Return to Transcripts main page


President Obama's State of the Nation Address tonight; Mitt Romney Released his Tax Returns; Interview With White House Press Secretary Jay Carney; Devastating Alabama Tornado; Secret Kennedy Tapes Released; Was Gingrich Lobbying?

Aired January 24, 2012 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S THE SITUATION ROOM: To our viewers, happening now, the stage is set for a very important political speech by the president of the United States. Just four hours from now, the "State of the Union" address before a joint session of Congress. We'll tell you what we know.

A teenage girl, one of two people killed in devastating storms ravages the southeast. Now family and friends share the heart- wrenching story of a life cut dramatically short.

President Kennedy's last conversation before being assassinated, some of the secrets revealed for the first time in stunning new audio tapes.

Breaking news, political headlines and Jeanne Moos, all straight ahead. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in the SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: A big moment for President Obama, less than four hours from now, almost certain to kick the battle off for the White House. Some of the presidents aren't rivals in the race already dismissing the entire speech as nothing more than empty words.


MITT ROMNEY (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: High unemployment, record home foreclosures, debt that's too high, opportunities too few. This is the real state of our union, but you won't hear stories like those at president Obama's address tonight. The unemployed don't get tickets to sit next to the first lady.

NEWT GINGRICH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: About curious whether president will be willing to admit the following. Under his administration, the price of gasoline has doubled. Under his administration, the environmental protection agency has a proposal that will add another 25 cents a gallon to the price of gasoline.


BLITZER: But the reply balance blood certainly does stop there on Capitol Hill, one Republican congressman, Representative Doug Lamborn of Colorado, now going as far as not to attending the speech, the president what he calls a strong message opposing his policies.

Our chief White House correspondent Jessica Yellin and our chief political correspondent Candy Crowley, they're both standing by.

Jessica, first to you. What can we expect? What are you hearing that we will expect to hear from the president tonight?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, in this speech, the president will essentially put meat on the bones and also want to make candid speech, laying out specifically how he will enact the kind of fair shake economy, so to speak, that he talked about earlier in the December. That's what they are promising here at the White House and by his aides.

But, what the speech really is doing is framing his campaign message looking ahead to this election that we're facing. And the president's campaign believes this election cannot be a referendum on the president and his stewardship of the economy.

Instead, it has to be about two competing visions on how the middle class will fare in the future economy. One vision would be, in their view, a middle-class that would be governed by a Republican presidency in which so-called recklessness and the wealthy only get ahead, sort of the Wall Street vision. Versus a democratic vision, as they would paint it, where there's opportunity for all.

And so, tonight you will see the president attempt to outline a case in which he's defining those terms for the upcoming election debate.

BLITZER: Candy, what about the congressional Republicans? What are they saying about all this?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's them take everything that Jessica just said and just turn it on its head. And you will see the other side of this coin. Among those who had breakfast with the speaker this morning. He talked about the very thing that Jessica is talking about. They call it at the White House a fair shake.

What Republicans are saying is, look. This is the politics of division and envy pitting two classes of people against one another. Speaker Boehner said it's not going to work. Democrats have been trying to do it many years now over many, many campaigns. And he said, this no matter how much the president trying to make it something else. This is an election, a referendum on his policies, and the economy, so everything that the White House is trying to push, the Republicans are pushing back.

BLITZER: And tomorrow, the president will go to a three day tour. And Jessica, we can see in the locations where the president is going, we can read something into that, right?

YELLIN: Right. He's going to Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado. These are all - he is going to a five battle ground states. They have also states that have either suffered from very high unemployment or housing problems, with the foreclosure crisis. Or they've also seen some growth as a result of policies that he's enacted.

So he'll be able to push proposals that can help in the future, but he'll also I expect be able to or try to make a case that he's already helped the economy a bit and his aides believe that in his next campaign he has to just convince the voters that what he started is helping so that all they have to do is believe enough that it would help more in the future. So we can start again this week.

BLITZER: Candy, every president up for reelection, they always make a point of going to battleground states for non-politic -- so-called nonpolitical events.

CROWLEY: Yes, it's crazy. They always do. And look. You can call this what you want. Even if there is policy intent, there certainly is political implication. And there's just no denying that. So the fact of the matter is I counted up these states, 48 electoral votes, where he is going. Jessica is perfectly right. These are battle ground states. Michigan maybe not so much, but it's been so hard hit by this economy, the auto industry, et cetera. And it is a place where he hopes to, I'm sure, though he will talk about education in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan -- at least that's where the University of Michigan is in Ann Arbor, certainly his presence there is a reminder he did help steady the auto industry.

