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Act of Taliban Revenge?; Obama Administration Fearful of Chrysler Fate; Stepping Into a Dictator's Shoes

Aired June 9, 2009 - 15:59   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news involving chaos and carnage. In northwest Pakistan, attackers storm a five-star hotel with many foreigners and the elite and set off a car bomb.

Is this an act of Taliban revenge?

Details about the so-called "Miracle on the Hudson." For the first time, we're learning exactly what the pilots did only moments before the plane ditched.

And warning: If provoked, North Korea threatens to use nuclear weapons and says there will be no mercy.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in CNN's command center for breaking news, politics and extraordinary reports from around the world.


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Well, let's continue our coverage of the breaking news right now. Blood and bodies mark a scene of horror. We're following what's going on in northwest Pakistan right now.

Attackers storm one of the most heavily guarded luxury hotels, setting off a car bomb and partly reducing it to shattered glass and twisted steel. At least seven people are dead. Now officials are desperately searching for any more casualties and clues to who did this.

Let's go straight to CNN's Reza Sayah. He's joining us from Islamabad.

Reza, what do we know precisely? What has the government said about who may have been responsible?

REZA SAYAH, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, immediately they pointed the finger at the Taliban, but we do have some new information, Wolf. Government officials now confirming that this was a suicide bomber, and the death toll has now gone up to 11.

This was a powerful explosive, one of the most powerful blasts we've seen since the Marriott bombing here in Islamabad in September of 2008. To put it in perspective, a senior police official says the explosives in this car bomb were about 400 pounds. The explosives that destroyed the Marriott in Islamabad, about 450 pounds.

The target here was the Pearl Continental, a very popular destination with tourists. And this hotel is set back from the main road and protected by a gate and security officers. But police tell CNN that three men in a pickup truck drove up to this gate, fired some shots, forced their way in, drove down the driveway which curves to the left, into a parking lot.

Somewhere in that parking lot the bomb detonated. Again, killing 11 people and injuring more than 50.

Again, this hotel, popular destination for foreigners. And indeed, we spoke to a U.S. official. And he tells CNN that there were no U.S. Embassy employees there. And Americans, when they visit Pakistan, they have the option of registering with the U.S. Embassy, and this U.S. official telling nobody, no American, had registered with them. That doesn't mean there weren't any Americans inside the hotel, but the U.S. official telling CNN that nobody registered with them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Reza Sayah will continue to stay on top of this story for us in Islamabad.

Thanks, Reza, very much.

Let's bring in Sajjan Gohel right now. He's joining us from London, where he's the director for international security for the Asia-Pacific Foundation. That's an independent security and intelligence group.

Sajjan, thanks very much.

What's your immediate reaction, your interpretation of what has happened today?

SAJJAN GOHEL, ASIA-PACIFIC FOUNDATION: Well, Wolf, this is the ongoing problem that Pakistan is facing, terrorist attacks throughout the country. We've seen a similar type of events in Lahore, in Islamabad, now in Peshawar, which is very much in the heart of the tribal part of Pakistan.

I think what's interesting is that this is now the second time that a hotel has been targeted. Previously, we saw the Marriott hotel in Islamabad being destroyed last year in September. Again, now we're seeing that hotels have been targeted.

Obviously the two main culprits could either be the Pakistani Taliban or al Qaeda itself. We know that al Qaeda took responsibility for the Marriott attack. The Taliban have carried out a number of attacks against police stations, but we have to wait and see what evidence presents itself further.

BLITZER: By going after a hotel that caters to elite, especially a lot of foreigners, like this Pearl hotel in Peshawar today, let's say it was the Taliban or al Qaeda. What's going to be the reaction among rank-and-file average Pakistanis if they're trying to win over some of them to support their cause?

GOHEL: Well, this is a reaction to what's been going on in the Swat Valley with the Pakistani military offensive. It has been criticized very heavily in the tribal areas because of the fact that the Pakistani military has been using helicopter gunships again the Taliban, which has also resulted in very high civilian casualties.

We know that Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a recent audio message just before President Obama went to Egypt, talking about that there could be potential attacks by Baitullah Mehsud, who leads the largest Pakistani Taliban faction, has also spoken about continuing an upsurge of violence.

Ultimately, the people in the region are sympathetic to what the Taliban are doing. They're not actually appalled by the violence, because they see the Pakistani military as the primary aggressors. And this is where winning hearts and minds is so key and important, for which the military are failing to do.

BLITZER: And there's been at least a million, maybe 1.5 million refugees from the Swat Valley that have been created over the past couple months since the Pakistani military offensive began.

All right, Sajjan. Thanks very much. We'll stay in touch with you as well.

