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Winter Storm Pounds Midwest; Interview with Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia; Basketball Coach Begs for Action on Guns; Controversial Article: Shooting Deaths Prevented if Men Present

Aired December 20, 2012 - 08:00   ET



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

Our STARTING POINT this morning: winter thrashing. A giant storm is threatening holiday plans nationwide -- a foot of snow up North, and we'll be watching down South for a possible tornado.

Plus, a father who's also a head basketball coach gives a very passionate post game speech that has nothing to do with the game.


PAT KELSEY, WINTHROP HEAD BASKETBALL COACH: Parents, teachers, rabbis, priests, coaches, everybody needs to step up.


O'BRIEN: That's Pat Kelsey. We're going to talk about his Newtown wake-up call.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Game of chicken. Your money at stake. President Obama, Speaker Boehner digging in their heels again with a dozen days to go until we go over the fiscal cliff.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, "EARLY START": You know, we knew it all along -- the truth behind this viral video of an eagle swooping down and snatching a baby. We're going to talk to students who fooled millions, coming up.

O'BRIEN: Were you fooled?



O'BRIEN: Thursday, December 20th -- and STARTING POINT begins right now.


O'BRIEN: Welcome, everybody. Our team this morning: Margaret Hoover is with us, CNN's political contributor, appointee in the Bush White House. Richard Socarides is with us, writer for the and former adviser for Bill Clinton. Chrystia Freeland is the digital editor for "Thomson Reuters."

And "EARLY START" co-host John Berman is with as well. Everybody's with us. Christine is sticking around, too. The family is all here for the holidays.

Our STARTING POINT is this major winter storm, though, blanketing the Midwest, creating havoc with holiday travelers.

There is a blizzard in effect for six states, and storms stretching across the huge of the Midwest, the Great Plains, too. Colorado's already been clobbered. Snow has forced officials to close 156 miles of I-70 in both directions yesterday. They were closed for hours. The storm stretching as far north as Wisconsin, packing wind gusts over 50 miles an hour. Emergency management officials in Milwaukee offering advice to anybody who is looking to beat the holiday travel rush.


TOD PRITCHARD, WISCONSIN EMERGENCY PREPAREDNESS: I think the first thing you should think about is changing your plans for Thursday.


O'BRIEN: Anybody looking for some advice? Don't go -- is basically what he's saying.

And this just in to CNN, we're showing you some pictures from Mobile, Alabama, where the storm's done considerable damage, downed trees, power lines down, too, lots of stores have suffered some damage. There was a tornado warning earlier there this morning -- brings us all to meteorologist Alexandra Steele, who's tracking the storm from our extreme weather center in Atlanta this morning.

Hey, Alexandra. Good morning.

ALEXANDRA STEELE, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Good morning to you, Soledad. Hi, everyone.

This is a powerful storm with a big bite and incredibly long legs. You know, we've got blizzard warnings here in Iowa and as Soledad mentioned tornado warnings in the Deep South and southwest Alabama.

We did have a tornado warning for Mobile, cruising right up 65. And so, we still have a few tornado warnings. Tornado watch for the Southeast, you can see it there delineated in the red box until noon. Meaning, the atmosphere is ripe for tornados to develop and we've seen that.

So, here's the snow, a foot snow and, of course, from the south side, a very potent system with some strong thunderstorms.

All right, so when will it end, right? That's the big question. Chicago has not seen snow yet this season. It's been 290 days, a record. Tonight, at about 7:00, we're going to see that rain change over to snow and get into some very robust winds, gusting 50, 60 miles per hour.

So, as we head toward tonight, Chicago will be in the snow. That's what he was saying, if you've got Midwest travel plans on Thursday, forget about it, already canceling and delays in Chicago. But the worst is yet to come and that will be tonight.

You can also tonight where this line of rain is, that's west of I-95 corridor but tomorrow morning, it will be. So the toughest travel tonight in the Midwest, tomorrow morning in the Northeast -- Boston, New York, Washington.

Behind this system even, a lot of winds so you can still see these tight isobars pack. That means strong winds even as the storm exits tomorrow, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: I hate it when you say the worst is let to come, Alexandra. Thank you. We appreciate the update.

The ripple effect of this scathing report on the consulate attack in Benghazi is our next topic this morning and it hits Capitol Hill today. Two State Department officials are about to begin testifying. It's also caused a big staff shakeup at the State Department. So far, there's been one resignation, three folks on administrative leave.

Senator Johnny Isakson is Republican from the state of Georgia.

Panel is getting right underway now, sir. And I know you're in that hearing, so we can't keep you very long. We'll get right to it.

What do you want to hear? What's the main thing you'd like to get out of this hearing?

SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), GEORGIA: Well, if you read the report and you listened -- we had secured testimony yesterday from Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering, there was a failure of duty of responsibility in the chain of command at the State Department. It's quite obvious, the State Department recognized early on this was not a spontaneous attack, it was a militia attack. And it's, obviously, four Americans lost their lives and to a certain extent -- we don't know what extent yet -- the State Department failed in its standard of duty to protect those mission officers.

O'BRIEN: The report, which is absolutely scathing, lists a lot of people. I mean, it really points a lot of fingers and there's a part that talks about budget cuts. I read it to you, "For many years, the State Department," they write in this report, "has been engaged in a struggle to obtain the resources necessary to carry out its work with varying degrees of success. But it also had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation."

Who do you think gets the blame or is it everybody? Because they do blame Congress, frankly. ISAKSON: Well, they do blame Congress, but, quietly frankly, before this report was finished, they had already implemented additional security in 19 missions around the world that are high danger zones. I think this was a failure of standard of duty on the part of State Department, not a failure of Congress.

O'BRIEN: Secretary Clinton said the cuts were too big back in 2011. And as you know, a consulate like the one we saw at that attack, it's sort of at the bottom of the list in terms of things they value. So, you know, the idea that the funding would go to the most dangerous places and things that are less valued would get the least money, and she had asked for more money.

ISAKSON: Well, we always have requests for more money and there's always a demand for more money, but you have to prioritize within the money you have. You have to do a cost-benefit analysis in where you put your money. And in terms of cost-benefit, the benefit for investing money is in saving lives, not having parties or doing trips, or something like that.

So I want to see the standard of care they did, looking for the cost- benefit analysis before I accept any blame on behalf of Congress for not funding enough money for the security of our diplomats.

O'BRIEN: Here is what John Kerry said about this report.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The department has taken a huge step forward to address lessons learned from Benghazi, which are important to everybody. You know, there are 70,000 employees over there. There are 275 different posts. People are at risk.

It's a dangerous world we're in, and I think that this report is going to significantly advance the security interests of those personnel and of our country.


O'BRIEN: Do you think ultimately this report is helpful as Senator Kerry seems to be saying, although if you look at it, nobody has really named the report -- has been, you know, named to be fired, one officer -- official, rather, resigned and then three others are on administrative leave and many people are guessing they'll just never come back from administrative leave.

Does that go far enough?

ISAKSON: Well, we need to continue to have the hearing we're having this morning. We need to get the answers and the secretary has to bring closure testifying before Congress as to what steps have been taken to correct the errors and failures of duty on part of the State Department.

O'BRIEN: She's expected to testify. But, as I know you know, the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N., John Bolton, says her illness is basically faking. I mean, he didn't mince words about that.

Do you think that she's faking?

ISAKSON: I would never accuse the secretary of faking it, but I do think it's at the appropriate time she needs to be before the committee to say not only why, what failed happened in the first place, but what's being done within the department to see it never happens again. She must testify.

O'BRIEN: Senator Isakson is in this hearing, so we're going to let you go, sir. We appreciate your time this morning. Thanks for talking with us.

ISAKSON: Merry Christmas, Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. Likewise, sir. Appreciate that.

Let's get to John Berman. He's got a look at the rest of the day's stories.

BERMAN: All right. Thank you, Soledad. It's just 12 days left until the nation goes over the fiscal cliff and negotiations do not seem to be going well. The optimism earlier this week that President Obama and House Speaker Boehner would reach a deal appears to have vanished and the rancor could get worse today.

Speaker Boehner will put his Plan B up to a vote in the House. This would extend the Bush era tax cuts on incomes up to $1 million. The president has promised to veto the bill, although there's really no chance it will ever reach his desk.

In Newtown, a final goodbye to Sandy Hook Elementary principal Dawn Hochsprung, as well as three of the children in the massacre and two teachers. Six-year-old Catherine Hubbard, Benjamin Wheeler and Allison Wyatt, and teachers Anne Marie Murphy and Lauren Rousseau.

Investigators say a complete police report will take months to complete because they say they want to sit down with each victim's family and survivors of this rampage.

Investigators do say they are getting a clearer picture of the days leading up to the Newtown massacre. Friends of Nancy Lanza, the shooter's mother, saying she was in New Hampshire taking a short getaway at a hotel. That's about a four-hour drive in Newtown in the days before the shootings. They say she felt comfortable enough to leave him alone for three days. Her son shot and killed her after she returned.

South Korea has a new president this morning. For the first time in history, it's a woman. Ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye is the 60-year-old daughter of a former military dictator who led South Korea in the '70s. Park is promising greater engagement with North Korea.

