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West Virginia Mine Explosion; New Frustration with Karzai; 212,000 Lose Jobless Benefits

Aired April 5, 2010 - 19:00   ET


JOHN KING, HOST: Thank you, Wolf.

Tonight we're following breaking news in the West Virginia coal fields. Six miners are dead, 21 unaccounted for, after an explosion inside a coal mine this afternoon. This happened at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in Whitesville. That's in Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston.

We're continuing to follow developments today. CNN has a crew on the way to the scene. We also -- we're sending a truck there as well and we're also sending in additional resources. I believe we have on the phone now Shawn Kline from the affiliate WVVA -- I'm sorry, that reporter is not with us this evening.

We're checking there now. The state has sent in a number of resources, ambulance crews going to the scene, helicopters as well. We're told the state medical examiner is on his way to that mine scene.

There you see the map. Raleigh County, the Massey mine.

An explosion reported late this afternoon. Again, what we have confirmed: 6 miners dead, 21 unaccounted for, about two dozen others being treated for injuries at the scene of this mine. We are sending our own personnel to the scene. There are some local reporters on the scene.

And as soon as we can get you more information, we will bring that to you.

At the moment, we'll break away for other news, but we promise we'll get back to this story as soon as we have new information.

Tonight, the White House is yet again voicing its frustration with the Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Remember last week, it was a startling statement from Mr. Karzai that it was foreigners, not anyone loyal to him, responsible for fraud in the recent Afghan elections.

Now, President Karzai is complicating a critical next step in the risky U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan. After meeting this weekend with tribal leaders in Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold, Mr. Karzai told CNN he is not ready to give the military operation his blessing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PRES. HAMID KARZAI, AFGHANISTAN: The operation in Kandahar would not begin, would not go on unless and until we have the full trust of the people of Kandahar for it and we have the full approval of the people of Kandahar for it and when we've made sure of --


KING: White House correspondent Dan Lothian joins us now with new information on the White House's dismay -- Dan.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, what you are hearing around here at the White House are words like "frustrating" and "troubling," that the substance of this criticism is simply, quote, "not true."

But the big question is: will the United States continue to extend that invitation to Mr. Karzai to come here and meet with President Obama on May 12th? Right now, Robert Gibbs told reporters that that invitation stands as of now. But it will be interesting to see if that does continue to be the case.

Why is all this important? Well, the U.S. really wants and needs to have a stable government on the ground there in Afghanistan -- someone that they can rely on as the U.S. ramps up operations there, as they continue to launch this push into Kandahar. Right now, when asked if they have a credible leader there, U.S. officials will only say that Mr. Karzai is the democratically-elected leader of Afghanistan. They will continue to work with him.

But certainly, all of this criticism is complicating that relationship, John.

KING: Dan Lothian at the White House -- Dan, thank you so much.

Today was the day unemployment benefits expired for more than 200,000 Americans. It happened because Congress couldn't agree on an extension before lawmakers decided to break for their Easter recess. Leaders in both parties are promising to fix things as soon as Congress returns. But in the meantime, there's a fierce political blame game.

CNN's senior congressional correspondent Dana Bash takes us beyond the talking points -- Dana.

DANA BASH, CNN SR. CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, if you read the Democrats' press releases today, it's GOP obstructionism that caused this Senate stalemate having very real world implications. DNC chairman, Tim Kaine, said, quote, "Republicans have once again put partisan politics ahead of the needs of American families, refusing to extend these critical benefits that families so desperately need."

Well, if you read Republican press releases, guess what, a similar accusation, that it's the Democrats' fault -- and their fault because they left town last week without acting. Republican Senator Tom Coburn said, quote, "Congress chose to go on vacation instead of extending unemployment benefits for some Americans." Now, the truth is, almost everyone wants to extend these benefits. The different is -- the difference is a philosophical one, over how. Republicans say the $10 billion price tag for this must be offset, not add to the deficit. And Democrats say, well, there's in need to pay for it because joblessness from their perspective is an emergency.

Now, how is this going to be resolved? Well, Democratic sources I've talked to say, when Congress comes back next Monday, they do plan to hold a vote to try to overcome Republican opposition to this benefits package that's not paid for and that it would be retroactive, so people this week who may not be seeing their benefits would get that eventually.

But the reality, John, is that Democrats who run Congress could have delayed their break to do this last week, but because the process would have been drawn out, eaten into a fair amount of their time at home, Democratic leaders in the Senate chose not to.

KING: We'll watch this when they come back. Dana Bash, thanks so much.

