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LATE EDITION with Wolf Blitzer
May 20, 2001

BLITZER: Robert Nigh, the attorney for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, speaking after learning his client's execution would be delayed because of mistakes by the FBI. McVeigh is now scheduled to be put to death on June 11.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION. With us now to talk about the broader issue of the death penalty and other issues, two guests. They've had their share of political battles. Joining us here in Washington, the former Reform Party presidential candidate, Pat Buchanan. And in New York, former New York Governor Mario Cuomo.

Gentlemen, good to have you back. Both of you were on my program earlier this week. You had a good, lively discussion. So we decided to give you a little bit more time and flesh it out a little bit and get your sense on what's going on.

First, Governor Cuomo, the issue that was at the center of that debate we had earlier in the week, the issue of the death penalty for Timothy McVeigh, you don't believe he should be executed. But a lot of people out there say that if there is ever a case that someone deserved the death penalty, it was Timothy McVeigh.

MARIO CUOMO, FORMER GOVERNOR OF NEW YORK: Hard cases make bad law. Yes, for those of us who are opposed to the death penalty, it's a particularly difficult to argue when you have somebody like McVeigh, I think. But the principles are the same. I have been opposed to the death penalty for all of my adult life. I've been studying it for a long, long time. For 12 years as governor, I vetoed it.

I'm convinced, as most people are, that it does not deter. I'm convinced that it's government at its very worse trying to promote justice by promoting brutality. I'm convinced that it is profoundly unfair.

Government is imperfect. Nobody knows that better than the Republican conservatives. And the judicial system is government and it's imperfect. And it makes a lot of mistakes, and we see that more and more every day, which means it takes human life.

It just does no good. It's degrading. It's debasing. The industrial world has given up virtually without exception, and we should too.

BLITZER: What about that, Pat Buchanan?

PAT BUCHANAN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I disagree with your statistics, Wolf. When it comes to McVeigh, it's 72 to 19 believe he ought to be executed. I do believe he ought to be executed. I think it is a manifestation of a society acting justly against someone who's perpetrated an act of terror. McVeigh said those children were collateral damage. He has no remorse.

I think a healthy, strong society will move with dispatch to eliminate those individuals who perpetrate these kinds of outrages. It's consistent with everything I've believed in. I've seen a couple of executions in my lifetime. They are very unpleasant. But I think it's a necessary defense of society, and in this case, certainly, I support it.

BLITZER: The statistics we were referring to at the beginning didn't deal specifically with McVeigh. They dealt with the broader issue of, do you support capital punishment. That number has been going down.

In part, the Republican governor of Illinois, Governor Ryan, has pointed out that there is simply too many problems there. There have been too many mistakes. Fortunately, there has been no evidence that someone has been executed then after the fact there's been a discovery that there was a mistake. But you have to acknowledge, there's been a lot of problems there.

BUCHANAN: There are -- look, I realize that, and it's a good thing we've got DNA. But the truth is that the death penalty, in the sense -- can a mistake be made? Of course it can be made, Wolf. And it may have been made in the past, I don't know the case.

But, look, mistakes are in surgeries, people die. When we get police officers guns, we give them the authority to kill. And these officers sometimes make mistakes. We saw the case of Senator Kerry. Obviously in combat, the confusion of combat, the fog of battle, people can be killed.

Now, I do argue this: Any time any judge has the slightest doubt in his mind as to whether or not an individual is guilty, even if the jury comes in with the recommendation for death, I would say don't execute him. But in the case of McVeigh, there is no doubt.

BLITZER: Governor?

CUOMO: Well, to suggest that, because we have to defend ourselves in war and because we need police, we should kill people even though we know we're going to make mistakes -- we have made mistakes. There are some reports that we've killed 50 people innocently over the last 50 years. Only a week ago there was a story about two young men, 14 years in prison, who weren't on the way to the electric chair but were convicted of murder by an eye witness, and they were innocent. And this goes on and on.

So the suggestion, which is implicit in what Pat is saying, that it's important to have the death penalty to show you're just -- it's not justice. It's revenge. It's retribution dressed up as justice.

CUOMO: And I was governor for 12 years. I vetoed it every year. Texas executed more and more people. Their homicide rate was higher than mine and grew faster than mine. It simply does not deter. We all know that. The industrial world knows that.

Are we smarter than everybody in Europe? Are we smarter than all those industrial nations that are older than we are? We, who are among the most violent people in world history, certainly industrial nations, more people incarcerated, more guns per capita. We are for violence. That is what this is: official violence.

BUCHANAN: Look, the European countries are basically post- Christian countries in my judgment. They moved basically into a new era.

Now, this angst and agony that we see on the governor's part over the death penalty for poor McVeigh and these other two individuals, since McVeigh murdered those 168 people, 100,000 American citizens, Wolf, had been victims of cold-blooded murder in the United States of America -- 100,000. More than all in Korea and Vietnam.