So, look. This is clearly political, as is what the Republicans are doing because you cannot get away from that in a political leader.

BLITZER: Obviously, good point. Guys, thanks very much.

And please be sure to watch CNN for special coverage of the president's state of the union address tonight. It all begins our coverage live at 8:00 p.m. Eastern right here in Washington.

Let's go to Jack Cafferty right now. He's got "the Cafferty File" - Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, here's some more. President Obama wants for you more years in the White House, but if he wins a second term, and that's a very big if at this point, it's unclear what a second term would look like. A piece in "Politico" describes the president's agenda as blurry this time around, good word. It's a far cry fill from the campaign of 2008, in addition to hope and change and "yes we can" then candidate Obama ran on a long list of issues; health care reform, ending a war in Iraq, imposing tighter regulations on Wall Street. And of course, he promised a new era of bipartisanship in Washington that we all know how it all turned out.

Anyway, the entire country as well as Washington may be more bitterly divided today than at in almost any time in our history say since the civil war. Here's the thing about a potential second term.

Unless the Democrats win big in congress, it's likely the next four years will be only more division and divisive like the last four half. That's why Mr. Obama's message may be more about stopping the Republicans than about what he can get done. There are some items left on the president's to-do list, long-term budget deal, immigration reform, but don't hold your breath. Those are hot button political issues. And with the divided Washington, it isn't going to happen.

Other than that, the president is expected to campaign on the proper role for government, creating more fairness in society. That's the class war fare stuff we were talking about last hour.

Meanwhile, don't bet on getting too many answers in his state of union tonight. Past presidents mostly used this address to defend their first term instead of laying out a specific agenda for their second term.

Here's the question. How do you think President Obama's second term would look? How would it be different from his first? Go to, post a comment on my blog or go to our postal "the situation room's" facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: One line jumped out at me, Jack. You say the country -- you believe is as bitterly divided now since the civil war? Is that what you're saying?

CAFFERTY: It's probably as divided as it's been since the civil war, harkening back to, you know, the civil rights campaign, the anti- Vietnam war stuff. There are some deep, bitter, feeling on both sides of the political divide in this country and what the political gridlock in Washington, nothing is being done to address them, nothing. So they just get worse.

BLITZER: Jack Cafferty with "the Cafferty File." Jack, thank you.

Mitt Romney reverses course on the campaign trail, revealing the long- awaited details of his tax returns. We're dissecting the numbers for you.

Also, as Congress prepares to welcome President Obama for the annual state of the union address, CNN's Tom Foreman looks back at the promises and pledges he made last year. Did he keep them? Here's one.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Republicans have never liked the president's health care reform plans, no secret there. So, he invited them last year to tell them how this should be changed and made one proposal of his own.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you have ideas on how to improve this law by making care better or more affordable, I am eager to work with you. We can start right now by correcting the flaw in the legislation that is place in unnecessary bookkeeping burden on small businesses.

FOREMAN: That part about giving small businesses a break, Republicans, Democrats pretty much everyone liked that at least enough to pass a bill to remove that requirement for expanded reporting to the IRS by such companies. The president signed it in April. That's a proposal accepted and a promise kept.



BLITZER: A dramatic effort to regain the top spot in the battle for the White House, Mitt Romney shifting course and releasing long awaited details of his tax returns, just days before the critical Florida primary. But there's controversy in the numbers.

Let's bring in CNN's Lisa Sylvester. She's taking a closer look. What are you finding out, Lisa?

LISA SYLVESTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just a re-cap. You know, Newt Gingrich released his own tax returns from 2010. Rick Santorum says his tax records are on the computer at home but he is willing to make them public. Ron Paul says he doesn't want to release his taxes. He says he didn't make that much money and frankly would be embarrassing for him, and then there's Mitt Romney. He was reluctant to disclose his taxes but then he changed his mind. And here's what we're learning.


SYLVESTER (voice-over): If there was any doubt before, Romney is a very rich guy. In 2010, Romney and his wife reported $21.7 million in income. In 2011, $21 million. They paid about $3 million in taxes each of those years. Romney's effective tax rate, 13.9 percent, a lot less than the highest tax bracket for income at 35 percent.