Allow a senior Republican to talk off the record or on background of late, the odds are, you'll get an earful about the party's national chairman, Michael Steele. Too much lavish travel and spending is one complaint. Too many controversies is another. So deep is the frustration, that a group of former Republican national committee officials are forming what some call a shadow party to raise money for the midterm elections.

And just in the last hour, we have learned that the chief of staff at the Republican National Committee has resigned. Some say, he was nudged out.

Our senior political analyst Gloria Borger has been working her sources on this one all day -- Gloria.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, this is a -- this is a rough story for Republicans because, as you say, publicly, they're really reluctant to say that Michael Steele ought to go. But privately, they all say, what are we going to do? We can't -- we can't deal with this any more.

And the big problem for Michael Steele is that once you anger your big party fundraisers, then you're really in trouble. And as you're pointing out, that now, the fundraisers have other places to go. Ed Gillespie, who used to work in the Bush White House, has somewhere for them to give money. Governor Haley Barbour says, "OK, give us money at the Republican Governors Association."

So, now, those big funders can say to the Republican National Committee: sorry, we don't like the way you're running things, we're going to give it to other places in the Republican Party.

KING: And Michael Steele has just let go of his chief of staff or replaced him. BORGER: Right.

KING: We'll get the tick tock on exactly how that played out.

BORGER: I quit, you're fired, right.

KING: But he also said that his job is to stay and to lead the party into these elections. And the tone of the statement was, "I'm not going anywhere."

BORGER: Right.

KING: Do people believe he will survive?

BORGER: Well, it depends on who you ask. People I talk to say it's looking harder and harder. And one Republican I spoke with today said, look, it's a bunker mentality there at the Republican National Committee. And if you're not with them, Michael Steele, then you're going to be gone.

But they've got a lot of important work to do, John. They've got to do grassroots voter registration -- this is important -- as you head into the 2010 midterm elections. They've got to do redistricting. They generally give money to the Republican House and Senate campaign committees. If they're not doing that, they're not doing their work, and Republicans -- who are doing pretty well politically, I might add -- have reason to be upset.

KING: And so, that's the key. They're doing well politically --


KING: And the national party can get you -- back in 1994, they won 52 House seats.

BORGER: Right.

KING: Many think they picked up an extra eight or 10 maybe if you get in -- the last minute, you get that money. The shadow operation, Ed Gillespie is a former Republican National Committee chairman. Mike Duncan, the guy running is it is a former Republican National Committee chairman.


KING: He wanted to stay on when Michael Steele got the job. These are not nobodies who are saying, we're going to set up a shop over here. If you're skeptical about sending money to the national party, give it to us, we'll take care of it and get it to the right races.

BORGER: Right. And so, you know, you might be reluctant at first if you're a big funder. But at a certain point, you don't want to feel like you're throwing away your money. You don't want to think I can throw it away to somebody who is spending it at a strip club, for example. So, you -- so, you say, you know what? I want my money to be well-spent. I want to serve the Republican Party. I want to help the Republican Party. We might be able to take control of the House, for example. And I want my money to be spent in good ways.

And grassroots voter registration, for example, can make a five to seven-point difference in local races, as you know. And that could be the difference between taking control of the House and not taking control of the House.

KING: A bubbling drama in a party that should have the wind at its back.

BORGER: You bet.

KING: Gloria Borger, thanks for your time tonight.

And we want to get back now to the breaking news we're following in the West Virginia coal fields. An explosion this afternoon at the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch mine, it's called, in Whitesville. Again, that's in Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston.

Joining us now is Shawn Kline from the CNN affiliate WVVA. He's on the scene.

Shawn, tell us exactly what you know about and the latest -- especially the latest figures on those dead and injured.

SHAWN KLIEN, WVVA REPORTER (via telephone): Well, right now, there's not much information coming out of the mine at this time. I just see a dozen of police cars, a dozen more of ambulances and another dozen of fire trucks. They keep coming in and out of the mine.

Right now, the "A.P." is reporting that six are dead, 21 are unaccounted for. But neighbors here say that that number could be a little bit higher than that. More around 10 dead and 30 unaccounted for.

It's a small community. It's just this terrified of what's going on here. I'm that terrified what's going on here. The mine has only been open for two years now.

KING: And so, when you mentioned they're terrified, take us to -- take a step back and tell us everything you can see sort of in your line of sight about the response both from the emergency response and the community response. Are there people around who are just standing around waiting, family, friends, co-workers, neighbors?

KLINE: The look of worry is on just about everyone's face -- the firefighters, the EMS servers and also the police and miners. We do see some miners outside here just kind of pacing around, helping out with EMS, helping out with the police.

