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UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM: What Determines How Voters Respond to Political Controversies?

Aired November 3, 2000 - 8:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

JEFF GREENFIELD, HOST: A question for you, dear viewer, as well as for our guests: Are you principled political thinkers, or craven slaves to personal preference? We may even make you sweat a bit, but we'll find out.

ANNOUNCER: UNCONVENTIONAL WISDOM, with CNN's senior analyst Jeff Greenfield. Tonight's guests: Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks; Elizabeth Shogren, "L.A. Times" correspondent; and "Good Morning America" film critic Joel Siegel. Now here's Jeff Greenfield in New York.

GREENFIELD: So let's say you were looking for this broadcast last night, and instead tuned into the news about Governor Bush's past.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KAREN HUGHES, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, BUSH CAMPAIGN: Governor Bush has always acknowledged that he made mistakes in the past.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: Well, how did you feel when you saw the governor's top press aide in the middle of the media scrum? How did you feel when the governor was put on the grill? Well, if you were a Bush supporter who felt angry at what was happening last night, did you feel that way back when then-Governor Clinton was being grilled in '92 about Gennifer Flowers or the draft? Or if you're a Gore supporter, did you cheer at Bush's dilemma while eight years ago you were furious at the media's raking up of old news?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. WILLIAM J. CLINTON (D-AR), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Not a good night.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Professor, do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

ANITA HILL: I do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: And what about other examples? Did you argue that Anita Hill had to be believed about Clarence Thomas while shunning Paula Jones as "trailer-park trash"?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAULA JONES: Keep you hands off, please. Please show some decency.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GREENFIELD: Or did you assume Ms. Hill was lying while Ms. Jones had to be believed? And maybe, just maybe, were your opinions based on what you thought -- not about the facts -- but about the politics and policies of Clarence Thomas or Bill Clinton?

You can put yourself to the same test when it comes to this possibility that next Tuesday, the popular vote winner might lose the electoral college count and thus the White House. You can make a legitimate case that these are the rules of the game, that the founding fathers knew what they were doing, and that the electoral vote is what matter.

Or you could argue that times have changed, that we're a much more Democratic country now. That the people would not stand for a loser serving as president, and so the candidates should agree no to have enough of their electors switch to make the top vote-getter president.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GREENFIELD: Now here is the question: Would your opinion be different depending on whether your candidate would win or lose the White House? Are you making a principled choice or will you say, "whatever helps my guy is what I'm for."

Michael Kramer of "The Daily News" told us the other day that the Bush campaign might mount an effort to demand a change in the rules if their man gets the most popular votes, but loses in the electoral college. The Gore campaign seems to be saying the founding fathers knew what they were doing. But if Gore were to win the popular vote and lose the electoral votes, do you think the campaigns might suddenly shift position? Can we afford, from either side, a challenge to the legitimacy of the vote?

We're going to talk about consistency in politics, and about the never-ending question of what should count when judging a president with Mark Cuban, the founder of broadcast.com. He is now owner of the NBA Dallas Mavericks, with "Los Angeles Times" Washington correspondent Elizabeth Shogren, who is in our D.C. bureau, and with Joel Siegel, film critic for ABC's "Good Morning, America." and we will start it up now.

Mark Cuban, you have made no secret of the life you have led on your way to becoming a dot.com billionaire and team owner. You invite reporters to follow on what I think you could somewhat raucous adventures. We know about you ownership of a bar while in college, the wet tee-shirt contests that forced you to close down.

My question is, could you imagine yourself ever running for office with a press every time they discovered something about your life would descend on you like a plague of locusts?

MARK CUBAN, OWNER, DALLAS MAVERICKS: I couldn't. I mean, there's no chance I could run for the presidency. I mean, there are so many skeletons in my closet that the press would spend more time writing about all of the things I've done when I was a kid and never get a chance to focus on the issues and that's a real shame.

You know, it's unfortunate. If you look what's happening with George Bush, to me, at least in the dot.com world you look at people's mistakes and you assume or you hope that they've learn from them. If all we're going to do is focus on unbearing things, then we'll never move forward. So I can never run for an office.

GREENFIELD: Let me suggest, and I'm not looking for you to finance your own campaign, which you certainly could, but there might be another way to look at it. That if you reveal everything in advance, the way, say, John McCain told people about the way his first marriage broke up, you inoculate yourself. There's no way people can expose you. You've done that already in terms of saying here I am. Why do you think you couldn't do?

CUBAN: Well, because I think people set prejudices based off of certain elements. You know, Bill Clinton never inhaled. You know, George Bush had to stop drinking. Everything has to be taken to such an extreme, it's become a political game of maneuvering. I mean, I look at today's -- this week's election and to me it's like an episode of "Survivor." Everybody just maneuvers and maneuvers to see who's going to be left standing as opposed to looking to see what's the best way to run the company or the country.

