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Interview with Senator Barack Obama; Breaking News - Downtown Atlanta Damaged in Heavy Weather

Aired March 14, 2008 - 23:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: -- about Hillary Clinton, and 9/11, and a whole lot more.

You will also hear tonight from this man, his new pastor. Is his new message any different than the old pastor's? CNN contributor Roland Martin sat down tonight with the Reverend Otis Moss. We will join him shortly.

Also, allegations of guilt by association and Barack Obama is not alone where that is concerned. John McCain is on the defensive about two of his religious backers. And Hillary Clinton, of course, is still dealing with Geraldine Ferraro's explosive statements on Obama, herself, and race. We will cover all of that.

But we begin with Barack Obama doing damage control tonight, no doubt about it, condemning statements made by the outgoing pastor of his church in Chicago. Barack Obama has been a member of this church for nearly 20 years. His pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, married Barack and Michelle Obama, baptized their kids, even gave him the title for his bestselling book "The Audacity of Hope."

But it is excerpts from some of his past sermons that have the country talking. Take a look.


REVEREND JEREMIAH WRIGHT, TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST: ... and then wants us to sing "God Bless America?" No, no, no, not God bless America. God damn America. That's in the Bible, for killing of the innocent people. God damn America.

It just came to me within the past few weeks, you all, why so many folks are hating on Barack Obama. He doesn't fit the model. He isn't white. He isn't rich. And he isn't privileged.

Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people.


COOPER: Well, today, Senator Obama severed the last ties between his campaign and Reverend Wright, announcing he is no longer on Barack Obama's African-American Religious Leadership Committee. I spoke with Senator Obama earlier this evening. (BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

COOPER: ... was created by the government to kill black people. He's called America the number-one killer around the world. He's said that black people shouldn't sing "God Bless America," but say God damn America.

There's a lot of folks in America right now who have heard that. And I want to ask you why you have been listening to this pastor and close to him for nearly 20 years?

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, first of all, Anderson, you know, I strongly condemn the statements that have been shown on the tape.

I have to confess that those are not statements that I ever heard when I was sitting in the pews at this church. This is a church that I have been a member of for 20 years. This is a well-established, typical, historically African-American church in the South Side of Chicago, with a wonderful set of ministries.

And what I have been hearing and had been hearing in church was talk about Jesus and talk about faith and values and serving the poor...

COOPER: How...

OBAMA: ... something that the church often (INAUDIBLE) some.

But so the -- what is undeniable is that, you know, these are a series of incendiary statements that I can't object to strongly enough. Had I heard those in the church, I would have told Reverend Wright that, you know, that I profoundly disagreed with them. They didn't reflect my values, and they didn't reflect my ideals.

COOPER: Did you not know, though, that, I mean, a couple days after 9/11, he said, you know, this was America's chickens coming home to roost, a result of what he called American terrorism around the world?

I mean, you may not have been there, but have you -- you must have heard that he had said these things.

OBAMA: You know, I confess that I did not hear about this -- until I started running for president.

And then there was a story that was issued in which I strongly objected to these statements and condemned them. But what I also understood that was Reverend Wright was on the verge of retirement and that a new pastor was coming in.

The church family was one that was very important to me. It's where my wife and I got married. It's where our children were baptized. And, so, my belief was that this was something out of the ordinary. Obviously, some of these statements indicate that this was happening more frequently.

But I also want to say this, Anderson. This is somebody who was a former U.S. Marine, who is a biblical scholar, who's preached and taught at theological seminaries all across the country, and has had a reputation as a preeminent preacher in the country.

And, so, I have to strongly condemn the statements that were made. They do not reflect my views or Michelle's views, or probably the views of many people in the church.

On the other hand, you know, Reverend Wright is somebody who is like an uncle or a family member who you may strongly object to what they have to say, but, as he's about to retire, I have no intention of leaving the church itself.

COOPER: But, I mean, uncles are blood relatives who you're kind of stuck with at family gatherings, even when they say outrageous things. You can't get rid of them.

You can walk out of a church. You can walk go up to a pastor and say, this is wrong.

OBAMA: And, as I said, Anderson, if I had heard any of those statements, I probably would have walked out, and I probably would have told Reverend Wright that they were wrong.

But they were not statements that I heard when I was in church.

COOPER: So, no one in the church ever said to you, man, last week, you missed this sermon; Reverend Wright said this; or...


COOPER: I mean, I think I read in your books that you listened to tapes of Reverend Wright when you were at Harvard Law School.

OBAMA: I did.

COOPER: So, you had no idea?

OBAMA: I did not. Well, I want to be clear that, when I ran for president, some of these statements started surfacing.

COOPER: Right.

OBAMA: And, at that point, I was very concerned about it. I had conversations with Reverend Wright about it. And I put out statements indicating that these were not my beliefs. But, as I said before, he was on the verge of retirement. He's preached his last sermon. He will be no longer a pastor at the end of March 31.

And, so, our belief was that the most appropriate way to handle it was to be very clear about my strong condemnation of the statements, but to continue to be a part of the church.

COOPER: I want to play one of the statements which you have condemned that Reverend Wright said discussing differences between yourself and Hillary Clinton. I just want to play a brief excerpt of that.


WRIGHT: Hillary never had a cab whiz past and not pick her up because her skin was the wrong color. Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single-parent home. Barack was.

Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people. Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a (EXPLETIVE DELETED).


COOPER: That's one of the segments you condemned.

OBAMA: Absolutely.

Well, I just don't think that it's necessary to talk about Senator Clinton or anybody in those terms. And, so, as I said, you know, I think that I can't be clear enough about these not reflecting my views or the views of Michelle or our family. And had I heard or known about some of these statements, I would have been very clear about it.

Now, the one thing I will say, Anderson, just in terms of putting it in context; this is a man who preached for 30 years and, during those years, was regarded as an outstanding preacher all across the country.

And, so, many of the sermons that I heard were extraordinarily powerful. One of them, which I have written about, titled "The Audacity of Hope" is one that helped inspire my convention speech.

And part of what I think I see is Reverend Wright as somebody who grew up in the '60s, had very different life experiences than I had, has continued to harbor a lot of anger and frustration about discrimination that he may have experienced.

And, so, his life experiences have been very different than mine. And part of what is going on within the African-American community is a transition, in which some of the rhetoric and statements and frustrations of the past have given way to opportunities that I have experienced, and -- which is part of the reason why I speak in very different terms.

And that's part of what our campaign has been about, is to surface some of these issues and to be able to move forward and get beyond them.

COOPER: It's an interesting...

OBAMA: But some of these things are still there. And they're things that I have to deal with, you know, and these are things that America has to deal with as well.

But I can't be clear enough about the fact that these are not reflective of the views that I have.

(END VIDEO TAPE) COOPER: A lot of comments already on the blog. I'm posting throughout the hour. As always, you can join the discussion by going to

We will have more of our 360 interview with Senator Obama right after this break.

I asked him how he squares his campaign's apparently unifying message of getting beyond race with Pastor Wright's explicitly racial sermons.

You will also hear from Reverend Otis Moss. He's Barack Obama's new pastor. Will Reverend Moss be any less controversial? Well, you will see and hear for yourself in a moment.


ERICA HILL, HEADLINE NEWS CORRESPONDENT: We want to update you now on our breaking story tonight.

Heavy weather, possibly a tornado, sweeping through downtown Atlanta just about an hour and a half ago. The Georgia Dome took some damage as did the CNN Center. The Omni Hotel was evacuated. These three are basically in a cluster in the same area along with Philips Arena. At CNN the atrium flooded because glass broke.

You're looking at live pictures now. I'm trying to see for you where they are; it looks like that may actually be -- actually I can't tell, to be honest even though I just came from Atlanta. These are probably very close to that area where everything hit. You can tell, it looked like possibly some trees down there.

We're hearing of a number of reports of downed trees, damaged homes. The Atlanta Fire Department has been reporting a number of injuries. At this hour, though, no word of any fatalities, which is of course is good news.

Running us now on the phone CNN Anchor Don Lemon (ph) who made his way down to the scene but, Don, you weren't actually able to drive down there because of the debris.

DON LEMON, CNN CENTER ATLANTA: No I wasn't able to drive. I got through the debris but one officer let me through when I showed my ID but I couldn't get anywhere near the building. So I got to a parking lot which is about a mile away from the building and I just ran here and I'm in the lobby just a few minutes ago, speaking to people who were leaving the games and they're telling me their experiences.

Also talking to the people who were staying in the hotel. A lot of the people are down here in their bathrobes. They were told to come down because they weren't sure the roof is stable. Now that's what they're telling me.

And all of these people are being brought into the exhibit hall now there are no windows in the exhibit hall.

HALL: That's the exhibit hall at the Georgia Dome, right? LEMON: No, it's the exhibit hall in the bottom of the Omni Hotel right below the Turner Store if you're -- you know where McCormack (ph) and (inaudible) is, Erica. You know this building?

HILL: I do. So street level or just below street level even where there are some conference areas.

LEMON: It's the street level where the parking lot is. You know when you go down to the parking lot in the Omni Hotel.

HILL: Right and this is sort of across from -- for people who are also familiar with the area, this is across from Centennial Olympic Park, which of course, a lot of people know where that is.

LEMON: Right.

HILL: Don, so at this time, it is still not safe, according to the Omni Hotel, for those guests to go back to their rooms?

LEMON: No, it's not safe. They're not letting anyone go back to their rooms. And the people I'm speaking to -- I asked what they're going to do, they said, "I don't know. Hang tight."

But these people are out of their rooms, and this is a large, very large hotel. And again, it's a huge event in town this weekend. All of these people coming from or either attending the event at the time that it happened.

Earlier I said it was a tornado. I'm not sure. I'm not a meteorologist, but whatever it was, it was definitely something big that hit Downtown Atlanta.

I just walked out of the building. One of the Turner officers is helping me walk out in the debris, and I'm looking at the debris on the street , it's like letters on the CNN windows from the building, part of the facade of the building.

HILL: The actually CNN letters from the building fell off? Those are pretty substantial letters.

LEMON: Well I see -- well, no, the -- the damage -- not the entire letter, but it's damaged.

HILL: It's damaged.

LEMON: And you can definitely see some of the facade and like lots of styrofoam and metal everywhere. I wish I was up live so I could show it to you, but I can't. It's very frustrating for me right now.

HILL: I'm sure it's just surreal and we're going to be getting some of those pictures in. Right now meteorologist Rob Marciano is standing by in the CNN Weather Center.

