Editor’s note: On September 24, 2007, Juan Williams of Fox News interviewed President George W. Bush in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House. The two discussed Jena, Hurricane Katrina, and Donovan McNabb, among other subjects.
Williams: Mr. President, thank you for joining us this morning. It’s 50 years ago that events at Little Rock Central High School took place, as nine black children tried to enter that high school and federal troops had to be sent to protect them. Where do you think we are today in America in the fight for racial justice for all?
President Bush: You know, we’ve obviously progressed because it is accepted that black children and white children are going to go to school together. I’ve thought about that. I went to the high school when I was–since I’ve been President, and it struck me that an American President had to commit the 101st Airborne to get these kids into school. And it was a very ugly chapter in America. And we’ve progressed beyond that.
I think part of it has to do with social awareness, part of it has to do with the baby boomers coming of age. You know, a lot of people that are my age–which happens to be 61–grew up rejecting this notion of a segregated society. I grew up in a town, Juan, where there was a white high school and a black high school–that’s Midland, Texas–and of course, that no longer exists. So the structural change has happened.
I think hearts are changing as well in America, but there is still prejudice. And the role of the government is to open up opportunities for people and give people a chance to succeed. I mean, No Child Left Behind, for example, is a classic case of challenging this notion that certain kids can’t learn, so let’s measure to determine if they are learning and then correct problems early, before it’s too late–all aiming to give everybody access to the dream.
Williams: You know, today, the celebration 50 years later, also acknowledges the fact that a Republican predecessor of yours, President Eisenhower, decided to take that strong move of supporting racial integration. Why aren’t you going to Little Rock today?
President Bush: You know, I’m at the United Nations representing the country, talking about the great heart of America. And when it comes to dealing with issues like HIV/AIDS or malaria, it’s my–look, I hope people understand that I have competing obligations. Certainly my heart is in the right place.
Secondly, I did go to Topeka, Kansas, to celebrate the Brown decision.
Williams: Last week there was a large march in Jena, Louisiana–you may have heard about it–protesting the treatment of six black young people involved in a school fight. Fights broke out after; a noose was hung from a tree. Are events there a reflection of worsening race relations in the country, in your mind?
President Bush: You know, I was saddened by the events. I would hope the hearts of children would grow beyond this notion about insulting somebody through hanging a noose–which is an inherently bigoted response. And I’m not surprised of people’s reaction, of the African American community reacting the way they did because this notion of unequal justice harkens back to a previous time in our history that a lot of folks, including me, are working to get beyond.
And so I wasn’t surprised, Juan, of seeing the people on the streets. I was pleased that the march was peaceful. And beyond that, it’s hard for me to comment because I don’t want to get involved in an ongoing trial, but I do want to assure people that our Justice Department and appropriate branches in the Justice Department are monitoring the situation to make sure lives are safe, as well as to make sure that justice is fair.
Williams: Well, should the government get involved? Should you play a more active role there? Should the Congress, the Judiciary Committee in the House and the Senate get involved?
President Bush: Well, I think this is a–the charges were brought by a local prosecutor, and what the Justice Department ought to be doing is monitoring the civil rights violations, to the extent that there are some. Hopefully, this is going to be resolved in a fair–in a way that says justice is equitable, that people will be treated fairly.
Williams: Bill Clinton used to say–President Clinton–that he had a Cabinet that looked like America. But, in fact, you’ve had a more diverse Cabinet, President Bush: Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Elaine Chao, Alberto Gonzales, Alphonso Jackson, Mel Martinez, Carlos Gutierrez, Norman Mineta. Were they the best people for the job or did you select them to send a signal about the necessity of racial diversity?
President Bush: I’ve always tried to be an inclusive person, without sacrificing excellence. And with these individuals you’ve named I’ve been able to achieve sending a message that we’re a diverse nation and that–and at the same time I found people to do the job. I couldn’t imagine Condi Rice not being the Secretary of State. She is a–she’s been a key advisor inside the White House and she’s doing a fabulous job as Secretary of State. So it’s a combination of being interested in sending a message that America is a diverse country and people–you know, if you look hard enough, you can find people that are capable of doing the job in a fine way. And so I’ve looked hard and asked them to serve and I’m proud of their service.
Williams: You’ve appointed two people to the Supreme Court, both white males. Do you think that there should be greater representation, not only blacks and Hispanic, but women on that high court?
