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France Standoff Over, Suspect Dead; Pressure Mounts After Martin's Death; Does It Add Up For Santorum?; New Report Links Education with National Security; Interview with Michelle Rhee; Etch- a-Sketch Shakes Up GOP Race; How to Get Out of Your Own Way

Aired March 22, 2012 - 08:00   ET



SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody.

Our STARTING POINT this morning is breaking news, that standoff in France is over. A suspected terrorist is now dead after an action- packed final hour. And we know how it went down. Shooting and he went out a window.

Plus, the "Million Hoodie March". People demanding justice for Trayvon Martin and the arrest as well of a man who shot and killed him. The message a black kid in a hoodie isn't automatically suspicious. We're going to talk to a man who led that march.

Plus, our warning that if schools don't shape up, it's going to put our national security at risk. Former D.C. chancellor Michelle Rhee will give her reaction to this new study.

And Tyrese is with us live. Oh, I love saying that. Tyrese, live here, in Time Warner Center, with me. He's talking about his new book. His love and his life and some of the unforgettable advice he got from Will Smith that's led to a lot of his success.

It is Thursday, March 22. And STARTING POINT begins right now.


O'BRIEN: That's off Tyrese's playlist himself, "Play Lady" by Tyrese.

That's a good idea to pick your own song. Yes, not bad. Not bad. It's good. We like it.

Let's get right to our panelists this morning.

Ryan Lizza joins us. He's a Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker."

It's nice to have you back.

John Fugelsang joins us. He's a political comedian whose question yesterday of a Romney, I guess, supporter, former McCain spokesperson --

JOHN FUGELSANG, POLITICAL COMEDIAN: Communications director. I thought it made it a simple question.

O'BRIEN: Turned a simple question into a very complex answer and then reframing the issue for the rest of the day for the Romney campaign.

And Will Cain is with us, columnist for

Our STARTING POINT is that breaking news we were talking about after an action-packed final hour that standoff in France is over. They are now confirming in France that the suspect -- he's a suspected terrorist and he is dead.

Police stormed the apartment after more than 30 hours. That standoff started and ended in gunshots. And then the suspect leaped to his death out of a window. That's according to authorities.

Here's a picture of him from a CNN affiliate. His name is Mohammad Merah. He was wanted in a shooting rampage that left three Jewish children, a rabbi and three French paratroopers dead.

Police say he told them that his only regret was not killing more people.

CNN's national security contributor Fran Townsend joins us live by phone.

Fran, nice to talk to you again.

So, obviously, the goal for this young man, he's 23 years old, was to capture him alive. That did not happen. He's dead.

What can they learn from him without him being alive?

FRAN TOWNSEND, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CONTRIBUTOR (via telephone): Soledad, the real lessons will be learned from the investigation that really is under way now since the standoff started. But it goes back to his trip in Afghanistan.

So, first, they'll look at his contacts inside France. They'll look at, you know, was he a part of a radical mosque? Was there radical preacher involved? Is there a pipeline inside France that lets these guys get to Afghanistan and Pakistan region to be radicalized or trained?

And, of course, at that end, the Afghanistan end, they'll want to know about what was French forces contact with them? Who inside Afghanistan or the region did he have contact with him? Was he given instructions or training and what kind?

What sort of communications did he have? Prior to his arrival there, did he maintain? When he went back, did he maintain contact with anybody in the region?

So there's a lot yet to be learned about just what was the path this individual took to become radicalized that sent him on this shooting spree.

O'BRIEN: We're going to hear, we're told, from the French President Sarkozy, who's expected to address the nation any minute there. It's 1:00 p.m. in France right now.

You have to expect that what he's going to talk about to some degree is this lone wolf scenario which must be absolutely terrifying not just in France but in this country as well.

TOWNSEND: Absolutely. And we've seen -- we had Nidal Hasan, the Ft. Hood shooter, single individual on a military base like this go on a shooting rampage and kill soldiers. And so we suffered the same thing here. There have been hearings on Capitol Hill, including our own Representative Steve King here in New York.

And so this is -- we understand, Soledad, that this is the most difficult kind of individual to identify. When they're not part of a larger group or obviously part of a larger group, it's very difficult to understand who it is and identify them before they act.

O'BRIEN: Fran Townsend joining us by phone -- thank you, Fran. Appreciate the update.

Well, first, it was a country. Now, its own community that's turning on the Sanford police chief Bill Lee after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watchman.

Overnight after a rising tide of criticism, the Sanford City commissioners voted 3-2 that they had no confidence on Lee, who has been on that job less than a year.

At the same time, national anger over the shooting is growing. Yesterday afternoon in Sanford, the NAACP held a forum for residents to complain about alleged abuse by the Sanford police. And then, last night, right here in New York City, Trayvon's parents joined the "Million Hoodie March" and demanded that shooter, George Zimmerman, be put under arrest.