Rob, was there enough time to warn people appropriately for this?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Well, there was no watch out in this area. These were two basically renegade cells that dropped out of Northern Alabama. And dropped into the Atlanta metropolitan area, the second of which is doing some damage now to the South Fulton County area.

The good news here is that there is no longer a tornado warning out for either of these cells, so seemingly, according to the National Weather Service and their Doppler analysis, there is likely not much rotation. But, straight line winds with this certainly enough to do damage. You can see into this area, this all drives down to the south and west, some purples in here just around College Park. Right there, you see that purple.

HILL: That's close to the airport too, Rob.

MARCIANO: Very close to the airport. I don't know what's going on down there. They're about ready to wrap up shop, I'm sure. No doubt there's some ground stops. In my estimation, I'll just check --

HILL: While you're checking that, Rob, I just want to ask you because I have to say my first thought when I heard this was -- these pictures, by the way, you're looking at are just outside of CNN Center, if you're joining us right now. My first thought was a tornado in a city, how common is that? It seems not at all.

MARCIANO: Here's what you have to remember. A lot of people think that, you know, cities and big buildings will deflect tornadoes. That is just an urban myth. Mother Nature does what it wants to do.

But when you think about the amount of square mileage, square acreage that any one particular city, be it Atlanta, be it New York, be it Chicago, be it Dallas, these represent a very, very small percentage of the acreage in the United States. So it's really a matter of probability than it is about, you know, buildings deflecting any sort of tornado.

So this can happen and has happened in big cities. It is rare, due to the probability. There you see -- you're looking right now, as you know, the atrium here at the CNN Center where there has been damage. No more than 20 feet away from where I'm sitting now, there's water pouring into the roof -- into basically where the CNN a.m. Newsroom show team sits.

HILL: And where you are, too, in the Weather Center, that actually there's a window there right by the newsroom that kind of looked out on the atrium center. So I know you really have a good vantage point there.

Rob, stay with us. I do want to mention too, we just heard from a colleague of yours, (inaudible), who was in Centennial Olympic Park, which is just across the street from CNN center, the Omni, the Georgia Dome. And he says, based on the damages he'd seen, it definitely looks like it was in fact a tornado.

Stay with us as we continue to cover this breaking story out of Atlanta. We'll be right back.


WRIGHT: Hillary was not a black boy raised in a single-parent home. Barack was. Barack knows what it means to be a black man living in a country and a culture that is controlled by rich white people.

Hillary can never know that. Hillary ain't never been called a (EXPLETIVE DELETED). Hillary has never had her people defined as non- persons.


COOPER: Well, some of the sermons from Reverend Wright.

Tonight, Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, is doing his best to distance himself from the racially charged remarks, like that one, from Reverend Wright.

The retiring pastor of a Chicago church, the guy who married the Obamas and baptized their kids, Senator Obama has called Wright his longtime spiritual adviser, but now the pastor's inflammatory sermons are threatening to discredit the core message of Obama's campaign.

That's where part two of my interview with Barack Obama picks up.


COOPER: It's so interesting. I mean, it's an interesting point you make, because so much of your campaign and your message seems to be about moving beyond race and seeing things through a racial lens. And, yet, this is a man, a preacher, who, clearly, even in some less incendiary remarks, sees things very much through a racial lens.

OBAMA: Well, and I think that this is a struggle that we have in the African-American community. And it's a struggle that we have had about race for many years, which is that we have a history of discrimination and slavery and Jim Crow that continues to have a powerful pull on the African-American memory.

And, yet, at the same time, because of the struggles of black and white and brown, new opportunities have opened up. And we have a future which is focused on, not racial identities, but what brings us together as Americans.

And that's the struggle that we're going through, is to try to get to that place. And part of what my campaign has been about is how can we push the country into that direction, so that white America and black America are able to recognize this history, acknowledge it, but not engage in the blame and the anger that is counterproductive and doesn't lead us to actually helping our children lead a better life?

COOPER: How much damage do you think this has done to you?

OBAMA: Well, I think there's no doubt that, you know, having a sort of a "greatest hits" of incendiary comments that don't reflect my beliefs played on film is not something that, you know, I am thrilled about. But it's something that I think is hopefully going to offer me a capacity to teach and to talk about some of these issues. And I think it's important, because it's real. These -- as I said before, I was asked about some of the statements of Geraldine Ferraro. And I said at that time, I have never been naive enough to think that we get beyond these issues of race or gender or our history or our past.

What I have said is that we have the capacity to move beyond them and improve our relationship with each other in a way that actually reflects the best of American values and American ideals.

And I think one of the things that's most frustrating to me, listening to some of the comments of Reverend Wright, is, ironically, the book that I titled "The Audacity of Hope," drawing from one of his sermons, ends with my statement about my love of this country.

And, you know, that is who I am and what I believe, that this country is everything to me. But this country also has pain and anger and frustration. And, you know, I think that what you heard from Reverend Wright in these statements is part of that American history that we have to get beyond, and that, you know, it's very important for me to send a clear signal that that is not the essence of what America is.

COOPER: Just for the record, you have no problem singing "God Bless America"?

OBAMA: I don't want to sing it here, because people might question my talents. But...

COOPER: All right. We will leave it at that.

Senator Obama, appreciate your time.

OBAMA: Thank you so much.


COOPER: Well, up next, we have got a lot of to talk about with CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, CNN contributor Roland Martin, and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins.

