"Nightline Transcript"
Nightline
April 11, 2001
by Ted Koppel

 

[Snippets of this interview were used on Nightline's coverage of President George W. Bush's first one hundred days in office.]

You've picked up on what seems to surprise a lot of people, that the president is as conservative as people in Texas said he was.

You mean that he's completely the opposite of what he said during the campaign. I think it's a brilliant move. He said in the campaign he was a uniter, not a divider, compassionate, all of those things, and yet he didn't win the popular vote. So, when he got into the White House, he thought, "Well, that wasn't planned. Hey, I got an idea. Let me take Reagan to the right. See where that takes me. Maybe that'll be popular."

I'm excited about it. I think what he realized is, over these last eight years of peace and prosperity, we've learned one major thing as a country, and that is we need an enemy, and he is just going through the Rolodex right now. "Let me throw some bombs at Iraq. What's Russia doing? Send their spies back. Nothing? What about China? Let's kick their ass. Hey, can I ask you guys a question? Poland still a country? Can we go after them?"...

I would not be surprised — this is obviously the first 100 days, but when you come back for the second 100 days, maybe he attacks Canada, maybe Vancouver. We need an enemy, and no one's cooperating. We sent 50 Russian spies back, and what did they do? "Ah, all right. We're going to send yours back."

They gave us back our plane in 10 days. The guys still on the island in "Survivor" have been on there longer — 35 days. We need an enemy, brother, and he's going to find it because he's a Texan. Don't mess with the bull.

Is any of this making sense?

It's all making sense.

All right. I just, I had so much water today because you're supposed to drink a lot of glasses, and I think the arsenic has weakened me, so I'm not able to speak and think as clearly.

He did go off on a nice tear there with rolling back all of these regulations. We had arsenic, as you mentioned, CO2.

He is — listen. Jacob Javitz was the great reformer. He is the great repealer. It's like anything. When you move into a new house, what do you do? You spend the first 100 days peeling off the wallpaper, getting the paint off of that, stripping everything down so that you can look at it and go, "Uh, you know, what do we want to put in here?"

So he's repealing. He's rolling back. It's compassionate. It's conservatism. I love the way he — his speech pattern is tremendous — he's literally the master of the obvious. He just says, we'll say, "How are you going to deal with this China thing?" "We're going to learn the facts. We're going to make good decisions based on the facts about China, and the situation in China. We're going to use the facts about the situation in China and make some good decisions. Helen?"

The Vice President

What about the notion that Cheney's running things? That seems to be a standard staple in your business.

In my business, you say, with contempt dripping slowly from your ears and eyes.

You know, the staples in our business seem to come from the staples in your business, and I believe that the idea that Cheney — I don't know why people would get that impression that a man with 30 years of federal government experience and has worked through recessions, wars, booms, would be calling the shots over a guy who owned a baseball team. I don't know where people got the impression that this guy, Cheney, might somehow have more — what's the word I'm looking for? — gravitas than a guy who, let's say, traded for Kenny Rogers.

The syntax mangling seems to — he hasn't really left that behind on the campaign trail.

Yeah. We're trying to lay off the syntax mangling and concentrate on the arsenic in our water.

Yeah. No, all jokes aside, you know, it is somewhat disconcerting to hear your president basically have to look down — I mean, I saw him, I won't say this morning because obviously this is running I don't know when.

A couple weeks.

But when he said that the crewmen were coming home, he had to check a card. Now, I don't know how many crisis hostage situations were going on at that time. Maybe he is juggling these, but I would think — it was literally a 30-second sound bite, you know, his press conference or his statement. Why you can't just come out and say, "The crewmen are coming home," without going, "The crewmen... in China..." and then every time he hits a word, he's got to wink at me like, "Uh, thought I couldn't do it, didn't ya?"

I think our expectations of him are honestly so low that he wins, as long as the country doesn't cleave and ebb. I've heard that if China doesn't respond as an enemy, he will fire on Fort Sumter. He will turn on his own people to get an enemy.

The Cabinet

You told us once on "Nightline"... that the Republicans reminded you of the guys that laid off your father. He's sort of surrounded by, you know, corporate CEO, banker types. What do you think when you look at the Cabinet?

What do I see when I look at the Cabinet? A portfolio I wish was mine. I see guys, listen, any time a guy has got to make a decision about whether to unload $20 million worth of stock options, hey, that's one of those, what do they call those in the business? Win-win. Oh, you've got $20 million stock options.

Taxes

Taxes. We've heard almost nothing but: $1.6 billion, 10 years. Some people say 45 percent of it is going to the top 1 percent.

