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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Fiscal Cliff Hanger: 26 Days; Bodies Found In Iowa Woods; Massacre Suspect's Emails Released; Starbucks CEO Talks Fiscal Cliff; Cadet Leaves West Point; Tough Times For The NFL; "Detropia" Documenting Detroit

Aired December 6, 2012 - 07:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, welcome back everybody. You're watching STARTING POINT. In just a few moments we're going to be talking to an out-going West Point cadet. His name is Lieutenant Blake Page. He's dropping out, leaving just months before he would graduate, because he says he's being discriminated against because he's non-religious. We'll also talk with Michael Winestein. He is with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

A fiscal cliff though, an update, we're nowhere near a deal, but there may be a smidge of movement in the debate. If an agreement isn't reached in 26 days, we go over the cliff or some people describe it as a gentle slope.

But basically what happens, there are crippling tax hikes and sweeping spending cuts that will go into effect on the first of the New Year. The president and the House Speaker John Boehner finally spoke yesterday by phone.

They have both agreed to keep the details of the discussion under wraps. They're both standing firm on the tax hike, their positions on the tax hikes for the top 2 percent. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE JOHN BOEHNER (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: The revenues we're putting on the table are going to come from, guess who, the rich.

JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Once Republicans acknowledge that rates are going up for top earners, we believe that an agreement is very achievable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: Kate Bolduan is in Washington, D.C., this morning. So that's kind of a depressing thing, when just the advent of a phone conversation between the two top deal-makers is the headline, isn't it?

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I could not agree with you more. The fact that they spoke, but the fact that there's no progress, and that's a headline. I mean, if we want to take anything from it, any significance, it's the first time they've talked in a week.

So take that what you will. I mean, some will say hope springs eternal, but we are a long way from a deal still. Because neither side, as you said, Soledad, the Republican House speaker nor the president is giving on their basic position.

President Obama continues to insist any deal must include a tax break increase on the top 2 percent of wage earners, which Republicans, we well know, just as firmly insist, that is a nonstarter in these cliff negotiations. Another element to this fight now, which is important, is the debt ceiling.

It's likely the country will come up against that marker again early next year, laying the groundwork for another potentially bitter, bruising, and damaging battle between Congress and the White House. We know how well that went last summer when we filed a debt ceiling fight.

The proposal that was offered by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner last week to Republicans would change the rules as it relates to the debt ceiling, giving more power to the president and making it harder for Congress to block a debt ceiling increase in the future.

The president clearly wants to take the threat of this continued fight on the debt ceiling off the table. Listen to the president yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: If Congress, in any way, suggests they're going to tie negotiations to debt ceiling votes, and take us to the brink of default once again, as part of a budget negotiation, which, by the way, we have never done in our history, until we did it last year, I will not play that game.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Well, Republicans call it a power grab, what they're really proposing, and this is where they see the little leverage that they have. Because they see that if they don't want the debt ceiling to be part of this fiscal cliff fight. They want to talk about it next year.

And they see that as a way to be able to force the president to agree to more spending cuts and entitlement changes that he would otherwise not want to maybe agree to, Soledad. But bottom line is, we're still watching them fight in public, which as you well know, the more they're fighting in public, the less they're talking behind the scenes.

O'BRIEN: Maybe not though. You know, the fact they're not talking about anything they discuss on the phone call, I actually see that as a little ray of hope, right? Like let's move it away from the cameras and get some serious work done.

BOLDUAN: I will agree with you.

O'BRIEN: Hope springs eternal.

BOLDUAN: I will agree with you. Take that sliver of hope and I'll be back here telling you there's no progress.

O'BRIEN: Kate is an optimist and so am I. Thanks, Kate. Appreciate it. Zoraida Sambolin has a look at some of the other stories making news today that are not fiscal cliff stories. Good morning.

ZORAIDA SAMBOLIN, ANCHOR, CNN'S "EARLY START": No. I actually start with the really tragic one, the bodies of two young cousins missing since the summer have been found by hunters in a wooded area in Iowa.

The 10-year-old Lyric Cook and her 8-year-old cousin Elizabeth Collins vanished in July. Police found their bicycles and a purse near a neighborhood lake. That lake was the scene of an emotional vigil last night.

The families of the two girls have been notified. We are awaiting an official I.D. from police. Elizabeth's mother had an emotional message on her Facebook page confirmed the bodies are those of Elizabeth and Lyric. Police say they have no suspects in this case.

