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PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT

Interview With Prince Alwaleed bin Talal; The Gang of Six Plan

Aired July 21, 2011 - 21:00   ET

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


PIERS MORGAN, CNN HOST: Tonight a live exclusive with the man that some say owns America -- Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

The single largest foreign investor of some of this country's biggest corporations, including Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. I'll ask him about that scandal, America's economy, and revolution in the Middle East.

Also tonight.

SEN. HARRY REID (D). MAJORITY LEADER: Time is of the essence. We are running out of time.

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), MAJORITY LEADER: If the United States of America's debt rating gets downgraded, every interest rate in America will go up.

MORGAN: Two senators, a Democrat and a Republican, who think they've found a way out of this country's $14 trillion debt crisis.

And a man who has strong opinions on just about everything, from Casey Anthony to President Obama, to Harry Potter and the space shuttle. What will he say tonight? I'll ask the opinionated new voice of "The New York Times."

This is PIERS MORGAN TONIGHT.

Good evening. "TIME" magazine calls Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal the Arabian Warren Buffett. He owned big chunks of Apple, Citigroup and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. And when he talks, the business world listens.

Tonight Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal joins me live from his hotel, the Four Seasons, (INAUDIBLE) in Paris where he's on vacation, to share his unique perspective on America's debt, on the Middle East, and on the News Corp scandal.

Your royal highness, thank you very much for joining me. Let me start right from the top by asking you for your impression of America's economy right now.

Where do you think it is? Where can it get to? And what is your advice to the guys in Washington about how to get America incorporated back on its feet? HRH PRINCE ALWALEED BIN TALAL, CHAIRMAN, KINGDOM HOLDING COMPANY: It's a pleasure to be on your show, my friend Piers.

As for the U.S. economy, as we all know, that the 2nd of August is nearing very fast, and it's very important for the members of Congress and the president of the United States, Obama, to reach a conclusion as swiftly as possible because the budget deficit in the United States and the cumulative debt and the raising of the debt ceiling, it does not only impact the United States economy but also impacts the whole world economies.

So it's very important for the U.S. Congress, represented by the Senate and the House of Representatives, and by President Obama, to come close together and to finish it -- to finish an agreement as soon as possible.

And frankly speaking, the so-called Gang of Six should be expanded to represent all the -- both the -- all the House's members and the Senate's members and reach a conclusion as quickly as possible.

MORGAN: What do you think has gone wrong with the American business model, and how can they fix it?

BIN TALAL: Well, it's very clear that the crisis that erupted in the United States, the financial crisis, three years ago, specifically in the summer of 2007 -- that's where the whole thing began -- showed that capitalism was -- went out of control. Greed played a role. Ignorance played a role. And very lax regulations did not help also.

All these matters came together and caused the world crisis in the financial arena. Clearly, this is behind us right now, and we hope some lessons have been learned whereby tighter regulations are needed, and hopefully greed will subside and lessons will be learned from what happened previously because we are on the brink of a meltdown completely in the financial system globally.

MORGAN: When you have a debt approaching $13 trillion and rising all the time and calls now for that debt ceiling to be risen again, surely it is now the time for the American administration to implement higher taxation, isn't it? I mean, you have to get more revenue back into the system.

BIN TALAL: It is very clear that the Republicans do not want to raise taxes. And clearly, President Obama and the Democrats would like to have an element of taxing -- of taxes to be raised. Clearly, cutting spending is very important. Clearly, attaching entitlement, whether it's Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, are going to have to happen.

But inevitably some kind of taxation, of -- or raising of taxation, has to happen. And I hope that before the deadline, which is 2nd of August, an agreement is reached because really this is a time bomb. You cannot play with fire. This is -- this is too important, too crucial for the world economies. And frankly speaking of the 2nd August deadline is not met by an agreement between both Republicans and Democrats, the president of the United States, and both chambers of the United States -- the Senate and the House of Representatives, this will be playing with fire and taking this to brinkmanship, which is very dangerous.

MORGAN: One of the companies you have a big stake in is Apple, of course. Steve Jobs has done an extraordinary job there. Their recent profits were just astronomical again.

