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American Journalist Killed in Syria; New Controversial Documentary Focuses on Clinton Administration; Critical Debate for GOP's Final Four; Girl Who Borrowed Asthma Inhaler Expelled; Four More Bodies Found On Costa Concordia; Santorum: I Believe In Good And Evil; Bloomberg Defends NY Muslim Surveillance; Adele Flips The Bird; Christians Celebrate Ash Wednesday; Fat Tuesday In New Orleans; Teachers Get Free Plastic Surgery; Debating The Buffet Rule; Debate Coach Says Chris Christie Would be Great to Coach; Obama Breaks Ground on African-American Smithsonian Museum

Aired February 22, 2012 - 06:59   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, ladies, good morning. And good morning, everybody. Our STARTING POINT this morning is news that has broken overnight. Two western journalists are dead. they were killed in Syria. One who reported on this network about the murder of a small Syrian child just hours before she, herself, was killed. It's tragic story to bring you this morning.

Also, a desert showdown tonight. Final face-off before Arizona, Michigan, and Super Tuesday. The front-runner, I don't know who the front-runner is. We're going to talk also this morning about comments about Satan, and will they come back to haunt Rick Santorum or will they continue to lead to his new surge?

A new document industry with inside information about the Clinton White House. It describes Bill as used car salesman and talks a lot, a lot about what happened as the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke out. No surprise that the Clintons are not happy about it. We're going to talk to a close friend of theirs who join right here in the studio. STARTING POINT gets under way right now.

Welcome, everybody. Right to breaking news this morning. Two western journalists including an American journalist has been killed in Syria. The American is Marie Colvin who reported from Syria for us just hours ago as he was talking to Anderson Cooper on this network. Remi Ochlik is a French photographer who also was killed. There are Syrian activists who say the two were killed during heavy shelling that happened in the city of Homs. We have some new videotape to show you. This is showing you the rubble from that videotape where the shelling rather, where the journalists were killed.

And last night when she was talking to Anderson on "AC 360," Mary Colvin talked about the murder, as she put it, that she sees happening in that city every single day. Here's what she said to Anderson.


MARIE COLVIN, "LONDON SUNDAY TIMES": This is the worst, Anderson, for many reasons. I think the last time we talked when I was what Misrata, there's nowhere to run. The Syrian army is holding the perimeter. And there's just far more ordnance being poured into this city and no way of predicting where it's going to land.


O'BRIEN: Marie Colvin, you see her there with an eye patch over her right eye. That's because when she was in Sri Lanka covering a story she lost an eye. So a terrible story to have to report. We're going to give you more details as we learn them this morning.

Also, we are following developments on the rest of the day's headlines. Christine Romans has those for us. Hey, Christine, good morning.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you, Soledad. That's right, in Kabul, the American embassy on lock down right now. This as protest rage there across Afghanistan over the mistaken burning of the Koran at a military base. Thousands of Afghans demonstrated outside the base, setting fires and venting their outrage. An official says some of the religious material was removed because detainees were writing on the documents to exchange extremist messages. The U.S. is apologizing, saying this was an honest mistake.

Iran threatening to preemptively strike first anyone who threatens it, that statement coming from a top Iranian general. The U.S. and Israel has not ruled out strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. The threat comes as U.N. nuclear talks in Iran have failed for a second time this year. A team of U.N. inspectors left Iran after being denied access to a military site where nuclear weapons testing may be taking place.

Lower tax rates in exchange for giving up loopholes is a key part of president Obama's corporate tax reform plan. That plan to be unveiled today by the administration. It proposes cutting the overall corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 28 percent then eliminating dozens of loopholes and subsidies and adding a new minimum tax on foreign profits. The goal is to keep jobs and manufacturing in the U.S. Administration officials say the changes are essential for fixing a system that's uncompetitive, unfair, and inefficient.

Minding your business this morning, stock futures for the DOW, NASDAQ, S&P 500 all trading slightly lower. The DOW briefly, briefly crossed the 13,000 line yesterday for the first time since May, 2008, but it couldn't hold on. Markets worldwide are down this morning. Investors are concerned the new bailout for Greece won't be enough to solve the debt problems in the long term.

It looks like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't get the memo. Take a look from the group vote to from the G-20, everyone in white except for Hillary Clinton in lime green. This State Department said it wasn't aware of any formal dress code for that photo-op. Soledad?

O'BRIEN: There are people for that? I mean, that's -- you get somewhere, oh, it's black tie. Got it. Change it. There's a lot of other really important things going on. ROMANS: That's true.

O'BRIEN: No question about that. There is a lot going on but there should be a person who then is dispatched to go get the white shirt, steal it off of an employee, and put it on -- yes. All right, thank you, Christine.

ROMANS: You're welcome.