KING: In the early hours after something like this, it's often very hard to get information, and then often, when you do get information, there's conflicting information. The "A.P." is the source and a state mining official has confirmed to the "A.P.": six dead, 21 unaccounted for. You say those on the scene think the numbers could go quite higher.

Is there any organized information there from the mining company, the Massey Company, or from local police, or are they still so focused right now on the response that there's not a lot about coming information?

KLINE: All focus is being put right on the mine shaft. They want to get those people out of there as soon as possible. And like I said, they are very worried for everyone in there.

KING: And, Shawn, just one more quick question. In terms of the -- any -- is there anything from the -- it's been a beautiful day here in Washington, D.C., and you're not all that far away. Is there anything in terms of the weather? Obviously, it's getting dark now. Are there any complications there to the search and rescue, or at least, from that perspective, no weather hindrance or other hindrance?

KLINE: Well, as of right now, there's no other hindrance. But just as you said that to me, I heard a strike of thunder outside. So, things might get a little hairy here in the coming minutes and hours.

KING: We're showing our viewers -- Shawn, you obviously can't see it, you're at the scene, but a Google Earth map of this mine scene right here. And you see as it stretches. You see some of the coal chutes coming up out of there. This is a -- this is a rather typical shot of other coal mines in the area, a long chute that brings the coal out, it goes down into the ground.

Shawn, one last before we let you go, I know you want to do your reporting on the scene. We're just showing our viewers this site. So, as they understand the scope of the mine there, can you just describe for us again where exactly you are at the scene and what you can see from your perspective?

KLINE: Well, I'm actually at a neighbor's house just across the street from the mine. And I can see just about everything going on besides the mine shaft. That's a little bit tucked away in the woods a little bit. But you can still see ambulances, everyone going up the hill to see what they can find. But most of the time, they don't really come down.

KING: Shawn Kline of our affiliate there on the scene -- Shawn, thanks for your help. And we'll check in with you in the hours ahead if we can. We appreciate the firsthand reporting right there.

We're going to take a quick break here. But when we'll come back, we'll stay on top of this breaking news story. Again, at least six miners dead and 21 unaccounted for. Fears from the scene those numbers could go higher in West Virginia. We'll stay on top of this breaking story.

Also, when we come back, the day's other big political news. Mostly, we'll track this breaking news story throughout the evening. Please stay with us.



KING: The Republican National Committee spokesman confirms to CNN the Republican National Committee's chief of staff Ken McKay is resigning.

Why does the Republican Party seem to be in disarray?

With me to take the pulse of America is Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist who lives in Florida and supports conservative Marco Rubio who's challenging moderate Republican Governor Charlie Crist in the primary for U.S. Senate.

Ana, thanks for joining us.

We began expecting to talk about other things, but I want your perspective on the turmoil of the Republican National Committee. This is a year in which Marco Rubio is running, in fact, because he thinks this is a good year for Republicans. You see primary challenges across the country and that's tough for the party, but it's mostly a sign of energy in the party. Conservatives and other Republicans think it's a good year to be a Republican, and yet, here in Washington, the national party has turmoil.

What's your take?

ANA NAVARRO, DONOR TO RUBIO FOR SENATE CAMPAIGN: Look, it is a good year to be a Republican. And this has become a ridiculous distraction.

Frankly, instead of talking about how Michael Steele's spending money, we should be talking about how the Obama administration is spending money. Instead of discussing how Michael Steele is misspending Republican donors' money, we should talk about how Barack Obama is misspending American taxpayers' money.

But that being said, in politics, perception is important. And when you're spending other people's money, you have to be awfully careful.

KING: Well, that being said, you say you want to talk about Barack Obama's spending, and that's the message Republicans would like. As someone who has raised money for the party and you sound clearly frustrated with Chairman Steele -- should he stay on as chairman or would it be best if he stepped aside?

NAVARRO: Look, any donor, any large donor understands that to raise money requires money. But that doesn't mean that lavish spending is OK. There's got to be a limit.

We just had a very similar situation here in the Republican Party of Florida. We had a chairman who was spending excessively, Jim Greer. He was Charlie Crist's handpicked guy.

And at first, there were all sorts of private conversations going on trying to push him out. When that didn't work, the conversations became public. Former Republican Party of Florida chairman went public. Republican leadership and the legislature went public. Republican donors went public.

And eventually, we ousted the guy and we pushed him out. We have new leadership today in the party and we hope that that new leadership will be a new page for the Republican Party of Florida -- something similar could very well happen at the national level if this doesn't turn around.