Obviously, they're a big global company and they've aggressively marketed in countries all over the world. Do you think America's doing enough of that? I mean do you think it's time they went back to designing, creating, and building things that they can sell to the world exactly as Apple is doing so successfully?

BIN TALAL: Well, clearly Apple is a role model of the American innovation whereby it produced all these products -- iPod, iPhone, iPad -- that are really now dominating all the technology arena in the world. Clearly, Apple is a role model, and I believe the United States, with all its problems, is down but for sure is not out.

But I hope that an awakening happens in the United States whereby to go back to the roots of the main success of America, which is innovation and encouraging more ideas and more thoughts to be integrated in the -- U.S. system.

MORGAN: Are you concerned at all about the succession plans at Apple given the ongoing situation involving Steve Jobs' health?

BIN TALAL: Well, clearly, as we have read recently in the board of directors over there, has begun looking and talking about succession. And any company successfully is measured by the -- by the succession plan that it has.

No company should depend on one person no matter how that person is smart or genius, whether it's Apple or News Corp, or Citibank or any other company in the world. And I believe that Apple will survive. Clearly, we still hope that Mr. Jobs, who is my friend -- I know him very well. I hope that he will continue there as long as possible.

But nevertheless, plans have to be put in motion just in case things do happen, like any other company in the world.

MORGAN: You mentioned News Corporation. They're obviously at the center of this huge scandal that's still erupting around the world, involving the activities of the "News of the World" in particular.

When you look at the structure of the News Corporation, you talked there about succession plan for Apple. Are you concerned about the future of the Murdoch family in relation to News Corporation? Are you happy with the way things are?

BIN TALAL: Well, you know, News Corp is the only real media global -- that has a global presence that's involved in TV production, in movies, in publishing, in newspapers, digital media, et cetera. So for a company like that to function, clearly it does not depend only on Rupert Murdoch or James Murdoch. Clearly, as a CEO, you have other functions that are managed by other people.

I'm not worried about that at all because I do interact a lot with News Corp, and I see a lot of depths at the management level at all levels.

MORGAN: What mistakes do you think they've made managerially in handling the scandal? Because the one thing everyone seems to be in agreement about is that they haven't handled it very well.

BIN TALAL: Well, you know News Corp is a conglomerate that is really so diverse that it's available in five continents. And if you take only the newspaper arena between -- among the United States, UK, Australia, and other countries, you have hundreds of newspapers that have been published.

Clearly, "News of the World" in the UK went out of control, and the lesson learned here is that Mr. Rupert Murdoch, James Murdoch, and the management and board of directors there, they have to have more stringent rules and regulations. They have to tighten the boss a lot more internally, and they have to have some independent committees to manage the process.

And I believe all this is in motion already. And there are lessons to be learned there. Thanks god that "News of the World" represents only 1 percent, as Mr. Rupert Murdoch said in the latest hearings, of the conglomerate which is News Corp., which has been shut down now.

But I hope that this thing will not be -- will not affect the other entities that belong to News Corp.

MORGAN: You were very supportive after the parliamentary hearings of both Rupert and James Murdoch's testimony. There are questions tonight about some of that testimony, the former editor of "News of the World" and the legal manager have both claimed that James Murdoch misled parliament in relation to some of the things he was saying.

Does James and Rupert both retain your full support?

BIN TALAL: I went public by supporting Mr. Rupert and Mr. James after the hearings because I know them very well. I know Mr. Rupert since 20 years. I know James more than five years ago, and I know them of being of high integrity, honesty, and honor.

And I take their word for granted in front of the UK parliament represented by the Culture Committee. But at the end of the day, we have to let the investigation process take its procedure, and we have to see where this ends. So let's not anticipate what the investigation will come up with, and we have to wait for that.

MORGAN: We're going to have a short break now, your highness. When we come back, I want to talk to you about the Middle East, about the extraordinary uprisings in that region this year that we've seen so far, and Saudi Arabia's role in all this, which is obviously crucial.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: My guest Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal.

Prince Alwaleed, what have you made of this extraordinary year for the region, the Middle East. I mean we first saw Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, dictators being toppled, uprisings driven by young people, better educated, restless, and demanding better from their leaders.