O'BRIEN: I'm moving on.

Let's get right to our panel this morning. Brett O'Donnell is joining us in person. We talked to him last about advising Mitt Romney on the debates, also the Michele Bachmann campaign. It's nice to have you right here. We're excited to have you. Farai Chideya A fellow at the institute of politics at Harvard's Kennedy school of government. It's nice to have you back. This is like everybody back home again. I like this. And Cathy Areu, contributing editor at "Washington Post" magazine is with us. Nice to have you all.

We are talking this morning first about the new documentary. Did you get a chance to see this? It's about the Clintons, and, of course, it's causing controversy and part of the reason we're talking about it is because it was causing controversy because much of it focuses, of course, on the scandal that took place in the president's oh of during his term in office. Here's a little chunk of how it went.


LUCIANNE GOLDBERG, LITERARY AGENT: This is a sense of him being a used car salesman. This is a sense of a guy being a charming hick. He was loathed because, first, I think we've all known somebody like Bill Clinton and we don't want them to be president of our country.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Clinton, Mr. Clinton?

GOLDBERG: The wife was terrifying as well. She was pushy. She was humorous. She couldn't get her hair figured out. There were just so many things about Hillary we didn't like.


O'BRIEN: So, as you can imagine, when Lucianne Goldberg, who really, really hates the Clintons, decides to give a lengthy interview you kind of know where this documentary is going to go. A long-time friend of the Clintons and former White House special counsel Lanny Davis joins our panel as well. Thanks for being with us. I can't imagine anything that's going to star Lucianne Goldberg, and I think Dick Morris is in this documentary as well, you kind of know where it's going to go. Did you end up watching the documentary?

LANNY DAVIS, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SPECIAL COUNSEL: I ended up watching it with a bag nearby just in case. Let me first say that I did not talk to the Clintons at all. I don't know what they think of this. This is me speaking as a long-time friend for over 40 years. The fact that they put this evil person with hatred that is ugly to even watch on national television in a documentary on PBS who set up Linda Tripp to betray a young woman on tape, and that is about the Clinton presidency, which I would like to talk about, the achievements that are completely omitted with bogus scandals covered as they were real, like Whitewater, that ended up with nothing, zero, after 3,000 articles in the "Washington Post" and the "New York times," and that's where they spent their time which I think is really unfair.

O'BRIEN: So no love lost. There are people who would say, 40 minutes of the documentary is spent on Monica Lewinsky and the scandal. There are a number of people who are not particularly, you know, partisan who would say, listen, that was a scandal that led to attempts to the impeachment the president of the United States. That wasn't a Whitewater, that wasn't something that disappeared. That was a scandal that really had the nation embroiled in that conversation. You think that's unfair, that amount of time spent?

DAVIS: Well, 40 minutes --

O'BRIEN: Of four hours.

DAVIS: -- is certainly disproportionate. Let's give the total picture. There were eight independent counsels in eight years, $116 million dollars spent, this is before Lewinsky, $116 million, nine people investigated, five cabinet secretaries, President and Mrs. Clinton, and two officials, and not one conviction, not one finding of wrong doing after $116 million of media obsession funded and, I think, energized bipartisan Republican investigations. Zero results.

And the entire series of four hours probably spent three-fourths of those four hours on those bogus, completely nothing scandals. Whitewater, nothing. Filegate, nothing. Travel Office, nothing. These were headlines hyped bipartisanship ending up in nothing. The Lewinsky matter, yes, a certainly personal failing. President Clinton acknowledged that. It led to an impeachment that was a party line vote. And in the United States Senate, 55 Republican senators, they couldn't get 51 to vote for either one of the counts from the very partisan House process. So that's really, yes, worth mentioning but in that very limited context.

O'BRIEN: I think there are people who are going to disagree with you on that. Go ahead.

FARAI CHIDEYA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think one of the things interesting about this is that it's a PBS documentary. As you know the entire system of public media has often been criticized as a left-leaning institution. So I'm wondering if part of the makeup of this was actually sort of strategic on the part of PBS to say, well, we can also have right-wing-leaning content on. I don't know if that's part of it. And it also shows that the political past is not the past. The Clinton era will be relived again and again.

O'BRIEN: Here's Robert Reich talking -- he was interviewed for the documentary. Let me play you a little chunk of that and then tell ask you a question on the other side.


ROBERT REICH, FORMER SECRETARY OF LABOR: I've asked myself a number of times why he put himself and his presidency in jeopardy in such a careless way. The presidency is probably the loneliest office in America. Bill Clinton, who so much need and wanted to be loved, couldn't say no to someone who was going to give him affection and wanted affection back.


O'BRIEN: Do you agree with his assessment and were you asked to be in this doc?