LEX HARIS, CNNMONEY.COM MANAGING EDITOR: It's because the tax code favors investment income. His $21 million in income most came from either capital gains or carried interest, which is the compensation from his private equity dealings.

SYLVESTER: Everything on Romney tax says perfectly legal according to tax experts, but there are a few things that reporters have pounced on, including Romney's investments abroad, particularly in the Cayman islands, and whether or not the investments were made there to limit his U.S. tax liability. His campaign and trustees say absolutely not.

BRAD MALT, OVERSEAS ROMNEY'S BLIND TRUSTS: The blind trust investment in the Cayman funds are taxed exactly -- exactly the same as if Governor Romney owned his shares of investments made by the funds directly and in the United States rather than through Cayman funds.

SYLVESTER: David Cay Johnston is Reuters's tax columnist and author. He says Romney was able to transfer millions of dollars into his kids' trust funds without paying gift taxes.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON, AUTHOR, TAX COLUMNIST, REUTERS: While Romney has paid no gift tax. That's because his carried interest is considered by congress to be a profit interest that is a share the profits and not ownership. So, when you give it away, you can value it at zero. SYLVESTER: The Romney campaign has said the value of the trust fund is now in hundred million dollars. But the Romney teams says, that's largely attributed to gains in the stock market since the fund was established in 1995. And all contributions have been under the IRS limit on lifetime gifts. That includes tithing 10 percent of his income to the church of latter day saints. Romney's supporters say he has nothing to hide.

ADAM PUTNAM, FLORIDA CHAIRMAN, ROMNEY FOR PRESIDENT: He released two years' worth, which is more than any of the other presidential candidates have done, and they reflect a guy who has been very successful. He has been a self-made guy. He has paid all of the taxes that were due, and he derived his money from the private sector.


SYLVESTER: Now, Mitt Romney released his taxes for 2010 and 2011. But now, there is a call for him to disclose more, particularly, during his time at Bain Capital. His father, George Romney, when he was running for office in 1968, made public 12 years of tax returns. In 2008, then Senator Obama released returns going back to 2000. And in 2004, Senator John Kerry also released ten years of returns. So, this might not be the end of it, Wolf.

BLITZER: I suspect it won't be, especially if he gets the Republican presidential nomination. The pressure will intensify. Lisa, good report.

Romney certainly has been hammering at his chief rival, Newt Gingrich, over just how far Gingrich went for clients during his time in the public sector. There are also other claims that Gingrich used his influence to lobby in favor of a Medicare expansion plan, something the former House speaker denies. Brian Todd is taking a closer look at this. The debate is over the word "lobbying."

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And you know, Gingrich in this campaign, as you said, had emphatically said, no, he never lobbied on behalf of that, but we found two congressmen who say that when Gingrich talked to them about that legislation, it sure felt like lobbying to them.


TODD (voice-over): Congressman Jeff Flake remembers the occasion well. In 2003, he was one of the few Republican holdouts who didn't want to pass a bill expanding Medicare. Other powerful Republicans did, and they brought in a closer to persuade Flake and his allies. Former speaker Newt Gingrich, he says, was forceful.

REP. JEFF FLAKE, (R) ARIZONA: And then, he told us quite memorably, if you can't pass this, you don't deserve to govern as conservatives. And so, I felt lobbied.

TODD: So did then GOP congressman, Jeb Bradley of New Hampshire.

JEB BRADLEY, FORMER U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: Knowing that he had healthcare clients that had this legislation would have an impact on him, I mean, I feel in retrospect what he was doing that day with myself and other members of Congress clearly was advocacy that most people would think of us lobbying.

TODD: Flake and Bradley are both Mitt Romney supporters. Gingrich and his campaign have fired back, saying he never lobbied on anyone's behalf for that bill. That he'd supported it as a public citizen for years.

NEWT GINGRICH, (R) PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is not correct to describe public citizenship having public advocacy as lobbying. Every citizen has the right to do that.

TODD: He's right, and technically, Gingrich wasn't lobbying. He'd never registered as a lobbyist. But listen to what Michael Beckel of the watch dog group, The Center for Responsive Politics, says about that bill, which became known as Medicare part D, a program that provides drugs for seniors.