What did you make of it from Saudi Arabia?

BIN TALAL: Well, it's very clear that the Arab population is rising because they'd like to have a say in the running of their affairs, running of their government, and this is very legitimate.

With the globalization of the world, the world is getting too small, and they see what's happening all over the -- all over the world from the openness point of view, from the democracy, freedom of speech, liberty, freedom of press, and I'd like -- they would like to have the same thing.

And I think what happened in Egypt, Tunisia, what's happening right now in Yemen, what's happening in Syria are all -- and Libya are all indications of what that world needs, and I believe it's very important for the Arab rulers in all the remaining countries, the 18 countries, excluding these four that have erupted already, to re-take lessons and begin putting some actions in motion like the king of Monaco has done recently, whereby he's heading very much closer to being a constitutional monarchy.

We're not calling all the monarchies to be pretty close to being a constitutional monarchies, but it's very important to enact some rules and regulations whereby the population and the people will begin thinking in different terms, learning being the subject of the people -- of the countries to be the people of their nation.

MORGAN: Obviously, Saudi Arabia is a crucial part of that region and one of the wealthiest countries. People are saying, come on, Saudi Arabia, this is the time to listen to your people, to bring in more freedom, to let the young people have their say as they have in other countries there.

Are Saudi leaders, are they frightened by what they're seeing in other territories? Are they excited? I know that you yourself have been pretty progressive in this area. How would you say the mood is in Saudi Arabia about what's going on?

BIN TALAL: Thanks god Saudi Arabia is very stable. Having said that, we cannot be isolated from what's happening around us. It's very important to take proactive role. Clearly, King Abdullah has taken many decisions to rectify the defects or the problems they had on the social front, which is very good and important. However, it's very important to have some other steps on the political front, such as electing members of our Ashura, which is really equivalent to parliament, and to have ladies participate more in the system.

We heard a lot lately about the right of women to drive in Saudi Arabia. I think the issue is a lot more deeper than having ladies only drive the cars. We need ladies to have their equal rights like men. So I believe that King Abdullah is seeing what's happening around him, and I hope that some new rules and regulations will be enacted before it's too late.

MORGAN: Well, hearing such a high profile Saudi talking about women having equal rights is a pretty extraordinary thing, Prince Alwaleed. I mean you are a pretty lonely voice, I would say, in terms of people of your profile.

Are you pushing your colleagues there in government to be as progressive as you've just been sounding?

BIN TALAL: I don't agree I'm a lonely voice because all what I tell you right now, my friend Piers, I say that in public in Saudi Arabia, and the majority of Saudis are with me. Had this been a very lonely voice, I would have been attacked by so many. But the e-mails, the faxes, the letters, the phone calls, the SMS that I get from the majority of Saudi upper class, middle class, low class, are -- it's very encouraging.

Maybe a very small minority in Saudi Arabia is against what I'm saying, but the vast majority is with me. So I think I have a lot of tailwind behind me, and guess what? I'm going to use that and leverage it to the maximum.

MORGAN: You've been very vocal about the real sort of pivotal part of the Middle East peace process being obviously Israel and Palestine. It's got to get fixed. In terms of Saudi's role with terrorism and with al Qaeda, do you think that Saudi should be harder and tougher against Islamic fundamentalism than it has been?

BIN TALAL: Well, you know, I'm a member of the royal family but not a member of the government. So I speak very openly and freely. Saudi Arabia has done an excellent job on that front. King Abdullah has really flushed, and his government flushed out many of those terrorists that are in Saudi Arabia also.

You know, in Saudi Arabia there were many terrorist acts. My tower in Saudi Arabia, which is the highest priced tower in the Middle East, was under threat for two times, and people had to be evacuated from there. But the last two, three years, you have witnessed no terrorist act in Saudi Arabia.

So we have been very successful in flushing out those terrorists and preempting all their strikes. So Saudi Arabia is doing an excellent job frankly on that front. So whenever Saudi Arabia does a good job, I have to praise them. And whenever Saudi Arabia and the government doesn't do a good job, I'll criticize them like on the front of women's rights, for example.

