Exclusive: Wolf Blitzer On Israel, Harry Reid, Dirty Campaigns, And Cable News
With apologies to a certain Silver Fox, Wolf Blitzer is without a doubt the most recognizable name (and face) at CNN, the network that invented cable news. While he has more than his share of critics and fans, Blitzer has been a consistent, stable presence at the network for as long as anyone can remember, and now shoulders three hours of their schedule. On Tuesday, Wolf squeezed in some time to discuss the current presidential race, including the controversial Ad Heard Round The World, as well as his insights on Israel, and the state of cable news.
Since the cancellation of John King USA in June, Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room (which celebrates its 7th anniversary this week) has expanded from two hours to three, increasing the network’s reliance on its longtime star. Most of us probably remember Wolf from his reporting on the first Gulf War, which he covered shortly after joining CNN in 1990, but he had a long print career before that, with stints at Reuters and The Jerusalem Post. Now, in a cable news landscape that seldom rewards the kind of journalism that CNN built their brand on, Blitzer is an even more important figure.
He’s also universally revered and liked by his CNN colleagues (the ones I’ve spoken to), and it’s not hard to see why. With all of that responsibility, Wolf agreed to our interview on very short notice, and sat for twice the time alotted (he even posed for snapshots in several different locations, until we gave up on getting the lighting right).
Interviewing television personalities sharpens the old egotism radar, but there was not a trace of that in Wolf, nor any trace of discomfort with tough questions. The other thing that comes through in our interview, which is difficult to translate onscreen, is his tangible enthusiasm for the news.
Since we conducted this interview, there have been developments in some of the stories we discussed, which I’ve noted in the transcript (doesn’t it seem like a long, long time ago that we were all talking about Harry Reid?):
Tommy: Boom, and we’re on the record. So, let’s start talking about some politics. The big story now, Harry Reid and the Tax Returns. What’s your assessment of that, as a newsman?
Wolf: I think it’s one thing for a journalist, Woodward and Bernstein have great confidential sources, and they obviously don’t want to report who their confidential sources are, and Watergate, as a result of confidential sources, we know what happened. I think it’s another thing for a politician to be going on the Senate floor to be making an accusation like this. Word on the street, word is out, stuff like that, I’ve got a source, blah blah blah, you’re making a serious charge that he hasn’t paid taxes in 10 years, that’s what you’ve heard, but you can’t reveal your source, you know, that’s a pretty serious charge, I’ve got a problem with that.
Tommy: What do you think of the way it’s been covered?
Wolf: I think its been covered, you know, obviously, the right covers it one way and the left covers it another way. We at CNN, we try to cover it responsibly and fairly, we did a good piece, Dana Bash, our senior congressional correspondent on my show did a really substantive solid piece, we did extensive q and a. The question I asked her was, ‘Harry Reid says he got this from an insider at Bain Capital. Why would even one of his colleagues at Bain Capital know what he’s paying on his income tax? Did he share for 10 years his IRS annual returns with insiders at Bain Capital, that rasied a question mark in my mind. Obviously they are trying to put the burden on Romney to release his income tax returns, and he says he’s not going to do that.
I wrote a piece on my blog, we did it a couple weeks ago, and I said, look, if you want to be president of the United States, no more secrets, you gotta expect that people are going to want to go through all of this kind of stuff. I think he should release it all, but if he doesn’t want to, and he wants to pay the price politically for not releasing it, that’s his right obviously. I agree with a lot of the conservatives who say ‘just release it, get it over with and move on’.
I’m into transparency…you know its one thing, if you want to be chief executive of Bain Capital, you don’t have to release all that stuff. If you want to be President of the United States, you’ve got to expect that there’s going to be a clamor for all these kinds of details. That’s what I’d like to see.
Tommy: There’s a political price for Romney in not releasing the tax returns. So what is the political price for somebody like Harry Reid, what’s to stop somebody like Harry Reid, say on the Republican side from doing what he’s doing?