MICHAEL BECKEL, CENTER FOR RESPONSIVE POLITICS: At the time, he had clients that would have benefited from that legislation passing. He had pharmaceutical companies paying him to be able to get his services.

TODD: Like drug maker, Novo-Nordisk.

(on-camera) IN its reports to shareholders, Novo-Nordisk has listed a firm Gingrich founded, the Center for Health transformation, headquartered here, as a group, helping the company with public policy activities. A Novo-Nordisk spokesman is quoted as saying, "Gingrich never lobbied for their company, only offered guidance and strategic advice."

(voice-over) That's the same thing Gingrich did for mortgage giant, Freddie Mac.

BECKEL: Strategic advice looks a lot like lobbying. You can tell people, your subordinates, your clients, who to call and what to say. You can coach people what they need to do to be persuasive on this issue. They can tell you who to meet, what to say, but you, yourself, aren't registering as a lobbyist when that happens.


TODD (on-camera): And this 2006 contract for Freddie Mac released by the Gingrich campaign says Gingrich was paid as a consultant, but reported directly to the director of public policy who is a registered lobbyist. Gingrich has said he didn't know lobbying for Freddie Mac, but watch dog groups say it's part of a so-called influence game in Washington with that line is often blurred, Wolf.

BLITZER: He did go to extra lengths, too, to try define what exactly is lobbying and what isn't lobbying.

TODD: That's right. In the debate last night, he said that he and his firm hired an expert, brought in that expert to tell them where that fine line is, the fine but bright line between lobbying and not lobbying. Gingrich said that expert is quote, "prepared to testify that he trained them on this." So, he was at least aware of some of the lines being drawn there.

BLITZER: Maybe that's why Romney is now accusing him of influence peddling as opposed to lobbying.

TODD: Right. Important distinction, and influence peddling is everywhere.

BLITZER: You don't have to register to be an influence peddler. You do have to register to be a lobbyist.

TODD: Right. A lot of things you can do as an influence peddler.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

I'll be moderating CNN's next Republican presidential debate from Jacksonville, Florida this Thursday evening, 8:00 p.m. eastern, only a few days before the pivotal Florida primary. You'll see it. You'll heart it only here on CNN.

You're looking at a live picture right now from Clay, Alabama. Check it out. They're cleaning up after that powerful tornado. But for one family, the loss goes far beyond a demolish home. We'll have their story and the latest when we come back.


BLITZER: President Obama has a lot riding on his "State of the Union" address tonight. It's a major speech he can't afford to get wrong. He's no doubt been working on it for a long time. Today, the White House released a video showing some of the help he's getting behind-the-scenes.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are one week away from the "State of the Union", finished the first draft, first complete draft last night and on Monday night. And now, we're going to meet with the president. He read the draft last night. He made a lot of edits. I saw his draft when I went up there this morning. And, now, we're going to talk to him about it, hopefully, in the half hour.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The thing about President Obama, which I guess is this is simply not an editing exercise. He's involved from conception through kind of development process, and then, you know, he writes a lot of the speech himself.


BLITZER: Republicans meanwhile, have their own very different view of the current "State of the Union" revealed in this new ad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I don't have this done in three years, then there's going to be a one-term proposition.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here we are four years later --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And they can't find a job. Why should they support him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The economy with 13 million people out of work. Four million people out of work for more than a year.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Forty-nine million Americans living below the poverty line.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Undue influence by Obama campaign supporters.

CLINTON: Things are not going in the right direction. They're going in the wrong direction.


BLITZER: Tough words in that Republican ad. Let's go to the White House. The press secretary, Jay Carney, is joining us right now. Jay, thanks very much for coming in. How much of the president's speech tonight is substantive, policy-oriented, how much is political in this political re-election year?

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, contrary to, I guess, some of the expectations that have been laid out there that this would be a political speech, this is a traditional "State of the Union" address. The president will assess for the American public and his listeners in Congress where the country is, the "State of the Union", if you will, and where he believes we need to take it, working together to grow the economy, to have it create even more jobs.

After 22 straight months of creating private sector jobs, we have more work to do. And he's going to talk about -- he's going to lay out a blueprint for an American economy that's built to last, not built on housing bubbles or financial sector bubbles or internet bubbles, but on American manufacturing, on American energy, on skills for American workers, and on renewal of American values.