GREENFIELD: Now Joel, it occurs to me that there was a time in Hollywood's past when studios spent a fortune covering everything up on the fear that the audiences would shun. Well, today...

JOEL SIEGEL, FILM CRITIC, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Absolutely. That's right. They learned that they were wrong. Not only did they spend a fortune, there's a great story and there's back up to make you believe that it was true that Clark Gable actually murdered someone and MGM sent someone else to jail for two years to cop the plea. And I -- yes, Hollywood had that had power and suddenly they learned is there nothing that a human being can do as long he apologizes for it? And the answer is that's correct.

GREENFIELD: And what do you think about how that would play in politics? SIEGEL: I don't think it would play in politics. And I think it's our fault. This whole thing reminds me of one of my favorite jokes. Mrs. Goldstein goes to buy a chicken. And is the chicken fresh, she asks the butcher. He says yes. Let me see, and she sniffs under the wing and she sniffs under the other wing and she sniffs between the legs and she says not, this chicken is rotten. And the butcher say, lady, you could pass this test.

GREENFIELD: Exactly,

SIEGEL: and we're putting politicians, forcing them to pass tests that no one can pass. And what we get are people who either lie about their past or their pasts are so clean that we wouldn't want them to be president of the United States.

GREENFIELD: Elizabeth Shogren, though, it seems to me that compared to the way we judged politicians a generation ago, there's a lot more that politicians can fess up to having done and get away with. I mean, there was a time when a divorced man probably couldn't ever run for office. Now that's kind of by the boards.

Do you think if a politician says, here's what I did when I was young, that that pretty much, assuming that it isn't, you know, felonious or criminal, really, outrightly criminal, that that's enough. That the viewers or voters will say fine, we accept that?

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": You know, I think I have to be a bit contrarian here and disagree a bit with the other folks here because I think that in fact, George Bush and his presidential campaign has shown how much the American people and the press are ready to give the candidates a lot of space.

With Bush this time, he told us and we knew that he had had lot of indiscretions as a younger person, but you didn't see the press out there hunting to show exactly what those indiscretions were and you didn't see the American people demanding to know what were your indiscretions, candidate Bush. Instead he said, I have a bunch of them and I've changed and that story stood through basically the whole campaign.

That this one thing came out, something where in fact he did break a law, which makes sense that it two come out at this -- if anybody knew about it. This one thing came out, I think doesn't disprove the other point that I was making which is that Bush has been able not to have the kind of scrutiny that people always complain about presidential candidates an other candidates having to undergo.

The same thing with Gore. We haven't seen a lot of details from his background that were somehow showed bad things about his character from mistakes of his childhood, come out into the press or to have a great deal of prominence in this the campaign.

CUBAN: Elizabeth, I would disagree with you completely. I'll tell you, we're in the middle of a time that I would call media sport. And if we haven't seen things come out, it's because people have not found them yet. I mean, there's very few reporters who aren't trying to climb the ladder, who wouldn't try to take advantage of what they found.

And that part of the sport means, you know, that for something to be uncovered, if they find it, they're going pull it out. And I think as long as there's media sport, it's going to be very, very difficult for the barn not to continue to be raised.

GREENFIELD: But let me...

CUBAN: If divorce isn't the thing that gets people's attention, then you go drugs, And if drugs no longer get people's attention, then you go to the next level and the bar will continue to be raised because in media sport, the people, the reporters have to continue to find something bigger and better to get people's attention.

GREENFIELD: Well, let me just try something else. I'm not really trying to launch this campaign of yours, Mark, but it seems a guy like Jesse Ventura may prove Elizabeth's point a little bit. That is, here's a guy who by any measure, you know, of conventional politics led a rather unusual past, and indeed an unusual present. And it's almost as if you say to the voters, I'm not the guy in this kind of outfit, I'm my own person, here's what I did in the past, here -- yes, I tried drugs when I was a kid, and you know, I wandered some fairly strange pathways, but here's who I am now, that it's almost like if you fess up the voters are going to say, OK, we'll judge you on another basis.

CUBAN: Yes, I would tell you that's more of "I'm going to bring my own voters to the party" as opposed to let's go to the traditional voters and play the traditional game.

GREENFIELD: Right.

CUBAN: I think he brought a whole new realm of people who really hadn't looked or focused on politics before, and maybe had not even voted, and he used to that to his advantage.

And you know, we have such a poor turnout in so many state elections that if you can bring enough of a vote with you, you can overcome the past.

GREENFIELD: And to -- go ahead.

SIEGEL: And there's also a question of what is this campaign about. This morning, the two New York tabloids, the same headline again, "George DWI." And not only is he off issue, but Gore is off issue. And I don't care if this guy was arrested for drunk driving 24 years ago. I really want to know about Social Security. I want to know about the Supreme Court. I want to know about, you know, Gore's positions on universal child care. I really want to know about the issues, and the media is not telling us about those things.

