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Interview With Bill Bennett

Aired September 11, 2002 - 16:41   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: You're looking at a live picture now of the president arriving on the West Side of Manhattan in Marine One. The normal roadways have been closed today in honor of all the commemorations here today.
From here, the president will take a very short ride over to Ground Zero, where he will later meet up with, we are told, hundreds of family members, some of whom were here earlier today for the commemoration, some who are coming for the first time.

The president has already, I think, expressed, in some of his earlier remarks at the Pentagon, just how deeply he feels about the murder of what he called the innocents and how they can't be explained and only endured.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: The president, as you can see, will speak to the country tonight. He'll make that talk. We don't expect it to be very long -- we'll get John King here and he can give us a little more detail in a minute -- will make that talk from Ellis Island.

For those of you who have not been to New York or have not been to Ellis Island, you are missing something. It is one of the great and important places in the country. Sitting out in New York Harbor, it is the place where so many immigrants passed through, their first look as they passed the Statue of Liberty.

They would land at Ellis Island. They would meet the immigration agents there. They would sign the book. And they would enter the country, the first step into becoming Americans.

It struck me today -- or last night, I guess -- when I heard the president was going to speak there that that's the perfect setting, all things considered, for a moment like this. But that is still some hours away -- the president now on the ground at a heliport just off the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan.

And there are many American flags flying down at Ground Zero. There was one raised this morning, I guess now -- lose track a little bit -- an enormous flag that was raised at Ground Zero during the ceremony.

ZAHN: The president, along with the first lady, will be walking down. You'll see a ramp into Ground Zero, once he eventually gets there to what is being called the Circle of Honor, which we'll show you in a little bit here. This is an area where family members came today and left flowers in honor of those they've lost, and personal mementos.

BROWN: We saw, just a moment ago, one of the American flags that was torn. There's the -- I was mentioning earlier this enormous flag that was raised, or unfurled, I guess, earlier today, flags -- there was that flag, of course, that made its way from Ground Zero to Afghanistan and now back again.

This one is torn. And I'm sure there's a story there. And I wish I knew it. I don't know if it is of some great meaning, beyond the obvious meaning, or if -- it's been dreadfully windy for part of the day. And that's the truth here in New York, which is why we're inside now -- the president and his chief of staff coming off the helicopter.

We're seeing Andrew Card coming off, a pool of photographers. To the left of your screen, I think you can see the president and the first lady just barely, and now out of range. So the president has come off. And they'll make this motorcade -- really, it is just a few blocks from the heliport there on the river.

Is that Mayor Giuliani? You got better eyes than I do, I think.

ZAHN: I can't make out who that is in the


BROWN: It might very well be, to the left, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his good friend, Judith Nathan, I believe, standing next to them, greeting the president as he comes into the city.

There are a number of rescue workers and people who were first- responders -- I think, in the language of the time -- the president will also talk with today, when he is down in that circle, Circle of Honor.

ZAHN: Once the president gets to that circle, he will be joined by Governor Pataki, Secretary of State Powell, who honored some of the victims earlier today, and the current mayor of New York City, Mayor Bloomberg.

BROWN: John King, our senior White House correspondent, is there in advance of the president.

John, I'm reasonably sure you can hear me. You might jump in here as well. These moments for a president of the United States, while not exactly unique among world leaders, a president of the United States is one of the few world leaders who in fact is the ceremonial head of state and the political head of state who does this sort of thing. And it's become part of the job, hasn't it?

JOHN KING, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It has become part of the job, Aaron.

This president, of course, speaking at the National Cathedral in the days after the bombings, visiting Ground Zero in the days after the attacks. He will come here today. And there was some debate within the White House, some discussion, anyway, about: Should he speak at every event today? The decision was made that the president would speak at the Pentagon and that the president would speak again to the nation tonight. And when he comes here, as he came a few hours ago, to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, that he would say nothing, that he would meet with family members and he would share some private thoughts with them.

And I'll tell this story one more time. This president, when he was here at Ground Zero last time, did meet with family members and was given the badge of a Port Authority policeman killed on that site you are seeing on your screen right now, 44 year old George Howard, a 16-year veteran of the Port Authority Police Department.

Mr. Bush has that badge in his pocket as he travels here to Ground Zero yet again today. He says he keeps it as a reminder of the price paid, not only by those killed, but by their families. And, as you heard the president at the Pentagon earlier today, he said he is determined those deaths shall not be in vain. And we will hear that again from the president, we are told, in his speech to the nation tonight.

But this is a moment for the president to reflect. They decided at the White House the most fitting way for the president to pay tribute to what happened -- the pain that took place in what you now see is a pit behind us here -- that the president should just come, pay quiet tribute by a wreath-laying ceremony, the first lady with him, and talk with family members, save his remarks for the American people until he is away from what everyone who has visited this site now considered to be quite hallowed ground.

BROWN: Well, they rarely -- in fact, they never ask my opinion. But had they, I would say they got that exactly right, that there's something extraordinarily powerful in the silence of it all to just simply see the president meeting with these families, to see the looks on their faces and his. That says more, indeed, than words would or could. And so I think they're pretty smart over there. They figured that part out.

KING: Well, Aaron, Paula said earlier...

ZAHN: John...

KING: I'm sorry.

What I was going to say is, Paula said earlier that this was the day President Bush became the president, if you will. His aides would dispute that. They say the man has not changed at all. But I think, certainly, it is a valid point to make that one year ago today was the day he became all of America's president.