And nearly 4,000 e-mails that were sent or received by movie theatre massacre suspect James Holmes have been released to the public by the University of Colorado. They reveal Holmes may have had a romantic relationship with a fellow graduate student.

And CNN Denver affiliate KMGH reports Holmes expressed fantasies about killing a lot of people more than a month before the shootings. And that a doctor who was treating him decided against holding him for a 72-hour mental evaluation because he was leaving the school.

Starbucks' CEO Howard Schultz has some sobering advice to offer on that looming fiscal cliff. He says consequences will be far worse than last year's debt ceiling fight, when the U.S. credit rating was downgraded for the first time ever.

If a deal is not reached, he told our Poppy Harlow, the ripple effect will be felt worldwide.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HOWARD SCHULTZ, CEO, STARBUCKS: This single issue has a seismic effect on the rest of the world, that we have never been as connected and the domino effect of a bad outcome here will have significant negative consequences, domestically and around the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SAMBOLIN: Take a minute to come over to your TV, if you can. Penn State has another PR problem on its hands this morning. The university's Kai Omega sorority is being investigated for stereotyping Latinos after a picture showed up on the site "Tumblr."

The photo showed sorority members wearing fake mustaches and dressed in sombreros while holding signs with comments like "I don't cut grass, I smoke it." The president of the Chi Omega chapter at Penn State has apologized. Is that enough, Soledad?

O'BRIEN: Ladies, as your multi-ethnic friend, let me help you. Help me help you, no dressing up as any stereotypical characters, not Latinos, not gays, not any derogatory women, not blacks. Just stop. Call a friend. Get advice. Don't do it. And don't take pictures of it and post it to Facebook.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is there a single minority in this sorority who felt empowered to stand up, to say, friends --

SAMBOLIN: Bad idea.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: We're talking about Chi Omega, not Sigma Kappa Theta. I doubt it.

O'BRIEN: Moving on, an interesting story. A young man who's just five months away from graduating West Point, he's decided that he is going to abandon his degree in a very public way.

The 24-year-old cadet Blake Page, he wrote a blog page on "THE HUFFINGTON POST" saying he wanted out because he's being discriminated against for being non-religious.

In his resignation letter, he writes this, "I do not wish to be in any way associated with an institution, which willfully disregards the constitution of the United States of America by enforcing policies which run counter to the same."

The U.S. military academy declined to give us a statement. They did confirm that Page's resignation has been approved and he's being honorably discharged.

Joining us this Morning is Blake Page, now an out processing cadet from West Point. Michael Winestein is with the founder and president of the Military Religious Freedom foundation. They're in Albuquerque. Nice to talk to you both.

Blake, I'll start with you, if I can. Did you know that before you attended West Point, that this is an institution that involves going to chapel, praying over meals. There was a bit, I think it's fair, of a religious culture around West Point.

CADET LT. BLAKE PAGE, OUTPROCESSING CADET, WEST POINT: Sure. I knew there was a religious culture, but being a cadet does not involve going to chapel, it doesn't involve praying over meals, under normal circumstances.

Going to chapel is often encouraged in illegal ways here and throughout the military at large. But prayer over meals is explicitly required at certain times. Those things, though -- those things weren't as big of a deal to me as a lot of the other problems that have arose --

O'BRIEN: OK, so walk me through. You spelled it out in your letter to "The Huffington Post," religious bigotry. Tick off for me some of the things that you found most offensive. PAGE: Right. Well, things that have happened to me personally have just been conversational and really just condescension and disrespect from other people. And I can give my personal stories all day long, but so far, it seems that my greatest criticism comes from people saying that they can't believe what I'm saying.

We have over 150 clients here and the staff, faculty, and cadets at West Point who also agree that this is a problem. And there are thousands throughout the military who also agree that this is a problem. So if anybody wants to just pretend that this sort of harassment doesn't exist, they're really missing it. I've had conversations with --

O'BRIEN: Forgive me for interrupting you, you said the MRFF, and I just want people to be aware that's the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, which Mr. Winestein is founder and president. We'll turn to him for a moment.

Is it true that this is a -- how big of a problem is this? And how many complaints do you get? This seems to be a real rarity, a high- profile departure, just months before graduation.

MICHAEL "MIKEY" WEINSTEIN, FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT, MILITARY RELIGIOUS FREEDOM FOUNDATION: Soledad, it's a terrible problem. Our foundation, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, currently represents 30,512 active duty United States Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen, and cadets and midshipmen at my alma mater, the Air Force Academy, West Point, and Annapolis.

