9/11, the war in Afghanistan, a possible war in Iraq, the mid-term election: It has been a remarkable two years for President Bush. Today we'll talk about all of it as we step back from the headlines for our annual Thanksgiving weekend visit with imminent historians.
This year we talk with four: Michael Beschloss, David Halberstam, Bob Woodward and Gary Wills.
Gloria Borger will be here, and I'll have a final word on staying with it. But first, the historians on Face the Nation.
Good morning again. Joining us from New York City this morning, David Halberstam, author of "War in a Time of Peace" and also "Firehouse," one of the books about 9/11.
From Boston, Gary Wills, author of "Lincoln at Gettysburg." He won a Pulitzer for that.
Here in our studio is Michael Beschloss, author of "The Conquerors." And I want to show Michael Beschloss today, here you will see, if we can get the camera here, is his book is featured on the front page of the "New York Times" book review today. No small honor, I would say, in that.
And also with us, of course, Bob Woodward, author of "Bush at War," the new investigative look at Bush. This is the book, the cover of the book.
Bob, we come together this morning once again in the wake of another terrorist attack, but also at a time which seems to be kind of a remarkable time in the presidency.
A very unusual poll this week by the New York Times and CBS News. Basically what the poll said is that people like George Bush and they like him a lot. He had a 65 percent approval rating. It was quite clear from the poll they like George Bush more than they like most Republican programs, including tax cuts, which they seem to be fairly ambivalent about.
They also like him and say in this poll that the Democrats in the recent midterm elections gave them no reason really to vote against Republicans.
You have spent a lot of time with the president, probably more than any reporter that I know in Washington recently in putting together this book. George Bush is getting through to people in some way. How is he doing this?
BOB WOODWARD, Author, "Bush at War": Well, he's got self-confidence on one hand, but then he has this measured doubt and knowing that he does not have the experience of most presidents. So he leans on that national security team very, very hard.
He uses them, but there's also a part of him where he knows he needs them. He needs a Cheney and a Powell. In a sense, I think he's figured out how to exploit the tensions that are there in that war cabinet and persist to this day.
SCHIEFFER: Well, you know, Peter Hart, the pollster, said to me a long time ago and I've never forgotten it, he said people develop a relationship with presidents that they don't have with any other public official. He said, you know, you vote for your alderman or your county commissioner because he's for zoning this or he's for this issue or that.
But he said people vote or like presidents because they feel some connection in the gut.
Is that what we're seeing here? Because clearly, people like Bush more than they like some of his programs.
WOODWARD: Well, he keeps saying, and I think he believes it very deeply, he manages by instinct. He is a gut player, not a textbook player, and I think people can see that. And he tends to -- there's an energy and restlessness that he has not only sitting around the war cabinet table, but in public.
SCHIEFFER: Well, do they somehow see themselves? I mean, do they identify with him because, in some ways, they think he's like they are?
WOODWARD: You know, who knows? This is so early in this war where things can go south. Big problems can emerge, or we can avoid more terrorist attacks.
GLORIA BORGER, U.S. News & World Report: Michael Beschloss, how much this has to do with the fact that President Bush is a wartime president and that the popularity of presidents during wars tends to increase?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Author, "The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany": It does if the war goes well. Needless to say, LBJ's went south when the war seemed to be going really badly and Johnson seemed to have made the wrong choice.
And I think that's part of it, Gloria, because it's not only that the war seems to be going well at this point, the war on terrorism, but I think Bob's got it. You know, people feel that this is a guy with guts.
After 9/11, he might very well have said, "Well, you know, it's too politically costly for me to risk a worldwide war on terrorism. We might lose it. There might be domestic attacks that might make me unpopular. Let's do something else." People realized that he did something that was important to rid the world of this scourge and, at the same time, politically dangerous to him.
I think to some extent they feel that when he talks to them, he's saying what's really on his mind, rather than what's told to him by pollsters and consultants.
BORGER: Garry Wills, this has been an aggressive presidency by any standard, particularly in light of the fact that some people believe this was sort of a tie election. So how do you think this president has managed this kind of great success?
GARY WILLS, Author, "Lincoln at Gettysburg": Well, you're right, he's been very aggressive. He came in and people thought, well, he won't have a mandate because of certain factors, Nader, the bad campaign on the part of Gore and the Florida mix-up and the court intervention. He won't have a mandate. He'll have to be more moderate. That was not at all the case. They came out firing guns right away -- anti-regulatory, tax cut, secrecy -- and bowled the Democrats over.
