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MSNBC Meet the Press - Transcript

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MSNBC Meet the Press - Transcript


MR. TIM RUSSERT: Our issues this Sunday: Iraq, Iran, immigration, and the 2006 midterm elections. With us: the man who has represented Massachusetts in the United States Senate for 43 years, and the author of his new book, "America: Back on Track," Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Then, the future of Donald Rumsfeld and the staff shake-up at the White House. Insights and analysis from two journalists, David Broder of The Washington Post and Ron Brownstein of the Los Angeles Times. And two former press secretaries: He was Newt Gingrich's spokesman, Tony Blankley; she was Bill Clinton's spokeswoman, Dee Dee Myers.

Then, in our MEET THE PRESS MINUTE, words of advice from another press secretary serving a president with low poll ratings: President Lyndon Johnson's spokesman George Christian, from 37 years ago.

(Videotape, January 19, 1969):

MR. GEORGE CHRISTIAN (Press Secretary to President Johnson): God save the republic if we ever have a president who isn't sensitive to criticism.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: But first, the senior senator from Massachusetts. Democrat Ted Kennedy is back on MEET THE PRESS.


SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D-Mass.): Good morning.

MR. RUSSERT: Iraq. We have a new permanent prime minister. It appears the government is coming together. Encouraging news?
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SEN. KENNEDY: It is encouraging, but the bottom line is going to be what is happening out in the communities? What's happening out in the streets? What's the level of violence? You know, Tim, as of this week, American forces will have been in Iraq as long as America was in the Korean Peninsula in the Korean War. And at the end of this year, we will have been involved militarily in Iraq as long as we were in World War II. If we haven't been able to have a military solution with that period of time, then it is time for the Americans—servicemen to be, to be withdrawn from that, that country. I believe that American—continuation of American servicemen is more of a crutch that Iraqi groups are leaning on rather than resolving their own problems, and it's basically a time for the substantial withdrawal of American troops.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that no matter what the condition of Iraq, by the end of this year all American troops should be out?

SEN. KENNEDY: I believe that the presence of American troops and the numbers that they are—I agree with what General Abizaid has said to the Armed Services Committee over a year ago. General Casey, Mel Laird has written in the Foreign Affairs, that the American presence has helped to inflame the insurgency. I believe that is the current situation. And the only way that the Iraqi elements that are going to form the government are going to know that they are going to have to have their own destiny and are going to have to stand up their own troops is with a substantial withdrawal of American troops. That is the key. That is necessary. That, I believe, is essential this year.

The military has done its job. It's time for American troops to come on home.

MR. RUSSERT: Substantial. We have 135,000. You'd bring it down to?

SEN. KENNEDY: I, I don't see any reason why you couldn't see the total withdrawal. We're running into months now, six or eight more months to the remainder of the year, but there's no question we're going to have to have some presence in that area, strategic presence in that area for any period of time. But what we're talking about in, in Iraq is to convince the elements in Iraq that are going to be making decisions, that they can no longer lean on the United States Armed Forces as a crutch, that they no more can just depend, that the Iraqis themselves are going to have to stand up for their own national security.

MR. RUSSERT: How does that square with this, Senator, what you said in July of ‘03. "As a nation with honor, responsibility, and the vision of a better world for the oppressed, America cannot invade, then cut and run from Iraq."

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the fact is, what we are talking about, we have been there now. We have been there as long as we've been there in the Korean War, and we'll be there as long as we've been in World War II. And if we can't get a military solution in that period of time, what is crying out is for a political solution. And this is the best way to get a political solution.

Let me just say with regards to cutting and running, the people that are cutting and running are the administration when it comes to truth about Iraq and about their policies in Iraq, about the misguided information, the lack of intelligence, and the misinformation that they gave the American people as a basis for the invasion of Iraq, and the continued misinterpretation. That, I think, has been more damaging to the United States and the United States' interests there.

MR. RUSSERT: You said this is August of ‘05, "History teaches that creating the institutions essential for democracy takes many years of broad and continuing political engagement and enormous patience. The difficult work of creating a viable democracy in Iraq might well become even more difficult after the adoption of a constitution and the election of a permanent government." It sounds like you've lost patience.

