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THE SITUATION ROOM

Rice Meets With Syrian Foreign Minister; White House Threatens to Veto Hate Crimes Law

Aired May 3, 2007 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: Happening now, face-to-face with a foe -- the Bush administration blasted the speaker, Nancy Pelosi, for talking to Syrian leaders. Now, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice does the same thing.
The White House threatens another veto, this time for a bill that would expand hate crimes laws to protect sexual orientation. Why some members of the clergy are deeply worried.

And the Oscar winning director, Oliver Stone, has built a career on controversy. Now he takes on the president's Iraq policies in a TV commercial. He'll be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

I'm Wolf Blitzer and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with her Syrian counterpart today, even though the Bush administration blames Syria for sponsoring terrorism and even though it recently scolded the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, for going to Damascus. This meeting took place in Egypt, on the sidelines of an international conference designed to try to help Iraq.

Our State Department correspondent, Zain Verjee, sat down with the Secretary.

ZAIN VERJEE, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the U.S. still has problems with Iran and Syria. But it's the violence in Iraq that's driving them to talk to the bad guy.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

VERJEE (voice-over): Talks with the enemy for Iraq's sake.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: They were substantive. They were professional and businesslike.

VERJEE: After a two year deep freeze, Secretary Rice spoke with Syria's foreign minister to get Damascus to stop turning a blind eye to insurgents crossing its borders into Iraq.

RICE: He said that he understands that Syria has no interest in an unstable Iraq. But, of course, actions speak louder than words and I'm hoping that they will carry through.

VERJEE: The Bush administration bashed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for reaching out to Syria last month, saying she was rewarding bad behavior.

(on camera): Did you just do that?

RICE: OK, it's one thing to go to Damascus and to have those pictures that suggests a relationship that doesn't exist with Syria. This was really very -- very limited to Iraq.

VERJEE (voice-over): The hype over a possible Iran/U.S. meeting fizzed out. Rice just exchanged smiles and hellos when she ran into Iran's foreign minister over lunch.

(on camera): Do you want to have more candid discussions, potential one-on-one, in this context with...

RICE: We're not...

VERJEE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

RICE: We're not seeking a bilateral with Iran, nor are they seeking one with us. But the real breakthrough is that we are all here together at this conference to support Iraq.

VERJEE (voice-over): Disappointing to many here, hoping the thaw between the U.S. and Iran could ease tensions in the region. Rice admitted that the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Nouri Al- Maliki is not delivering on promises to include Sunnis into the political process to ease sectarian tensions, a concern Iraq's Sunni Arab neighbors expressed in Thursday's meetings.

(on camera): The message that you've been sending to Iraq's Arab neighbors is that look, there has been progress in Iraq. But many Arab leaders are saying we just don't see it.

RICE: I talked with Prince Saud, the foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, and with others about the fact that we are seeing a reduction in sectarian violence. We are seeing greater even-handedness.

VERJEE (voice-over): She says the situation in Iraq is not perfect, but...

RICE: The fact is that we have no choice, for our own security, as well as for the security of the region, to support this government and to help them make it work.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

VERJEE: Secretary Rice says it's important to reach out to those who have a hand in Iraq's future, even if it means sitting down with countries it considers trouble -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Zain Verjee reporting for us from Sharm-El-Sheikh.

She's going to be covering the rest of this summit, as well.

Has Syria started cracking down on those Iraq-bound insurgents?

After a litany of complaints about Damascus, the U.S. military now dishing out some compliments.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.

What's going on -- Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just as that Sharm-El-Sheikh meeting was taking place, the U.S. military in Baghdad was sounding an optimistic note about Syria. But not everyone agrees.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

STARR (voice-over): After years of complaining that Syria is supporting foreign fighters inside Iraq, suddenly the U.S. military says Damascus is being more helpful.

MAJ. GEN. WILLIAM CALDWELL, MULTI-NATIONAL FORCE, IRAQ: There has been, in fact, a reduction in the amount of foreign fighter flow making their way into Iraq here, as we have observed over the last month.

STARR: It's been estimated Syria has let more than 80 fighters a month cross its border into Iraq.

So is Syria now a voice for peace?

There's still plenty of skepticism.

MARK KIMMITT, DEPUTY ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: In terms of who's providing equipment and providing the foreign fighters, I think it's been fairly clear that we remain concerned about Syria's involvement.

STARR: If Syria's support for the insurgents is, in fact, declining, experts say it's not because President Bashar al-Assad is trying to be nice.

