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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist Hospitalized for Thyroid Cancer

Aired October 25, 2004 - 11:53   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: And we do have breaking news on Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Getting information he's currently in the hospital receiving medical attention.

RICK SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR: John King is joining us now from Davenport, Iowa, to give us a sense of the seriousness of this. John, what do we know at this point.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Rick, we know that two senior government officials tell us the Chief Justice of the United States, 78-year-old William Rehnquist, is at Bethesda Naval Hospital in suburban Washington undergoing treatment for cancer. Sources tell our Barbara Starr and Jamie McIntyre that it is thyroid cancer.

These two senior government officials I spoke to a short time ago said that the chief justice -- his treatment was for a serious condition. They would not elaborate further. Obviously, the health of the chief justice, a major issue in any event. A little more than a week from the election, it could have an impact on the political campaigning, as well.

But again, Chief Justice Rehnquist is 78-years-old, and we are told he checked himself in a few days ago for treatment for cancer. Again, some of our sources saying it is thyroid cancer. And we are led to believe that there will be a statement from the court after our inquiries about this within the next hour or so -- Rick?

SANCHEZ: Sounds, John, like something sudden happened that caused him to go to the hospital. Is that what it seems like at this point, aside from the cancer situation?

KING: There have been questions about the chief justice's health going back several years. Many of the justices are in their 70s. He, again, is 78-years-old. And obviously, he found reason to go for medical treatment and then was told he needed to check himself into Bethesda Naval.

We're trying to get more details on his condition -- this word just coming to us. We're trying to work our sources to get more information. But he's a 78-year-old man who's had some health problems in the past. And obviously any treatment for cancer would be quite a serious issue.

KAGAN: And John, having two issues here, of course -- the health of a chief justice being of the number one concern, but hard to get away from the fact that we are eight days before this presidential election and a top concern for many people in deciding who they're going to vote for. How many Supreme Court seats could come up over the next administration?

KING: Many are surprised, Daryn, that President George W. Bush did not get a Supreme Court pick in his first term as president. Senator Kerry and the Democrats have tried to make this an issue in the campaign. President Bush himself, campaigning especially in the rural Midwestern states where I am today in Iowa, have talked about the culture of life, making clear (INAUDIBLE) the Democrats have said, President Bush, if he gets more Supreme Court picks, could tilt the court in favor of trying to reverse Roe v. Wade.

In the case of a chief justice, were to chief justice to step down or, God forbid, were his situation more serious than that, obviously the next president of the United States would be picking a new chief justice for the court. But we obviously don't want to get out ahead of ourselves in that regard. We hope the chief justice's condition is not so dire.

But yes, there's a week left in the election, and this word will certainly add to the political debate. And it is sometimes a very contentious political debate over the federal courts and who should be the next president of the United States to appoint not only Supreme Court justices, but perhaps lower federal court justices, as well.

KAGAN: All right. John King in Davenport, Iowa, thank you for the latest on that. We have more?

SANCHEZ: Yeah. As you imagine, when a story like this breaks, we here at CNN will try to mobilize as many correspondents as we can to bring you the very latest information.

In fact, to weigh in on this now, we have Barbara Starr, our Pentagon correspondent, also covering this story. Barbara, over to you.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Rick, as this very sad news about the chief justice breaks around Washington, what we are learning is that he was admitted on Friday to the intensive care unit at Bethesda Naval Hospital just outside of Washington, D.C.

Now, that naval hospital has the very specific facilities to treat VIPs, government VIPs. They have a very secure ward. They have the kind of security and confidentiality at Bethesda Naval Hospital that is required for the highest officials in the government.

Of course, the president of the United States often going there for regular medical checkups by the Navy staff. It's very similar to Walter Reed Army Hospital here in Washington, another facility that has secure confidential ability to care for the highest government officials in the -- any administration outside of the public eye.

We are led to understand that the chief justice remains in the ICU unit at this hour and that indeed he is being treated for cancer of the trachea -- a very difficult treatment, we are told, but we are being given no confidential patient information, of course, about his condition. This entire word just beginning to circulate around Washington at this hour, Rick.

SANCHEZ: And we were also trying to find out -- we were talking to John King just moments ago, regarding what his condition may have been when he was taken. I ask only to find out if there's been any information on that. We don't know that yet, do we, Barbara?

STARR: Well, we certainly don't. I have to tell you, this word began breaking around Washington within the last hour or so and has caught many, many people by surprise.

As everyone knows, the justices of the Supreme Court are the last remnant of the government that lives largely outside the public eye and away from media scrutiny. So, we simply don't know if the justice had been suffering from this medical condition previously. They live very private lives here in Washington, and we simply don't know. This word coming as some surprise in many circles around Washington, Rick.

KAGAN: And keeping in mind, Barbara, that we have obviously many different branches of government we're dealing with here. You at the Pentagon, John King saying the Supreme Court may be playing catch up with reporters at this point, expecting an official announcement sometime over the next hour.

