A Good Newscast On Good Friday

Peter Jennings: . . . a week so extraordinary, so packed with history that one hardly knows where to begin. An overview from our correspondent Jack McWethy.

McWethy: Peter, what a week it was. On Thursday in Washington riveting testimony. The head of the National Security Council, Condoleezza Rice, live before the 9/11 commission and the country. She was a dramatic witness. In calm tones and over three hours Rice walked through the history of America and al Qaeda, reviewing both the Bush administration’s eight-month leadership before September 11, 2001, and the Clinton administration’s eight years. She came with heavy documentation—memoranda, briefing notes.

Bottom line, she said, the Bush administration removed Saddam Hussein of Iraq for reasons of national and international security. The administration, she said, was deeply concerned about terrorism, aware of the threat of al Qaeda, and moved against it forcefully in Afghanistan and Iraq. The questioning was tough but struck many observers as strikingly nonpartisan.

In a compelling moment, Rice noted that she had previously answered “every single question” now put to her by the commission in private testimony. She told commission members she believed they were wrong to press for public testimony—“You have said that 9/11 was so extraordinary a day that it justifies public testimony from the NSC director, but I ask you to realize that the future will be full of extraordinary days. You have set a precedent that will not be unset, and that will prove unhelpful during the crises of the future.”

She added, however, that she found herself feeling “rather personally and selfishly grateful” to be compelled to give testimony. “The whole world is watching,” she said. “They have a right to know that the American nation moves forward only in good faith, only for the most serious of reasons, and only with the intention of making the world a safer and more decent place.”

Rice challenged the committee to “get your work done,” so that the government can turn undivided attention to what she called “the next big steps”—an extraordinary plan to assist in the invention and manufacture of “anything that can help the people of the world make their way through the coming difficult decades.” She referred to what the president will soon announce as “an on-the-ground strategic defense initiative.” She said it will begin in the U.S. with the giving out of gas masks and state-of-the-art suits to protect against chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, along with a renewal of the national civil defense system, more intelligence funding and measures, and a surprise Bush administration decision to reverse itself and back a national ID card, and step up border and immigration control.

All in all, huge news. By the way, Peter, administration foe Richard Clarke, who did commentary on Rice’s testimony for CNN—that’s him next to Anita Hill—said: “I must admit I realize for the first time that there’s a heck of a lot I didn’t know and didn’t imagine. This is food for thought.” Asked by Wolf Blitzer if he might now disavow some of the charges in his recent best-selling book Clarke said, “I may put a new preface on the paperback.”

But that is just what happened in the hearings on Thursday.

Friday morning, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts made a stunning speech retracting what he called his “intemperate and, truth be told, cynical” comments earlier this week when he compared Iraq to Vietnam and George W. Bush to Richard Nixon. Kennedy said that Sen. John McCain’s remarks on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon had been “both sobering and steadying.”

McCain, the respected Republican moderate, said Iraq is “safer now” than it was under Saddam and “this is no time to cut and run.” Kennedy said he’d pondered McCain’s views, and concluded they were right. “I guess I panicked,” Kennedy said. “I wanted to be relevant again. I wanted to be young again. So I indulged my ego and hoped, aloud, for hopelessness. The fact is, we cannot afford to let Iraq descend into chaos and nihilism.”

Kennedy said that while U.S. troops were deployed in a foreign land he would say nothing that would give inspiration to those who do not wish our country well. He said he will lead a movement within his party to both assist in the democratization of Iraq, and begin a national conversation on what should be next in terms of U.S. national security. “My needs are nothing compared to my nation’s needs,” he said. “Even though I am, uh, roughly, arguably the size of Connecticut, and can personally moon Europe. Thank you.”

In possible response to that—Peter, we cannot claim to know all the reasons for these events, only their order—the president of France, Jacques Chirac, made his own stunning speech in Paris. In what appeared to be an extended ad lib in an otherwise unremarkable text, Chirac said he had just finished reading Anne Applebaum’s book “Gulag,” which this week won the Pultizer Prize.

Said Chirac, “Halfway through it a lightbulb went off. I had an insight. An inspiration! Applebaum reminds us of the Soviet reign of terror. We know who ended that, and let’s face it, it wasn’t French intellectuals smoking Gauloises and shrugging with silent existential eloquence. It was America. While Harry Truman was doing his best to give us the Marshall Plan and save Europe, Stalin was getting drunk all night and deciding who to shoot next. Bastarde. A regular Saddam. And then I realized: Oh, I have been unappreciative! I have been silly about America. She has more than proved her high mindedness and idealism and tradition of goodness. And now she is having a bad time in Iraq. Well, I have decided it is time to stand with America as America has stood with us. So, ‘Pershing, we are here!’ We will send French troops to join the coalition. This is a historic move—but then any country that is magnifique would do it. And France is magnifique. And by the way, Mr. Berlusconi, the leaders of Europe are not a bunch of ‘big ugly slugs.’”

Finally, Rome. The Vatican. Where pope John Paul II this week said he is praying for coalition troops in Iraq. He asked churches throughout the world to “offer up” Easter Sunday masses for peace, and said he knows the American effort in Iraq “is meant at improving lives and leading that unhappy place toward democracy.” The pope performed his ritual washing of the feet of the poor, a yearly act aimed at showing Christian humility and love.

The pontiff asked this year also to personally wash the feet of Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome. Afterward the two went into the pope’s private Vatican apartment and watched a DVD of “The Passion,” the fourth viewing for the pope, and about an hour ago they had dinner “as friends do.” Those words are the pope’s. The chief rabbi upon leaving pronounced the movie “a little boring but not so bad.” The pope seemed to nod, and said, “If you believe what you’re watching is a true story it’s enthralling, but if you think it’s not, it’s probably not.” Pressed by reporters for his own reaction to the film, the pope smiled. “I say it again,” he said in a deep but soft voice. “It is as it was.”

An amazing Holy Week, Peter, an amazing Passover holiday, some amazing moments.

Jennings: Amazing indeed. When we return, good news for humor writer Al Franken: His numbers may not be good at the end of his first week on the air but his new liberal radio network has nonetheless grown 100%. He now has six stations—roughly, or rather exactly, 1% of Rush Limbaugh’s. Now this. . . .