The 96 percent of them are actually practicing Christians themselves, being told that they're not Christian enough. At West Point, as Blake says, we have 151 clients, 119 of whom are also Christians. But this year, this is very typical for West Point.

Earlier this year, our foundation had to lead the way with other organizations to stop West Point from inviting the raging Islamophobe, retired Jerry Boykin, from speaking at their national prayer breakfast. We had to go public with that.

This man is a raging fundamentalist Christian, Islamophobe, you know, disgraced. West Point, did, at the last minute, disinvite him. A few months later, thanks to other folks at West Point, we found out that West Point had a four-year longitudinal study that was assessed with the class of 2013 this time.

It came out in August, I think it was, Blake, where they were actually asking questions about leadership, and they were testing, you know, asking questions about faith and religion, which is fine to do, but not in this country, because clause 3, article 6 of our constitution specifically forbids religious questioning.

O'BRIEN: So let me get that to Blake for a moment if I can. I think Roland wants to jump in with question.

MARTIN: General Benjamin Davis Jr. was the first black to finish from West Point in the 20th Century. He went through an entire year where no one even spoke to him because he was black. Do you believe that you're giving in to them by leaving? What if you stayed? What if you said, no matter what you do to me, I am going to win and beat you at this battle? Why leave?

PAGE: Yes, I get that question a lot. I didn't come to West Point to get a West Point degree. I couldn't care less about graduating from West Point. What I wanted to do was become an officer, all right? So that's what was important to me and that's what I was working towards.

And I'm not being beaten. Going through the channels here haven't been difficult for me, classes haven't been difficult. I've generally had a fair amount of success with my time as a cadet, and anybody who thinks I'm just giving up and walking away is really missing the point.

I found out earlier this semester that I would not be able to commission, but I was told that I would be allowed to graduate if I decided that I wanted to. When I first found out if I wasn't going to commission, I asked if I could go ahead and leave so that I wouldn't waste anymore taxpayer dollars.

But I was encouraged by people here to stay, and I ended up staying for a few months, and I realized there was a problem here and I was going to be outside the system, and I wouldn't be able to affect the changes I wanted to affect as a high-ranking officer later on.

So I made the decision to do what I could to try to get attention to an issue that I think needs a lot of attention.

O'BRIEN: You certainly have with your post on "The Huffington Post." It's what all people are talking about. Cadet Blake Page joining us and also Michael Weinstein as well with the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. Nice to talk to both of you gentleman. We appreciate your time this morning. Got to take a short break.

Still ahead, the NFL experienced a tragedy this week when a Kansas City player killed himself and his girlfriend. There's a new article that takes look at the lengths that Roger Goodell is going to, to protect his sport. We'll talk about that straight ahead.

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O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. The cover of this week's "Time" magazine is a fascinating profile of the NFL and its embattled commissioner, Roger Goodell. The league has a legion of lawyers who are handling a legion of different lawsuits, not to mention the concussion crisis, the bounty scandal, replacement ref fiasco.

Four suicides that have taken place from former or current players over the last eight months. They're really dealing with a lot and in the middle of all of this, Roger Goodell is trying to hold all the pieces together.

JIM FREDERICK, INTERNATIONAL EDITOR, TIME: Yes, it's a fascinating look at a man who is trying to manage, you know, one of the country's most beloved sports and institutions at a moment of its maximum crisis. Probably its biggest crisis since Teddy Roosevelt told the college football, you know, clean up your game or I'm going to ban it.

So it's just looking at the way that he's struggling to acknowledge and address the fact that concussions and traumatic brain injury lead to degenerative dementia, but also preserve the spirit of the game.

Because on the other side, he's addressing a lot of critics who say, you're watering down the sport, the sport is brutal. The sport has always been brutal. That's the reason we love it.

MARTIN: First of all, which is huge even if you broaden it, remember, before even this, he had to deal with the issue of violence within the sport, in terms of also off the field. That is banning players, suspending players. That was the whole issue as well.

As relates to the concussions, you've had lawsuits, you've had former players. You see Mike Ditka out there saying, we haven't done enough. It's also been a part of the collective bargaining agreement, because the current players pay into the system. These guys say, why should I be playing for these old guys? So he's had a very difficult task.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What does he suggest that we can do? Is there any changes we can make as of now?