Have you have been able to hear anything like that?

STARR: We have heard similar word. That word also circulating through government agencies at this hour, that the Supreme Court, we are told, will be making an announcement quite shortly, we are led to believe. Which -- there are legal reporters who cover the court who know this much better than me, so I'm going to defer to them.

But it's -- the court does not typically put out a lot of public announcements, of course, about anything other than their legal decisions. So, this, of course, quite unusual. And I think people around Washington are going to be watching very closely through the day -- Daryn?

KAGAN: Certainly a lot of concern, not only in Washington, but clear across the country for the chief justice. Barbara, thank you for that.

Once again, our breaking news, that Chief Justice William Rehnquist has been admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital for treatment for cancer.

SANCHEZ: He's been the chief justice of the United States since 1986, 16th chief justice of the United States -- very prominent role, as most of you, I'm sure, remember, during the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, which the entire nation got to see.

Other than that, as Barbara mentioned, oftentimes we in the public don't see justices of the United States in those prominent roles. KAGAN: We are going to stay with this story. Wolf Blitzer is in New York City today, and he takes over -- Wolf?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Much more coming up on this story. We're reporting live today from New York. We'll be here indeed throughout Election Day.

The situation unfolding this hour, of course, the breaking news, the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist hospitalized outside Washington, Bethesda Naval Hospital. Much more coming on that. Diagnosed with cancer.

Also, a dramatic development out of Iraq. Hundreds of tons of powerful explosives are missing. There's concern they may be in the hands of insurgents.

And on the campaign trail, John Kerry calls on Bill Clinton to help turn out the vote.

President Bush campaigning in Colorado. His message, the war on terror.

All that and much more, including breaking news coming up in the hour ahead.

And we are continuing our breaking-news coverage. William Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, diagnosed with cancer. Getting treatment now at Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington, D.C.

Our senior White House correspondent, John King, breaking this story, covering it for us. John is in Davenport, Iowa, right now.

John, for viewers just tuning in right now, what exactly do we know?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we know from two senior government officials and some other sources that the chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, who is 80 years old, is at Bethesda Naval Hospital in suburban Washington. We are told he is being treated for cancer, that he went into the hospital late last week.

Our Barbara Starr at the Pentagon reporting Friday, I believe, the chief justice went into Bethesda Naval Hospital. He is still in intensive care, being treated for cancer. And again, two senior government officials telling this -- telling us this. We expect an official announcement from the Supreme Court sometime today in response to our inquiries.

And some court officials saying they expect the chief justice to be back on the bench by the beginning of November, when the court resumes its -- its session. Others, of course, would question an 80- year-old man having cancer.

And, Wolf, all of this playing out unfortunately in some ways because it will lead to the speculation about one week before a presidential election in which both campaigns have made an issue of who do you want in the White House, naming federal judges at any level. Certainly the chief justice of the United States will now factor in to that political debate, as we all wish Judge Rehnquist recovery here.

BLITZER: We all wish him, indeed, a speedy recovery, indeed. Eighty years old, serious cancer at this point.

John, this is going to energize in this final full week of campaigning the base of both Kerry supporters, as well as the base of Bush supporters right now looking down the road, knowing that the next president of the United States over the next four years could name perhaps three -- two or three, maybe even four new justices that could have an enormous impact on America for many years to come.

KING: Well, Wolf, obviously a very difficult issue for either candidate to address in a political fashion directly. I would expect that both the president and Senator Kerry would, of course, publicly wish the chief justice well. But certainly both already have made an issue of federal judgeships in the campaign.

And you can make no mistake about it, in the get out the vote effort that is now urgently gearing up across the country, that is one of the key issues. Senator Kerry, for example, arguing in some of his direct mail, some of his radio messages, other interest groups affiliated with the Democrats, arguing that a second Bush term could lead to efforts to reverse Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision legalizing abortion rights.

President Bush, on the other hand, especially in rural and small- town America, saying that he respects the culture of life. Meaning he opposes abortion and that he believes you want a conservative in the White House naming federal judges.

If the next president had to replace the chief justice -- and we need to be careful and not get out ahead of ourselves here because we don't know much about the chief justice's condition -- but certainly that could and would be a factor in the presidential election. Again, difficult for the candidates themselves to push that political button. But the headlines will generate that buzz, if you will, across the country regardless.

BLITZER: And there's no doubt we don't want to get ahead of ourselves. But John, long before there was any indication that Chief Justice Rehnquist had cancer or was ailing in any way whatsoever, there was a lot of speculation that he might simply retire at some point and that the president would have an opportunity to name a new chief justice, who would certainly, of course, have to win Senate confirmation.

A lot of speculation has been, as you and our viewers well know, of Antonin Scalia, the other justice, a conservative justice on the Supreme Court. What have you been hearing in recent years about that kind of speculation from your sources? KING: Well, there are-- there have been times where President Bush has said that he admires Justice Scalia. At other times he has said favorable things about Justice Clarence Thomas.