Also ahead, Roland's interview with Obama's new pastor, the Reverend Otis Moss. Is his message really any more moderate?

Remember, I'm live blogging throughout the hour about all of this. The conversation is going on very strongly. Join me at



WRIGHT: It just came to me within the past few weeks, you all, why so many folks are hating on Barack Obama. He doesn't fit the model. He isn't white. He isn't rich. And he isn't privileged.

(END VIDEOCLIP) COOPER: Those words, many more like them, preached by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright from the pulpit of Barack Obama's Chicago church. They have ignited the latest firestorm over race in the Democratic presidential battle.

We're digging deeper with our panel. You heard from Barack Obama earlier.

CNN contributor Roland Martin, also Tony Perkins joins us, president of the Family Research Council and author of the upcoming book "Personal Faith, Public Policy." It just came out last week. Also joining us is CNN senior political analyst David Gergen.

David, when we covered this story last night, I wasn't really sure this was a legitimate topic. But the more I have heard of Pastor Wright's sermons, the more I think this is completely legitimate, because they are so at odds with what Barack Obama has said he believes in.

Do you buy Obama's response tonight that he never knew about some of these pastor's comments until January of last year?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I think he should be given the benefit of the doubt on that, Anderson.

But I also think that journalists ought to dig deeper and just to verify that what he says is correct. I think we should not disbelieve him until we have had a chance to check it out.

If there's been a history of these kind of sermons in the church where Obama has been present, then he's got a serious problem. If there has not been, you know, life goes on.

But I have to say, Anderson, there's a difference between fairness and politics on this one. Fairness demands that we not condemn someone for guilt by association. He's not responsible for what the pastor said. Fairness demands that we recognize and take him at his word for what he believes.

Politics would say that he's been wounded by this, and that it's going to allow his rivals to feed off a lot of perceptions about what Michelle Obama said about her lack of pride in America until this campaign and other statements. And I think that he will be wounded by this. I think he's trying to repair the damage right now.

COOPER: Tony, do you believe that Barack Obama, when sitting in this church for how many sermons he might have sat in over the last 17 or so years, that he didn't hear any of these kind of sermons or these kind of messages?

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: It's kind of hard to believe, Anderson.

I travel a lot and speak on the weekends. But my home church, I hear what happens when the pastor preaches a good message, which is quite often. But what happens, it circulates, because we're a community. That's what it means to be a part of a church. You're a part of a community. And it impacts your life.

It's hard to believe that you could sit in a church week after week, month after month, year after year, and describe the pastor as your spiritual mentor, and somehow not be influenced by his teachings.

I would question why you would be going to that church if you weren't being influenced by the teachings of the pastor.

COOPER: Roland, do you think the Obama campaign gets how potentially serious this is? The fact that Senator Obama offered himself up for this interview tonight and on other networks as well is pretty telling. But they didn't drop this guy from his religious leadership committee until a couple hours ago.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, again, though, you look at the fact that he offered himself up.

They also issued the statements. And, so, obviously, they recognize how serious it is, because, basically, what -- this whole thing got started, really, with Sean Hannity, FOX News, getting -- buying the actual DVDs of the sermons. And, all of a sudden, they're going out.

COOPER: Well, actually, it was ABC News...

ABC News did an investigation the Thursday before that, Brian Ross, in which they bought dozens of these DVDs.

MARTIN: Yes, but actually...

COOPER: Anyway, it doesn't matter where it began.

It's clear it's out there.

MARTIN: Right. So, it's out there.

The bottom line is, they recognize that. And, so, again, like any other story, you watch it in these campaigns, you see what happens, and it percolates. No different from the Clinton campaign. Ferraro started on Monday. Then it just crescendoed.

On Thursday, they said, you know what, we have got to end this thing right now.

That's what happens in politics. You hope something will go away. And then, when it doesn't, reaches critical mass, then you basically cut it off at the head.

COOPER: Roland, you're in Chicago. I mean, do you believe that Senator Obama -- do you take him at his word that he didn't her any of this stuff, he didn't even know any of this stuff was being talked about?

MARTIN: Well, I think here's the key.

If you're playing snippets -- first of all, we were playing two sermons. So, the question is, did he hear these two sermons? How many sermons are we talking about?

So, look, my wife is a pastor, for 20 years, OK, ordained minister. And, so, there may be statements that my pastor may say that I don't particularly hear, maybe some stuff that I do hear. So, I really don't know.

As David said, all I can do is take him at his word. But the reality is here. What we have today is, you have many pastors out there who combine political views, social views with theology. You see this in black churches. You see it by white pastors, Hispanic pastors.

And it has grown significantly, whether your name is Jeremiah Wright, whether your name is John Hagee, or Rod Parsley, Pat Robertson, or any minister. We see it happening a lot today across America.

PERKINS: Well...

COOPER: Go ahead.

PERKINS: Well, I was just going to say there's no question that the Reverend Wright has the right to be wrong. He can preach and think whatever he wants. And that's his right as an American, and I would defend that right. So, I don't question whether or not he can do that.

But, clearly, his message was unscriptural. I mean, as Christians, we're instructed in the New Testament to pray for the well-being of our government, so that we might live a peaceful and quiet life. It's hard to imagine how praying for the damnation of one's own country could lead to tranquility, and clearly an un-American message.

And I think Barack has to do more than distance himself. He has to prove that he was not influenced by this message.