ANDREW EXUM, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: And they see us as weak. They see us as needing their help. So I think from a Syrian perspective, they're not necessarily offering a figure leaf to us. I actually think they're very -- I think they're very confident right now.

STARR: Syria's motivation may be to build better relations with moderate Iraqi Sunnis.

But many say the Bush administration's motive for diplomacy is much deeper, that it's really to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran.

EXUM: Certainly, one of the theories that's been bandied about is what if you could break Syria off from this Hezbollah-Syria-Iran axis?

(END VIDEO TAPE)

STARR: You know, Wolf, some experts say, though, that Syria is going to need Iran's oil supplies in the years ahead, those crucial energy supplies from Iran, more than it's going to need the United States. So don't count on that alliance being broken -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to watch it very closely.

Thank you.

With the showdown over Iraq still unresolved, Congress and President Bush have another battle looming right now. This time, it involves hate crimes.

CNN's Carol Costello is here in Washington.

What's this controversy all about -- Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you'll be surprised. They're set up for a showdown in Washington. The House passed a bill today that will expand hate crimes laws and the White House has threatened to kill it.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

COSTELLO (voice-over): Just two days after the second veto of George Bush's presidency, the White House threatens a third. This time it's a bill that expands hate crime laws to included violent attacks against people because of their sexual orientation or gender.

It's something a coalition of pastors say would have a chilling effect on clergy, who preach that homosexual behavior is wrong.

BISHOP HARRY JACKSON, HOPE CHRISTIAN CHURCH: We believe that this legislation will criminalize our freedom of speech and our ability to preach the gospel.

COSTELLO: Supporters disagree. But the White House has another objection, saying state and local laws already cover such crimes and there is no need to federalize enforcement.

Debate was heated on the House floor.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: They are more serious than a normal assault because they target not just an individual, but an entire group.

REP. TOM FEENEY (R), FLORIDA: What it does is to say that the dignity and the property and the person and the life of one person gets more protection than another American. That's just wrong.

COSTELLO: Both sides cited the case of Matthew Shephard of Wyoming, whose murder was linked to his sexual orientation.

REP. TAMMY BALDWIN (D), WISCONSIN: Matthew's death generated international outrage by exposing the violent nature of hate crimes.

REP. LOUIE GOHMERT (R), TEXAS: Those perpetrators that did that horrible act both got life sentences under regular murder laws.

(END VIDEO TAPE) COSTELLO: So, the fight is not quite over in the House and it's not over in the Senate, either. There was a similar bill that's been introduced there. No date yet for a vote in the Senate -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll watch it closely with you.

Thanks, Carol, very much.

Let's check in with Jack, once again, for The Cafferty File -- hi, Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some are calling it tough love. Senator Barack Obama has been including some critical messages for the black community as he campaigns for the Democratic presidential nomination.

A front page story in the "Washington Post" talks about how Obama has said many in his generation are disenfranchising themselves because they choose not to vote.

He's come down hard on rappers' bad language and he's criticized what he calls "anti-intellectualism in the black community, such as when children who say their classmates are getting good grades are acting white."

The senator told "The Post" he's talking about these issues more in the African-American community because they're more prevalent there.

In Chicago, in speeches to the Black Chambers of Commerce, Obama says: "A good economic development plan for our community would be if we make sure folks aren't throwing their garbage out of their cars."

Obama aides say he doesn't have a specific strategy to target black voters by using these kinds of themes and that he sometimes talks to white audiences about things like parents turning off their kids' and making sure they finish their homework.

So here's the question -- will Senator Barack Obama's criticism of the black community help or hurt when it comes to election time?

E-mail caffertyfile@cnn.com or go to cnn.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jack, for that.

Up ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, watching and waiting -- clients of an alleged Washington madam fearful their names may soon be exposed.

What's really in her little black book?

Also, very angry protests in Israel right now as the public joins calls for the embattled prime minister to resign.

Can Ehud Olmert hold onto his job? Plus, Oliver Stone joining forces with anti-war activists to take on President Bush and the war. We're going to show you his latest project. He'll also be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Some nervous people here in Washington and beyond, anxious they may soon be exposed as clients of an alleged D.C. madam.

CNN's Brian Todd has been following this story -- Brian, tell us about some new developments that you're learning about.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And why some names may be revealed, Wolf.

That's because she may be headed for a criminal trial, where the names may come out. But even more urgently, a major news network is about to run a special based on phone records she provided them.

This case is raising questions of not only who will be exposed, but why.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

TODD (voice-over): From K Street to Capitol Hill, nervousness abounds.