So, this will be a very substantive, policy-oriented speech that will also be encapsulated in a vision for where this country needs to be moving so that it can dominate economically the 21st century the way it did the 20th.

BLITZER: How will the president describe the "State of the Union"?

CARNEY: The president will say that the "State of the Union" is getting better. The fact of the matter is that you and I, Wolf, even though we've been around for a while, the economic recession that we saw happened in this country in 2008 was worst of our lifetimes. And then, for most Americans, that's the case. It was the worst recession since the great depression. When President Obama was sworn into office in January of 2009, the economy was shedding nearly 800,000 jobs per month. We now know that in the fourth quarter of 2008, the last quarter of the previous administration, the economy shrank by nearly nine percent. I mea, we haven't seen numbers like that since the great depression.

This was a deep, deep hole. And, the facts are, contrary to that ad that you just played, since President Obama's tough policy decisions have been allowed to take effect, the economy has reversed itself. It's begun growing. That has begun creating jobs. More private sector jobs were created last year in the United States than any year since 2005. We're headed in the right direction. We have a lot more work to do.

BLITZER: How do you explain that the president tomorrow goes on this three-day trip to several battleground states, states he'll need if he's going to be re-elected like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Michigan. What's the theory behind that?

CARNEY: Well, the president will travel all over the country to talk about the policy initiatives that he'll begin to lay out tonight in the "State of the Union" address. In many ways, the speech tonight will be a bookend to a speech he gave, laying out some themes about how he views America's economic future that he gave in Osawatomie, Kansas.

I don't think, while a lot of states are in play in American presidential politics, I don't think you can argue that Kansas is a battleground state. He'll travel all over the country to blue states, red states, and purple states, arguing for the kinds of policy initiatives that he's going to put forward tonight.

BLITZER: When he hears that Newt Gingrich, the Republican presidential candidate, the former speaker of the House called him the best food stamp president ever, what does he think about that?

CARNEY: You know, I think that he understands that there's a lot of bluster and empty rhetoric in the political process. The other party is engaged in what looks like might be a long primary battle. This president has the support in his party that means he doesn't have a challenge. He doesn't have a contest in his primary.

That allows him to focus even more intensely on the job he was elected to do, which is to move this country forward, to grow the economy, to create jobs, to build an economy here that's durable and will last.

So, he's focused on his job, you know, the politics that's going on in the Republican primary process will take care of itself, will sort itself out eventually there'll be a nominee. And, President Obama will be ready to engage in debate with that nominee when he emerges.

BLITZER: Mitt Romney released his income tax returns for the last two years. He made more than $40 million. He wound up paying about 14 percent, though, in taxes. Fourteen percent, obviously, a lot less than 35 percent, but it's all legal because it was dividends, interest, long-term capital gains. Under your vision, what would he have paid for those kinds of investments?

CARNEY: Well, the president has spoken in the past about the Buffett rule. He'll speak about it again tonight. This is the principle laid forward by Warren Buffett, a very well-known billionaire in this country, who believes very strongly that he should not be paying taxes at a lower rate than his secretary.

That Americans who are fortunate enough to have benefited from this great economy and country of ours, to be millionaires and billionaires, should not be paying less in taxes at a lower rate than working in middle class Americans. The president will speak about that principle that will guide tax reform for him, again, in more detail this evening.

I think you may have heard already, Wolf, that Warren Buffett's secretary, the embodiment of the rule that Mr. Buffett describes, will be joining the first lady in her box tonight to witness the president give the State of the Union Address.

This is a very important principle, because we need an economy that's built to last. We need an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does his fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. That means Wall Street and Main Street playing by the same set of rules. Those are principles that the president believes very strongly the vast majority of Americans share and believe should guide us as we devise an economic policy that will allow America to compete and win in the 21st century.

BLITZER: So will the president propose increasing the tax rates for capital gains, dividends, interest?

CARNEY: Well, he won't get into specific tax reform proposals or lay out a specific tax reform plan. The principle of the Buffett rule, he will say tonight, will guide the tax reform that he believes needs to be done on the individual tax side. And he will put a little more detail in what that means in practice.

The overall principle here is, however you get to it, and the individual forms that people pay taxes, that, again, somebody making $1 million or $10 million or $250 million or $40 million should not be paying a lower tax rate than people making $75,000 or $60,000 or $100,000. That's just -- it's not fair, especially when we need to be able to pay for our national defense and to be able to make sure that we build the right infrastructure for this country, invest in education, invest in energy.