DAVIS: No, I wasn't. And, of course, I don't know about Mr. Reich and his private life, whether he would want to talk about that in his personal weaknesses. President Clinton acknowledged privately and publicly more than anybody I know about his personal failings that led to the Lewinsky matter. At the end of his eight terms, the American people had their verdict on those personal failings. He created 23 million jobs, took a $300 billion deficit and turned it into $1 trillion surplus, and his approval rating on his last day in office, Soledad, was 65 percent.

So with all of the acknowledgment of his personal failings on the public stage with his family and everything out there and his apologies, the American people got it. His achievements in office were more important with the 65 percent approval rating when he left office.

O'BRIEN: But when you think back at his legacy, let's say we're having a conversation like this 15 years from now. We will still be talking about Monica Lewinsky. It won't start with the 65 percent approval rating, a lot of people wish they would have that right at this moment. You don't even think that by constantly setting the record straight it would help this scandal?

DAVIS: It's a salacious media that focuses on scandal rather than 23 million jobs and $1 trillion surplus and 65 percent approval rating. Do we talk about Alexander Hamilton's affair? Do we talk about John Kennedy? Is that the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt? Is that the legacy we really talk about? No. The scandal machine in the '90s, the hyper partisanship, a partisan impeachment, ignoring 23 million jobs, welfare reform, and what in fact turned out to be the American people's verdict on what you said is a 65 percent approval rating on the last day in office, the highest approval rating in a two-term president in American history, that's the way history should judge him, not the salacious scandal machine that created bogus scandals. I'm talking about $116 million spent for absolutely zero. So will there be fact versus salaciousness in judging what was really going on with bogus scandals driven by bipartisanship.

O'BRIEN: And we'll leaving with that rhetorical question because I think the answer is we're going to have to wait and see how the history judges the presidency. Lanny Davis, thanks for talking with us.

DAVIS: Thanks for having me.

O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT, the devil expected to come up in the desert tonight. No question about that. Rick Santorum talking about Satan and then talking about his comments about talking about Satan. We're going to get a preview this morning from the moderator John King.

Also, we told you about the stories of the teachers in Buffalo getting free plastic surgery while taxpayers pick up the tab. We'll bring in a teacher to talk to us. She took advantage of the perk and she is defending it. And we'll talk about that contract dispute under way as well.

And Adele sending a message without using her musical voice. We'll tell you what's happening there.

My playlist is "Hurricane." Have you heard this song? Listen.


O'BRIEN: That is from (INAUDIBLE) playlist, Foster the People, "Pumped Up Kicks." I like that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes. And they performed with The Beach Boys on the Grammys, too.

O'BRIEN: Oh, I like that. I like that.

All right. Well, the only debate that is going to happen before Super Tuesday is happening tonight. It's a CNN Republican Debate and is taking place in Mesa, Arizona, beautiful there, when I spoke to John King about it.

There's a lot at stake for the candidates. John King is the host. And I had a chance to talk to him yesterday about what he is sort of looking from each of these candidates as he goes into it. Listen.


O'BRIEN: So John, thanks for being with us. Appreciate it.

So very big pressure, of course, for Mitt Romney because on the 28th is a State of Michigan and a lot of what people are talking about is, you know, can he win that state and if he doesn't what does it mean?

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's one of those states, Soledad, that matters especially because he was born there. Because he has advertisements and he won the state on 2008. He said I'm the son of Michigan. His dad was the governor. His dad was the CEO of a big auto company back in the day.

So this is one of those branding tests for Mitt Romney. People say he's a weak front-runner. Well, he needs to prove he can win in a big industrial state, where it will be a battleground in November, where the economy, which is supposed to be his number one issue, is by far the defining issue of the campaign.

If Rick Santorum can beat Mitt Romney in Michigan, look, this is a bolder race to begin with, that would throw it back to square one and we have a lot of people thinking we don't have a front-runner anymore.

O'BRIEN: Yes. I was going to say front-runner when you look at the polling, you might say, well, actually it's Rick Santorum who's the front-runner now, depending on what poll you're looking at. He's got a lot of pressure on him in a different way because he hasn't really gone into a debate as a front-runner.

KING: I would say there is no front-runner. This is my seventh presidential campaign and this one's unlike any other. Rick Santorum has the momentum. Romney still has more money and organization. Throw out the term "front-runner."

The guy with the ball right now, though, the momentum, is Rick Santorum. So he will have to answer a lot of questions about his policies, his record in the Senate, what he said recently about faith and contraception and the like, and he needs to prove himself. He needs to prove himself not only as a Republican candidate for the nomination but as a potential Republican nominee.

But at the moment, Soledad, he has a very clear strategy. Why is he being so strident in his rhetoric about Obama? Why is he so willing to focus on social issues that many Republicans say, whoa, what about the general election?

