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Rep. Neal On Bergdahl, Clinton, And Troubles At The VA

Jim Levulis

Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal, a Democrat who represents the first district, recently spoke with WAMC's Alan Chartock as part of WAMC's Congressional Corner series. The dean of the state delegation touched on several key issues. Their conversation is excerpted below.

Alan Chartock: Richie Neal, the news is just filled about the prisoner swap and the question as to whether Bowe Bergdahl was a correct move on the president’s part or a misstep.

Rep. Neal: I’ve had a chance to attend a classified briefing with the White House and senior military officials to discuss it. But immediately the issue was seized up in terms of the controversy as opposed to having any opportunity to listen to what the military had to say or for that matter to have a chance to revisit what American policy is since George Washington was president. And that’s really what the discussion should be about once we move to the stage of hearings. So there’s this reaction immediately where people make up their minds as opposed to saying let’s see what the hearings point out, let’s see the evidence, let’s see how the military and how the administration came to conclude that the return of Sergeant Bergdahl was the right position. Remember that in our history no one is to be left behind and everyone is to be accounted for and I think the president began from that prescription and now we’ll have the hearings to find out whether or not Sergeant Bergdahl conformed to military policy and guidelines based upon his conduct at the base.

AC: Should we have left him there if it turned out he wasn’t the best boy in the world?

Neal: No. And I think that the question is based upon the leverage that was offered. These negotiations have gone on for the better part of three years. Nobody at this moment is quite sure of what really happened.  And I think you have individuals who’ve understandably offered emotion and that’s fully part of the discussion and not to miss the point there will be supporters and critics of the president’s policy. But the manner in which it was rolled out and the response to the roll out is what has captured our imaginations as opposed to the facts of the case which should capture our imaginations. We live in this hyper period of news making. And the result is that the system never takes a breather so we never have a chance to do thoughtful deliberation and discussion and from the first moment the president announced Sergeant Bergdahl was coming home you could see there were a series of issues that quickly took over the discussion.

AC: Did the president anticipate this stuff?

Rep. Neal: I don’t think they did at the White House and I think they would have perhaps come to a different position if in fact they knew what the blow back would have been.

AC: Shouldn’t [the White House] have known?

 Rep. Neal : That’s a legitimate criticism time and time again to be very candid. This is a very complicated process and understanding what the reaction is going to be and trying not to control but manage the news cycle is a posture that has to be taken into consideration for any deliberation, particularly one that relates to great controversy.

AC: [The White House] has gotten themselves into a bit of controversy because there are people ordinarily on their side who are telling me that it was sort of “politicized.”

Rep. Neal: There are three words that are guaranteed to get you in trouble with the news media. And those three words are: let me explain. And when you’re explaining you’re playing defense. And I think [the White House] underestimated the response once it was determined that five Taliban would be exchanged for Sergeant Bergdahl with the likelihood that perhaps two or three of these folks will return to combat.

AC: Secretary Clinton rolled out her new book. I read an interesting article in the paper today about her need for money.  She said she was broke when they left the White House, they were broke before she got into the White House, they’ve been taking speaking fees of massive proportions all over the world and now the book comes out. What are your insights into all of this?

Rep. Neal: Well I think you can make the argument that people do not frequently enter into public service for the money and afterwards they find out there is the opportunity to earn money. Consider that President Reagan traveled to Japan and picked up a $2 million speaking fee after he left the presidency or that President Bush and President Clinton and others have taken speaking fees. I don’t think I see anything wrong with that. The problem is obviously its very important how you explain that you sought the speaking fees. And I don’t think anybody wants to suggest that a former president is going to be poverty stricken because there’s very little reality to that

AC: What do you make of the book?

Rep. Neal: I just read the reviews and certainly it is a very dominant conversation here in Washington. I would come to the quick conclusion that this is part of the narrative of an announcement for president. [Clinton] used the book to clarify. She used the book to self inoculate against the criticisms that are sure to come but nonetheless because she’s doing it before anyone else does, she gets a chance to manage the narrative. And I think going right to the hot button issues where your critics are going to find common ground with you is very important as well as taking the initiative on Benghazi which doesn’t poll in terms of a big issue with the American voter. I think clarification and the ability to discuss it based on her having home field advantage simply makes good sense. But there is little question here that I think this is the beginning of a presidential campaign.

AC: What about the VA?

Rep. Neal: Inexcusable. Clearly it appears the books were cooked in terms of waiting periods for our vets. There are a million more vets now because of Iraq and Afghanistan. They need to be taken care of in a professional manner.

AC: OK, how do you do it?

Rep. Neal: Well, I think clearly there’s going to be some opportunity here for some of them to seek private care when they can’t break through. And you’ve seen the announcement that we’re going to be hiring more physicians. There’s a two-year experiment coming up to clear out these back logs. These individuals should not be waiting around for months for procedures that could be accomplished in days.

AC: Will the Democrats and Republicans be together on this one, or will it be business as usual?

Rep. Neal: I think we’ll get together on this one.


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