Once again, the breaking news out of Peshawar, in Pakistan right now, a suicide bombing attack at a major hotel, a luxury hotel there, and they're still counting the dead and injured.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty right now. He's got "The Cafferty File."

Welcome back, Jack.


Sarah Palin didn't make a speech, but that didn't stop her from stealing the show at a big Republican fund-raising dinner in Washington last night. The Alaska governor's appearance was a question mark up until the last minute and followed weeks of an on again/off again saga.

Palin had originally been billed as the keynote speaker, then her office said, well, she never confirmed that she would appear. Later, Palin's office wanted to know if she could speak at the dinner. Party leaders said she could, then they took back the invitation. They were worried that Palin would upstage Newt Gingrich, who was the new keynote speaker.

This is big-time drama here, folks.

But Palin, along with her husband, got big cheers from the audience when they were introduced on stage last night at this fundraiser last night, and their table was the only one in the ballroom with a crowd around it. Several Republicans thanked Sarah Palin for showing up. Senator John McCain said it was great to see her again. Senator John Cornyn praised Palin's leadership, and Gingrich said the U.S. "would be amazingly better off had McCain and Palin been elected."

There's been speculation that both Gingrich and Palin might be interested in running for the White House in 2012, which certainly must be music to Barack Obama's ears. A recent poll among Republicans showed 21 percent back Palin, 13 percent back Gingrich.

So here's the question: Would you rather listen to a speech by Sarah Palin or a speech by Newt Gingrich?

Go to CNN -- or would you rather just stick needles in your eyes?


CAFFERTY: Go to and you can post a comment.

I forgot about the third option.

BLITZER: What do you think, Jack?

CAFFERTY: About what?

BLITZER: You want to listen to Palin or Gingrich delivering a speech?

CAFFERTY: I'm not interested in listening to either one. I like listening to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you. Good to have you back.

There's been an unexpected explosion at a plant owned by a food company that makes food many of you eat. The roof collapsed, two people are missing. One official says a toxic cloud still lingers.

And now that the U.S. Supreme Court has delayed Chrysler's sale to an Italian automaker, the Obama administration is strongly urging the court not to do so.

And we may rarely see North Korea's secretive dictator, but his eldest son is now talking. He's talking in English. He answers if he wants to replace his father. And did he defect from North Korea?


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news coming in from the U.S. Supreme Court. A day after the court delayed Chrysler's sale to Italian automaker Fiat, the Obama administration is now making its case directly to the court, and there's a clear sense of urgency in that brief.

Let's bring in our Senior Legal Analyst Jeff Toobin. He's an authority on the Supreme Court. Jeff, explain why this is so significant, the Obama administration now telling the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, please, please, let this deal between Chrysler and Fiat go through because the stakes are enormous.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SR. LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think the simplest way of putting it, Wolf, is that the solicitor general, Elena Kagan, who is the Obama administration's representative to the Supreme Court, is really playing chicken with the justices. She is saying, look, lift this stay or Chrysler will go out of business.

There is a deadline of July 15th, next Monday, after which time Fiat can pull out of the deal. And what Solicitor General Kagan is saying is, if you don't lift the stay by that point, unless you let the deal go forward, all bets are off, Chrysler may go out of business, all sorts of new obligations will be thrust on to the taxpayers. In other words, justices, stay out, let this deal happen.

BLITZER: But there's a legitimate legal issue at stake here. The bondholders who filed this suit, including pension plans for teachers in Indiana and elsewhere, they say they were supposed to be first in line in getting their money, and not necessarily others which were getting the money ahead of them like the United Auto Workers, for example. And they're suggesting there may be political ramifications on how these decisions were made.

TOOBIN: That's why this issue is so tough, because the bondholders, the Indiana bondholder who are the plaintiffs in this case, definitely have non-frivolous claims. Now, I'm not saying they're winning claims, but they are certainly claims that in the normal course of business, the Supreme Court would take time to evaluate. But what the Obama administration is saying, these are not normal times, this is an emergency situation, get out of the way, put these legal issues aside, and let the deal go through.

BLITZER: Jeff Toobin is going to stay on top of this story for us. And we'll see what the justices of the Supreme Court decide, but the clock is clearly ticking toward Monday. That's the deadline when Fiat says it needs to know if it can go ahead with this deal with Chrysler.

North Korea gets even bolder as it thumbs its nose at the world. And now this warning: If provoked, North Korea threatens to use nuclear weapons and says there will be no mercy. That, according to a state-run newspaper in North Korea.

This comes as Pyongyang apparently readies to test-fire another long-range missile, one that may be able to reach the United States. The defense secretary addressed that issue today.


ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I have confidence that if North Korea launched a long-range missile in the direction of the United States, that we would have a high probability of being able to defend ourselves against it. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Meanwhile, serious questions about the North Korean leader's health are also being asked about who might one day replace him, for example.

Let's go to our CNN Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jill Dougherty. She's been looking into this part of the story.

Jill, what are you finding out?

JILL DOUGHERTY, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Wolf, there's great frustration here at the State Department and throughout the administration over how to influence North Korea's behavior. And some observers believe that what is going on inside the North may be at least as important as what's going on outside.


KIM JONG-NAM, KIM JONG-IL'S ELDEST SON: Well, it's my holiday. A holiday.


DOUGHERTY (voice-over): A rare glimpse into North Korea's family dynasty. The eldest son of leader Kim Jong-il on vacation.

KIM: Sorry, I'm not interested in the politics.

DOUGHERTY: But this son, known to Korea watchers as a playboy and a gambler, is not the heir chosen by his ailing father weakened by a stroke. Experts believe it's the youngest son, 26-year-old Kim Jong-un. The only known picture of him is this one taken when he was 11, seen here being burned by South Korean protesters.

But even his brother doesn't know for sure.

KIM: Well, I hear that news by media, and I think it's true.

DOUGHERTY: U.S. officials admit they don't know either, but they believe the succession from father to son is under way. The North, they say, is striking out to avoid appearing vulnerable, carrying out a nuclear test and firing missiles, and convicting two American journalists for filming on its border with China.

DENNIS BLAIR, DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: So anytime you have a combination of this behavior of doing provocative things in order to excite a response, plus succession questions, you have a pretty dangerous -- potentially dangerous mixture.

DOUGHERTY: But could Kim's western-educated youngest son leave lead the reclusive North in a new direction?

VICTOR CHA, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: This younger leader could potentially represent a new future leadership with North Korea that has more access to the outside world, and that could be a positive thing.


DOUGHERTY: But even he would be just one person in a system that's isolated from the outside world. And also, some observers believe that the North Korean military may not support Kim's heir apparent. That could be another factor, they say, fueling the North's behavior -- Wolf.

BLITZER: I don't remember a time, Jill, when we've heard a North Korean official, let alone the son, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, speaking out publicly, speaking out in English, if you will, and with almost an American accent. That was pretty extraordinary.

DOUGHERTY: Amazing, really, Wolf, when you see that. And it just gives an indication of how complex this is, that it's not all one facet.

BLITZER: It's an amazing story. I want to hear more from this guy, too.

All right. Thanks very much.

Jill Dougherty reporting.

A building comes crashing down in a North Carolina suburb. We're going to have the latest on the missing, the injured, and what went wrong at this flattened snack food plant.

A lot went right when a US Airways flight made a heart-stopping landing on the Hudson River this year. Today, on Capitol Hill, Congress gets the story from the pilot who pulled off the life-saving touchdown.



BLITZER: Details to a so-called miracle regarding that plane that ditched into the Hudson River. For the first time we're now learning exactly what the pilots were thinking and doing only moments before this all happened.

And the date is now set. You're going to be finding out when the nomination for the Supreme Court justice, Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, is now scheduled. The hearings and why that's angering some Senate Republicans.



Happening now, Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor meets with senators on Capitol Hill and learns when confirmation hearings for her will begin. They're going to begin sooner than some Republicans wanted. We're going to talk to the legendary Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau about her nomination. He hired her out of law school many years ago, knows her quite well.

Emotions run high. Just days ago before Iran's presidential election. We're taking a closer look at what's at stake in Iran, as well as here in the United States.

And the Atlantic gives up more bodies and more clues. The latest on the mysterious crash of Air France Flight 447.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We all remember what happened on the Hudson River not that long ago. And today we're getting more details, precisely what happened only minutes before that plane made that emergency landing on the waters of the Hudson River.

Let's go to CNN's Mary Snow. She's been monitoring this story for us.

It's pretty dramatic stuff, Mary. No matter how many times we hear it, all the incremental details are simply fascinating.

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They really are, Wolf. And we're getting more bits and pieces.

Captain Sullenberger today described how he landed US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson back on January 15th. We're getting more insight into the calmness inside the cockpit, with Sullenberger at one point telling his co-pilot to pull out a handbook.


SNOW (voice-over): Minutes before US Airways Flight 1549 would land in the Hudson River, Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger took in the surroundings, ,saying, "What a view of the Hudson today." But some 30 seconds later, cockpit voice recorder transcripts show there was a sound of a thump, followed by a shuddering sound.

The engine sucked in birds that the captain says filled the entire windscreen. The first officer responds, "Oh, (EXPLETIVE DELETED)," apparently the only expletive used in the cockpit during the ordeal.