Will this woman, her alleged clients or employees, or the news outlets covering her case, expose a major scandal, or at least embarrass Washington's power elite?

DEBORAH JEANE PALFREY: Mine is a very bizarre and rather unusual case.

TODD: Deborah Jeane Palfrey -- accused by the government of running a high end prostitution ring in Washington. She denies it. But some of her alleged clients are trying hard to keep their names out of this case.

ABC News, scheduled to run a special based on phone records given to the network by Palfrey, says it's gotten a letter from the lawyer for one of Palfrey's alleged clients, saying he has reason to believe his client might be revealed in the story.

ABC says the lawyer didn't name his client, but demanded they not air the name. According to the network, the attorney claims his client is a government witness against Palfrey and airing the name would violate a court order preventing Palfrey from intimidating witnesses.

Legal analysts say it's a weak argument.

KEITH WATTERS, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Remember, Deborah Palfrey and the attorney gave ABC the records prior to this order being issued. So they're not violating the order in any way.

ABC is not part of this case.

TODD: The news media also facing tough questions over whether they're really serving the public.

HOWARD KURTZ, CNN'S "RELIABLE SOURCES": This whole story makes me queasy because ordinarily journalists don't publicize, on a national basis, the names of clients of an escort service.

And so then you get to the question of what is newsworthy about it?

What if it had nothing to do with somebody's job, had nothing to do with any federal money, had nothing to do with any official role?

(END VIDEO TAPE)

TODD: An ABC spokesman tells us they're very mindful of that standard for newsworthiness and are proceeding very carefully with the story. They point out that one of those exposed was a top State Department official, whose job had been, at least partially, to promote policies against prostitution -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And Palfrey herself is using the media -- Brian.

TODD: She is. She has said openly that she expects ABC's reporting to help her identify potential witnesses for her defense. Legal experts I spoke with say that's an unusual tactic, but it's not unethical.

BLITZER: Brian will be watching this story for us.

Thank you, Brian.

Washington, of course, no stranger to sex scandals.

Here's a look at some of the ones that grabbed headlines over the years.

Back in 1998, Bill Clinton impeached after his affair with the White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, became public.

In 1987, there was the monkey business picture of Gary Hart on that boat with Donna Rice. It ended his run for the White House.

And back in 1974, many of you will remember a powerful Democrat named Wilbur Mills was caught as with a stripper, Fanny Foxe. The relationship became public after a cop pulled Mills' limo over late one night and Fox tried to flee by jumping into some nearby water. He resigned as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. She continued stripping.

Coming up, he's already seized his country's oil fields and electricity sector from big business. Now, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez has some new targets in mind. And Oliver Stone's controversial movie projects have made him an Oscar winner. Now he's taking on the president and the war in Iraq in a TV commercial.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our Carol Costello is monitoring some other stories is coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

What's the latest -- Carol.

COSTELLO: A couple of things to tell you about, Wolf.

Just days after seizing Venezuela's most promising privately owned oil field, President Hugo Chavez is now eying the country's banks and largest steel producer. He's accusing them of unfair practices and says he'll nationalize them if they don't change.

Mr. Chavez already started nationalizing Venezuela's largest telecommunications firm and the electricity industry.

Wear a face mask just in case -- that's the advice from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, in the event of a pandemic flu. But, in an unusual move, the CDC director says there is not yet scientific proof the mask even prevents infection. Dr. Julie Gerberding says the guidance is based, instead, on common sense and she adds: "The best way to avoid infection is to stay away from sick people."

She really said that.

Congress is demanding answers from the Veterans Affairs secretary about reports of large bonuses amid a cash crisis. The Associated Press reports that some budget officials in the department got bonuses as large as $33,000 as part of an overall budget that came up $1 billion short and included cuts to veterans' health care.

And stolen, a laptop belonging to the New York medical examiners' office containing information about victims of the 9/11 terror attacks. Local news media reports say that includes graphic pictures and information related to recently discovered bones and body parts. A spokeswoman would only say the laptop contains scientific presentation materials and does not identify any of the victims.

That's a look at what's happening now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That's -- thank you very much, Carol, for that.

Islamic radicals are becoming so skilled at using the Internet, that one expert says they're using this slogan. I'll quote it for you: "Keyboard equals Kalashnikov."

Senators gathered today on Capitol Hill to look at new ways to fight extremism on the Web. Let's turn to our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner.

How are these Islamic extremists using the Internet -- Jacki.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Extremely well, Wolf.

The experts told the Senate Homeland Security Committee today that cyberspace is the new battlefield and the war is of ideas.

