Thursday, May 11, 2006
The Situation Room Exclusive: The Presidents Prestige is Falling
It is 1864 and the nation is in the midst of war with a desperately unpopular president at the helm. CNNs Wolf Blitzer trains his Situation Room on the problem and recites bleak facts in a conversation with the networks political analyst William Schneider. Mr. Schneider has a Ph.D in political science and was a Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute before he entered journalism. What follows is the text of the Situation Room telecast.
Wolf Blitzer. At no point in U. S. history has a presidents popularity been at lower ebb than now. Members of his own party are gravely concerned as we learn from Bill Schneider, CNNs political correspondent. Bill
Bill Schneider. Wolf, the situation confronting President Lincoln is this. He came to office with the hope that the nation could be spared civil war: he seemed agreeable to compromise. Indeed he said that if the union could be saved by freeing some of the slaves and not others, that would be acceptablea moderate position. Furthermore he stated that if the union could be saved by freeing all the slaves, that would also be acceptable: a radical position which disturbed many in the north who wished to avoid war. Then he said if the union would be saved by freeing none of the slaves, that would also be acceptablewhich cheered most of the Democrats who under the agreeable and compromise-prone President Buchanan believe that would be the best course.
But, Wolf, as we know none of these proposals happened and the polls show the American people feel that the president is ineffective and not a leader
Wolf Blitzer. Let me interrupt here, Bill, to say that this confusion about the president is not the worst of his problems.
Bill Schneider. Indeed not, Wolf. Union casualties are reaching 285,000thats 285,000 dead with another 230,000 wounded in a war that a growing number of the American people say is approaching no end. And the president has experienced a great deal of difficulty in finding a general to run the war. People are saying that he should never have entered the war without much more planning, that he blundered into war without having ascertained the nature of our military leadership. First there was General George B. McClellan, reputed to be a brilliant organizer but too cautious in the field. No sooner had McClellan started to move on Richmond with 100,000 men by sea to the Virginia shore than Confederate General Joseph Johnston had ample time to amass his forces and brilliantly turned McClellans army back.
Wolf Blitzer. You say President Lincoln personally chose McClellan for this job and didnt rely on the recommendations of career people in the War Department?
Bill Schneider. Thats the way it was, Bill. Then moving without consulting the career people in the War Department, the president replaced McClellan with General Ambrose Burnside but as we all know Burnside was a failure. He followed Burnside with another failed general, Joseph Hooker. Then with General George Meade. Floundering, the president issued his Emancipation Proclamation which was opposed by all the members of his cabinet, but he issued it anyhow, evidence of severe morale disruption in the administration.
Wolf Blitzer. Let me ask you this, Bill. Why did the president do it when his cabinet was opposed?
Bill Schneider. Well, this president rather glories in being what he calls decisive no matter what the consequences which is deeply worrying people in his own party. And, of course, as the media have discovered, the Emancipation Proclamation means very little. You see, even supporters of the administration are saying it is a feeble attempt at positive spin. For this so-called Proclamation frees only those slaves in the Confederate states that are war. Which justifies in many peoples minds the cynical nature of the document, because--.
Wolf Blitzer. Because no slaves are actually freed since they are located in the rebelling states? Is that what you mean by a cynical spin, Bill?
Bill Schneider. Exactly. And theres more, Wolf. The spin nature of the document seems to be this: Slaves in Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri and Tennessee as well as portions of Louisiana and Virginia that are under union occupation are not freed. The presidents credibility has just about been shredded because of that action, Wolf. But let me go on. As I said, the president relieved Burnside when he failed to register any victories and appointed General George Meade. Brilliant Confederate General Robert E. Lee who has out-manuevered federal forces consistently engaged Meade at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and Meade failed to follow up on that battle. Listen to this, Wolf: a full fifth of the 90.000-member union force fell at Gettyburg.
Wolf Blitzer. Remind us what happened at Gettysburg, Bill. How many Confederate troops were lost?
Bill Schneider. Reportedly and we dont know for sure, a fourth of a total of 75,000. But General Lee and the Confederates brilliantly evaded disaster and continue to fight harder even now.
Wolf Blitzer. Well, I suppose it could be said that General Lee wanted to win but didnt achieve victory at Gettyburg, right, Bill? Would it be fair to acknowledge that General Lee retreated?
Bill Schneider. You can look at it that way, Wolf, but also another way. Lee brilliantly evaded defeat and moved out of Meades grasp to the south.
Wolf Blitzer. Would that be an advance south, Wolf?
Bill Schneider. Technically, no. Some would call it an advance backward to regroup for another possible smashing assault on the disorganized federal troops.
Wolf Blitzer. A move backward to prepare for another onslaught. What has been happening in other aspects of the country where war is waging?
Bill Schneider. Oh, not much, Bill. A few sporadic conflicts. General Ulysses Grant scored some victories in Tennessee and the Mississippi Valley but the big news focus has been with the so-called Grand Army of the Potomac. The picture is far from bright there
Wolf Blitzer. Now an admiral named David Farragut secured New Orleans in 1862, didnt he? Also tell us about this General Grant.