Here's Trayvon's mother.


TRACY MARTIN, TRAYVON MARTIN'S FATHER: Trayvon Martin did matter. I just want New York to know that we're not going to stop until we get justice.

SABRINA FULTON, TRAYVON MARTIN'S MOM: Our son was not committing any crimes. Our son is your son. We want you guys to stand up for justice and for what's right.


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN: Later today, the Reverend Al Sharpton is going to lead a rally in Sanford, the Orlando suburb where Martin was killed. And as we speak, a civil rights investigation is under way at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Michael Skolnik is the editor in chief of And to large degree, you were responsible for sort of using social media through, which is affiliated with Russell Simmons because technically, to leverage all of the outrage that was happening nationally and internationally and focusing it on tangible events.

Tell me about that.

MICHAEL SKOLNIK, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF OF GLOBALGRIND.COM: Yes. I think what's incredible and what's inspiring about our generation is that we now have the ability to organize ourselves. So, we can go to Twitter. We go to Facebook. We can go to YouTube.

And we can start talking to each other and saying, look, we want to talk about this issue now. We don't have to wait for traditional media to talk about it. We don't have to wait for other folks to talk about it. We want to talk about it.

So, we organize. We start talking about it. We start putting Trayvon Martin's name out there and story out there.

On Monday morning, we all woke up and we said let's march. Let's have a rally. We wore hoodies.

I wore my hoodie today in tribute to Trayvon and thousands showed up yesterday in support of Trayvon. And it's amazing to see his mother and father there as well.

O'BRIEN: You wrote on, "I will never look suspicious to you. Even if I have black hoodie, I pair of jeans and white sneakers on. In fact, that's what I wore yesterday, I still will never look suspicious. No matter how much the hoodie covers my face or how baggy my jeans are, I will never look out of place to you."

And you go on to say, "because I'm white."

What do you want the message to be out of this march?

SKOLNIK: I think, you know, if I could speak directly to white people, I think the challenge is this: when Joseph Kony happened, and the whole stuff, you know, Kony movement, all of my white friends were loud. All my white friends were on Twitter and talking about.

O'BRIEN: So, you're getting a warlord who went viral with 100 million hits.

SKOLNIK: Exactly, about three weeks ago.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, a 17-year-old child was killed in this country, they were quiet. The white community was just quiet.

And so, the reason why I wrote this blog, I have a hoodie on today. I could go in the street in New York City and wave my hand and taxi cab will pick me up. I can walk into a restaurant and no one is going to ask me to pay my bill before I eat. I can walk in the street, no one is going to grab their purse in fear of me just because I'm white.

Trayvon and I had the exact same outfit on, a hoodie, baggy jeans and tennis shoes on. And it wasn't what he wore, it's because he's black.

So, I want white people to stand up and say, now, we have a choice to make. Are we going to be quiet or are we going to go out there and support Trayvon?


JOHN FUGELSANG, POLITICAL COMEDIAN: I think you're right. I think if Gandhi had social media and iPhones, the British would have left India three years sooner.

But I do think that there's plenty of Caucasians who are outraged about this. They just weren't able to be outraged because it didn't get national media exposure until very recently.

SKOLNIK: Well, I'm glad they signed up now. But Trayvon was killed three weeks ago.

FUGELSANG: Right. But a lot of folks didn't hear about it until last week.

SKOLNIK: Sure. But it's our responsibility to bring it out to them. So, I think as those who have that power, we have a responsibility with that power.

I have, you know, four followers on Twitter. So, I've been tweeting about it for weeks. And it's great to see the outpour now.

But it will happen again. A 17-year-old black child will get shot again in this country if we don't say something.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Let me ask you this. Roland Martin was on this show a couple of days ago. Roland is a friend of mine. He's a CNN contributor. He's black. And we had this debate the other day.

He said, "Why are white commentators silent on this issue?" And I said to Roland, "Do you feel like there's a conclusion that should be forwarded right now?" For me, in this case, when I look at it, I need to see the whole story. This is an investigation that is not finished. There's evidence yet to come.

So, I'm not sure, here I am. I'm white. I'm a commentator, what do you want me to say right now?

SKOLNIK: Let's put aside, you know, this actual case. What I want you to say is there is a problem in this country. It's an epidemic that young black men and young Latino men are being killed at a record rate.

So, let's first recognize the problem. They say there is a problem. If a kid can walk in the street with bag of Skittles and a soda, an ice tea can, with a hoodie on, and jeans and white -- no matter what race you are, he looks suspicious?

I don't look suspicious to you? I can walk in this set with a hoodie on, in jeans, which I did, and I don't look suspicious to you.