COOPER: David, how badly do you think this could damage the campaign, especially with Pennsylvania coming up?

GERGEN: I think if he acts aggressively, as he did tonight to address it, and then moves on, Anderson, because we have spent our whole week on all these kind of issues. And, meanwhile, the economy is going in the tank.

And, if he gets -- if these candidates -- and Barack ought to be on this next week. They have got to speak seriously about the fact, you know, what's going on economically with the stock market going down, the dollar going down, prices going through the roof on oil and all the rest.

And I think that will help a lot. But I do think -- I hope, in the next segment, we can come back to understanding that there's a discourse, there's a conversation in the black community.


GERGEN: There has been for a long time, which is different from what is in the white community. And we ought to understand and appreciate the differences...

MARTIN: Very true.

GERGEN: ... and not expect everybody to be just the same in this country.

COOPER: And that's -- we are actually going to look at that extensively, both in a package and also in a discussion with all of you, coming up.

As we said at the top, Reverend Wright is no longer connected with the Obama campaign. He's retiring as a pastor of his congregation.

Just ahead, you will hear what the new pastor has to say about the controversy, his own philosophy, and his relationship with Barack Obama.

Also, controversial religious figures in other campaigns and how those campaigns are dealing with them.

Also, breaking news tonight -- a possible tornado causing damage and injuries in downtown Atlanta. That's next also.


HILL: We want to get you the latest now on our breaking story out of Atlanta; the worst of the heavy weather has passed through the city, but we're just beginning to start to see the damage left behind. There's no official confirmation, but this storm and the damage have all the hallmarks of a tornado.

The Georgia Dome took a hit, there's where there was a championship game going on, as at the CNN Center. The Omni Hotel was evacuated. There is extensive damage at the CNN Center; it's a glass atrium, a lot of broken glass and ceiling tiles. It is an absolute mess. We're told there's still water pouring in.

You're getting a look at the damage there. Don Lemon is on the scene for us, he had to make his way down there actually on foot.

Don, give us an idea what's happening now. I heard that all of the windows on the side of the Omni Hotel and CNN Center that face Centennial Olympic Park are blown out?

LEMON: Yes and Erica just as fate would have it just as you were tossing to me, everything got garbled and I couldn't hear anything you said. So I'm just going to show you, these are the very live pictures that were here, so I want you to see what happened.

That's the CNN Center behind me, if you see the CNN there. You can't see the center because it's not lighted.

But if you look up from there, Erica, if you go up Michael, you'll see windows blown out of the Omni Hotel, which is on one side of the building. And you see curtains hanging out. These are rooms where people are supposed to be in, where they were in, they were told to go down to the lobby of the hotel and go to the exhibit hall because they weren't sure about the stability of the roof. If we pan down now, you can just see how the damage, I mean, really goes all the way down the hotel. Then, these are folks who are walking back from those games.

Some people are still inside of the dome, because the Georgia and Kentucky basketball game had to be postponed and people were told to stay put. If you turn left here, right here, Mike, you'll see, this is Centennial Olympic Park; obviously from the Olympics here.

So all this in one area, Erica, which you know very well. Let's pan around this way so we can show the intersection here. This, back across Marietta Street, the parking garage. These are people walking now through the streets of Atlanta through all that debris that you see on the ground there.

When was the last time you saw something like this downtown in a major city? Pan over a little bit to the right, see the garbage can down the cars there? A lot of cars were stranded. There was water coming through, so much water when I was driving through that even some of the city streets were flooded. Much more so than they do on just a normal rainy day.

This, believe it or not, is not as chaotic as it was in the beginning when I got here. As I've been telling you, all night as I've been talking to you, I had to run here from a garage, parking garage that was like maybe a mile away. And when I have a parking pass to get to the CNN Center, they're not letting you anywhere near. There are injured people.

Real quickly. I know you guys are after me but I want to get to a public information officer. You actually told me there's a building collapsed in the area.

RON CAMPBELL, ATLANTA POLICE DEPARTMENT: Yes, a couple streets over there's a building collapse and also by Georgia State University we also have a lot of trees and a lot of power lines down.

LEMON: The extent of the injuries now?

CAMPBELL: Right now, it's just minor juries, but we're having to call officers in, so they're trying to, you know, take care of the damage and also take care of anyone that is injured, so we're actually walking around the area.

Officer Ron Campbell with the Atlanta Police Department thank you very much.

So there you have it, the very first live pictures coming from downtown Atlanta, Erica. I think the last time I saw you here, which was a week ago, it didn't look like this.

HILL: No, it didn't look anything like that, Don. And the pictures we're seeing of the damage are just incredible to see tree branches and glass in the middle of the street there. Stay with us. We're going to come back to you in just a moment. I also want to let you know, we are just getting word. There was also an NBA game, -- or actually I'm hearing that the game at the Georgia Dome, the (inaudible) game, the people in that game is postponed but the folks at the Georgia Dome are now being told that they can leave. The question is, especially for folks who were staying at that Hotel there at the Omni, where do they go now?

We'll be checking in with Don. And we'll continue to follow this for you throughout the hour. Stay with us right here as we take a short break.


Now to the new Pastor at Barack Obama's church; Otis Moss III that is his name. Moss was handpicked by the man he succeeded, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose racially charged sermons have thrown the Barack Obama campaign into crisis mode this week.

