CBS's Harry Smith Grills Republican McCain But Goes Soft On Democrat Obama

On Wednesday’s "Early Show" co-host Harry Smith pressed Republican Senator and presidential candidate John McCain on the war in Iraq and the president’s handling of it, but in a subsequent interview with Democratic presidential hopeful and Illinois Senator Barack Obama, Smith only had softball questions. For instance, Smith wondered what Obama was thinking while he was listening to the president’s speech and what running for president has taught the Illinois Senator. Smith also neglected to question Obama regarding his inexperience.

Mr. Smith first talked with Senator McCain, and Smith spent much of the interview discussing Iraq. Given the tone of the interview, it seems unlikely that McCain will be the media sensation he was in 2000. During today’s segment, Smith first wondered if President Bush even deserved another chance on Iraq:

"Let me start with the notion that the president brought out last night of wanting another chance. Does he deserve another chance?"

After McCain noted that it wasn’t about another chance for President Bush, but rather another chance at success, Smith wondered if the president deserves the blame for the war:

"You called for more troops starting probably three and a half years ago, right, over and over again, called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. Isn't the President responsible as the Commander in Chief and maybe even the Vice President for his advice for the situation we're in right now?"

Smith followed by accusing President Bush of ignoring advice on Iraq:

"You understand the frustration out there, because this is this willful sort of ignoring advice all along the way. Why should he be given carte blanche, again?"

And later, Smith implied that the president was not sending enough new troops to Iraq:

"Right. General Petraeus, who you just gave accolades to, in his insurgency bible said he needed another 40,000 troops, more than he's going to get, in order to do the job he wants to do."

Questions about Iraq are fair, and Senator McCain did an admirable job in addressing them. However, when they are compared to some of the questions Smith asked of Senator Barack Obama, it would seem that Harry Smith put on the kid gloves when it came to questioning Illinois’ junior senator. Smith opened by inquiring as to what Mr. Obama was thinking during the president’s speech:

"The most important thing the president talked about last night was trying to resell his increase in troop levels in Iraq. As you listened to him last night, what were you thinking?"

Later, Smith wanted to know what Obama has learned now that he’s a presidential candidate:

"You've announced your exploratory committee. You've been out on the stump now. What has that experience been like? What has it taught you thus far?"

And Smith even gave Mr. Obama a chance to address an article that claimed he had attended an Islamic school while living in Indonesia as a child:

"Since you're now actually in this race it doesn't come without some rough edges. There's a report in an on-line site that you actually attended a madrasa. That has then been reported by other cable news outlets, do you want to clear the air of that or explain?"

Obama responded by praising CNN for a piece they did on the subject, rather than fully answering the question.

Missing were questions about the first term Senator’s limited experience. Other than serving two years in the Senate, what experience qualifies him to be president at a time of war? What about Iraq? While Obama did claim to support a phased withdrawal of forces out of Iraq, there was no follow up from Mr. Smith. Smith could have inquired about the effect that would have on the Middle East as a whole, which President Bush addressed in his speech Tuesday evening. It is unfortunate that Smith wasted the opportunity to ask some tough questions that voters are entitled to have answered.

Transcripts of these interviews follow:

7:05

Harry Smith: "Republican Senator John McCain who has his own presidential ambitions was, of course, in the audience for last night's address. And The Senator joins us this morning in Washington. We do so appreciate it."

John McCain, Arizona Senator: "Good morning Harry. Great view. Best view in town."

Harry Smith: "This is the best money can buy, as a matter of fact. Let me start with the notion that the President brought out last night of wanting another chance. Does he deserve another chance?"

John McCain: "It's not so much him as are we going to give it another shot so that we can bring some modicum of success so that we don't have chaos in the region which would, in my view, eventually cause us to return under even perhaps more difficult circumstances. If we fail there's going to be chaos in the region."

Harry Smith: "You called for more troops starting probably three and a half years ago, right, over and over again, called for Donald Rumsfeld's resignation. Isn't the President responsible as the Commander in Chief and maybe even the Vice President for his advice for the situation we're in right now?"

John McCain: "And I think the president, at least to some degree, has acknowledged that responsibility. And, yes, we stuck with a failed policy for way too long and these have been well chronicled in books like 'Fiasco' and others. And we are where we are, and that's what we're trying to figure out. General Petraeus is the best general I have encountered maybe in my lifetime. This is a strategy, with sufficient numbers of troops, can work. But, boy, I mean these neighborhoods are tough, and I gotta look you in the eye and tell you initially we may see an increase in American casualties which will not be well received by the American public. Understandably the sacrifice has been terrible. Americans are frustrated, and they're angry, but if we can show 'em a way out and one that's convincing, I think they'll support it."

Harry Smith: "You understand the frustration out there, because this is this willful sort of ignoring advice all along the way. Why should he be given carte blanche, again?"

John McCain: "Because in the words of a poker player who went to a crooked game -- 'it's the only game in town.' This is our only chance, Harry. And again, I want to say if you leave, the Sunnis exterminate Shia and vice versa, the Iranians play, the Saudis have to help Sunnis, the Turks are scared to death about the Kurds trying to become independent. The whole thing erupts in that and we have a national interest."

Harry Smith: "Right. General Petraeus, who you just gave accolades to, in his insurgency bible said he needed another 40,000 troops, more than he's going to get, in order to do the job he wants to do."

