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Washington Week

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Gwen Ifill
Journalist, Moderator, "Washington Week With Gwen Ifill and National Journal"
Thursday, November 30, 2006; 12:00 PM

Each week, the country's top reporters join moderator Gwen Ifill for an in-depth discussion of the week's top news from Washington and around the world. The longest-running news and public affairs program on PBS, "Washington Week and National Journal" features journalists -- not pundits -- lending insight and perspective to the week's important news stories. Now, Ifill brings "Washington Week" online.

Ifill was online Thursday, Nov. 30, at Noon ET to take questions and comments.

Ifill is moderator and managing editor of "Washington Week" and senior correspondent for "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer." Ifill spent several years as a "Washington Week" panelist before taking over the moderator's chair in October 1999. Before coming to PBS, she spent five years at NBC News as chief congressional and political correspondent. Her reports appeared on "NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw," "Today," "Meet the Press" and MSNBC. Ifill joined NBC News from The New York Times where she covered the White House and politics. She also covered national and local affairs for The Washington Post, Baltimore Evening Sun, and Boston Herald American.

" Washington Week with Gwen Ifill and National Journal," airs on WETA/Channel 26, Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ( check local listings).

A transcript follows.

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Gwen Ifill: Hello everybody. Happy to be back!

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Rochester, N.Y.: I saw Jim Lehrer on Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" the other night (where Lehrer promised that his show would cover Britney Spears' and F-Fed's divorce!). Are you planning to go on Colbert's show?

Gwen Ifill: As quietly as it is kept, Jim is much funnier than the rest of us.

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Fairfax, Va.: Will you be calling the fighting in Iraq a Civil War on your show or will you be sticking with the Bush line that the violence is not a Civil War but just a "new phase"? In other words now that the election results are providing "cover" for NBC and others in the media to reposition themselves and start telling it like it is, will you reposition yourself or will you continue to let Bush define reality for you?

Gwen Ifill: I don't see any neeed to characterize the news. As you know if you watch out program, we rely on reporters to bring us the best information they have based on the events of the week.

If the debate has been about terminology, we will address that. But it remains a mystery to me why calling this one thing or the other changes the facts on the ground either way. I suspect my old friends and colleagues at NBC would agree with that.

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Raleigh, N.C.: To what extent do you see you show as a "follower" that catches people up on the past week's news, and to what extent do you see it as a "leader," informing viewers of what is about to become a key issue?

Gwen Ifill: Interesting question -- and one we talk about a lot at Washington Week.

If you are a longtime viewer, you know the program used to be called "Washington Week in Review." I dropped "In Review," in part because I wanted to signal that the show would spend more time looking forward.

Past being prologue, it is important to provide analysis of the events of the week in order to provide the kind of context we like. But we also like to have each of our segments reflect the impact of what has happened, what is happening, and what might happen next. To the extent we can, however, we try to avoid speculating on outcomes we have no way of predicting.

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Do you see NBC's use of the term "civil war" for the situation in Iraq as the moral equivalent of Walter Cronkite's change of view on the Vietnam War? At least LBJ had the smarts to realize what it meant to lose Cronkite.

Gwen Ifill: No I don't. Walter Cronkite's footprint in the information universe was much larger during Vietnam than any single anchorperson's is now. We relied on network newscasts for the bulk of our information, and certainly for all of our moving pictures of events on the ground.

That is certainly no longer true. We can download war video with a few keystrokes, and the web has made it impossible for anyone to say "I don't know." If you want to know, the information is there.

So I am one of those who thinks that the "civil war" moniker means only what we let it mean. The facts on the ground -- political upheaval, rising casualty numbers, the faces of dead U.S. soldiers and Iraqis -- are far more damning.

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Sarasota, Fla.: Do you think Speaker designate Nancy Pelosi will be as media prominent as say Newt Gingrich was or do you think she'll take an approach more like Denny Hastert or Harry Reid, and kind of stay behind the scenes.

Gwen Ifill: I cannot imagine Nancy Pelosi staying behind the scenes. And I would be shocked if anyone every confused her with Speaker Hastert.

Part of this is personality...part of this is political style and inclination...and part of it is that it is impossible for the "first" of anything (first woman, first Italian American), to stay underground.

That said, it remains to be seen (one of my least favorite terms, but hey) whether she will be able to transform the Democrats' victory into the ideological juggernaut that Gingrich created.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I was shocked but thrilled yesterday to read of Jim Webb's frank and pointed comments to the president yesterday at the White House social function. The public has stood by now for years haplessly watching as the media (and the rest of official Washington) genuflected and gushed in response to Mr. Bush's chummy slap-em-on-the-back water cooler act.