KING: You say if it doesn't turn around. Before I let you go, you helped John McCain raise money in the last campaign and you helped his campaign not only raise money but reach out to Latino voters and women voters.

Senator McCain said something that I found rather striking over the weekend. He gave an interview to "Newsweek" magazine and he said, quote, "I never considered myself a maverick. I consider myself a person who serves the people of Arizona to the best of his abilities."

"I've never considered myself a maverick," says John McCain. But I want you to listen to some television advertisements perhaps bought with money you'd helped raise.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: Frankly, I'm too much of a maverick.

NARRATOR: A maverick.

NARRATOR: He's the original maverick.

NARRATOR: The original mavericks.

MCCAIN: What do you expect of two mavericks?

We're both mavericks.


KING: To what do you attribute Senator McCain's attempt at reinvention here?

NAVARRO: You know, actually, he never liked the word "maverick." I think that he got labeled as such, and then couldn't avoid it. But he was never a fan of being labeled or being described as maverick.

I think he's a guy who stands for commitment. He stands for causes. He stands for things he believes in. He stands for principles.

And I think that's the way John McCain sees himself. He never really saw himself as a maverick. So, when he says that, I believe he's being truthful.

KING: Truthful and also I assume try to make sure that his opponent, conservative opponent in the Republican primary, doesn't nudge him too far to the left. I'm guessing that's part of this as well, do you agree?

NAVARRO: John McCain has been John McCain for too long. I don't think anybody -- look, if the Vietnamese couldn't nudge him one way or the other, I don't think J.D. Hayworth is anything to worry about.

KING: Ana Navarro joining us from Florida tonight. Ana, thanks so much.

NAVARRO: Thank you.

KING: As of today, at least 212,000 Americans who don't have jobs won't bet getting a government check either. Next: we'll go wall-to-wall to show you who and where they are, and why there's a fight over using your money to keep helping them.

And also, remember, we're tracking that breaking news story in West Virginia tonight, a coal mine explosion. We'll keep tracking that throughout the hour.


KING: I want to update you now on a breaking news story in West Virginia, about 30 miles. You see it there, Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston. Six miners killed, 21 at least unaccounted for. Emergency crews are on the scene.

We have two statements we want to bring you as we continue our reporting here, and we'll zoom you in to show you the mine here at the Massey Energy Company mine.

First, Massey Energy has issued a statement just a short time ago. It says there was a reported explosion occurred at its performance coal company Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County. Mine rescue teams as well as state and federal agencies are responding. Information regarding injuries is uncertain at this time. The company says Massey Energy will provide additional information as facts become available. That is directly from the company.

We do know from state mining officials that they say: six are dead, 21 unaccounted for. And a reporter from a local TV affiliate on the scene has said that those numbers could go higher than that.

Also, we want to give you a statement from Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, as we continue to show you on Google Earth here the mine, just south, about 30 miles of Charleston, West Virginia.

Senator Rockefeller says, quote, "Sharon and I are heartbroken along with the community by the tragic news unfolding of the explosion at Upper Big Branch South mine. We're sending all of our prayers and thoughts to the brave miners and their families. I know our dedicated first responders and local community members are doing everything they can to rescue as many people as possible. And I thank them for their incredible efforts."

Senator Rockefeller goes on to say, "I'm working with state and federal officials to get as much information as possible and doing all I can to help make sure all resources are made available for this rescue effort."

Again, 6 dead, 21 unaccounted for as we show you the scene of this mine explosion this afternoon south of Charleston, West Virginia, in Raleigh County, at the Massey mine. Six dead, 21 unaccounted for. Local reports have said another 20 or so are being treated for injuries. And we spoke to a local television affiliate reporter a short time ago who said that he could still see ambulances going up the hillside near this coal mine.

We'll continue to track this story throughout the evening. We're going to take a quick break now. When we come back, we'll bring you a bit more.


KING: We told you at the top of this show about the big political debate. It's also an economic debate about expiring unemployment benefits for more than 200,000 Americans because the Congress couldn't reach agreement on extending them before lawmakers went home for their Easter recess.

We're going to take a closer look tonight. First, we're going to look at what's expiring beginning today. For some unemployed Americans, COBRA benefits expire. That's the health insurance program you can get when you lose your job and get laid off. You can keep a COBRA health insurance. For some today, those benefits are gone.

Flood insurance for some Americans also expired today because Congress didn't continue the money. And certain extended unemployment benefits.

