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THE SITUATION ROOM

Remembering Gerald Ford; Saddam Hussein Speaking Out About His Impending Death; U.S. Military Says They Do See New Iranian Connections To Attacks Against U.S. Troops In Iraq; Gerald Ford's Human Side; Protecting the Pilgrims: Muslims in Mecca

Aired December 27, 2006 - 17:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.
ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Standing by, CNN reporters across the United States and around the world to bring you today's top stories.

MALVEAUX: Happening now, mourning in America, the nation remembers Gerald Ford, one day after the death of America's 38th president, Ford successors praise integrity and devotion to duty as plans are made to lay him to rest.

HENRY: Ford leaves behind a well-known political legacy from presidential pardons to verbal and physical slipups. We'll examine his unique place in the nation's history.

MALVEAUX: They're among the last words of a man facing death. Saddam Hussein writes an angry letter calling the U.S. merciless tyrants, and referring to Iranians as devil worshippers. But you may be surprised what Hussein is urging his followers to do.

Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

HENRY: And I'm Ed Henry. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

MALVEAUX: The flags have been lowered and there is now a flurry of planning under way, this afternoon, on both coasts for the funeral of former President Gerald Ford.

HENRY: He died last night at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, at the age 93. We have complete coverage for you this hour, beginning with Dan Simon in nearby Palm Desert, California.

Dan, what is the story there?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ed and Suzanne, we're awaiting a press conference, hopefully within the next couple of hours, in terms of how things are likely to proceed over the next few days. We do have a basic framework on how things are likely to proceed over the next couple of days.

We believe there will be a ceremony, a service, if you will, at the Ford's Episcopalian Church in Palm Desert, California. He will lie in repose, we're told, on Friday. And then sometime on Saturday we are hearing, his body will fly to Washington, D.C., where he will lie in state in the Capital Rotunda. Then there will be a service at the National Cathedral. Ultimately, Mr. Ford will be buried at his museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

In terms of the cause of death, we haven't been told that yet, though, but 2006 was obviously, a challenging year for Mr. Ford. He suffered couple of bouts of pneumonia, also had a couple of heart procedures.

Waiting this news conference in terms of how things will proceed over the next couple of days. Ed and Suzanne, back to you.

MALVEAUX: OK, Dan, we'll be waiting for those details as well.

Of course, news of Ford's death is prompting outpouring of bipartisan tributes to the 38th president. Including heart felt words from President Bush. CNN White House Correspondent Elaine Quijano is in Crawford, Texas, where Mr. Bush was informed of Ford's death -- Elaine.

ELAINE QUIJANO, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good afternoon to you, Suzanne.

It was just before 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time, last night that chief of staff Josh Bolton called President Bush to inform him of the news of President Ford's passing. It was shortly there after the president then tried to calling the former First Lady Betty Ford but was unable to reach her.

Finally, about an hour later through an arranged call, the two did in fact speak, and President Bush, at that time was able to express his personal condolences to her.

Now this morning, from his ranch nearby here, in Crawford, the president praised Gerald Ford as a great man, saying he devoted the best years of his life in serving the United States. Now he noted that Ford took power in a period of what he called great division and turmoil, a reference, of course, to the bitter atmosphere that existed in those immediate days after the Watergate scandal.

The president said that for a nation that needed healing at that time, Gerald Ford came along when the country needed him most -- Ed and Suzanne.

HENRY: Thank you very much, Elaine Quijano in Crawford, Texas with the president.

Turning now another very important story, Iraq, Saddam Hussein's Baath Party is warning of, quote, "grave consequences" if the former Iraqi dictator is executed. That comes one day after an Iraqi appeals court upheld the death sentence for the former dictator. Saddam, himself, is now speaking out about his impending death. With that part of the story, we're joined by Carol Costello, live in New York.

Hello, Carol. CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Hi, Ed.

Saddam Hussein supposedly wrote this letter on November 5th, the day he was sentenced to death. He offers himself as a sacrifice. Here's more.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): A good-bye letter from a condemned man, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attempting to get the last word in, in a long missive posted on a Baathist Web site.

It is addressed to his supporters both inside and outside Iraq, and it takes a swipe at Americans, which Saddam referred to as "merciless tyrants". And Iraq's neighbor, the largely Shia Muslim Iran, he calls the Iranians "hateful devil-worshipping Persians". He writes that both countries "are trying to enslave you and incite you to fight each other."

But Saddam urges Iraqis to unite, writing -- "I hereby call upon you not to hate or bear grudges because this will prevent you from being equitable and just."