Sullenberger instructed the first officer to "Get the quick reference handbook," noting a loss of thrust on both engines. Flight 1549 relayed the message to air traffic control.

CAPT. CHESLEY SULLENBERGER, US AIRWAYS: We've lost thrust in both engines, we're turning back towards LaGuardia.

SNOW: Sullenberger told a National Transportation Safety Board hearing that he quickly determined returning to LaGuardia would be problematic. Teterboro Airport, New Jersey, he says, was too far away. He says the only place long enough, wide enough and smooth enough to land was the Hudson River, and he drew upon something he had observed on his leisure time.

SULLENBERGER: From my previous experience on layovers in New York visiting the Intrepid Museum, I knew that there was an area of a lot of boat traffic in that part of the river. We're trained in our ditching training to try to land near vessels to facilitate rescue.

SNOW: At 3:29 p.m...

SULLENBERGER: I said, "This is the captain. Brace for impact."

SNOW: Seconds later, air traffic controllers received their last contact from Flight 1549.

SULLENBERGER: We're going to be in the Hudson.

SNOW: Inside the cockpit, the first officer asked Sullenberger, "Got flaps, too. You want more?" Sullenberger says, "No, let's say at two." Then asks, "Got any ideas?" The first officer replies, "Actually not."

A warning system is going off, warring, "Terrain, pull up." And Sullenberger says, "We're going to brace."

Their first words once they landed on the Hudson?

SULLENBERGER: And First Officer Jeff Skiles and I turned to each other and almost in unison, at the same time, with the same words said to each other, "Well, that wasn't as bad as I thought."


SNOW: One of the things talked about today, Wolf, at the hearing was bird strikes. Sullenberger says he's encountered them in the past, but it had always been minor incidents. He added that warnings about birds have been general, without specifics, and he said they really had limited usefulness -- Wolf.

BLITZER: The more you learn about these guys, the more courageous they were, the pilot and the co-pilot. We've got to tip our hats off to them.

Thanks very much for that, Mary Snow.

There's another story we're following right now involving Sonia Sotomayor, the Supreme Court justice nominee. She's making the rounds on Capitol Hill, even though she's hobbling a -- a little bit because of the crutches that occurred as a result of her broken ankle.

Let's go up to Capitol Hill right now.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Dana Bash is standing by.

Dana, they have made a decision, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Patrick Leahy, when these hearings are going to begin.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And we learned that Patrick Leahy, along with the Democratic leader, actually spoke by phone with the president himself this morning, and they decided that they were going to hold these hearings according to their timetable, and ignore Republican pleas for more time.


BASH (voice-over): On the Senate floor, a surprise announcement: The Democratic Judiciary chairman said he will begin Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation hearings July 13, in five weeks.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D-VT), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The schedule, I think, is both fair and adequate, fair to the nominee, but also adequate to the United States Senate, to prepare for the hearing that's under consideration.

BASH: That caught GOP senators off-guard. The Judiciary Committee's top Republican told us he was not consulted and it's to rushed.

(on camera): You look kind of surprised?

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), ALABAMA: I am, really, a bit disappointed. We're trying to work. We have -- we have -- we have gone through a first review of the thousands of opinions. And it takes a lot of time.

BASH: On behalf of most Republicans, Jeff Sessions was pushing Democratic Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy to give senators more time to pore Sotomayor's dense records, including 3,500-plus opinions.

SEN. JON KYL (R-AZ), MINORITY WHIP: She was involved in 10 times as many cases as Justice Roberts. And whether or not we're going to be able to complete that work in advance of that time period in order to have the hearing at that time is not yet known.

BASH: But Democrats insist there's plenty of time to prepare. And Leahy argued, the sooner Sotomayor gets a hearing, the sooner she can publicly explain controversial speeches and answer conservative critics outside the Senate who called her racist.

LEAHY: I want to be fair to the nominee, allow her the earliest possible opportunity to respond to attacks made about her character.

BASH: Sotomayor is still doing that in private with Senate courtesy calls, and got a big boost from the only Hispanic Republican in the Senate.

SEN. MEL MARTINEZ (R), FLORIDA: I understand what she is trying to say, which is, the richness of her experience forms who she is. It forms who I am. That does not mean that she has allowed that to filter her opinions, at least not that I have seen so far.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BASH: Now, Republicans this afternoon have been on the Senate floor complaining about what the Republican leader called a heavy- handed action by the Democrats, dismissing their calls for more time on this.

