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THE MCLAUGHLIN GROUP
HOST: JOHN MCLAUGHLIN
PANEL: PATRICK BUCHANAN, MSNBC; ELEANOR CLIFT, NEWSWEEK; TONY BLANKLEY, WASHINGTON TIMES; DEMETRI SEVASTOPULO, FINANCIAL TIMES

TAPED: FRIDAY, MARCH 16, 2007
BROADCAST: WEEKEND OF MARCH 17-18, 2007

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MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Issue One: Going, Going, Gonzales?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT): (From videotape.) I want to obtain their cooperation and all relevant information without having to utilize subpoenas. But I want people to know, if I do not get the cooperation, I will subpoena it. We will have testimony under oath before this committee. We'll have the chance for both Republicans and Democrats to ask questions, and we'll find out what happened.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA): (From videotape.) I agree that this committee should get to the bottom of this issue.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Chairman Leahy's Judiciary Committee voted Thursday to authorize the use of the subpoena to coerce, if necessary, Justice Department officials involved in the sudden firing of eight U.S. attorneys, seven all at once last December.

The committee may also subpoena Mr. Bush's 24-day Supreme Court nominee and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers and Karl Rove, who has been connected to the firings in e-mails released by the White House.

The U.S. attorneys firing scandal appears to be building. The nation's 93 U.S. attorneys are the government's principal litigators, working under the attorney general in districts throughout the nation and its territories. With the advice and consent of the Senate, they are appointed by the president to serve at his discretion.

Within his or her jurisdiction, each U.S. attorney is the chief federal law enforcement officer of the United States government, prosecuting criminal cases brought by the federal government and on some civilian matters.

Democrats say that the Republican attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, fired eight of the U.S. attorneys, not because of underperformance on their part but because they were too tough on Republicans and too soft on Democrats.

If true, this multiple firing episode appears to be a shabby and grave departure from good government.

SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY): (From videotape.) U.S. attorneys have always been above politics. And this administration has blatantly manipulated the U.S. attorney system to serve its political needs.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The sacked U.S. attorneys were equally indignant.

BUD CUMMINS (Former U.S. attorney): (From videotape.) The seven United States attorneys, aside from me, deserve apologies, not because they were fired, but because their professional reputations were injured.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Does the problem with Gonzales start with the eight U.S. attorneys sacking? Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: The problem starts with Gonzales forgetting Walter Scott's "What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive."

Look, John, the president of the United States has got the right to fire all 93. He could fire none. He can fire them for cause. What can't be done is to go out there and say, "We fired these guys for various reasons" and then not tell the truth and then be contradicted by e-mails.

The problem here is a problem of credibility on the part of the administration right now. But they had every right to do it. As for Schumer saying that, look, Bill Clinton fired 93 U.S. attorneys and got rid of in 10 days the guy going after Rostenkowski and the guy in Arkansas going into Whitewater.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What I'm getting at, Eleanor, with that penetrating question, which somehow eluded Buchanan, is this, that Gonzales's problems originated before this, that he has been the president's lawyer instead of the people's lawyer, as attorney generals should be.

Do you agree with that? And do you have evidence in the past to substantiate that?

MS. CLIFT: First of all, I want to say there's always an element of patronage. These are political jobs. When Clinton came in, he was a new president taking over from a president of a different party. It is standard procedure to get rid of people who were appointed by the previous president. It's highly unusual, midway through a second term, to wield the ax. And, of course, all the lies and the back- filling make it look even worse than it is.

But Gonzales is a walking dead man because his problems predate this.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What are those problems?

MS. CLIFT: The problems are he wrote the memo on torture. He dissed the Geneva Convention. He shut down an investigation into the NSA eavesdropping. He has, as you said, behaved like he's the president's personal factotum. And then he tries to lay it all off on Harriet Miers, the woman who's not there anymore. And he also disses Congress in the conduct of his job, suggesting that they might want to bypass Congress in appointing new attorney generals and not even consult with the senior senators. He's got Republicans angry at him too.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that's his root problem -- he served as the president's counsel, his personal counsel, and not as the attorney general enforcing the law?

MR. BLANKLEY: No. Look, first of all, Pat's absolutely right. The prerogative to fire any time they want is without question. I don't think --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, except under circumstances such as we could have here, for political reasons.

MR. BLANKLEY: No, no -- no, if they didn't like the way they were prosecuting generally in categories, there's no problem. Now, if they tried to intervene in a particular prosecution, it would be a problem.