How did they have that tremendous confidence? I think it came from the fact that they couldn't doubt their own legitimacy because they were so absolutely certain that what preceded was illegitimate. They had an axis of evil before 9/11. It was Bill and Hillary and Ted and people like Jocelyn Elders, et cetera. They thought he should have been impeached. He was impeached in their hearts. He had no moral authority. And therefore, they felt that they just owned something that had been stolen from them.
SCHIEFFER: Well, let's go to David Halberstam now.
David, I'm told that you are not particularly enamored of President Bush so far, in spite of these popularity ratings that he has.
DAVID HALBERSTAM, Author, "War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton and the Generals": Well, I think it's very early. And I mean, if you were doing this kind of read on Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam at a comparable point, he'd have been doing very well. And I mean, I think it's very early in the game.
I disagree with some of my colleagues who say he did wonderfully. I guess I disagree with Michael Beschloss in saying what he did at the time of 9/11 took great courage. I think he had no choice. I think that's the easy call.
I mean, we were challenged. We were struck at home. Of course you strike back.
I think it's more complicated. I'm puzzled. It's a very narrowly formed government. It's surprisingly ideological. He has not expanded it at all even though it is a time of war and he himself makes references to Pearl Harbor. And he has not really dealt with long-range issues like energy and sources of energy, in making us less dependent upon the Middle East.
And we teeter on not just having one very difficult war, but being on the cusp of a second, which is complicated, which many of the people -- some of the people in his government and the uniformed military are very uneasy with and the allies have been uneasy with.
So I think it's awfully early to be giving out these report cards, because I can remember the last time they were given out in this city, in Washington, they were given out to Lyndon Johnson, they were telling how well he was doing in those polls. And in fact, was very -- it was in fact a significant over rating because he was in an unwinnable war.
SCHIEFFER: You know, I would add to that, I can remember during the first -- the election of Richard Nixon and the first hundred days, it was a CBS correspondents roundtable, and people talked about what a remarkable thing was happening. And only Daniel Schorr said, "It's too early to tell. Let's just wait a while before we make these judgments," and Daniel Schorr was right. So I take your point, David.
But let me ask you this, taking your point, why do you think the Republicans did so well in these midterm elections? Because most people are saying that it was President Bush and his enormous popularity that made the difference.
HALBERSTAM: Well, I think first off, it was a bin Laden election. The country was scared. For the first time, our immunities were removed. We were vulnerable. An enemy had struck here as it had at Pearl Harbor. I think that affected it.
And if you have two parties, one of which is sort of predominantly male and in the South and likes the NRA, and the other constituency put together by Clinton of women, blacks, Hispanics, seem to be more interested in domestic issues and more dovish, then in a time of war, the party of both the president and the more hawkish faction is obviously going to be the beneficiary.
BORGER: Well, now, both Michael and Bob are chomping at the bit here, I think, to respond to David Halberstam. So Bob will start...
WOODWARD: Well, first of all, I think David has laid out a very wise and prudent caution here. The war on terrorism is not finished at all. All of the things that seem to have gone well can quickly turn to disaster if we have another major strike in this country.
President Bush posed, when I talked to him about this, that, well, maybe the terrorists have a four-year planning cycle. Then the lingering question of Iraq.
There's no guarantee, in fact there's a lot of contrary evidence, that Iraq might be the wrong enemy at this time. Again, Bush said, speaking of North Korea, said he loathes Kim Jong Il and hates what's going on in North Korea. And suppose North Korea does something. Everyone's going to go back and say, "Why all this Iraq talk?"
BESCHLOSS: Yes, well, needless to say, any historian is going to say that you cannot even talk about a president probably for 30 years because you don't have the information and the hindsight, although Bob in his great book has given us an awful lot of information, more than we usually get in real time.
But what we're dealing with is why this man, who won so narrowly two years ago, is now in such a position of power and so popular.
You know, David was talking about the fact that it has a lot to do with 9/11 and the aftermath. Franklin Roosevelt had an election in 1942, it about 10 months after Pearl Harbor. He lost seats in both houses of Congress. This oftentimes happens.
I think it's partly that people feel that Bush has been right on the central issue, which is what do you do about the war on terrorism. I think other people who might have been president might have said, "Let's do a couple of quick strikes against terrorist camps in the Middle East and not do much more than that." That's what we had done traditionally, even though that was after lesser attacks.