MORGAN: What about Colonel Gadhafi? Do you think it's time that he just stood down now?

BIN TALAL: Well, I think that Colonel Gadhafi's days are really numbered. I don't think he can survive what's happening in his country. And clearly, the rebellion is moving and closing on Tripoli, and it's very important for him to accept a reality right now and just stop the bloodshed there and retire in Libya, as my friend President Sarkozy recommended to him just 24 hours ago.

MORGAN: And finally, Prince Alwaleed, you were one of the guests at the royal wedding, Prince William and his wife Kate -- Catherine Middleton. They've just come on tour here as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Now what do you make of them as a couple and the impact they're now having globally?

BIN TALAL: Well, I think, you know, royalty in the UK is very popular, not only in United Kingdom but all the world, and I think that what's happening between the new couple is really a replica, a duplication what happened between Prince Charles and the late Princess Diana.

So I think what they're doing is a very good job to really encourage love and affection and getting communities closer to each other. And the latest visit to Canada was very successful.

MORGAN: And in Hollywood, in fact, they were a huge hit here.

BIN TALAL: Oh, yes, they will be a huge hit. I think the world looks for good positive couples like that.

MORGAN: Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, it's been a fascinating conversation. Thank you very much. I look forward to a longer interview with you and your wife, Princess Amira, in the fall, your first interview together. And I really appreciate your taking the time to talk with me.

BIN TALAL: It's a pleasure to be with you, and Princess Amira and I are looking forward to have a full hour with you, hopefully in the fall.

Thank you, Piers.

MORGAN: Looking forward to it. Thank you very much again.

Coming up, two senators who say they may have a way out of America's $14 trillion debt crisis.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want to congratulate the Gang of Six for coming up with a plan that I think is balanced. We just received it, so we haven't reviewed all the details of it. The problem we have now is we're in the 11th hour, and we don't have a lot more time left.

(END OF VIDEO CLIP)

MORGAN: That was President Obama talking on Tuesday about the Gang of Six and their plan to cut the deficit.

Joining me now, two members of that bipartisan group, Senator Kent Conrad and Senator Tom Coburn.

Senators, thank you so much for joining me. I know it's been a busy day.

SEN. KENT CONRAD (D), NORTH DAKOTA: Good to be with you.

SEN. TOM COBURN (R), OKLAHOMA: Good to be with you.

MORGAN: Where are we as things stand?

CONRAD: Well, I think it's clear that we don't know. There's been a negotiation at the White House that we've not been a direct part of, and we had a meeting scheduled with our leaders for 5:00, and they were called to the White House. So I don't think we'll know the full details until later tonight or perhaps in the morning.

What I'm hopeful of is that we do have a deal that changed the trajectory of our debt in a way that's responsible and balanced and that can pass.

MORGAN: Let me ask both of you. The recent polls suggest that the American public are now pretty clear about what they're prepared to accept. They want a cut in spending, and they're prepared to accept some tax increases, and they're prepared for the debt ceiling to be raised.

Would you both concur that that is where we are now in terms of public opinion?

COBURN: It depends on whether you -- how you raise revenue, I think. I think there's no question that the American people want us to cut spending. I think there's no question they want the debt ceiling raised under conditions that we're actually going to solve the problem rather than kick the can down the road a little further.

And I think people will tolerate revenue increases as long as it's not a negative drag on the economy.

MORGAN: I mean, you know, is it the unthinkable still for the Republicans, this whole notion of tax increases? We saw Grover Norquist today flirting with the possibility that you could perhaps rethink things? I mean are we now in a position with the American economy where thinking the unthinkable has to be the way to go?

COBURN: What I think we have to do is we have to reform our tax code in a way that promotes economic growth and not just add tax increases on it to meet a certain number in the budget to say we got a deal. And I think Kent and I have all along pretty well agreed that you'll get a great -- if you actually lower the tax codes and eliminate some of the deductions and tax expenditures that are in there, that you'll see an economic revival and renewal that comes with it that will ultimately result in increased revenues coming to the federal government.

