Washington Week

Gwen Ifill
Journalist, Moderator, "Washington Week With Gwen Ifill and National Journal"
Thursday, February 28, 2008 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, Feb. 28, at Noon ET to take questions and comments.

The transcript follows.

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).


Jacksonville, Fla.: I am a 30-year-old, college-educated Hispanic female, and while I don't support Hillary Clinton, I am saddened by the thought that her campaign is nearing its end. So close to having a female candidate, but not yet. Will Hillary inspire more women to enter politics? Any up-and-coming female politicians who could play on the national stage in the near future?

Gwen Ifill: Am I the last person in America who isn't writing political obituaries for presidential candidates?

I would be surprised if Hillary Clinton's candidacy -- however it ends -- does not spur many more women to run for office.


Columbia, S.C.: Ms. Ifill, love "Washington Week" when I can catch it, and the NewsHour is great. I was wondering about McCain. I think the real issue here is that the conservatives are scared about the South. Look at the primary returns -- the turnout was astonishing. If Republicans stay home and Obama (yes, I am saying he wins the nomination) can keep the unlikely voters that he has brought in voting for him, I think the South is winnable. Even in South Carolina -- which is never as conservative as the press makes it out to be, our libertarian governor excepted.

Gwen Ifill: That is certainly the bet Sen. Obama is making.

The numbers so far do seem to indicate that there is a sizable "enthusiasm gap" developing out there. If it keeps going like this, this election almost certainly will be won by the candidate most likely to keep his (or her) base excited right through November.


Illinois: Gwen, please tell me that PBS will be moderating/broadcasting some upcoming debates (though I know there are unlikely to be more during the primary season). I don't have cable television, and although I have high-speed Internet, MSNBC's live streaming feed was so choppy that it was unintelligible. Televised debates are supposed to be accessible for all voters (to the extent possible), and these just aren't cutting it. Also, if you or Jim Lehrer end up moderating, I really hope you will skip idiotic, baiting questions like "is American 'ready' for a black president," "why are your likability numbers so low," "are you a closet anti-Semite." We've seen too many of them -- ask some questions that we care about instead. Personally, I'd love to hear some questions about appropriate Constitutional powers of and constraints on the president, civil liberties, and specific details of their Iraq, economic and environmental policies.

Gwen Ifill: The Commission on Presidential Debates already has announced a series of general election debates that will take place in the fall. If the past is any guide, they will be carried by all the television networks -- no choppy live feeds. Jim has moderated many in the past, and I have moderated one. We'll see what happens this time.


New York: Gwen, I know this NewsHour question goes back a few months, but I've wanted to ask you: What was it like for you to interview the Little Rock Nine? I was struck by each one's graciousness and lack of bitterness, even though it was evident that those hurtful events were still with them after 50 years. I found the whole interview quite stirring, and wondered what feelings these classy people evoked in you. Thanks.

washingtonpost.com: Desegregation Pioneers Reflect on Education Milestone (NewsHour, Sept. 27, 2007)

Gwen Ifill: Thank you for the compliment. Honestly, interviewing the Little Rock 9 was one of the best things I ever have taken part in. It is so important to hear the voices of history when we can, and it's a privilege to be the one asking the questions. Also, as an African American who benefited by the courage it took those students to walk through those days, I am especially grateful.


Reading, Pa.: Gwen: It is nice to have you back chatting. Do you think the Clinton camp can justify staying in the race for the nomination with anything but total blowouts in Texas and Ohio? Are they delusional in fighting on when it looks like Hillary would be a seriously flawed general election candidate, having lost so many African American and young voters ?

Gwen Ifill: This is one of those moments in campaign coverage where I am willing to sit back a bit and see what the voters say. I think it's fair to assume both campaigns are busy recalibrating, and that no one can predict what happens next until we see Tuesday night's results.

And thank goodness for that -- predictive politics is so exhausting.


Tuckahoe, N.Y.: Was Tim Russert within the bounds of responsible journalism to quote Farrakhan so extensively on national television, when Obama was the passive recipient of an unsolicited endorsement? I'm kind of an all-PBS/NPR person, so I don't watch a lot of commercial TV, but that seemed pretty inflammatory for a respectable forum. I've been surprised by lack of comment on it, so it makes me wonder if maybe it was a fair question.

washingtonpost.com: Video: Obama Questioned on Farrakhan Endorsement (MSNBC, Feb. 26)

Gwen Ifill: Tim is my friend and an all-around good guy. He's not the only one who has raised this, but I do wonder when the Farrakhan test will end.