Video games like this one, chat rooms, online forums, all helping to radicalize Islamic youths around the world.

They say that online messaging is so strong, that hunting down and fighting terrorists offline is not enough. The U.S. has to fight back online, too.

They say that engaging the Muslims worldwide with a strong counter-narrative is crucial, engaging Muslims around the world. They say, also, the government should have a better grasp of the Arabic language, that they need to understand better how the Internet works and that the government agencies all have to learn to work more effectively together.

They say that the government should use law and technology to counter some of the extremist efforts online when they possibly can and they say though it might be distasteful, they should also use graphic visuals when possible. They say that showing what terrorists do is incredibly effective -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Jacki, for that.

Coming up, what would Ronald Reagan say about the '08 race for the White House?

Channeling The Gipper's ghost for advice to the current Republican presidential candidates.

Plus, details of an attempted hijacking, including reports of a fierce gun battle.

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

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: To our viewers, you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, top aides to President Bush at the negotiating table with Congressional Democrats. They're trying to hammer out a deal on a new Iraq spending bill one day after the president vetoed one that contained a time line for withdrawal.

Also, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II arriving in Virginia for her first U.S. state visit in more than a decade. She addressed the Virginia assembly and is scheduled to meet privately with victims of the Virginia Tech massacre. And NASA mourning the loss of the space pioneer Wally Schirra, who died of a heart attack today. He was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, and also flew in the Gemini and Apollo programs. He was 84 years old.

I'm Wolf Blitzer.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, Senator Hillary Clinton is speaking out, together with Senator Robert Byrd, trying to get legislation passed in the U.S. Senate that would cause the Iraq War Authorization Bill to expire this coming October, on its fifth anniversary.

Here's what Senator Clinton said on the Senate floor only moments ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: The American people have called for change. The facts on the ground demand change. The Congress has passed legislation to require change. It is time to sunset the authorization for the war in Iraq. If the president will not bring himself to accept reality, it is time for Congress to bring reality to him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to the White House.

We're getting some reaction from officials there.

Suzanne Malveaux is standing by.

What are they saying -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I talked to Dana Perino. She's the deputy press secretary at the White House. They are hitting back hard right now from that idea -- that possibility of a resolution.

She says: "Here we go again. The Senate is trying another way to put a surrender date on the calendar. Welcome to Politics '08 style. What's so troubling is these political actions taken a day after the bipartisan leadership agreed to work with the White House on a bill to fund the troops ignores the long-term security interests of Iraq, the Middle East region and our own country."

She goes on to say: "The president believes that telling the enemy when we're going to leave is reckless and nonsensical. It also sends the wrong message to the Iraqis, who are working to firm up their young democracy."

Now, clearly, Wolf, the White House is trying to hit back hard here because they realize this is a public relations perception battle as much as it's a real battle over the funding of the war. I talked to a Democratic strategist who is close to Hillary Clinton's campaign, who says what this does is it proves that this is a tactical battle that is not going to stop.

If it's not the defunding of the war, of the troops, then they're going to try to find another way to hit the administration, to make their point and to hit them hard.

They also said, as well, that this is an idea not necessarily new. We have heard -- Senator Byrd has been talking about this for a long time, as well as two other Democratic presidential hopefuls, that, Governor Bill Richardson and Senator Joe Biden.

But that strategist saying that we are definitely in uncharted waters -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Suzanne, for that.

Suzanne getting some reaction to that proposed legislation.

Moving on to some other news we're following, he may be hanging on by his fingernails right now. That would be the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. He was blamed by an Israeli inquiry commission for blunders in last year's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. His own foreign minister has called on him to resign.

Now, the Israeli public is unleashing its anger with a huge rally and protest today.

CNN's Atika Shubert is in Tel Aviv -- Atika.

ATIKA SHUBERT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, well, as you can see behind me, tens of thousands have packed into Rabin Square here in Tel Aviv. And the mood here is festive. There have been musical acts, but also very emotional. People are angry and frustrated by what they see as a failure of leadership by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

We've heard speeches from family members who lost loved ones in the war, Reservists who served in that conflict. There have been banners showing pictures of the soldiers that were kidnapped by Hezbollah forces and have yet to be returned.

People here all demanding the same thing -- that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert resign immediately. And there have been groups from the right, from the left, secular and religious -- all overcoming their political differences, all to achieve one goal.

But the prime minister's advisers say he is watching this rally carefully and that he believes that this is a good way to vent public frustration. But they also say that this will not force him to quit -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Atika Shubert on the scene for us in Tel Aviv.