But let me make a point; go to your question about going, going, Gonzales. If the White House is not foolish, they're going to keep him, because if they fire him, that's not the end of their problem, that's the beginning of their problem, because at that point the blood will be in the water, they won't be able to get a solid Bush man in for attorney general, the hearings in the Senate, you know, for a new person will be bloody murder for them, they'd be fools. They need to develop a backbone and stick with this guy, whether he's a great lawyer or an average lawyer.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Okay, let's eyeball Gonzales. Let's hear from Attorney General Gonzales and President Bush.

Attorney General Gonzales admits errors.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ALBERTO GONZALES: (From videotape.) I acknowledge that mistakes were made here. I accept that responsibility.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: But he defended himself as the hapless executive kept in the dark in his own office.

ATTORNEY GENERAL GONZALES: (From videotape.) I was not involved in seeing any memos. I was not involved in any discussions about what was going on. That's basically what I knew as the attorney general.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: As for the president, he acknowledges lapses but clearly did not appreciate front pages being deflected from coverage of his five-nation Latin American tour by this latest and perhaps most dangerous second-term embarrassment.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: (From videotape.) And he's right; mistakes were made. And I'm frankly not happy about them. Al was right; mistakes were made. And he's going to go up to Capitol Hill to correct them.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Does taking responsibility today mean gone manana, as happened with the officials at Walter Reed Hospital? I ask you, Demetri. And welcome, by the way.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: Thank you.

Oh, I think it's interesting. I think Gonzales's performance this week was very similar to General Kiley, who is the Army surgeon general, who basically said, "I don't do inspections of barracks or of wards in the hospital."

Gonzales made a similar point. He said, "I've got people below me and they were doing the job. They clearly didn't do it very well." But he's in charge. He's got to take responsibility, I think, at some point.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think that he can survive this, Pat?

MR. BUCHANAN: Yeah, I think. But, you know, I agree. I thought that was terrible what you saw there. Look, the guy's the attorney general of the United States. And U.S. attorneys are tough customers. You can move them out and move them in. But not to know they're unloading seven or eight of your U.S. attorneys when you're the attorney general of the United States and your deputies are working with the White House suggests that you're an absentee landlord, John.

I think he can. But I do agree with Tony. This administration has got to get a backbone. They ought to fight for their prerogatives and what they can and can't do. They're being pushed all over the field right now by the Democrats.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think Gonzales has -- do you think he has more serious problems? Do you think that he falsified before Congress?

MR. BUCHANAN: I don't think he falsified. But somebody went up there and didn't tell the truth to these guys, and they're all in an uproar over that. And that guy's got a problem.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is there a smoking gun?

MS. CLIFT: They're sure looking for it and they're going to put out subpoenas, and there probably is going to be a lawsuit on executive privilege that goes to the Supreme Court.

Look, if Gonzales survives, I think that's terrific for the Democrats; what a whipping boy they have. I think it's the Republicans who are going to move and want to get rid of him.

MR. BUCHANAN: He shouldn't give up Rove, John. They should draw the line. Rove is the president's personal adviser and counsel, and you can't have them getting right in the White House and taking --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is David Iglesias, the U.S. attorney, is he the smoking gun, meaning that Pete Domenici leaned on him a little but subtly for information?

MS. CLIFT: Well, they can get --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: And -- they tried to get Iglesias to prosecute Democrats for corruption in Heather Wilson's home state.

MR. BLANKLEY: No, they wanted to prosecute for voter fraud, whoever's doing it. They felt that, as a matter of policy, the U.S. attorney should be doing more of it than he was. And let me tell you that every prosecuting office has priorities. Some of them are good ones. This one is for pornography and for voter fraud. Spitzer was for white-collar crimes in New York.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, you --

MR. BLANKLEY: You can argue about whether they are wise policies. But you have every right to fire a U.S. attorney who isn't following the policy.

MS. CLIFT: You make it sound so benign.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Demetri.

MR. BLANKLEY: Because it is benign.

MS. CLIFT: It is not benign.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: Tony, how do you get around the fact that some of these people had fantastic performance reviews several months before they were fired?

MR. BLANKLEY: All I'm saying is they have the discretion and the prerogative, no matter what the policies of Justice. If the president doesn't like that they've been following his policies --

MR. BUCHANAN: If the president doesn't like him, he can say, "Get him out of there."

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, but if they find evidence --

MR. BUCHANAN: (Inaudible.)