Knoxville, Tenn.: This week, with the "Barack Hussein Obama" speech given by the right-wing radio host at a McCain rally, has the Democratic National Committee or anyone else tried to warn the Obama camp to go back and review the 2006 Corker vs. Ford Senate campaign in Tennessee to see the type of underhanded campaign tactics they will be facing? Or are the Obamamaniacs still delusionally thinking that once the general election begins the Republican National Committee and their surrogates will all of a sudden decide to "play nice"? Just remember that, as disgusting as the attacks were, they still worked -- and Harold Ford is about as conservative a Democratic candidate as there was in 2006. The "call me" and "Jungle drums" commercials are almost benign examples of the types of Republican National Committee attacks that will be launched month after month against the Obama camp.

washingtonpost.com: A Contentious Campaign in a Battleground State (Post, Oct. 25, 2006)

Gwen Ifill: I advise you to study the way the Obama campaign has responded to these -- very vigorous and immediate push-back. I don't know if you can compare this to the Harold Ford campaign, but it is clear this is a sore spot for the Obama folks.

For the record, Hillary Clinton, John McCain and the RNC also have denounced all this directly.


Austin, Texas: More of a comment than a question, but I would appreciate your reaction. I am an avid follower of the news (including your programs). I am also a political junkie, and I am very concerned about the state of affairs in our country. ... And yet I am sick to death of the presidential campaign. It saturates the airwaves, and we have eight months to go. Am I the only one? Is something wrong with this system? Is there any way campaigns could be made shorter?

Gwen Ifill: You're asking the wrong gal. I think this election has provided an opportunity for people concerned about the nation to play a more extensive role in debating and deciding than I ever have seen. I consider that to be a good thing. What do we wish all these folks were voting for instead? The next "American Idol"?


Albuquerque, N.M.: While I disagree with most of the recent New York Times critique of PBS, I do think that advertising has cut into shows. For example, isn't the Washington Week panel a couple of minutes shorter because of the opening and closing ads than was the case six or eight years ago?

washingtonpost.com: Is PBS Still Necessary? (New York Times, Feb. 17)

Gwen Ifill: Here is your choice. A few minutes of opening and closing underwriters credits -- or no Washington Week at all. I love our viewers and supporters, but their contributions -- and their tax dollars -- are not, in and of themselves, enough to keep us on the air. Given that life is all about tradeoffs, I like to think you appreciate what we bring enough to accept this one.


Bethesda, Md.: I would argue that the "enthusiasm gap" you mentioned was an artifact of the primaries, in that Republicans didn't feel strongly enough for or against any of their options (Ron Paul's supporters excepted) to cast a ballot. Meanwhile, Obama's idealists and Clinton's early feminists (and likewise, the Hillary-haters) felt strongly enough to come out of the woodwork.

But the generic Republican position, which most candidates fell into line behind (war, tax cuts, etc.) differs so distinctly from the generic Democratic position (which likewise most candidates fell into line behind) that there is something at stake in the general election, just as in general elections past -- and so the GOP will turn out in full force then.

Gwen Ifill: That's perfectly reasonable. It is not as if we have not seen enthusiasm gaps in primary elections before. President Mondale anyone?


Ferguson, Mo.: An honor to chat with you, Ms. Ifill. I've been wondering -- Diane Rehm on her NPR show complained about undue pressure being put on her and "fellow liberals" by the Bush administration -- or their appointed Corporation for Public Broadcasting lackeys. Have you felt similar pressures? I know Moyers was taking some heat. Did you? Has it eased up since 2006? Thanks,

Gwen Ifill: I wouldn't classify myself as a "fellow liberal," if that's indeed how Diane characterized it. And no, if there is pressure being applied it has not filtered down to me.


Orlando, Fla.: Gwen, is the picture of the press in love with Obama an accurate one? In your personal interactions with other journalists, what is your impression?

Gwen Ifill: In my 20-plus years of experience as a journalist, the most enduring bias I have discovered is bias in favor of a good story. I assure you, most politicians I have covered have accused me of bias in favor of the person he or she was running against. I let it slide right off.


Peoria, Ariz: Why does the media, in my opinion, handle Bush with such kid gloves? When asked this morning about Americans' rights being violated, they let him spout about how are civil rights are protected. Bush never explained how, and they let him off the hook.