CAIN: I totally agree with you. And I feel like every element we've seen in this case right now is completely condemning and shady towards George Zimmerman. But the slow rational side of me says this is a legal case. Shouldn't I be quiet until we know everything?

FUGELSANG: Well, Will, do you really that if I --

CAIN: I'm curious what he has to say. Am I making a wrong choice by saying --

SKOLNIK: You should -- this country is built on innocent until proven guilty.

CAIN: Right.

SKOLNIK: Absolutely right, and the legality of this case. But in terms of our responsibility of the racial profiling, we know he profiled him because we heard the 911 tapes. He says he looks suspicious. That we know.

CAIN: So, your beef is with George Zimmerman specifically.

SKOLNIK: My beef is with us, with me, my suspicions, my stereotypes. I don't have a beef with George Zimmerman.

CAIN: What he might represent in a greater --

SKOLNIK: I have those suspicions. You have those suspicions. Let's recognize those. Let's be honest. Let's have an honest conversation about it.

O'BRIEN: Anderson spoke to a friend of George Zimmerman's who said this. I want to play a little bit.


FRANK TAAFFE, FRIEND OF GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: George is not a racist. He was just performing his duties as watch captain. Whether it be African-American, Latino, Asian or white, he would have done the same thing.


FUGELSANG: He may not be a racist but he was not performing his duties and never identified himself as a neighborhood watchman. And likewise, he was advised to not pursue. So, he wasn't doing his duties.

But, Will, wouldn't you at least agree had this been an African- American teenager shooting an unarmed Caucasian, that they would have at least brought the African-American shooter to the police station for questioning in Florida?

CAIN: This investigation by no means, John, and please do not attempt to and I'm not assuming you are, distort my opinion to saying that everything is smooth here and everything is copacetic and this investigation has gone perfectly.

What I wanted to know and I was interested in Michael's opinion, is there an accusation that people like me who might be silent are doing something wrong when I'm simply saying, man, there's some gaps in this entire thing and I need them filled.

O'BRIEN: So, as the only black person on the panel, I'm going to weigh in for one moment, which I think you make a great point, which is I don't think commentators have to say, here's my position. I'm going to weigh in and say, he's guilty because this is done and I don't care what courts say which won't happen for a year any way.

I think that there's an opportunity to raise questions and I think there's an opportunity to bring different voices to say here's what we know. Here's what we are hearing. Let's have a conversation, which what I think we are doing right now because then you start having a conversation and people weigh in. And sometimes, it's unpleasant people on Twitter as this whole thing blows up to a large degree.

The conversation does become very nasty whenever people start talking about race. I have a little bit of experience in this. It gets really ugly really fast.

SKOLNIK: I think what's interesting about my generation is that in spirit of President Obama, we saw the potential to have a post-racial society. It's aspirational. We know it's not reality.

O'BRIEN: Totally disagree with you.

SKOLNIK: We want to get there. I think we want to get there. I think we want to look beyond race. We want to look beyond racially profiling someone as a generation and we want to be in a country where race is not the issue. In this case, race is the issue.

O'BRIEN: That is every true. I think that's true.

All right. We've got to go to commercial break. Michael, nice to have you. Thank you for talking to us. Any time you want to come back and have conversations with us, we would love it.

All right. Let's get to Christine, she's got a look at the headlines for us.

Hey, Christine. Good morning, again.


The lawyer representing Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales says he expects homicide charges to be filed against his client tomorrow. Bales is suspected of killing 16 Afghan civilians in a door to door shooting spree near his Army base in Afghanistan.

After a meeting yesterday with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Afghanistan's foreign minister is calling on the U.S. to conduct a swift and transparent investigation.

Minding your business, AAA says the new national average for a gallon of regular gas, $3.88. That's 13 days in a row of gas prices rising. Analysts say high gas prices are here to say at least through the summer. They're already up about 18 percent this year. That means fill up today if you can.

A look at the markets. U.S. stock futures lower, suggesting a weak opening for U.S. stocks. World markets are down after a report from China showed its factories slowing.

But investors are tapping on the brakes in the stock market. It's not really a surprise here. The S&P 500 up 11 percent this year. Great for your 401(k). But remember those gas prices I just mentioned, they are bad for your budget.

President Obama taking his energy plan on the road today, perhaps with an eye to those higher gas prices. His first stop is Cushing, Oklahoma. The president expected to announce plans to expedite a 485-mile portion of the Keystone XL pipeline connecting Cushing to Port Arthur, Texas. And he's touting an energy strategy that Republicans have been blasting.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We've approved dozens of new oil and gas pipelines, and we've announced our support for more. We're drilling all over the place. That's one of the reasons we've been able to reduce our dependence on foreign oil every year since I took office.

ROMANS (voice-over): In January, the president rejected the full 1,600 mile $7.6 billion pipeline all the way from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico saying he needs more time to evaluate that project. Nebraskans are concerned about where it passes through some important environmental territory there.