MORGAN: And, Senator Conrad, let me turn to you. Obviously, the fact it's a Gang of Six, it all sounds incredibly dynamic. Is it the start, do you think, of a new bipartisan atmosphere down in Washington? Because there's been so much hostility, so much, you know, outright raw fury from party to party.

The fact you've come together and you've put a proposal together which seems to have been the catalyst for what may well be a deal on this, is this a way of both parties saying, OK, things did get a bit out of hand?

CONRAD: I hope so. You know, look, that's what the country is asking for. They want us to work together. They want to get results. We're in a circumstance, as you know, where we're borrowing 41 cents of every dollar that we spend. Our spending is the highest it's been as a share of our economy in 60 years. The revenue is the lowest it's been as a share of our economy in 60 years.

So we're in a circumstance in which the debt is creating more and more weight on this economy. We have a gross debt of 100 percent of the size of our economy. If there was ever a time to come together, this is it. And I think our group demonstrated that you can have a principled compromise, one that does cut spending and reform entitlements.

And yes, reform the tax code to put our country in a stronger competitive position and that people on opposite sides of the aisle can actually come together for the good of the country.

MORGAN: Senator Coburn, we've seen a pretty special relationship developing here between President Obama and Speaker Boehner. Would you say that it was love on the golf course? Where are we going here?

COBURN: No. I'm a good friend of the president's. We have almost 100 percent disagreement on most things. But I love the man. I think he's a neat guy. And I had a good friendship with him in the Senate.

Let me comment back on what Kent was commenting. I think the partisanship is made worse by you all. I don't think the partisanship is as bad as it's portrayed in the press. We get along most of the time in the Senate. We just have frank differences of opinion on what's good for the country.

And that's not partisanship. That's long held, deep beliefs and difference of opinion. That's why Kent is where he is in his registration, and that's why I am where I am. So you all don't get to see the inner workings behind the scenes of the Senate. I think there's a ton of relationships between both sides of the party. And I just don't think it's near what you think it is.

I think having said that, this is a time -- our country's at risk. Our future's at risk. And if, in fact, we don't come together and make the hard choices and the sacrifices that are necessary, then we're all going to pay a very big price for that. And we will be responsible for that by not working together.

MORGAN: Senators, I would be delighted to come down to Washington and test your theory that all is now glowing in the garden.

CONRAD: Love to have you. Come on down.

MORGAN: I'll take you up on that. We can all have a cup of tea and chew the fat now that we're all getting on so famously. Thank you both very much.

COBURN: You're welcome.

MORGAN: Next, a man who has a lot to say about, well, just about everything. The very opinionated new voice of "the New York Times," Frank Bruni.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: In 16 years at "the New York Times," Frank Bruni has been Washington correspondent, the Rome bureau chief, restaurant critic, and, as of last month, the new op ed columnist. He's a man of strong opinions.

Frank Bruni joins me now. Frank, come on, which of all these myriad of roles that you've had have you most enjoyed, do you think?

FRANK BRUNI, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": This one's so new, I can't weigh in on it yet. But Rome bureau chief was a pretty nice gig.

MORGAN: Yeah, you're living in Rome, beautiful Italian women. What's not to love, huh?

BRUNI: The women wouldn't have done so much for me. But I like to look at beautiful things, period. But, you know, I had a reason, a charge to travel around one of the most beautiful countries in the world, to find interesting stories. I mean, I remember at one point doing a story on water cops in Venice cracking down on speeders, and spending a day just riding around in speed boats through the canals of Venice.

And I thought, it is kind of criminal I'm getting paid for this.

MORGAN: Obviously, you've got this incredibly wide ranging brief now. You've been writing about everything from the Shuttle to Harry Potter to gay marriage and so on. Do you like that kind of freedom, where you can literally choose anything that rocks your boat? BRUNI: You know, I do. I tend to have a real roving eye when it comes to public life. I'm very interested in politics. I'm a big movie buff. I'm a big reader. So for me, it's just -- it's the perfect thing to be able to flip from one subject to another because that's kind of the way my mind goes. It's the way I read the paper.

MORGAN: You're one of the first openly gay op-ed columnists that we've seen. It's no longer as shocking as it would have been 20 years ago. How has it gone down? What reaction do you get?