The letter strikes fatalistic notes as well with Saddam writing: "It's to God to decide if he wants me to join the pious and martyrs in heaven or to postpone this as he sees fit. He is our creator and we all ultimately return to him."

He closes by calling Iraq a loyal and honorable nation and saying, "I bid you farewell, and submit myself to the merciful and ever faithful Lord."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COSTELLO: And with all the talk of forgiveness in that letter, Hussein's followers are threatening violence if there one-time leader is executed. Back to you, Suzanne and Ed.

MALVEAUX: Carol, thanks so much.

For more on Saddam Hussein's impending execution, we are now joined by CNN's Ryan Chilcote live in Baghdad.

And Ryan, I have to ask you, how imminent is Saddam Hussein's execution? What do we know?

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, it could be very imminent.

What we know is that according to Iraqi law, it has to happen by January 27th. But it could happen earlier because the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, earlier this year, before this verdict was reached, said he felt he thinks that Saddam should be hanged bit end of the year. So, this could happen at anytime now -- Suzanne.

HENRY: And Ryan, what impact do you think Saddam's execution will actually have on the violence on the ground?

CHILCOTE: Short-term, I think that it is entirely likely that there will be an uptick in the violence. That is certainly what the Iraqi government is expecting. That is what many of the insurgents are vowing. We heard within the last 24 hours from the Baathist Party, officials of the Baathist Party, saying that they are going to attack if -- they are going to retaliate if Saddam is executed. That they are going to go after American targets.

Long-term, it is really not clear it will have any impact. The Iraqi government says it hopes that Saddam's execution will demoralize Saddam's loyalists, and that it will discourage them from fighting, perhaps bring them to the table for reconciliation. But if you listen to what the Baath Party is already saying, that seems quite unlikely.

Then remember that the Saddam loyalists, that part of the insurgency is actually quite small. You still have to deal with the much larger groups like Al Qaeda in Iraq, those extremist groups, that do not see Saddam Hussein as a figure head. And will not see this as an important event.

And, remember, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed earlier this year, I think very interesting, there were some people out there that were predicting that when the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq was killed, that that would lead to a decrease in violence. And in fact, we saw just the opposite, we have seen the violence really spiraling out of control. So, not sure that this is going to have too much an impact long-term -- Suzanne and Ed.

HENRY: Thank you very much, Ryan Chilcote in Baghdad, all over that story.

But up ahead, more on the death of former President Gerald Ford. We'll look at the defining moment of his presidency and how it will impact his legacy.

MALVEAUX: Also, the U.S. military in Iraq possibly discovering a pipe line for those deadly roadside bombs coming from Iran. We'll have new details.

HENRY: Plus, Pakistan, poised to take an explosive step in an effort to control Al Qaeda. We'll show you what is being planned. Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Now to that developing story in Iraq, where a recent U.S. raid netted important materials, and two Iranians. The U.S. military says they might have a role in attacks against American troops. CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr has the details on that story -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, the U.S. Military says now they do see new Iranian connections to attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): CNN has learned there is evidence that two Iranians, the U.S. military is now holding in Iraq, are involved in bringing deadly IED technology into the country. Including the type of armor piercing bombs that have killed hundreds of American troops.

The Iranians may have been in Iraq at the invitation of President Jalal Talabani. They were seized in an early morning raid at a Baghdad compound with others on December 21st.

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, MULTINATIONAL FORCE-IRAQ: We did seize on the site additional items such as documents, maps, photographs and videos.

STARR: In a written statement, the U.S. military said some of the material seized directly linked the Iranians to attacks on U.S. forces. The statement said, that "Debriefing of the detainees and investigation of the seized materials has yielded evidence linking some of the individuals being detained to weapons shipments to illegal armed groups in Iraq."

The U.S. says Iran is providing advanced IED technology to Iraqi Shia militia groups. Recently the top U.S. commander directly accused Tehran.

GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, U.S. CENTRAL COMMANDER: It is clear that money is coming in through their intelligence services, training is probably being conducted inside Iran, through various surrogates and proxies. But I think it is very clear that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard KUDS (ph) Force is trying to destabilize the situation in Iraq.

STARR: December already is the second-deadliest month of the year for U.S. troops, with at least 90 killed in action. Military sources tell CNN the sophistication of the attacks continues to grow.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: At the same time, Ed and Suzanne, military commanders say they have every reason to believe the level of violence is going to remain high in Iraq, at least in the short-term.

MALVEAUX: Barbara, what kind of tactics, IED tactics has the U.S. military seeing in Iraq?