In a statement posted on the Huffington Post Web site today, Senator Obama wrote, and I quote, "With Reverend Wright's retirement and the ascension of my new Pastor, Rev. Otis Moss III, Michelle and I look forward to continuing a relationship with a church that has done so much good."

Senator Obama also wrote and said to me tonight that he never personally heard Wright preach the sermons in question and that he outright rejects what his longtime spiritual advisor said.

Earlier today, CNN contributor Roland Martin interviewed Otis Moss III, whose father, Otis Moss Jr., preached with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Take a look.


MARTIN: Describe, from your vantage point, who Reverend Jeremiah Wright is?

OTIS MOSS III, PASTOR, TRINITY UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST: An incredibly powerful, creative, prophetic voice of this age, and it is unfortunate that 36 years of ministry, 207,000 minutes of preaching have been reduced to 30 seconds. A prophetic and powerful voice, who has been passionate in the pulpit. And if we had more passion in the pulpit, we would probably have less cowardice on Capitol Hill.

MARTIN: There are individuals who say he has passion, but he also has racial rhetoric. I read a piece in the "Wall Street Journal" written by an editor of, a conservative Web site, made several different statements.

For instance, in one of these statements, he wrote that, quote -- quoting Reverend Wright: "America is still the No. 1 killer in the world. We are deeply involved in the importing of drugs, the exporting of guns, and the training of professional killers. We bombed Cambodia, Iraq and Nicaragua, killing women and children while trying to get public opinion turned against Castro and Gadhafi. We put Mandela in prison and supported apartheid the whole 27 years he was there. We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God."

How do you think, though, America will look at that statement and then say, that's not something that a preacher should be saying, a man of God should be saying?

MOSS: I wonder what -- how people would view the statements that Jesus makes in terms of that I'm called to preach the good news to the poor and to set the captives free, that I am not coming to bring peace, but to bring the sword, that what you do to the least of these you also do to me.

And one of the calls as a Christian is one, to speak in the words of Howard Thurman, to those who have their backs against the wall. And it is the call of every preacher to raise questions, literally to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. And that's the powerful thing about preaching, that at times it gives you hope, but at times it makes you uneasy.

MARTIN: Are you sensitive to the fact that people may still look at that as being hateful to America, as condemning America?

MOSS: I don't believe that that is being hateful to America, or condemning America, because I think it's very important, just as if I'm reading a book that I do not just read a chapter, but the entire book.

And the media has focused on a few comments, reduced the ministry of Dr. Wright for the last 36 years to about 30 seconds. And we want to make sure that things are seen in a full context.

MARTIN: There are clear laws in terms of what Pastors can and cannot do, what they can and cannot say: endorsing of candidates. Your critics say that there were clearly endorsements from the pulpit of Senator Obama over Senator Clinton and Senator John McCain.

MOSS: That's what the critics say, but that is not what we say. And so in terms of what "The Wall Street Journal" is saying, because "The Wall Street Journal" has never been to seminary, anybody who's writing for "The Wall Street Journal" in terms of these articles.

"The Wall Street Journal" does not understand the African- American tradition in terms of preaching. "The Wall Street Journal" has not spent time within the ministry here of Trinity United Church of Christ or other ministries.

And so it's important to keep it in reference to context in terms of this has been a part of our tradition. If we were silenced, then we would probably still be calling people "master" and everything else.


COOPER: Well, we're digging deeper with our panel: CNN contributor Roland Martin, who did that interview; CNN senior political analyst David Gergen; and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council.

Roland, he's essentially saying that Reverend Wright is being taken out of context. But a lot of folks out there who are listening to this will say, how much context do you need to understand when someone tells his parishioners that the government created AIDS to kill black people?

MARTIN: Well, obviously, and that particular point there, people will say, "Wait a minute, that makes no sense whatsoever."

But I was watching another channel where they played a sermon where he said that America infected African-American men with syphilis, called the Tuskegee Experiment. That actually did, indeed, happen. And President Clinton, I believe, apologized, as president, for that type of thing.

And so that's one of the other issues. I think he does make a point when you talk about context. Because the question is, what are you speaking of when you're talking about what America has done, what individuals have done? And so you do have to, I think, examine an entire sermon.

I can tell you right now, you know, my -- like I say, a lot of people I know who preach, if I look at one comment, I might say, "Man, what are they talking about there?" But if I hear what happened before or after, then I might understand.

COOPER: Well, Roland, David Gergen brought up an interesting point that I want to put to you about the African-American experience, the African-American experience in church versus white American experience in church and the tradition; different traditions.

Is there something that -- I mean, white people looking at this interpret differently -- you can't generalize like this, but that African-Americans looking at this may see it differently or hear things differently than white Americans listening to this?

MARTIN: Absolutely. Because I think, for instance, one of the sermons when Reverend Wright talked about the -- talked about Israel and South Africa and apartheid. A lot of people will say, you know, hey, you know, South Africa, the African National Congress, they were a communist organization. But African-Americans will say, that's apartheid.

And so I remember even when Dick Cheney did not support the condemning of apartheid, because he said they were communists. African-American Pastors were saying, "Wait a minute. Apartheid is wrong." Other people were saying, "No, we think communism is wrong." So we've had that history.

Martin Luther King, April 4, 1967, gave that famous speech at Riverside Church, condemning the Vietnam War. Well, others said, "Wait a minute. How dare you speak out against the nation when it comes to this war?"