Video just posted online of a heart stopping chopper crash in Afghanistan. You got to see this. The chopper hits the ground hard. Amazingly, no one hurt. The coalition told ABC News it has happened on February 6th. It's not clear whether it was maneuver or a pilot showing off the military -- or pilot showing off, rather. The military is investigating, Soledad.


O'BRIEN: Wow, isn't that crazy? And then, it goes back up again after that belly flop.

ROMANS (on-camera): So lucky no one was hurt. Really lucky no one was hurt.

O'BRIEN: People on the ground that he barreled missed as well. All right. Christine, thank you very much.

Ahead on STARTING POINT this morning, Rick Santorum's math problem. Is it even possible for him to win the nomination at this point? Christine is going to join us with some number crunching just ahead.

And failing kids, failing the country. We report that bad schools are threatening the nation's national security. The former D.C. chancellor, Michelle Rhee, is going to join us with her reaction to this new study.

And from my playlist, Ashanti, from Long Island, "Rock With You." You're watching STARTING POINT, and we are celebrating Long Island today. Boris, I like save the guy land.


O'BRIEN: That's The National, "Lit Up." Twenty minutes into our eight o'clock hour. These guys are having their own conversation over there.

CAIN: We like that.

O'BRIEN: We like that, huh?

CAIN: Introducing me to new things today.

O'BRIEN: I know. That's what it's all about. It's all about expanding our boundaries. All right. Of course, politics, we're talking about the race to 1,144, the magic number. Mitt Romney has been racking up the delegates, but his main challenger, Senator Rick Santorum is vowing to stay in the race.

Christine has been crunching the numbers this morning to figure out if it's even possible for Senator Santorum to win the nomination at this point. This is CNN math, I should point out. I think other people can get to different numbers different ways, but this is our math. Why don't you walk us through what you have.

ROMANS: And I guarantee you, all of the campaigns are going through this math as well as they can and looking at every possible scenario. So, first here, here's Mitt Romney and where he is in the race to 1,144. He's at 562. he's almost halfway there. Rick Santorum 249. Next up on the calendar is Louisiana right here in just a couple days.

And it looks like based on our polling, looks like that's going to go to Rick Santorum. That's where that is here now. But let's look on throughout the summer as things keep going. Let's move into April. OK. You can see here. We have Maryland, Wisconsin, District of Columbia. Those look like they are probably solidly Romney territory.

Again, this is hypothetical based on our polling. Let's keep going. As we continue to go through the spring and summer, you can see what happens here on the delegate map for Mitt Romney. He keeps creeping up here even as Santorum is gaining in some states like Texas, Will Cain's fine home state.

You can see that it is still Mitt Romney who's moving up. Let's go all of the way out to August 30th. This is, again, hypothetical based on our own very latest polling. If you gave 60 percent of the delegates to the winner of those states, where would we be? Mitt Romney would be at 1,217. Rick Santorum would be, you know, that's a third of that distance.

So, what if you say, let's say that maybe over here in Indiana assign that one to Santorum, maybe give him, I don't know, give California, even though no one is predicting that that would happen. Where would you be? Maybe he could deny Mitt Romney his 1,144. Maybe. But Rick Santorum still only about halfway there.

O'BRIEN: So, we've had this conversation, Christine, -- I'm going to throw it to Will Cain now, right, because the question becomes does Rick Santorum's campaign really focus on trying to get the number 1,144 or is it sort of the spoiler roll, you know? The goal is to deny Mitt Romney, which moves the entire campaign into a new face?

CAIN: But I mean, as Christine just pointed out, even the role of the spoiler is very, very difficult for Rick Santorum to fulfill. He has to win California. I really respect -- we're seeing Ryan Lizza, he knows a lot about politics. You know, unbiased opinion usually.


CAIN: But I mean, I don't see a path for him to even be the spoiler.

RYAN LIZZA, STAFF WRITER, THE NEW YORKER: No. I do. Look, there are 23 states left. Santorum can win enough. Look, delegate allocation is extremely complicated. He can make it difficult for Romney to secure this by June 26th with Utah votes. It is possible. And the single best indicator of the states that Santorum is going to do well in is the evangelical vote.

That has been the best way to tell if he's (inaudible). And even if he doesn't though, we're looking at an extremely weak Republican nominee. I mean, he's going to hurt. He's going to hurt Romney. Romney is going to end this race winning fewer states than any Republican nominee since Gerald Ford in 1976.

That's like it happened. He's going to win fewer than McCain won in 2008. McCain won 31. Romney, I bet, will win about 25 to 27.

O'BRIEN: So, the big question, of course, becomes and what does that mean for November, right? You know, if he is the nominee, the ultimate question becomes how do this race, this primary battle really affect his chances going into a general election? What does polling show on that?