Rick Santorum has one goal right now and it's not about Mitt Romney. He's trying to knock Newt Gingrich out of the race.

O'BRIEN: All the Gingrich people would say, it isn't going to happen. And let's talk specifically about Newt Gingrich because he's got a lot of different things at stake. He's sort of dropped out of the conversation altogether. Every so often he pops up, especially if he says something completely over the top. He's called himself the comeback grandfather. But he -- he has a lot at stake, too.

KING: He has a ton at stake in the sense that eventually you have to start winning to prove you're a viable candidate in the race.

Speaker Gingrich has made a tactical decision to not emphasize Michigan and Arizona as much. This would be the first debate in a month. He has excelled in the debates. He has picked up momentum in the debates. He has raised money off the debates.

There's a critically important debate for him and then the week after the debate. Let's assume he runs third or fourth in both Michigan and Arizona, that will hurt his fund-raising. He needs to prove himself. Super Tuesday is the defining day of this contest for Newt Gingrich.

O'BRIEN: Well, let me ask you about the social issue thing that you were just talking about with Rick Santorum. You know, he has been doing really well on that messaging, but even the communications director for the RNC who I spoke to yesterday told me this is an election that's going to be decided on the economy.

Rick Santorum really has not been talking about the economy and it's been a social issues week or two where everybody is talking about gay marriage, they're talking about contraception, they're talking about everything else but the economy.

KING: Right. And Senator Santorum would say, well, he does talk about the economy and he does have his own plan made in America he called that he's from, that's the steel town just outside of Pittsburgh. He says he wants to revive the manufacturing base, but he has been focusing primarily on the social issues.

He has been escalating his rhetoric in the contrast with President Obama, in the contrast with Governor Romney and others on issues like contraception, on issues -- the social issues and so on.

So he is driving this debate. If he's not getting attention on the economy right now it's of his own choosing because he's escalating the rhetoric elsewhere.

To the conservative Republican base, Senator Santorum has a lot of appeal. They love his passion. They love his position on the issues. They love the fact that they actually trust him --

O'BRIEN: And there's a but coming. But, but.

KING: -- they have elected to deal with those issues.

O'BRIEN: But --

KING: There is a but coming. There's a but coming in that in a 50/50 presidential election, if you assume this is an election that will be decided, President Obama versus the Republican nominee in one or two states, a state like Pennsylvania, a state like Florida, a state like Ohio, those states are decided in very close elections in the more moderate suburbs where you might have women voters who are fiscally conservative but socially moderate.

The social issues among independents and suburban women aren't as much of a winner as they are in Republican primaries. So some Republicans have a case of the jitters when they watch the tone of the campaign over the last few days.

O'BRIEN: All right, last question for you. Ron Paul, he's also disappeared.

KING: Ron Paul is an impact player in this race. He's getting 10 percent here, 12 percent here, 18 percent there. He's picking up delegates. Anything he gets is coming from somebody else.

However, Soledad, you can't be the nominee unless you start winning. And we're now into the double digit number of contests, so 11. And by the time of Super Tuesday is over, it will be over-20 contest. If Ron Paul doesn't have a win the morning after Super Tuesday, he's not a viable candidate for the nomination. That's hard medicine for his supporters to take.

It doesn't mean he doesn't have an impact. He's important in these debates. He will have delegates at the convention. But if he doesn't start winning and start winning soon, he's not a viable candidate for the nomination. It's simple math.

O'BRIEN: All right, John King, we're looking forward to the debate tonight. Thanks for being with us. Appreciate it.

KING: Thank you.


O'BRIEN: Of course, that simple math doesn't necessarily translate into dropping out of the race in any way, shape, or form.

You can watch the debate right here on CNN tonight. It's at 8:00 P.M. Eastern Time. We're going to have complete analysis right here tomorrow morning.

Still ahead on STARTING POINT, our "Get Real" is the story of an eighth grader who's expelled over her asthma inhaler. She chose to share it with a friend who was having an asthma attack.

Also, New York City Mayor says he's going to have to keep his country safe and he's defending the NYPD's surveillance of Muslims. Those stories straight ahead. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

O'BRIEN: This is a great song. This could vie for (INAUDIBLE) with my theme song. "Right Now," Van Halen. I like the idea of like starting the show with Van Halen. Get Eddie Van Halen on the phone. I need to talk to him (ph).

(INAUDIBLE) choice. I like that.

All right, let get to our "Get Real" this morning. Have you ever had an asthma attack? You got asthma?



O'BRIEN: So terrifying, right? Severe chest --


O'BRIEN: I've had sort of asthma-like attacks and your chest starts tightening up and you cannot breathe basically.

And so this is a story about a young woman who was in a kind of a desperate situation. An eighth grade student from Monument, Colorado leaned over and borrowed her friend's asthma inhaler during gym class because she felt an attack coming on. Now she doesn't have to worry about gym class because she's been expelled.

