Interview with Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room"

September 9, 2005

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: ...And stinging words about race and class and Katrina. This hour, the always outspoken Democratic Party chairman, Howard Dean, defends comments that the first lady is calling disgusting.

Plus, the race question. Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean says Americans must face some ugly truths about the Bush administration's response to this disaster. My interview with Howard Dean. That's coming up this hour.

. . .

BLITZER: Many Democrats have been quick to pounce on the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina, with some suggesting relief might have come more quickly if so many victims had not been black and poor.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean jumped into that debate earlier this week, urging Americans to face what he called some ugly truth. I spoke with the former Vermont governor just a short while ago.


BLITZER (on camera): Governor Dean, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to THE SITUATION ROOM.

HOWARD DEAN, DNC CHAIRMAN: Thanks for having me on, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's get to some comments you said Wednesday night. I'm going to play a sound bite, an excerpt of what you said, then get your explanation. Listen to this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DEAN: Survivors are being evacuated. And as the order is restored and the water recedes, as we sort through the rubble, we have to come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age, and economics played a significant role in who survived and who did not.


BLITZER: All right. So what did you mean when you say skin color, age, and economics played a significant role?

DEAN: I meant the same thing that Colin Powell meant when he talked about this issue. I like to try to look for some good in every horrible tragedy. This gives us an opportunity to look at an issue that's been swept under the rug for the last 20 or 30 years, since the Civil Rights Movement. And that is, if you are poor, if you are black, if you are old, you disproportionately suffered in this disaster.

And that means we need to have a national discussion, which a lot of people have been talking about but nobody has really led us on, about poverty and race in America.

BLITZER: Do you believe the response from the federal government, the Bush administration specifically, the president of the United States, that there were racist or racial overtones in that response?

DEAN: No, I don't think so. What I do think, however, is the way our society has worked in the last 20 years -- actually, a lot longer than that, but in the last 20 years when nobody has been talking about it, is that, in fact, those below the top 20 percent in America -- white, black and brown -- have been significantly disadvantaged.

The average income in this country went down $1,700 since George Bush has been president for everybody under the top 20 percent. So, 80 percent of Americans saw their income drop. There's something the matter with a country that does not want to talk about what's good for 80 percent of the people and focuses on what's great for 20 percent of the people.

BLITZER: Some, as you know, critics of the president, Kanye West, the rap artist, for example, have accused him of being a racist.

I want you to listen to what the First Lady Laura Bush said last night. Listen to this.


LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: I think all of those remarks were disgusting, to be perfectly frank, because, of course, President Bush cares about everyone in our country. And I know that. I mean, I am the person who lives with him. I know what he's like and I know what he thinks, and I know how he cares about people.


BLITZER: Do you agree with the first lady?

DEAN: No. I do not think that this president cares about everybody in America. It's one nice -- I'm sure the -- suspect (ph) he's a nice man on a personal level. His policies have been devastating to middle class and poor people in this country, white, black, and brown.

People who were affected in this disaster, the people who are holed up in the Astrodome, look at the kinds of things that have been said about them. Look what the Republican representative from the Louisiana said this morning in the "Wall Street Journal"; that finally God has gotten -- or has cleaned up the public housing in New Orleans.

It's not enough to be a nice guy. I'm not disputing the fact the president is a nice man, and maybe he's compassionate in his personal life. The truth is that Americans have suffered deeply under this presidency, 80 percent of Americans -- and that black people, Hispanic people, and poor people and old people have suffered disproportionately.

BLITZER: So, I just want to press you on this. You can't blame the president for what some Republican congressman says.

DEAN: I think there's an indifference in the Republican Party towards people who aren't at the very top of the income level. Their whole tax policy has shown that.

How about this? Bill Frist, the chairman -- the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, his first thing he wanted to do when he got back, after Hurricane Katrina struck, in the United States Senate, first thing he wanted to do is extend the estate tax exemption, $750 billion.

I think it's time for moral decision-making in America. Let's ask the American people if the Republicans believe there's $750 billion of extra change lying around, do you want that to go to 3,000 families who are going to benefit from an additional reduction in the estate tax or should we reinvest that in rebuilding, not just in New Orleans, but in rebuilding -- not just Mississippi -- school systems in Chicago, jobs for North Dakota and South Dakota. The life of middle class people has suffered enormously in the last five years because there were wrong moral decisions made by this government.

BLITZER: You made a very powerful, serious charge against the president of the United States, that he doesn't care about everyone in this country.

DEAN: I believe that's true. Because look at his policies. It does not matter what they say, it matters what they do. Americans have suffered under this presidency -- 80 percent of them, income has gone down on average of $1,700.

BLITZER: You blame the president, FEMA, the executive branch of the U.S. government, the Bush administration for doing a horrible job in the immediate aftermath of this disaster --

DEAN: I don't blame -- I don't think the president personally did a horrible job. The president didn't seem to be informed. I think he had incompetent people working for him. You know, Michael Brown has become a national joke.