Bill Schneider. Yeah, Farragut captured New Orleans which is not viewed as an essential victory in a war which has consistently threatened our capital in Washington City. About Grant: he has a very spotty record, Wolf. News reports say that he was actually drummed out of the military in peacetime because of drinking, and was forced to tender his resignation. Reportedly called the troops to order in peacetime and talked to them insultingly until a superior officer took over. His rejoining the army when this war started is regarded as a kind of political maneuver. Hes from Illinois and evidently conducted some kind of pressure on the Governor there to get a commission re-started. I have heard that a committee of the Congress is preparing to look at this.
Wolf Blitzer. We here in the Situation Room here he made some important victories by taking two forts. How does this stack up, Bill.
Bill Schneider. Yes, he captured two Confederate forts but lost a great number of men in doing so. It appears that some of his critics who say that he is not concerned about casualties are right. They are Forts Henry and Donnelson. But the callous nature of his willingness to expend human lives distresses some observers, Wolf. He is also known for a very confrontational nature which obviates any chance of reconciliation. For example when the Confederates sought to negotiate over the two Forts, he curtly declared that he would only accept unconditional surrender. That kind of tactic some of Mr. Lincolns own party say will prolong this war.
Wolf Blitzer. Yet what led to General Grants taking Vicksburg and securing the entire lower Mississippi Valley after that, Bill?
Bill Schneider. He did that but the cost in union lives was horrendous. He is known as a man who doesnt handle authority very well. He doesnt check with the War Department but goes right ahead, a very precarious strategy to some minds, Wolf. However, Im glad you brought him up because it appears that Grant is in line for a promotion by the president, another move without the evident sanction of officers in the War Department, some of whom tell me they have the goods on Grants previous military record which couldthat should be stressed, Wolfcould involve earlier desertion in the peacetime servicebefore he was cashiered for drunkenness, that is.
Wolf Blitzer. Word has reached here from our War Department correspondent that the President is actually considering promoting General Grant to top command. Is that wise in the estimation of news sources youre in touch with, Bill?
Bill Schneider. Decidedly unwise, they say. But frequent decisions like this are part and parcel of this president, Wolf, including steps he has taken with so concern civil libertarians that some are actually mentioning impeachment.
Wolf Blitzer. What steps, Bill?
Bill Schneider. The Presidents suspension of the doctrine of habeas corpus, a key part of Anglo-Saxon law. It was done figuratively in the dark of nightwhen Congress had adjourned and could not block this action. Never, Wolf, has this been done before in American history which leads some jurists and legal spokesmen to wonder why were in this war anyhow, fighting to extend so-called liberties when back at home the President is curtailing these liberties in actions that even some people in his own political party call rash and ill-considered.
Wolf Blitzer. Is that the only so-called ill-considered action hes taken, Bill?
Bill Schneider. By no means. He has permittedeven encouragedthe military arrest and court-martial of civilian anti-war activists which lead critics to say
Wolf Blitzer. to say that while we are fighting to win liberties for slaves we are taking liberties away from other Americans who are citizens?
Bill Schneider. Exactly, Wolf. In addition to which the president has actually spent funds on the war prior to congressional appropriation, a breakage of the Constitution and which, his criticseven some in his own partysay could result in his impeachment.
Wolf Blitzer. Notwithstanding these obviously illegal acts, Bill, are you saying that the president is facing stormy weather in his administration with those who dont agree with him?
Bill Schneider. Absolutely. Rumors are, for example, that he is planning to dump his vice president, Hannibal Hamlin at the upcoming national convention and replace him with one who is not even a Republican at all but a Democrat from a southern state.
Wolf Blitzer. Finally, what are some of the recent comments from well-known public officials concerning the President, Bill?
Bill Schneider. Ive got a lot of them right here. General George McClellan who many felt was the ideal general-in-chief says, and I quote: The president is nothing more than a well-meaning baboon. He is the original gorilla. What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now! Thats one of the highest ranking generals in the United States. And a former president of the United Statesa former president, WolfFranklin Pierce, the 14th president, saysand I quote[Lincoln] is to the extent of his limited ability and narrow intelligence [the abolitionists] willing instrument for all the woe which [has] thus far been brought on the country and for all the degradation, all the atrocity, all the desolation and ruin.
Wolf Blitzer. What are some views of those who serve in the Congress about Mr. Lincoln, Bill?
Bill Schneider. They vary, of course, but even some in his own party do not rise up and challenge the opinion of Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware which isand I quoteI never did see or converse with so weak and imbecile a man; the weakest man I ever knew in high place. If I wanted to paint a despot, a man perfectly regardless of every constitutional right of the people, I would paint the hideous, apelike form of Abraham Lincoln.
Wolf Blitzer. Our time is up and we thank you for your upfront, tough, candid but fair look at the situation involving this war, Bill, which occupies so many peoples attention and concern.
Bill Schneider. Youre welcome, Wolf.
[NOTE: A poll of major U.S. historians in 1962 ranked Lincoln first of 31 presidents considered and best of the five great presidents, ranking him above George Washington.]