There is a great sub-drama, if you will, in Washington because we know so little about the inner workings of the court and so little about even how a president would consider such a high pick. It becomes every little crumb, if you will. It becomes the subject of speculation.

Truth be told, we know very little about what this president has thought and what kind of meetings he has had in terms of the specificity of who he would name to the court if given the chance. But certainly Justice Scalia is someone he has voiced admiration for.

Justice Scalia, of course, has been a controversial justice in some ways in this past campaign year, receiving some heat from Democrats for going hunting, for example, with Vice President Cheney. So Justice Scalia is a polarizing figure, Justice Thomas was a polarizing figure.

We are having an election, Wolf. And perhaps the most polarizing election climate we have had in many years, even more polarized than four years ago. So it is all but certain -- and again, we should not distract ourselves from the chief justice receiving medical attention -- but all but certain that this will become a factor in the politics in the final week of this incredibly close presidential election.

BLITZER: No doubt about that. John, I'm going to ask you to stand by.

Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon. She's watching this story for us as well.

Barbara, what have you been told?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, our CNN Supreme Court producer, Bill Meers (ph), has now got an update from the court. And what he has learned is that the chief justice has undergone what is called throat surgery, essentially a tracheotomy procedure after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

I'll leave it to others to discuss the medical specifics. But we are able to confirm that the chief justice was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital just outside Washington, D.C., here last Friday, and that at this hour he remains in the intensive care unit.

The Supreme Court also telling our producer, Bill Meers (ph), that it is expected the chief justice will be released from the hospital this week and back on the bench when the court convenes its session on November 1. That is the information that we have at this hour.

This news, of course, Wolf, just breaking around Washington, D.C. and the country within the last hour or so. Learning that the 80- year-old chief justice of the Supreme Court, William Rehnquist, is in the intensive care unit at Bethesda Naval Hospital undergoing treatment for cancer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And I just want to point out, as a lot of viewers probably know, Bethesda Naval Hospital part of the U.S. military establishment not only for military personnel, but also for members of the House, members of the Senate, certainly top executive branch officials, as well as Supreme Court justices as well.

Barbara, what else do we know specifically about the type of cancer beyond what the statement says, if anything?

STARR: We certainly do not at this point, Wolf. And it will be very interesting to see if there are medical updates from the court about this. Because, as anyone who covers Washington, D.C. can tell you, and you know better than most, the Supreme Court is an extremely private organization. They do not put out press releases, press releases, they don't appear before television cameras like other government officials.

One of the reasons this news perhaps coming as a surprise to so many people in Washington is the Supreme Court justices live very private lives outside the public eye, except for the court decisions that they issue. They are not in the public eye in Washington.

And so when one of them is taken ill, usually the public simply finds out about it by the court putting out a brief statement when it becomes public. These are very private individuals. And it will be interesting to see if the justices family essentially authorizes anymore information to be released.

This is a private medical condition. And I must tell you that the military is not publicly releasing any information.

As you say, Bethesda Naval Hospital, Walter Reid Army Hospital here in Washington are the two facilities that are equipped to handle patients at the highest levels of the government, including the president of the United States. They have security. They have confidentiality. They do not put out information about these officials unless it is authorized by their families -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we know, of course, and a lot of viewers, of course, know, at least two other Supreme Court justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sandra Day O'Connor, have themselves suffered from cancer and have undergone treatment. They are both on the bench. Apparently both of them are doing fine.

I will ask you, Barbara Starr, to stand by as well.

Elizabeth Cohen, our medical correspondent, knows a great deal about this particular type of cancer.

Elizabeth, give our viewers a little bit of a sense of perspective about what Chief Justice Rehnquist is going through right now.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the most important thing to say right now, Wolf, is that thyroid cancer in most cases is a very curable kind of cancer. As someone said to me, if you are going to get cancer, thyroid cancer is one of the types you would want to get.

There is one very, very unusual kind of thyroid cancer, which isn't so easily treated. But in the vast majority of cases, it's easily curable.

What doctors do -- do -- excuse me -- is first they remove the thyroid gland in surgery and then the person, the patient has to be on hormone therapy for the rest of their life. Now, sometimes surgery is the only treatment that's needed. Sometimes doctors need to move on also to radioactive iodine treatment, which sounds scary when you hear the word "radioactive," but in fact it is very safe. And sometimes doctors have to move on to that.

And, of course, whenever we talk about cancer, people think, gee, why does someone get that kind of cancer? And as in most cases of cancer, it's not usually known why someone gets that. However, family history plays a role, being over the age of 65 also puts you at a higher risk for thyroid cancer -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And the treatment, what are the lasting -- assuming the treatment is successful, what kind of impact could that have on his day-to-day health?

