Washington Week With Gwen Ifill

Gwen Ifill
Journalist, Moderator, "Washington Week With Gwen Ifill and National Journal"
Thursday, August 14, 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, Aug. 14 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).


Gwen Ifill: Hello everyone. Happy to be back. Hope you're e-mailing from the beach!


Tampa, Fla.: Gwen, congratulations on being named to moderate the veep debate again! Is there a way for us to send you suggestions about questions to ask? Like maybe an e-mail address or a Web site?

Gwen Ifill: Thanks for the good wishes. I'm honored to be moderating again.

You probably won't be surprised to hear I'm already getting suggestions on what to ask. I'll read them all. Send them to washingtonweek@pbs.org.


Washington: Any chance Joe Biden won't be the running mate? He emphasizes credentials Barack Obama doesn't have, while being longwinded as all get out, skewing old as he's at least 66, and being from a solid-blue state with few electoral votes? I don't see it, I think "plastic man" Evan Bayh (as they call him in Indiana) would be better. Noticeably, a national weekly called him Birch Bayh in an edition last week, so at least they remember the old man (pre-1980).

Gwen Ifill: It is completely possible you know more about all this than I do.
I'm one of those waiting on David Plouffe to text me when the decision is made!


Alexandria, Va.: Since the death of Tim Russert you have not appeared on "Meet the Press." Why is that?

Gwen Ifill: Scheduling, mostly. I've been invited, but unable to appear.


Denver: Ms. Ifill, as an African American woman, if Barack Obama becomes president of the U.S., would this be the single greatet accomplishment for blacks in America? Or is this simply another in a long list of accomplishments that equate to a great country, great opportunities for all and still the land of immigrants.

Gwen Ifill: It would certainly be a big deal, but African Americans have accomplished an awful lot in this country -- much of which has everything to do with leadership and little to do with politics.


Southwest Nebraska: As the moderator for the vice presidential debate, whom are you hoping will get the nominations? Who might give us a "I knew John Kennedy, and you sir..." type of moment?

Gwen Ifill: It's better for everyone if I don't root for anyone, don't you think? Seems that would work against any candidate.


Washington: Do you expect mass layoffs soon to be announced from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae? Wall Street backs have been hit hard by the mortgage mess and are unloading people, but I've heard nothing with regard to layoffs and Freddie and Fannie.

Gwen Ifill: Nor have I, so I really can't share any informed intelligence on that.


Woodbridge, Va.: How are the moderaters chosen for the debates? They always seem to be mainstream media journalists with recognized liberal leanings. What is the likelyhood of ever getting some balance in the process?

Gwen Ifill: I can't tell whether that was a hostile question or not!

But here's a link to an interview with commission co-chairman Frank Fahrenkopf that you might find useful. 


Greenfield, Mass.: Good morning Ms. Ifill. I'm so naive. I honestly believe that, should Sen. McCain denounce Corsi's book and others of its ilk, it would burnish Sen. McCain's attempt to portray himself as outside of the Bush White House, and establish him as a true maverick. Oh well -- that ain't gonna happen. Congrats on the appointment as moderator.

Gwen Ifill: That's naivete? Seems pretty much like a 2008 version of "please don't throw me in the briar patch!"


Columbia: Are the debates going to give more time for response and discussion? That would be great. Here's my suggestion: Every debate should center around one topic. National Security/International Relations, Energy/Environment, Economic Policy, Domestic Policy. Then, allow candidates time for meaningful debate, rather than the current talking points. This also would increase ratings, because you would have a reason to tune in after the first one.

Gwen Ifill: The format this year allows for one presidential debate focusing on domestic policy, one on foreign policy, another town hall meeting-style debate that allows questions on both, and a vice presidential debate that is split between the two as well.

The biggest difference for us moderators is that topics will be split into 10-minute blocs of time to allow for more give-and-take between the candidates. I'm looking forward to it.


Seattle: Thanks for taking our comments, Gwen. I really would like to hear form one of your guests this week on what the U.S. may or may not have promised Georgia and Russia on these two disputed regions, and the timeline on what happened in the first few days. I think there's a lot more than what I've gotten from the mainstream media. Thanks.

Gwen Ifill: We're going to dig as deeply as we can, but events have been unfolding so rapidly that it has been a challenge to keep up with developments, let alone discern motive.


Chicago: The vice presidential debate will be very interesting because it will the first and last time a sizable portion of the elector sees these candidates for a decent length of time. Given that most people will have little clue who they are, will you in any way explore their personal /political history, or simply go right to the issues?