STARR: Well, what they are continuing to notice is this growing sophistication. They see these IED attacks go off, and then at the same time U.S. troops are attacked by snipers, by small arms fire, by multiple IEDs at the same time. So it just doesn't get any easier, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thanks, Barbara.

HENRY: Thank you, Barbara for that report.

HENRY: On another front, Pakistan is pondering how best to stop Al Qaeda and its allies from causing death and devastation next door. Right now, Pakistan says it is ready to take a potentially explosive step, with that part of the story, our Brian Todd -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ed, Pakistani officials tell us they have 80,000 troops along their border with Afghanistan, and 700 checkpoints. They are tired of being told that's not enough. So they're about to do something they know is controversial.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Rogue civilians queue up at a border crossing from Pakistan to Afghanistan, under the watchful eye of Pakistani security forces. But other stretches of the border are not patrolled, left wide open to militants, some allied with Taliban and Al Qaeda, to launch attacks against U.S. and Afghan forces.

It is believed Osama bin Laden may also be hiding in this vast mountainous region. Pakistani officials tell CNN they're sick of blistering criticism from U.S. and Afghan leaders that these attacks are routinely launched from the Pakistani side of the border, and that the government isn't doing enough to stop it. So they're taking a bold step.

MAHMUD ALI DURRANI, PAKISTANI AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: We have no other choice but to mine it and fence it.

TODD: Land mines along some parts of the border, fences at other stretches, and Pakistani officials say, more security forces in additional areas. Most of this, in the northwest frontier region. They say not all of the 1500 mile border can be sealed. Afghan officials tell CNN these measures are not an answer; going after terrorists directly is. A former CIA officer who has tracked the Taliban and Osama bin Laden in the region has this warning for Pakistani commanders.

GARY BERNTSEN, FORMER CIA OFFICER: If they don't have people on scene, you know, covering those minefields, the Taliban will breech those fields. They'll use combat engineering techniques to blast past through them and they'll cross through.

TODD: But Gary Berntsen and Pakistani officials say even if they don't stop each person, the strategy can be effective.

DURRANI: Let's say there are 100 people going, there will be two or three people going. If there is a 1,000 people going, there will be maybe 50 people going, and whenever you breech a fence, or when you breech a minefield, then it is known and it gives you reaction time.

TODD: But a human rights official says noncombatants in those areas won't have reaction time.

SAM ZARIFI, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: We're going see a significant number of civilians, thousands of civilians subjected to risk of injury by these land mines.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Sam Zarifi calls this plan a disastrous idea. Pakistan's ambassador tells us he is a soldier, a former soldier, he doesn't like mines either, but he says this is an unusual situation requiring unusual measures. He says the mined areas will be marked by fences and warning signs. But Gary Berntsen and Human Rights Watch officials tell us civilians often miss those signs -- Ed, Suzanne.

HENRY: Brian, this talk of also building a fence. What can that do? What are these experts saying about how that may aid in the hunt for Osama bin Laden?

TODD: Well, the Pakistani ambassador is hopeful that the -- between the fence, land mines, and manning certain other areas with added security forces they can channel people into certain open pockets, and therefore kind of contain them.

They're hopeful that maybe bin Laden and his movements in those areas may somehow get caught up in that. Gary Berntsen, the guy from the -- the former CIA officer who spent years tracking bin Laden says that's probably unlikely.

MALVEAUX: And, of course, the Bush administration has been trying to put pressure on Pakistan to crack down on Al Qaeda as well. Brian Todd, thank you very much for that update.

And, of course, coming up, covering President Ford, the matriarch of White House correspondents Helen Thomas joins us to share her memories of the 38th president.

HENRY: Plus, Saddam Hussein's Baath Party warning of grave consequences if he's executed. We'll talk about it with our world affairs analyst, former Defense Secretary William Cohen. Stay with us, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HENRY: We're just getting details of a small plane crash. Let's go to Carol Costello, she has some details -- Carol.

COSTELLO: We're just getting word of this. A small plane has gone down in Mount Gilead, Ohio, that is about 40 miles north of Columbus, Ohio. There are fatalities. But we don't know how many yet. That small plane going down in a wooded area in Morrow County, in Mount Gilead. This is the second plane crash in two weeks in central Ohio. We'll keep you posted.

Also a bit of a scare for the family of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and some slightly ruffled feathers for British Airways. The carrier blames poor lighting at Miami International Airport for one of its planes overshooting a runway last night.