COHEN: It often has no impact on day-to-day health. You were talking about how other Supreme Court justices have survived cancer and do their jobs just fine, and that would be the case with thyroid cancer as well. Now, again, if the thyroid is removed, which is usually the case with someone with thyroid cancer, the person has to be on hormone therapy. But that would not preclude them in any way from performing their job or living their life.

BLITZER: Elizabeth Cohen reporting for us as well on this story. We're going to be continuing to check back with you.

Just for viewers tuning in, William Rehnquist, the Supreme Court chief justice, has been hospitalized in recent days over at Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington, D.C., in suburban Maryland, hospitalized with thyroid cancer. Underwent a tracheotomy on Saturday. The statement coming from the U.S. Supreme Court expecting he'll be back to work sooner rather than later.

Let's bring in our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, and Liz Marlantes. She works -- she's a political reporter for the "Christian Science Monitor."

Bill Schneider, first to you. And as much as all of us certainly want a speedy recovery for the chief justice, wish him only the best, there's going to be immediate political fallout during these final eight days of this campaign.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: What this means essentially is that the Supreme Court will be an issue at the heart of this campaign. This looks like the much-anticipated October surprise. And it is a surprise, and a very sad one of course. All of Washington, all of the country's wishes are with Chief Justice Rehnquist.

But what it means is that the Supreme Court, number one, is always the most contentious issue in American politics. Remember Robert Bork in 1987, Clarence Thomas in 1991. The memories of those searing confirmation hearings have never diminished on both the sides of conservatives and liberals. They are very deep and very intense.

And the other interesting point is that, in most typical campaigns, including this one, the Supreme Court is not really a big issue. It's never front and center, even though it involves abortion rights, gay rights. And, of course, the Supreme Court decided the 2000 election.

Yet it's very hard to get voters to focus on the Supreme Court as an issue, even though the next president will almost certainly have the opportunity to appoint at least one or two new justices on the court. Now it's going to be an issue.

BLITZER: It's going to energize, as I said, the base of both of these political parties, Republicans and Democrats.

Liz, who do you believe will be more energized, liberals who are deeply concerned that President Bush could name two or three or even four justices over the next four years, or will it energize conservatives more who worry about the Supreme Court nominees that a President Kerry could nominate?

LIZ MARLANTES, "CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR": I think it's hard to say. I think it's probably going to energize both.

However, you could make the argument that so far Bush's base has actually been a little more energized than Kerry's. Polls have shown that Kerry still has a little way to go in terms of consolidating the Democratic base.

And we saw him last week, for example, working really hard to woo women voters. This is the kind of issue that could pull some of those women voters back into the Democrat camps more firmly by putting something like abortion rights front and center.

And so I think it is a strong motivating issue for both sides. But it may actually work to Kerry's advantage a little bit right now because he has had a little more trouble getting his base motivated.

BLITZER: Let me get back to Bill Schneider.

If you have been looking at the polls -- and, of course, you do -- you look at them more than anyone else that we know -- when it comes to issues on the agenda for voters this time, whether it's Iraq, war on terror, the economy, health care, where does Supreme Court justices, let's say, on some of the legal issues of the day, where does that rank?

SCHNEIDER: Very, very low. The social issues are important generally to conservatives. And that's why I agree with Liz. They are important to conservatives who say they support a president who shares their values. But voters -- Democratic voters, liberal voters, they are often not the primary motivating factor, compared with anger over Iraq or anxiety over the economy or gasoline prices or health care. Those all loom much bigger.

What's going to happen is this news will raise the stakes. And suddenly, a lot of Democrats are going to say, wait a minute, the new president is going to have to, most likely, make some Supreme Court appointments. And that could involve an enormous stake for the entire country. And I think suddenly that's going to change a lot of people's motivation about this election.

BLITZER: And given all the 5-4 decisions that have come from this Supreme Court in recent years, swing voting from Sandra Day O'Connor, among others, this is going to suggest, at least -- and Liz, I will bring you in on this -- to liberals out there, to Democrats and moderate Republicans, that the president can determine whether or not abortion rights for women will go forward. To conservatives and others, they'll be motivated by the notion that the Supreme Court could legalize same-sex marriage, if you will.

These are going to be hot-button issues in these final days of this campaign.

MARLANTES: Absolutely. It's going to put social issues back in the forefront in a way that they really haven't been throughout the campaign.

And you know the other thing that it in some ways might do, Bush has been planning a laser focus on terrorism in the final week of this campaign. We have been hearing from his campaign that he's going to give a big speech at the end of the week in which he's going to try and put a more personal focus on terror. He's got a new ad coming out.

They really wanted to make this last week about terrorism and 9/11, and in a way I think what this does is it distracts from that. It just creates a messier landscape for the final week, which, again, probably is something that Kerry would have been hoping for.

It was going to be difficult for Kerry to push back against Bush's, you know, very strong message on the war on terrorism in this final week. And so I think having different issues coming into play is probably something that Kerry would be happy about.