MS. CLIFT: -- if they find evidence the president doesn't like him because there's some tampering into ongoing cases --

MR. BLANKLEY: That's another matter.

MS. CLIFT: -- then --

MR. BLANKLEY: That's another matter. I agree with you. That's another matter.

That's what they're going to look for.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I think Gonzales is also suffering from something else, which is that Rumsfeld is not around anymore. Gonzales is the author of a lot of policies that are controversial.

MR. BLANKLEY: He's not the author. He just had his name on it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question --

MR. SEVASTOPULO: But when Rumsfeld --

MR. BUCHANAN: After he authored those policies, he was confirmed by the Senate.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: Will Alberto Gonzales, like Rumsfeld, make an abrupt departure from the Cabinet? Yes or no, Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: No, certainly not in the near future, and not by what we know now.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor.

MS. CLIFT: That's a nice little out that Pat has there. (Laughter.) I don't see him lasting until Bush leaves office.

MR. BLANKLEY: Assuming there's no criminality -- and there's no evidence of that at all -- then I think -- I'm not sure -- I think the White House is going to tough it out. But I'm not sure.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I think that President Bush's defense of him was less strong than his defense of Rumsfeld a week before he fired him.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Really? So you think he's a goner.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I think he's looking bad.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I think it's building. I think that Al will probably do a Rumsfeld for us.

Issue Two: A Star Is Born.

FORMER SENATOR FRED THOMPSON (R-TN): (From videotape.) I'm giving some thought to it. I'm going to leave the door open. I think we're going into one of the most perilous times that our country has been in. I think that there are great opportunities out there.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The door that Fred Thompson, the former senator and Hollywood actor, hopes to leave open is the front door of the White House. The plain-spoken, charismatic conservative could be the presidential nominee of a Republican Party that currently many believe has no real star power to capture the imagination of GOP voters.

Thompson brings star power in megawatts, a one-two punch -- political star power plus Hollywood star power. In 18 feature films, Americans see Thompson as the man in charge.

MR. THOMPSON: (From movie.) And I imagine you'll tell me what all the hubbub's about.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Fred Thompson currently appears on TV's highly rated and enduring drama, "Law and Order." In Washington, Thompson's political career was ignited by the 1973 Senate Watergate Committee hearings, where he served as Republican minority counsel under Howard Baker.

MR. THOMPSON: (From videotape.) Mr. Butterfield, as far as you know, are you aware of the installation of any listening devices in the Oval Office of the president?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: In 1994, 13 years ago, he was elected to the U.S. Senate by his home state of Tennessee and served eight years. The American Conservative Union rated his Senate voting record 92 percent favorably conservative. The premier liberal rating group, Americans for Democratic Action, scored Thompson zero.

At Republicans primaries and caucuses, starting in 10 short months, Thompson's conservative credentials could turn red states into Fred states. Anti-abortion --

MR. THOMPSON: (From videotape.) I think Roe versus Wade was bad law and bad medical science. I think it was wrong.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Gay marriage --

MR. THOMPSON: (From videotape.) Marriage is between a man and a woman.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Gun control --

MR. THOMPSON: (From videotape.) I'm against gun control generally.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Iraq --

MR. THOMPSON: I would do essentially what the president is doing.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Is Fred Thompson the next Ronald Reagan, meaning a perfect hybrid of celebrity and politician? I ask you, Tony.

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, he was asked that question earlier this week and said there's not going to be another Ronald Reagan anytime soon. But he is a very impressive guy. He's got a wonderful manner. He's smart.

My question, a lot of people's question, is does he really have the fire in the belly and the ambition and the willingness to put in the 18-hour days to run for president? That's a big question mark. If he chose to run and chose to throw himself into it, he'd be formidable.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Can he outflank McCain and Giuliani on the right, and Romney?

MS. CLIFT: Look, he left the U.S. Senate because he lost patience with all the toing and froing and the nonsense on Capitol Hill. I do not see him having the stomach for the campaign trail. He has the physical stature. He has the voice. But, you know, what's next, Simon Cowell for president? I mean, I just don't see his television career --

MR. BLANKLEY: No, he's very shrewd. He's very shrewd. He's very good with words.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, but --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think his recognition from those films, that persona is already built? Most politicians have to build a persona. He's got his ready-made. What do you think?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: Well, he can also stay out of the race long enough that people won't get -- they'll see him on television but they won't be bored listening to him saying the same things over and over again. But I think he's probably more likely to be a vice presidential candidate, if anything. John McCain said, "If I had his voice, I'd be president." Well, maybe that's what's going on.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What about the fact that he's not a Washington insider? He left the political scene. Now he's back.