Gwen Ifill: How closely do you watch those presidential news conferences? It's not for nothing that the president does not generally allow follow-up questions.


Minneapolis: Why isn't their similar questioning of Republicans regarding endorsements by religious leaders? No one asked Rudy Giuliani in a debate to reject or denounce the crazy things Pat Robertson has said. In fact, Giuliani was happy to receive Robertson's endorsement.

Gwen Ifill: Boy you folks are hot today. That's a great comparison, and I wish I'd said it first.


Boston: I'm convinced America would be better off if we never had fought the Civil War and just said "okay fine, start your own country" to the Confederacy. The Southern states have prevented most progressive legislation in the past 25 years, while bringing no economic, medical, social or scientific advantage except for tourism to the U.S. Thoughts?

Gwen Ifill: So ... slavery would be okay, but only in the South? Is that how that would have worked?


Winnipeg, Canada: I always enjoy your "Washington Week" program, and your guests always impress me with their depth of research and probing questions. Have you ever had/would you consider having foreign journalists on your program to give an outside perspective?

Gwen Ifill: I would not rule it out if it suited the program. I find that most Washington-based reporters -- even those with international news outlets -- are here to cover Washington. Their perspective is not usually all that different unless it borders on opinion, and we don't do opinion on Washington Week.


Washington: Gwen -- love your show and your chats. I thought that because Clinton didn't score a knockout moment the other night -- and neither did Obama -- that Obama ended up winning in the case of a draw. Also, I concede that Clinton does seem to be asked the tougher questions first, giving Obama time to formulate his response in contrast to hers.

I also was struck by how conciliatory he was to many of her points ("I agree with..."). I would have expected him to draw his distinctions more sharply and not just ride her coattails in answering. Finally, I cringed when Clinton cited a "Saturday Night Live" skit to justify her press coverage vs. his. So unpresidential in that setting! On the stump is one thing, but at a debate? It seems that the mainstream media are unwilling to take responsibility for fomenting the impression that they are tougher on Clinton, which actually seems to be the case as far as I'm concerned.

Gwen Ifill: Honestly, the biggest problem with the "SNL" skit was not the digs it took at the press -- Jon Stewart does that all the time, and I laugh right along. The problem was that "SNL" wasn't funny. Really not funny. And I had such high hopes.


Washington: McCain is an old Navy guy, so a navigational metaphor is order: If he goes right he loses the independents he needs, and if he goes left he loses his conservative base (they stay home). How does he steer between Scylla and Charybdis in the general election?

Gwen Ifill: I am sure those are just the terms the McCain team is using to plot its course through the next several months.


Atlanta: I grew up in a Middle Eastern community where lots of folks had names that seem to ignite suspicion: tons of Mohammeds, Jihads and, of course, Husseins. I wonder why Barack Obama doesn't simply educate people about the etymology of Hussein rather than dispel the "closet" Muslim rumors.

washingtonpost.com: Barack Hussein Obama, Omar Bradley, Benjamin Franklin and other Semitically Named American Heroes (juancole.com, Feb. 27)

Gwen Ifill: I wonder that too. Perhaps he suspects people who respond to that sort of thing aren't listening for the explanation?


Rochester, N.Y.: You talk to a lot of Washington reporters. Is it your sense that they have great personal affection for McCain? Do you think that they will be able to ask him difficult questions? It is my impression that in the early days of the Bush presidency, the press corps let its love for Bush get in the way of doing their jobs.

Gwen Ifill: It's not love -- it's that our job depends on dealing with people who answer our questions. McCain deals personally (some say exhaustively) with reporters covering him. Bill Clinton used to do that too when he was running in 1992, but as I recall that did not save him from tough coverage later on.


Alexandria, Va.: I am disappointed that Obama initially only denounced Farrakhan's support until Clinton pushed him to reject it. For someone who runs his campaigns on the platform that he has high principles, this seems hypocritical Do you think Clinton pointing out that he should have rejected his support will make a difference? What about the fact that McCain did reject the radio host's support after he disparaged Obama. It seems to me McCain could also make an argument, similar to Clinton's in the debate, that he has courage to reject a particular group or person's support, whereas Obama does not. Will this come back to haunt Obama?

Gwen Ifill: But which is stronger? Denouncing or rejecting?