BLITZER: What about --

DEAN: Not only did he -- apparently according to "Time" magazine now, this morning, he has falsified his credentials to get this job. The president still won't fire him. What is it about this president who has people like Karl Rove who gave away the identity of a CIA agent in a time of war? Who has people like Michael Brown working for him, that he won't fire them. These people ought not to be working for anybody, never mind the government of the United States of America.

BLITZER: What about the Democratic governor of Louisiana, and the Democratic mayor of New Orleans? How much responsibility should they have for what happened to those poor people who suffered in the immediate aftermath of those levees collapsing?

DEAN: As you know, Wolf, as you know, I was a governor more almost 12 years. I think we had seven or eight nine emergencies during that time, states of emergency, under three presidents. And I can tell you that what you need when there's an emergency is the National Guard. The National Guard was in Iraq.

BLITZER: Well -- a third of the National Guard troops of Louisiana were, approximately, were in Iraq.

DEAN: And the equipment was in Iraq.

BLITZER: But there were 1,000 -- at least 1,000 school busses in New Orleans, and none of them were mobilized to get poor people, old people, people who didn't have cars, out of that city as that hurricane, Category 5, was building up steam along the -- in the Gulf of Mexico. Who should have ordered that those school busses, to get drivers and start driving people who don't have cars out of the city?

DEAN: That's an easy criticism to make, because beforehand you can blame everybody. You can blame the last four or five presidents --

BLITZER: Isn't that the responsibility of the mayor or the governor?

DEAN: Unless you tell people what the sequence is, I can't answer that question. I have to tell me that the sequence was that the hurricane was known to be, going to hit New Orleans directly, which it didn't. And that those buses weren't under water, and that the people who were supposed to be driving them didn't --

BLITZER: On Saturday and Sunday there was no water in New Orleans.

DEAN: Right.

BLITZER: And that was the -- the hurricane hit Monday morning.

DEAN: You're holding the mayor --

BLITZER: On Friday they knew this could potentially hit New Orleans, and that it could be a Category 4 or 5.

DEAN: You're holding the mayor to a different standard. This is a Republican spin machine stuff. You're holding the mayor to a different standard than you are holding FEMA.

BLITZER: No. I think there's plenty of responsibility to go around. There were screw-ups and people's lives were lost as a result of it. I'm just pointing out that not only a Republican administration, but democratically elected, Democratic politicians also screwed up.

DEAN: Everybody screwed up in terms of getting the pre- positioning stuff. Nobody did that -- not the federal government, not the state government, not the local government.

The job of FEMA is to come in after the fact, immediately. When you have the head of FEMA talking on national television saying they had no idea people were in the Convention Center, after it had been broadcast on your station 24 hours earlier, that is a problem. When you have people in the emergency management business saying that people are getting two hot meals a day in the Superdome, that is a big problem, because those were lies.

BLITZER: But that was after the floods occurred.

DEAN: After the floods --

BLITZER: But in the days leading up to the hurricane, with hindsight, and all of us are obviously a lot smarter with hindsight, and you speak as a former governor, you know there are things a governor and mayor can do to get -- to take charge.

DEAN: What I'm saying is everybody could have done a better job ahead of time, including the last three or four presidents, who didn't put money into the levees. After the fact, however, it was very clear what everybody's job was, and there was one group of people who didn't do their job.

BLITZER: Let's talk about a comment you made. "In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina we have a clear, moral responsibility to do a better job of ensuring social and economic justice for every American, and there is still far too much that we don't know about John Roberts' record and beliefs on these critical issues."

You're making a connection between Katrina and the confirmation hearings of John Roberts, which begin on Monday. And I'm not exactly sure what the point is.

DEAN: My point is that John Roberts has a record. John Roberts appears to be a wonderful, decent, family person, but, again, we get back to the question about whether you really care and whether you have compassion. It's not enough to say you care. It's what you've done. John Roberts' legal career has been about taking away every protection for young girls and women who want to participate in sports, for African-Americans and Hispanics who want the equal same right to vote as everybody else, for taking away for women who believe they should determine what kind of health care they have, instead of having politicians do it.

His entire legal career appears to be about making sure those folks don't have the same rights everybody else does. That's probably not the right thing to do two weeks after a disaster, where certain members of society clearly did not have the same protections that everybody else did because of their circumstances. Americans are fair people and they want a sense of justice.

I know Judge Roberts loves the law. I'm not sure he loves the American people.

BLITZER: So should the Senate reject his confirmation?

DEAN: Based on what I know now, absolutely, yes.

BLITZER: We'll leave it there.

DEAN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

DEAN: Thank you.


BLITZER: The Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean speaking with me a little while ago here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

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Originally posted on CNN.



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