President Bush: I do, absolutely; and as you might remember, put forth a woman who I thought would be a great Supreme Court judge. And she never really got out of the blocks. And it looked like it was going to be a–it would be impossible for her to get out of the committee. So she gracefully withdrew her name. But I do believe so and I hope I have another pick. And obviously would seek excellence and diversity.
Williams: Mr. President, in black America we have skyrocketing rates of black-on-black murder; disproportionate incarceration rates; 50 percent dropout rates in high schools across the country; 25 percent poverty rate. Sitting here in the White House, how do you explain these problem trends?
President Bush: I think there’s a lot of conditions that create that. One is schools that have been inadequate and have failed. If you don’t get a good education, Juan, your self-esteem drops or you become someone who says this society isn’t meant for me. So focusing early on education–focusing on education and excellence in early education is vital.
Secondly, I believe the breakdown of the family has affected people. The way you solve a lot of the problems is–at least my solution has been to really empower those who can be most effective at helping people realize there are right and wrong in life, and that is the inner-city churches. I believe the faith–I’m a strong believer in the faith-based initiative because it is the local pastor or the local church member or the local community organizer who is much more effective about convincing somebody that they need help, or convincing somebody that there’s a better way that–rather than government trying to do that.
You know, I also believe that one of the problems in the African American community is there hasn’t been asset accumulation–in other words, assets have not been passed from one generation to the next. I remember going to a Mississippi automobile plant and a lot of the workers there were African Americans. And I asked them, did they have a 401(k)? And most of the folks raised their hand. I talked to some people afterwards, they said it was the first time they had ever had any assets, anybody in their family had accumulated assets that they could pass from one generation to the next. And I believe that government policy that encourages ownership will help address some of the frustrations inside parts of our country, and therefore proposed personal savings accounts as a part of the Social Security to make sure that the poor person was capable of–had the ability to realize compounding rate of interest, which wealthier people do, but also had some assets.
So there is a variety of reasons why the statistics you cited are real. And the key is not to lose focus about it, not to forget. And so whether it be educational excellence or ownership or–ownership of homes or ownership of assets, the administration has pushed hard to empower the individual.
Williams: Mr. President, the Supreme Court ruled this year that school districts in Louisville and Seattle can’t engage in even voluntary plans to achieve school integration. Are you concerned that America’s schools are growing more segregated, even as our population is more diverse and we are part of a global economy?
President Bush: We don’t want to be segregated as a society. We want there to be kids growing up understanding each other as a result of mingling in the school halls, for example. That’s why I’m a school choice advocate. And I am public school choice advocate where schools are falling, and I believe in giving students the scholarships to be able to go to whatever school their parents think they ought to go to, very similar to the scholarship program here in Washington, D.C.
Williams: Mr. President, the Republican candidates for President have decided not to participate in a Hispanic issues debate; several Republicans have also pulled out of a debate later this week scheduled to discuss issues of concern to the black community. Jack Kemp has said that if the party–what’s going on with this party? Do they plan to have their meetings only in suburban country clubs? Newt Gingrich says the party is writing off whole swaths of America. Is this a turn away from minority outreach on the part of Republicans?
President Bush: No, I think you’ll see the nominee of the party–whoever he is will head into the African American community with a positive message and, frankly, a good record as a result of compassionate conservatism. I mean, remember, we’re the ones who confronted this education system that just shoves kids through the system without questioning. We’re the ones who insisted upon disaggregation of results so that we could determine whether or not the African American kid was learning at the same rate as the white kid. And as a result of this intense focus on results, there’s an achievement gap that’s beginning to narrow.
So we’ve got a good record. More black people own homes today than ever before. I think that’s an accurate statistic. And so–and black entrepreneurship is on the rise. And so we’ve got a good record. And people shouldn’t shy away from going into the African American community or the Latino community.
Williams: Well, I think people in the black and Latino community might say, what happened in Katrina, where poor people–especially poor black people–abandoned in that situation?
President Bush: Yes. First of all, you know, our first response at all levels of government was to save people. And we had helicopters flying night and day, pulling people off the roof. And I made a comment down in New Orleans, I said those young kids reaching out of the helicopter didn’t ask, are you black or white? They said, you’re a fellow American, we’re here to save you. Nearly 30,000 people were saved off the roofs.
The response at all levels of government was not adequate. And the fundamental question now is, how do we make sure that the federal response is used properly by state and local authorities? We’ve spent about $114 billion, or we’ve sent $114 billion in the pipeline. And there’s still a lot of unspent money. And there’s a lot of housing money that’s unspent.