BLITZER: Liz and Bill, stand by for a minute.

John King is still with us, reporting from Davenport, Iowa. He's on the campaign trail today.

John, this was a day that all of us thought that there would be heavy politics indeed. The former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, about ready to be in Philadelphia at a rally with John Kerry, set to introduce him this afternoon, later tonight in Miami, tomorrow in Boca Raton, Florida. That was going to be a big story today. It goes to show that you there are a lot of unexpected twists and turns that can happen even in these final days of a campaign.

KING: Yes, if does, Wolf. And we should also make this distinction, though. Many of the campaigns now view us as almost irrelevant. Us being the national media.

They say as they try to drive the vote in Pennsylvania, that's why you want Bill Clinton in Philadelphia. Not so much to be on CNN or any network news, but to be on the local news in Philadelphia. The president is traveling in Colorado and then in Iowa today. So -- but this is obviously a national story that will have an impact across the country.

You have been discussing with your guests will it drive up the conservative vote, will it drive out more liberal vote? That we will determine in the days and weeks ahead.

Often, the Supreme Court is more of a media issue than it is a voting issue if you look at the polling. But obviously having the chief justice in the hospital with cancer so close to the election will have some impact.

Now, I will say I have spoken to some senior White House officials who so far cannot say when the president found out about this. This is news that would come through the chief of staff, Andy Card, or through his chief counsel, Judge Alberto Gonzales.

The political aides traveling with the president right now say they were not sure as he gives a speech this hour in Colorado when the president became aware of this information. One of these officials, though, Wolf, said he had just been told that the chief justice plans to return to work this Friday and go to the court, and then be on the bench when the next session begins on November 1, next Monday.

So the chief justice, at least, sending word that he plans to be out of the hospital -- even though he is in intensive care today -- out of the hospital and back at work by the end of this week or one week from today at the latest. What will the political impact be? That obviously a question to be determined in the days ahead.

BLITZER: John, can't we simply assume that if the chief justice underwent a tracheotomy for this thyroid cancer on Saturday that Andy Card would, of course, been notified right away and the president would have been informed? I assume we can just think -- take that as a matter of fact.

KING: We can take that as a matter of it should have gone that way. Chief Justice Rehnquist is a man, of course, who takes his duties seriously. I cannot envision a scenario in which he would not have sent word up to the White House through either Mr. Card or Judge Gonzales.

The question simply is when did the president find out? One has to assume he found out on Friday, when the chief justice checked himself in. But the president would not share that information with all but a few of his aides, and that is one of the questions we need to ask and have answered today.

BLITZER: All right. John, stand by.

Our Bob Franken very often covers the Supreme Court for us. He is joining us now live from Martinsville, Virginia.

Give us a little perspective on what this means. What went through your mind, Bob, for example, when you heard that the chief justice underwent this kind of surgery.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I'll tell you what was -- the first thing that occurred to me is, just a little over a week ago, he was participant in arguments on a case, a very important case on the juvenile death penalty. And he looked as vibrant as he ever did, that type of thing. Leading us to wonder, of course, whether he has found out since then that he had health problems that needed to be immediately taken care of, or whether it was something that he was just keeping confidential, which is such the tradition of the court.

The other thing to remember is that the Rehnquist court is a court that has existed for a long time. I think we must point out here that what we have not heard is that he is about to step down. What we have heard is that this is a man who is advanced in years and is one of those where there is speculation that he might be replaced.

Now, which base does this energize? Rehnquist, of course, William Rehnquist, is associated with the conservatives. If President Bush was elected, he would presumably, if Rehnquist decided to step down, be replaced by another conservative. So it is the liberals who have less to lose here, in effect, with his stepping down.

This is a court that has as many as four justices who are expected to possibly step down in the next few years. And as we've heard various people discuss, it is a political issue, except that it's been overshadowed by other political issues this year.

Rehnquist, of course, is known as a conservative justice. Not the most conservative justice on the court, but often part of that block of four that votes conservative.

Sandra Day O'Connor also appointed by Ronald Reagan is the swing justice. When I say Rehnquist was appointed by Reagan, he was originally appointed by Richard Nixon, but appointed to be a Supreme Court chief justice by Ronald Reagan.

In any case, this has been a court that has been together a long time. It is a court that, even with the difference in philosophies, operates in what is widely believed to be an amicable style. Mainly, many people think, because of the style of the chief justice who is able to build coalitions and make this court operate smoothly, even though the differences can often be great -- Wolf.

BLITZER: He is the chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, 80 years old. Just turned 80 years old. He is now recovering from thyroid cancer surgery, a tracheotomy at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

Bob Franken, before I let you go, the other names we've often heard who might step down for one reason or another in the course of the next four years, one name John Paul Stevens, another name, Sandra Day O'Connor. They're...