MR. BUCHANAN: Right, right.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So therefore he's not corrupted with all the other corruption.

MR. BUCHANAN: There's a huge alley of running room on the right wing of the Republican Party for a national figure. Fred Thompson is a national figure. He's recognizable. He's very likable. The problem is what Eleanor said. Does he have the eye of the tiger? And I don't see it there, John, and I haven't seen it.

It looks like -- I mean, here's a fellow that enjoys life, but he's not someone who's known as a deeply ambitious individual. And frankly, if you're going to get in there and do battle with all these fellows, you'll have to get in earlier than he's going to get in.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We've seen Romney on videotape doing quite well at these political gatherings. Do you think Thompson outflanks Romney?

MR. BUCHANAN: Easily, easily outflanks him, although --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why? Because of what?

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, social conservatism. But Fred Thompson's got some areas of social conservatism that conservatives won't like. But they would settle for him very fast, given what they're offered.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He pulls all your levers, does he not? You saw those issues.

MR. BUCHANAN: He knows the catechism well; most of it, John.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: Assuming Fred Thompson throws his hat in the ring, on a probability scale of zero to 100, zero meaning zero probability, 100 meaning metaphysical certitude, what's the probability that Thompson will be the Republican presidential nominee? Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: The odds would be about eight to one against. The others are out there too early and they're too strong --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So you give him a 20 percent probability.

MR. BUCHANAN: No, it'd be 12.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Twelve percent.

MR. BUCHANAN: Mmm-hmm.

MS. CLIFT: Well, on a scale of one to 100, I'd give him about a two.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: A two?

MS. CLIFT: A two. (Laughs.) In other words, 98 percent no.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Sounds like you don't really care for this --

MS. CLIFT: No, I --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You're a little worried about him. Are you a little worried about him?

MS. CLIFT: -- I admire him. I liked him when he was in Washington. I just think he can't get into the race on the cheap. He wants to wait until September and think everybody else implodes and then he gets in at the last minute. I don't see it happening.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Visualize him on a stage debating Hillary Clinton. Who do you think is going to win that debate?

MS. CLIFT: I think the same dynamic would occur as what happened in New York. He would look like he's invading her space, and women would rise up and support Hillary Clinton.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You think so?

MS. CLIFT: Yes.

MR. BLANKLEY: Oh, he understands --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You think women are solidly behind Hillary?

MR. BLANKLEY: -- women a lot better than Rick Lazio did.

MR. BUCHANAN: (Laughter.

)

MS. CLIFT: Pardon me?

MR. BLANKLEY: He understands women a lot better than Rick Lazio did. I'd say 15, 20, 10 to 20, in that zone; I mean, about where Pat's saying. I mean, nobody -- I wouldn't give anybody, even Giuliani, more than maybe a 25. You've got an open field.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I'd give him about 20 as well. I think he's got a great life right now, why give it up? And if he's going to support the president on Iraq, he's got a huge hurdle.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Did you notice how he came out of nowhere to support Libby?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: Yeah.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Libby being a good friend and employee of the president and others on that staff.

MR. BUCHANAN: He's almost --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Where does that come from?

MR. BUCHANAN: Well --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think it's possible that Cheney might resign and he might be installed as vice president?

MR. BUCHANAN: No, I don't think --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is that extreme?

MR. BUCHANAN: Yeah, that's extreme. But I think he's -- obviously he's very close to the neocons because they were raising an awful lot of money for Libby. And it's a real test of loyalty to the Cheneyites and the neoconservatives.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The answer is 32 percent. (Laughter.)

Issue Three: Pastor in Chief.

GEN. PETER PACE (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): (From audiotape.) I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe that the armed forces of the United States are well-served by saying through our policies that it's okay to be immoral in any way, not just with regard to homosexual acts.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Within 24 hours, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs issued this clarification:

(From videotape.) "During a wide-ranging interview with the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, I was asked if I think the current policy, as codified in U.S. Code, generally referred to as 'Don't ask, don't tell,' should still hold.

"People have a wide range of opinions on this sensitive subject. The important thing to remember is that we have a policy in effect and the Department of Defense has a statutory responsibility to implement that policy.

"I made two points in support of the policy during the interview: One, 'Don't ask, don't tell' allows individuals to serve this nation; and two, it does not make a judgment about the morality of individual acts. In expressing my support for the current policy, I also offered some personal opinions about moral conduct. I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral view."