Now, as for Democrats, though, they say that their timetable is to hold hearings for about a week, starting that July 13 date, and to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as the next Supreme Court justice by the time the Senate leaves for August recess -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we will, of course, have wall-to-wall coverage of that week-long set of hearings. If it goes longer, we will stay longer, whatever it takes.

Dana, thanks very much for that.

Another critical issue facing Congress and the American people, health care. Whether or not a lot of folks want it, the idea is now very much front and center on Capitol Hill.

Democratic leaders are tackling the issue of health care reform, and it promises -- promises -- to be a very thorny issue.

Our congressional correspondent, Brianna Keilar, is joining us now from Capitol Hill with more on what's going on.

They're beginning to put the finishing touches, the Democrats, on what they want, Brianna.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they are, Wolf, though not too many details. This is a broad framework of their plan, but already those thorny issues are popping up.


KEILAR (voice-over): House Democrats filed into a room in the basement of the Capitol to be briefed by committee chairmen and Democratic leaders orchestrating an overhaul of the nation's health care system. At the heart of their proposal, a requirement that all Americans carry health insurance, and employers help pay for it, and a government-run health insurance option to compete with private plans.

REP. CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D), MARYLAND: If you like the health insurance you have got, you can keep it. No one is going to try and take it away. But, if you don't like what you have got or you don't have any, you are going to be given these different options, including a public option to try and create competition.

KEILAR: But Democrats face competing demands from within their ranks. Conservative Democrats insist government-run health insurance should only be available as a last resort, if private plans don't meet certain benchmarks.

But others insist, there must be a public option, among them, leading African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American members of Congress, who also want to address the health care gap between whites and minorities.

REP. DIANE WATSON (D), CALIFORNIA: Major hospitals in South Central closed down. Now people have to go a dangerously 18 minutes more away from that hospital for emergency care. These are some of the things we tend to set up as objectives to reach the goal of comprehensive health care for all Americans.

KEILAR: And then there's issue of how to raise over a trillion dollars the plan is expected to cost. One idea, taxing insurance benefits provided by employers, is a poison pill for members like Gerry Connolly, a freshman Democrat in a competitive district.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: You know, those health benefits are very important to my constituents. And I don't think they would welcome seeing those benefits somehow reduced with the -- by taxing or affected negatively by taxing.


KEILAR: And getting the support of those rank-and-file members, like Congressman Connolly, is key for Democratic leaders, because most Republicans say they oppose, not only the insurance mandate, but also any type of government-run insurance plan, saying it's going to drive private insurers from the market -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, stand by.

Gloria Borger, our senior political analyst, is here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Do we expect the president of the United States, with all -- already so much on his plate...


BLITZER: ... to get directly involved on this issue in the coming weeks?

BORGER: Not quite yet, Wolf, but I think, eventually, we will.

I spoke with White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel today, and he said to me, look, don't expect the president to become what he called legislator in chief, but folks at the White House do point out that he's on the phone constantly with legislators. He was before he went on his Mideast trip. They don't want to happen to him what happened to Hillary Clinton. She put out a bill 15 years ago. It became the target of all Republicans.

So, he's hanging back for a while.

BLITZER: Is there any chance Republicans will support some sort of Democratic initiative on health care reform?

BORGER: Well, when you listen to what Brianna was saying, these issues are very tough. They involve issues of taxes and public insurance. However, they're trying to work with Republicans, but, in talking to folks at the White House, I believe they would like to see it happen, but they don't believe it's essential to see it happen, if they can get a bill through anywhere.

BLITZER: All right, stand by. We're going to come back to you as well, a critical issue, health care reform.

He's one of the most powerful men in music, Russell Simmons. He is here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Stand by.

And a Hollywood actor, Angelina Jolie's father, blasting President Obama.


JON VOIGHT, ACTOR: Obama really thinks he is a soft-spoken Julius Caesar. He thinks he's going to conquer the world with his soft-spoken sweet talk.


BLITZER: Did Jon Voight go too far?

And the president's grandmother in the spotlight -- new pictures from one of our producers traveling in Kenya.


BLITZER: He's one of the richest and most recognized men in all of music, so what might you get the man who arguably has it all? Here's the answer: political action.


BLITZER: And joining us now, Russell Simmons. He's here in Washington for what's called a Hip-Hop Summit.

And you have been meeting with Nancy Pelosi, with Harry Reid. Explain what your political agenda is right now.

RUSSELL SIMMONS, CHAIRMAN, HIP-HOP SUMMIT ACTION NETWORK: Well, it's actually Children Uniting Nations. And the Hip-Hop Summit has teamed up with them. And Daphna, who has been working on this -- this is the fifth year they have had this -- this convention.

BLITZER: They're trying to help kids?