Gwen Ifill: I won't be able to even begin to think about how to do these debates until I know who the candidates are.

This question didn't originate at Obama headquarters, did it?


Athens, Ga.: What is to prevent a candidate from saying "I've thought it over and I'm changing my mind" instead of being called a flip-flopper?

Gwen Ifill: There is nothing to prevent them from saying that if they are willing to take the hear for it. Personally, I have excised the term "flip-flop" from my vocabulary, unless I am talking about beach shoes.


Boston: Congratulations on moderating the vice presidential debate! Are there any topics that you didn't think were sufficiently covered by the presidential debates that you'd like to address? How much power would a veep actually have to resolve any of them? Thanks!

Gwen Ifill: It's the old "heartbeat away" question. I have no way of knowing what the Presidential debates will or won't resolve, but I consider vice presidential candidates to be potential presidents, which they often become. So I take their answers every bit as seriously as I do the primary candidates.


Carlsbad, Calif.: Good morning Ms. Ifill, a quick question. Your colleage David Broder said in his online column yesterday that he thought the only way John McCain could win the presidency would be if he chose Gov. Mike Huckabee for his vice president. Seems strange to me, given that the Republican nominee, whomever, couldn't possibly lose any states in the South with or without Huckabee, and elsewhere I don't see Huckabee providing any electoral advantage. What is your take?

Gwen Ifill: I have long made it a practice never to disagree with David Broder. Even when I do.


Fairfax, Va.: Politicians regularly talk past each other in the so-called "debates" they have. Will you commit to following up with both vice presidential nominees, asking each to address the other's main points when they don't? If you did, it would serve to enlighten us. For example, Obama has been saying that offshore drilling will not bring down gas prices any time soon -- if at all -- because there is not enough oil there in the first place and because of the lag time from drilling to producing gasoline. McCain replies that we must drill now and basically does not rebut Obama's arguments. If you run into similar exchanges in your debate, will you try to get the nominees to be responsive to the specifics of each other's arguments?

Gwen Ifill: That is certainly my goal. Because of the new formats this year, I believe there will be far more flexibility when it comes to follow-ups -- from me as well as from the debaters themsleves.


Crossing Party Lines?: Hi Gwen. How likely is it that Obama or McCain will select a vice president from the other side? Would McCain backers support Leiberman, for instance, or would Obama's supporters go along with Hagel?

Gwen Ifill: Intriguing question, and one that I am certain some very smart people in either campaign are pondering. I am as uncertain about Lieberman's cross party appeal as I am about, say, Chuck Hagel's. It would be quite the test of voter's claims to ideological independence, wouldn't it?


Arlington, Va.: Well, it seemed that the story of the week should be the oil-grab by the Russians who now control the remaining major non-Russian oil supply conduit coming out of the Caspian through Georgia. But there are Olympic Games and affairs of former candidates to cover, so I can see why it hasn't been dominating the news as much as a kidnapped child would, or a funny political ad by a half-naked heiress.

Gwen Ifill: Um, where have you been? Is it possible that you have missed the coverage of the story in Georgia? It's been everywhere. I honestly don't think you can accuse the press of ignoring this one.

Now, if you're paying attention to John Edwards travails instead, there's nothing I can do for you.


Sewickley, Pa.: Now that Mr. McCain has announced that we are all Georgians, I'm wondering if you expect a surge in military enlistments as young people flock to recruiting centers so they too may fight the Russian Bear? Or will my husband have to switch from desert camo to his old green battle dress for a third deployment?

Gwen Ifill: Last I checked John McCain was not yet commander in chief. The President we currently have seems none to eager to put boots on this particular patch of ground.


Anonymous: When did the League of Women voters stop hosting the debates? They did such a better job with staying on the issues and not playing the "gotcha" game.

Gwen Ifill: I think you have the network-sponsored debates confused with the commission-sponsored debates.


Washington: Has either candidate really commented on the Phase IV portion of the Russian invasion against Georgia? The U.S. is undertaking Phase IV for it's responsibility in the Iraq invasion, yet it seems like, from press reports, the U.S. will provide humanitarian assistance to Georgia, as well as rebuilt it's destroyed or damaged infrastructure/cities/etc. and military. And we have funds for this, in addition to rebuilding the military and infrastructure of Iraq and Afghanistan? My debate question, I guess, would be where the money and manpower is coming from to rebuild three destroyed countries, and how do the candidates rationalize the spending to the American people, particularly in terms of not spending it on our own systems/infrastructure.