Let's take a close look at that because we want to look at unemployment 101. If you lose your job, you initially get your unemployment benefits from the state -- usually up to 26 weeks of compensation. Then, if you've exhausted your state level benefits, you can get federal help getting unemployment benefits, especially if you live in a state where the overall unemployment rate is quite high.

Let's go state by state through this. And, look, if you come in first, you're in several tiers in the unemployment system. First, you get 20 weeks, then you get an additional 14 weeks of an extension, then you can qualify for 13 additional weeks of unemployment if you live in a state where the rate of unemployment is 6 percent or higher, which is much of the United States right now.

And then there's even tier four, six additional week on top of that, if your state has an unemployment rate of 8.5 percent or higher. And again, many states do. Let's look at the highest states right now. Here's the top six states plus the District of Columbia. Michigan, for example, 14.1 percent unemployment. It's 12.5 percent out in California. You see Nevada, South Carolina, 12 percent in Rhode Island, 12 percent in the District of Columbia and Florida as well.

Those losing their benefits today include 13,000 people in Michigan, about 2,100 out in California, a smaller number in Nevada. The highest number in a state we've seen so far, nearly 24,000 in Florida. The District of Columbia, 1,000 people's benefit expires today, and a little more than 100 up in Rhode Island.

Overall, 212,459 saw their benefits expire today.

Again, the Congress says it will fix this when it comes back. And the leaders of both parties are saying those who lost their benefits should get retroactive checks. But until that happens, a huge political debate on the floor of the United States Senate. Just before lawmakers went home, the Democrats blamed the Republicans.


SEN. BYRON DORGAN (D), NORTH DAKOTA: There are a whole lot of people in this country that are unemployed. And if ever there was a need to extend unemployment insurance, it is now.


KING: The key Republicans went to the floor as well, saying, we had a deal to give that extension but the House Democratic leadership wouldn't go along.


SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: The legitimate debate is whether we borrow and steal from our kids or we get out of town and send the bill to our kids for something that we're going to consume today.


KING: And if you think this is only a debate here in Washington, D.C., think again. We'll show you a snippet now on the floor of the Tennessee legislature.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do you suggest people eat?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, I think we all need to, as best you can, find new jobs, I suggest.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But I can tell you -- and that's real funny.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't mean for it to be funny. I never did. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I'm not talking to you. I'm talking to the peanut gallery.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If there are no jobs available -- and I can tell you, from the people that are getting calls at the Department of Labor, that they are looking for employment and jobs aren't there.


KING: So you see that fight at the state level as well. This debate is rippling through our politics. Let's see again as we close, just give you a caption, unemployment 101. There are 15 million Americans unemployed right now. About 11.5 million of those receive jobless benefits of some sort. The average unemployment period, this is stunning, 32.1 weeks. And those who are on long-term unemployment, 44 percent end up in the long-term unemployment category. It's a stunning number. There again, we'll track the economic debate and the political debate. When we come back, more of our coverage of the tragedy in West Virginia, six miners dead, 21 unaccounted for. We'll get the latest as the hour continues.


KING: We're continuing to follow a breaking news story in West Virginia about 30 miles south of Charleston. An explosion at a coal mine there has killed at least 6 miners, 21 unaccounted for. Some reports from the scene suggest both fatality and those unaccounted for could run a little bit higher as we try to get more information from sources at the scene. I want to bring in our Bryan Todd who can take us through the history of this mine and its safety record -- Bryan.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, we do have information on three separate incidents over the past 12 years at this same mine, the upper big branch mine in West Virginia, three incidents that involved fatalities. In 1998, a worker was killed there when a support beam collapsed. Apparently, some material like cement mix and other things fell on him and killed him in that incident. 2001, another worker at the mine died after a portion of the roof fell in on him. In 2003, an electrician died after being electrocuted while repairing a shuttle car there. So, three separate incidents at this upper big branch mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia that involved fatalities over the past 12 years.

Now, we do have to say that Massey Energy Corporation, which is the company that runs the mine now, was not the operator of the mine in at least one of these. We're trying to kind of ascertain that information as we go. But we can tell you three separate incidents over the past 12 years which involve fatalities at this mine. In addition to the figures, you also just reported, John, about the six dead on the scene, 21 unaccounted for, we're also told that at least 20 are being treated at the scene for injuries, three (inaudible) there and at least one of them was transported via helicopter to a medical facility. So, that's what we know at this point. KING: And Brian, you've responded to a scene in the past when you've had an incident like this, tragedy at a mine. Help our viewers understand how uncertain it can be, because number one, the company and the first responders are focused mostly on trying to find those who might be hurt. And number two, this is all happening, much of this is happening out of your eye. You can't -- even if you're at the ground level at the mine, you're not at the shaft. You can't see what's happening underground. So, it's often a hectic and confusing situation.

