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THE SITUATION ROOM

Karl Rove Talks About WMD, Valerie Plame, and Reveals His Biggest Mistake While in the White House; Does U.S. Need More Politicians?; Duncan: "America's Most Pressing Issue"; Reese Witherspoon on Women's Issues

Aired March 13, 2010 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Karl Rove relives some of the worst mistakes and biggest controversies of the Bush administration. Stand by for my in-depth interview with the former presidential adviser. I'll press him on a wide range of hot-button issues, including the WMD error in Iraq and whether he personally dropped the ball.

Plus, the U.S. mission in Iraq after a critical election. Are American troops on track to withdraw as planned? I'll ask the top U.S. military commander on the ground, General Ray Odierno.

And the actress Reese Witherspoon tells me about her role as an advocate for women and her talks with some of the most powerful women here in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

At a time when president Obama is struggling to pass health care reform and survive the glare of the White House bubble, there may be some valuable lessons to learn from the Bush era. Few people know as much about the ups and downs of the last administration or about politics for that matter than President Bush's long-time adviser.

And joining us now, Karl Rove; he's the author of a brand new book, entitled, "Courage and Consequence: My Life As A Conservative In The Fight".

Karl, thanks for joining us.

KARL ROVE, FMR. ADVISOR TO PRES. G. W. BUSH: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: It's a very long book you've written, about 600 pages, 40 pages of footnotes, alone, a long index. I went through it.

Let's talk about some of the controversial issues that you discuss in the book beginning with the war in Iraq. You acknowledge there was an intelligence blunder. You say the president of the United States got bad intelligence and then you write, "So then, did Bush lie us into war?" And you say, "Absolutely not." Who do you blame for that intelligence blunder?

ROVE: Well, I'm not certain -- I don't know if I used the word blunder. I think that may be your word. But I understand we now know in retrospect by Western intelligence agencies all across the board thought he had WMD. He wanted us to think he did. If felt that the presence-that if we thought he had WMD, it made him strong in the neighborhood, it kept him in power because his own people knew he had used it on them. And they thought it was a deterrent to the West.

We know because of Charles Duelfer and David Kay and their reports, that he remained intent upon acquiring these weapons. He thought the sanctions program at the United Nations would erode away, and he was keeping together the dual use facilities and the engineers, scientists, and technicians to reconstitute these programs quickly, once the West lost interest in them. As he felt they were, and would.

BLITZER: But the president makes no more important decision than to send young men and women off to war. You make the point in the book that without the case for WMD, weapons of mass destruction, he wouldn't have been able to get approval to go to war. The question remains, somebody said to the president, there are stockpiles of biological and chemical weapons in Iraq. Was that George Tenet, of the CIA, the Vice President Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, the secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld? Who told the president that this is a done deal?

ROVE: These were the intelligence professionals who laid out their evidence not only to President Bush and his national security apparatus, but also the leaders of Congress. Because as you recall, Wolf, 110 Democrats vote for the authorization of the Use of Force Resolution; 67 of them stand up on the floor of the House and Senate, including John Kerry, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller, a ranking member on the committee. And they say, he has WMD--

BLITZER: I understand all that but who's to blame - is Tenet, was he the CIA director, was he to blame for the bad intelligence?

ROVE: Look, the intelligence agencies both here and abroad believed he had WMD. You may want to pick out one guy and sort of go hang him, Wolf. But what I'm interested in is that intelligence gets it wrong. They got it wrong in Iraq, one way. They also, as you recall, got it wrong on Libya the other way. That is to say, they underestimated how dangerous Libya's programs were, both chemical, biological-and nuclear. When he gave them up between in the interim between the fall of the Taliban and the beginning of the Iraq war, we found out that Western intelligence underestimated the dangerousness of his programs.

BLITZER: But you had the highest security clearances. Did you just accept that intelligence at face value, or did you personally go back and look at the intelligence to make sure it was right?

ROVE: Look, throughout the administration, key policymakers questioned this all the time. I talk in the book, for example, how Colin Powell, a skeptic, went out to the CI and parked himself for days, in which he brought the analysts, and the experts in and questioned them closely. And even an acerbic critic of the war, Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, admitted these visits were determinative and conclusive in Powell's mind. That happened throughout the government, Democratic and Republican.

BLITZER: And it is fair to say-you personally had no doubt. I guess, with hindsight, do you wish you had paid more close attention to the raw intelligence itself?

ROVE: The raw intelligence was carefully reviewed by Democrats and Republicans who came to the same conclusion.