SIMMONS: Yes, the idea to -- help kids. The Children Uniting Nations is about helping kids, but to educate lawmakers on what they can do, because lots of times, you know, they're -- they're well- rounded.


BLITZER: How critical is this crisis right now? SIMMONS: Well, the -- the youth crisis is -- is -- is -- whether it's prison reform or obesity or AIDS, or -- you know, I think that we have to invest more in young people. And that's really why we're here.

I run four suffering charities, but I find that, if you can get legislation, you know, that's a real footprint. It's a much more significant...


BLITZER: Is it happening the way you want it to happen, I mean, or are you frustrated?

SIMMONS: Well, no, I'm not a person who gets frustrated.

You know, we're planting good seats. I mean, even when you're only -- like, in the Rush foundation, we have our charity event next week. it's -- there's only but so many kids that we can help. There's 80 programs, but when you get funding for a state or federal kind of program, then you help hundreds of thousands of kids.

BLITZER: The president of the United States, Barack Obama you like him a lot. Is there anything he's done that's disappointed you so far?

SIMMONS: No, no, not -- I'm the chairman of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding.

And the other day, he brought me to tears, his speech.

BLITZER: In Cairo?

SIMMONS: That's right, his speech. And that -- you know, that's what I do. I do Muslim-Jewish dialogue, along the chairman of the World Jewish Congress, Marc Schneier, Rabbi Schneier.

And, so, to see that kind of outreach -- and I believe in dialogue. I believe it's critical in this day and age not to have it. And the president owes it to communities to -- to check and see maybe there's some things that...


BLITZER: Is there hope that you can help bring these groups together? Because it seems so frustrating and hopeless out there, especially on the Israeli/Palestinian front.

SIMMONS: Well -- well, we have 52 programs across the country and across the world now. In England, in Germany, in France, we're starting these same kinds of programs, where imams speak in synagogues, synagogues speak in -- I mean, and -- and...

BLITZER: Rabbis.

SIMMONS: ... Rabbis speak in mosques. And that -- and those programs are very successful, and we're planting good seeds. And, so, it's -- it's about you deal your resources, using them as best you can.

The thing I ask is, if we want to go and speak in Cairo about having a better relationship with the Muslim community, then we have to cleanse our hearts of Islamophobia, which is a big problem here in America.

BLITZER: The major disappointment among the most ardent of President Obama's supporters, I have heard -- and they love him on everything, except they have been disappointed that he hasn't taken firm action, as he promised he would do, to eliminate the don't ask/don't tell policy that bars gay from serving openly in the U.S. military.

SIMMONS: Well...

BLITZER: Is that a source of disappointment to you?

SIMMONS: Well, you know, I'm -- I have been a big supporter of gay rights on many fronts, including the marriage acts discussions.


BLITZER: You support gay marriage?

SIMMONS: Yes, I support gay marriage, and I equate it to all the other civil rights struggles we have had in this country.

But we get the best we can. You know, he might not have been -- you know, he has to lead a country. And they have to feel supportive of him, and he's right there in the center. I believe he's doing the best he can on these issues as well.

BLITZER: You would like him to speed it up a little bit, though?

SIMMONS: Well, I always want more, you know?


BLITZER: You know, I'm going to put some numbers up on the screen, Proposition 8 -- 8 -- in California...


BLITZER: ... which banned gay marriage. And take a look at these numbers. Among white people, it was pretty even. Forty-nine percent vote for it, 51 percent against -- against it.

But look at the African-Americans in California.


BLITZER: Seventy percent voted for Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage. Thirty percent said no, much higher than Latinos and Asians and whites. Explain.

SIMMONS: Well, first, there's -- those numbers have been found to be not true.

BLITZER: These numbers in these exit poll.


SIMMONS: That's correct.

And that's been published a number of times since. But, on top of that, they're very religious people. I'm not a -- a big fan of all organized religions' effects on people. And, so, you know, I get it. Sometimes, it could be -- you could say hurt people, hurt people.

They have experienced lots of discrimination themselves. I'm sorry that -- I'm sure that there's a -- a disproportionate number of African-Americans that voted against it -- or for Proposition 8. That's how it worked.

But, you know, I'm hopeful that we will, you know, not be so discriminatory in -- in the way that we are on this issue.


BLITZER: We're going to have a lot more of the interview with Russell Simmons coming up Saturday on -- in THE SITUATION ROOM. He speaks about a wide range of issues. The interview with Russell Simmons Saturday night 6:00 p.m. Eastern -- right here on CNN.

An unexpected voice is raised at a Republican fund-raiser -- the actor Jon Voight taking aim squarely at the Obama administration.


VOIGHT: I will tell you why this really scares the hell out of me. Because everything that Obama has recommended has turned out to be disastrous.