According to CBS in Denver, the school, which is Lewis-Palmer Middle School, said the girl broke the district's drug policy which forbids the sharing of any prescription drugs. And clearly she did. Even the girl who lent the inhaler, she was suspended, but she was allowed to go back to the school.

The girl's father says -- who's been expelled -- says he's proud of her (sic) daughter and she would do it again for choosing a zero tolerance policy over, you know, human nature and common sense. We -- we feel that the Lewis-Palmer Middle School really should think about this policy.


O'BRIEN: As a teacher, I know you're about to tell me something.

AREU: I'm sorry. I'm a former teacher and I know the laws around this. And, however, she has asthma, why did she not have her parents say that she had asthma and fill out the proper paperwork and make sure she had an inhaler on the school grounds?

O'BRIEN: I agree with --

AREU: Why borrow someone else's inhaler? And an inhaler is a drug, and it could be a dangerous drug, just like aspirins cannot be passed out at school.

If a fellow student has a headache, you cannot give them an aspirin.


O'BRIEN: -- I'd say. It's OK to punish her. Yes, don't share your inhaler. Absolutely. It was a sort of a --

AREU: Right.

O'BRIEN: But any time you punish someone by kicking them out of school, at a time in this nation when --

AREU: But they really have the school law.

O'BRIEN: But I'm saying punish them by keeping them in school. Keep them in school double. Have her go to Saturday school.

AREU: That's a punishment.

O'BRIEN: School punishment should not be expulsion in a semester before she's due to graduate from middle school.

AREU: But that's the rule they had in place and --


O'BRIEN: -- change the rule.

AREU: If you have --

O'BRIEN: Don't make me fight you, Cathy.

AREU: I'm sorry. I'm sorry if you have --

O'BRIEN: You're a former teacher.

O'DONNELL: And there's got to be some room for bend here. I mean, obviously --

AREU: Not with schools.

O'DONNELL: -- you know, sharing the -- sharing the inhaler, that's probably, you know, out of bounds, but --

AREU: Sharing a drug, technically. Sharing a drug.

O'DONNELL: She was -- she was sharing a drug. Yes. But it was an inhaler, and she was having an asthma attack, and what would we want -- you know, what would happen if our kids needed --

You know, I've had asthma attacks. They're pretty severe and, you know, at the -- in the moment, you -- you need to get that rescue and so --

AREU: They did what it took, but they suffered the consequences. Everyone's alive, but this is what happened. They suffered the consequences for doing what they did.

O'BRIEN: I'm glad you're not my teacher is all I want to say.

AREU: Oh, I was strict.

O'BRIEN: I bet you were.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, Governor Chris Christie, you know, often doesn't have a filter which is what makes him entertaining on television. We'll tell you what he said to a billionaire, kind of a blunt message.

And we told you about the plastic surgery perk that's included in some of the benefits for some Buffalo schoolteachers. A teacher is going to talk to us to defend that.

Talking -- you're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: This is not my play list. This is Cruz. I like that. Great song. Great album. Let's get right to headlines. Christine has those for us. Hi, Christine. Good morning.

ROMANS: Good morning to you, Soledad. Just in this hour, four more bodies have been found in the shipwrecked Costa Concordia. More than a month has gone by since the Italian cruise ship hit a bunch of rocks off the coast of Italy. With the new discovery, 20 people are now confirmed dead, 12 people are still missing.

National GOP frontrunner Rick Santorum is defending comments he made four years ago that, quote, "Satan has his sights on the United States. He spoke to our Jim Acosta.


RICK SANTORUM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe in good and evil. I think if somehow or another because you're a person of faith you believe in good and evil is a disqualifier for president, we're going to have a very small pool of candidates that can run for president.


ROMANS: Santorum currently the GOP frontrunner in most national polls.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg defending the city spying on Muslims. He fired back at the president of Yale University and others who have suggested the NYPD went too far.


MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG (I), NEW YORK: Of course, we're going to look at anything that's publicly available in the public domain. We have an obligation to do so. And it is to protect the very things that let Yale survive.

Very cute to go and to blame everybody and say we should stay away from anything that smacks of intelligence gathering. The job of our law enforcement is to make sure they prevent things.


ROMANS: This was all in reaction to an Associated Press report that said that the NYPD was closely monitoring Muslim student organizations in schools across the north eastern U.S.

Christians around the world are celebrating Ash Wednesday. It marks the beginning of lent. Many will go to mass today to receive ashes on their foreheads. It's a symbol of penance, which sets the tone for the entire season of lent.

Meantime, last night was the end of Mardis Gras, a time of celebration before this season of penance. Revellers partied in typical fat Tuesday fashion down in New Orleans.