Question: Does that clarification help, hurt, or have no effect on General Pace's current status? You cover the Pentagon, do you not?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I do. I think it has no effect. I mean, I think he's ignited an issue. I mean, it's interesting. The whole idea behind "Don't ask, don't tell" is that there's a problem with cohesiveness. Studies have shown that the military are increasingly comfortable having gays in the military. The British armed forces allow gays to serve openly.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, since you brought that up, let me -- I'm wondering whether this will induce change in U.S. policy. These are 25 nations that openly permit gay military, and we have the list here: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

Do you think that that in itself, the bulk of those nations and what they represent and their values, should at all induce us to reconsider this policy? I ask you.

MS. CLIFT: Well, yeah, it's pretty reprehensible what General Pace said. But I don't see any reconsideration of this policy until we get a new president in. And frankly, the various candidates are a little nervous about how this plays, and they're not showing a lot of courage either.

MR. BLANKLEY: There's an important point here. It doesn't matter whether every other country has a different policy. The policy should be what permits our military to function well. Now, if it shows that having openly gays in the military doesn't hurt it, that's a big point. If it doesn't show that -- but we have to be guided by the effectiveness of our fighting, not by moral sentiments one way or the other.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, you don't think if the Estonian army functions well, that that's some evidence that we ought to --

MR. BLANKLEY: This Army is based on American culture.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: The Irish army functions very well. The British army functions well.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, almost all of those countries you mentioned, almost all of them are de-Christianized Western European countries -- almost all of them, not all of them. But General Peter Pace is exactly right. He supported the policies, and his own moral views buttress his belief that the policy is the right policy. And there's no doubt that moods and attitudes are changing. But he had every right to say that. And I think he clarified it. He did not apologize. And he did the right thing.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: But Pat, if you're a gay military person over in Iraq or Afghanistan, how do you feel when you're putting your life on the line when your --

MR. BUCHANAN: He made the same moral statement about adulterers. Should he apologize to them too?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: How long will it take before we join the ranks of those 25 nations? I ask you.

MR. BUCHANAN: We won't join them unless a Democrat's elected president.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That's not an answer to the question. Don't you foresee us changing?

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, we might get -- in 2009 --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Secularism is here, Pat. We're going Dutch.

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, the Republicans will not do it. The Democrats will.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

MS. CLIFT: Yeah --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Five years? Ten years?

MS. CLIFT: Five years.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

MR. BLANKLEY: I think it'll be quite a while. I don't think --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, five years? Ten years?

MR. BLANKLEY: Republicans won't. Democrats will not resist the judgment of the military. They tried it last time. They got in trouble.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I think not before 15 years.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Fifteen years? That sounds about right to me. Hey, what's going on --

MR. SEVASTOPULO: That's how long it's going to take Bill Richardson to be elected.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Huh?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: That's how long it's going to take Bill Richardson to get elected. (Laughter.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Give me a quick appraisal of what's going on at the Pentagon. How does this affect them over there?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I think there are a lot of people who probably agree with General Pace. But agreeing with someone and then saying it out loud and the impact it will have on troops on the ground is a completely different thing.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, note that he did not condemn the status of homosexuality. He condemned from the small perspective of actions, behavior.

MS. CLIFT: These are generational attitudes, and time will take care of it.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: That's semantics.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: No, it isn't semantics.

MS. CLIFT: Unfortunately, it's an insult to all the gays who are serving honorably.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I'm sorry for interrupting you, Eleanor, but we have to do the U.S. military dead in Iraq -- 3,210; U.S. military amputeed, wounded, severely injured, injured, mentally ill, all now out of Iraq, 72,873; Iraqi civilians dead, 138,950.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Forced prediction: Will Thompson run?

MR. BUCHANAN: Twenty percent.

MS. CLIFT: I don't think so.

MR. BLANKLEY: No.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: No.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel will throw his hat in the ring also by late spring.

Erin Go Bragh. Bye-bye.

(PBS segment.)

Issue Four: Atheists of America, unite.

Secularist organizations had high praise this week for California Congressman Peter Stark. The cause of celebration: Stark announced that he is, quote, "a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being," unquote.

The advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called the phenomenon a milestone in American politics, adding that, quote, "Stark is the highest-ranking public official to come out of the closet as a non-believer."

But what do Americans think about a non-theist in public office? A 2006 Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans feel the country is not ready for an atheist in the White House.