LIZZA: Well, the truth of the matter is, I don't think that the religious base of the Republican Party that is keeping Santorum in this race and is denying its support for Romney, I don't think they have any place to go in the fall, and I think the electorate will inevitably polarize, and it will be a close race, and those folks will come out for Romney. O'BRIEN: So, curious thing has happened, of course, with the conversation that we were having yesterday with (INAUDIBLE) where basically the comeback to the Etch-A-Sketch flak was that Governor Romney will not be changing his position. They were talking about reframing a campaign they said in their correction, in their clarification. But now, they've sort of committed to not moving.

LIZZA: No, but he was right about what they have to do. The Etch-A-Sketch does have to be erased. He's appealing right now to a Republican electorate. The center of gravity in the primary is totally different than the general election. What he said was true.

O'BRIEN: Right. Let me get throw our last question back to Christine. So, Christine, if you are, say, the Santorum campaign, what do you do right now? Looking at that map, what state do you focus on and say, OK, this is where we need to put some of our resources or most of our resources?

ROMANS: Every single one of them. Every single one of them, and you try to even turn conventional wisdom on its head in places like California which are thought to be solidly Mitt Romney territory. I mean, look, this is a campaign that says it's moving along, that it is going to keep going, that they are getting more out of every dollar that they get than the Mitt Romney campaign is.

But when you look at the delicate math and you go all the way out, I mean, it's pretty clear that Mitt Romney is the one, when you look at the polling, who has a much clearer advantage on the delegates. I mean, that math is something that every campaign I'm sure has gone over every single possible scenario and this is what you get.

O'BRIEN: And yet, I'm going to guess that we're going to keep talking about it.

ROMANS: Oh yes, we are.

O'BRIEN: Want to put $5 on that Will Cain.



O'BRIEN: All right. We are going to take a short break. We're back right after this.

Ahead this morning, Tyrese joins us. We're going to talk about the book, his new album, and politics. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, fallout from the Planned Parenthood controversy. Why pressure is now mounting for the founder of the nation's largest cancer charity to step down?

Plus, a new report that our failing schools are causing a threat to national security. We're going to talk to former D.C. chancellor, Michelle Rhee. She says it's even more proof that kids won't be able to compete for jobs in the future. She's going to join us coming up. We leave you with a track from Michelle Rhee. This is Adele, "Chasing Papers." STARTING POINT is back right after this.


O'BRIEN: Good morning. Welcome back, everybody. We are following breaking news out of France this morning where a standoff between police and a suspected terrorist is now over. That man is dead. Police stormed his apartment after more than 30 hours, and it ended with the suspect leaping to his death out of a window according to authorities. This picture comes to us of him from a CNN affiliate. The suspect's name is Mohammed Merah. He was wanted in the killing rampage that left three Jewish children, a rabbi, and three French paratroopers dead. Police say that he told them his only regret was not killing more.

Diana Magnay is live in Toulouse, France, this morning. Diana, good morning.

DIANA MAGNAY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Soledad. It was very dramatic a couple of hours ago. We've been waiting for this siege to end for more than 30 hours, 32 hours I think it is now. And then suddenly earlier this morning, a couple hours ago, two minutes of sustained gun fire. We, the press, have been kept, you know, fairly far away from the actual site. We could hear it but couldn't see it.

We found out from the interior minister what had gone on. The elite raid unit had gone in and blown open the door, gone in through a window also. They got some sort of video surveillance equipment that they have been using to try and find out where he was prior to going in. They couldn't see him anywhere. They thought only place he could be was in the bathroom.

He then came out of the bathroom shooting extremely violently. The guy who led the operation who is a specialist in this kind of thing says he had never seen such a violent reaction. And then Mohammed Merah, this 24-year-old Al Qaeda, self-declared Al Qaeda affiliate, jumped out of a window and was dead when the police got to him, Soledad, an amazingly dramatic turn of events bringing this siege to an end.

O'BRIEN: We've had chance to watch as it was unfolding. Diana Magnay in Toulouse. Thank you for that update.

Let's get right to Christine. She's got a look at some of the other stories that are making news this morning. Hey, Christine.

ROMANS: Good morning, Soledad. This just in, 348,000 unemployment claims were filed for the first time last week. That's a four-year low. It's well below that key 400,000 mark. It's a sign the labor market is healing headed in the right direction there.

Police say they believe a body found in North Dakota could be a missing Montana math teacher. Sherry Arnold disappeared in January during a morning run. Police are not saying how her body may have ended up 50 miles away. The remains are being sent to a medical lab for positive identification. Two Colorado men have been charged with aggravated kidnapping in that case.