All right, she's not typically known for diva-like behavior, but Adele was a little upset when her acceptance speech was cut short at the U.K. Britain Music awards so she flipped the bird. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can't believe I'm about to cut you off.

ADELE, SINGER: You cut me off.


ADELE: Can I just say then, good-bye and I'll see you next time around.


ROMANS: After winning six trophies at the Grammys, Adele won best British female solo artist and best album at the Brit -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Like who wants to be that guy. Adele, I am so sorry, but they sent me here to cut you off. That's a bad gig. All right, Christine, thank you.

So there was a story that got a lot of attention yesterday when we brought it to you talking about schoolteachers in Buffalo. And Gary Tuchman was reporting that teachers there in Buffalo are eligible for plastic surgery at no cost to themselves under their health plan.

There's a doctor who advertises in a newsletter that's put out by the teachers union. Here's what he says.


DR. KULWANT BHANGOO, PLASTIC SURGEON: They would come in for like hair removal on their lips, face.

GARY TUCHMANN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Do they also come in for liposuction?


TUCHMAN: Breast enhancement?

BHANGOO: Yes, they do.

TUCHMAN: Facelift?


TUCHMAN: Rhinoplasty?


TUCHMAN: So it's busy?


(END VIDEO CLIP) O'BRIEN: So about 3,400 teachers are eligible. They don't have to pay anything out of pocket. In fact, last year the school district covered $5.9 million in those plastic surgery costs.

At the same time, the school system was projected to face a $42 million deficit. Valerie Akauola is a Buffalo teacher. She's had plastic surgery and she agreed to come on to talk to us about it.

Hi, Valerie, thanks for talking with us. We appreciate it because, boy, was my Twitter blowing up yesterday. People were all over. Some people thought it was -- they were horrified by the fact that teachers like you get this opportunity on your insurance.

Other people thought it was crazy that we were doing this story at all. So tell me why you think this is a good thing. That this is available to teachers in Buffalo?

VALERIE AKAUOLA, BUFFALO TEACHER WHO HAD PLASTIC SURGERY: Well, I think everybody has a choice. Teachers have an opportunity to choose from many plans. People need what they need. People deserve to be happy.

And I think we need to look past the point of cosmetic surgery. I think that, you know, sometimes people's spirits are fracture and they try to figure out a way to heal. It's more about the inside than the out.

O'BRIEN: Your plastic surgery was not -- I think the 90 percent of surgeries are done are cosmetic like Botox and laser hair removal and skin rejuvenation. That was not your case. Tell me a little bit about your plastic surgery was.

AKAUOLA: Well, in terms of the medical care that I received, I don't really know exactly what your call it, but I had lost more than 100 pounds and I needed some care. And Dr. Bhangoo and other doctors were kind enough to help me.

O'BRIEN: People have framed this as a, you know, teachers going crazy, getting Botox story when my sense is that actually what this is really kind of about is your debate over your contracts. Is that correct to say, do you think?

AKAUOLA: I believe that there is a debate and it's long, you know, been going on quite some time, about the contract. I'm very, very happy that there's been some new blood injected into city hall.

I think with that new blood comes an awful lot of talent. I think the new superintendent of schools was able to work with Mr. Rumor and the children and the adults that we serve will be better off.

And stop, you know, focusing on things that don't matter, like a rider on a plan. I mean, really. It is our future that we're all working together for.

O'BRIEN: You sound more like a politician than a schoolteacher, navigating, very carefully.

AKAUOLA: Well --

O'BRIEN: In some ways being very serious.

AKAUOLA: No, I'm not navigating. I mean, this is a man that's willing to go to jail for me. He's willing to go to jail for me. I think sometimes we lose sight of what's important. This is not that important.

O'BRIEN: So some people would say though if you're talking about -- I think the number is almost $6 million. That's a real number. That's $6 million that -- in a school where you have a $42 million deficit that sounds -- is being spent on plastic surgery and other plastic surgery type options.

That doesn't sound like everybody is focusing on the kids. It sounds like, wow, maybe there is some savings there that could go to teachers. And that's not people who are against teachers, who hate teachers even know anything about Buffalo. That's just in reading that story. Are they wrong?

AKAUOLA: Well, this is my take on it.


AKAUOLA: The city of Buffalo has an $800 million budget, $800 million. Oftentimes part of that money is returned because we simply can't figure out a way to spend it.

So let the people and the players coming to the table work that part out. In terms of the jobs that were created because of plastic surgery and this industry, the families that are affected.

You know, people need to work. If somebody is going to help me and offer me medical care, the kind of care that's going to make me feel better about me, I appreciate that.

And I'm not going to judge the Botox people. Do you want them walking around with paper bags on their heads? I mean, what do you want? People deserve to be happy. Happy people are productive. It makes everybody wonderful.