We have openly gay members of Congress. We have a Muslim who is now a member of Congress. Why can't we have more atheists in Congress? I ask you -- who wants this? Demetri.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I think you can have as many atheists as are out there or agnostics. I think if the U.S. is overseas defending liberty and freedom, well, then, why shouldn't you have the freedom to be an atheist?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, how do you handle "One nation under God"?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: Well, you've got to scribble out the thing on the dollar bill first and the name of God. And that's where you've got to start.

MR. BLANKLEY: We can have as many as people want to elect, and they don't want to elect many, because this is an overwhelmingly religious country --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think --

MR. BLANKLEY: -- and they don't -- and most people don't trust someone who doesn't believe in God. That's why, whether they believe it or not, most politicians say they believe it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Most people, if they think of atheists, they think of godlessness. And, of course, godlessness is a form of evil. And that's how it all kind of --

MR. BUCHANAN: Tell it to Pete Stark. (Laughter) I mean, that's exactly what it is.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Atheists --

MR. BUCHANAN: An agnostic does not know if there's a God and an atheist says there is no God.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you have to believe in God in order to conduct yourself in a good way?

MR. BUCHANAN: Philosophers can, but a nation probably cannot.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do the founders of the Republic think about this?

MS. CLIFT: The founders of the Republic were very worried about religion taking over this country, and I think they would probably applaud a trend towards atheism. But I don't think it exists. But you don't need God to lead a moral life.

END.THOMPSON: I would do essentially what the president is doing.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Is Fred Thompson the next Ronald Reagan, meaning a perfect hybrid of celebrity and politician? I ask you, Tony.

MR. BLANKLEY: Well, he was asked that question earlier this week and said there's not going to be another Ronald Reagan anytime soon. But he is a very impressive guy. He's got a wonderful manner. He's smart.

My question, a lot of people's question, is does he really have the fire in the belly and the ambition and the willingness to put in the 18-hour days to run for president? That's a big question mark. If he chose to run and chose to throw himself into it, he'd be formidable.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Can he outflank McCain and Giuliani on the right, and Romney?

MS. CLIFT: Look, he left the U.S. Senate because he lost patience with all the toing and froing and the nonsense on Capitol Hill. I do not see him having the stomach for the campaign trail. He has the physical stature. He has the voice. But, you know, what's next, Simon Cowell for president? I mean, I just don't see his television career --

MR. BLANKLEY: No, he's very shrewd. He's very shrewd. He's very good with words.

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, but --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think his recognition from those films, that persona is already built? Most politicians have to build a persona. He's got his ready-made. What do you think?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: Well, he can also stay out of the race long enough that people won't get -- they'll see him on television but they won't be bored listening to him saying the same things over and over again. But I think he's probably more likely to be a vice presidential candidate, if anything. John McCain said, "If I had his voice, I'd be president." Well, maybe that's what's going on.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What about the fact that he's not a Washington insider? He left the political scene. Now he's back.

MR. BUCHANAN: Right, right.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So therefore he's not corrupted with all the other corruption.

MR. BUCHANAN: There's a huge alley of running room on the right wing of the Republican Party for a national figure. Fred Thompson is a national figure. He's recognizable. He's very likable. The problem is what Eleanor said. Does he have the eye of the tiger? And I don't see it there, John, and I haven't seen it.

It looks like -- I mean, here's a fellow that enjoys life, but he's not someone who's known as a deeply ambitious individual. And frankly, if you're going to get in there and do battle with all these fellows, you'll have to get in earlier than he's going to get in.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: We've seen Romney on videotape doing quite well at these political gatherings. Do you think Thompson outflanks Romney?

MR. BUCHANAN: Easily, easily outflanks him, although --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Why? Because of what?

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, social conservatism. But Fred Thompson's got some areas of social conservatism that conservatives won't like. But they would settle for him very fast, given what they're offered.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: He pulls all your levers, does he not? You saw those issues.

MR. BUCHANAN: He knows the catechism well; most of it, John.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: Assuming Fred Thompson throws his hat in the ring, on a probability scale of zero to 100, zero meaning zero probability, 100 meaning metaphysical certitude, what's the probability that Thompson will be the Republican presidential nominee? Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: The odds would be about eight to one against. The others are out there too early and they're too strong --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: So you give him a 20 percent probability.

MR. BUCHANAN: No, it'd be 12.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Twelve percent.

MR. BUCHANAN: Mmm-hmm.

MS. CLIFT: Well, on a scale of one to 100, I'd give him about a two.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: A two?