Wolf: The price that he’s gonna pay, Harry Reid, presumably, will be, I don’t know how the’re going to prove this. If Romney is going to hold firm and not release this, then it will just be an open debate. I say he didn’t pay taxes, he said he did pay taxes. One thing that Romney does have going for him, Romney flatly says he did pay taxes, and he paid a lot of taxes, but he’s not going to spell it out. McCain, Sen. McCain, and Dana on my show made the point, because McCain vetted Romney as a potential VP running mate 4 years ago, and reviewed 20 years of his income tax returns, and McCain and McCain’s aides have all said that he paid taxes. So, they disagree, they dispute what Harry Reid is saying, and so they are not releasing all those copies that they have some place, assuming they still have those copies, McCain is an honorable guy and he says that…
Tommy: That’s kind of a small boast, to say ‘well I paid taxes’
Wolf: I mean he says he paid a lot of taxes. But, you know, nobody says he did anything illegally. If you’re making a salary, you pay a certain rate income tax, but if you have investment income, and you’ve had it for over a year, you paid a smaller rate. That’s the law. You can voluntarily make contributions to the Treasury Department if you want, if you want to do that, but not a lot of people do that.
Tommy: Not too many…
Wolf: They may give money to the American Cancer Society, or the American Heart Association, but they don’t write checks voluntarily to the Treasury Dept.
Tommy: So you were with Gov. Romney on the Israel trip?
Tommy: You interviewed him, and several Israeli leaders.
Wolf: I interviewed Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, and Ehud Barak, the defense minister. And Romney, all in the course of like two days.
Tommy: You’ve seen Romney attacking the president on Israel, attacking for not visiting Israel, and Republicans in general attacking him for damaging the relationship, so to hear them say, its horrible, but then to hear Israeli leaders say ‘we’ve had no greater friend’. You talk to these guys one on one—what’s your sense of how Romney was received by the Israeli leadership, and how they view President Obama?
Wolf: Well, Israel is a democracy, so you have different views, and I think that Netenyahu has one view of Romney, and Obama, Ehud Barak has a different view of both President Obama and Mitt Romney, and Shimon Peres, the president of Israel, has a different view. And so you’ve got three Israeli leaders there, but there’s nuances. There’s differences in their attitudes, and I’ve interviewed all three of them, and asked them pointed questions about President Obama—on this trip, Benjamin Netanyahu didn’t want to do an interview, because he said he was just going to be sucked into domestic American politics and he didn’t want to do it right after his meeting with Romney. But Peres and Barak were willing to do interviews, and both of them said, on the record, that ‘US-Israeli military to military intelligence to intelligence relations are better than they have ever been before. They were both praiseworthy of President Obama. Now, here’s my assessment. You’ve got a relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Netenyahu, which has been shaky, I don’t think there’s any great love lost between those two. On the other hand, there is a very strong US Israeli military relationship and intelligence relationship right now, and I think the Israelis are appreciative of that, the U.S. has done stuff for Israel over the last few years that previous governments didn’t do. And if you look at the interview with Peres, in particular—- Shimon Peres the president of Israel, he’s 88 years old, but he’s very sharp, he’s gone through the entire history of Israel as Prime Minister, Defense Minister, Foreign Minister, all these jobs—I said to him, ‘What was the best moment in U.S. Israeli relations’, going back to 1948 when Israel was established, and the worst moment in U.S. Israeli relations, and it was interesting…and he said the best moment was in May 1948 when Israel was established and President Harry Truman rejected the advice of the State Dept and immediately recognized Israel as an independent state. He said that was the best moment.
And I said, the worst moment? He said, 1990, when George H.W. Bush, James Baker was Secretary of State, and they suspended economic aid for the resettlement of Soviet Jews in Israel, billions of dollars in guarantees, because of Israel’s settlement activities in the West Bank, and that was when, I don’t know if you remember, when Baker was testifying on the Hill, and he was really mad at, Shamir was the Prime Minister of Israel, and he said, look, ‘you want that aid’, and remember over the past 20 years a million Soviet Jews have emigrated to Israel, ‘you want that aid, freeze settlements. Here’s my number’ and then he gave the White House switchboard number 202-456-1414.
‘When you’re ready to freeze settlements, call us, we’ll talk about the aid.’ Can you imagine, if Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, and she would testify before Congress, and she said ‘Mr. Netenyahu, freeze settlements, here’s our number?’ That was a dramatic moment. I recently got that video, and showed it on our air, because I had similarly, as someone who has studied U.S.-Israeli relations, thought that was a pretty low moment, a lot lower than—
Tommy: It’s funny, John Sununu, did that exact sort of move on President Obama, he read the White House switchboard number out loud on the news and said ‘call ‘em up, call your Jobs Council’.