Unfortunately, I think we lost Bob Franken. Let's bring back our Bill Schneider and Liz Marlantes, our political analysts, to get a little bit more of a sense.

The other names I was saying, John Paul Stevens is getting up there. He was born in 1920. So he's not a youngster anymore. Sandra Day O'Connor has had her own medical problems.

The notion that the liberals have been making, Bill Schneider, is that this issue could effect over the next four years the new nominees, the new justices of the United States Supreme Court. That could have an impact over the next 20 or even 40 years on American policy. How farfetched is that?

SCHNEIDER: It's not farfetched at all. When you appoint someone to the Supreme Court, they serve for life.

So that is some of the most important appointments that any president makes. They last for a long time. And that's what a lot of Democrats and Republicans have been trying to say to their base supporters: do you know what is at stake at this election?

What is at stake is the Supreme Court, which is the guardian and mouthpiece of the Constitution of the United States, determining the direction of constitutional law on a variety of issues for the foreseeable future. Whoever is appointed president, given the age and disabilities of various justices, will very likely have the opportunity to shape the new Supreme Court for another generation.

You mentioned a number of 5-4 decisions. Here is one, Bush v. Gore. That was a 5-4 decision that got Bush into the White House. So those decisions have enormous consequences.

BLITZER: And Liz, do you want to weigh in on that?

MARLANTES: Well, I was just going to add that it also brings back the fact that this really is a polarized nation and it's something that, you know, throughout the course of this entire election cycle there has been speculation that maybe given 9/11, given the issue of terrorism, some of the polarization we saw in 2000 would recede and we might move into a new phase. And, in fact, as we come up on the election, it's been very clear, I think, that the country is still very starkly polarized.

And much of what is driving that polarization, the red-blue divide that we've heard so much about, are social issues. That's just a fact. And the Supreme Court obviously has a very big hand in shaping which direction a lot of those issues are going to go. And so I do think this is something that reflects back on and is going to likely perpetuate the sense of polarization as we go into the final week of this election.

BLITZER: Our legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin, is joining us now. He's going to join us on the phone.

Jeffrey, this is -- this is a huge issue for the United States, the nature of the Supreme Court over the next four years. But legally speaking, from your perspective, give us some -- give us some of your thoughts.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Well, he is -- Chief Justice Rehnquist is one of the three most conservative justices on the court with Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. And so the big change would be if John Kerry were elected and got to appoint a chief justice who presumably would not be anywhere as near as conservative as Chief Justice Rehnquist is.

But even beyond the significance of the individual appointment is the fact that William Rehnquist is the chief justice. We always talk about Supreme Courts as the Rehnquist court, the Berger court, the Earl Warren court before Warren Berger.

These people, the chief justices, set the judicial tone for the country. The title which Chief Justice Rehnquist is very meticulous about is not chief justice of the Supreme Court. It's chief justice of the United States. And that's a meaningful distinction. And the thought of a vacancy there is a meaningful thought.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, if you give us historic perspective of what he has contributed to this court over these years since he was brought in by President Nixon in 1972, elevated by President Reagan in 1986 to be chief justice of the United States, give us a little sense of the history that he's helped create.

TOOBIN: Well, he has -- is such an enormously important figure. When he was appointed by Richard Nixon in 1972, he was regarded by some, including some of his fellow justices, as kind of a fringe figure, someone who was way off on the right wing, someone not in the mainstream either of the Supreme Court or the American judiciary.

He has seen history come to his side. He has seen the court grow more conservative in and judiciary get more conservative. And, indeed, I think it's safe to say the country get more conservative.

The issue he is most identified with among people who follow the court is the power of the states versus the federal government. He is someone who believes that the federal government should be limited and the state should -- should have greater power. But on a lot of issues, the country has come around somewhat to his thinking, but not entirely.

He has been an opponent of Roe v. Wade. Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the year after he got on the court. He descended in Roe v. Wade.

He has seen the court come up to the edge of overruling Roe v. Wade as he has urged the court to do, but he has never succeed. That obviously is important.

He was in the minority on the affirmative action decision that upheld affirmative action at the University of Michigan. He was in the minority on overruling the gay sodomy law in Texas.

So even though the court has come around much to his point of view, it has not gotten all the way there.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, I'm going to have you stand by as well.

Let me just recap for viewers who may be just tuning in. The chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, has been hospitalized, Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington, D.C. Underwent throat surgery, a tracheotomy after a diagnosis of thyroid cancer.

A court spokeswoman says the 80-year-old chief justice was admitted to Bethesda Naval Hospital on Friday, underwent the surgery on Saturday. They expect him to be back out of the hospital later this week. The court does expect he'll be back to work as early as next week.

We will continue to watch this story. Much more coming up this hour, indeed throughout the day here on CNN.

We are also watching what's happening on the campaign trail. With only a few days, eight days specifically left to go, the president is speaking out in Colorado. When we come back, we'll listen in to hear what he has to say.