BLITZER: But what about-

ROVE: Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, and others that this was- that he had WMD. We had to act on what we knew at the time. It's nice in retrospect to say, oh, well, somebody should have known. But everybody did examine this carefully. I was with Howard Dean last Saturday who said Bush lied about it. And when I said, Well, you know, Howard, if Bush lied about it, then what about all these Democrats who arrived at the same conclusion? And he dismissed it by saying all those Democrats simply accepted Bush's word at it.

I disagree. I know how carefully people on both sides of the aisle examined this information and examined these conclusions, because this was a question of war or peace. This was a question of whether our country was going to go to war and send our military, our brave men and women, into combat. This is not a decision that anyone in our government, Democrat or Republican, takes lightly.

BLITZER: I know. I asked the question only because more than 4,000 young American men and women have died so far in the war in Iraq. A $1 trillion, at least, has been spent. As you look back on your personal-

ROVE: I think you are conflating Iraq and Afghanistan, but I accept your point.

BLITZER: No, we looked, in Iraq, 4,373 as of today, men and women who've died.

ROVE: I think that includes combat and noncombat injuries.

BLITZER: It includes, yes, that this the number of U.S. military personnel and about a dozen civilian, DOD personnel have died in the war in Iraq. And as we all know, this is the most important decision a president can make. The only thing I'm asking-Do you wish, you personally, as the deputy White House chief of staff had gone and reviewed the intelligence more closely?

ROVE: Wolf, it was carefully examined from top to bottom.

BLITZER: I know that others did. I was wondering if you did.

(CROSS TALK)

ROVE: The right decision was made, Wolf, and the world is a better place for Saddam Hussein being gone from power and for the emergence of a democracy in the heart of the Middle East. It will be a powerful force for good and for America's security interests in the years to come.

BLITZER: Here's what you write in "Courage and Consequence": "The failure to find stockpiles of WMD did great damage to the administration's credibility. Our weak response and defense of the president, and in setting the record straight is, I believe, one of the biggest mistakes of the Bush years."

Explain exactly why you think the failure to respond to the criticism was such a big mistake?

ROVE: Because on July 15th, 2003, in a speech, Senator Ted Kennedy, who had previously said that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, said Bush lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Later that day, Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader at a pen & pad press conference reiterated the charge. The next day, John Edwards made the charge in a committee hearing, and John Kerry made the charge in a speech, and later that day, Congresswoman Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, joined in the criticism.

You don't have five senior Democrats like that begin to launch a crusade against President Bush on a question of having lied about WMD unless there was a conscious decision at the highest level of the Democratic Party to make this speculation.

BLITZER: Why didn't you respond more aggressively?

ROVE: Well, as I explain in the book. It was a mistake, for which I am principally responsible. Because I should have raised the warning flag. This was discussed, but some people said, you know what? If you wrestle with a pig, you're going to get muddy. Don't go down that-don't re-litigate the past. Some people were simply worn out and wanted to move on.

But we should have, we should have, in retrospect treated this with great seriousness and stood up and said, with all due respect, Senator Kennedy, Senator Edwards, Senator Kerry, Congresswoman Harman, Senator Daschle, you said, yourselves, that Saddam Hussein had WMD. If President Bush lied about it, then what did you do? Did you lie, or were you derelict in your duties and not look at the intelligence and arrive at your own independent conclusions?

This was, as I repeat, 67 Democrats who stood up on the floor of the House or Senate during that debate and voted for it and said, Saddam had WMD. Even opponents, Barbara Boxer and Ted Kennedy, said Saddam had WMD.

BLITZER: All right.

ROVE: Al Gore gave a speech at the Commonwealth Club, in September of 2002, and said WMD. You can't make the argument about Bush and isolate these other Democrats who mirrored and echoed his comments.

BLITZER: Was that your biggest mistake? ROVE: I think over the course of the eight years that was the biggest mistake, not to respond to that, because it was corrosive. It ate away at people's credibility, confidence in the president's credibility, and it affected a lot of other things besides simply the conduct of the war.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Stand by for more of my extensive interview with the former Bush Senior Advisor Karl Rove. He's refusing to get drawn into a fight with a former colleague in the Bush White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROVE: Comparing me to some Japanese soldier stuck in a jungle on some Southeast Pacific Island is just a little strange. So, I'll let his words stand for themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Also ahead, will President Obama be able to stick to his exit strategy in Iraq? The top U.S. military commander tells us where the withdrawal plan stands right now.

And she's an A-list actress and she's wearing a $5 ring. She'll explain how it figures into her work to empower women.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now back to any in-depth interview with long-time Bush senior adviser, Karl Rove.