These are high priorities for our country, and we need to make sure that everybody is doing their fair share so this country can grow in a way that everyone gets -- or that most people possible gets a real fair shake and a real opportunity.

BLITZER: But I just want to be precise. On the dividends and the interest, capital gains, you want that to be taxed like earned income, 35 percent right now? You'd like that to go up to 39 percent, which is --

CARNEY: No, no, we're not proposing that. We're not proposing specifics for tax reform, because each individual, because of the complications in our tax code, who might be a millionaire or billionaire and pay a tax rate of 15 percent, say, or 17 percent, or lower, as Warren Buffett stated, than a working or middle class American, you know, may get to that rate for different reasons.

The overlay principle will be that millionaires and billionaires should not pay a lower effective tax rate than working class and middle class Americans. The president will be more specific about that, but he will not lay out the specific rates for capital gains or dividends. He'll lay out the principle.

BLITZER: We'll be listening very closely.

Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.

Thanks very much for coming in.

CARNEY: Wolf, always good to be with you. Thanks.

BLITZER: The president's speech later tonight. We'll have live coverage, of course, here on CNN.

Meanwhile, other important news we're following, including a scene of utter devastation near Birmingham, Alabama, after a powerful tornado. You're taking a look at live pictures right now of what looks like a war zone. One family's loss makes the physical damage though pale in comparison. We're going there next.

And a giant similar storm reaching Earth. You're going to find out why it's forcing a major airline to make some big changes.


BLITZER: We're told the White House is going to release excerpts of the president's State of the Union speech right at the top of the hour. For our North American viewers, you can watch "JOHN KING USA," 6:00 p.m. Eastern. A few minutes from now, less than a half an hour, you'll get some excerpts.

The Republican response will be from Mitch Daniels. There you see him, the governor of Indiana, the former budget director during the Bush administration. He's going to be delivering the Republican response. There you see a picture of him getting ready for that.

Communities in and around Birmingham, Alabama, are shell-shocked. Five schools in Jefferson County remain closed, one almost destroyed after yesterday's deadly tornado. Hundreds of homes are destroying or damaged. And the worst of it, two people are known dead. One of them, a 16-year-old girl.

CNN meteorologist Reynolds Wolf is joining us now from the town of Clay, Alabama.

Reynolds, what did you learn about what happened to this young girl?

REYNOLDS WOLF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: What was amazing is the thing we came away with is despite the action you see behind us, people trying to pick up the debris from these homes that have been destroyed, a lot of this stuff can definitely be fixed. But with the family that we met today, Wolf, it is plain and simple, it was very obvious, that some things are beyond repair.


DARRELL HEICHELBECH, FATHER: She had just such spirit, such life. And she -- I mean, she was smart and she had such ambition.

WOLF (voice-over): This is the worst day of Darrell and Carol Heichelbech's lives. The song of their heart, 16-year-old Christina (ph), was killed when Monday's early-dawn twister barreled out of the Alabama sky and roared through their home.

HEICHELBECH: Ever since she was a little girl -- you remember -- every day we would get ready to send her off to school. And I always told her -- I said, "Just study hard. We love you." And I don't get to do that for her anymore.

WOLF: Their home nestled in a small valley, they never heard the warning sirens. As their house blew apart, Darrell and his 12-year- old son Josh landed in the pool. Carol was trapped briefly under debris. Christy (ph) was found in the back yard on a mattress. She never woke up.

HEICHELBECH: Christina (ph) was -- I mean, she was the kind of kid that you wanted to have. If we told her to be home by 10:00, she was home by 10:00. When she drove all the way to school. She would always text me and say, "Dad, I'm here."

WOLF: At the same high school in Birmingham, her friends and teachers try to comprehend the loss.

GIA GRADDY, CHOIR DIRECTOR: Christy (ph) was destined for greatness, for sure. She was brilliant. I could see her going on to do really anything she put her mind to, but I know she wanted to go to veterinary school. And I could definitely see her, because she had such a gentle spirit. She would be wonderful with animals.

WOLF: Her dad says Christina (ph), a junior honor student, planned to go to Auburn on a full scholarship.

HEICHELBECH: All her plans were coming into play and now they're gone. And I don't know what to do.