And in Philadelphia, they're getting ready for not only John Kerry, but also the former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, who will be introducing him in the coming hour. Much more coverage on all these stories when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The chief justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, undergoing a tracheotomy. Surgery on Saturday at Bethesda Naval Hospital outside Washington, D.C., after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

A statement released by the U.S. Supreme Court says that the surgery was successful. He expects to be released from the hospital later this week and back on the bench on Monday, when arguments will resume before the United States Supreme Court.

We are watching this story for our viewers. We will continue to update you with all the late-breaking developments.

But for the time being, let's go out to Colorado right now -- Greeley, Colorado. The president of the United States is speaking. Let's listen in.

(LIVE NEWS EVENT) BLITZER: In the meantime, we are following breaking news out of Washington, D.C. -- more specifically, Bethesda Naval Hospital in suburban Maryland right outside of the nation's capital.

William Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States, hospitalized over the weekend. Had a tracheotomy on Saturday after being diagnosed with thyroid cancer. A statement put out by the U.S. Supreme court saying should be released from the hospital later this week, back to work as early perhaps as Monday.

Let's take a look at some of the political fallout from this and all the other issues. And for that, we've invited two guests here into our New York studios. Robert Zimmerman is a Democratic consultant. Chris Henick is a Republican consultant. You worked for Rudy Giuliani for Giuliani Associates. So, you probably felt pretty good, Chris, seeing your boss out there on the campaign trail.

But let's get both of you to weigh in right now on the immediate political fallout. Start with you, Robert. The next eight days from this announcement, word that William Rehnquist had cancer surgery.

ROBERT ZIMMERMAN, DEMOCRATIC CONSULTANT: Well, first and foremost, the prayers of all Americans are with the chief justice and his family over this tragic turn of events. And we all pray for his swift recovery.

It's also important to remember when you evaluate this situation, it not only raises the liberal versus conservative debate and the debate over the preservation of Roe v. Wade and basic rights that Justice Rehnquist and many of the radical conservatives have opposed, but the other issue, too, is the role of not the next president in choosing not just the chief justice of the United States, as he's referred to, but also directing the future of the court.

And I think what's critical to remember here is that we've seen now with George Bush, the quality of people he's surrounded himself with, the tragic consequences of the decisions they made that led to us a colossal misjudgment in Iraq. We've seen the tragic consequences that have destroyed the record surplus and given us a record deficit by this administration.

BLITZER: We'll get into that. But we're just talking about William Rehnquist right now. Chris, you want to weigh in?

CHRIS HENICK, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes. Radical chord, here. He's covering all types of grounds.

The question -- what this does is it does raise a specter (ph) through the prism of base politics. At this point, this final week is all about certainly persuasion, but mobilization, as well, too. And a lot of the base issues will come up. You mentioned social issues, cultural, but the Supreme Court appointee is so important, as well on economic issues, governmental issues, Constitutional, but also terrorism issues, as we've seen, since September the 11th. So...

BLITZER: Almost everything goes through the Supreme Court. ZIMMERMAN: And in fact, George Bush said in the last campaign his role model for future court appointees would be Justice Scalia or Justice Clarence Thomas. So, the American people have a very clear view of the kinds of justices that George Bush wants on the court.

BLITZER: You want to weigh in?

HENICK: Absolutely. If you look at even the first 11 federal judges that the president appointed in 2001, as a new kind of Republican, a Latino women, African-Americans. So, to go back...

(CROSSTALK)

HENICK: Let me finish. You have been holding up our whole bench with Senator Kerry and his other allies.

ZIMMERMAN: ...making sure moderates are getting appointed to the bench.

HENICK: This is not a question about moderates -- who's qualified and who represents this country. So, this is a very important issue, and we all hope that the chief justice is recovering. Sounds like he's recovering very well. He'll be back on the bench next week.

But it shows you the importance...

BLITZER: This kind of cancer, we should point out, is very treatable. And there's a relatively good success ratio involved in this kind of thyroid cancer.

If you look, though, at -- there are two political impact areas that we can see. One on the base of the left and right clearly, but also on that undecided. They are still out there -- maybe three, four, five, six percent undecided middle of the roaders that can go either way.

If you're one of those undecided women -- and we did a poll the other day that suggesting maybe 60 or 65 percent of the undecided are still women out there. Chris, I'll start with you, the fallout from Rehnquist -- the Rehnquist cancer surgery, how does that play out? Because these are moderates, the ones who could vote either way.

HENICK: Well, it's still, the political frame -- as you just heard the president speak, the political frame is all about security, as well as his potential appointee for the Supreme Court. But that's why the political frame -- well, both candidates are trying to show who's best secure for this country to safeguard America from a terrorist threat.

BLITZER: I guess, though, the question -- I'll rephrase the question for you, Robert. Is it good for Kerry or good for Bush when it comes to the undecided vote?