After eight tough years in the White House, there are still some hard feelings amongst some former members of the Bush administration and a number of unanswered questions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: You write at length in the book also about the Valerie Plame/Joe Wilson releasing -- identifying her as a covert CIA operative and your role in all of that. You were eventually cleared by the special prosecutor. Earlier in the week, you told Matt Lauer that you don't have -- you have nothing to apologize to Scott McClellan, who was then the White House press secretary. He then came back last night and he said this. Listen to who Scott McClellan said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SCOTT MCCLELLAN, FMR. WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The interesting thing is that Karl Rove actually did apologize to me on three occasions back in July of 2005. Karl personally called me on the phone and said, I apologize for what you're going through. The next day in a senior staff meeting, he apologized to me in front of the entire senior staff. And then later that day, I came back to my office after the press briefing and found a handwritten letter, in my chair written, by Karl Rove apologizing yet again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is that true?

ROVE: Yeah, look I said, I'm sorry you're having to go through all of this. Because he was right in the front taking blows left and right. But again, Scott McClellan correctly informed the press. I did not give Valerie Plame's name to Robert Novak. I didn't even know her name. Robert Novak talked-talked to Richard Armitage, the undersecretary of State, who told him about Valerie Plame. My conversation with Robert Novak involved Novak telling me about his contact with some unnamed party who told him this. When he told me Valerie Wilson-or Valerie Plame, said her-works at the CIA and sent her husband to Niger, I said, I've heard that, too. If he had said to me, can you confirm that? I would have had to say, no, I can't confirm that.

But that was my participation. I thought it was interesting that when everybody thought I leaked Valerie Plame's name to Bob Novak, people camped out in front of my doorstep. Some of your CNN colleagues were frequent visitors in front of my house. But when in August of 2006, America found out that it was Richard Armitage who had leaked the name to Robert Novak, what we got was an exculpatory editorial from "The Washington Post," and the media didn't camp out on his doorstep. There were no drumbeats for sending him off to prison. This thing went away.

But as long as they thought it was me, there was an interest. And I very early on got every signal from the FBI and then the prosecutor that I was not in jeopardy because of anything I might have said to Robert Novak about Valerie Plame. They were interested in side issues, which I described in the book, which was really extraordinary. When they finally laid them out on the table and my attorney, Bob Luskin (ph) of Pat & Boggs, told them what was behind that, Fitzgerald's comment to them was, you've rocked my world. It was very odd.

BLITZER: I guess the question is, were you totally upfront with Scott McClellan-

ROVE: Sure, absolutely.

BLITZER: -in describing the nature of the conversation with Bob Novak?

ROVE: I said, I did not leak her name. I didn't know her name. I had a conversation with Novak. Look, I'm sorry he went through what he went through. But I told the chief of staff and the White House counsel, the president called me about it. I told the FBI when I first met with them, every detail about my conversation with Robert Novak.

And it was clear, for two years they said, simply you're not a target, we simply want -- you're a witness. And it was only after two years when they developed a convoluted theory that had nothing whatsoever to do with Valerie Plame or Joe Wilson that I got into jeopardy. That was over a very odd issue involving a member of the press.

BLITZER: This is how Scott McClellan summed up you in that interview he did with MSNBC. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCCLELLAN: Karl Rove is someone who's always had this mentality that politics is war. He believes in winning at all costs. And that means embracing political spin and political manipulation to achieve what your goals are. It's kind of like the Japanese soldier, long after World War II is over that is refusing to accept or believe that World War II has ended. How do you reason with someone like that?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Do you want to respond to Scot McClellan?

ROVE: No, I don't really don't. I mean, comparing me to some Japanese soldier stuck in a jungle on some Southeast Pacific island is just a little strange. So I'll let his words stand for themselves.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Despite bloody violence, American officials are pleased with the way Iraq's elections went. Does that mean U.S. troops can stick to their withdrawal plan? I'll ask the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General Ray Odierno.

And what's the problem with the nation's schools and how do we fix those schools? The Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and the former Reagan Education Secretary Bill Bennett, they're here in THE SITUATION ROOM together.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Vote counting will continue for sometime after Iraq's parliamentary election. It's far too soon to know who will form the next government. Violence is tied to the vote. Bombers killed more than three dozen people on election day alone. But U.S. officials say that on the whole, things went very well, and U.S. troops continue their preparations for withdrawal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Joining us now from Baghdad, U.S. Army General Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.