But federal officials said today the lights were fine. Everyone on board, including the prime minister's family, was unhurt. The Blairs traveled to Miami to stay with Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees.

A spokeswoman for rescuers looking for two missing U.S. hikers, in the mountains of southwest China says, yes, a body was found. But she says an identity has not been confirmed. Teams plan to return to the site, at 17,000 feet, tomorrow to retrieve the body. Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff were reported missing after they failed to return to the United States on December 4th. Both were experienced climbers.

A surprising upturn for new home sales. The government reports sales and prices both were stronger than expected in November. New homes sold at an annual pace of 1.05 million, that's up from October's annual rate of 1.01 million. The median price came in at $251,700.

That's a look at headlines right now. Back to you -- actually, I'll tell you about this blanket of snow that still lies over Denver. It's likely to get thicker in the coming days. Forecasters are watching another strong storm spinning from the west towards Colorado. The National Weather Service has already posted a winter storm watch for Thursday afternoon.

Last week's blizzard crippled Denver and strand thousands of air travelers. This time airlines are letting passengers reschedule some flights without penalty.

Now that's a look at the headlines. Back to you, Ed and Suzanne.

HENRY: Thanks, Carol. Juggling a lot of big stories for us. We'll get back to you if we get more details on this fatalities in Ohio.

Coming up, Ford and Chevy, while Gerald Ford presented positive images of himself, comedians like Chevy Chase had other images in mind. Our Bill Schneider will take a close look at that.

MALVEAUX: And as we remember Gerald Ford, we'll examine how his pardon of Richard Nixon partly defined his presidency.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HENRY: You're in THE SITUATION ROOM, where new pictures and information are arriving all the time.

MALVEAUX: Happening now, plans being made for the funeral of former President Gerald Ford. He died late last night at his home in Rancho Mirage, California, at age 93. And tributes to the 38th president are pouring in this afternoon, from both sides of the political aisle.

HENRY: Also, with news of his death, memories of Ford's defining act as president, his pardon of predecessor Richard Nixon for Watergate crimes, we'll look back at how that impacted his legacy.

MALVEAUX: In Somalia, government forces and allied Ethiopian troops advancing on the capital, Mogadishu. They're poised to seize control of the city from Islamic militias, who have controlled it since June. They're now said to be retreating.

I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

HENRY: And I'm Ed Henry. Wolf Blitzer is off today. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

MALVEAUX: More now on our top story, the death of former President Gerald Ford at age 93. His brief time in office largely defined by a single highly controversial act. CNN's Jeanne Meserve joins with us that part of the story.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN HOMELAND SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Suzanne, Ed, people who knew President Ford have called his pardon of Richard Nixon a tough decision, a lonely decision. It was certainly a controversial and costly one.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RICHARD NIXON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.

MESERVE (voice-over): Watergate was this nation's Shakespearean tragedy. Richard Nixon left the White House, but like Hamlet's Ghost, he haunted the country, strewing division, distrust, disillusionment. With one dramatic politically perilous move, his successor, Gerald Ford, hoped to move the country past it.

GERALD FORD, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I do grant a full, free and absolute pardon on to Richard Nixon, for all offenses against the United States.

MESERVE: But the pardon sprung suddenly on a Sunday morning just one month after Ford took office, did not heal the country. To the contrary, some of the anger which had been focused on Nixon, was redirected at Ford himself.

YANEK MIECZKOWSKI, AUTHOR: It led to suspicions that Ford had somehow colluded with Richard Nixon. And it tainted what had become Ford's stock and trade during that first month of his presidency, which was that here was a man from the Midwest, of decent values, who could restore integrity to the Oval Office.

MESERVE: Ford maintained there was never any deal, that Nixon would make him president in exchange for a pardon. But nonetheless, Ford's action triggered a plunge in his approval rating. Overnight it plummeted from 71 percent to 50 percent. And it contributed to his loss of the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976.

But Ford never voiced any regret about the pardon, which came to define his presidency.

FORD: It was my principle responsibility to restore integrity in the White House and to bring about healing in the country. I have no question that it was the right thing to do then, and I am more certain today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MESERVE: And today most historians agree, Ford famously called Watergate a national nightmare. With his pardon of Richard Nixon, one person says he allowed the country to dream again. Ed, Suzanne, back to you.

HENRY: Thank you very much, Jeanne Meserve, for that report.

For more on this, we want to bring in our senior analyst Jeff Greenfield.