You wrote a fantastic piece about gay marriage the other day. I was particularly moved by what you said about your own father and how he dealt with you and your partner. How is that kind of column going down generally?

BRUNI: You know, I get -- where the world has changed so much, I get amazingly lovely e-mails from readers when I write about that topic. I also get some hate mail. Society hasn't come as far as a lot of us would like to see it travel. But the reception's been very, very warm.

It's a real privilege to be able to write about that issue as an openly gay man. It's funny, though. When we talked about me taking on an op-ed column, none of us sat around and said, hey, we'll have an openly gay columnist. And then that's the way it kind of got spun in the news. And that's fine.

But I think I'll be writing less often about gay issues than about other things.

MORGAN: What's your take on America right now? We had an interesting interview with Prince Alwaleed bin Talal from Saudi. We have talked to some senators. Obviously, America's got big problems. Let's just face up to this. It's in massive debt. You've got these no longer emerging countries, China and India are here, Brazil.

America's status as the sole super power is in real peril, isn't it?

BRUNI: It is. The world has changed a lot in that regard. And I think in some ways, it feels like we're at that pivot of empire moment, when the arc is a little downward.

I think there's a sort of dislocation and apprehension about that. That is one of the things being manifested in Washington, with all this bickering and all this gridlock.

We have got to become more mature in Washington, certainly. And we've got to become more reasonable if we're going to get through this moment and have a country as strong on the far side of it as we had coming into it.

MORGAN: I liked your column about the sort of lack of ambition when you see the space travel being dramatically reduced and that kind of dream ending. I think, when you and I were younger, you remember these amazing explorations into space. And they were fantastically ambitious and exciting. And they kind of motivated everybody.

What worries me about what's going on now is that everything's been cut back. The great aspiration that America always stood for doesn't seem to be there so much now. People aren't, I think, living that dream in the way they used to.

BRUNI: You know, the space program was always a great metaphor for our belief in this country, that we could do anything we set our minds to, that the future was going to be brighter than the past. What's really interesting, when you look at public opinion surveys and when you listen to people, is that sort of bedrock American belief that my kids will do better than I do, that's gone away.

And American confidence is on the wane. And I think what's happening in Washington right now is not helping that at all. It is compounding those fears and that anxiety greatly.

MORGAN: What's the answer, do you think, Frank? When you look at your country, you have a great platform to talk about all the problems. What's the answer?

BRUNI: Well part of the answer is an end to the kind of polarized politics and bickering that we have. I think when you talk to people, when you talk to your friends, everyone looks at what's going on in Washington with a significant measure of disgust.

The fact that we're coming this close to the deadline without any agreement about raising the debt ceiling, despite what the consequences of that would be, it's kind of surreal and mind boggling and nightmarish.

MORGAN: How much do you blame the American public for being reckless with their own spending?

BRUNI: We've all been reckless. The Baby Boomer generation has been reckless. But right now, I think the problem is in Washington and not elsewhere in the land.

Although, you know, when we go to the ballot box and we exert our will, we need to be grown up and informed and intelligent about that. But I think we all want a better caliber of politics than we get from Washington. And I don't think it's the American people's fault that what's going on in Washington right now has the kind of tenor it does.

MORGAN: Is President Obama lacking leadership, do you think?

BRUNI: I think he's trying very hard to lead right now. I'm a little confused about why he came into the picture so late. There's this recurring theme in his presidency. It was there also in his campaign, where he seems to kind of hold back and hold back, and then rush in at the final hour.

Maybe that was a smart strategy here. I don't think we'll really know how to evaluate it all until we see what the end result. But it did seem that for a long time, maybe too long a time, he was holding back and not coming in to kind of try to bring the parties together. I hope that that wasn't lost time that's going to make a difference.

MORGAN: We're going to have a short break, Frank. When we come back, I'm going to talk to you about Casey Anthony, about Harry Potter, about restaurants. And I want to ask you the greatest meal you've ever had and the worst.

BRUNI: OK.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

MORGAN: Back with my guest, Frank Bruni. Frank, Harry Potter. I read your column about this saying you just didn't get it. I have never watched a single second of a Harry Potter movie. I've never read a word of any of the books. I just don't get it either.