John McCain: "Yes. I talked to him about that. They're going to go neighborhood by neighborhood. It's not going to be try to do Baghdad all at once. They're going neighborhood by neighborhood and they are counting on Maliki support. That's going to be tough. But, wait a minute, he's doing a little bit better. And it's going to require Iraqi military to step up which, admittedly, has not been as successful as we wanted."

Harry Smith: "Joe Lieberman yesterday sat there in the committee that you were in, Armed Services Committee, and pleaded with the Senators not to pass this bipartisan resolution, saying -- 'don't do this Mr. President.' Saying, it could be harmful to the troops on the ground, are you on board with that?"

John McCain: "I am not sure it's harmful but if you tell a group of young Americans that are going into harm's way, some of them will die, 'we support you but not what you're doing, and we think it's going to fail,' you know, I don't think that's a good message for them. And, again Harry, the fact is you can pass resolutions of disapproval, but the real power of Congress is to cut off the funding. If they want to do that, then that's their decision."

Harry Smith: "Immigration, health care, any of that stuff you think might have a chance to getting some traction?"

John McCain: "I think immigration has a chance, I really do. I think it's time we can come together on that issue. I do believe that -- I was glad to see him mention climate change. I would have liked to have heard some more details on that, but I was glad to hear that mentioned. Overall, I think it was a good speech, and, by the way, people were generally very polite last night. It was a kind of a new era and I think it was established by the acknowledgement of our new woman speaker."

Harry Smith: "Well, he opened in such a gracious moment, and I think a lot of people said 'where's this been for the last seven years?'"

John McCain: "Well, it's a tough environment around here and maybe one of the lessons of the last election is maybe they want us to be a little more polite to each other and a little more respectful. I think the President started out well last night."

Harry Smith: "Senator John McCain, thank you so much, as always good to see you."

 

7:31

Harry Smith: You know, there were a number of senators who were in the House chamber last night watching the president with particular interest, and especially thinking that maybe two years from now they'll be standing where the president's standing. And among them, the Junior Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. Good morning sir.

Barack Obama, Illinois Senator: "Good morning."

Harry Smith: "The most important thing the president talked about last night was trying to resell his increase in troop levels in Iraq. As you listened to him last night, what were you thinking?"

Barack Obama: "I was thinking that he has not made the case. I think, we've had hearings over the last two weeks at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, uniformly whether conservative, liberal, military, civilian, the experts believe, as I believe, that an additional 20,000 troops is not going to change the dynamic there. It will put more of our young men and women in harm's way without solving the essential political problem that exists in Iraq right now."

Harry Smith: "What about the notion that even if we stayed at the status quo or if there was a drawdown, it's an invitation to even more chaos, to even more bloodshed between Sunni and Shiite?"

Barack Obama: "Well, look, I originally opposed this war precisely because I thought that once we were in, it would become a morass. And, there's no doubt that there are risks no matter what we do at this point, but what's clear is that we can't impose a military solution on Shia, Sunni, and Kurds who are unwilling to come together and accommodate themselves. And if that's the case, then what we have to do is change the dynamic by de-escalating by bringing some of our troops home and forcing them to the table."

Harry Smith: "If we woke up tomorrow and all of a sudden Prime Minister Maliki had back bone that he hasn't had thus far and said please come in, please help us do this together, might you change your mind?"

Barack Obama: "Well, keep in mind, what I have called for is a phased withdrawal. We wouldn't pull all of our troops out immediately. We would have time to make adjustments, consulting not just with the Iraqi government but our military commanders on the field."

Harry Smith: "Was there anything the President talked about last night that you particularly warmed to?"

Barack Obama: "Well, he talked about health care and energy. And, although the approach he takes is different than the one I would take, I think Democrats have to engage him in that because those are two critical issues facing the country. And I think he deserves a lot of credit for the work he's already done and wants to continue to do on issues of AIDS and malaria, particularly in Africa."

Harry Smith: "Right. He didn't quite say global warming last night--"

Barack Obama: "But he mentioned-- the idea of climate change finally passed his lips. That's long overdue. Obviously, there's great urgency in dealing with the threat to the entire planet."

Harry Smith: "One thing of the things in particular that is interest of your state is he really wants to boost biofuels, in particular ethanol. Your fellow Senator from Iowa almost came out of his suit last night when he talked about it. What was your thought?"

Barack Obama: "Well, you know, I actually have worked with Senator Grassley of Iowa and others on this issue. And so, this is something I will be strongly supportive of."

Harry Smith: "You've announced your exploratory committee. You've been out on the stump now. What has that experience been like? What has it taught you thus far?"

Barack Obama: "You know, the American people are hungry for change. They are very eager for ideas on how we can move forward on issues like health care and retirement security. And they really want to see us regain leadership in the world, something that we've lost over the last six years. So, they're looking for some concrete, practical, common-sense solutions to the problems we face."

Harry Smith: "Since you're now actually in this race it doesn't come without some rough edges. There's a report in an on-line site that you actually attended a madrasa. That has then been reported by other cable news outlets, do you want to clear the air of that or explain?"

Barack Obama: "Well, CNN did a great job. Sorry to mention your competitor, but they actually went to the school that I attended for two years when I was 7 and 8 in Indonesia and it showed that it was an ordinary public school. So, yeah, these kinds of scurrilous attacks are going to be out there. Unfortunately they get repeated and fortunately some good journalists showed that they were complete fabrications."

Harry Smith: "All right, Senator Obama, thank you so much for your time this morning, do appreciate it, sir."