Jeff, I find it quite fascinating that when Gerald Ford left office a lot of people were upset about that pardon, there was great division about it. But it now seems like there's been a pretty big shift between then and now.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: Well, part of it is just the passage of time. The emotions were running very high when Richard Nixon resigned. Many of his top aides spent time in prison.

There was a slogan that was going around during Watergate from his adversaries, "Jail to the chief." And I think there was a feeling that the pardon at the time looked like some other kind of secret conspiratorial deal, which I don't believe there is any evidence for.

With the passage of time, I think that Gerald Ford's decision looks to be very wise. We just didn't want to extend Watergate another year or two with a trial of a former president. That's what happens in -- you know, in, pardon the expression, banana republics, not the United States.

MALVEAUX: And Jeff, wasn't really part of the way this unfolded is that Americans, by and large, really did not want to see an ex- president put on trial, that it was already a very painful time for the country?

GREENFIELD: I'm not sure whether that was true back in 1974. I think there were probably plenty of people -- you know, Richard Nixon stirred very strong emotions -- who felt, look, the guy violated the Constitution, he resigned in disgrace, let the law apply to him just as it did the former attorney general, John Mitchell, and Haldeman and Ehrlichman, all of whom spent time in prison.

I certainly think now you can see that there's a certain wisdom in saying, you know what, we're not going to do it that way. He's out of office. He's in disgrace. We're not going to put him in the dock the way other countries do.

HENRY: Now Jeff, you know, in the last hour we had in THE SITUATION ROOM Bob Dole, Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976. What kind of a fact -- how much of an impact was the pardon on getting Ronald Reagan into that Republican primary in 1976 to try to knock Gerry Ford off?

GREENFIELD: I'm not sure that was the key reason. I think, as Jeanne Meserve pointed out, the pardon knocked Ford so down in public opinion polls that he was a much weaker incumbent than he would have been if he had remained in the '70s. But there was plenty of conservative disaffection with Gerald Ford.

The Panama Canal treaty turned out to be a big issue for Reagan. Ford's negotiation with the Soviet Union, the Detente, as it was called back then, that alienated a lot of people on the right. Reagan took a very hard stand against the foreign policy of Henry Kissinger. So there were plenty of other reasons.

I think you can look at it and say it was one of the factors that weakened Ford and made him susceptible to a primary challenge.

MALVEAUX: Jeff Greenfield, thanks again.

Of course, history taking a second look at President Ford, and we wonder whether or not it will do the same for President Bush.

Thanks again, Jeff.

And now let's bring in our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner.

The Internet is providing us with an extraordinary look at Gerald Ford's life before, during and after his presidency.

Jacki, what are you seeing?

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Suzanne, there is some amazing stuff online.

Here is Gerald Ford's swearing-in ceremony and inaugural address from August 1974.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GERALD FORD, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My fellow Americans, this is an hour of history that troubles our minds and hurts our hearts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCHECHNER: This video and others are available online courtesy of C-SPAN's "American Presidents" series. They also have got the Ford pardon of Nixon available as part of that collection.

Also, a full clearinghouse online from the Gerald Ford Library and Museum Web site. This is really interesting stuff. An online exhibit.

You can take a look at one day in the life of President Gerald Ford. For example, April 28, 1975. You can see his full schedule.

This is the day that he ordered the evacuation of the last Americans out of Saigon. You can see what that day was like for him.

Also available online are some old TV ads. This when Ford ran against Jimmy Carter in 1976. Of course, he lost that campaign for president. But according to this ad, you can see what that campaign was like, and you can find all of these ads online courtesy of the Ford Library Museum.

And also, this memorial that went up in the last 24 hours to Gerald Ford, a full Web site where you can offer your condolences, you can get funeral arrangement information. CNN.com/situationroomblog is where we've compiled all these links for you -- Suzanne, Ed.

MALVEAUX: Jacki, thanks much.

And, of course, up ahead, remembering Gerald Ford. We will speak with William Cohen. As a congressman, Cohen helped question Ford during Ford's confirmation hearings for the vice presidency.

HENRY: Also, a president and the comedians who portray them. Our Bill Schneider looks back at portrayals of a serious man played for laughs.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: And this just in out of Palm Desert, California. In the 6:00 hour Eastern Time, that is when we expect new details about the memorial, as well as funeral services. The tick-tock of the events that will take place, of course, in the next couple of days for the late Gerald Ford.

We'll be keeping a close eye on that and, of course, we'll get you those details in the 7:00 hour.

HENRY: Everyone paying close attention to the details on that state funeral.

The early days of Gerald Ford's presidency coincided with the early days of a television phenomenon, "Saturday Night Live." And for better or worse, maybe both, that helped shape Americans' impressions of their new commander in chief.

