Transcript: Bush and Cheney Make History With 9/11 Commission Meeting

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, April 28, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.


PRESIDENT BUSH: I look forward to giving the commissioners a chance to question both of us. And it will be a good opportunity for these people to help write a report that hopefully will help future presidents deal with terrorist threats to the country.


JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The president and vice president will testify side by side behind closed doors tomorrow at the 9/11 commission. President Bush is expected to do most of the talking. There won't be any recording devices or even an exact transcript. The White House says classified information cannot be shared with the general public.

Presidential historian Richard Shenkman (search) joins me now from Seattle to talk about the president's and the vice president's appearance. Richard, the big question, is there any precedent for this joint appearance tomorrow?

RICHARD SHENKMAN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No, there is no precedent. We've been breaking precedents ever since 9/11. This is one of them. The last time we had anything close to this was Gerald Ford (search) testifying before a Congressional committee about intelligence failures back in the 1970's, but you've never had a president and a vice president testifying before a commission like this. I know the White House doesn't like to call it testifying.

GIBSON: Conversation, it's a conversation.


GIBSON: Did F.D.R. testify before any congressional committee about Pearl Harbor?

SHENKMAN: No. There was a commission that was set up shortly after Pearl Harbor to investigate the intelligence failure there, but F.D.R. was not called in. This was a different atmosphere back then. The country was completely unified in the war effort after Pearl Harbor, unlike the situation we find today where the country is divided about Iraq and about the president's handling of the war on terrorism.

GIBSON: You've seen the reports about the Bob Woodward book, if you haven't already read it. And Woodward has said repeatedly in all of his interviews, it's quite clear that the president made decisions. The vice president was quite differential to him. Why do you suppose it is that they're testifying together? And considering what Woodward has reported from very close access to the inner circle of the White House, why is there this persistent feeling that what is going to go on tomorrow is some sort of ventriloquism act in which Dick Cheney makes the president's lips move?

SHENKMAN: Well, it's no secret that President Bush came into office with virtually no background in foreign policy. We had his own people at the time of his election saying he was being tutored in weekend sessions down on the ranch in Texas. And so there is this perception that in foreign policy at least he needed a guiding hand and that was one of the assets that Cheney brought to the job. Here was a fellow who had been the secretary of defense. He knew his way around foreign capitals, particularly in the Middle East. Naturally Bush would turn to Cheney for help. That's no secret. I think in this case, the White House simply thought why have the two leading in the administration go to the 9/11 commission and possibly give conflicting statements that then would require follow-up, lead to news headlines. It was much simpler to get the two of them in there simultaneously so that you are not going to have two different storylines coming out, leading to further debate. What they want less of is debate. They want this commission to get through, get out its report and really put it behind them.

GIBSON: From doing the reading that I know you have done in following this, is it your opinion that the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, et al, in the administration, went to war in Iraq because they believed that Iraq and al Qaeda were connected or because they believe that weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to the rest of the world?

SHENKMAN: This is the big unanswered question. Historians won't have access to the documents and memoirs and all the rest until long after this administration is out of power, so we won't know until then. Quite often we're surprised about by how little we knew about what was going on. In this case, we have three things that normally historians don't have while an administration is in power.

One is this Woodward book, which is based on these high-level interviews. The other is the Clarke book from a high intelligence official. And the other is the O'Neal book. So you put all those together and you do get this impression that there were multiple reasons for going to war with Iraq. And every time we have a war, there are always multiple reasons.

There's the reason that's kind of the PR packaging — how the war is sold to the public. The public mind basically can't absorb a very complicated storyline. It needs something nice and simple. And usually with a moral — strong moral purpose before you can get anybody to go have their child go into the armed forces and put their life at risk. But the policy makers always have a complicated series of stories they're dealing with. And that was true with the Spanish-American War. It was true with the Vietnam War. It was true with d the Korean war. It wasn't true with the World War II. That was nice and simple, the Japanese attacked us, we are going to respond.

GIBSON: Richard Shenkman, Richard, as always, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.

SHENKMAN: All right, thank you.

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