So let's embrace that part of it. I hope everybody has an opportunity if they need it and if they want it to get the kind of medical care they deserve.

O'BRIEN: I got to tell you I just think there's a bunch of people who are going to disagree on that. But I do appreciate you coming in and --

AKAUOLA: That's fine. I appreciate that.

O'BRIEN: You bet. Thanks for being with us.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, Chris Christie has a message for Warren Buffett and it's blunt. We're going to play a little bit of what he said about that. That is short.

Also, black history month, today there's a historic dedication that's going to happen in Washington, D.C. We're going talk to the founding director of the African-American Smithsonian Museum.


O'BRIEN: Sounds too good. In the morning when my kids are singing to it, on the weekend, I love it. It's so cute.

President Obama on Tuesday called on Congress to consider the Buffett rule again, forcing anyone who is earning a million dollars a year to pay 30 percent taxes.

The name, of course, comes from the billionaire Warren Buffet. He says he thinks it's wrong that secretary is paying a higher tax rate than he does.

Last night, Piers Morgan asked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie about Buffett's stance.


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: Well, he should just write a check and shut up, really. Just contribute, OK? I mean, you know, the fact of the matter is that I'm tired of hearing about it. If he wants to give the government more money, he's got the ability to write a check. Go ahead and write it.


O'BRIEN: Michele Bachmann and the Heritage Foundation made similar calls in the fall to which Warren Buffett said this.


WARREN BUFFETT, CHAIRMAN & CEO, BERKSHIRE HATHAWAY: Cheerful to see -- makes you cheerful to see the child like faith in the American public. We have a deficit of $1.2 trillion or something like that and they say the way to solve it is by voluntary contributions.

I mean, if they really think that that's sound tax policy, you know, God bless them. I mean, they have a different view of human nature than I do.


O'BRIEN: You know, I thought Warren Buffett had a real point there because Chris Christie -- he always can make headlines in his comments but, at the same time, what underlies the comment is a serious issue. It's about your tax rates.

BRETT O'DONNELL, DEBATE ADVISOR: This is really is a false debate because we could take all the wealth from the top 1 percent and that would only fund the government until about August in a fiscal year. So really in order to get this revenue going that we need, it's got to be an across-the-economy city growth. And so this debate really becomes a false debate. You know, it's a show.

FARAI CHIDEYA, AUTHOR, JOURNALIST & RADIO SHOW HOST: No one is asking the 1 percent to pay all the taxes. The reality is the framing around the taxes is the Bush era tax cut should be repealed because it did help dig us into a hole. It's not about -- you know, I think a lot of times people are like, these are new taxes. No, there was a decision made in the last administration to cut taxes on wealthier Americans that did dig us into the hole. I think it's about the structure of the tax system.

O'DONNELL: I think that's up for debate as well. I would argue that it wasn't the taxes that dug us into the hole, it was the spending that started in the Bush administration and now has got, you know, to where we're a trillion deficits every year.

O'BRIEN: When you see Chris Christie, you have to say, the man comes across on the screen. You know, Piers asked him about his weight, which is something he doesn't talk about a lot, and here's what he said.


CHRIS CHRISTIE, (R), GOVERNOR OF NEW JERSEY: I'm trying to be healthier. I'm eating better. I've been working with a trainer on a regular basis and worked out before we met today. I'm trying. You know, I'm getting ready to be 50. I'll be 50 this fall. And I'm starting to feel my own mortality. I have to be around for my kids and hopefully for grandchildren. You start to think about it in that way as you don't really think about as a younger man.


CHRISTIE: We're trying.

MORGAN: Keep going, Governor.


O'BRIEN: Piers throwing the compliment, it's working.


O'BRIEN: You're a shadow of your former self.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's not a governor. He's a character. He's a Tony Soprano. I'm thinking --


O'BRIEN: Republicans watching that do you think, god, I wish Chris Christie were in this race?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How could you think that?

O'DONNELL: Well, I mean, he has done an incredible job in New Jersey. He said he doesn't want to run for president right now. I respect that.

O'BRIEN: The guy -- yes, yes, yes.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's the governor of New Jersey. He's cutting back on schools. He's cutting back on so many programs that we need.

O'BRIEN: But here's my question, as the guy who coaches people in debates, would you like to have that person as the person who is in one of those debates and he's a character and he --


O'DONNELL: I would love to coach him. He's smart. He's quick on his feet. He's witty. I mean, I think he would do an incredible job.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's a mess. He doesn't listen. He just says what he doesn't think. I would hate to coach that man.


O'BRIEN: Well, you're not a debate coach.




But actually -- I'm sorry. I'm sorry.


O'BRIEN: Still ahead on STARTING POINT, we're talking black history, because it's February. We're going to talk to the founding director of the African-American Smithsonian Museum straight ahead.