Our senior political analyst, Bill Schneider, has more on former President Ford's image and his legacy.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Ed, how did Gerald Ford leave his stamp on the presidency? By showing his human side.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Gerald Ford worked hard to present himself as a reassuring and comfortable figure, someone who we learned early on made his own English muffins for breakfast.

HENRY KISSINGER, FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE: He did what he needed to do. He was calm. What you saw was what you got.

SCHNEIDER: Ford followed Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, two intensely complicated and devious presidents. That's why it was important for Ford to be reassuring.

FORD: Our long national nightmare is over.

SCHNEIDER: Inheriting Watergate and Vietnam, Ford aimed to be a healer. He saw the Nixon pardon as a healing gesture, a way to avoid the trauma of a long criminal trial. FORD: It would have been a traumatic incident in the country for three to five years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He came down the steps...

SCHNEIDER: They say laughter is the best medicine. President Ford's clumsiness became a national joke.

Comedian Chevy Chase made his name portraying the president as a stumble bum. Jokes about the pratfall president didn't come across as nasty, they were sort of endearing...

CHEVY CHASE, ACTOR: I just want to thank you for having me here. And I'm kind of embarrassed. And I hope you pardon me.

SCHNEIDER: ... especially when Ford was in on the joke.

Ford was actually an accomplished athlete and avid skier and golfer, a former college football player who was recruited by the pros.

FORD: When I got through Michigan, I was offered opportunities at the Green Bay Packers and the Detroit Lions.

SCHNEIDER: Gerald Ford aimed to be the antidote to Richard Nixon's imperial presidency. It worked. Perhaps too well.

The American public rates Ford the most average president in modern times. Sixty percent of Americans rate his presidency as average. More than any president since Franklin Roosevelt.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: Gerald Ford once described himself as "a Ford, not a Lincoln." He wanted to showcase his humility, and that turned out to be an apt description. One historian called him "not a Lincoln, but a pretty good Ford" -- Ed.

MALVEAUX: And you know what's really interesting about this, too, is that he almost became a vice presidential nominee as well. I mean after, in 1980, it really would have been a turning point, I think, for this country.

SCHNEIDER: That certainly would have been. They tried to work out a deal.

Ronald Reagan was the nominee. He had run against Ford in 1976. And his campaign and the Ford staff were trying to work out a deal of terms on which Ford could become Ronald Reagan's vice presidential running mate.

It was a sensational news story. It didn't work out. And they killed it very quickly.

But if Ford had gone on the ticket, it would have changed the course of history in this country. There would have been no George Bush as vice president, there would have been no Bush probably as president.

HENRY: Good points. Thank you very much.

Bill Schneider, our senior political analyst.

Now, as a congressman, our next guest helped question Gerald Ford during his confirmation hearings for the vice presidency.

Joining us now, world affairs analyst William Cohen, the former defense secretary.

We appreciate you coming in.

WILLIAM COHEN, FMR. DEFENSE SECRETARY: Great to be here.

HENRY: And as a young congressman, 1974, you were one of the few Republicans to vote for impeachment in the House Judiciary Committee. It was obviously a tough decision, a tough decision for Gerald Ford, was the pardoning of Richard Nixon.

Why don't you reflect a little bit what's going through your mind about that time period now as you learn of the death of Gerald Ford.

COHEN: Well, as I reflect back on my relationship with Gerald Ford, he was very kind to me as a freshman congressman, sort of fatherly, took me under his wing, so to speak. And what I noticed most about him -- if I had three words to describe him, it would be honor, honesty and humility. And he was all of those, and he was the embodiment of those values and virtues.

And he was tolerant of diversity. And certainly there was some of us on the Republican side early in my career that, we had some pretty diverse views in terms of the role that President Richard Nixon had played in the Watergate scandal. And he never tried to impose any kind of strong-arm tactics.

He allowed me to examine the evidence, to vote as I saw fit, and to hold no grudges. And it was an experience also to be one to question him as a freshman member of the House who actually had the opportunity and obligation, and it was somewhat intimidating to put the minority leader under the -- under cross-examination, so to speak, and trying to find out what he felt about serious issues.

And I recall one in particular. It was that involving Judge Matt Byrne, who died earlier this past year. And he had been offered, or at least allegedly offered by President Nixon, a position as FBI director at a time when he was presiding over the Ellsberg trial. And I thought that was an attempt to once again subvert the process and raised that issue with then minority leader Gerald Ford, soon to be president Gerald Ford.