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the fact is I was opposed to the war. That was the best vote I cast in the United States Senate, and I made speeches about the build-up to the war. In January of last year, I said that we ought to move for the substantial reduction and removal of American troops by the end of 2006. So that is a consistent. I don't know how much longer we have to have there for these parties to come together. This is an encouraging sign that we have seen, but we've seen other encouraging signs as well. The real question, "Will the Iraqis take control over their own destiny?" It's time for them to do it, the military's done their job, and it's time to have them come home.

MR. RUSSERT: If we got out and there was a civil war, chaos, and you saw al-Qaida moving in record numbers and Zarqawi exerting great control over the country, would you go back in?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, first of all, I heard the same kinds of suggestions at the time of the end of the Vietnam War, the great blood bath, we're going to have over 100,000 people that were going to be murdered and killed at that time. And for those of us that were strongly opposed to the war, heard those same kinds of arguments at the time. The fact is that the Iraqis have to win their own country, they have to be willing to sacrifice for their own country as Americans have been prepared to sacrifice, they have to stand up for their own country. And they have to be convinced that we're not going to just have a permanent presence in Iraq. That's what I think they believe today, and we have to disabuse them of it. The time has come, we have seen Americans do what they could do militarily, and the time has come for them to come home.

MR. RUSSERT: If it became a terrorist state, like Afghanistan, you would just leave it alone?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, there's other dangerous areas of the world, Bangladesh is an area—dangerous area of the world, we've got other dangerous areas of the world. The question is what is the limitation of American troops there? What are they going to be able to do? We can't be in every trouble spot in, in the world. We're going to have strategic interests in there, but the fact remains that we need other countries in those areas to participate. There are other political actions that a president can take similar to what President Clinton took in the Dayton conference. We could bring other countries together in terms of stability in those, in those regions. And I think that that can, that can be done and should be done and it ought to be done now.
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MR. RUSSERT: General Zinni, the former head of CENTCOM, on this program three weeks ago, spoke out against Secretary Rumsfeld, called for his resignation. One, do you think it's appropriate that these former generals are doing this? And two, should there be Senate Armed Services Committee hearings into the views expressed by the generals?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the—first of all, I think they have certainly a right to be—to do it. These are distinguished, battle-hardened officers that have had distinguished careers. The case on the other side says, "Well, why didn't they do it at other times and resign?" I don't—I think one of the always impressive pictures that I see is when General Pace is there with Secretary Rumsfeld and said, "All of these people have the opportunity to speak at our conference. We always welcome differing views." I said, "What Army has he been in?" As someone who was just a private first class, that is not the way the United States Army runs. These are distinguished officers, they're talking about substantive policy judgments and decisions. And what the military understand is accountability—our services are built upon accountability, we haven't had accountability with Don Rumsfeld. His removal—I've called for it after the Abu Ghraib.

What is more important, I think if the president had spent half the time this past week in refocusing on a new policy in Iraq rather than just defending Don Rumsfeld, we'd be better off. But it's important that we understand the lessons of, of the history of this involvement. These officers can get—can help us understand that. I think it's appropriate the Armed Services Committee has some time to hear them.

MR. RUSSERT: Are you concerned about people questioning the civilian leadership of, of the Pentagon?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, it seems to me that it's more related to tactics and strategy, information intelligence, the, the miscalculation in terms of the total number of troops, the withdrawal of troops at certain periods of time, the disarming of the military, the series of judgments that were made over there, virtually unilaterally, over military objections at that time. Those are some of the, the charges that have made in this—in these reports.

MR. RUSSERT: In your book, "America: Back on Track," you write this: "Our actions in Iraq may also have had the consequence of accelerating the nuclear development programs of Iran and North Korea." How can you say that?

SEN. KENNEDY: I don't think there's any question that that's been the, the case.