In my judgment, a society which says you can go ahead and blow up a building with 168 people in it and children and we will not execute you, that society is sending a statement of timidity, weakness and moral confusion, which invites the kind of violence we have in our society today.

CUOMO: If Pat is right, all the death penalties we've had especially in places like Texas, and now McVeigh, would have stopped murders or at least slowed them down. It hasn't.

If anything, there is as much evidence that it promotes brutality. What do you think you are saying to people out there who are a little bit shaky in their psychological balance when you officially kill?

And to suggest that it's because I like McVeigh, now that is really a kind of cheap shot, but I have gotten accustomed to that. We're not saying we like the murderer. As a matter of fact, Pat, if you really didn't like McVeigh, you wouldn't kill him. You would lock him up for life without parole. I've had three cases, personally, two commutations and one as governor in which the person pleaded for execution, resisted my attempts to get a commutation...

BUCHANAN: Oh, this is silly.

CUOMO: No, no, it's not silly.

BUCHANAN: What's silly, governor, is when you...

CUOMO: This is real.

BUCHANAN: What's silly, governor, is when you say the death penalty does not deter. Why is the godfather the safest man in prison?

CUOMO: I will answer you.

BUCHANAN: Hold it, let me talk a bit. Aldrich Ames gave away 10 of our people who were executed in the Soviet Union. Why did he talk and give up all the people he was associated with? Because he was threatened with death. Why do robbers, when a cop comes in and they put a gun to him, why do they drop their weapon? They're afraid of death, and they know there is no appeal from that cop.

CUOMO: Pat, Pat, you've reached the new low. You're telling America that the existence of the godfather with weapons is proof that weapons deter. Nobody gets killed faster and cleaner than heads of mobs. Just call the FBI, just ask them how many people have been slaughtered who were champions of weapons and murder. This notion that, why does the godfather...

(CROSSTALK)

CUOMO: Just a minute. Why does the godfather carry a gun? Because he is brutal, because he is foolish, and that's what you're asking the government to be.

BUCHANAN: To say that the death penalty does not deter, which is the most serious penalty, is to say that no penalty really deters, and we ought to do away with punishment. Quite obviously, why did Saddam Hussein pull all of his people out of Kuwait? He knew they would be coming for him.

CUOMO: Let me answer you, Pat.

BUCHANAN: The death penalty.

CUOMO: I've said it before. People would rather have the death penalty than a really tough punishment which is life inprisonment without parole in 6-by-8 cell, in which, in New York State, for example in the maxi-maxi, you're out one hour a day. They plead for execution in those states.

BUCHANAN: The reason they do that, governor, they do that because you have been unable to convince the vast majority of Americans who believe it deters, it is a proper punishment, it is proper retribution, it protects and defends society. And in some cases like the Nuremberg trials, it is the only way to realize true justice. You think Himler should have gotten a life term and Goering a life term? Or did their crimes justify a penalty somewhat more severe?

CUOMO: I will answer you. Those cases are in another category that are described by most people who have studied the death penalty as unique. And that is, a nation committing a crime of genocide, all the power of the nation dedicated to killing a race like the Jews, the Holocaust, 6 million Jews.

BUCHANAN: Then you do favor it there?

CUOMO: Excuse me, excuse me. Well, there, the way they justify the death penalty -- and I don't justify it anywhere. But there, the way, for example, the way the Catholic Church might justify it -- and this isn't a religious issue, but this is an example of the thinking -- is, look, when you're dealing with a national effort at genocide, it's no good to just imprison one individual. You have to go at them in the same way that they came at you, in totality.

BUCHANAN: You know, Mario, Governor, if maybe...

CUOMO: That's their argument.

BUCHANAN: If maybe -- OK, fair enough.

CUOMO: I don't approve of it, but that's their argument.

BUCHANAN: All right. If maybe that's the case, then rather than wait for an act of genocide, take the individual who kills only 168 people and execute him as a deterrent against those who might execute millions.

CUOMO: Well, now we're making some progress, Pat. Now, listen, Pat...

BLITZER: All right.

BUCHANAN: We're making good progress.

BLITZER: Let me interrupt the both of you because we have to take a quick commercial break.

One correction to you, Pat Buchanan, I covered the Aldrich Ames case. At that time, the federal statute did not prohibit the death penalty for espionage, which he was accused of and convicted of. Since then, the law has changed. And Robert Hanssen, the accused Russian spy...

BUCHANAN: He was not subject to a death penalty?

BLITZER: Aldrich Ames was not subject to a death penalty. He pleaded guilty and accepted life in prison.

BUCHANAN: Watch him cut a deal on Robert Hanssen...

CUOMO: Hey, that makes it as bad an example as "The Godfather."