General Odierno, thanks very much for joining us. Are you ready to declare the elections in Iraq a success?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO, CMDR., U.S. FORCES, IRAQ: Wolf, I think I am, for a couple of reasons. One is the fact that the Iraqi people turned out in large numbers, young and old, all over the country, all ethno-sectarian groups participated. Violence was relatively low. There were two significant incidents. But besides that, I believe violence was low and the Iraqi security forces did a very good job of protecting the people for the election.

BLITZER: Do you believe the winners and the losers will now cooperate in the next step?

ODIERNO: I think they all realize that no one will have an outright majority. So they know they're going to have to form a coalition government. For that reason, they know they're going to have to work together in some manner. So I think they will work through this and they will decide how they're going to work together. And they will move together forward to form a government.

BLITZER: Does the U.S. military care who is the leader of that next government, who the next prime minister is?

ODIERNO: We don't. We want the Iraqi people to choose and we want the individuals that the Iraqi people choose as part of the council of representatives to decide. We will not get involved -- being involved in selecting the next prime minister.

BLITZER: How worried are you that it could take a long time, though, to form the next government? The last elections resulted in weeks and months of delay. That could be an issue this time around.

ODIERNO: Well, of course, we are concerned about that. But we have plans in place. We've worked very carefully with the government of Iraq over the last several months. We've established committees with the government of Iraq to ensure that they sustain security during the caretaker government period, as they form the new government. And I feel that we have a good plan in place.

I remind everyone that Iraq is a much different country in 2010 than it was in 2006. The Iraqi security forces are much more mature and the political system is more mature.

BLITZER: Does that mean that the U.S. forces, the military forces, which you command, will be able to withdraw on schedule? Just to remind our viewers, by the end of this August, 50,000 combat troops are supposed to be out, and then by the end of next year, 2011, the remaining 50,000 are supposed to be out. Is all that on schedule?

ODIERNO: I feel confident that it is. This is an evolutionary process and we've been slowly turning over more and more responsibility to the Iraqi security forces. I believe today that by August, we'll be able to be down to 50,000 people. And I believe by the end of 2011, we will leave Iraq.

BLITZER: All U.S. forces basically, except for some trainers, will be out of Iraq?

ODIERNO: Well, I think there's a chance that we'll have some sort of a security assistance mission at the end of 2011. But that will also be up to the government of Iraq. I figure there's a high probability that could happen.

BLITZER: Peter Beinert wrote this on the web site, The Daily Beast. He says that, "The problem is that this timetable may be a virtual death sentence for Iraqi democracy. Although security has dramatically improved, Iraq's leaders have resolved barely any of the conflicts that nearly tore the country apart a few years back."

Do you agree with that assessment?

ODIERNO: Well, I think it's a little harsh. I think the Iraqi politicians have solved some of the problems. They have definitely not solved all of their problems. Reconciliation between groups takes a long period of time. And I think this election is another step towards reconciliation. And as they form this government, and they realize that all groups have to be included in the government, that will cause reconciliation among all the different political groups.

So I believe we're on the right track. I believe we have a real opportunity here and we'll continue to watch it very carefully. We'll continue to do our assessments, and we'll continue to make good, sound decisions here in Iraq.

BLITZER: How much influence does Iran right now, the regime in Tehran of Ahmadinejad, have on politicians, influential politicians in Iraq?

ODIERNO: Well, I would just say what we would like to see is Iran respect Iraq's sovereignty and allow the Iraqi people to choose their next government, like we would like to see all countries in the region, allow Iraq to continue to build its political process, its economic capabilities and its military capabilities, without interference. I think there's got to be a good relationship with Iran, their neighbors. What we want to see it to be a positive relationship and not one built on threats or violence.

BLITZER: What about the relationship right now? How much influence -- how much of an impact do the Iranians have on what's going on in Iraq?

ODIERNO: Well, I think they have a stake in Iraq. I think they believe it has something to do with their own national security. I think they want to be able to try to shape the instate in Iraq. But, Wolf, I truly believe the Iraqis will look to what's best for Iraq first. They are truly nationalistic. I've learned that over my several years over here, that they care about Iraq first, and they will always look to do what's best for Iraq.

BLITZER: So what you're saying is that most of the Iraqi Kurds, the Iraqi Shiites, the Iraqi Sunnis, they see themselves as Iraqis first, and their ethnic or sort of religious backgrounds second?

ODIERNO: I do, for the most part. There's always exceptions to that, but the large majority, absolutely correct. And I think they will make decisions in that way. That doesn't mean they don't have a relationship with other countries. But they certainly say Iraq first.