TODD: That's absolutely right. We covered the 2006 collapse at the Sago mine in West Virginia. That was actually an explosion that led to the deaths of 12 miners. Then you're right, John, each time both in that incident and in one in 2007 in Utah, when a mine collapsed there killing several miners. You were not allowed here at the mine. You had to kind of get information in dribs and drabs. There were different ways within which rescuers try to get to the miners. Sometime, they have to go into the top of the mountain and drill down. Other times, they have to go in other ways.

The rescue operations are very, very dangerous themselves at the Utah mine collapse in 2007, six people were killed just trying to rescue the miners who were trapped. So, these incidents are very, very fluid. It's hard to get information. These places are had to get to. They're way, and you know, deep in the mountains, as you know. So, it's a very difficult situation for everyone involved.

KING: We'll continue to track it. Brian, thank you for that. We'll continue to track this. We should know we have a CNN satellite truck on the way there as well. As Brian noted, often hard to get information and often information in the early hours after one of these is conflicting information because people are rushing. Again, we do know 6 killed, 21 unaccounted for, and at least 20 treated for injuries at the scene of this mine explosion. You see Google earth bringing you into it there now in West Virginia. It's about 30 miles in Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston. We'll continue to track the story as we go ahead, and now, we're going to take a quick break.


KING: Three men who broke barriers were front and center today.

One is our president, the first African-American to win the White House. On his schedule today, throwing out the first pitch at Nationals Park.

Two is Tiger Woods, an African-American sports icon who also shattered racial barriers in becoming one of the world's most marketable brands.

Three is Michael Steele, the first African-American Republican National Committee chairman and a man who said -- who says he's held to a different standard because he's black.

Here to go one-on-one with us is a man who shattered a huge barrier in American politics.

L. Douglas Wilder is the first African-American elected governor in the United States and he did it in the capital of the Confederacy, Virginia.

Governor Wilder, thanks for joining us.

L. DOUGLAS WILDER (D), FORMER VIRGINIA GOVERNOR: John, as always, good to be with you, good friend.

KING: I want to start with Michael Steele, because when you were actively involved in elected politics, you faced a lot of questions about the role of race, the role of your skin color. Sometimes it helped you. Sometimes it may have hurt.

I want you to listen to Chairman Steele this morning.

As you know, there has been a controversy about spending at the National Committee, whether he has managed the money of the committee in a diligent manner.

And George Stephanopoulos asked him this morning this question.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST: As an African-American, you have a slimmer margin for error than another chairman would.



STEELE: It just is. It's that -- Barack Obama has a slimmer margin. We all -- a lot of folks do. It means a different role for -- for, you know, for me to play and others to play. And that's just the reality of it. I mean that -- but you take that as part of -- part of the nature of it.


KING: Do you buy that, Governor?

Does Michael Steele have a slimmer margin because of the color of his skin?

WILDER: I don't buy it at all and George Stephanopoulos led him along that primrose path that Michael (INAUDIBLE)...

KING: I should say, George was asking an e-mail question.

I don't mean to interrupt. But George was asking a question that was e-mailed in by a viewer, so it wasn't just George.

WILDER: Yes, I understand. I understand.

KING: All right.

WILDER: But he should never have responded that way. He has broken the barriers. He's gotten the job. Do the job. Don't complain about what people say about you. Accentuate your -- accentuate your positives. And -- and never complain about how people regard you.

You're absolutely right, people have said any numbers of things about me when I was governor, and sometimes afterward, and -- and that will continue. And yet, no one was prouder than I was of the state of Virginia and the Commonwealth and the people who said we have enough confidence in this guy to make him the first governor ever elected to that position.

And I -- I can't tell you what that means. I have never used race as a badge nor a barrier. And I would hope that Michael understands that he speaks for a lot of people and a lot of people are looking and watching.

I watched Tiger Woods today, as well.

KING: Well, you say...

WILDER: And...

KING: Let me -- let me stop you on that point, then.

You say you watched Tiger Woods today. I want to hear your thoughts. But I also -- I want to hear them after we play for our viewers one snippet.

Tiger Woods is going to play in the Masters. It's his first return after five months away from golf because of personal problems and his car accident and then all the revelations about behavior that he says is reprehensible -- Tiger Woods says.

Here's one of the things he said today at Augusta National.