We don't talk about it much anymore, but remember the circumstances of the disputed election. This was a president who in fact did not win the popular vote. His poll numbers were right around 50 percent when he won in the election, on September 10 of last year. It was on this day and his reaction to it in the hours, day, weeks, and now 12 months since that he became the president of all Americans and certainly a president whose agenda, his presidency was changed dramatically in those moments, a man who ran -- as most former governors who become presidents do -- on very much a domestic agenda, who, every day since, and even today, has been challenged on the world stage.

BROWN: John, thank you, senior White House correspondent John King. And he'll be joining us again shortly.

ZAHN: And we are going to touch base with Judy Woodruff now, who is standing by in Washington, for her perspective on what we might all be experiencing over the next couple of hours -- Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Somebody is here, Paula, to help me out with that perspective.

You know, one of the things the president did right after the attacks on 9/11 was talk about the people responsible as evildoers. He set up a debate about good vs. evil and raised the whole question of clarifying moral clarity in this country.

With me now is somebody I think probably who is as well qualified to talk about that as anybody I can think of: Bill Bennett, former secretary of education, co-chairman of Empower America.

Bill Bennett, moral clarity, what do we mean by that?

WILLIAM BENNETT, FORMER EDUCATION SECRETARY: I think what we mean in the first instance is that, on September 11, we saw the face of evil and we saw the face of good. We were touched by the hand of evil in a very hard and disastrous way. But then, immediately, we saw these acts of heroism and goodness.

And the reason it is important -- and I think important to the president and to many Americans -- is because, for 20 or 30 years, there was some doubt in sophisticated, or pseudosophisticated circles that such things as good and evil really existed. Right and wrong perhaps were regarded as too primitive and too simplistic terms.

But that day showed us that those were the right terms. And I think it is importance in the remembrance to keep those terms. A lot of the discussion I noticed lately is softening, trying to soften the memory. We're hearing: "Let's not talk about hatred. Let's not talk about rage. Let's not talk about evil." But we have to, because we have to act. And to act, we have to have resolution. And for resolution, we have to have clarify.

WOODRUFF: We're watching the president's motorcade on the way to Ground Zero to talk with family members.

Bill Bennett, it is not just, as you put it, pseudo-sophisticates who have raised this. We just heard Sandy Dahl, who was the widow of someone who died on Flight 93, saying -- and I'm going to go back and quote what she said -- she said: "Life is short. If our time is spent hating, we can't go on to do good."

What do you say to her?

BENNETT: Well, obviously, what one says to a widow is the most tremendous of sympathies and understanding and compassion.

At the same time -- and, of course, hate consumes. If that's all you've got, it will consume. But a fair resolve and recognition of not just the tragedy that occurred, but the slaughter that occurred -- sometimes the language that's being used is the language of tragedy. Tragedy can be a hurricane as well. This was a slaughter. This was a massacre.

If people don't want to use the term hatred, fine. Use the word resolve about our enemies and a determination to act against them. But if we give up the moral categories, I think we will give up our resolution and I think our actions will lose the name of resolution.

WOODRUFF: It seems to me, at the same time, that there's been remarkable unanimity in this country, certainly that -- against al Qaeda, to go after the al Qaeda organization in Afghanistan. Now there clearly is some disagreement, not only Republican and Democrat, but even among Republicans, about the next step to be taken. And that is Iraq.

BENNETT: There is certainly disagreement about it. And, again, it will be framed, in no small part, in moral terms. If you notice the Europeans' criticism -- with the exception of Tony Blair -- and this is a remarkable thing, isn't it, geopolitically? Blair is standing very strong with us, indeed often giving the language to the Americans for their own resolution.

But for many Europeans, it's this old problem, in their mind. We have this moral squint. We tend to see the world on these moral terms, which bothers them. They regard it as a bit too old-fashioned and unsophisticated.

But that is how we see the world and have seen the world in many important occasions. And it's a good thing. And it's been a good thing for Europe that we have seen it as well.

WOODRUFF: At yet, at this point, just for the sake of this discussion, right now President Bush has on his side clearly Israel and Great Britain, but no other countries have lined up yet. Now, the process is just beginning of seeking their support.

But, at some point, the question is, how does one know that what is seen as good and right by the United States is good and right for everyone else in the world?

BENNETT: We have to see it by our own lights. We also have to recognize, Judy, obviously, we were attacked and they were not attacked. And there's a big difference there. Second, once we act, I think others will follow.

But, third, there's another very distinctive American value, quite apart from the moral squint. There's this notion of individualism. It's interesting, isn't it, to hear criticism of us going it alone? Going it alone is a great American virtue. It's not a virtue in every society. Look at our heroes, from Will Kane in "High Noon," to -- what's his name? -- John McClane in the "Die Hard" movies. Go it alone. The guy is standing up.

Everybody says, "No, it is not necessary. We don't have to fight back. It is not our fight." So this is a great American tradition. Rhetorically, if you want to get Americans on your side don't say, "Don't go it alone." We're used to doing it alone.

And, of course, at the end of the day, geopolitically, militarily and every other way, this is the country that matters. The support of a lot of other countries, frankly, doesn't matter. If you want to change something in the world, you need the United States.

WOODRUFF: The thoughts of Bill Bennett, former education secretary under President Reagan. Good to see you.

BENNETT: Thank you, Judy.


ZAHN: Thank you, Bill. Thank you, Judy.




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