And I love this picture -- friendly neighborhood Spider-Man dropping by the White House. This picture of President Obama playing with a kid in a Spider-Man costume spreading all over the Internet. The photo was posted on the president's Twitter and Facebook accounts yesterday. (INAUDIBLE) right here joking saying the Spider-Man's angry because his income is over $250,000.

O'BRIEN: He's been saying can we all fix the fiscal cliff before we head over it?

ROMANS: Spidey says don't raise my taxes.

O'BRIEN: Spidey says wrap this up before Christmas.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT: a college basketball coach uses the power of the mike and all cameras trained on him talking about a big game to send a message to President Obama and Speaker Boehner. We'll talk to Pat Kelsey about his speech about Newtown that's making waves this morning.

And God bless you.


ROMANS: Welcome back to STARTING POINT. I'm Christine Romans, minding your business.

After two strong days of gains, U.S. markets closed lower yesterday, while fiscal cliff talks stalled in Washington. U.S. stock futures, though, you guys, have just turned up slightly this morning. So we'll keep watching.

Gun stocks, in case you're watching, bounced back yesterday after three days of losses following the school shooting in Newtown. Strum, Ruger, Smith & Wesson and the retailer Cabela's which sells guns all posted gains. This is an incredibly profitable industry, and the rush for guns continues.

A stock getting a lot of attention this morning, there are more licensed firearms dealers in this country than there are supermarkets and McDonald's locations combined. It's not just gun shops, though. We should point, that's also collectors, it's also dealers, people who go to go shows and sell from there.

Profits expected to reach nearly $1 billion for the guns and ammunition industry according to IBISWorld researcher.

And home values grew 5.2 percent over the past year -- the best year for home prices since 2006 -- ahh, 2006. Zillow says the last time home values stood this high was May 2004.

We're going to get existing home sales data at 10:00 a.m. eastern. One place where home values did not rise year over year, New York, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Chicago, but some of those bubble locations like Phoenix up 20 percent year over year.


O'BRIEN: I was going to say they were absolutely collapsed. Well, crazy.

All right. Thanks, Christine. Appreciate that.

Next story up is the story of a college coach at a small college loses a basketball game to a big college, the fourth ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, and usually, that wouldn't be huge news, but the Winthrop University Eagles, the score was 65-55 and that brought all the cameras in.

And really, it's what happened after, at the end of that press conference, that's making big waves this morning. The losing coach made an impassioned plea that had nothing to do with basketball and everything to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut.


KELSEY: Parents, teachers, rabbis, priests, coaches, everybody needs to step up. This has to be a time for change, and I know this microphone's powerful right now because we're playing the fourth best team in the country. I'm not going to have a microphone like this the rest of the year, maybe the rest of my life.


O'BRIEN: Pat Kelsey, head coach of the Winthrop Eagles men's basketball team. Here's a little more of his speech and my conversation with him from earlier this morning.


KELSEY: I didn't vote for President Obama, OK, but you know what? He's my president now. He's my leader. I need him to step up, OK? Mr. Boehner, the Speaker of the House, he's a Xavier guy, he's a Cincinnati guy, OK? He needs to step up.

O'BRIEN: Really you were saying we need to change, regardless of what political side of the aisle you're on, you need to change. So what do you see is change? Like, what is the change that we need to get to, do you think?

KELSEY: Well, you know I think, you know, it's like if I relate it to my business, the fight's not in the locker room. The fight's on the court. You know, obviously, we're going to argue behind the scenes as a coaching staff and we're going to prepare, but when we take the court, we're all on the same page.

So, you know, obviously, I would think bipartisan -- I'm not a political activist, you know, and it's something that maybe I'm a little bit ashamed of and maybe my civic duty and one thing that I can do on the move forward is invest more time in looking into the issues. There's obviously a huge faction of people that believe passionately that this is a gun issue, and it probably is. They think it's a mental health issue and it probably is.

But you know the other thing I talked about is sort of a deterioration of the core, you know, core values of what it means to be American, what it means to be, you know, what's right and wrong. For something like this so unbelievably tragic, a massacre of these proportions to happen under our watch is scary.

O'BRIEN: Terrifying.

KELSEY: You know, someday, I'm going to be gone and my wife is going to be gone and my two little girls are going to live in this society, and we pride ourselves in being the greatest country in the history of civilization and for something like this to happen in a kindergarten class shakes me. And it just -- you know, hopefully, it's an impetus for change that, you know, what's the answer?

I'm not someone that's going to push my religion on anybody else but there was somebody that walked the earth 2,000 years ago that set the ultimate example, the perfect example of how you act, how you live, and how you lead, and if we follow that example, you know, as a whole, we'll all be better off.