Gwen Ifill: I'll put that one in my file.


Provo, Utah: Um, are there no qualified women to conduct a presidential debate?

Gwen Ifill: Sure there are.


Bremerton, Wash.: Possible question for the vice-presidential debate: "What is the purpose of our government?" It sounds simple, but considering the Norquist philosophy of "drowning it in a bathtub," it could tell us a lot.

Gwen Ifill: Not sure that one will make the file.


Milwaukee: Gwen, why do you think Kansas Gov. Sebelius's name has disappeared from the veepstakes speculation by the media? All we hear about these days are guys...

Gwen Ifill: Follow my example and take all the veepstakes speculation with a huge grain of rock salt. I am one of those who believe only a few folks have any idea what they are talking about -- and those folks ain't much talking.


Fort Bragg, N.C.: It's reported in today's paper that John McCain said (regarding Russia) "I'm interested in good relations between the United States and Russia. But in the 21st century, nations don't invade other nations." Will his feet be held to the fire on that statement regarding the United States/President Bush as well as Russia? Or will he differentiate between the Russian nation's invasion and/or anyone else's invasion?

Gwen Ifill: Guess it depends on the meaning of the word "invade."


Crystal City, Va.: The blogs are full of news that the 70,000 "free" tickets to Obama's acceptance speech actually require the recipient to volunteer three or four hours of campaign work before they get their ticket. Is the Obama campign comfortable requiring people to "volunteer," or are they starting to rethnk this policy? Any chance one of your panelists may dig into this before Friday?

Gwen Ifill: Haven't heard much about this. Is there really an outcry? Do people really think "free" ever means "free"?


Washington: Just a note to say I'm really, really happy you're moderating one of the debates. I know you'll keep it substantive and meaningful. Let's talk policy, not politics!

Gwen Ifill: Will do.


Pittsburgh: I have a devil a time understanding how the McCain camp believes the Russia/Georgia conflict helps them. The Obama surrogates/advisers on national security whom I have seen interviewed on TV seem to be experienced, tough, realistic heavy-hitters. The Obama campaign in general has seemed far more organized and coherent in terms of formulating a strategy, crafting a message and sticking to it.

Furthermore, I don't get the sense that Americans feel like "we are all Georgians now," as Sen. McCain asserts. If anything, the conflict seems to underscore how bellicose he and his advisers are and how closely tied to the neoconservative group that pushed for war in Iraq. How do you perceive attitudes on this conflict as you travel and talk to people?

Gwen Ifill: You just gave me about eight good questions to ask our panelists tomorrow night. Thanks!


Springfield, Va.: A judge has decided that the indicted Detroit mayor can attend the convention in Denver. I predict I will outswim Michael Phelps before Kwame Kilpatrick gets his picture take, with Obama. How do you think the mayor will be treated by the leadership while in Denver?

washingtonpost.com: Judge Permits Detroit Mayor to Attend Party Convention (New York Times, Aug. 14)

Gwen Ifill: Kwame Kilpatrick has actually been quite the political realist when it comes to Senator Obama. It was the mayor who said it was best he not appear with the nominee when he visited Detroit not long ago. So I imagine the same thing will apply in Denver. You don't generally get that close to the nominee at a convention unless you are part of the inner, inner circle.


Anonymous: Georgia sent 2,000 troops to Iraq. In return, the U.S. upped their military and financial aid to Georgia. Georgia spent the majority of this increased aid to beef up their presence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the Russian border. Is this situation indirect "blowback" from the Iraq war?

Gwen Ifill: Things are rarely that simple. To listen to President Saakashvili, it would seem he expected more in return for his support than he has been getting so far.


San Francisco: This is a shameless plug, I admit it, but: I am an Obama supporter and had been thinking of contributing to his campaign. However, after watching a recent "Washington Week," I have decided to divert my campaign contribution and give it to ... PBS (KQED). Obama doesn't need my money as much as public television does.

Gwen Ifill: That's the kind of shameless plug I love.


Gwen Ifill: You may all go reapply sunblock now.

But tune in tomorrow, where we talk about the Russia/Georgia conflict as well as the politics of that standoff and all the other mini-standoffs that are building up as we prepare to head off to the conventions in Denver and St. Paul, Minn..

Who knows? Maybe by this time next week, I'll know who my debaters are going to be!


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