MS. CLIFT: A two. (Laughs.) In other words, 98 percent no.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Sounds like you don't really care for this --

MS. CLIFT: No, I --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You're a little worried about him. Are you a little worried about him?

MS. CLIFT: -- I admire him. I liked him when he was in Washington. I just think he can't get into the race on the cheap. He wants to wait until September and think everybody else implodes and then he gets in at the last minute. I don't see it happening.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Visualize him on a stage debating Hillary Clinton. Who do you think is going to win that debate?

MS. CLIFT: I think the same dynamic would occur as what happened in New York. He would look like he's invading her space, and women would rise up and support Hillary Clinton.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You think so?

MS. CLIFT: Yes.

MR. BLANKLEY: Oh, he understands --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You think women are solidly behind Hillary?

MR. BLANKLEY: -- women a lot better than Rick Lazio did.

MR. BUCHANAN: (Laughter.

)

MS. CLIFT: Pardon me?

MR. BLANKLEY: He understands women a lot better than Rick Lazio did. I'd say 15, 20, 10 to 20, in that zone; I mean, about where Pat's saying. I mean, nobody -- I wouldn't give anybody, even Giuliani, more than maybe a 25. You've got an open field.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I'd give him about 20 as well. I think he's got a great life right now, why give it up? And if he's going to support the president on Iraq, he's got a huge hurdle.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Did you notice how he came out of nowhere to support Libby?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: Yeah.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Libby being a good friend and employee of the president and others on that staff.

MR. BUCHANAN: He's almost --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Where does that come from?

MR. BUCHANAN: Well --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think it's possible that Cheney might resign and he might be installed as vice president?

MR. BUCHANAN: No, I don't think --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is that extreme?

MR. BUCHANAN: Yeah, that's extreme. But I think he's -- obviously he's very close to the neocons because they were raising an awful lot of money for Libby. And it's a real test of loyalty to the Cheneyites and the neoconservatives.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: The answer is 32 percent. (Laughter.)

Issue Three: Pastor in Chief.

GEN. PETER PACE (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): (From audiotape.) I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts. I do not believe that the armed forces of the United States are well-served by saying through our policies that it's okay to be immoral in any way, not just with regard to homosexual acts.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Within 24 hours, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs issued this clarification:

(From videotape.) "During a wide-ranging interview with the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board, I was asked if I think the current policy, as codified in U.S. Code, generally referred to as 'Don't ask, don't tell,' should still hold.

"People have a wide range of opinions on this sensitive subject. The important thing to remember is that we have a policy in effect and the Department of Defense has a statutory responsibility to implement that policy.

"I made two points in support of the policy during the interview: One, 'Don't ask, don't tell' allows individuals to serve this nation; and two, it does not make a judgment about the morality of individual acts. In expressing my support for the current policy, I also offered some personal opinions about moral conduct. I should have focused more on my support of the policy and less on my personal moral view."

Question: Does that clarification help, hurt, or have no effect on General Pace's current status? You cover the Pentagon, do you not?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I do. I think it has no effect. I mean, I think he's ignited an issue. I mean, it's interesting. The whole idea behind "Don't ask, don't tell" is that there's a problem with cohesiveness. Studies have shown that the military are increasingly comfortable having gays in the military. The British armed forces allow gays to serve openly.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, since you brought that up, let me -- I'm wondering whether this will induce change in U.S. policy. These are 25 nations that openly permit gay military, and we have the list here: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Peru, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

Do you think that that in itself, the bulk of those nations and what they represent and their values, should at all induce us to reconsider this policy? I ask you.

MS. CLIFT: Well, yeah, it's pretty reprehensible what General Pace said. But I don't see any reconsideration of this policy until we get a new president in. And frankly, the various candidates are a little nervous about how this plays, and they're not showing a lot of courage either.

MR. BLANKLEY: There's an important point here. It doesn't matter whether every other country has a different policy. The policy should be what permits our military to function well. Now, if it shows that having openly gays in the military doesn't hurt it, that's a big point. If it doesn't show that -- but we have to be guided by the effectiveness of our fighting, not by moral sentiments one way or the other.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, you don't think if the Estonian army functions well, that that's some evidence that we ought to --

MR. BLANKLEY: This Army is based on American culture.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: The Irish army functions very well. The British army functions well.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, almost all of those countries you mentioned, almost all of them are de-Christianized Western European countries -- almost all of them, not all of them. But General Peter Pace is exactly right. He supported the policies, and his own moral views buttress his belief that the policy is the right policy. And there's no doubt that moods and attitudes are changing. But he had every right to say that. And I think he clarified it. He did not apologize. And he did the right thing.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: But Pat, if you're a gay military person over in Iraq or Afghanistan, how do you feel when you're putting your life on the line when your --

MR. BUCHANAN: He made the same moral statement about adulterers. Should he apologize to them too?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: How long will it take before we join the ranks of those 25 nations? I ask you.