I credit this to Aswini Anburajan, from NBC/National Journal, who posted this comparison of the two terms in their debate night blog:

re-ject, a verb used as an object. 1. to refuse to have, take, recognize, etc.: to reject the offer of a better job. 2. to refuse to grant (a request, demand, etc.).

de-nounce, verb (used with object), -nounced, -nounc-ing. 1. to condemn or censure openly or publicly: to denounce a politician as morally corrupt.


Evanston, Ill.: I am not sure I understand what the big deal about Obama taking public financing is. He only would be taking it for the general election right? Which gives the candidates something like $85 million to spend from the end of the GOP convention in August until November, right? Can't he raise and spend money like crazy before August, when McCain might be held to be in the financing system and unable to spend anything? Can he buy all the posters and signs and buttons and office supplies he will need for the Nov. election with primary money and use the entire $85 million for TV ads (and maybe some salaries) in September and October? Wouldn't $85 million buy an awful lot of TV ads in the handful of states that will be actively contested in the fall? I pity the people in Ohio, Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nevada and New Mexico.

Gwen Ifill: The only reason this is a deal at all is that he said he would not do it.


Triangle, N.C.: Any word on a Richardson endorsement? He said he might do something before the next primaries, but we haven't heard anything yet from him.

Gwen Ifill: Not a peep. It seems his window, especially if it is to have its desired effect on Latino voters in Texas, would be during the next few days...


Seattle: Gwen, my mother loved it when your show went to her town, St. Petersburg, a few months ago. I hope you take the show "on the road" throughout the campaign. After the contentious Nevada debates, when questions were peppered to Obama and Clinton about racial statements some of their supporters had used, I heard Dr. Cornel West say something to the effect of "America needs a dialogue on race, but that was the wrong format and the wrong moderator." Whichever candidate gets the nomination, do you think there's the possibility to have that very important dialogue before the election? How could it be done?

Gwen Ifill: Yes, we were in St. Pete just two weeks ago. It was a great show and a hospitable crowd. We are taking the program to Cleveland and Philadelphia in the next few months. Dates and venues will be announced soon.

On your other point, I find it difficult to imagine that we would not have a broader debate about race at some point in this campaign. We may have to get used to the idea, however, that such a debate is about more than skin color.


Washington: First of all, Gwen, you're truly head-and-shoulders above most other television personalities. I always am impressed by the level of erudition and intelligence you bring to your show! (In other words, you rock!) Question: now that McCain pretty much has wrapped up his party's nomination, is Huckabee going to continue to play spoiler? What's the deal here? Is he just tilting at windmills? Oh, and speaking of quixotic -- what's going thru Ralph Nader's mind these days? What's your take?

Gwen Ifill: Huckabee has said he would not drop out of the race before McCain had amassed the number of delegates required to clinch the nomination. That day is getting closer and closer.

As for Ralph Nader? I just ... don't ... know.


St. Paul, Minn.: Gwen, it's great to have you back chatting. It looks like the uneasy truce between McCain and the extreme right wing is off again. Is this something that's likely to go back and forth until the election, when all will be forgiven? And does it help McCain look more moderate/independent in the end? And just to offer an opinion, while others have praised his pushback, it seemed a little phoned-in to me.

Gwen Ifill: I am not sure the truce was ever real -- they all just agreed that they hated the New York Times. That hardly spoke to the underlying problems in the relationship. It's like staying married because you both hate the mother-in-law. Not a formula for long-term success.


Ormond Beach, Fla.: I am interested in the current polls in Texas and Ohio. Can you tell me which candidate is ahead as of today?

Gwen Ifill: Texas: dead heat. Ohio: Clinton ahead, but Obama closing.


Alpharetta, Ga.: In terms of those kinds of attacks on Obama's middle name etc., I find it noteworthy that the Republican National Committee came out and denounced the Tennessee GOP yesterday. Do you think any GOP-ers worry that those attacks might not be helpful?

Gwen Ifill: I gather that a lot of them do worry, but there is a flip side to that equation. Attack now, apologize later, and the attack still will be out there in the atmosphere (or blogosphere). That will not be the first time that formula has been applied in politics -- or in life, for that matter.


Gwen Ifill: This, as always, has been fun. Smarter people than I will join me around the table tomorrow night on "Washington Week," as we review and preview the run-up to next week's primaries. Jackie Calmes of the Wall Street Journal, Gebe Martinez of Politico and John Harwood of CNBC/The New York Times all will be there.

Be sure to tune in on your local PBS Station.


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