George Will's predictably prickly reaction aside, do you think the media might take Webb's cue and actually press him on issues instead of just cherishing their newly- coined presidential nicknames with starry-eyed shivers? Thanks.

Gwen Ifill: Let me pose the question this way. If a Republican Senator who had yet to be sworn in, had walked up to President Clinton in 1994 and slapped him down (rhetorically, of course) in HIS house, at HIS reception...would you think "Bravo?" Or would you think that the senator-elect was showing disrespect for the Presidency -- if not the man holding the job?

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re: Civil War in Iraq: I understand your and others' reluctance to get dragged into this, but names matter. Note: Civil rights movement vs. States Rights. Pro-choice vs. pro-abortion. By not calling it a civil war, you have actually made a choice, not an absence of a choice. You have picked one of the realities and not chosen another one.

Gwen Ifill: I get your point about how terminology matters (see: No Child Left Behind). But I also have amazing faith in readers and viewers to make decisions for themselves when facts are staring them in the face (see: food security vs. hunger.)

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Will the legacy of the Bush Presidency be Iraq? Do you think there is anything the President can do to change that or is he as lame as a duck can be?

Gwen Ifill: Since I am not a historian, I try to avoid predicting legacies. Who knew so many people would be sobbing at Richard Nixon's funeral?

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San Francisco, Calif.: Do you find friendship makes reporting difficult for you personally? I speak of your well-documented friendship with the Secretary of State, of course, and whether you feel you can be objective when speaking about her many foreign policy failures.

Gwen Ifill: What "well-documented friendship?" I respect the Secretary of State as much as any reporter who has covered her, but rumors of our friendship (peddled pervasively, I am advised, on the web by people who have never spoken to me)are not accurate.

I am fortunate to have a lot of true friends, so I have absolutely no trouble differentiating among friends, acquaintances and professional contacts.

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Seattle, Wash.: No question, really, just thanks for putting on a great, informative show.

I've been a fan since the days of Paul Duke and the blob-shaped table and "WWR" before "WW". Keep up the good work.

Gwen Ifill: The blob shaped table!

You are a true WW-head!

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: Gwen, do you understand the FEMA suit in federal court? Was FEMA simply denying aid to people who were still eligible?

Gwen Ifill: From what I know (which I assure you, comes strictly from Spencer Hsu's excellent reporting in this morning's Washington Post), the judge in the case felt the government had made the application process for Katrina housing so onerous...that deserving people were kicked off the rolls.

The term he used was "Kafkaesque."

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San Francisco, Calif.: Do you believe, as George Will does, that Jim Webb is a "pompous poseur"? Do you believe, as I do, that George Will is uniquely qualified to so appellate the Senator-elect?

Gwen Ifill: I know neither Jim Webb nor George Will well enough to reach such harsh conclusions.

And if I did know them that well, I am convinced I would opt for my usual shades of gray.

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Marietta, Ga.: Do you think this election season dispels the stuff about a hidden white vote against a black candidate? Ford lost, but actually by margins in the polls. I think perhaps in some of the GOP cases, some black voters sort of flirted with the idea of voting with them, but decided to stick with Dems largely because of all the stuff this year.

Gwen Ifill: I am not sure you can dispel a hidden notion in one election cycle, although I agree that it seems Harold Ford lost his election for a lot of reasons besides race.

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Boca Raton, Fla.: Ms. Ifill,

My compliments to you for being one of the most measured voices that fill the airwaves these days.

So, I don't know if you are the right person to ask this question. But let me ask anyway. Why did George Will get on Senator-Elect Webb's case in his column today?

Gwen Ifill: Hey, if I were writing a column, that seems to me it would be a perfectly good topic to take on.

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Re your response to Silver Spring: If Bill Clinton was a routinely rude and condescending as the current president, I'd be thrilled to see someone Republican or Democrat do like Jim Webb. You forget that it was Bush who injected the first rhetorical insult.

Gwen Ifill: I wasn't there, so who knows?

I do know that apparently only two people were there...and someone managed to get the contents of a private discussion into the newspaper. Which one do you think?

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Germantown, Md.: Re: Funny Jim Lehrer

Anyone who heard Lehrer's speech at the Marine Memorial dedication knows that he is a very funny man!

Gwen Ifill: And I know so much more...but if I told you, I'd have to kill you.

(see? I can be funny!)