But the other thing is that the Democrats in this last election, they didn't do the principle thing that Republicans did in 1940, which was they said, "We're against the idea of going to war with Hitler, and we may be proven wrong." They were; a lot of them lost their seats.
Too many Democrats this fall were in public saying, you know, "We're benign toward the Bush tax cut. You know, we're not going to oppose the war in Iraq." And you just know that in private they were saying, "I hate the idea of going to war in Iraq, and I hate the Bush tax cut." I think the people can sometimes see the difference.
SCHIEFFER: Would you like to add on to that, Gary Wills?
WILLS: Well, I'd like to say that I don't think that the election was explained solely in terms of the war. People like moral confidence. They did in Reagan, and they've liked it in the Republicans. They seem very sure of themselves.
And the Democrats, right from the outset, was the party of moral cowardice. Even though he had no apparent mandate, they rolled over and played dead over and over and over. The appointment of Ashcroft, the appointment of Ted Olson, the challenge on secrecy in Cheney's meetings -- the majority in the Senate never brought that up, the minority in the House couldn't do anything.
The tax. The, more recently after the war, giving the authority to the president to go to war almost at will. I admire Hillary Clinton a lot, but when she said, "Well, we have to give it to him because that way we can help control him," that's just nonsense. It's been a totally supine party.
SCHIEFFER: All right. I think this is a good place to take a break.
We'll take this break. We'll come back in a minute and talk about what might be ahead, in a minute.
SCHIEFFER: And we're back now with our distinguished panel of presidential historians.
Bob Woodward, what will historians look back on this point in time that we're now experiencing? To us, it's something unlike anything we've ever experienced, an attack on the homeland, terrorism.
WOODWARD: It really is kind of a pivot point in history, because if Bush and the administration get it right in the long run, not in the short run, the future is quite bright.
If it is wrong, if there are serious attacks in this country again -- and anyone who looks at and talks to the people who see and live with the intelligence knows these people have the capability to bring devastation on this country -- and if that happens, the economic future of this country could be in serious jeopardy.
SCHIEFFER: Well, let me ask you, saying it as you say it, then, is there really any other issue than defeating terrorism at this point?
WOODWARD: Well, but if it -- I think lots of people are numb to the idea because there's not been another major attack in this country. And you talk to people on the street and they'll say, "Oh, it was a police action in Afghanistan." This is a worldwide war that is very secret and very -- you don't know. I mean, thousands of people have been rounded up by the CIA and friendly foreign intelligence services.
BORGER: Michael Beschloss, what about Iraq? We are now obviously talking about the possibility of military action in Iraq. "Washington Post" reports this morning it could cost $200 billion.
Is there a danger there for this president, getting involved in a quagmire? I hesitate to use that LBJ word, but...
BESCHLOSS: Sure. You know, we were talking a second ago about what a historian needs. You know, 30 years from now, we'll know, if this war happens, was it necessary and what did it lead to? Was it the kind of things George Bush told us about, democracy spreading through the Middle East?
But, you know, it's also a big test. We were talking about the fact that war helps a president. It's also the most monumental task. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, in the book you were kind enough to mention that I wrote, he is wonderful in saying we've got to defeat Hitler absolutely, but he is confronted with the secret effort by Hitler to kill millions of Jews. He's told about it and Roosevelt says, "Well, my answer is I'm not going to talk about it. I'm not going to help Jewish refugees out of Europe. I'm not going to even seriously entertain the idea of bombing the death camps. My answer to you who are asking me to do something is, let's just win the war." Well, by the end of the war, all the Jews of the world might have been killed. He didn't know that they would not be.
So as George Bush fights the war in Iraq, if we do this, we'll certainly go for unconditional surrender of Saddam Hussein. But the lesson of Roosevelt and the Holocaust is that you may very well see issues arise that are unexpected. And we've got to watch to see if he has that kind of understanding of issues that may, you know, really come out of left field that will allow him to concentrate on two things at the same time.
SCHIEFFER: Garry Wills, one thing we have not talked about is Bush on the domestic front. What do you think is going to be his -- what are his objectives on the domestic side, and do you think he'll be successful?
WILLS: Well, his objectives, of course, are to promote his programs. But the means the he is using involve an unprecedented emphasis on secrecy. He has tried to seal up the presidential papers for a long time. He's attacked the Freedom of Information act.