I think the — we went — after we had the brilliant actions against the al-Qaida in Afghanistan, the political judgments, as the record is showing now, was made, "Well, we can clear out Iraq just as quickly, and we can go in there." Military judgments or political judgments were made of that. And that, basically, the fact that we have been weighted down with Iraq all these years - $10 billion dollars a month, the 140,000 troops that we have had in there, and the, the stretching that our military has had in terms of Iraq — has emboldened Iran, has emboldened Iran, there's no question about it. Iran is providing the support from Hamas and many of the terrorist organizations. They have accelerated their whole program in terms of nuclear capability. I think a nuclear Iran would be enormously dangerous for that region and for the world generally. I welcome the fact that the United States is working internationally with our international neighbors, and that we're also having direct contacts with the Iranians.

But there is no question that the fact that we have been weighted down in Iraq has emboldened the countries, Iran, and also in North Korea. And also for the development of their nuclear capability. That is part of the, the spin-off in terms of the Iraq war. I think it's a very regrettable one. Hopefully, we may, if we're talking about Iran, try to develop—if we can't get sanctions at the Security Council level, that we can develop bilateral sanction on any of the countries that are going to be transporting nuclear materials or, or technology to these countries. Sanctions have worked against South Africa very, very effectively. Sanctions worked against Libya. Sanctions were working, off and on, even against Iraq. Sanctions could work in this case. And I think it's imperative that we are going to be aggressive in pursuing them.

MR. RUSSERT: If you were the president, you'd go for sanctions against Iran before the U.N., and if that didn't work you'd apply them unilaterally?

SEN. KENNEDY: I would to—I'd go to the U.N. first. If we can't—it does appear that Russia and China will probably exert a veto, I think that we have to go to a bilateral sanctions, and I would certainly think that that's absolutely necessary, and I think they ought to be working on that at the present time.

MR. RUSSERT: Would you keep the military option on the table?

SEN. KENNEDY: Not the nuclear military option. I think that that is not a constructive or positive discussion. Other military options ought to be kept on the table.

MR. RUSSERT: But you would say publicly, we would not use tactical nuclear weapons?

SEN. KENNEDY: I would not rattle the nuclear saber with regards to Iran. I think that's counterproductive, it's dangerous, and we don't need to have that at the present time, and I think it's counterproductive. The other military options are clearly—would be left on the table.

MR. RUSSERT: What if the military advisers told you only tactical nuclear weapons could take out those bunkers?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, the—I cannot think of circumstances today where I, I would think that you'd want to even consider using the tactical nuclear weapons in those, in those circumstances. I think we ought to retain a military option, but I think the nuclear option is a condition which is not what we ought to be thinking about. The idea that the United States is thinking about a first strike capability in, in Iran is not the message that the United States ought to be giving to the Iranians, to that region of the world, to the world. I think it would be very dangerous and very, very counterproductive.

MR. RUSSERT: Osama bin Laden has released a new audiotape. Why can't we capture him?

SEN. KENNEDY: I don't know. Why did we abandon the, the effort to capture him and divert our attention? I think that is the diversion of the war on terror. We went into Iraq instead of continuing to focus the—on Osama bin Laden and the war on terror. We had them on the run, we had them at the Tora Bora in the mountains there, we had them in other areas in those mountainous regions, and we have effectively abandoned that to move into Iraq. That was a very dangerous mistake. And the idea that he hasn't been captured today, I think is a, a real blunder by the administration. That is the direction—we should be in—fighting the war on terror rather than go in, in a trumped-up intelligence, into, into Iraq. And the cost of Iraq is just overwhelming and continuing and ongoing, and that has to end.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to immigration. Do you believe that there can be a bipartisan consensus immigration reform bill this year?

SEN. KENNEDY: Yes, I do, and I think there's strong support for it. Senator McCain and I have worked very closely with the Democrats and Republicans in both caucuses. I think we've got a very substantial strong bipartisan legislation which is very tough on enforcement and national security, recognizes the economic realities and also the values which this country stands for in terms of people that work hard, play by the rules, obey the law, pay the penalties over a long time, go to the end of the line of immigrants that are coming in here and be able earn their right to be part of the American family. I think we can do that.

I would have hoped that the president would become more involved. If the president were to take on the right wing of his own political party, we could get this legislation and pass it very, very quickly, and I think the overwhelming majority of Americans would support it. I think it would be a major achievement. I think that — we call on the president to be involved and to be willing to take that step, I think he'd play a very important role. I think it's — it would be very, very useful. I think we'll get it, but it would be very — it would be better if we were able to get it with his support.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, that's interesting, because you told the Richmond Times-Dispatch — this is March 19, 2006, just five weeks ago, you said, "President Bush has been courageous on this issue."

SEN. KENNEDY: That's right. He has spoken about immigration for over a year and a half when others were unwilling to do so. The question is now, with this particular legislative proposal, will he go the last step and say, as presidents can, "Look, here is the consensus. There's a consensus in the Republican, there's a consensus in the Democratic Party, let's hold back my right wing and pass this legislation and achieve something to be important."
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I commended the president because for a year and a half he talked about immigration when it was difficult for Senator McCain and I to get it on the national agenda, to get it on the Senate agenda. So he was. Now is the opportunity for presidential leadership.

MR. RUSSERT: Democrats have been uneasy about your role, saying that you're too quick to compromise with the Republicans. You were too quick on the Medicare drug plan, too quick on education policy, and that when your leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, said, "No amendments," you criticized Harry Reid now.

SEN. KENNEDY: The — we've made important progress on the issues of immigration. The Democrats are virtually united, virtually united in a comprehensive approach. We saw that with the votes in the United States Senate. So the Democrats are virtually united on it, and we have a very substantial group of Republicans that are united on a comprehensive approach.

MR. RUSSERT: The Senate should allow...

SEN. KENNEDY: And then the Senate's going to be...

MR. RUSSERT: The Senate should allow amendments.

SEN. KENNEDY: The, the Senate should — obviously it's going to have to allow amendments. The real issue was were we going to have an unlimited series of amendments by those individuals who declared their opposition to this and that they would not support it under any circumstances whatsoever? What we have traditionally and historically done is had the leaderships work out an accommodation on those kind of issues. Time ran out at that particular time. We've got the time, we ought to do it, and do it now.

MR. RUSSERT: John McCain, your co-sponsor on this bill, in 2000 said that Jerry Falwell was an agent of intolerance. He's now met with Reverend Falwell, going down to Liberty University to talk at his commencement address on May 13th. What do you think of that?

SEN. KENNEDY: What, that he's going down to talk? I think it's fine. I went down there and talked as well. I was invited down there and talked at Jerry Falwell's university to—as well.

MR. RUSSERT: Well, let me show you what you—let me show you what you—let me show you some of the things...

SEN. KENNEDY: So I mean, what are you trying to drive us—a division between my friend John McCain and I about visiting there together...(unintelligible)?

MR. RUSSERT: Well, do you think Reverend Falwell's an agent of intolerance?

SEN. KENNEDY: Tolerance. I think he's had statements which I think I find intolerant in the past. I wouldn't have used the "agent of intolerance." But I don't know why, why we're dwelling on that necessarily. I think the fact that John McCain has an opportunity to talk to those young students, and Jerry Falwell invited him down there to do that, is a constructive and positive step. And I think John...

MR. RUSSERT: When you, when you went down you were very critical of Reverend Falwell. Would, would you expect John McCain to do the same?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, we, we—he's frank. He's straight-talkin'. We'll have a chance to see what he's going to come on up with.

MR. RUSSERT: You would hope that he would be frank?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, I think that it's going to be fair. He's going to obviously separate himself from, probably, past statements or accusations of the—of Reverend Falwell, but I imagine he'll make a very candid speech, the sort of person that he is. But I think the idea that he's going down there is, is constructive and positive. I think he talks to the young people. It's an incredible national radio structure that he has that goes all over the country, every part of the nation, talks to people that support Falwell. And the idea that they hear a different voice on a lot of the issues that John McCain's involved in I think is good for the country.

MR. RUSSERT: Straight, straight talk.

SEN. KENNEDY: Straight talk.

MR. RUSSERT: Is he doing it for political reasons?

SEN. KENNEDY: Oh, well, you'll have to hear him on the program and he'll tell you.

MR. RUSSERT: What do you think?

SEN. KENNEDY: He's ambitious and he's political. And I—what he's going to do in the future is, is anyone's guess. But I, I think—most of us think that he's probably looking to the future with, with the politics on his mind.

MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn back to the book, "America: Back on Track." Here's the Kennedy plan for health care that America deserves. "The most effective option is to expand Medicare to cover all Americans. ... It gives patients a clear guarantee that they will be able to see the doctor of their choice." Forty million people on Medicare now, 80 million when the baby boomers retire, and now you want to expand it even more?


MR. RUSSERT: Even though the financial pressures are huge? What's wrong with what you did in Massachusetts? An insurance plan which could be expanded across the country?

SEN. KENNEDY: That's, that's—I'm going to come to that. But just in regards to the book, that book was written basically because of my deep concern about the general sense of disarray that exists in our terms of our democracy and in terms of our political institutions responding to the major issues of our time.

Let me point out a different time in American political life where we had leaders that came—brought Democrats and Republicans together to deal with these major issues on, on race, on education, on so many of the other issues that have been overriding and overwhelming, and we're missing that opportunity today. And that book is really about how we get the America back on track.

Specifically, what I have talked about in the, in the book in terms of the expansion of the Medicare. Medicare provides extraordinary health care to our seniors and the—and it has the confidence of the American people. It's not a new program. And I suggest in there that one of the alternatives in reaching national health insurance would be to gradually expand the Medicare system to make sure that we are going to cover basically all Americans. We have the CHIP program that looks after children that come from needy families and for poor families. And if those different groups could really meet in the middle and we got a comprehensive report, now that I think is the goal and the idea.

I still believe very strongly in universal comprehensive coverage, but in Massachusetts, we saw where Democrats and Republicans came together, and we have passed a bill that is going to provide the comprehensive coverage in that—in our state. And I'm going to battle to help and assist—other states are going to do this if they have the opportunity to do it. But I think in the back of my mind is always getting a universal coverage.

MR. RUSSERT: Governor Romney showed leadership?

SEN. KENNEDY: Absolutely.

MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that he'd make a good president?

SEN. KENNEDY: I think he's going to be a tough contender for it, and I think he's underestimated by a number of Republicans, but I think the Democrat's going to be the better candidate and he's—that's the one I intend to support.

MR. RUSSERT: And that will be John Kerry if he runs?

SEN. KENNEDY: If he's going to run. If he runs, I'm supporting him.

MR. RUSSERT: You also in your book say this about education, "I propose that every child in America, on reaching eighth grade, be offered a contract. Let students sign it, along with their parents and Uncle Sam. The contract will state that if you work hard, finish high school, and are accepted for college, the federal government will guarantee you the cost of earning a degree."

SEN. KENNEDY: Right. That's right.
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MR. RUSSERT: Where are we going to get that money?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well. We don't have an alternative, Tim, in the areas of education. The Chinese now are graduating 650,000 engineers a year; the Indians, 350,000 engineers a year. We're at 72,000 and half of those are foreign students. We're facing in the areas of globalization, we're either going to equip every young person in this country to be able to deal with globalization, every worker to get continuing training, or we're going to be a second-level country in another 25 years. And that's going to take education, it's going to take investment on that. If we are spending $10 billion dollars a month, $10 billion dollars a month on Iraq. If we're going to spend a trillion dollars, which is the—Mr. Schultz's estimate, who's the Nobel Laureate, he says it's going to cost a trillion dollars. We ought to be able to educate every child, provide continuing training, and make sure that our American young people and older people are going to be ably equipped for globalization.

MR. RUSSERT: But Senator, will you be willing to raise taxes to pay for this?

SEN. KENNEDY: I'd pay—we restore the kinds of tax structure that we had when we had the greatest period of economic growth and price stability under President Clinton.


SEN. KENNEDY: Go back to that particular time, but the fact is we're spending now the $10 billion dollars a month. I'd rather put that in education. I think most Americans would rather. We'd be—you're talking now a trillion dollars. You're talking about $100 billion dollars this—over $100 billion dollars this year, and $100 billion dollars you can do all of those things and educate every—everybody.

Now finally, let me point this out. When we passed the GI Bill at the end of World War II, the Treasury figured out $7 dollars was returned for every dollar that was invested in education. Seven dollars returned. You will find out that most people that reviewed that program said it was the best investment that this country has ever provided because it produced more income in terms of it. And that is what education does, it creates opportunity, it can create activity, and it create—it makes sure America's going to continue to be number one. Not only economically, this is militarily, Tim. This is important to our national security, well-educated individuals that have the high-tech training, and that no country is going to be ahead of the United States in terms of science and research.

MR. RUSSERT: What are we going to do about $3-dollars-a-gallon gasoline?

SEN. KENNEDY: The president, the president should have called the head of the oil companies into the White House and started jawboning. He should have done that a week ago. Why he doesn't do that, I do not understand. He ought to be pointing out that hard-working Americans, middle-class people, who have their sons and daughters in Iraq and in Afghanistan, that this is not a time for greed. And he ought to activate and call the Federal Trade Commission—which is basically a sleepy organization that has given an interim report in terms of price-fixing and gouging—he ought to get them off and have them working seven days a week, 24/7, to make sure that we know exactly who is price-gouging. And third, we ought to have a bipartisan effort to recapture, recapture these excessive profits that are going to the oil industry and return them to working families and middle-income families.

MR. RUSSERT: But that's not the only reason that gas prices are $3 dollars.

SEN. KENNEDY: It's not the only one, but why are we tolerating this extraordinary explosion of the president of Exxon getting a half a billion dollars in separate fees? We need an excess profits tax that's going to return that to working families. This is not a time for greed, and that is what we have on this. And the administration has been slow, it has failed to take action, and the Democrats are going to demand it.

MR. RUSSERT: What's going to happen in the midterm elections?

SEN. KENNEDY: Democrats are going to be successful. I think we're going to make progress. I think we'll carry the Senate and also the House.

MR. RUSSERT: Both houses?


MR. RUSSERT: What will be the big issues?

SEN. KENNEDY: The big—the overarching issue is the gross incompetency of this administration in every aspect, whether it's in the Medicare prescription drug bill--45 different programs in my state of Massachusetts—rather than the simple kind of a program that would have been the Medicare system on that thing, the incompetence that we had down in Katrina, the cronyism that we have had in terms of the individuals that have taken government jobs, the refusal of accountability in terms of the—of Iraq. I think it's all, it's all out there.

MR. RUSSERT: So you think the Republicans will be blamed for corruption?

SEN. KENNEDY: I think there's certainly a big—there'll be a heavy burden for them to try and defend what's been happening here. The sweetheart contracts, the Halliburton sweetheart contracts that have been out there, I think they'll have a heavy burden to do so.

MR. RUSSERT: Your very first appearance on MEET THE PRESS in 1962, there was a lot of corruption in Massachusetts, and you were asked, "What would be the political effect of those Democrats who were guilty of corruption?" Let's watch.

(Videotape, March 11, 1962):

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Will the Democratic Party be harmed this year by these scandals?

SEN. KENNEDY: Well, I think the question of whether individuals who have come up, who've been indicted, have been Democrats, I think are irrelevant, really, any more than you can say that because certain of these people belong to a certain racial group, a religious group, a racial group, or from a certain city and town are necessarily all evil.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: When it's Democrats, it's irrelevant.

SEN. KENNEDY: That's, that's really not the issue, is it? I mean, is it just the individuals or is it the whole culture? And I think what most Americans understand is that there is the whole permeation, sort of the stench of money and corruption and cronyism and fixed deals and special interests, that the special interests get special consideration when they make the contribution, all of that sort of wrapped on in...(unintelligible).

MR. RUSSERT: Democrats as well as Republicans?

SEN. KENNEDY: There are some, and there ought to be the accountability. But this is—this really is something that is just waiting on the administration and upon the leadership. The leadership has an opportunity to clear—have done something, and it should have.

MR. RUSSERT: Senator Ted Kennedy, thank you for joining us. The book, "America: Back on Track."

SEN. KENNEDY: "Track."

MR. RUSSERT: Thanks for joining us.

SEN. KENNEDY: Nice to see you. Thank you.

MR. RUSSERT: Coming next: What effect, if any, will all the White House staff changes have on the Bush presidency? Is there anything the president can do to reverse his decline in the polls? Our roundtable is next, right here on MEET THE PRESS.


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