BLITZER: Here's what Charles Levinson, a reporter for the "The Wall Street Journal" wrote last Thursday: U.S. commanders say in recent weeks and months they have witnessed a remarkable and troubling new phenomenon: Sunni Al Qaeda-linked insurgents are cooperating with Shiite militias to coordinate more effective attacks against Iraq and U.S. forces."

Is that true that there is this coordination now between Iraqi Sunni and Shiite militants?

ODIERNO: I would say only at the very local level, and it's because it's based on their own survival. Because they have-their ability to conduct operations has been degraded and the only way they can continue is cooperation at the local level. But there is no cooperation at all at more senior levels of the insurgency.

BLITZER: How significant is Al Qaeda in Iraq right now?

ODIERNO: Well, it's still able to conduct some high-profile attacks. But it no longer in any way reflects the broad-based insurgency that it did in 2006. Today, I consider it to be a covert terrorist organization, only capable of conducting covert terrorist operations. And frankly, as they've continued to do this over the last months, all they do is continue to alienate the Iraqi population. And the Iraqi population has clearly rejected Al Qaeda here in Iraq.

BLITZER: Bottom line, mission accomplished?

ODIERNO: Not yet. And as I say, I've been saying for a very long time here, we won't know if we were successful here until three, five or 10 years from today. It will depend on how Iraqi turns out. It will depend on if Iraq is a democratic nation, that's helping stability to be sustained here in the Middle East.

BLITZER: Let me just ask you one final question, General, before I let you go. I know you have a lot going on. Have you seen the movie "The Hurt Locker", which won the Academy award for best picture of the year?

ODIERNO: I have. They actually sent me a copy so I could look at it several months ago. It's a compelling movie about the heroism and the camaraderie, about what some of what our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, have to go through here in Iraq and Afghanistan.

BLITZER: So you would recommend it? The troops liked that film?

ODIERNO: I - I would highly recommend it.

BLITZER: General Odierno, thanks very much for joining us. Good luck over there. We're counting on you.

ODIERNO: Thank you very much, Wolf. It's always a pleasure to be with you.

BLITZER: There are probably a lot of people who might say there are way too many politicians here in the United States. So what if? What if the system changed and there were even more politicians than there are right now?

CNN's Carol Costello is exploring that idea.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) HIRAM MONSERRATE, FORMER N.Y. STATE SENATOR: I am taking this opportunity to officially announce my candidacy for the return of State Senator Hiram Monserrate.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A typical political campaign wish, unless you know the back story. Hiram Monserrate was actually booted out of the New York State Senate after he was convicted of a misdemeanor for assaulting his girlfriend.

Part of the attack was captured on an apartment surveillance tape, yet Monserrate is positive voters will re-elect him.

Tuesday, he announced he's running on a Yes, We Can ticket. And to his critics in politics?

MONSERRATE: I think it would be the pot calling the kettle black for anyone in government in the Albany (ph) pointing a finger towards Hiram Monserrate.

Thank you very much, sir, for all your support.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No problem. No problem.

COSTELLO: Some political observers are aghast but not surprised.

PROF. LARRY SABATO, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: They're very quick at justifying actions that most of us would have to apologize for.

COSTELLO: And rarely do they just go away after justifying their actions.

South Carolina's governor admitted to an affair, to lying to voters, but he has resisted calls to step down, confident of voter support.

GOV. MARK SANFORD (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I'm not going to be railroaded out of this office by political opponents or folks that were never fans of mine in the first place.

COSTELLO: It's a battle cry long echoed by U.S. Congressman Charlie Rangel, who's accused of failing to pay taxes and violating House ethics rules.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL (D), NEW YORK: In order to avoid my colleagues having to defend me during the elections -

COSTELLO: He finally stepped down as chairman of a powerful committee -

RANGEL: Stop the thievery -

COSTELLO: -- but the congressman, elected 20 times, did not apologize or resign.

Gut check - is it time to tweak the system?

SABATO: The average voter would love to see through the persona projected by the consultants and the TV ads, but how do you do that?

COSTELLO: More politicians.

Example, right now each member of the U.S. Congress represents roughly 700,000 Americans, far too many voters for their elected representatives to get to know. So, instead of 435 House members, why not elect 10,000?

SABATO: The smaller the unit is, the more likely it is that people will get to know the candidates and they'll vote not just on the basis of party, but on the basis of the character of the candidates.

COSTELLO (on camera): Some of you may scoff at the thought of so many members of Congress, but the idea of keeping a representative's constituency rather small actually came from George Washington himself, because he foresaw the reality we're dealing with today.

Carol Costello, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Funding shortfalls, teacher cutbacks and four-day school weeks. So what can be done about what Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls "the most pressing issue facing America right now"?