MALVEAUX: And Mr. Secretary, of course another topic that everyone is focused on, Iraq, Saddam Hussein, the imminent execution, the hanging within a month or so. As you know, Iraqi leaders, some are calling for an immediate execution to take place. Put on your secretary of defense hat, if you will. Is that advantageous in any way to U.S. troops? Will that quell the violence if this is ended very quickly in the dark of night? What do you think should be done?

COHEN: Well, hard to speculate. I think it's very clear whenever it takes place -- my assumption is it will take place sooner rather than later, that there will be, in fact, a spike in violence. That this will energize those either who see Saddam as someone that they still admire, want to see back in some form of power, but it will be capitalized upon by other insurgents who will seize upon this for their own political objectives.

My thought is it's going to spike very soon. Whether that can be sustained will then call into question, what will be the role of the U.S. troops if we send more? We'll be sending them more into an atmosphere in which the violence has increased? Should we wait it out?

In other words, should it be, as some have suggested, perhaps a three-year delay to see whether or not this violence, this sectarian violence can be brought under control so that there will be at least some semblance of a civil society, and then carry out the sentence? I think it's anyone's call at this point. My preference would be not to have it spike and not to put our troops at any greater risk than we are now.

MALVEAUX: So what do you think? I mean, obviously President Bush has a very serious decision to make in the next couple of weeks or so. If you were the secretary of defense, in good conscience, would you tell him, I believe in a surge of troops, we need more U.S. boots on the ground?

COHEN: I would have to say, what is the -- ask the question, what is the mission? Mr. President, if we are simply sending more troops, to do what?

Is it going to be seal the border? Is it really going in to the greater Baghdad area to take on the Mehdi army, so to speak, Muqtada al-Sadr militia?

If that's the goal, then you're really going to need a lot of people going in. Will the prime minister of Iraq allow you to do that? And if he says no, you can't touch Muqtada al-Sadr, then I have to question what is the wisdom of what we're about to do?

So I would not make any recommendation at this point. I think, frankly, we should take into account the Baker report, we should look at see whether there are elements that you can rally a level of cooperation around to try to build bipartisan support.

On the Gerald Ford issue, for example, back in 1975, in August of '75, he came to campaign, so to speak, for those of us in Congress. And he spoke before a Republican group, and he said, "We need the politics of cooperation, not confrontation." And so here we are today thinking, are there ways in which we can find a common basis of going forward? I thought the Baker report, whether you agree with it or not, provided some sound basis for saying, let's see if we can't take elements, military, political, diplomatic, integrate them into this approach to see whether we can build and sustain bipartisan cooperation.

Absent that, I think you're going to see the presidential campaigns accelerating very quickly, more jumping into it, more confrontation rather than cooperation. I don't think it's good for the country.

And so I would rather see ways in which we can work together. Putting more troops in with an undefined mission or one that is not readily achievable I think will only continue to split the country.

MALVEAUX: Secretary William Cohen, thanks for being with us in THE SITUATION ROOM, your thoughts on Ford, as well as troop surges.

COHEN: Glad to be with you.

MALVEAUX: And, of course, coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, former senator and vice presidential candidate Bob Dole will join us with his memories of his friend and 1976 running mate, the late President Ford.

HENRY: And still ahead this hour, remembering former President Ford. What was it like covering his White House? Veteran correspondent Helen Thomas shares her memories.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HENRY: Protecting the pilgrims. Millions of Muslims have made the journey to Mecca for the Hajj.

MALVEAUX: And now it's up to Saudi Arabia to keep them safe.

Our Zain Verjee is in Mecca and she joins us now.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPT. CORRESPONDENT: Ed, Suzanne, with about three million people here in Mecca, pilgrims' safety and security is key.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE (voice-over): Getting fit to handle the Hajj -- 50,000 security forces mobilized to protect pilgrims.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have only -- the target is safety of the Hajj.

VERJEE: Brimming in thick pads to soften body blows at a deadly ritual site. Emergency medical teams ready to react. Separations of the ritual sites in the deserts beyond Mecca. For the head of Hajj security, crowd control is the key and using brand-new traffic lights could help direct flow.

GEN. MANSOUR AL-TURKI, HAJJ SECURITY CHIEF: Because when you make people stop with the huge crowd, people pushing each other, luggage fall down, then it might create a hazardous situation.

VERJEE: Like this. At the last Hajj a deadly stampede killed about 350 pilgrims as they were performing a ritual rejection of evil.