There's a history in the black church of combining theology with sociology as well as politics for the advancement of African- Americans. So yes, a lot of people don't have that understanding of those issues. COOPER: David, you brought this up. Why do you think that's an important point?

GERGEN: Well, because there's a long tradition, Anderson. And among black leaders to have a different view of American history, going all the way back to Frederick Douglass, who was one of the greatest American heroes of the 19th century, you know, who gained his freedom from slavery and became a great order (ph).

He was invited to the July 4th celebration to give a July 4th speech in 1852, and he showed up and said, "You know, you whites see July 4 very differently from what I see it. This is not a day of celebration for us."

And I have found that in my classroom with black students frequently. When they speak their minds and when they speak their hearts, they have a very different view. I've had a young woman tell me, "July 4, we still can't celebrate it in my family, because of what's happened to us."

And I think that we as whites have to be understanding and empathic toward that and try to understand that, that people who are African- Americans legitimately have a different perspective on what American history has meant and take that into account as we hear this.

And it's not a lack of patriotism. It is a different form of patriotism. Actually, Reverend Wright may love this country more than any of us but feel we've fallen short of what we preach and believe.

COOPER: I want Tony Perkins to get in there.

PERKINS: Let me jump in there because in our book, "Personal Faith, Public Policy," my co-author is an African-American Pastor. And we write about the issue of racial reconciliation.

I agree that there is a difference in the black church. I've been in black churches and I have to tell you what, I actually like black churches better than white churches, because they really have church.

But to paint all of the black churches and black Pastors with the same brush, to say that they would speak damnation on this country, is not true. And I think you can take the words that the Reverend...

GERGEN: That's not...

PERKINS: Well, that's what the Reverend Wright said in his message -- in his messages. And I don't think that is reflective of the black community.

I think this particular Pastor, again, having the right to do that, but I think he was wrong scripturally. And I think he was wrong in terms of his -- it was just un-American.

COOPER: Roland, a quick response.

MARTIN: Yes. When you talk about Senator Obama said, Pastor Wright, a U.S. Marine, also has a picture in his office where he was a nurse for President Lyndon Banks Johnson. And so when you're talking about somebody speaking for that context, he's speaking as a Pastor, but also as a U.S. Marine who might have a different view of this nation than maybe I will.

COOPER: We're going to have more with our panel ahead, a lot more on this topic. Tony Perkins, Roland Martin, David Gergen, we'll talk about you again in a moment.

Up next, guilt by association. It was mentioned in the panel. Barack Obama isn't the only one dealing with controversial comments made by surrogates.

Republican John McCain is also on the defensive due to his religious backers, although the criticism has not reached the same level as that of Obama. We've got details on that and a discussion next.


COOPER: Well, the U.S. Constitution may spell out the separation of church and state. But in presidential election years, religion and politics often collide. We're certainly seeing that now.

If you stir in a fiery preacher with a controversial message you've got a recipe for campaign trouble. Certainly for Barack Obama; possibly now for John McCain, as well.

"Uncovering America," CNN's Tom Foreman.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): If a Republican wants the White House, he needs conservative Christian support. But support tied to talk like this, easily found on YouTube, could present problems for John McCain.

ROD PARSLEY, PASTOR: Why is the family coming under such brutal attack of the forces of darkness?

FOREMAN: That's Rod Parsley, a hugely influential Pastor, who, along with others, is standing with McCain to convince religious conservatives he's their man.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Pastor Rod Parsley, who is here, and thank you for your leadership and your guidance. I'm very grateful you're here, sir.

FOREMAN: It is help McCain needs.

Mark Rozell studies religion and public policy.

MARK ROZELL, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: In their heart of hearts, they don't fully trust John McCain. They don't think he's going to pursue the issues that they care about if he's elected president.

PARSLEY: I will lift my voice against the agenda of America's tortured and angry homosexual population.

FOREMAN: But some of McCain's religious allies also quite openly condemn homosexuality, suggest Islam is an enemy religion and that natural disasters are God's punishment.

JOHN HAGEE, PASTOR: I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God.

FOREMAN: That kind of talk could turn off moderate Christians, who McCain is also courting, people who both of the Democratic candidates would love to snag.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am very grateful that I had a grounding in faith that gave me the courage and the strength to do what I thought was right.

ROZELL: There is some evidence from the 2006 election cycle that the Democrats have done a little bit better with those so-called values voters.

FOREMAN (on camera): That the religious vote is not out of reach for them.

ROZELL: Well, that's exactly right.

PARSLEY: They are intending to pervert God's original intention.

FOREMAN: McCain make it's very clear he does not share all the views of these supporters. But it's a tricky situation. Without them, he may lose the right. With them, he may lose the middle. But played properly? He could win it all.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.


HILL: I want to update you now on this breaking story out of Atlanta where it appears, all signs point to the fact that a tornado may have actually hit downtown Atlanta and passed through.

Here's what we know at this hour. The severe weather has apparently passed for the moment, but the damage, we are just beginning to be able to assess that. There are trees down, there is glass everywhere. You can see, this is some of the debris actually outside the CNN Center in Atlanta. There is damage to the Georgia Dome, to the Omni Hotel. We're also told by eyewitnesses that there is damage to the World Congress Center.