He'll face off with former Reagan Education Secretary Bill Bennett. They're here together in THE SITUATION ROOM.

And in Afghanistan, a welder shows off his homemade plane before taking it for its first flight. One of our Hot Shots of the week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Nothing more important than educating our kids. Let's talk about it in our Strategy Session.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

Joining us, two special guests, the Education Secretary, Arne Duncan and CNN Political Contributor, the national radio talk show host, Bill Bennett. He served as Education Secretary under President Reagan. He also has a brand-new book that's just out entitled "A Century Turns". Gentlemen, thanks very much for coming in.

Secretary Duncan, what is the single most important initiative, just one initiative, that the federal government can do to improve the education of our kids?

ARNE DUNCAN, U.S. EDUCATION SECRETARY: I think we can reward excellence.

What you've seen with Race to the Top and we have many other similar type opportunities coming is the best ideas in education are always going to come at the local level, never going to come from us here in Washington. The more we can build upon success at the local level, the better we as a country could -

BLITZER: Race to the Top is your version of No Child Left Behind? Is that right?

DUNCAN: Well, there - there are a lot of changes we want to make in No Child Left Behind. That's a piece of it, but, yes. Rewarding excellence, having a high bar for everybody and making sure that we're measuring growth, not (INAUDIBLE) test scores measuring results (ph).

BLITZER: Is - is that your most important priority right now as well?

WILLIAM BENNETT, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think so. Standards of excellence (ph).

It really is time to close in on this one. We are getting beat up in international competitions. There may be a new Sputnik, which is our kids, our college graduates from some of our best schools are not getting jobs. They get - losing out jobs to kids from other countries, young people from other countries.

We are not competitive in the later grades. So I salute the secretary in that - we have our differences, but I - his recognition of better and higher standards, no matter who that ticks off, is I think very important.

BLITZER: Because if you take a look at these math and science test results, we did some research in 2006, 15-year-old students here in the United States were 23 of 29 among various participating countries, outperformed - they outperformed the United States. And in science in 2006 tests, 15-year-old students were 16 out of 29 other participating countries.

Why are American students doing so poorly right now when compared to students in all sorts of other countries?

DUNCAN: It's very simple. Our students, our children are as smart, as competitive, as committed as children anywhere in the country. We have dummied down standards. It's our fault as adults.

We've lowered the bar, have low expectations, not because it's the right thing educationally, not because it's the right thing for our economy, due to political pressure. We're trying to say let's remove that.

We need a high bar, a common definition of success, college- ready, career-ready standards for everybody, and let's level the playing field. And if - if we level the playing field, our students can compete and compete with anybody in the world.

BLITZER: What does that mean, political pressure? Be specific.

DUNCAN: What we've seen under No Child Left Behind is we saw many states actually reducing standards to respond to that political pressure. That's bad for children, bad for the education - Wolf, we've been lying to children in our country when we have told them they are, quote, unquote, "meeting a state standard", that bar has been dummied down so much that those children are barely able to graduate from high school and are totally inadequately prepared for college. We have to stop lying.

BLITZER: Who do you - who do you blame for this failure?

BENNETT: Well, I agree with the secretary that there have been a number of states who have lowered - something like 15 to 18 states have lowered standards since No Child Left Behind.

But there are other political pressures. There are the pressures - pressures of the groups - whenever you introduce a reform, the labor unions get into it -

BLITZER: The teachers unions.

BENNETT: The teachers unions, and often they react negatively.

There is insufficient accountability. I mean, just put this in form of a compliment. Secretary Duncan, if I understand correctly, has said if you're going to evaluate teachers, and you should, because we have to reward excellence if we want excellence, then you've got to make student evaluations, student success, student learning part of that. This has been mightily resisted.

A "New York Times" story this past Sunday showed some of the political resistance to it. You can't do your job - this job unless sometimes those union people get angry, and he's made them angry.

BLITZER: Because sometimes you have crummy teachers who aren't educating the kids but they can't be fired because of the unions.

DUNCAN: Well, you see the unions stepping up and doing some interesting things. This idea of higher standards, both national unions are absolutely behind that effort. They're supporting that.

You've seen Randi Weingarten, the head of the AFT, say publicly that they don't want to protect teachers that aren't making it. A vast majority of teachers in our country, Wolf, are doing a great job and are working extraordinarily hard. We have to support them.

Teacher evaluation systems in our country are broken. (INAUDIBLE) for anyone. We need to reward great teachers. We need to help those in the middle improve and those at the bottom, after support where it's not working, we need to remove them.

Right now, we're doing none of those things.