WOLF: Wolf, we stopped by her school today and spoke with some of her instructors and many of the students, many of which were wearing blue in honor of their fallen classmate. That was Christina's (ph) favorite color -- Wolf. BLITZER: What a heartbreaking story, and please convey our deepest, deepest condolences, Reynolds. But behind you we see folks going through the rubble over there. I guess they're looking for some possessions that may have survived. Is that what's going on right now? Because you can't rebuild those homes.

WOLF: Absolutely. Many of these are going to be just totaled. Many of them will try to rebuild.

But from what you have here, much of this is beyond. They're just going to have to start over from scratch. But it's been amazing, actually quite heartwarming, to see many of the people in this community coming out, not just the families themselves, but it's a trust testament, true evidence of neighbor helping neighbor.

Something else that's been amazing is you haven't heard many complains from people in this neighborhood. They've just been rolling up their sleeves, getting to work, and just trying to sift through this wreckage, trying to find those things that matter so much.

One hot item, of course, as you might imagine, family photographs, small heirlooms, things that are really priceless. Everything else, as you know, of course can be replaced, with the exception, of course, is the family members, which of course we know very well -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What a heartbreaking story. Amazing. All right. Thanks very much.

Reynolds Wolf on the scene for us in Alabama.

An historical treasure trove released today. The final months of the Kennedy presidency all captured on secret tapes. We'll hear them. That's coming up.


BLITZER: You're about to hear an eerily foreboding moment from John F. Kennedy himself. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library has declassified the final 45 hours of secret White House audiotapes recorded during President Kennedy's time in office.

CNN's Mary Snow is joining us from New York.

Mary, what new insights are we getting from these audiotapes?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, for historians, this is a gold mine. The recordings were made during the last three months of President Kennedy's life, and they provide a window into his thinking on Vietnam, as well as political challenges facing Democrats. The tapes also contain a portion that might best be described as eerie.


SNOW (voice-over): It's a moment inside President John F. Kennedy's White House that could seem mundane, him talking to his staff about a tight schedule and an upcoming meeting with Indonesia's prime minister. The date November 19, 1963.

JOHN F. KENNEDY, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will see him. When is he, here? Monday?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Monday and Tuesday.

KENNEDY: Well, that's a tough day.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a hell of a day, Mr. President.

SNOW: That Monday ended up being the day President Kennedy's funeral was held. It was President Kennedy's idea to secretly record White House conversations. With a flick of a switch, he could activate a tape machine located underneath the Oval Office.

As the situation became tense in Vietnam, Kennedy's frustration was evident, as two advisers gave him conflicting records of the situation on the ground.

KENNEDY: You both went to the same country? Well, I mean, how is that you get such different -- this is not a new thing. This is what we've been dealing with for three weeks.

On the one hand, you get the military saying the war is going better. On the other hand, you get the political (opinion) with its deterioration is affecting the military --

SNOW: Beyond policy, some rare personal moments inside the Oval Office.


SNOW: The president's children, Caroline and John, can be heard in the background as the president met with the Russian foreign minister.

KENNEDY: Just have you say hello to my daughter and son.

His chief is the one who sent you Pushinka. You know that? You have the puppies.

SNOW: Pushinka was the dog given to them by Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.

The thinking is among historians the recordings were meant for a memoir. The Kennedy Library says President Kennedy didn't like the way the military portrayed his decisions during the Bay of Pigs crisis. And this was his way of backing up his side of events.

THOMAS PUTNAM, JOHN F. KENNEDY LIBRARY AND MUSEUM: He was a very confident man. And he wanted really posterity to understand the decisions he made. And he wanted the history that he was a part of to be recorded for all time.

SNOW: Just weeks before he was assassinated, Kennedy ruminated on his campaign strategy, one that resonates nearly 50 years later. KENNEDY: We hope we have to sell them prosperity, but for the average guy, the prosperity is nil. He's not unprosperous, but he's not very prosperous. He's not going to make out well off. And the people who really are well off hate our guts.


SNOW: Wolf, President Kennedy also had a novel suggestion for the 1964 Democratic Convention. He recommended films at the convention should be shown in color and break from the black and white American households were used to. He thought it would have a big effect -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Interesting. Fascinating stuff for historians and a lot of other folks as well.

Mary, thank you.

Jack Cafferty is asking: How would President Obama's second term look different from his first? You're e-mail coming up next.