BLITZER: And Laura Bush after the White House -- we could be seeing a whole more of her -- what the former first lady has in store for her own future.


BLITZER: We're going to hear from the actor Jon Voight. He spoke at a big Republican fund-raiser here in Washington last night.

Let's discuss what was said in our "Strategy Session."

Joining us, our Democratic and CNN political contributor Donna Brazile, and Republican strategist John Feehery. He served as a spokesman for the former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. He's got a good column that he wrote for as well.

All right, let's listen to Jon Voight. He was the emcee last night at this Republican Party fund-raiser, raising money for House and Senate candidates in Washington last night.


VOIGHT: Obama really thinks he is a soft-spoken Julius Caesar. He thinks he's going to conquer the world with his soft-spoken sweet talk, and really thinks he's going to bring the enemies of the world into a little playground, where they will swing each other back and forth.

We, and we alone, are the right frame of mind to free this nation from this Obama oppression.



BLITZER: All right. And there was a lot more talk like that in Voight's speech as well, Obama oppression.

Is that kind of language going to win over independents and get them to join Republicans?

JOHN FEEHERY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: I guess he doesn't like the president very much, does he?


FEEHERY: You know, I -- a couple -- a couple of points in this.

First of all, this is red -- a red meat dinner. And you serve red meat. And Jon Voight gave them a lot of red meat. The second thing about Jon Voight, it's a little bit courageous for an actor like him to say he's a Republican conservative. I think that that's the surprise factor.

And the third point, you know, when President Bush was president, we heard all kinds of things from all kinds of celebrities, like Barbra Streisand and Alec Baldwin, about how Alec Baldwin was going to leave the country. So, you get a lot of this with both -- by both sides.

So, that's part of the deal, I would say.


BLITZER: What do you -- Donna, yes, because there were, from the left, the Hollywood left. And he's saying it's courageous for Voight to speak out, because he makes his living in Hollywood, which is run, supposedly, by a bunch of liberal moguls, if you will.


BLITZER: So, it's courageous for him to speak out like this.


BLITZER: But there was some angry from -- from Hollywood leftists against Bush during those eight years.

BRAZILE: Well, I -- I believe that we should level -- we should raise the -- the level of civility.

And perhaps he was just trying to -- to reach out to an audience that, as John says, wanted to hear as much red meat as possible. After all, they -- they need a leader who will offer alternatives to what the president and the Democratic clearly are proposing in terms of moving the country forward on jobs and health care and education.

And now I understand why Angelina Jolie, his daughter -- Angelina Jolie has problems communicating with her dad.


BRAZILE: If he's giving this kind of rabid, red meat talk, I wouldn't talk to him either.


BLITZER: But they did -- they did get a very wonkish speech last night with a lot of ideas from Newt Gingrich. He delivered the keynote address there last night. And it was a typical Newt Gingrich speech.

FEEHERY: Well, he said something significant. He says: I want Colin Powell in the party. I want Dick Cheney in the party. I want a big tent, which I think is extraordinarily impossible.

And Newt did give a lot of positive talk. The problem with positive talk is, it doesn't give you a lot of good press out there, because the press loves to get the -- the stuff like Jon Voight.

BRAZILE: And Newt Gingrich also said last night that he wants an inclusive party.

FEEHERY: Right. That's my point. That's my point.


FEEHERY: Right. Exactly.

BRAZILE: I thought that was -- I thought that was the speech that the Republicans needed to hear. But, clearly, you know, with the red meat and perhaps the red wine, they spilled it over themselves.


BLITZER: Candy Crowley was there. And she's going to give us a full report later in THE SITUATION ROOM on the whole -- the whole night. It was an important night for the Republicans. Laura Bush, the former first lady of the United States, I think everyone agrees she's a real class act. She's now deciding what to do. She's still relatively young.

There was a story in the Politic: "Mrs. Bush wants to use her platform to continue championing work in areas she's most interested in and passionate about, particularly initiatives she's concentrated on as first lady."

And she's meeting, John, with 25 consultants to help her plot her strategy, what to do next.

What do you think?

FEEHERY: She left the Bush administration the most popular member of the Bush administration. And I think that she's key to restoring the Bush reputation.

She's -- you know, the one thing that she could really do is literacy, which is extraordinarily important, something that she cares very passionately about. And another thing that she could really work is on taking the message about Afghanistan and rights for women in the Islamic world


BLITZER: She could do -- she could something else.

FEEHERY: She can do a lot of good.

BLITZER: She could follow in the footsteps of another former first lady, namely, Hillary Clinton, and run for office.

BRAZILE: Well, with a big redistricting battle going on in Texas, more seats will be created. I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunity for her to consider politics.

