like this, maybe he wouldn't have to announce until January 20th, 2009 when he's sworn in as president. But he seems to be doing everything right. And yet, I guess, they want some more direction. We talk about the TV show, "Spencer For Hire." He hired Spencer Abraham, the former senator from Michigan to run his campaign, a Washington-Republican insider that hopefully, for him, will give the campaign a boost.

NEARY: Well, while we're on Republicans. There's an e-mail here from Lindsay(ph) in Oklahoma City. She says, I wanted to ask the Political Junkie what he thinks about the Ron Paul phenomenon. He has now more money than McCain and does not accept donations from corporations. Also, he seems to have more support on the Internet than anyone of the other candidates. I was wondering if this will have any real impact on the election, and how?

RUDIN: Well, you know, we've - I'm fascinated by the Ron Paul thing as well. It's almost like, you know, excitement over the Beatles, that's what I think it's like - Ron Paul, George and Ringo. But, if you think of what happened to Howard Dean in 2003-2004, the most popular candidate by far on the Internet, the blogs were all taking about him and ultimately, he went nowhere with the voters.

Ron Paul, if you look at the national polls again, this is not a national election, it's individual states. But if you look at national polls, Ron Paul is getting two percent, three percent. But if you go online, everybody's fascinated by Ron Paul, even as the fact that he speaks his mind. He is - one of the least reliable Republican votes in the House. He's one of only six House Republicans to vote against the decision to go to war in 2002.

And given the fact that more and more Republican base seems to be opposed to the war, he is getting traction. But whether that translates in real votes, it's - remains to be seen. One early test will be April - August 11th in Iowa. They have the Iowa straw poll. Ron Paul is trying to get his supporters out there for this straw poll, which is ultimately meaningless, but it might give some indication of Republican strength in Iowa.

NEARY: Well, another example of YouTube's influence on this election was the debate the other night, the Democratic debate, the first YouTube debate. It aired on CNN. But some questions for the candidates were submitted as YouTube videos. And let's listen to what it sounded like on CNN.

(Soundbite of clip from CNN/YouTube Debate)

Mr. ANDERSON COOPER (CNN News Anchor): Our first question tonight is from Zach Kempf in Provo, Utah.

JACK (YouTuber): What's up? I'm running out of tape. I have to hurry. So my question is, we have a bunch of leaders who can't seem to do their job. And we pick people based on the issues that they represent. But then they get in power and they don't do anything about it anyway. You're going to spend this whole night talking about your views on issues. But the issues don't matter if, when you get in power, nothing's going to get done.

We have a Congress and a president with, like, a 30 percent approval rating. So clearly, we don't think they're doing a good job. What's going to make you anymore effectual, beyond all the platitudes and the stuff we're used to hearing? I mean, be honest with us. How are you going to be any different?

NEARY: Ken, for all the hype around that debate, how different was it from the norm?

RUDIN: Well, it was certainly more people-oriented. I mean, it wasn't with a bunch of professional journalists sitting around asking questions. I think what I'd liked about it, and I did keep my interest with, and this was two hours of it, you know, it was just more citizen participation. Some of the questions were a little loony. This question was a little hard to follow for a long time. We had this talking snowman talking about goal, you know, the environment and things like that.

But there's something very effective when you see a person, and this is not a professional politician, but a citizen/person talking about a family member suffering from Alzheimer's or somebody who lost a father and grandfather in war and doesn't want to lose his son again. There's something very moving and personal about it that you don't get when you have just somebody from a newspaper or TV network asking the questions. The answers were not that illuminating. I don't think you got much difference than you'd have in the past. I thought it was interesting. You did see Joe Biden saying, yes, I would send troops to Darfur. I thought that was interesting. You did have some candidates fudge a little bit and get - look uncomfortable on the issue of gay marriage.

But for the most part, I think the candidates still have the same scripted answers. You know, they're some back and forth, but what I liked was the fact that these were real people asking real questions from the heart.

NEARY: Ken Rudin is our political junkie. If you've got a question for him, give us a call at 800-989-TALK. And you're listening TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

We're going to take a call now. We're going to go to Darren(ph), who is on the road in North Carolina. Hi, Darren.