GREENFIELD: Interesting that "The New York Post" and "Daily News" screamed this across page one. "The New York Times" put it on the inside below the fold on page A24.

(LAUGHTER) And on that intriguing note about journalism, we're going to take a break, but our panel will be back in a moment. So please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREENFIELD: And welcome back to our unconventional look at election 2000. I'm talking with film critic Joel Siegel of ABC's "Good Morning America" here in New York. With us also, "Los Angeles Times" Washington correspondent Elizabeth Shogren from Washington. And with Dallas Mavericks owner and former Broadcast.com creator, founder Mark Cuban, who, by the way, speaking of revealing yourself, is in the latest issue of "People" magazine, along with his Gulfstream V jet. It's featured on "Boy Toys." Mark Cuban was the first person ever to buy a Gulfstream V on the net, which is a little different than having a pizza delivered.

But Mark, I want to turn this conversation a little bit, and then we're going to get back to a quiz on just how principled all of you folks are.

You are kind of emblematic, in a way, of somebody who created an enormously successful business out of nothing -- if it wasn't in your garage, it was in your spare bedroom, if I remember the story -- and built it into a $5 1/2 billion company.

This is what I want to ask you: In this effort, was the government a help, a hindrance or irrelevant?

CUBAN: When we started it was irrelevant, but as time has gone by with the Net, it's become a significant hindrance.

GREENFIELD: How so?

CUBAN: Well, if you look, there's so much political maneuvering now around the Net. Should there be taxes on the Net? If you look in the digital media, you see all the record labels trying to control the Internet as opposed to -- and lobbying with the government, getting copyright rules changed specifically because of the Net.

And I think we're going to potentially see an exodus of some digital media companies to countries outside the U.S., particularly Canada and Mexico, because of the easy Internet access from there to the U.S. market.

So I think it's starting to become a hindrance. It hasn't really put a black mark on us yet, but it has the potential to.

GREENFIELD: One more follow-up, in terms -- one of the claims of the Clinton administration has been that because they drove the deficit down, it lowered interest rates and made credit more available to emerging companies. Anything to that?

CUBAN: Yes, but the majority of emerging companies don't start companies based around debt. You know, it's hard -- you've got to have something to borrow against before you can borrow money. So I think it's more because the Internet was so new, it was before the government could regulate much around it, and that's really what created a big part of the boom.

And to be honest, my initial bias in who I'll choose to vote for is the candidate that will stay out of the way. You know, we can talk about universal health care, we can talk about Social Security. But the reality is the government, the country, the economy has grown so big that nobody can implement a program that can take hold within four years.

You couldn't do it in a major corporation, let alone the United States of America.

GREENFIELD: Elizabeth, it strikes me that what Mark is saying may be one of Gore's biggest problems in the sense that for a fair number of people the prosperity of the last eight years, they don't credit to the government in any way. What do you think?

SHOGREN: I think that there are a lot of people who say that the economy takes care of itself and it's not really the president who's making the decisions that have an effect on the economy. I think, however, that Clinton gets really high marks for what he's done with the American government and with the economy. And so it doesn't quite track.

Somehow the credit that Clinton gets doesn't get passed onto Gore. Somehow the connection is not being made very directly. And maybe it's because Gore isn't making the connection as strongly as he might be because he's so nervous about being connected with Clinton too closely.

CUBAN: Elizabeth, I can tell you as a business person what I love most about President Clinton is that he did nothing. When all the problems came down, it really eviscerated him so he really couldn't do a lot. And to me, just letting him and Alan Greenspan go -- keep Clinton out of the way and letting Alan Greenspan go to work and run the economy, that's what led to a big part of the success of the economy.

SHOGREN: What about balancing the budget? That's nothing. He did it with Congress, obviously, not on his own.

CUBAN: Oh, no, please. He did not balance the budget. The economy grew, and that's what balanced the budget and created the surplus. It's the fact that he didn't do anything that allowed the economy to grow and in turn balanced the budget.

GREENFIELD: Before we run out of time, I want to turn to my fellow New Yorker, Joel Siegel, and reward his kindness for being here by challenging him on what I started out with.

SIEGEL: OK.

GREENFIELD: So as a general rule, I don't really want to know who you're for or against because we do that on other programs. But when you look at a situation like Governor Bush being surrounded by this media scrum or Bill Clinton being caught up in a scandal, is your first reaction, it happened to a guy I like or dislike, therefore, I like it or don't like it, or do you think you bring more noble principles to the subject?

SIEGEL: I'm confident, I'm positive I bring far more noble principles to the subject. Absolutely, there's no question in my mind.

GREENFIELD: All right. So let me ask you the one that might be on the table. Electoral vote or popular vote? What do you want to see happen?