The founder and chief executive of Susan G. Komen for the Cure is reportedly under intense pressure to step down. Nancy Brinker came under fire earlier this year when Komen decided to eliminate most of its financing to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer education and screening. Two top Komen executives have now announced they are leaving the group for, quote, "personal reasons." And several reports say Brinker is facing mounting pressure within the group to resign that position.

A U.S. marine could be discharged for criticizing the president and starting an armed forces Tea Party Facebook page. Camp Pendleton Sergeant Gary Stein has already been told he is violating Pentagon policies barring troops from political activities after declaring a few weeks ago he wouldn't follow the unlawful orders of his commander in chief. Stein has been assigned to a desk job with no access to computers while military officials consider whether to give him the boot, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: All right, Christine, thank you very much for that update.

Here's a wake-up call for the nation. The short-comings in America's education system could affect national security. That is according to a new report that comes from the Council on Foreign Relations which has drawn a number of connections between schools and our safety.

Michelle Rhee is the former chancellor of the D.C. public school system. She is the CEO and founder of Students First. Nice to have you. Thanks for talking with us. Connect the dots for me. How exactly does how a school or schools in general across the nation faring connected to our national security?

MICHELLE RHEE, CEO, STUDENTS FIRST: When you think about it, in order to have a robust superpower in America, we need to have engineers and scientists and advanced military personnel. Those people have to have certain math skills and science skills and foreign language skills. If we are not preparing our children well in our schools making sure they have that level of skills and knowledge, then we're going to be really in trouble in the long run in terms of national security.

O'BRIEN: One thing I thought was scary in this report focusing on the American dream, they describe it sort of like withering on the vine and highlighted a growing gap between educated and undereducated and how that factors into national security. Do you agree with their premise?

RHEE: The data are very startling on this issue. I think most Americans don't understand the fact that now in this nation we have one of the lowest levels of social mobility of any developed nation in the entire world, meaning if you were a child born into poverty in this country, the likelihood that you will ever be able to get out of poverty is very low.

That goes against everything that we stand for as a nation. This country was founded on the ideals that this is the land of equal opportunity, that if you're a kid who grows up in America, it doesn't matter where you come from, you have the opportunity to succeed and achieve the American dream, and that's not reality anymore.

O'BRIEN: I want to skip to recommendations of the council. They have sort of their three-point recommendations. They say this, "Include skill sets that are critical to national security, provide students with more school choices, and establish a national security readiness audit." Of those three, which do you think is the most important? Which would you recommend?

RHEE: Well, I think all three of them are incredibly important. The first is important because we have to have a set of national standards that are internationally benchmarked so we know exactly where our American children stand at all times compared to kids in China, Japan, India, et cetera. The second I think is also incredibly important as we discuss before as it pertains to social mobility. We have to ensure that every single child in this nation has access to an excellent education regardless of the neighborhood that they live in and the income level of their parents, and we can no longer allow families to feel like they are trapped in failing schools.

And then, last, every governor should very well know whether or not the children in their state are being prepared to the levels that we need them to, and if not, they need to take specific actions on that.

O'BRIEN: So every few years a big report comes out that basically says if we don't step in now, if we don't intervene now, this is all going to hell in hand basket, basically. This is another report saying that same thing. This is really, really important. Now we are connecting it to national security. So it's vitally important for everyone. What has to happen before people realize that focusing on education is a priority for the nation and really fixing it?

RHEE: You know, unfortunately I don't have the answer to that. But you are absolutely right. Decades ago we had "A Nation at Risk," which said many of the same things that this report says. And, you know, for many decades in this country, we have believed that the problems in education have been a social issue. And it's very clear now that our educational systems issues are not a social problem, but they are an economic problem and now they are a national security problem.

And so really this report ought to serve as a wake-up call to the country. Everyone needs to understand this is not just an issue that affects parents with school-aged children. This is an issue that affects every single American out there, whether you are a business owner, whether you are in the military, whether you have no children and you are living on Social Security, everyone has a stake in this matter. And if we do not fix our public education system now, we will not be able to maintain our place in the global economy. O'BRIEN: Michelle Rhee is the CEO and founder of Students First. She used to be the chancellor of the D.C. public school system. Nice to have you. Thanks for talking with us. We appreciate it.

RHEE: Thanks.

O'BRIEN: Ahead on STARTING POINT, Tyrese joining us. He's going to talk with us about his book now out in paperback. It's a bestseller. He'll talk about his new album and sold a zillion copies. But we want to talk to him about politics. He has been pushing hard to have his fellow celebrities really make a difference when it comes to voting. We'll ask him about that.

We're going to get to my playlist first, though, Eddie Money, Long Islander, cultural center of America, "Take Me Home Tonight." You're watching STARTING POINT. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: The Dixie Chicks. Long Island girls. No, no but we make them honorary Long Island girls. Texans, right?


CAIN: Natalie Maines went to high school with my wife.

O'BRIEN: Yes Will Cain's family.