DARREN (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

DARREN: Okay. My question is specific to the candidates, particularly the Democrats' positions on campaign finance reform. It seems there's a lot of controversy that doesn't get addressed surrounding corporate interest and political decisions that are made before, during, and while on office, or before and while in office. I want to see if you might be able to answer my question in terms of the candidates' different positions, specifically Hillary and Obama.

NEARY: On campaign finance reform?

DARREN: On campaign finance reform, yes.

NEARY: Okay, Ken.

RUDIN: Well, I mean, assuming I understand the question, I think what he's talking about is the fact that once upon a time, they tried to reform the campaign finance laws that had, you know, matching funds and limits, campaign limits. But we saw in the 2000 and then in 2004 elections that there were such unbelievable amounts of money being raised by, for example, President Bush, that Democrats in 2004, like John Kerry, said I'm not going to agree to any kind of limits at all. I'm going to spend as much as I can. I'm going to raise and spend as much as I can.

And the Democrats found out that if you want to play by the rules when the party is spending whatever they can, they ultimately lose. So it's kind of interesting that Democrats, like Barack Obama, like Hillary Clinton, once upon a time supported this campaign finance legislation and campaign finance limits, and suddenly they find themselves spending as much as they can because that's the way game is played. I think - I'm not sure who suffers by this, but it's interesting to see the Democratic Party, who once were the party of campaign finance limits suddenly, you know, reveling and excited about all the money that they're raising.

NEARY: Let's take one more call from Barbara(ph). She's in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Hi, Barbara.

BARBARA (Caller): Hi, there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

BARBARA: Yeah. I was really surprised that there wasn't one question from YouTube viewers about why there's no serious move for impeachment of Bush, Cheney, criminal charges against - looks like obvious criminal activity in that administration. Why wasn't there even a question about that?

RUDIN: Well, that in itself is an interesting question. I thought the same thing because I expected an impeachment question to come up that night. But I think one of the things that is frustrating to many on the left wing of the Democratic Party is that the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate refuse to acknowledge this issue at all. Nancy Pelosi, from the moment she was sworn in as Speaker said that impeachment is off the table.

There are a handful of anti-war members of the Democratic caucus who say that President Bush and Vice President Cheney should be - at least, the issue of impeachment should come up. But it's the Democrats themselves who say, look, this is off the table. And the Democrats control Congress. I was surprised, though, that the question didn't come up in the debate, at least, even to have Democrats address it. I believe Dennis Kucinich, Mike Gravel, two of the more left wing of the candidates support impeachment. I don't think the others do, but it would've been nice to hear the other candidates address that issue.

NEARY: Well, they did go through the questions beforehand and it's highly possible that they eliminated that question. They didn't want the candidates to address that question.

RUDIN: Well, whether they did or not, the point is, for all the democratization of this process, CNN and CNN executives did go through the twenty-nine hundred or so videos to ask the questions. They chose 41 questions that and obviously decided not to choose an impeachment. I can't imagine that there was no question about impeachment that was submitted.

NEARY: Yeah. Now, the debate is over, but Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama hasn't really stopped the fighting between the candidates. They've kind of been going out to each other.

RUDIN: Well, it's something that the press likes. I mean, we don't like issues, we like, you know, fighting and whining and things like that.

But actually, it's interesting, there was an issue, there was a question during the YouTube debate about whether you would agree to meet with leaders of Iran, and North Korea and Cuba, you know, things like that. And Barack Obama said, yes, I would agree to meet with them the first year of my presidency. Hillary Clinton said, no, that's, you know, you're not supposed to do that. You have to - it will be used for propaganda purposes. And then apparently, yesterday, in an interview in the "Quad-City Times," which I subscribed to as you do Lynn, I'm sure, she said that he was naive and inexperienced about that.

NEARY: All right. Thanks for being with us again, Ken.

RUDIN: Thanks, Lynn.

NEARY: NPR's political editor Ken Rudin, otherwise known as the political junkie.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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