ZIMMERMAN: I think when it comes to considering the role of the Supreme Court, it only works to John Kerry's favor. Because this has been one of the most radically conservative courts in the history of our nation. It is a court that is committed to overturning Roe v. Wade. It is court that has been very committed to reversing many of the gains made for women.

So, I think for moderates and mainstream Americans who represent that undecided voter, having John Kerry with his caliber of leadership and the intellectual qualities he surrounds himself I think is very reassuring.

BLITZER: You know, Chris, a lot of Democrats, Kerry supporters are now going to say, especially to the women out there, if you want to protect women's -- abortion rights for women, you better vote for Kerry.

HENICK: Well, sure you expect that. But at the same time, you expect from cultural conservatives, economic conservatives, people who really want to focus on terrorism, this will be a key issue for our base, as well, too. So, you can talk about politics as a base thing.

BLITZER: Let's move on a second, because we don't have a lot of time. The former president of the United States, Bill Clinton, about to introduce John Kerry in Philadelphia. He was on "Good Morning America" this morning speaking about his own health. He had, only a few weeks ago, quadruple bypass surgery.

Let's listen to what he told Charlie Gibson.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM CLINTON (D), FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I talked to my doctors about it, and they made some very helpful suggestions. They said, you know, I should get where I'm going early in case I'm tired so I can kind of regenerate.

DIANE SAWYER, HOST, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Did Senator Clinton want you to go out? Was she worried this was too soon?

CLINTON: No, but she doesn't want me to do too much. And I don't either. But I want to do this. The -- Senator Kerry asked me to do it, and I want to do it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Bill Clinton spoke to Diane Sawyer, not Charlie Gibson.

Is this good, Chris, for the Democrats right now that Clinton is going to make an appearance in Philadelphia later tonight, Miami tomorrow, Boca Raton, Florida. Is this good for the Democrats, for the Democratic candidate?

HENICK: It could be inconsequential. I mean, Bill Clinton is a former president. And he's going to campaign in their base in Philadelphia. He's not going to western Pennsylvania or Pittsburgh. But what it clearly shows is that John Kerry is going to need some form of help here at the last week. And it's a former president, so he's going to campaign. So, the point about it is is that all candidates always ask for help. And this is one where...

ZIMMERMAN: I'll tell you where the difference is, Chris...

HENICK: ... where this president...

ZIMMERMAN: But I'll tell you what the difference is, Chris. You know, when you have Bill Clinton and John Kerry standing together, that's the team that produced the greatest economic recovery in the history of our country. George Bush is surrounding himself with people like John McCain, who have denounced his economic program, John McCain who said he is not being straight with the American people on Iraq. And Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has virtually opposed every major initiative by President Bush.

So, you if look at who the surrogates are, we can be proud that Bill Clinton and John Kerry stand together as a team. George Bush has to surround himself with surrogates who have opposed and condemned this administration.

HENICK: If you look at the votes in the Senate that John Kerry voted on to eliminate funding after the first World Trade bombing, $6 million across the board, intelligence cuts -- let me finish for a second. You went on for a while.

ZIMMERMAN: But at least be accurate. At least...

BLITZER: All right...

HENICK: Put your facts on the Supreme Court cases that you just talked about two time. You are just throwing all this out.

But the question that's helping Democrats is there are a lot of odds between Senator Kerry and President Clinton on a whole host of issues when he was a senator. So, some of these odds you won't hear about from this side...

ZIMMERMAN: Well, let's talk facts for a moment. We talk about John Kerry's role. He played a very critical role in terms of supporting American military strength. It was Porter Goss, who is now George Bush's new CIA director, who proposed the most extreme cutbacks in CIA funding. And so, I think it's very important to understand the record both of John Kerry and this administration.

Bill Clinton is going to highlight that in his speech, and unfortunately George Bush is going to surround himself...

BLITZER: But you have to -- Chris, at this point in the game, getting out the vote -- the ground game, as they call it -- could be divisive. It almost certainly will be decisive.

HENICK: It's very decisive. In fact, this is where you start seeing a shoot up from persuasion to mobilization. But the issues are still out there for the undecideds you talk about. What they're looking at is leadership and character. (CROSSTALK)

ZIMMERMAN: ... looking for mainstream values...

BLITZER: Robert Zimmerman, we've got to leave it right there. Chris, I think a good debate. We'll continue this down the road.

We'll take a quick break. More on our breaking news story when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: I'll be back later today, every weekday 5:00 p.m. Eastern for "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS." Bill Clinton, as we all know by now, back on the campaign trail, throwing his support behind Senator John Kerry. Physically in Philadelphia, we are standing by to hear from Bill Clinton and John Kerry. But is it too much too soon for the former president fresh off of heart surgery? We will speak with a top cardiologist and get an assessment.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in New York. "LIVE FROM" with Kyra Phillips and Tony Harris coming up right after a short break.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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