Why is the world so obsessed with Harry Potter, if you and I, two reasonably intelligent individuals, have this completely passing us by?

BRUNI: You know, we're the two individuals who can't answer that because we haven't read or watched Harry Potter. So we can't analyze the charm of it. I wrote about that because it's just weird, as you know, in terms of Harry Potter, to stand to the side of a cultural phenomenon like that.

I think there are a lot f other phenomena, you know, whether it's "The Sopranos" at a given moment in time, "Seinfeld," "Mad Men," for a certain group of people. And I wanted to explore in that column how odd it is to hear everyone around you getting so enthusiastic about something and to kind of not really know what they're talking about.

MORGAN: Talking about phenomena, were you disgusted or curious or sort of bemused by the whole Casey Anthony trial? It became such a weird thing for me to observe when you see people fighting for tickets in the morning in the cues outside the courtrooms in the morning, as if it's some kind of form of entertainment. What was your take on it?

BRUNI: You know, I tuned into it kind of late. And when I did, I was shocked that it was getting as much attention as it did. I think there's something that really rattles people about the prospect of a mother hurting her own child. I think, for complicated reasons that are in some ways sexist, we don't get as upset or as shocked when it's a father.

I think some of the details of that story were so gripping that people just got very involved in it. I don't understand quite what would bring you to line up hours in advance to watch a trial, but some people felt that moved by it.

MORGAN: You were pretty tough on Nancy Grace, my colleague over at HLN. You said this, "she doesn't serve the cause of victims with the kind of histrionics she showed towards Casey Anthony. She serves the cause of Nancy Grace."

Is that what you feel?

BRUNI: To me, when I watch her, her degree of hyperbole and hysteria doesn't feel to me like passion on behalf of victims solely. It feels to me like great manufactured theater.

I don't know Nancy Grace, so I'm just saying -- I'm just giving you my interpretation of when I watch her what I think.

I think it's TV. Apologies, but you want viewers. You want to get viewers. That degree of hysteria attracts viewers.

I think the law and trials are about reason triumphing over passion. And Nancy Grace is about passion utterly obliterating reason.

MORGAN: Let's talk food.

BRUNI: I'd love to.

MORGAN: Because you became the most notorious feared man in the world of restaurant critiques. You would scurry around without people knowing who you were, and then either bury places or praise them. Fantastic reputation you had.

Did you enjoy it? Or does it become an awful chore? You suffered from various eating disorders while you were doing this. Do you regret ever getting involved in restaurant critique?

BRUNI: No, no, it was a fantastic job. At a certain point, it, like anything else, becomes a job. When you have to eat out without choice seven nights a week and you are governed by this elaborate reservation book, it does become somewhat difficult.

But of all the things one does for work, having to go to restaurant and sit there with friend and eat and drink wine, it's very, very hard to complain about that.

MORGAN: You say that, but I've read some of your reviews. You had to go to some absolute stinkers. I can't think of anything better than going to a great restaurant with friends. But going to a complete turkey and having to sit there eating inedible food, with terrible wine, that's my idea of absolute hell. So I'm not sure I really agree with you.

BRUNI: It's a hell that expires quickly. It's a hell that you can redeem in the sense of writing some memorable copy about that hell. So there's always that consolation prize.

It's a lot easier and more fun to write a scathing review than to write -- it's easier to describe hell and discomfort than euphoria.

MORGAN: What was the single best meal you've ever had in a restaurant?

BRUNI: You know, I get asked that --

MORGAN: You have to answer.

BRUNI: The single best meal I've ever had in a restaurant, I'm going to surprise you. It's not about the greatness of the restaurant. But every Christmas Eve for many years, when my parent lived in Southern California, we would go to the same restaurant, the six of us, my two brothers, my sister, my parents.

And we would have this grand long meal. It was just -- the fact that it was Christmas Eve, being with family, the fact that we were known there, we were welcomed in a special way -- I think the best meals of your life are ultimately not about the food on the plate. They're really about whom you're eating them with.