O'BRIEN: You've said in your remarks, you said, "I'm going to be an agent of change for the 13 men that I coach and also my two daughters as well." What specifically do you think individuals can do? Because I think for a lot of people, and you know, I spend a lot of time in Newtown, Connecticut, over the last several days. You know, you feel very at a loss for like, OK, what can I as an individual do?

KELSEY: You know, the guy that taught me to coach, a man named Skip Prosser (ph), who's one of the finest people I've ever been around, unbelievable mentor is no longer with us today, he passed away of a heart attack several years ago, used to say, Kels, crush it where you're at. You know, where you're at, do the best possible job you can be.

And the people used to ask him all the time, how do I get to be a head coach in the ACC? He said, where are you? He said, I'm a junior varsity coach in San Francisco. Be the best junior varsity coach in the country. Everything else will take care of itself. Lead those young men. Set a positive example. And that's what I think I can do. That's what every parents can do.

And I mentioned, everybody in a leadership position and everybody to some extent is a leader, whether you're a parent, whether you're a boss of a company, you know, set a positive example of, you know, the right ethics, the right values, the right way to carry yourself, and you know, I can do that for the two little girls and the one on the way that I'm raising.

And for the 13 young men that stare at me every day and look at me as an example of how we roll and how we operate and how we move forward.

O'BRIEN: Pat Kelsey is the Winthrop Eagles head coach of men's basketball team. Nice to have you with us this morning. I thought your remarks were just remarkable. Appreciate you joining us this morning.

KELSEY: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be here. (END VIDEOTAPE)

O'BRIEN: I love it. Crush it where you're at.


O'BRIEN: I might get that done, do what you can do where you are.

Still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT, could the Newtown shooting have been prevented if any teachers on the site were men? There's a very controversial opinion that's being circulated. We're going to talk about that, straight ahead.


O'BRIEN: OK. So, the craziest article I've read in a long time has to do with the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre is written by a woman named Charlotte Allen, and it's in, and she claims that if there had been women -- if there had been men at the school at the time of the shooting that they actually could have saved lives and she writes this, I'm going to just read a chunk of it.

"Some of the teachers managed to save all or some of their charges by rushing them to closets or bathrooms, but in general, a feminized setting is a setting in which helpless passivity is the norm."

Yes. It gets from there. I heard your gasp. It gets worse from there. Charlotte Allen, I'm go out on a limb and say she's just not the sharpest tack in the toolbox. This article is ridiculous and Slate's response is brilliant.

BERMAN: One of the most remarkable things about this tragedy is the courage, bravery, and fierce resolve of the people who were in that school.

O'BRIEN: Of everyone, the children included.

BERMAN: As a man, I can only say, I would hope I would have an iota of that bravery should something like this ever happen.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: And at times, it really diminishes and undermines the heroism of the principal who attacked Adam Lanza, of the teacher, Vicki Soto, of all of the teachers. And they all handled it. There's nothing by the book that any of them could have done differently as we look at it and what we know now. So --

O'BRIEN: Plus, she's wrong. I mean, she says there's no teachers. Of course, there's male teachers at the school. There are men at the school. It's wrong in so many ways that it's actually upsetting to read it.

FREELAND: It is and it makes me really angry because all of these sort of other arguments like just have men in schools and then everything will be OK, do this, do that. I think it's distracting us from what you were talking about with Senator Bloomfeld. You know, this is really potentially a turning point in the United States, and of course, it's a hugely complicated set of issues.

But there's something really simple at the heart of it, which is America has too many extremely powerful guns out there and that is --

O'BRIEN: I think that's at the center, but it intersects with we have a lot of issues with mental health and we have a culture of violence. And I think anybody who takes one of those themes is just going to be wrong, pick any one and you're wrong. It is all those things come together, access to weapons is absolutely one, mental health issues is definitely one, culture violence is another one.

RICHARD SOCARIDES, WRITER, NEWYORKER.COM: It really does require a comprehensive approach. You know, one of the things that is so disturbing to me about this is, you know, when I was on the White House staff back in the 1990s, we had, you know, similar incidents and there was a conference that President Clinton put together.

We talked about all the same issues. You know, we talked about culture of violence in the movies. We talked about mental health. We talked about, you know, assault weapons. President Bush did that also. There really has to be something different this time.

O'BRIEN: I hope there certainly is. We got to take a short break. But still ahead this morning on STARTING POINT as we head into our last half hour, we're going to talk about the weather, the storm, that's moving across much of the U.S., from snowstorms to tornadoes, we'll tell you where it's headed.

And then, we're going to talk a little bit about the controversy over "Zero Dark Thirty." Some says it proves that the filmmakers got access to classified information. We'll chat with Congressman Peter King. He's live with us. He wants a formal investigation into how this film was made. That's ahead.