So will Israel once again have to find a new leader?

And what would that mean for the region? What would it mean for the U.S.?

Joining us, our world affairs analyst, the former defense secretary, William Cohen. He's chairman and CEO of The Cohen Group here in Washington.

You were just there in Israel, correct me if I'm wrong. You met with Olmert.

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY, WORLD AFFAIRS ANALYST: Right.

BLITZER: You met with Tzipi Livni, the foreign minister.

What is your sense of what's happening in Israel right now?

COHEN: And with the defense minister and with Benjamin Netanyahu. So I met with a full panoply of leadership and those seeking leadership.

They are stressed right now because of what is going on. The Vinograd report was about to come out, but it was pretty clear it's going to be very critical of Prime Minister Olmert.

He's indicated he's not going to step down, and under the law as such, there are only several ways that can happen. If he were to resign, if he were to call for new elections, that might force him out, or if he has a no-confidence vote, and that doesn't appear likely. So much remains to seen how this is going to play out.

They are concerned about what is taking place with Hamas, as far as the relationship with the unity government in Gaza. And they are very concerned about Hezbollah up in the north.

BLITZER: And if there were new elections in Israel, Netanyahu, the leader of the Likud party, he would certainly emerge as a potential new leader down the road given the mood in Israel right now.

COHEN: He's a potential leader. Also, the foreign minister, the current foreign minister. Livni is a potential leader.

BLITZER: If she left the current party, the Kadima party.

COHEN: If she left the Kadima party.

And you also have Ehud Barak, who is also in the wings waiting.

BLITZER: The former Labour party prime minister.

COHEN: Yes, exactly, who worked with President Clinton to try to achieve the breakthrough...

BLITZER: Politics in Israel always rather lively. This is a situation, a lot of analysts have been pointing to it, a failed war against Hezbollah in Lebanon last summer, did not meet Israel's objectives, securing those Israeli soldiers who were kidnapped by Hezbollah, or significantly weakening Hezbollah. Now the political leadership there, they are about to pay a huge price. The army chief of staff already forced to resign, the defense minister hanging by a thread. And the prime minister hanging by a thread.

What do you make of the way that the people in Israel, the government in Israel, are going to pay a price for blunders? And a lot of people saying people here in the United States, they don't necessarily pay a price for political blunders.

COHEN: Well, I think that's clearly the case, that this was a commission -- it's my understanding that you had the prime minister, who invited its creation. They were very critical of him and his defense minister, citing that he went to war prematurely. He didn't have a full understanding of the situation in Lebanon, he didn't have a full understanding of the state of the military -- for the Israeli military.

And as a result, they failed to achieve their military objectives, which were unrealistic. All of that is in the Vinograd report.

So, he is being held accountable. The question is whether or not the same kind of investigation will take place here, and I think you'd meet with the same result, obviously, with lots of criticism toward the current administration, but no resignation.

BLITZER: The impact on the region, the impact on the so-called peace process, if there is a peace process, a weak Israeli government in crisis right now. Obviously, not going to be able to negotiate any kind of deal.

COHEN: Well, it's interesting. There was sentiment expressed while I was there that the Israelis might be interested in discussing an agreement with the Syrians, but that would certainly not fit with our administration's plan to try to get an overall peace agreement.

And that is, if you were to make an agreement separately with the Syrians, you then reduce the prospect of getting a peace agreement with -- between the Palestinians and the Israelis. So there's a lot of moving parts over there.

I think that Secretary Rice is doing the right thing, now meeting with the Syrians. I think she should also be talking to the Iranians, but in an overall context in which we continue to put the pressure on Iran and Syria through the sanctions regime against Tehran.

BLITZER: William Cohen, our world affairs analyst.

Thanks for coming in.

COHEN: A pleasure to be with you.

BLITZER: And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, what would Ronald Reagan say about the current batch of Republican candidates? Frank Sesno standing by for that. Also, Barack Obama is scolding the black community, even as he tries to win its votes. It sounds counterintuitive. Will it help or hurt him at the polls?

Jack Cafferty with your e-mail.

All that coming up right here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And joining us now, our special correspondent, Frank Sesno, for our "What If?" segment this week.

FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: And what if, Wolf, this week we start with a little political trivial pursuit? You up for that?

BLITZER: Sure.

SESNO: OK.

Question No. 1: According to a recent poll, the greatest president of the last 100 years?

BLITZER: The one I saw was Ronald Reagan.

SESNO: Very good. If you look at the answer, Ronald Reagan, above Kennedy, Clinton and Roosevelt.