It protects working families, protects Social Security and Medicare. It's compassionate, tax cut. [Laughter.]

I'm sorry. The guy kills me. I can't help it. It literally, I mean, it's, you know, they talk so much about he's the CEO of a company. What CEO of a company could get away with being that vague? Could you possibly imagine Warren Buffet walking into a stockholders meeting going, "I'm making some decisions about our products, based on sound research."

"What products would those be?"

"Fundamentally sound products, products people use, products that help people." That's the end of the meeting. I think that the tax cut is going to be very healthy — very helpful because I am in that top 1 percent, and man-oh-man, I'm licking my chops.

I think it's a, you know, he's absolutely right. You can't make those decisions on who should pay taxes. Here's the thing, it's a fundamental difference of opinion. They trust the government. He trusts the people, even though he is the government, but still, he trusts the people, not to count votes, mind you, but for what to do with their own money, the tax cut money, not the other money. He trusts the government for that, with that money. I trust him with my money.

Do you remember the Ramos family he had at the quasi State of the Union speech, and he pointed them out as —

Yeah. I think that's going to catch on with politicians. I think the idea of pulling real people to represent your policies, boy, what a great idea. I think that might really catch on.

Yeah?

Yeah. It really gives it a down-home feeling. It really, it makes it accessible to me. Because you know what I thought to myself? This tax cut seems really, really skewed to the rich, but these Ramos folks, they're going for it. Who am I to argue with that? I can't argue with the Ramoses. Look how real American they are.

Misstatements

You had the president poking fun at himself, reading from his own book of malapropisms the other night at the correspondents dinner. Does that work at all, do you think? Does it take any of the sting out?

No. For me? I thought to myself, "You know what? Yeah. I'm drinking a little arsenic. Okay. I maybe have a little mercury in the system. Okay. I might not live as long, but that dude's funny."

No, I don't listen. If I want "snigletts," I'll go to Rich Hall. I really don't, I don't appreciate that from the president. I don't judge my president based on, "Here's the thing. You don't be funny, I won't bomb Iraq. Let's make that deal now."

And also the malapropisms thing, he's going to do that every year, you know? Do you think Norm Crosby's in the back going, "That's my shtick, you bastard."...

You know, all I hear about is what a good guy he is. You know, that's the reputation: good guy, not so bright. Here's what I think: Very bright, mean as hell. My opinion is that he is not a patsy in any way. He is not a prop. He is not a puppet. He is in charge. He is large and in charge. And while he had the book of malapropisms open, underneath was a book called, "The Prince," by Machiavelli, and that's what he was really reading.

Late-Night Talkers

How important is what you do, in terms of shaping the image of the presidency? I mean, he's —

In terms of what I do? On a scale of zero to 10, I'd go with a zero, not very important. I don't know how else to put it.

I mean, in other words —

Okay. If the president's image is this, we're — we're not very important. Listen, I have trouble shaping my own image, and I host the damn thing. I don't think that we shape the president's image.

At all. You don't think people see late night monologues, the jokes and all of that —

Yeah, but people don't watch the late night monologues like Manchurian Candidates. They don't watch the late night monologue and go, "Bush is nitwit. Queen of diamonds. Bush is nitwit."

I think they watch it for what it is. It's a satire. There may be truth in it, but people will make that judgment based on what they perceive to be the truth in it, you know. Nobody made more jokes about, or no one had more jokes made about them than Bill Clinton, certainly. I mean, that was historic. He was the "Babe Ruth" of presidential humor, as far as I was concerned, and the guy left office with a rating in the 60s.

So, clearly, we're not — you know, if you're listening to us, you're not forming your opinions necessarily on —

But the jokes about him were about his, his predilections outside the Oval Office — or in the Oval Office, but —

But the insinuation was that he lacked morality. And while his morality ratings were low, I don't think it was because of comics, I think it was because he was having sex with an intern.

But I think what people, in many ways, I think the comedy diffuses what are dangerous situations for these politicians, in a lot of respects, that it almost humanizes the situation to the point where, if people are laughing about them, they are not angrily writing letters, you know, to their congressman about it.

Do you think it works with reporters, too, when they're all there at the Hilton, and he's cracking jokes about policy and his own —

Yes, I do. I think that reporting on the president, though, has become about the strategy of being president, not about the actuality of the policy. It's about how well he sticks on point, how well he stays on message, how tightly they hold ranks, as a cabinet. I don't think it's got anything to do any more with — it seems far more important not about the arsenic, but about how he handled the release of the information through Ari Fleischer and how Christie Whitman might be feeling.

 

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