All of these buildings are basically in the same area across from Centennial Olympic Park, if you're familiar with the area. That is where Don Lemon is standing by.

Don, I think you're still in that Centennial Olympic Park area. And as I understand that the Georgia Dome almost completely evacuated at that point.

Have you come across anybody that was inside at that college basketball game when that storm hit?

LEMON: All you have to look is right here. When is the last time you saw this? These are people who were leaving any one of those events tonight. All of them. These people are walking through debris of whatever it was, a tornado, straight line winds or whatever it was, walking through that debris.

Look at that. This is a traffic light and someone's luggage because it blew out of the window from the hotel upstairs. That's a traffic light that's nearly half a block away. Check this out. All of this right here. This blowing right through the city of Atlanta.

If you look over here, this is the Omni Hotel; right in front of the CNN Center. These are people's rooms. The windows have been blown out and the curtains are hanging out. That's where that suitcase probably came from.

If you pan down here, Mike, you can see the firefighters walking. Come down here and turn that way. That's the Atlanta Fire Department on the scene, as well as several thousand rescue workers. We're on Marietta which is just on the other side of the CNN Center in that lobby. And you can see -- look at all these people, Erica, coming from the event.

HILL: It's amazing.

LEMON: Where you're looking at now is Centennial Olympic Park.

HILL: And Don, of course, the question now, where do they go, because the Omni Hotel has been evacuated. Can you tell me, is there any word at these hour where those people will be sent tonight?

LEMON: Well, good question because if you look this way right in there, they're watching me on the monitor. Those are the people who should be upstairs as we see them bringing --

HILL: And probably trying to get an answer themselves as to where to go. I want to --

LEMON: Let me tell you real quick.

HILL: Go ahead.

LEMON: If you look inside of the lobby here, there's an exhibit hall on the other side of this lobby where most of the people who are at this hotel, the people who cannot walk around on the streets right now or maybe go out and try to find something to eat, they're inside of there. And they're out of their rooms.

And it's -- the hotels are packed here this weekend. So who knows where these people are going to be able to go, because most of them are booked because of the events going on.

HILL: Absolutely and in the area too where those folks are evacuated to, where there are those conference areas is where the newsroom is. I understand a fair amount of damage there. A computer, we're told, was actually sucked out of the newsroom.

Rob Marciano is up stairs in CNN Center at the Severe Weather Center. Rob, I just got a note, an e-mail, that apparently there are other -- our CNN colleagues are actually standing in water inside the building.

MARCIANO: Yes, there are spots where the water is pouring in here, not only in the atrium, but also right here in the CNN newsroom. We have turned off the lights just to the left of me, no more than 10 feet away for fear of some electrical problems with the water pouring over the lighted grid that we have in the newsroom here. You can imagine how things are lit.

The good news here, as far as weather is concerned, we do have one bad -- more batch of thunderstorms, a small batch, it's about to roll through the ATL, but this does not seem to have the rotation that the earlier storms had tonight.

If we could, we're looking at the damage -- maybe we can do a split screen here to show you what the damage -- what the storms looked like as they rolled through the Atlanta metropolitan area, around 9:30, earlier tonight.

There was rotation with these storms as they rolled from the northwest corner of the state down to the southeast from -- if you could switch to 170 that likely will show the radars that I'm talking about. Renegade storms. Two of them, Erica, that just came out of nowhere, basically, the tail end of a short wind, moving across the (inaudible)-- this was outside.

HILL: This is right outside of CNN Center and outside of Philips Arena there, you can see people coming out of Philips Arena.

Chad Myers, I think we also have you with us, our severe weather expert. Chad, how common is it that you see a tornado roll through a major metropolitan city and cause this damage?

CHAD MEYERS, SEVERE WEATHER EXPERT: Well, we knew it was spinning when it came out of northwestern Georgia, and it rolled right through my town of Marietta. I've been trying to get to downtown. All the downtown exits are shut off; they will not allow anybody downtown. There are a lot of people to get out of downtown. But as this storm was going through, it's just a matter of time. It's winning lottery or losing lottery.

When you're flying an airplane, look down and see how much land is not covered in the city that's what gets hit usually. The outlying areas but when the city gets hit, Rob mentioned theis earlier there's no such thing as an urban bubble that will stop a tornado. When it wants it, it's going to come down to the ground. And I really do believe from watching the rotation on radar all night long that this really was a tornado.

HILL: And even looking at the damage we see, it almost sounds like what you're seeing that the city of Atlanta may have been lucky.

I do want to get some quick updates in here. I'm just getting this from our folks from Atlanta. We're hearing from the Atlanta Police Department, nine injuries at this time and extensive damage to the high-rise hotels and buildings in downtown Atlanta.

Now that includes the area where CNN is located. That is why we have this first-hand account for you. The Georgia Dome, where the STC (ph) tournament is under way; March madness as you know, thousands of people in town from that. There was an NBA game, a Hawks game at Philips Arena also right there.

CNN Center, we're told there's a lot of glass; basically like a large atrium -- those windows blown out. Water coming through. You can look at the debris there. The pictures you see, the branches everywhere. Signs we're told, damaged on buildings, possible torn down. Power is out.

I'm speaking to some people in the area. And we're going to continue to cover this story for you.

Again, breaking news, an apparent tornado hitting downtown Atlanta, Georgia, right near where CNN is. That's outside of CNN Center.

Stay with us. Our coverage continues right here.