BLITZER: AFT is the American Federation of Teachers, but go ahead.

BENNETT: Yes, well, did you see what Randi Weingarten said about you Sunday? I mean, she was very critical of your - or your position (ph) - BLITZER: What did she say?

BENNETT: They were furious because the secretary supported - and the president, too, as I understand it - what was going on in Providence, Rhode Island.

BLITZER: Where they fired a whole school they say (ph).

BENNETT: Seven percent of the kids were performing at grade level, as I understand it, and they fired a bunch of people. The secretary said that was the right thing and I think that is the right thing.

Look, you've got different unions, you've got different locals operating in different ways, but we know the cost that the bottom rung of our teachers - the teachers cost us in terms of student performance. Replace those teachers. And the unions should be leading the way here, because if they're professional organizations, they should honor excellence and reward it.

BLITZER: All right. Gentlemen, stand by because I want to continue this conversation.

Much more coming up, including school systems scrambling to find some ways to - to cut costs and to keep education going. Some states are considering some very drastic measures.

Should kids only go to school four days a week? Is cutting the school week to four days the answer?

Stand by.

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BLITZER: We're back with the Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the former Reagan Education Secretary Bill Bennett.

I heard the other day some school districts are in such financial trouble right now, they're thinking of cutting the school week to four days. You know about this.

DUNCAN: Yes. This is a huge worry, and we understand the tremendous pressure that districts and states are under. You have places like Hawaii that have eliminated Fridays for the rest of the school year. Eliminated Fridays.

How is that good for children? In no Calculus is that good to children.

BLITZER: I mean, in a lot of countries in Asia, even in Europe, they go to school six days a week, not five days a week.

DUNCAN: Exactly. We have to level the playing field. And if we level the playing field, our students will do great.

When they're going to school 220, 230, 240 school - days of school each year, our students are going 180, and now that's being reduced, 170, 165. What chance do our students have?

BLITZER: But - but if there's no money, what do you do?

BENNETT: Well, there are other things you can do.

Look, time doesn't matter as much as what you do with the time. But I think cutting the time is probably almost always a bad idea.

One thing you can do - it goes against what people want to do, but you can do it. You can increase class size, as they do in the Asian countries. The class size has no appreciable effect on learning unless you get down to very, very small numbers, and when you lower class size, as they did in California, they had to drop further and further down into the teaching pool and that hurt performance.

BLITZER: And in some schools overseas, they go to - they go to school all year round. There's no two or three months off.

DUNCAN: I think (INAUDIBLE) talk to students (ph), but I think our schools should be open 12, 13, 14 hours a day as community centers, six days a week, 11, 12 months out of the year.

We don't need any more studies about summer reading loss, particularly for disadvantaged student. We have children that get to a certain point in June, they come back to school in September further behind than when they left. That has to change.

BLITZER: Is that realistic?

BENNETT: If they're teaching the right thing. Again, if they're teaching the right - back to your first point, when Arne Duncan said that it's not our kids (INAUDIBLE). Our kids in the third or fourth grade actually do pretty well competitively in international assessments.

They lose ground the longer they stay in school in America. That's the problem. It's a systemic problem.

High expectations, time on task, but it has to be on the right tasks. If you increased learning time but it's not the right material, the right content, you're not going to get it.

BLITZER: Some say the - the solution is more charter schools, which have done well, but they're limited in most urban areas.

DUNCAN: What I said repeatedly, I'm not a fan of charter schools. I'm a fan of good charter schools, and the best charter schools in the country are doing a phenomenal job. There are charters in the middle and there are charter schools that need to be closed. But the best charter schools are doing a great job, particularly and historically in underserved communities. Our country needs more great school. No first grade or second grader know whether I go to charter school or a gifted school or a magnate (ph) school, but does my teacher care about me? Am I safe going to school? Does the principal know who I am?

We need more great schools, great traditional schools. We need to replicate great charters. We need to replicate.

Bad schools aren't working, we need to come back with something -

BLITZER: We don't hear a lot of talk about vouchers. That's to send some of these kids to good catholic schools, for example. That's something you would support?

BENNETT: Yes, it is, and it's been very agreeable. There's only one note of discord. I think eliminating the scholarship program, the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program in Washington was a really bad thing to do. These kids had opportunity and they were learning and learning a lot.

But charters are a very good thing, and I'll - again, recognizing the secretary, (INAUDIBLE) urban prep you started in Chicago, 100 percent of those kids going on to college.

I think school choice does make a difference. School choice, content, but we've got to get the pressure up on the standards, and that's where we're very much on common ground.

