Are All Democrats Jumping on the Blame-Bush Bandwagon?

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This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," September 19, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You can’t have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up. And when you tell people to go do something they don’t have the means to do, you’re going to leave the poor out.


DAVID ASMAN, GUEST HOST: Former President Clinton broke with tradition over the weekend, attacking his successor for the White House’s response to Hurricane Katrina.

But another leading Democrat, former Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile (search), praised President Bush in The Washington Post on Saturday and his plans to rebuild the Gulf Coast. Are the Democrats kind of split on the issue?

Let’s ask former White House Chief of Staff under President Clinton Leon Panetta. He’s also director of the Panetta Institute (search), a nonpartisan center for public policy.

I don’t know if you could see, Mr. Panetta, the commercial that aired immediately before this segment, but it showed — it was Clinton and the former President Bush together talking about working together. And then you get this — sort of these attacks by Clinton on the Bush administration on Sunday. Where does he stand on this?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER BILL CLINTON CHIEF OF STAFF: Well, you know, I think whether we’re Democrats or Republicans, I think what the president said on Sunday was pretty much what everybody is concerned about, number one, that we are borrowing an awful lot of money. We are going to be spending $200 billion on this disaster. Nobody is talking about how you’re going to pay for it.

And we’re continuing to borrow essentially from the Chinese and the Japanese and Saudi Arabia (search) in order to pay our bills. That’s got to stop. I think that’s a legitimate concern. And the other is something that even the president addressed, which is that, if you are poor or black, you probably were disproportionately affected by this disaster.


PANETTA: So, it’s a pretty commonsense problem.

ASMAN: I think you’re right. A lot of Americans would agree with that.

But he went a little bit further and he said in his administration, he didn’t have as many problems. He said, we dealt with emergencies pretty well. He said, if we wanted to do it right, we would have had lots of buses lined up to take them out. Of course, he was then reminded by George Stephanopoulos (search), interviewing him, that, in fact, the mayor didn’t do that, and the mayor had the ability to do that.

But he then pointed to James Lee Witt (search) and his FEMA, saying that they did things right, implying that Bush is doing things wrong.

PANETTA: Well, you know, again, I think, if you look at the country in general and they look at how FEMA responded to this disaster, everybody I think agrees that they didn’t do the job they were supposed to do. And I, frankly, think that every level of government, whether it’s at the local level or the state level or the federal level, basically, in a colossal way, failed to respond effectively to this disaster.

ASMAN: And it was a great warning to us all that we have to — we have to clean up our act on all of those levels that you mentioned.

PANETTA: You got it, absolutely.

ASMAN: But, once again, under his watch, James Lee Witt, who he was putting up as the model of doing things right, he had a $500,000 evacuation plan presented to him in 1997. Apparently, FEMA then passed that on to the state. The state didn’t use that money for an evacuation plan. They used it to study the possibilities of a bridge over Lake Pontchartrain (search). So, there’s blame to go around, isn’t there?

PANETTA: Oh, there certainly is. There’s no question. When you look at what happened in Katrina, there’s no question in my mind that every level of government failed to stand by its responsibility. I think the difference is that, as the president pointed out — and, again, I think we know this — James Lee Witt was at least someone who had experience in dealing with disasters, going back to his role as disaster aid chief in Arkansas.

What we need to do, particularly with an agency like FEMA, is to make sure we get experienced people, not political hacks.

ASMAN: And, of course, even somebody with the experience he unfortunately passed or at least allowed the state to pass on that evacuation plan, which was never put in place.

But then we have Donna Brazile, who I mentioned at the top had some words of praise for the president.


ASMAN: She said over the weekend, "I could not have been prouder of the president and the plan he outlined to empower those who lost everything to rebuild the Gulf Coast." And then she said, "When we as a nation are united, nothing can stop us."

Isn’t that a better message for the country than maybe what President Clinton had said yesterday?

PANETTA: Well, I’m sure that President Clinton would agree with Donna. After all, she’s from New Orleans. She has got family down there.

I really do think, in the end, all Americans, whether we’re Democrats or Republicans or independents, really do have to unify behind this effort to try to provide assistance there and ensure that that area is reconstructed. It is a responsibility that we all have. And, frankly, party ought not play a role in that.

Whether it’s Republican or Democrats, I think is a time to unify and try to come up with answers.

PANETTA: Sounds like you’re with Brazile, Leon Panetta.


PANETTA: Well, I’m with doing what’s right.

ASMAN: OK. Thanks very much for coming on today on "The Big Story." Appreciate it, Leon Panetta.

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