Question No. 2: Which former president has just about every major Republican candidate invoked this year from the campaign trail?

BLITZER: It would not be George W. Bush or George H. W. Bush. It would be Ronald Reagan.

SESNO: You are right. Ronald Reagan again.

And question No. 3: Where is tonight's presidential debate being held?

BLITZER: Would it be at the Reagan Library?

SESNO: It would be. You see a pattern here?

BLITZER: I see the pattern.

SESNO: What if The Gipper were actually still around?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SESNO (voice over): What if Ronald Reagan were still around? In a lot of ways, he is. On the campaign trail, he's a persistent echo.

MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ronald Reagan...

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ronald Reagan...

MIKE HUCKABEE (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ronald Reagan...

SESNO: All the Republicans want a piece of him -- his coalition, his revolution. Some say they are here because of him.

MCCAIN: I changed my career because of Ronald Reagan.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R-KS), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ronald Reagan, who is my own impetus to get into politics.

RUDY GIULIANI (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He is, in fact, one of my -- one of my heroes.

SESNO: What if they went to him for advice, like Yoda in "Star Wars"?

YODA, "STAR WARS": You must unlearn what you have learned.

SESNO: Unlikely it would be Reagan would say much more. He'd say stand for something bill and simply and memorable.

RONALD REAGAN, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There you go again.

SESNO: He'd say, be yourself. They are trying, Giuliani, McCain, Romney, the others. But the coalition has frayed. War is backdrop, and unlike the crisis Reagan ran against, this malaise belongs to a Republican.

What would he think of the candidates? A lot of people who knew him say he would be disappointed. He would want more ideas, because controversial as his ideas were, they reshaped the country and conservatism.

That's missing, many conservatives complain, and it's why "TIME" added the tear.

Despite the adversity, he would tell the candidates they have to project optimism. Recall his America, as...

REAGAN: This shining city on a hill.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SESNO: Wolf, why all the nostalgia for Ronald Reagan? The electro-map here tells a lot of the story.

Last election, 2004, red and blue America. In 2000, when it ended up in the Supreme Court, right down the middle, red and blue. But look what happened in Ronald Reagan's time.

He ran the first time, it was a landslide. In 1984, when he ran for re-election, nearly a sweep.

That's the Reagan coalition. That's what virtually none of these candidates has a chance of putting back together.

BLITZER: And that's why there's so much nostalgia for him right now as well.

What if -- what if Ronald Reagan were alive today? What would he do about Iraq?

SESNO: Iraq, the big problem. Well, I talked to an awful lot of the people who worked for him. I covered six of his eight years. There's not unanimity on this, but most say he probably wouldn't have gone into Iraq to begin with. Too much of a pragmatist for that.

If he were there and got into trouble, he would have thrown more forces at it more quickly. And in any case, given the troubles, he might have found a graceful way to get out.

It's what he did in Beirut, sent the Marines in there for peacekeepers. The barracks was bombed by a suicide bomber, 241 servicemen were killed.

He said initially we can't leave. What kind of signal would that send to the terrorists? Three, four months later, we were gone.

BLITZER: He learned about the limitations of American power because of that experience in Beirut.

SESNO: That's exactly right. And we saw it in those Reagan diaries that we talked about just yesterday, where he was deeply affected by those families, the victims families he talked to.

BLITZER: Frank Sesno, our special correspondent.

Thanks.

SESNO: Great. Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: And still ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the director Oliver Stone teaming up with anti-war activists and sending a message to President Bush. We're going to show it to you.

And coming up in our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, a debate in France. A debate you're going to want to see. Jeanne Moos takes a most unusual look. Stay with us.

You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: And from Cuba, word of an apparent hijack attempt in Havana. Reuters reporting three Cuban army recruits tried to break into the Havana International Airport and a fierce gun battle developed.

CNN's Morgan Neill is on the scene for us in Havana -- Morgan.

MORGAN NEILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, here at Havana's international airport, at the terminal where flights between Havana and Miami take off and leave, neither police nor officials are giving any details about what happened last night, just referring to what they're calling a situation. But if you come with me, just over in this direction, we can still see investigators wearing white gloves, examining a damaged gate. That's a gate that controls access to the airport.

They're also looking at nugget-sized holes in that gate, and putting up numbers on them. Now, these officials say they can't talk about what happened last night either, but when we went to talk to neighbors, they say they did hear a barrage of gun fire between 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning that jolted them awake. And we're told there is some sort of official declaration. Details about just what went down are speculation at this point -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Morgan Neill on the scene for us in Havana. Our man in Havana, Morgan Neill.