TIGER WOODS, PROFESSIONAL GOLFER: I lied to a lot of people, deceived a lot of people, kept others in the dark, rationalized, you know, and -- and even lied to myself. And -- and that's -- when you -- when you strip all of that away, you start realizing you're -- you know, when I stripped all that away and then started realizing what I had done.


KING: You say you watched, Governor.

What was your impression of the apology and the Q&A?

WILDER: My impression was that he finally came forth and told the American people that he was sorry, he blew it, he was wrong and he apologized. He didn't dress it up. He didn't say anyone was picking after him.

First of all, I liked what he said about his fellow players. He apologized for the distractions accorded them and the fact that they've had to answer so many questions relative to what he was doing.

Yes, he's broken barriers. But this day will help him make greater contributions. That's why whenever you're a first and whenever you have seen these badges of race, that is something that you have to wear proudly and wear proudly to the extent that you don't let it become a distraction, you don't let people say, well, you should -- should be treated differently.

If Michael Steele were to say what Tiger Woods said, there are things that have gone on in this administration of mine that I have not done as I should have done, I apologize for them, I want to correct them and I will do everything I can to do that -- and it has nothing to do with race. It has to do with the perception that I haven't done my job as the chairman of this party.

That's what he needs to do. And if he doesn't do that, he will cause irreparable damage to his party and it will damage his legacy as a chairman. And I hate to see that happen to him, because I know him and he's a decent guy.

KING: Let me ask you, in closing, give some advice for the president of the United States.

In this town now, there's a big debate. The president got health care through the Congress. The Democrats believe that's a victory for them. Republicans, of course, see it differently. But in the White House, in this mid-term election year, they face a choice now -- do you try to go big in the final months of the year and ask the Congress to do another big issue -- maybe it's climate change, maybe it's immigration reform -- or, knowing that it will probably be a tough year, do you trim your sails, focus just on the economy and leave those other issues for after the elections?

What would Doug Wilder do?

WILDER: John, I've been listening to you talk about the unemployment benefits, people needing jobs, listening to the people on the floor in the Tennessee legislature.

What's uppermost in the minds of the American people today are jobs, number one; jobs, number two; the economy, number one; the economy, number two.

That's the focus that this president needs now to make certain that he lets the people of America know he's listening to them. Many of them didn't want this as the number one priority, in terms of health care. They wanted jobs. And they want the economy.

Let him return to that and give all of his energies that he can to let these people believe that there's hope and there's reason to believe that he listened to them not only when he was running for the office, but he's listening to them now. KING: Doug Wilder, the former governor of Virginia.

Governor, always a pleasure to talk to you.

Take care, sir.

WILDER: Always good.

Thank you so much.

KING: Thank you, sir.

When we come back, the latest on the mine explosion in West Virginia, including we'll get on the phone, the senator for West Virginia, Democrat Jay Rockefeller. Stay with us.


KING: Latest now on tonight's breaking news in West Virginia. Six miners are confirmed dead, at least 20 are injured, and 21 others unaccounted for this hour after an explosion inside a coal mine this afternoon. This all happened at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Whitesville. That's in Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston.

With us on the phone is Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Senator, thank you for joining us. Most of all, I'm hoping that perhaps you have more updated information, because what worries me about this story as we've been saying now for some time, 21 unaccounted for, and we've been unable to get an update.

ROCKEFELLER: And John, that tragically is the history, especially the early first several hours of history of a mine explosion like this.

It's two parts. The overwhelming part is the personal, which is the loss of those who are already gone. The fear of those who are trapped, whatever word you want to use, and not knowing what their situation is. And the grieving that's going on, and people not yet able to get to them. Sometimes churches are very, very good at that. Families and communities are always very, very good at that.

And there's the other side, which is the professional. Which is what counts so much right now, and that is as you yourself have reported, there are mine rescue teams from Boone and Kanawha and Raleigh counties that are already in there helping.

Mine rescue operations in West Virginia are incredibly aggressive, but like all the rest of us, they have to fight their way through the fog. We don't know what obstructions they're running into. Sometimes it's hard for them to get to a mine. Sometimes the traffic at the mine blocks them from getting where they need to know. It's a horrible, horrible process, but it's -- they're doing the best they can, and that's really all we have at this time.

KING: And, Senator, help our viewers who might not understand the state as well as you do. When you look at the map and you know exactly where this mine is, in terms of the resources valuable -- we know, as you noted, local counties have sent in first responders. In terms of distance to competent, qualified hospitals and the like, put this into context for us.