Also, we have some breaking news out of Syria this morning. Two western journalists have been killed. One is an American, who filed her last report for CNN just a few hours ago.

You're watching STARTING POINT. We'll update you on what's happening there. We're back in just a moment.



O'BRIEN: That's J.D. Hayworth's play list. He's the surrogate for the Gingrich campaign. That's Marshall Crenshaw's "Someday, Somewhere." Love that song. The former Arizona Congressman's coming up in just a little bit to talk with us.

You could argue that it has been almost 100 years in the making. African-Americans have been fighting for a focal point on D.C.'s Mall since 1915 when black Civil War veterans asked for a monument. It wasn't until 2003 that any progress was made when President George W. Bush authorized creation of a permanent African-American Smithsonian Museum. Today, appropriately during Black History Month, President Obama will be breaking the ground on the museum's construction. It is not scheduled to open until 2015. It is the first national museum devoted exclusively to documenting African-American life and art and history and culture.

Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the museum and he joins us this morning from Washington, D.C.

It's nice to see you, sir. Thanks for talking with us.

Literally, it's been 100 years since people have been calling for something to remember contributions of African-Americans. Congress funded it back in the 1920s or something -- even approved it but did not fund it back in the 1920s. Tell me a little bit about how hard the struggle has been to get this going in recent years.

LONNIE BUNCH, FOUNDING DIRECTOR, AFRICAN-AMERICAN SMITHSONIAN MUSEUM: Well, I think what's important to realize is that often it was hard to get support because this was considered first a Republican initiative, then a Democratic initiative, but really in 2003, with John Lewis and Sam Brownback, it became bipartisan. That was what was successful to get the president to sign the legislation. Since then, we've been working hard to make this day a reality.

O'BRIEN: I've read that a lot of your interest in history came from when you were a kid, and really came from your neighbors who were mostly Italian. Tell me about that.

BUNCH: That's right. I grew up in a town where most of us learned how to speak Sicilian, so I always wanted to understand who these people were. I wanted to understand how race mattered in that New Jersey town I grew up. And I realized that maybe I could understand it if I could understand history. So that got me excited about looking into the past, trying to understand who we are as Americans.

O'BRIEN: So you have something like 20,000 artifacts that will be in this museum that opens in 2015, from slave shackles to Louie Armstrong's trumpet. I'm going to walk you through some things and I want you to talk about them when I show you a picture. Child-sized shackles. Tell me about those.

BUNCH: I think what's important to realize is that slavery dehumanized everybody. I have to be honest, when I found those shackles that were for children, I think I cried. And so this will allow us to help people understand both the pain of slavery but also the resiliency it took to survive that and overcome. O'BRIEN: Rosa Parks' dress. I didn't realize she was making a dress when she had -- right before she was arrested for not giving up her seat.

BUNCH: Absolutely, because she was a seamstress. People forget that. This was the dress she was actually working on and carrying with her on the day that she was arrested. So we think that's really an important iconic dress to have.

O'BRIEN: And Michael Jackson's fedora. I wanted to point this out because it really I thought took us from things we think of as long ago history and really more recent. I wouldn't have thought Michael Jackson as history outside of pop cultural history maybe.

BUNCH: Well, but this museum has to explore the full sweep of the African-American experience, and that includes popular culture. There's nobody more impressive than Michael Jackson. So to have his fedora is an important thing for the Smithsonian.

O'BRIEN: There have been folks who have said -- who run smaller African-American museums, who have said they've been concerned that a big behemoth, and the Smithsonian is going to suck a lot of the funding that might otherwise go to these smaller African-American museums. Do you think that's a possibility or a problem?

BUNCH: Well, I think there will be times when something may come to the Smithsonian that won't go to the California African-American museum or the Disoble (ph) Museum, but my goal is to make sure that our presence improves everybody. So part of it is, as we've been collecting artifacts, we go into communities and we work with local museums, and when people bring artifacts, most of them stay locally, so that the local museums benefit when the Smithsonian comes to town. I am committed to being a beacon that draws people to Washington but then pushes them back to local African-American museums so that the visibility of the Smithsonian will also illuminate their work. Because I realize that we are standing on the work of so many institutions that have been around for generations.

O'BRIEN: And there's so many great institutions to go and see, including yours when it opens in 2015.

Lonnie Bunch, nice to see you. Thanks for talking with us this morning. Appreciate it.

BUNCH: My pleasure. Great to see you as always.

O'BRIEN: Thanks.

Ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, fighting words from Iran, threatening to strike first anyone who threatens them.

Plus, a lawsuit now over President Obama's birth-control mandate. This time, a college is fighting the White House.

And the Huntsman daughters will join us. Their father's out of the race but they're still engaged in politics. We'll tell you why. You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.