(on camera): It's been here on the Jamarat Bridge where the stampedes happened. To prevent that, the Saudi government has invested $1.5 billion in this huge construction project. They've created two new entry points for pilgrims to enter, they've made the bridge wider, and they're creating more levels. All of this to ensure the smooth flow of pilgrims to stone those pillars.

(voice-over): Major General Mansour al-Turki is watching everything carefully. The nerve center of security's command and control, a state-of-the-art state of the Hajj. Instant images from 1,400 cameras eyeing Mecca and the ritual sites.

MANSOUR: Here you look for the crowd density. You look for the flow of crowds through the network (ph).

VERJEE: New software zooms in to inspect, and if there's a problem it's e-mailed out to a field commander to check out.

MANSOUR: They are also supported by helicopters, helicopters provided with cameras which send instant data.

VERJEE: The men in the control room are on alert for any suspicious activity. General Mansour says the Saudis will handle security but the pilgrims must help with safety.

MANSOUR: If people insist that they want to do it their way, then they put themselves in danger and they put other pilgrims in danger and they put us in a bad situation.

VERJEE: A situation these young men must be prepared to face.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VERJEE: The Hajj starts on Thursday. Pilgrims will leave the city of Mecca and go to the desert to the Mina Valley to start their rituals -- Ed, Suzanne.

HENRY: Thanks very much, Zain, for a fascinating report.

Up next, a member of the White House press corps' old guard reaches back to the days of Gerald Ford. Helen Thomas shares her memories of the late president.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) MALVEAUX: More now on our top story, remembering Gerald Ford.

We're awaiting funeral plans for the former president.

HENRY: Meanwhile, veteran reporter Helen Thomas has long covered Washington and the White House. And on this day after Ford's death, she is remembering what was so unique about the 38th president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HELEN THOMAS, VETERAN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: The first day we started covering him we went to his home in Alexandria, Virginia, and he was busy toasting English muffins. We thought, well, this is really a down to earth president. He really let us in on a lot of things.

He had been here for 30 years or so. So he was very acquainted with all of the reporters who began to cover him at the White House. It was a very comfortable experience.

It was a quantum leap for him because, as Brian said, there was no aspiration to be president. He wanted to be speaker of the House. But I think that he was -- he settled into the job as though he had been planning for it all his life.

I remember being outside the church across the street from the White House, St. John's, and it was an 8:00 service the president attended. And I'm standing there with the AP reporter, and we were waiting for the president to emerge, and I said to him when he did, I said, "Mr. President, what are you doing for the rest of the day?" And he said, "Just wait." He said, "We're going make an announcement."

Well, the AP reporter and myself, Gaylord Shaw (ph), raced across Lafayette Park, went to our -- went to the press room, grabbed our phones and said, you know, it's going to be a big announcement. And my office tells me that I said that President Ford was going to pardon President Nixon, but I don't remember that. And I would like to think it was true.

We were struck by his -- the kindness that he had, a sense of decency. I think you'll notice in all the obituaries and everyone who has spoken about him, there wasn't -- hasn't been one mean thing to say, because he was very -- he was a good person. And he -- I think he was very human, very humane.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: Ed, can you imagine that, a unique time, having breakfast with the president?

HENRY: Bringing over -- we'll have breakfast with President Bush if he lets us bring the English muffins over. We'll toast them.

MALVEAUX: Definitely a different time.

HENRY: Let's make the offer.

MALVEAUX: A different time.

Reaction to the passing of former president Gerald Ford is pouring in to CNN. Standing by with some of your tributes and memories, once again, our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner -- Jacki.

SCHECHNER: Suzanne, we're getting a ton of e-mail, but I wanted to show you some of the images coming in to CNN via I-Report.

This one from our first i-reporter, Troy Reynolds, in Palm Springs, California, he says he and his partner, Fred, laid the first cancel on the star at the Walk of Stars in Palm Springs, California, which he says is about six miles from Rancho Mirage, where President Ford lived and died.

We also get this tribute coming in from i-reporter Lori Talo, who takes it in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the Gerald Ford Museum. She says she wanted to memorialize the tribute. She took it 3:00 in the morning for her grandmother.

You can send your own i-report, CNN.com/ireport, and go to our SITUATION ROOM blog for all of the links of all of the segments we showed you here today -- Suzanne, Ed.

HENRY: Thank you, Jacki Schechner.

We're back on the air at 7:00 p.m. Eastern Time, just one hour from now.

Until then, I'm Ed Henry.

MALVEAUX: And I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

"LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" starts right now. Christine Romans is in for Lou.

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

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