And as President Obama gets prepared for tonight's State of the Union Address, our own Tom Foreman is looking at whether he kept his promises from last year's address.


BLITZER: Let's get back to Jack for "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is: How would President Obama's second term look different from his first? Assuming, of course, he gets a second term.

James in Illinois, "A second term will be more socialistic, more radical, and the country will continue to go downhill. Even more so than the last four years. All great powers come to an end. We're over the top and on the way down."

Pat in Michigan writes, "It should be much better: new Congress, old guard tossed out their butts, commonsense representatives not kowtowing to the radical rich. If the Republicans think we don't plan to make changes at the voting booth, they are really disconnected."

Greg in Arkansas writes, "With no worry about re-election, instead of offering Congress an olive branch for bipartisan cooperation Obama can threaten them for obstructing everything and promise them a public trip to the woodshed for a good old-fashioned thrashing for not doing their jobs."

Tim writes, "It all depends on the Congress. If the Republicans have any edge, it will be just as divisive and mean as his first term. If the Democrats get super majorities in both houses, then he'll get everything he wants. The only new tune we could see if there are small Democratic majorities so that bipartisanship in Congress would have to happen. But the president would still have some prerogative." Russ writes, "Worse than the first, as Obama would be sure to continue robbing us of our money and our rights. More government, more intrusion, less freedom."

And Catherine in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, "He'll finally tell John Boehner to go to hell."

If you want to read more about this, go to my blog,, or through our post on THE SITUATION ROOM'S Facebook page -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Good stuff. All right. Thanks very much. Tough stuff, I should say, as well.

Unbelievable security video, a dog stuck on the wrong side of the elevator doors. We're going to show you what happened.


BLITZER: Here's some advice. Stop what you're doing. Check out this upcoming video.

CNN's Jeanne Moos has the amazing story of a dog stuck on the wrong side of the elevator doors.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): No wonder some dogs drag their feet and everything else when faced with an elevator. Watch what happened to Filo (ph) earlier this month in Chicago.

The bulldog mix came home from her walk, and her owner stepped into the elevator. But Filo (ph) paused, distracted by a woman in the lobby.

The owner, who wished to remain unidentified, told CNN he was on auto pilot, so used to the dog just stepping in. And then the doors closed, leaving man inside, dog outside, attached by a leash.

The owner frantically started pushing buttons. As the elevator went up, he was yanked down by the leash, hitting his head. He says the leash fractured his wrist and broke a bone in his hand. He held head and hand as the elevator kept going up.

(on camera): The dog owner said he was expecting the worst. He almost didn't want to see the door open, didn't want to see what happened.

(voice-over): Here's what he missed. As the owner was yanked down, the dog was snapped up, but the leash broke and Filo (ph) fell down. The woman ran to help, the dog was shaken but uninjured.

DREW ANDERSON (ph), SIMILAR THING HAPPENED TO HIS DOG: The exact same thing that happened to Stella.

MOOS: Stella the Shih Tzu got into a New York elevator with Drew Anderson's (ph) wife and their big white Great Pyrenees. As Drew's wife scrambled to pick up the big dog's leash, the doors closed on Stella's leash.

ANDERSON: Thrown up to the top of the elevator car, and her harness snapped in half around her chest, luckily. And she fell right into my wife's arms.

MOOS: It was over in seconds and Stella was fine. But Drew learned this about the sensors that usually keep elevator doors from closing on something --

ANDERSON: Apparently an inch or two gap at the bottom where the sensor doesn't capture anything.

MOOS: It seems to vary from elevator to elevator. We sure didn't stop the doors on this one.

Millie the bulldog never had the fear of getting stuck. Because she had bat hips, her owners built what they call a millie-vator, sort of like a doggy dumbwaiter. Filo (ph) was waiting down in the lobby when the doors opened and her owner learned she had survived.

(on camera): The moral of the story, pet owners beware, the elevator is not a dog's best friend.

(voice-over): Though Stella the Shih Tzu isn't afraid of them. And her owner can look back on it and still take a bad joke.

(on camera): Stella --


MOOS: Stella was up Shih Tzu creek.

ANDERSON: Yes, exactly.

MOOS (voice-over): Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


BLITZER: Don't forget our coverage of the president's State of the Union Address 8:00 p.m. Eastern. That's when it starts. I'll be up on Capitol Hill.

Until then, thanks very much for joining us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

The news continues next on CNN.