And the fundamental question, Juan, is, who’s responsible? I felt like the responsibility lay with us to write the check to help recovery. I believe it’s up to the local folks to make sure that the plans and the zoning laws are in place so that people actually can get that money and rebuild their lives.
Williams: Mr. President, illegal immigrants report that they’re facing increased pressure from Homeland Security as well as local authorities after the failure of a national immigration reform bill. Is immigration now a civil rights issue, and are you doing anything to try to get that reform back on track?
President Bush: As you know, I’m a strong advocate for comprehensive reform. I never felt we could adequately enforce the border unless we had a temporary guest worker program that would take pressure off the border. And, you know, I never–and I knew we needed to address the issue that there’s 11 million people here, more or less, that are undocumented, and we needed to do it in a way that was not amnesty, but also realistic enough not to kick them out of the–feel like we could kick them out of the country; it’s just not going to happen.
I was disappointed when the bill went down. You know, I’m not sure there’s an appetite in Congress to take up the issue again. But I’ll tell you where the pressure is going to come. It’s going to come from employers who can’t find people to do the work that they need done–whether you’re picking peaches somewhere or apples somewhere. These growers or hotel workers simply are going to run out of people to do those jobs, particularly as this economy continues to expand. And that pressure is going to be–starting to move into Congress at some point in time, and the Congress is going to have to address this issue again.
Williams: Mr. President, Donovan McNabb, the Eagles’ quarterback, recently said that black quarterbacks are under more scrutiny that white quarterbacks. Do you think that’s true in all American life? As you observe our country, do you see that blacks are under more intense scrutiny, subject to greater criticisms?
President Bush: It’s an interesting question. I heard him say that, and you know, it’s a–if he was under scrutiny yesterday, he was scrutinized positive because he had a great game; I mean, this guy can play. You know, it’s hard for me to tell, Juan. I’m sure there are cases where somebody feels like the criticism, the harsh criticism comes because expectations aren’t being met or because–let me just say that–like, for example, Condi Rice. I don’t–you know, she gets criticized. I don’t think she would tell you that she’s been criticized more than any other Secretary of State because of her race. Maybe she would. I don’t think so. I’ve never heard her complain about it. But I’m sure there are cases where people–I remember the day where people said there’s never going to be a team with a black quarterback, and all of a sudden, people like McNabb are showing what a ridiculous statement that was.
And so I would hope that’s not the case. And I’m sure that a person like Donovan McNabb, who’s an honest guy, is just sharing what he thinks, which is okay.
Williams: Mr. President, just to shift for a second as we conclude, the Iranian president, Ahmadinejad, is coming to the U.N., but he’s also going to be at Columbia University.
President Bush: Yes.
Williams: Do you think that Columbia is right to welcome him and give him the opportunity to speak to its students?
President Bush: You know, I hope–I mean, this is a place of high learning, and if the president thinks it’s a good idea to have the leader from Iran come and talk to the students as an educational experience, I guess it’s okay with me.
I’m a little–you know, the problem is Ahmadinejad uses these platforms to advance his agenda, which is, I suspect in this case, is he doesn’t want America to really know his true intention. I’ll be curious to hear how he describes his views of the Holocaust. I’ll be curious to hear how he answers the question–you know, that our [sic] intention is to destroy Israel.
Ours is a great country. I mean, if you really think about it, he’s the head of a state sponsor of terror. And yet, an institution in our country gives him a chance to express his point of view, which really speaks to the freedoms of the country. I’m not so sure I’d offer the same invitation, but nevertheless it speaks volumes about really the greatness of America. We’re confident enough to let a person come and express his views. I just hope he tells everybody the truth.
Williams: Mr. President, there’s a new book, “Evangelical President,” quotes you as saying, “Hillary Clinton will defeat Barack Obama.”
President Bush: Yes.
Williams: Is that what you think?
President Bush: You know, I probably shouldn’t have opined publicly about it since I’m not that great a political prognosticator to begin with. I believe she’s going to be a formidable person in the primaries because she’s got a national reach. And I’m not sure I can call the elections since I’ve never participated in a Democratic primary in my life. I do think we can defeat either candidate in the general election in November of 2008.
Williams: A final thing, Mr. President. You’ve said that you don’t want to comment about any American knowledge of Israel’s attack on Syria. This week, do you have anything more that you can offer us, the American people, on this subject?
President Bush: I really don’t, Juan. Thank you.
Williams: Well, Mr. President, thank you for giving us this time.
President Bush: Yes, sir.
Williams: I appreciate it.
President Bush: Good job.
Williams: Thank you, sir.