CBS’s Smith: Critics of Obama-Chavez Meeting Making ‘Mountain Out of Molehill'?

Harry Smith, CBS On Monday’s CBS Early Show, co-host Harry Smith discussed President Obama’s brief meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas with former Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino and former Clinton press secretary Dee Dee Myers, wondering: "Have the critics of this photo-op made a mountain out of a molehill?"

In a prior report on the meeting, correspondent Bill Plante explained: "President Obama defends his visit with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Asked about the notion that his willingness to talk to enemies of the U.S. was a sign of weakness, the President said it was unlikely that he was endangering the strategic interests of the United States...His simple handshake with Venezuela's president was a symbolic break with the Bush administration policy of shutting out unfriendly nations." Smith repeated Obama’s defense as he later wondered if critics were making too much of the encounter.

Perino expressed the desire to see the President in photo-ops with Latin American leaders more friendly to the United States: "I would have loved to have seen more pictures with people like President Uribe of Colombia, who has worked very hard to establish democracy there." Smith became defensive: "Well, Hugo Chavez is a camera hog and that of course -- as a vowed enemy and...who called your boss 'a devil,' then that's the picture that's going to make the news." Perino pointed out that Obama "gave him the opportunity" and argued: "I think he'll call Obama something like that in the near future. I just think that he doesn't change at all."

Smith then turned to Myers: "Dee Dee was this, the picture itself, the opportunity itself, to be seen in a cordial manner, was that an error?" She could not have been more happy with the meeting, making a point similar to that of Bill Plante: "No. I think it's a positive change...And what was interesting was a lot of the leaders who were there at the Summit of the Americas said the tone was so positive, it was so productive, that not in their wildest dreams could they have imagined that the summit could be like this, compared to what it was four years ago, when people were protesting in the streets and nothing got done."

At the end of the segment, Smith briefly asked about the tea party protests last week: "... this rising sort of disaffection with the government and the Obama administration. If you are President Obama, and this is a press secretary question, a quick answer from both, Dee Dee, do you address it or ignore it?" Myers opted for ignoring the protests, while Perino responded: "I hardly think that you can go and shake hands with dictators and be friendly with them and then ignore people in your own country who have concerns about your budget."

Before moving on to another story, co-host Julie Chen defended the Obama-Chavez meeting with a quote from The Godfather: "Well, Harry, what's the saying? Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer." Smith replied: "Keep your enemies even closer, that's right."

Here is the full transcript of the segment:

7:00AM TEASE:

HARRY SMITH: President Obama back from Latin America. But was he too friendly to sworn enemies of the U.S.? Exclusive new video of an extended conversation with Hugo Chavez raising new questions this morning.

7:04AM SEGMENT:

HARRY SMITH: President Obama is back at the White House after attending a three-day summit with leaders of Latin America. But now questions are being asked about his interaction with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. CBS News senior White House correspondent Bill Plante has more. And good morning, Bill.

BILL PLANTE: Good morning, Harry. The President spent some time at this weekend's summit meeting talking with some of America's harshest critics. And one of them, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, has released new video, no surprise there, showing himself yesterday with the president. And the president is now getting some heat back at home. President Obama defends his visit with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Asked about the notion that his willingness to talk to enemies of the U.S. was a sign of weakness, the President said it was unlikely that he was endangering the strategic interests of the United States.

BARACK OBAMA: I mean, the whole notion was that somehow if we showed courtesy, or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. It doesn't make sense.

PLANTE: His simple handshake with Venezuela's president was a symbolic break with the Bush administration policy of shutting out unfriendly nations.

OBAMA: We have some very specific national interests, starting with safety and security, that we have to attend to. But, we recognize that other countries have good ideas, too.

PLANTE: Now that he's back home, the President is turning to domestic affairs. He holds his first cabinet meeting today. And he's going to instruct his cabinet officials, according to senior officials who tell us this, to cut a collective $100 million over the next 90 days. Harry.

SMITH: Bill, I remember when that used to sound like a lot of money. Thanks very much. Joining us from Washington, former Bush Press Secretary Dana Perino and former Clinton Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers. Good morning to you both.

DANA PERINO: Good morning.

DEE DEE MYERS: Good morning, Harry.

SMITH: Let's talk about the Hugo Chavez picture. I want to reiterate what Bill Plante said. The President said 'it is very unlikely that shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez will endanger the strategic interests of the United States.' Have the critics of this photo-op made a mountain out of a molehill? Let me start with Dana Perino.

PERINO: Well, I think that if you wanted to show a difference in terms of style in regards to George Bush, he did that. We did not shake hands with Hugo Chavez. We were not friendly with dictators. However, you know, I'm less worried about so much the -- the handshake. I think, though, that what we will need to see is if any behavior changes. And one of the things President Obama just said in that clip is that these regimes were previously hostile to the United States. And from what I heard and read about the words of those leaders in the -- at the summit of the Americas, they are no less hostile to the United States than they used to be. And we'll have to see if the people of Venezuela and the people of Cuba and other people who are freedom fighters, that need our solidarity, our concern. The other thing is, I would have loved to have seen more pictures with people like President Uribe of Colombia, who has worked very hard to establish democracy there.

SMITH: Well, Hugo Chavez is a camera hog and that of course -- as a vowed enemy and-

PERINO: Right. And he gave him the opportunity.

SMITH: -who called your boss 'a devil,' then that's the picture that's going to make the news. Let me-

PERINO: I think he'll call Obama something like that in the near future. I just think that he doesn't change at all.

SMITH: Okay, let me -- let's go to Dee Dee. Dee Dee was this, the picture itself, the opportunity itself, to be seen in a cordial manner, was that an error?

MYERS: No. I think it's a positive change. President Obama made clear when he ran for president, and since he's become president, that he is going to establish a different kind of relationship with both countries who've been friendly to us, and some that haven't been friendly to us. And what was interesting was a lot of the leaders who were there at the Summit of the Americas said the tone was so positive, it was so productive, that not in their wildest dreams could they have imagined that the summit could be like this, compared to what it was four years ago, when people were protesting in the streets and nothing got done. They said this will create a real opportunity for us to address problems. Like the economic crisis that's really weighing on so many countries in that part of the world. So it's a positive step forward. As the President said, this doesn't change our strategic objectives anywhere in the world. It means we're starting a new dialogue, with a new tone.

SMITH: Alright, I don't have a lot of time left. I'm going to go back to the tea parties last night [last week] and this rising sort of disaffection with the government and the Obama administration. If you are President Obama, and this is a press secretary question, a quick answer from both, Dee Dee, do you address it or ignore it?

MYERS: I think you -- look, I think you continue to do what you're doing. Focus on your policies that you're trying -- what you're trying to accomplish and reassure people that this is in the country's best interest and move forward.

SMITH: Alright. And Dana?

PERINO: Well, I can -- I hardly think that you can go and shake hands with dictators and be friendly with them and then ignore people in your own country who have concerns about your budget.

SMITH: Dana Perino, Dee Dee Myers, thank you very much for a lively conversation this morning. Do appreciate it.

MYERS: Thanks, Harry.

SMITH: Alright, be well. Now here's Julie.

JULIE CHEN: Well, Harry, what's the saying? Keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.

SMITH: Keep your enemies even closer, that's right.

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC