Elliott Abrams Transcript

Taped May 17, 2013

Table of Contents

I: Scoop Jackson Democrat 00:26 – 13:28

II: Congress and Political Education 13:29 – 23:12
III: Ronald Reagan and Human Rights 23:12 – 31:30

IV: George Shultz and Ronald Reagan 31:30 – 46:33

V: Politics at the State Department 46:33 – 1:06:33

VI: President George W. Bush 1:06:33 – 1:21:48
VII: Tested by Zion 1:21:48 – 1:36:57
VIII: The Syrian Nuclear Reactor 1:36:56 – 1:48:56
IX: Policy-Making 101 1:48:56 – 1:52:56
X: George W. Bush, the Man 1:52:56 – 2:05:08


XI: Politics as Vocation 2:05:08 – 2:10:34

KRISTOL: I’m Bill Kristol. Joining me today is Elliott Abrams, who has held senior positions in the State Department in the Reagan Administration and the White House in the George W. Bush Administration.

I: Scoop Jackson Democrat (0:26 – 13:28)

KRISTOL: Did you expect to serve up 15 years in the State Department and the White House when you first came to Washington?

ABRAMS: I didn’t. I cause and effect to Washington to work for the late Senator Henry M. Jackson – Scoop Jackson – in the Senate and to go home, which was New York. I thought I’d be here for you know a couple of years and the leave town. So, it – and I actually did spend more than four years in the Senate. But then Ronald Reagan got elected.

And, you know, when I came here I thought of Ronald Reagan as a sort of movie star. The idea that he’d be President and I’d work for him was not in my mind.

KRISTOL: Well, tell me more about that. So you came – you worked for a Democrat – two Democratic Senators?

ABRAMS: Well, I was a Democrat. I was raised as a Democrat in New York City, and I was a Democrat and I would say a hardline Democrat, a hardline foreign policy Democrat in, as we thought, you know the tradition of Truman and Lyndon Johnson.

And in fact in 1968 when I was still in school, I was for Humphrey for the Democratic nomination for President, not Gene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy. But I had actually worked in the 1972 embryonic Scoop Jackson campaign.

KRISTOL: One of many successful political endeavors –

ABRAMS: – up at Harvard, and I think that’s where we met.

KRISTOL: That’s where we met. Yes.

ABRAMS: And I told Jackson then, “If you run in ’76, I want in,” and he did run in ’76. So, I was by then out of law school ,and on board, let’s just say, with the practice of law in New York. And, so I made the decision on my birthday, I’m out of here, and told Scoop I’m ready to come down. This was in 1975 – to work with him in the Senate but with the notion that this was preparing for the ’76 campaign.

KRISTOL: And did you stay on the Senate staff in the ’76 campaign –

ABRAMS: I did.

KRISTOL: – or did you actually work on the campaign?

ABRAMS: No, I stayed on the Senate staff. He was chairman of the permanent subcommittee on investigations, which is where he kind of set me for a while. And then I worked on his personal staff. I think I worked on the campaign for a week. And then Scoop said, “No, no, no, I want him in the Senate.”

So, I was on the Senate staff. Jackson’s campaign ended on April 27, 1976 with the Pennsylvania primary. I remember it. I was up I Philadelphia for – we hoped – a party. It was a wake.

He pulled out, and we all supported from Scoop on down the guy who was supposedly the most conservative candidate left, a guy named Jimmy Carter.

KRISTOL: Did you vote for Jimmy Carter? You don’t have to answer that, it’s a secret ballot –

ABRAMS: Happily voted for Jimmy Carter. But I stayed with Scoop right on through 1976. I wrote a number of – we should go back and check – I thought excellent Bicentennial speeches for him to give at colleges in Washington State, but then in November a guy named Daniel P. Moynihan got elected Senator from New York.

KRISTOL: So you moved over, and worked for Pat Moynihan for how long?

ABRAMS: I worked for Pat for two and a half years.

KRISTOL: That must have been interesting.

ABRAMS: So that was two years Scoop, two years Pat. Yes, I mean, it was interesting, it was difficult as you know because you knew him. Moynihan was a brilliant man and a great public servant and impossible to work for.

I actually think – to put it straightforwardly – he was ruined by the United States Senate in this sense – when you think of him – the Moynihan Report on the Negro Family, you think of the Moynihan as the UN Ambassador, these were the greatest moments in his public life.

As a Senator he was a politician in a liberal state where there was even a New York State Liberal Party. And I think that as time went by he became less and less the great Moynihan that we knew and more and more a Democratic Party politician whose ability to act was limited by New York State politics.

KRISTOL: And I do think Moynihan’s contributions that people now read about him are much more what he wrote in social science and what he did at the UN probably than any particular accomplishments in the Senate, don’t you think?

ABRAMS: I think that is right. In fact, if you think of his Senate career, what do you think of? He opposed Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, which is probably the best thing Clinton did.

So, I think – I don’t know what Pat would have done had he not gone into the Senate where he was for 24 years, but there aren’t many great contributions, and I think it’s because of the contradiction between his own views and the political situation of the New York State Democratic Party.

KRISTOL: Come back to Scoop Jackson for a minute, since I think you admired him very much. He died too young – in 1982, I think. What was he like? People don’t remember him as much as maybe they should today, you know; it’s been a long time.

ABRAMS: Scoop was, unlike Pat, was not a sort of dynamic individual, and was obviously not an intellectual, certainly not in the sense that Moynihan was. He was a great Senator.

First of all, he was a great politician. And – you know from Washington State – and a great politician in a couple of senses. One the oldest fashion, baby-kissing sense, that is people would come in from the state and say, “Hi, we’re the Johnsons from some county or city,” and he’d say, “Oh, the Johnsons, your uncle was county attorney in 196– ” I mean it was like that. He had an amazing memory.

He also had the ability to work with the Senate. He was a great master of the Senate, and that is a talent that I think a lot of academics and intellectuals don’t understand. I mean, I can remember that we would say to him – he’d say, “Well, I’m going to get this bill passed and I’m going to get this amendment passed.”

And we’d say, “How could that possibly” – and he would say, “Well, I told Russell Long that I would vote for this if he would vote for that, and he said he would for that if Senator Magnuson would allow his son-in-law to be the U.S. attorney for – but that would only work if then up in Maine –” I mean and this was kind of a Rube Goldberg device with 18 moving parts that nobody else could follow.

But he – in that sense, he was a great Senator. His – much of what he achieved was literally in the Senate. Of course, then he became a national leader on foreign policy opposing, initially, the Nixon-Kissinger détente foreign policy and then the Carter foreign policy.

KRISTOL: One forgets – people today don’t even know that a good chunk of the opposition to Nixon-Kissinger détente was from the right and from Democrats, Scoop Jackson but also in fact from Pat Moynihan when he was UN Ambassador, he served under Kissinger in a sense in that job, but also clashed with Kissinger, I believe. It really wasn’t – the Democratic Party was awfully different than. That was the Democratic Party you signed up for, that you came to Washington to work for. Right?

ABRAMS: Well, it was changing. I mean you know it starts in 1968 over the Vietnam War, Johnson’s resignation, McGovern’s nomination in 1972 – and it looked as if there was going to be a change back to a kind of Johnsonian/Truman, real strong foreign policy with Jimmy Carter who had run in a way to the right of Gerald Ford for President. And Jimmy Carter having­ – you know Navy Captain.

But it didn’t turn out that way. It was striking to us in the Jackson camp that when Carter became President, our group was absolutely excluded from the Administration. You know, it didn’t matter much to me – I was very young. I wasn’t going to get some big job anyway.

But there were people of the right age to get significant jobs. . . . Nothing.

KRISTOL: And Scoop and Moynihan opposed Carter on some things very early right, in 1977?

ABRAMS: Well, I think part of it was the personnel question. That is, on the one hand, we’re excluded. I mean, one of the people in the Jackson neocon camp – we didn’t use the word “neocon” then, but let’s just say hardline Democrats, hawks, Cold War Democrats – was named the President’s special negotiator for Micronesia – there were talks about the independence for Micronesia – and I said at the time, “We didn’t even get Macronesia; we got Micronesia.”

That had a lot to do with it, I think, the sense that, “Wait a minute, they’ve made a decision. We don’t want you.” Who did they want? If I remember correctly, Moynihan’s first speech, certainly his first significant one, on the floor of the Senate was opposing the nomination of a man named Paul Warnke to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Administration.

What was that all about? It was about détente and Nixon and Kissinger. And it showed you where the Carter Administration was going, and it was exactly what Jackson and Moynihan in supporting Carter had thought was not going to happen.

KRISTOL: And when you left the Hill in ’78, I guess it was, or ’79, and you left working for –

ABRAMS: When did I leave? ’79.

KRISTOL: Did you realize, basically, you were probably going to leave the Democratic Party, or the future was with Republicans? A and B, I’m curious what people like you, you know – people already active in politics, cared a lot about foreign policy – what did you think about Ronald Reagan?

At what point did people start to realize that Reagan – I mean, as I remember I was a little younger – still he was former Governor, he had lost in 1976 – people were dubious that he was going to be the leader of America during the 1980s.

ABRAMS: Well, we were – first of all, none of us knew this guy, right. We were Democrats, and most of us were from the East; he’s the Governor of California. I don’t think Reagan was such a big figure in our minds then. The question was within the Democratic Party.

We formed the – one of the many you know, NGO-type organizations, this was called Coalition for a Democratic Majority, that had a bunch of conservative Democrats. We were still fighting in the Democratic Party, but the question became, “What to do in 1980 about the reelection of Jimmy Carter?,” remembering that he had gone, in our view, way off on foreign policy. Andrew Young as UN Ambassador meeting with the PLO, saying that the Cuban troops in Angola were a force for stability, a bunch of incidents like this.

We were asked to meet with Carter. Who’s we? You know, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norm Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Max Kampelman, conservative Democrats, hardline Democrats – were invited in by Mondale.

My memory is this is about May 1980, and the campaign, of course, is going –

KRISTOL: Carter’s already beaten back the Kennedy challenge in the primary, I suppose?

ABRAMS: That’s my memory, and Reagan is more and more clearly – he is the Republican nominee, though not officially yet.

And Mondale called us in. When we met – we went to the White House, which, of course, is a big deal. And we met in the Cabinet room. And Mondale came in and he was terrific, I have to say. Basically, you know, pulling on the heart strings, “You’re all Democrats, come on, you’re not going to support this actor from California.” He was very – he did it well.

And after he spoke and chummed around for 20 minutes, in comes the President. Again, a great honor for us and we had agreed one of us, Austin Ranney, who was the head of the American Political Science Association, would speak.

And he spoke for about ten seconds, before Carter cut him off. Because he started by saying, “Oh, Mr. President, we – everybody here voted for you, we want to support you, and we –” In essence, he said, “We like your new foreign policy.”

What was new? After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, it got a little tougher. And Ranney said, “So we like the new foreign policy, if you will, the second foreign policy,” and that took about 15 seconds to say and then Carter interrupted him and said, “I don’t have two foreign policies. I have one foreign policy. My foreign policy has not changed.” As I remember, in that tone, too.

And he then went on for a few minutes, and by the end of the meeting, everybody in the room was for Reagan, including me. I mean, all of us listened to this and said, “Wow, it’s as bad as we feared. There’s no change in the foreign policy. It will be four more years.”

And I think – I don’t want to say everybody in that room voted for Reagan. Certainly, the majority did. A number of us then worked on the Reagan campaign and went into the Administration.

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