One of the key opening indicators, it seems to me, was the Cheney meeting with oil executives and others to set a policy on regulation. When Hillary Clinton met with doctors and insurers and kept it secret, the Republicans beat up on her. It would have been very easy to quote those very Republicans against Cheney, and the Democrats didn't do it.
Now the secrecy has spread through the anti-terrorist business, so that people are held who aren't even identified, who are going to be spied on to an unprecedented extent and we won't know.
You know, Daniel Moynihan wrote a terrific book on secrecy, saying that secrecy cuts at the very core of democracy, which is accountability. Take away accountability, and you take away self-government. This is an administration of tremendous secrecy, and the effects of that will go on for a long, long time.
SCHIEFFER: So you think at this point, if I understand what you're saying, that perhaps the legacy of George Bush will not be all that good, but you think he may actually accomplish these things.
WILLS: Well, he's doing pretty well in accomplishing things so far. But the prospect, on this front at least, I think is quite dark.
SCHIEFFER: David Halberstam, what do you -- do you agree with Bob Woodward that this is a marker in time, that what happens here could well affect the rest of the...
HALBERSTAM: Well, I think it's a terribly important moment, Bob. I mean, we're poised -- we have this long struggle with terrorism.
And then, by the way, the intense secrecy that Garry mentions is a problem there, because it's very hard to generate public support for something when you are that secret. So you really can't have the public involved in what we're doing, and that diminishes public interest and scrutiny.
But more importantly, there we are poised on a second front possibly, with grave consequences, with an administration that I think so far -- and Bob's book, Bob Woodward's book tends to reflect this -- has little sense of consequences. In Bob's book, the president says he wants to protect Musharraf in Pakistan because he's been a good guy. But if we go after Iraq too quickly and without sufficient support, the pressure on Pakistan and other countries in that part of the world will be intense.
Are we going to be able to operate -- this is really the historic junction -- against an awakening Islam with radicals who really hate us, but other people on the fence, keeping it localized? Or are we going to be, because of carelessness and a lack of sense of consequences, going to punch our hand into the largest hornet's nest in the world?
These are very serious, grave questions. And I don't get any sense that the people who are so eager to go, the (inaudible) or people very conservative or neo-conservatives, have pondered and thought them out. I mean, one very aggressive hawkish person has said of Musharraf that they are a dime a dozen. Well, I'm not so sure.
I think this is -- the consequences of these, which, I mean, I know Iraq is not Vietnam, but an undertow, a political undertow that works against your military superiority does have parallels between the two.
BORGER: Well, Bob Woodward, very quickly, you have talked to these people that David Halberstam is talking about. Have they pondered the consequences? Has this president pondered the consequences?
WOODWARD: Well, I think David's right. Not often enough. And it's outlined in detail, it was Colin Powell, the secretary of state, who very courageously went to the president, laid out a list and said, "The consequences of going to war against Iraq, particularly alone, are these."
And he spent two hours laying them out, and shifted the whole American policy from perhaps going to war alone to going through the U.N., which is, of course, the position we're in now. A monumental internal shift.
SCHIEFFER: Gentlemen, thanks to all of you. We've simply -- the clock has run out. It was a very enlightening discussion, for me anyway, this morning.
I'll be back with a final word in just a minute.
SCHIEFFER: Finally today, so we began another week trying to understand yet another terrorist attack, this time in Kenya.
Several weeks ago on this broadcast, I said that we can erect barricades and set up surveillance cameras and all the rest, but until we eradicate terrorism, the lifestyle we enjoy cannot survive. If eradicating terrorism meant committing U.S. troops to the Middle East for years or even reinstituting the draft, I said, then so be it.
My point was this: There is a difference in building defenses against terrorism and defeating terrorism, and that we have no choice but to aim for victory if our children are to lead the kind of lives that we have enjoyed.
As "The Washington Post" noted in an editorial yesterday, the terrorist attack in Kenya reveals a terrorist logic: By targeting American allies, they believe they can weaken the anti-terrorist coalition.
The "Post" goes on to argue that this tragedy underscores anew that there is simply no way to guard every resort in the world frequented by Westerners or every airport served by Western airlines.
To quote directly, "The battle against Al Qaida primarily must involve intelligence, police work and financial controls to break down its network, and an unflinching assault on the sources of Arab and Islamic extremism wherever they may be found," end of quote.
That is a lot harder than just defending against terrorism, but to me it is exactly right. This is going to be long and difficult, but we must stay with it and, for the sake of our children, never forget our ultimate objective.
That's it for us. We'll see you next week, right here on Face the Nation.