The antiwar movement is gaining a powerful new ally, the Vietnam veteran and Hollywood director Oliver Stone.

Our entertainment correspondent, Sibila Vargas, is in Los Angeles, where she sat down with an exclusive interview with Stone -- Sibila.

SIBILA VARGAS, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

Oscar-winning director Oliver Stone is at it again. This time, it's not a film, but a television ad that's getting attention.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEVIN COSTNER, ACTOR, "JFK": Who killed the president?

VARGAS (voice over): From "JFK," to "Natural Born Killers," Oliver Stone's films have made him a lighting rod for controversy.

His latest project is not likely to change that. He's directed a new television ad that takes direct aim at Bush administration policy in Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Support of troops. Bring them home.

VARGAS (on camera): What's your message?

OLIVER STONE, DIRECTOR: Support the troops. Listen to them. Bring them home. Give them a life, not death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were told that we were there to liberate these people. They were shooting at us.

VARGAS (voice over): Stone's ad created for the political action group moveon.org features John Bruhns, an Iraq veteran whose tour ended in 2004. SGT. JOHN BRUHNS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): To keep American soldiers in Iraq for an indefinite period of time, being attacked by an identifiable enemy, is wrong, immoral and irresponsible.

What I am hoping people will see with this ad is that there are veterans that are coming home from this war that are very patriotic, that love America, but just are not going to blindly follow this president and this failed policy continually.

STONE: Like in Vietnam, we are reaping a harvest of death and shame around the world.

VARGAS: Stone fought in Vietnam, an experience he turned into the Oscar-winning film "Platoon". He can become emotional comparing that earlier conflict to Iraq.

STONE: I get emotional sometimes about it.

VARGAS (on camera): Yes. I mean, I would imagine...

STONE: In my lifetime, I've had two wars, you know. What's going to be next?

VARGAS (voice over): The release of the ad comes just days after President Bush vetoed a supplemental appropriation bill that would have set a timetable for the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.

BRUHNS: I don't think he has any excuse at all to veto this bill.

STONE: By vetoing it, he has said a defiant "to hell with you" to the American people.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VARGAS: As you can hear, strong words from Oliver Stone. Not likely to win him friends in the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sibila Vargas reporting for us.

Thanks.

And this note to our viewers. In our 7:00 p.m. Eastern hour, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM, the director Oliver Stone. He will be joining us to talk about this.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Up next here in THE SITUATION ROOM, will Senator Barack Obama's criticism of the African-American community help or hurt him at election time? That's Jack's question this hour.

Your e-mail, and Jack, all that still to come.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Tonight CNN mark's Larry King's 50 years on the air with a special two-hour tribute that begins at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

Here is a closer look at one of the most famous stories ever featured on Larry's show.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a Bronco. We believe O.J. Simpson is in it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of the overpasses that we've seen have been lined with cars and pedestrians.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): It was the water cooler event of the '90s.

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": They were in airports watching this, watching it in bars. All we're doing is along for the ride.

COOPER: Not a Bruckheimer action flick, but a blockburster just the same. And the night, well, it belonged to Larry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All of a sudden, in one of the monitors I saw this white Bronco. So, I called Atlanta and said, "What is this car?"

KING: They busted into my ear and said, "O.J.'s on the road in a Bronco being followed by police." So we go right to that.

OK. I'm going to have to interrupt this call. I understand we are going to go to a live picture in Los Angeles.

Police believe that O.J. Simpson is in that car. This is Interstate 5, one of the many famed California freeways. We don't know if they are going north or south.

I don't know L.A. I live here now. They bring me a map.

They veered off 91, on to 710 north.

And for three hours, following the roads on a map.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had so much adrenaline going in the control room, and we just couldn't stop.

KING: Police radio saying that Simpson, the passenger in the car, has a gun at his head.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, no.

KING: Which explains why they haven't been stopping and they haven't moved up alongside.

This is really winging it. But that was the most high life drama.

COOPER (on camera): And do you like that?

KING: Oh, come on. That's the high of all highs.

COOPER (voice over): The O.J. drama began on "LARRY KING LIVE," and six months later, it was still going hot and heavy in a Los Angeles courtroom.

O.J. SIMPSON, DEFENDANT: Absolutely 100 percent not guilty.

JOHNNY COCHRAN, ATTORNEY: If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.

MARCIA CLARK, PROSECUTOR: Mr. Bailey has been caught in a lie.

JUDGE LANCE ITO, O.J. SIMPSON TRIAL: It became necessary for me to excuse one of the jurors in this case.