FREDERICK: Well, he's implemented a couple of rule changes. One of the most fascinating aspects is he's proposing or he's contemplating publicizing a rule change that actually involves getting rid of the kickoff. That changing after the team scores, the winning team.

The scoring team would be put on the 30-yard line with a fourth down and 15-yard to go scenario. So they have a choice about whether or not they go for it is and try to retain possession or they punt and because an overwhelming majority of concussions that are caused on the football field are during kickoffs because it's really the only scenario where one player are running at 11 players at full speed.

(CROSSTALK)

O'BRIEN: -- of "Time" magazine. It's the cover story called "The Enforcer." Appreciate that update.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, the story of a shrinking city and a city that's really on the verge of collapse with thousands of homes abandoned, jobs disappearing, it's not fiction.

We're talking about the city of Detroit. Directors of a new documentary take a look at Detroit's struggle to survive. The folks who are trying to keep that city alive, we'll talk to them, coming up next.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST, CNN'S "NEXT LIST": I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. This week on the "NEXT LISTS," architect, designer, scientist and artist, Neri Oxman. Her muse is nature and her medium is the 3D printer. UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Here today for the opening of a show that's called (inaudible). My contribution to the show is called imaginary beings, the mythology of not yet. So the show is really a mystery of those mythical beings that are designed around the human body.

So there's the helmet serious that explore shock (inaudible). There is a corset that allows to -- for you to be myths that one day will turn into buildings. There's a series that explores shock absorbent helmets. There is a corset that allows you to be protected, a stiff armor. And all of these imaginary beings were 3D printed.

GUPTA: Neri Oxman, the artist and the architect, this Sunday on "THE NEXT LIST."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

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O'BRIEN: Welcome back, everybody. "Detropia" tells the story of an American City on the verge of collapse through four Detroiters. It just made the academy awards documentary short list. Here is a little clip.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are shutting down schools. They're shutting down futures basically.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not going to accept any more downsizing. We want to hear about up-sizing, big sizing, super-sizing Detroit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to be difficult. The city is broke. I don't know how many times I have to say that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

O'BRIEN: That's Mayor Binge, talking there. The documentary's directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady join us.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Morning.

O'BRIEN: You know, the shots of this movie are decaying, falling apart and in a weird way very beautiful. What was the goal?

HEIDI EWING, DIRECTOR, "DETROPIA": Well, Detroit, the birthplace of the middle class was a place of great importance in the United States. That majesty is not gone. A lot of the city has been vacated, lost 25 percent of its population in the last ten years. However, we're reminded by the people and the buildings what it used to be and maybe what it could become again.

O'BRIEN: Basic services do not exist.

RACHEL GRADY, DIRECTOR, "DETROPIA": They do not. I think that New Yorkers and other places take it for granted. But they have no street lights, no police officers. They have no firemen. O'BRIEN: No garbage pickup.

GRADY: The quality of life is really -- it's not acceptable.

MARTIN: We need to understand, how did you get there? Part of that is because of massive corruption in the city. You also saw significant white flight because Detroit, when it became a largely black city, you saw folks going out to the suburbs, dollars going with them. That's the struggle.

O'BRIEN: It's a struggle, but is the message at the end of your film hopeful or depressing?

EWING: Well, it's realistic. We're not saying that Detroit is over, it can't rise again. We're saying please double down on Detroit. Please focus on a lot of us our cities going bankrupt and infrastructural problems in Detroit. It's not a message of it's all going to be fine, but if people ban together and we focus on places like Detroit, of course, there's hope.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You talk to so many people that are struggling. What did they say they want to get done and how do they expect it to get done?

GRADY: They want basic -- I think they want a basic quality of life. They really do. At this point, it's donning on them that it's never going to be the way it used to be, but they want to have a basic life and that their kids will have at least as good a life as they have.

MARTIN: What we're seeing in Greece is what's happening in Detroit. Austerity cuts and things like that.

O'BRIEN: We're seeing a big bailout --

EWING: Starting with the auto industry. The White House is giving money for new police stations. Homeland Security is trying to sustain the fire department in Detroit. We're talking about a series of bailouts that continue in order to keep Detroit proposed up. I don't know how long that is sustainable.

O'BRIEN: The movie is called "Detropia." You just made the academy awards documentary short list. Congratulations on that.

We've got to take a short break. Just ahead, we'll talk Syria. We'll discuss that. We're back in a moment.

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