LIZZA: As a conservative are you allowed to recommend the Dixie Chicks?

CAIN: Everybody wants to pigeon-hole me, Ryan. I won't be pigeon-holed.

O'BRIEN: All right, we've got to -- I want to talk about this exchange that happened on our air yesterday. Kind of started up a sort of (inaudible) up but we were really congratulating the Romney campaign on their big win but it would end up changing the entire political story line of the day and it was really, John, your question.

So reframe the question that you asked.

FUGELSANG: Well, you know, we've been talking about the rough campaign that Governor Romney ran against John McCain. And I --


O'BRIEN: In 2008.

FUGELSANG: -- in 2008 and I have said that Governor -- Governor Romney faced a much moderate contender in McCain than two guys he's up against now. Given the pressure he's getting from Santorum and Gingrich, isn't there a strong fear that it'll make Romney tack so far to the right that he would have a difficult time reaching moderate voters in the general election. (CROSSTALK)


FUGELSANG: Which I thought it was a pretty basic question for a communications director.

O'BRIEN: So Eric Fehrnstrom was our guest yesterday morning and you put that question to him. Here is how he answered the question and note the words etch-a-sketch.


ERIC FEHRNSTROM, ROMNEY CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign, everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-a-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.


O'BRIEN: So needless to say that would change the entire direction of how the conversation would go. Then, later he had to sort of re-clarify his comments. Please throw up the full screen of what Eric would later say. He said that he was basically "talking about the race as we move from a primary to general election, the campaign changes. It's a different race with different candidates and a focus on different issues" is what he said.

Ryan Lizza, let's talk about impact of this.

LIZZA: Well, one thing is he actually contradicted Romney with the second statement.

O'BRIEN: It's out there. Let's play what the governor said. Here it is.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was an unusual day on the campaign trail. Mitt Romney and his campaign had wanted to talk about his victory in the Illinois primary but then the debate over this iconic children's toy, the etch-a-sketch.


O'BRIEN: Ok so that was not Governor Romney and that is not running for president. Do we have the Governor Romney's sound because we would also try to clarify. But you're right he --

LIZZA: But he went to the press that's following him around. And he said, look guys, I'm going to run on the exact same issues in the general election that I'm running on here in the primaries. A little bit different than what Eric said in cleaning up the quote.

But the real etch-a-sketch here is what's being erased is Mitt Romney's original idea of running on the terrible economy. We got some better economic news this morning. And that I think that in the long run will be the most -- the big problem for his campaign is his original message is -- is -- is disappearing as this economy improves. He's having a tougher time making the case against Obama.

O'BRIEN: Why do you think this keeps happening? Every time the Romney campaign should really be doing a victory lap and kind of a, you know, a big win, a nice easy great win to be gloating about, there is something that undermines it.

FUGELSANG: Well and also this completely stole the thunder away from Jeb Bush's extremely tepid endorsement --


FUGELSANG: Yes which he -- which he didn't do in person. I mean, you know I think it comes right back to lack of enthusiasm and a lack of trust of the Governor among the social conservatives in the GOP base.

O'BRIEN: It's interesting to hear that.

All right, we've got to take break. And when we come back, we're going to chat with Tyrese about his book, his album and politics as well.

Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: How come we're not showing the video of this? Yes because I want to see the video of Tyrese singing. It's nice to have you here. You know I call for stuff --

FUGELSANG: You got the real guy in front of you and you want the video?

O'BRIEN: I know but the video is also very, very, very cute. Tyrese of course --

FUGELSANG: He's in 3D right here.

O'BRIEN: We're going to get him in a minute. A multi-platinum Grammy nominated singer, songwriter, and former model, he's appeared in some of Hollywood's big movies like "Fast Five" and "Transformers 3", and he's a bestselling author as well.

Really, this is kind of a list of all these amazing things that you've done. "Get Out of Your Own Way" is your new book that's out in hard cover, out in paperback coming in May.


O'BRIEN: And it's done, a bestseller in "The New York Times."

GIBSON: Yes. O'BRIEN: So that's like a lot of great things happening to you. I want to talk first about your childhood because you write in the book a lot about self-love and self-hate. What do you mean?

GIBSON: Well, I just think us as adults, you know, whoever we become as adults is a direct reflection of our childhood and the many different images that we were exposed to. You know what is your interpretation of love? It's likely based on the images of love that you were exposed to. So you grow up as a woman you tend to gravitate towards men that remind you of your father. That can be a good thing or a bad thing.

And same -- the same with us men, you know if you grow up in a house with trauma, dysfunction issues, some type of drug abuse, you tend to want to gravitate towards those type of women that remind you of your mother.

O'BRIEN: Will Smith was a big mentor of yours.

GIBSON: Absolutely.

O'BRIEN: And he said one day you sat down and talked for hours and hours and he gave you great advice that would really shape your life. What did he tell you?