ROCKEFELLER: It's hard. West Virginia as a state and particularly that part of the state is at the most 4 percent flat land, and everything else mountain. And so that means that you have these winding roads and communities spread across all of this area. And then a tragedy of this sort and all kinds of new equipment, big equipment, not being sure exactly what they are going to have to do, descend on this community, on this mine. And, you know, getting to a hospital is tough.

Getting the people out obviously is the problem now. You have those who have already died. I doubt that they're already out. They may be confirmed dead, but that doesn't mean that they're out. The others that are trapped in there, what does that mean? Why are they trapped? How long will that be?

You will remember a number -- several years ago, the Sago mine disaster in another part of West Virginia. That's been part of our history. The tragedies that take place in the mining of coal. And it brings out the best of West Virginia, which is the response of our people, the professionalism of our mine rescue teams, and also the worst of our, so to speak, situation, which is nothing but mountains, nothing but winding roads, nothing but impassable traffic situations.

And therefore, for a period of time there's chaos, but it sorts itself out. People stay up 48, 36, three days, four days, five days without going to sleep until the work is done. The commitment to get the people out is unassailable. The sadness is unspeakable. Sadness is absolutely unspeakable. Pictures become really important.

KING: Senator, I'm going to ask you if you can to stay with us for just a few moments. We want to try to gather some additional information. We also need to work in a quick break before the top of the hour. If you could stay with us for just a minute, we'll get back to you right on the other side of this break.

ROCKEFELLER: Of course I will.

KING: Thank you, Senator. We'll be right back.


KING: Again, we're continuing to track a breaking news story in West Virginia. Six miners confirmed dead, at least 21 are injured, and 21 more unaccounted for after an explosion this afternoon at a coal mine. The mine is just south of Charleston, West Virginia, in Raleigh County, about 30 miles south. A spokesperson at the Charleston Area Medical Center, which is being prepared to receive injured miners, tells CNN there are as many as 28 people are unaccounted for. At least 20 ambulances and three helicopters were dispatched from surrounding counties. This happened at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Whitesville, again, that's Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston.

Let's continue our conversation on the phone with Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Senator, at the scene, we heard first 21 unaccounted for. One of the hospitals saying perhaps 28 unaccounted for. That is sadly not unusual in a situation like this. You often get conflicting information, because those on the scene are focused first and foremost on trying to find people and help people.

But one of the things that strikes me and one of the reasons we've wanted to stay with this story is, it's been a couple of hours now since the numbers haven't changed much, which usually is, forgive me to say this, usually gets alarming.

ROCKEFELLER: Yes, it does. And -- but it's not unusual. And one of the problems is that, you know, somebody will come out and report that so many are missing and so many are trapped, the number will go up, the number will go down. People believe only the bad news, and so often they turn out to be right. You don't know what caused it. You don't know what happened. You don't know what to do. And inside that mine and around that mine, there is chaos.

There are professional people, there are family members all mixed up in this -- in this sort of swirl of activity of professional and personal love. But until you know something, it's best not to say more, because all you do is exacerbate the fears. I've seen that work. I've seen what it can do. It can send people shrieking, you know, this way or that way. And so sticking with facts as they become available.

It's three and a half hours. It seems like a long time, John -- actually it's not in terms of a mine disaster of this scope. This is as large as anything I can remember almost going back to Farmington back in the '70s, if it pans out that the figures that you and I are hearing are correct.

KING: In the time we have left, Senator, we have a little more than a minute left before the top of the hour. Help us understand. You mentioned Farmington. This is a way of life and you know it better than anyone, that goes back generations. But how has technology changed what is happening at that mine right now as opposed to if this were happening 20, 30, or 40 years ago, in terms of have there been technological advances that would be helping the people doing the Lord's work right now?

ROCKEFELLER: There have been enormous technological advantages. But if you got into -- and I'm not saying that there is involved something like methane, then the technology doesn't make any difference. The force of the explosion, was there -- was the -- was -- were there -- was the air vents -- were they cut? Was the ceiling of the mine, was that blasted through? All of that makes critical differences. All of that is now clouded in smoke and people groping to find their way.

Even something like putting a steel rope, which is now a federal law, so that miners in the mine, in the dust, in the dark, can just hold onto that steel wire and walk their way out, if possible. But if they're injured, obviously, they can't. So I'm afraid we're in for a fairly long night and maybe more than that. And we have to steel ourselves for that.

KING: Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia. Senator, we're grateful for your time tonight. We will continue to track this story throughout the day. Six miners killed, 21 unaccounted for, 20 or so more injured in Raleigh County, south of Charleston, West Virginia. CNN will stay on top of this story. We turn our coverage over right now to Campbell Brown in New York -- Campbell.