BLITZER: Based on your -

DUNCAN: (INAUDIBLE).

BENNETT: We're going to be -

BLITZER: Based on this conversation, Mr. Secretary, there is a lot of room for agreement - maybe not on health care, but on education. You might be able to find agreement with conservatives and Republicans out there.

DUNCAN: Well, this is the one issue that all of us, regardless of politics and ideology, all of us feel this huge sense of urgency. We have to educate our way to a better economy and the only way to get there, we all have to put politics aside and do the right thing by our children. We have to do that for the sake of them and for our country.

This is the civil rights issue of our generation. It is also an economic imperative.

BLITZER: Are conservatives and Republicans ready to work with this Secretary of Education?

BENNETT: Certainly on some things. As I said, we have our disagreements, but you know what? He's gotten into fights with the right people.

As an old Irishman, I think that's a pretty good site (ph).

BLITZER: Bill Bennett, thanks for coming in.

BENNETT: Thank you.

BLITZER: Arne Duncan, thanks to you as well. Good luck.

DUNCAN: Thanks for the opportunity.

BLITZER: Our kids and families, parents, grandparents are all counting on you.

DUNCAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

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BLITZER: The actress Reese Witherspoon travels here to Washington for International Women's Day. She meets with Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton and with me, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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BLITZER: The actress and Avon ambassador Reese Witherspoon is trying to raise awareness around the world about violence against women. That campaign brought her here to Washington and into THE SITUATION ROOM.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: To women and men who are watching right now, what can they do?

REESE WITHERSPOON, ACTRESS: Well, I think, first of all, it's important to start talking about it. You know, I discuss it with my children all the time, because obviously I'm traveling around the world and they want to know why mom's gone.

And talking about domestic violence with your kids when, you know -

BLITZER: It's not an easy subject to discuss with little kids.

WITHERSPOON: Absolutely not, but before they get into teenage relationships where, you know, these behaviors occur, I think it's important to talk to your kids when they're young.

I mean, when you're talking about one in three people in your life, one in three women are being affected, that's someone everyone knows. It might not be in your household, but it's - it might be your sister or your neighbor or someone in your community. So I think that's a big part of it.

Also, you know, just purchasing an item like the empowerment ring for $5. BLITZER: Let me see that.

WITHERSPOON: This is it.

BLITZER: That's a $5 ring?

WITHERSPOON: That's a $5 ring.

BLITZER: You mean Reese Witherspoon is wearing a $5 ring?

WITHERSPOON: I am, and it - I can't tell you how many people stop me and say that's from Tiffany's?

BLITZER: Yes. That's a beautiful ring.

WITHERSPOON: Now that it's a great way to affect change.

BLITZER: So what does that symbolize?

WITHERSPOON: It's the infinity symbol. It symbolizes the infinite possibility when women stand together and - and we can create change.

And it's for $5, and - and it's an incredible program because it is so far-reaching. There's so many Avon representatives, over 8 million throughout the world. So if you think about that kind fund- raising opportunity, it really is quite significant.

BLITZER: Because when you think about the campaign, you're like a global ambassador now. When you think about violence against women it's happening all over the world but not necessarily in the United States, but it's a problem here in the United States, too.

WITHERSPOON: Oh, it's a huge problem here in the U.S. and I think it's something that affects women. Every nine seconds a woman is hurt or beaten in her house. And I think this is something that not only -

When you talk about women, it's affecting their children. It's affecting schools and families and communities. So it needs to be addressed immediately.

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BLITZER: Reese Witherspoon with me here in THE SITUATION ROOM. She's doing very important work.

Pictures worth a thousand words. Britain's Prince Andrew visits college students in India. That's just one of our Hot Shots of the week.

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BLITZER: Here's a look at some of this week's Hot Shots.

In Mumbai, India, Britain's Prince Andrew displayed a solar lamp while visiting college students.

In Afghanistan, a welder showed off his homemade plane before taking it for a first flight.

In Baghdad, employees of the county center worked in a room filled with ballot boxes.

And in China, check it out, an American-born panda made his first public debut since being transferred from the national zoo here in Washington.

Hot Shots - pictures worth a thousand words.

Remember, you can always follow what's going on behind the scenes here in THE SITUATION ROOM. I'm on Twitter. You can get my tweets at twitter.com/wolfblitzercnn - wolfblitzercnn, all one word.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. Join us weekdays in The Situation Room from 5:00 to 8:00 P.M. Eastern, and every Saturday at 6:00 P.M. Eastern right here on CNN, and at this time every weekend on CNN International.

The news continues next on CNN.