GIBSON: Right. Well, one of the things that really jumped out was you can often tell how far your life and career will go based on the five people you spend the most time with. And so I added to that.


O'BRIEN: Like these guys.

LIZZA: You're in trouble.

O'BRIEN: That's three of them.

GIBSON: Added to that, he said that, you know, who you are becomes a direct reflection of your environment and the people that surround you. And so if you're out of shape, likely the people around you allow you to eat that way and treat your body that way and career- wise and relationship-wise and all of the above. So it really impacted my life in a major way.

O'BRIEN: Of all of the things you've done, you've got this album. You've got your book. You've marched when they did -- recreated the march with Salman Montgomery --


O'BRIEN: What's been the most important thing that you think you're focused on? What are you proud of if you have to pick one thing?

GIBSON: Well you know -- well, you know to be honest I think a lot of celebrities whether they are considered A-list, B, C, we all come with a -- with an audience. But the question is what are you doing with your fan base and your audience? What new thoughts, views and perspective are you putting on their minds? Or are you just showing up trying to sell them on everything to get their money.

And so for me through social media like Twitter and various other things, I've been just kind of using my stage and platform to put thoughts and feelings and -- and perspectives and views that -- that may not have been on people's minds unless they were following me specifically.

O'BRIEN: What's been the thing that's really been frustrating? You weighed in on this Trayvon Martin. We had a great conversation earlier about race and black men and sort of the interpretation of --


GIBSON: Well, I -- I think -- I think what we're experiencing with this Trayvon situation and I'm just -- I'm really happy that the amount of attention that it's getting and I'm disappointed at the same time because it's not getting nearly as much of attention as it should be getting.

But I will say to his family and friends that his death was not in vain. See this is a mess that's turned into a message. And there's a lot of people out here that know in the streets and the ghettos around the -- around the country that these Trayvons exist every day. Trayvons happened last night, last week, last year.


O'BRIEN: What's different about this one? Because that's true. So what makes this become a message?

GIBSON: Well because of the fact that this guy didn't even go to the police station. There is no active investigation that's going on. And I just believe if a black man had taken the life of a white child, then it would be a whole another situation.

And I'm not the guy that's caught up in racism. That's not my angle. But I will say that there are stereotypes and there are certain expectations that happen in this country pertaining to the loss of a life. And we are just not seeing that type of attention happen toward Mr. Zimmerman. That's why everybody is outraged.

O'BRIEN: We're going to ask you to stick around through our "End Point" coming up next which is the final message for the show. So if you'll do that we would appreciate it.

We have to take a commercial break. We're back in just a moment.


O'BRIEN: Time for our "End Point". We've asked Tyrese to stick around. Your "End Point" this morning. Your final message of the morning is what? You were talking about MADD. GIBSON: Well, I want to just address that again, the loss of Trayvon's life was not in vain. I just believe that. And even though we're dealing with the thick of what just happened and the injustice that's taken place. There was a little girl name Cherry in 1980 who was run over by a drunk driver. Her mother, Candice Lightner, through her rage and outcry for help and justice organized MADD which is Mothers against Drunk Drivers.

O'BRIEN: Made a huge difference.

GIBSON: And with all of the laws that are now in place around the country because of this organization, millions of lives of little kids have been saved because they really stepped the laws up pertaining to people in drunk driving.

O'BRIEN: I love that reminder for everybody that change really can come.

Okay. In our final minute plus? "End Point"? John, you start.

FUGELSANG: I take no responsibility for any horrible Etch-a- Sketch puns made by Santorum's or Gingrich's campaigns or by Joe Biden.

O'BRIEN: And yet, you do.

FUGELSANG: No. When Joe Biden makes an Etch-a-Sketch joke, I don't take any responsibility. If I was going to be doing a toy metaphor for Mitt Romney, I would have gone with "Transformers".

LIZZA: Don't listen to pundits. Two days ago everyone told us the race was over. Romney had it wrapped up and this establishment was backing him. And because of Soledad and you yesterday the whole story changed. It will change ten times before this race is over again.

O'BRIEN: We'll see.

CAIN: We wound up with the same conclusion you did, though.

O'BRIEN: Will Cain. Will Cain gets the final word.

CAIN: You asked Michelle Rhee what the solution to the education woes, we all know that. And her answer was very poignant. I don't know. We don't know despite all the money we put towards it which means we need to experiment. We need to allow people choice and experimentation. We have to figure this education thing out.

GIBSON: I'm on my way to Florida next week. Hey, Zimmerman, I got a bag of Skittles. Are you going to shoot me?

O'BRIEN: We will end on that this morning. Tyrese, it was nice to have you come in and talk to us.

"CNN NEWSROOM" with Carol Costello begins right now. Hey Carol.