And my mother, who was with us then, passed away. And so maybe that makes it all nostalgia seem even more sweet. But I remember that restaurant and those meals more than any other.

The restaurant's long gone, by the way.

MORGAN: Yeah. If you could -- I love that story. But if you could only choose one existing American restaurant for your last meal, what would it be?

BRUNI: Existing American restaurant for my last meal? I don't know. I haven't been there in years, so I don't know if it's as good as it used to be. And my successor, Sam Sifton (ph), who is a terrific restaurant critic, recently downgraded it from the estimation I'd given years ago.

But I had an amazing meal right here in the Time Warner center at a restaurant called Mazza, which is unconscionably expensive. Have you eaten there?

MORGAN: Yeah. It's fantastic.

BRUNI: I mean, when someone's making you every piece of sushi or literally kind of constructing it for you, handing it to you, one after the other, so everything is the perfect temperature, everything is perfectly seasoned, there's a kind of decadence involved in that that feels to me like it would be an appropriate death bed meal decadence.

MORGAN: You've written this book "Born Round," a big best seller, a story of family, food, and a ferocious appetite. Do you still have a ferocious appetite? Or did it get quenched by al this gorging over the years?

BRUNI: I would love to say that the five and half years as restaurant critic put me off food and now I have to force myself to eat. Unfortunately that's not one of the case. I'm one of these people who has had to wrestle with my love of food my whole life.

There have been long periods of my life where it got the better of me. There was a period when I was covering the White House and President Bush, when I was about 60 pound heavier than I am now. It is a constant lifelong struggle for me to control my appetite.

I think it is for a lot of people. One of the reasons I wrote that book is because so many of us who review restaurants or live in a world -- there I am at a heavier weight. So many of us who write about our love of food write about it in a purely romantic way.

I think it's important at times to acknowledge that you can overdo it with food, that it can get the better with you and that you need to really work at managing your consumption.

MORGAN: Has it helped you giving up the restaurant critiques?

BRUNI: Oddly, it has hurt me. I've probably gained weight since I gave it up. When I was the restaurant critic, I was in such constant terror because I could never go on a full-fledged diet, that I would spin out of control, that I was much better about portion size. I was more religious about exercise.

So, if anything, leaving the restaurant critic job has been more difficult on the fitness weight front than being in it.

MORGAN: Go on a final break and come back and talk to you about Washington, whether you miss it or whether you miss it like a hole in the head.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MORGAN: Back with my guest Frank Bruni. Frank, unbelievably, having escaped from Washington after covering the Bush campaign in 2000, you're going back in. Are you mad?

BRUNI: Well, no, I still live here in New York and I spend most of my time here. But I like getting back to D.C. D.C.'s a great story. It's always a great story.

And I think it's impossible as a journalist not to feel a pull to Washington and not to want to spend a little time there writing about it.

MORGAN: But isn't it a bit like Al Pacino in "Scarface" when he says "they're suck me back in." Do you feel like it's this terrible thing, like an addiction?

BRUNI: No, it's a whole -- I was in Washington last -- I lived there from 1998 to 2002, before I went to Rome. It's a different cast of players now. It's a much different story line.

It's a much, much different moment in the nation's history. So, in a way, it all feel totally new.

MORGAN: Which of all the Republican candidates has caught your eye, do you think? Do you see a potential winner in a race against President Obama?

BRUNI: I think any smart better right now would have to say it's going to be Mitt Romney. That may not be a sexy answer. I know that if you talk to people in the White House, they assume it's going to be Mitt Romney. I think we'll have a lot of great storytelling, a lot of great characters will come and go and leap to the foreground.

I think you just showed some footage of Michele Bachmann. She has certainly provided journalists like myself with a great amount of terrific copy. I think at the end of the day, it's going to be the predictable outcome, which is going to be Romney versus Obama.

A lot could change. Elections, a lot changes. We can't see things coming down the road. If anyone was placing a bet right now, you'd have to bet on Romney.

MORGAN: Frank Bruni, it's been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much indeed. Hope to do it again soon.

BRUNI: Thanks for having me.

MORGAN: Now we go to John King, who is standing in for Anderson Cooper, "AC 360."