SIEGEL: I want to see the electoral vote. It ain't broke, don't fix it. Please, we have a history of every time we try to fix something in the Constitution, we make it worse. Don't make it worse. Just leave it -- leave it the way it is.

We had 1877. It was a bad thing. But following George W.'s advice, there's something in the system to fix it. In 1877, the system was busted.

GREENFIELD: Finally, Joel Siegel has come out against the right of women to vote, which was a constitutionally amendment.

(LAUGHTER)

Be interesting to see how he works when he goes home.

Mark, what about you? I mean, and I must say I do think of you in this situation, because you have inoculated yourself so brilliantly against anybody messing with your private life by saying, this is who I am, and frankly, it's none of your business, you either like it or not. But when you look at these politicians, do you have a kind general wave of sympathy when they get caught up in something like this or does your judgment depend on whether you like the guy or not in the first place?

CUBAN: No, because I still haven't chosen my candidate. I try to stick to the principles, but I do feel sorry for him in a sense, because, you know, like I said, there's a media sport going on and people are just throwing bombs at him. So as individuals, I feel bad for them, but they knew the rules going in. Whether the rules of how intense the media scrutiny would be are or whether the rules of the electoral college, what they are, and how that applies to their campaigning, so, you know, I have a level of sympathy for them. But you know, the rules is the rules, and they knew them coming in.

GREENFIELD: Elizabeth, my question to you is a little different, because it concerns your reaction -- I assume you saw the tape last night of Karen Hughes on the tarmac being surround by what looked like, you know, starving people ready to eat anything, including human flesh. When you watch the media in full pursuit, do you ever want to sort of change the definition of your occupation? Does it make you cringe as a fellow journalist, or do you just say, look, that's part of the job and that's the way we find stuff out? SHOGREN: Well, I have the ominous opportunity to cover the White House during the midst of all this scandal around Monica Lewinsky, and so I was right in the middle of all that most difficult time for the press corps. And I have to say that it depends on what you're following and what the -- it's not pleasant for me to have follow very intensely or very aggressively the kinds of details like that.

But I know that there is some role for the media to tell -- to bring out the truth, and particularly when it deals with whether or not a candidacy is going to float or sink, or whether or not a presidency is going to continue. We have to track down those things, and we have to do it aggressively. That is part of the job.

It's not the part of the job that I like the most, but it is an important part of the job.

So do I cringe? Yes, but do I shrink from it? I don't think so.

GREENFIELD: Just very quickly, Joel. Does it make...

SIEGEL: The problem is we're too aggressive, we're overaggressive. The candidacy of an individual shouldn't sink or swim on something that happened 24 years ago. It should sink or swim on what he is saying today, what he is doing today. And...

SHOGREN: But it's not going to sink or swim on that. The American people are smart enough...

SIEGEL: But you just said it was going to sink or swim. I'm quoting you.

SHOGREN: I'm not saying this particular instance is, but what I'm saying is that you have to follow these things. The American people are smart enough to figure out what they want to have done as a result of the knowledge that they learn.

GREENFIELD: And I'm smart enough to figure in simple arithmetic -- actually, I almost flunked math, but people are telling me this -- that we're out of time for this segment of the program. I regret it, but it's the facts of the matter.

So I want to thank my guests in Dallas, the Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

CUBAN: Thank you, Jeff.

GREENFIELD: Good look on -- good luck in the season.

CUBAN: Thanks.

GREENFIELD: Not too much, because I'm a New Yorker.

"L.A. Times" reporter Elizabeth Shogren in Washington, and film critic Joel Siegel. And in just a minute, a very good reason for some of you to stay home next Tuesday.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GREENFIELD: Finally, I renew tonight a plea I have been making on the air and in print at least since 1988. It is a heartfelt plea to those of you who have still not decided whether or not to vote, those of you being besieged by phone calls and public service ads to use your franchise. I ask you once again: Don't.

If you have not figured out after all this time why it matters, then you will be voting out of ignorance. Your votes will taint the votes of those people who truly believe that one of the candidates is better than the others on issues or character. You'll also be tainting the votes of those who have genuinely wrestled with their choice.

You will be making a mockery of the franchise. In fact, by staying home, you'll actually be giving voice to what you really believe: that it just doesn't make all that much difference.

So please, leave the vote to the folks who understand how genuinely important it is. If you haven't gotten it by now, then you just don't get it.

But for those who do get it, CNN will be following the campaigns all weekend. And we are gearing up for one heck of an all-nighter on Tuesday, or however long it may take to decide who all the winners are.

I'll be back Monday night 10:00 Eastern Time for a one-hour unconventional preview, and again Wednesday night at 10 o'clock Eastern for an unconventional look at what happened and why.

From New York, I am Jeff Greenfield. CNN's countdown to the election continues next with "LARRY KING LIVE."

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