MR. BUCHANAN: We won't join them unless a Democrat's elected president.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: That's not an answer to the question. Don't you foresee us changing?

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, we might get -- in 2009 --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Secularism is here, Pat. We're going Dutch.

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, the Republicans will not do it. The Democrats will.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

MS. CLIFT: Yeah --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Five years? Ten years?

MS. CLIFT: Five years.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do you think?

MR. BLANKLEY: I think it'll be quite a while. I don't think --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Oh, five years? Ten years?

MR. BLANKLEY: Republicans won't. Democrats will not resist the judgment of the military. They tried it last time. They got in trouble.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I think not before 15 years.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Fifteen years? That sounds about right to me. Hey, what's going on --

MR. SEVASTOPULO: That's how long it's going to take Bill Richardson to be elected.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Huh?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: That's how long it's going to take Bill Richardson to get elected. (Laughter.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Give me a quick appraisal of what's going on at the Pentagon. How does this affect them over there?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I think there are a lot of people who probably agree with General Pace. But agreeing with someone and then saying it out loud and the impact it will have on troops on the ground is a completely different thing.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, note that he did not condemn the status of homosexuality. He condemned from the small perspective of actions, behavior.

MS. CLIFT: These are generational attitudes, and time will take care of it.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: That's semantics.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: No, it isn't semantics.

MS. CLIFT: Unfortunately, it's an insult to all the gays who are serving honorably.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: I'm sorry for interrupting you, Eleanor, but we have to do the U.S. military dead in Iraq -- 3,210; U.S. military amputeed, wounded, severely injured, injured, mentally ill, all now out of Iraq, 72,873; Iraqi civilians dead, 138,950.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Forced prediction: Will Thompson run?

MR. BUCHANAN: Twenty percent.

MS. CLIFT: I don't think so.

MR. BLANKLEY: No.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: No.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Yes. Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel will throw his hat in the ring also by late spring.

Erin Go Bragh. Bye-bye.

(PBS segment.)

Issue Four: Atheists of America, unite.

Secularist organizations had high praise this week for California Congressman Peter Stark. The cause of celebration: Stark announced that he is, quote, "a Unitarian who does not believe in a supreme being," unquote.

The advocacy group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State called the phenomenon a milestone in American politics, adding that, quote, "Stark is the highest-ranking public official to come out of the closet as a non-believer."

But what do Americans think about a non-theist in public office? A 2006 Gallup poll found that 84 percent of Americans feel the country is not ready for an atheist in the White House.

We have openly gay members of Congress. We have a Muslim who is now a member of Congress. Why can't we have more atheists in Congress? I ask you -- who wants this? Demetri.

MR. SEVASTOPULO: I think you can have as many atheists as are out there or agnostics. I think if the U.S. is overseas defending liberty and freedom, well, then, why shouldn't you have the freedom to be an atheist?

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, how do you handle "One nation under God"?

MR. SEVASTOPULO: Well, you've got to scribble out the thing on the dollar bill first and the name of God. And that's where you've got to start.

MR. BLANKLEY: We can have as many as people want to elect, and they don't want to elect many, because this is an overwhelmingly religious country --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you think --

MR. BLANKLEY: -- and they don't -- and most people don't trust someone who doesn't believe in God. That's why, whether they believe it or not, most politicians say they believe it.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Most people, if they think of atheists, they think of godlessness. And, of course, godlessness is a form of evil. And that's how it all kind of --

MR. BUCHANAN: Tell it to Pete Stark. (Laughter) I mean, that's exactly what it is.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Atheists --

MR. BUCHANAN: An agnostic does not know if there's a God and an atheist says there is no God.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Do you have to believe in God in order to conduct yourself in a good way?

MR. BUCHANAN: Philosophers can, but a nation probably cannot.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: What do the founders of the Republic think about this?

MS. CLIFT: The founders of the Republic were very worried about religion taking over this country, and I think they would probably applaud a trend towards atheism. But I don't think it exists. But you don't need God to lead a moral life.

END.