CLARK: Can you demonstrate for us how loud it was?

After he took her youth, her freedom and her self-respect, Orenthal James Simpson took her very life.

KING: You were totally shocked?

DENISE BROWN, NICOLE BROWN SIMPSON'S SISTER: I was totally shocked at the extent of all the abuse. Yes, after I read her notes, I was completely shocked.

That's the one thing that Larry has been able to let me do, is let people know who Nicole was. Let me get the word, the issue of domestic violence out to the public.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And please be sure to catch this special Larry King tonight, "50 Years of Pop Culture". We celebrate Larry King's 50 years on the air.

It begins at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. It goes on for two hours. You're going to want to see this.

"50 Years of Pop Culture". Larry King celebrating his 50th. And we celebrate Larry King.

Good work, Larry. Thanks for being Larry.

Let's move on to some other news we're following.

Barack Obama now reaching out to make amends after his presidential campaign took over a huge network of online supporters from a member of myspace.com. This story is still making some waves online.

Let's go to our Internet reporter, Abbi Tatton.

What did Obama have to say about all of this, Abbi? ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Well, Wolf, in this phone call to MySpace user Joe Anthony, Anthony says he was so nervous to be on the phone with Senator Barack Obama that he doesn't remember exact quotes, but that Senator Obama thanked him for all the work that he had done on the MySpace page.

And Joe Anthony writes on his blog that they both agreed this had been a learning experience for everybody. Liberal blogs have been abuzz over the way the Obama campaign treated Anthony and the grassroots community of supporters that he built up on the Web site myspace.com.

The Obama campaign has weighed in online about what they call "Our MySpace Experiment," saying, "This is new, we're going to try new things. Sometimes it's going to work out, sometimes it's not."

Anthony is now trying to work out, still trying to decide, writing in his blog whether he's going to support Obama, and also what he's going to do with his 150,000 friends -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Abbi. Thank you.

Let's go to New York once again and Jack Cafferty for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Front page story in "The Washington Post" this morning, Senator Barack Obama leveling some pretty harsh criticism at members of the black community on a number of issues.

So, we asked the question whether that kind of dialogue will help or hurt him come election time.

Steve in Seattle writes, "Senator Obama's comments won't hurt him at all. Most black voters share the same concerns. Any person who's not wise enough to understand the importance of those issues is the same person who isn't wise enough to understand the importance of voting."

Dave in Pennsylvania, "It might help him outside the black community and may even be a wash among blacks. So I think overall it should be a positive."

Jan in Maryland writes, "Surprise! Surprise! Only white America is taken aback by Obama's language about how we need to take a self- assessment to guide us through our own improvement and house cleaning. We hear it in our churches, in our black press, and from our social organizations all the time."

"It took a young black man with his visibility to make you listen up. It won't hurt him a tad. If anyone can get through, he can."

Jennifer, Belevedere, California, "Senator Obama already is not the favorite son of the black community, and this criticism will hurt his chances for the nomination. He should not be touted as a savior of poor blacks since he's not really all that black." Ian in Charleston, South Carolina, "Unfortunately, black voters seem to be offended by constructive criticism and tend to support those who take advantage of and pander to them."

Ken in Pennsylvania, "I think it's a misrepresentation to say that Barack Obama is criticizing the black community. He's talking about specific behaviors that disempower black Americans. That's healthy. Mislabeling his criticism is not."

Alex in California, "Jack, Obama is just saying things to the black community that white Republicans have been saying for many years. We were told we were racist, didn't understand, it was none of our business, et cetera."

"Liberals reinforced that self-destructive view and kept blacks down. I used to teach high school in Los Angeles. I heard that 'education is a white thing' nonsense quite often. So many blacks have failed because they listen to liberals, both black and white."

Jolly in Atlanta writes, "It doesn't matter. The black people that Obama is referring to probably won't vote anyway."

And Daemon in Charleston, South Carolina, "As an African- American, I don't think for a second that Obama's comments about the African-American community will hurt him. In fact, it may help since the very people in said community who are most likely to vote already agree with him. He's only stating what we've been thinking for a long time."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to CNN.com/caffertyfile. We posted a bunch more of them online, and you can see clips of "The Cafferty File" there as well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll see you back here in an hour, Jack. Thanks very much.

Jack Cafferty is here in THE SITUATION ROOM every weekday, as are we, 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Eastern. We're back in an hour at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Olive Stone will be here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Until then, thanks for watching.

Let's go to Lou Dobbs. He's in New York.

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