But I agree with John. I think her voice in human rights issue, education, literacy for American children, I think she would be well served if she followed in that path.

BLITZER: And we wish her a lot of success.

BRAZILE: Absolutely.

BLITZER: OK. Thanks very much.

You could say she's become something of a celebrity, President Obama's grandmother. We have new pictures of her and the security around her. Our CNN producer Linda Roth has been in Kenya over these past few days, paid a visit. We are going to show you some of the pictures.

Also ahead, they're accused of spying for Cuba. Did those who know them see any clues? And he's accused of killing an abortion provider -- Scott Roeder's chilling words -- that and a lot more coming up.


BLITZER: President Obama's grandmother is living in the spotlight in western Kenya. One of our show producers, Linda Roth, is traveling in Kenya right now with a dozen other U.S. journalists, and visited her at her home.

Abbi Tatton is here in THE SITUATION ROOM, got the pictures that Linda sent us.

Pretty interesting.

ABBI TATTON, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: This is the village of Kogelo in western Kenya, a place that's seen more a little bit more traffic in recent months because of this one -- this woman right here.

This is President Obama's Kenyan grandmother, Sarah Onyango Obama. This is actually the stepmother of the president's father. And she has had her fair share of visitors in the last few months. She's trying to receive them all at her house. She receives them all under this mango tree in front of her house here, even though, on some occasions, Wolf, she has hundreds of people in a weekend.

BLITZER: I take the village must have seen a lot of changes as a result of all this.

TATTON: You can see that from some of Linda's photos, which are are online at

Look at this. You have got the Kenyan police right now. They have set up camp on the front lawn to deal with all the visitors.

But you have also got a lot of pride that you can see in these photos here. Look at the decorations on people's huts -- all of them online, Wolf, at

BLITZER: Sure a lot of excitement there in Kenya. All right, thanks very much for that, Abbi.

By the way, the trip was set up through the Gatekeeper Editors program with the international reporting project at the John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington -- full disclosure -- my alma mater.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now for "The Cafferty File."



BLITZER: Yes, go ahead.

CAFFERTY: I didn't realize that. That's your alma mater?

BLITZER: John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Got a masters degrees in international relations.

CAFFERTY: Did they send you to Kenya?

BLITZER: No, they sent Linda Roth to Kenya.


CAFFERTY: No, I mean when you were a student there.



BLITZER: They sent me to Washington, D.C.

CAFFERTY: They didn't send you anywhere.

BLITZER: They didn't send me anywhere.

But I got two years of excellent education.

CAFFERTY: All right. All right.

It's time for the e-mails. The question is, who would you rather listen to, Sarah Palin or Newt Gingrich give a speech? They were both at that big Republican to-do last night.

Karen writes from Virginia: "While I don't particularly like Newt Gingrich, he's quite intelligent, does make some thought-provoking comments, as opposed to Palin, who simply makes provocative comments. I find her sole mission to be one of creating division."

Sally in Michigan: "They both turn my stomach, frankly, but I would be much more likely to sit through a speech by Gingrich than a rehashed Gingrich speech delivered by Palin."

Deborah writes: "Definitely Sarah Palin. No one else comes close when it comes to concocting word salad. Ms. Palin is endlessly entertaining."

Jack in Florida writes -- or Jacki in Florida writes: "I have been a Republican all my life. I have to admit I would rather stick needles in my eyes. Please, please tell me there is someone out there who can bring this party back from its deathbed."

Jimmie writes: "I would rather see Palin speak. Even though Democrats make fun of her, she is young, a free spirit. That's what the Republicans need right now, a young motivational speaker. Gingrich, on the other hand, is a washed-up politician who is unpopular with the core of Americans."

Marie in South Carolina writes: "Makes no difference. They're reading off the same script."

Kisha writes, "I watch them every day on 'The Jerry Springer Show.'" And Dann writes: "That's like asking, who do you think is the best hockey player in Ecuador? It's not much of a choice. If given a third option, I would rather trim my nose hair with a carrot scraper."

If you didn't see your e-mail...


CAFFERTY: ... here, you can go to my blog at, and find equally intellectually stimulating offerings there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Always good stuff, Jack. Thank you.



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

Happening now: North Korea raises the stakes with a shocking nuclear threat, as the United States weighs its own military options.

As Iran's bitter presidential campaign enters its final days, tensions playing out with mass rallies in the streets of Tehran. CNN's Christiane Amanpour is in the Iranian capital for us.

And Newt Gingrich had center stage, but did Governor Sarah Palin try to upstage him? The former House speaker shrugs off any controversy with a new road map for the GOP.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.