Wolf: He may have been White House Chief of Staff then, when Baker did it, I don’t know, check that out. (He was) But I remember when Baker did that, it was a tough moment, so there have been ups and downs. I found both Barak and Peres, for whatever reason, going out of their way to praise President Obama. I would have gotten a very different—I wouldn’t have gotten anti-Obama words from Netanyahu, but he didn’t want to get involved in that.
Tommy: It’s funny because to hear the Republicans say it, ‘the president is universally hated’—
Wolf: It’s not true. Israel is very divided. You know, they’ve got left wingers, right wingers, just like we do. They got the whole 9 yards.
Tommy: You moderated some debates for CNN…
Wolf: Yes, I did three Republican debates. One here in Washington, one in Tampa, one in Jacksonville.
Tommy: I was really impressed with the way that you stood up to Newt Gingrich, I guess in the last debate, wasn’t it?
Wolf: It was, it’s when we were talking about transparency, and I was waiting for him, because he had gone after the media in several earlier debates, not just on John King, but in some of the earlier debates. Chris Wallace, he did it with Maria Bartiromo at one of the CNBC debates, he was, you know, ‘how could you ask me that question’.
So when I asked him about transparency or whatever, Romney’s Swiss bank accounts, because he was criticized in the Cayman Islands, the Swiss bank accounts and all that. And he looked at me and he said something like, you know, ‘This is a presidential debate. Why would you ask me a question like this?’
Well, Mr. Speaker, you’re the one who raised this issue. ‘But I did that on a cable television show,’ which is, he’s ridiculing cable television, ‘but I did that on a cable television show, this is a presidential debate’ and I said ‘Mr. Speaker, you want to be President of the United States, he wants to be President of the United States. You’re raising questions about his ability to be President of the United States, I didn’t do that, you did that.’
At which point, he looked at Santorum and he looked at Romney, hoping one of them would come to his aid, neither one of them did, at which point Romney then came in and said, ‘Ok, you want to—, then Gingrich went and slammed him, then it got lively. But, I was determined, going into that debate, every question that I asked, I had somebody on my staff, you’re one of these guys, you’re Newt Gingrich—because he’s someone I’ve covered for a long time. Even though I’ve had a decent relationship with him over the years, I knew he wouldn’t hesitate to turn it against the mainstream media, the lamestream media or whatever they call it. So, I said, you know every question I ask, you’re going to turn that question around and say ‘Wolf, how could you ask that stupid, idiotic question, blah blah blah’, so I was ready for it, I was totally prepared.
Tommy: You had to do some sort of debate prep?
Wolf: We did a lot of debate prep. Every question, I wanted to make sure, we spent hours and hours, that I was fully briefed. I don’t know if you remember, but I had a similar incident with Romney in that debate. We were talking about one of his debates when he said—he had a Spanish language radio. Excuse me, but you did say that ‘I’m Mitt Romney and I approve this ad’, and he said ‘I’ll have to check that’. But I was determined to hold these guys, to keep ‘em honest. And so I came in, and I had my little notes in front of me, and if they were going to start questioning, “Where’d you come up with that?” I’d have the information. So I didn’t see these debates as simply going into the debates with 20 questions, and I’ll ask them and see what they want, here’s the next quesiton, somebody can respond. I was determined, and I took this very seriously, as a representative of the viewers out there, voters out there, I was going to make sure I would keep them as honest if I could and do it in a polite, respectful way and not end up screaming or anything like that.
Tommy: So you’ll probably end up moderating –
Wolf: I don’t know. That I don’t know. There’s going to be three presidential debates and one Vice, I’d love to do it if they ask me.
Tommy: If they do…
Wolf: If they do, I’d be thrilled, but it’s been a long time since they’ve given one. Bernie Shaw, 1988, was, I think, the last time, when he did the Dukakis…
Tommy: Do you think you have a tougher time doing that sort of thing with President Obama and Mitt Romney, sort of keeping them honest and all that?
Wolf: Well first, you have different rules. These debates, the presidential debates, are ruled by the Presidential Debate Commission. Frank Fahrenkopf is the Republican co-Chairman and Mike McCurry is the Democratic co-Chairman and then they have a whole committee. They’ve worked out the format, the ground rules, the timing for all of these debates – the presidential debates and the vice-presidential debates. So they’ve got a whole different set of rules and the moderator has…So it’s not as free-wheeling as, shall we say, a CNN-sponsored debate in Jacksonville, Florida. So, you know, you’ve got to keep to the rules that the campaigns negotiated with the Presidential Debate Commission. It’s a different situation.
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