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Washington, D.C.: While I generally agree that the "civil" war debate is semantics, and not worthy of too much time and worry, I do want to make a comment on it. You say that "the "civil war" moniker means only what we let it mean." But I guess that makes me wonder. I mean, isn't it sort of similar to using "terrorist" attack or "hate" crime? That it further defines a situation? And that by further defining it, people have a deeper opinion, at times? I mean this isn't a term that was just recently invented (such as flip-flop), there is a real history and definition.

Gwen Ifill: All true. I didn't mean to say that it has no meaning... only that Americans aren't waiting on NBC or the LATimes, or me to tell them what they ought to think about this war.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: Ms. Ifill, last week Bush said he still considered al Qaeda a primary threat in Iraq. Then this week, the Pentagon announced that we will be pulling out of Anbar Province. I hope you will urge your collegues in the White House Press Corps to ask Tony (it's just a number) Snow about this contradiction. Anbar Province would be the most likely place to find al-queda, because it is Sunni controlled.

OT, how about renaming the Iraq Study Group, the Iraq SLOW-LEARNER'S Group? Iraq is gone. The "deer-in-the-headlights" question is if Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Turkey and other neighbors carve up the carcas without a regional war. Such a war might, interrupt oil exports that could easily cause a world-wide depression.

Gwen Ifill: I must have missed the Pentagon's "announcement" about Anbar. They have not conceded that point, although of course we have been reading of bleak assessments contained in classified reports.

As for the rest of your comments, I'll just let them stand.

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Re: Civil War: Your earlier response used the example of hunger vs. food security. So if you were doing a report on people in the US who were not securing enough food to maintain good nutrition, what words would you use to report it?

Gwen Ifill: clever, but I won't bite.

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Gwen Ifill:...except to say this. My point, as I'm sure you took, was that no matter what the terminology...folks can usually reach their own conclusions based on the facts they have.

And the facts about Iraq are daunting. I don't need to be the one to tell folks what they think.

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Bowie, Md.: Gwen, last week there was a major story about six men who had been attending a Muslim religious conference being taken off a plane in Minneapolis for supposed looking too Islamic.

The Washington Times reported Tuesday that they had engaged in behviors that fit terrorist profiles: changing seats to sit near the exits, walking up and down the plane, and talking in a foreing language about Osama bin Laden.

Is this the kind of story that the mainstream news will under-report, because it's not as good a story as the allegations of ethnic profiling was?

Gwen Ifill: Well, now, you've just undercut my last point.

It turns out everyone has their own facts.

What I head is that the imams were on their way home from a conference on religious tolerance, and made people nervous because they knelt to pray in the boarding area.

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Seattle, Wash.: Do you think 2006 becomes a metric for future "waves"? For example, a lot of the time people would look at Democrats' numbers in the present and compare them with GOP numbers in '94.

Gwen Ifill: Sure. 2006 is the best, recent example of a dramatic political outcome. And you know how politicians like to fight the last war. So we will definitely be hearing comparisons ad nauseum...until the next round of elections create a new set of metrics.

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New Hampshire: re: Webb's "smackdown".

Please, Gwen-- the President sought the Senator out, not the other way around and just an FYI-- the White House is OUR house, thank you very much.

Gwen Ifill: Yes, it is our house. So everyone, including George Will, gets to have an opinion about what happens there.

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College Park, Md.: Isn't WETA moving to DC soon? And will your staff be mixing/dining with the Hill/K St. Penn Ave. crowd more as a result?

Gwen Ifill: Baby, we aren't moving anywhere. Why? Do you know a cool restaurant I should try for all my intimate, friendly meetings with Administration officials??

(see! 2 funnies in one chat!)

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Helena, Mont.: Thank you for doing these chats. One thing I have noticed - you don't ever criticize President Bush. If one of the chatters do, you manage to bring Clinton doing the same or similar. I know you pride yourself on being neutral, but aren't there some things about the President that can be criticized? Katrina? Iraq?

Gwen Ifill: You can criticize as much as you like, but that's not what I'm paid to do. If I'd been doing these chats during a Democratic administration I like to think you'd have noticed the same thing.

"On the other hand --" That's my middle name.

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Gwen Ifill: Thanks everybody. That was stimulating as usual.

If you can stand a little more stimulation, tune in tomorrow night on your local PBS station. We'll have a panel that includes Martha Raddatz of ABC -- just back from Jordan with the President; David Sanger of the New York Times -- who's been writing about the Iraq Study Group, and Karen Tumulty of Time Magazine -- who will fill us in on how much things are changing post-election on Capitol Hill.

Cheers

Gwen

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