BUCHANAN: ... for life. Watch him cut a deal for life for Hanssen. And why would Hanssen give up all his contacts? He wants to live. The death penalty deters. BLITZER: Well, that's another issue. Robert Hanssen is eligible for the death penalty, but Aldrich Ames was not. But there were other issues involved there.

We're going to take a quick commercial break.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: I love correcting Pat Buchanan when I can.

We'll take some phone calls for Pat Buchanan and Mario Cuomo when LATE EDITION returns. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with former Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan and former New York Democratic Governor Mario Cuomo.

Governor Cuomo, President Bush made an appeal for a new tone in the politics of Washington this past week. I want you to listen to what the president said in announcing his energy policy. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: Just as we need a new tone in Washington, we also need a new tone in discussing energy and the environment, one that is less suspicious, less punitive, less rancorous. We've yelled at each other enough. Now it's time to listen to each other and act.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: You think the president's suggestion is going to resonate with the politicians here in Washington?

CUOMO: I think it's a kind of joke, actually. Every time he makes a suggestion, he says, "Let's be nice, but please don't argue with me."

And frankly, I don't think the problem is rancor. From my personal point of view, the problem is the Democrats have been almost inexplicably silent on the biggest issue of all, bigger than conservation, and that is the tax cut.

When you consider in the campaign, Wolf, the Democratic Party, Gore and Lieberman leading them, said $500 billion was the top that you should give away, and the rest you should invest in this country, education, et cetera, et cetera, and debt reduction and don't take a risk on bringing back deficits.

Now, they are almost blithely agreeing to $1.2 or $3 trillion. Wolf, I've said this before. They're going to give Bush this huge tax victory. The economy's going to be the better in 2002 anyway. Bush is going to get credit for turning around the economy, although that will be a complete fraud, but he'll get credit for it politically. This is going to be a devastating defeat for the Democrats because they're not saying enough in Washington. It's not that they're arguing too hard.

BLITZER: Pat Buchanan during the campaign you were quite critical of George W. Bush. How's he doing so far as president?

BUCHANAN: Well, I think his geniality helps him. I think he has restored dignity and respect and integrity to the White House, and that helps him. And I agree with his tax cut. I think he's getting 75 percent of what he wants, and I agree with the governor, it is a tremendous victory for Bush and it's a defeat for the Democrats who seemed to have abandoned their philosophy.

But my criticism of the president, and I think he might even agree with it. I think, look, when you got $4 trillion we're going to take in, more than we project spending, why are you taking this money from the American people? I would not take a dime more from the American people than we need. I would give all $4 trillion back, and I would agree if we did something like that, I would agree with the governor, this economy will be booming in 2002.

BLITZER: Governor?

CUOMO: I'm not sure I heard him correctly, but my objection to the tax cut is that you're giving too big a tax cut, too big a tax cut.

You should be investing, for example, in energy efficiency. He cut the budget there apparently because he feels he doesn't have enough money. You should be doing more with Social Security and Medicare. More with prescription drugs, more with education.

A quickie on education, please! He's demanding standards, and that's the bulk of his education provision. Why don't you try that on the defense budget? Just increase the standards for the military and you don't have to worry about investing in missiles.

BUCHANAN: Let me tell you what I would do with education. I disagree with the governor on that. I would take that $44 billion that the Department of Education's going to waste, just like every dime it's ever spent; take it and do what Bill Clinton did on welfare and Newt Gingrich did on welfare. Give it back to the states, all of it.

Get rid of the Department of Education, and let the states decide competitively what each of them believes is the best way to raise test scores. And if the state fails, they can throw out the legislators and the governors. Return that to the states and the people just like we did welfare, which is working like a charm.

BLITZER: Governor Cuomo, when you were governor of New York, you would have liked getting that money in New York state, wouldn't you?

CUOMO: Pat is absolutely right about sending money to the states for education. The General Accounting Office says that the public schools need a $120 billion just to repair their facilities, not to shorten the school -- not to reduce the class size or lengthen the school year. Not for computers, not to improve the quality of education, just to fix up the buildings.

So anyway, you can get more money and, yes, of course, insist on accountability. Show standards for the spending of that. But the notion of testing all the kids and saying, "Good, now I've made education better," that's an absurdity. Can it be useful? Yes. Is it an answer? Of course not. What's the point of increasing the standard if you haven't given the wherewithal to educate themselves?

BLITZER: Ten seconds, Pat Buchanan.

BUCHANAN: The problem really is not money. When I was growing up, Wolf, it was $250 a pupil in Washington, D.C., schools. Parents were proud of them, they were successful schools, black and white. Nowadays they're spending $9,000 or $10,000 per student, and they are moral, educational and social disaster areas. The problem is not money.

BLITZER: OK. Pat Buchanan, on that note, we're going to have to end this discussion.

Governor Cuomo, thanks as usual for joining us as well.

BUCHANAN: Thank you.

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