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STARTING POINT WITH SOLEDAD O'BRIEN

Fiscal Cliff Face-Off; Gulf War Commander Schwarzkopf Dies; Interview with Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine; Central Park Five Exonarated

Aired December 28, 2012 - 08:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ALI VELSHI, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you. I'm Ali Velshi. Soledad is off today. Our STARTING POINT, power meeting at the White House in a few hours. President Obama holds a critical powwow as the blame game gets nasty and the fiscal cliff gets dangerously close.

He is the man Saddam Hussein saw in his sleep. Tributes pouring in for the gulf war hero General Norman Schwarzkopf this morning.

And Spider-Man is dead, well, not really but someone else may be wearing his tights. Did I just say that?

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, you did. Hope they washed them first.

VELSHI: It's Friday, December 28th. STARTING POINT begins right now.

(MUSIC PLAYING)

VELSHI: Good morning. Our team this morning is Ron Brownstein, the one concerned about Spider-Man's tights being washed. He's the editorial director at "National Journal". Will Cain, analyst for "The Blaze." And Roland Martin, who thankfully is with us at the beginning of this hour. He is the host of "Washington Watch". Alina Cho is with us as well.

Our STARTING POINT is your paycheck and the U.S. economy both on the line when the president and congressional leaders meet at the White House this afternoon for another round of fiscal cliff talks. In four days, your take-home pay shrinks and the government spending gets slashed if our elected officials cannot figure out a way to compromise. It is all in the hands of these six leaders.

This afternoon, the president, Vice President Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, all of them on the Democratic side, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell representing the Republicans.

White House correspondent Brianna Keilar live from Washington.

Now, Brianna, the House doesn't return to work until Sunday. So, I guess they're going to work on a framework of a deal that hopefully, if all goes well, could get voted on. On Sunday evening, we might have a deal before Monday. Am I being ridiculous?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, maybe not Sunday evening, maybe on Monday. That's the best case scenario.

But, Ali, I will tell you that talking to sources this morning, even though technically it is possible for there to be a deal, it seems increasingly unlikely. I'm hearing a real lack of confidence that we don't go over the fiscal cliff and I think the expectation is that perhaps we go over it for a day or two, and some are rationalizing that, you know, you can go over it maybe for a day or two, and it's still going to be OK, that it's something that can be resolved.

And, of course, as you know the markets will open on January 2nd, and the thought is that if there is something in the works that perhaps that will be a good sign and will be somewhat encouraging even if we do go over the cliff.

But, for now, the Senate is in. The Senate was in yesterday, and all eyes are very much on the Senate as it's seen that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will be the next one to act, trying to come up with some sort of framework that can get some buy-in from Senate Republicans, and ultimately then would need some buy-in from House Republicans. But he's not going to be able to do it without some support.

So the expectation is that the Senate will be taking up a bill that the House passed quite a while ago that would extend all rates for Americans and that they could -- for all Americans -- but they could take that up and amend it so that the threshold is brought down. As you know, Ali, the president wants the threshold for those tax rate increases to be at $250,000. It seems like that's something that Republicans won't sign on to, but certainly, I don't think the expectation is that all rates would be extended.

VELSHI: Up to $400,000 and looks like they pulled back from that. Who knows what's going to happen, except for the fact that I was supposed to be off on Monday and Tuesday, and based on what you're telling me -- exactly I will see you both days.

KEILAR: Happy New Year, Ali.

VELSHI: Thank you very much, Brianna. Great to ring in 2013 with you.

All right, Brianna, we'll check in with you later and for days to come.

MARTIN: All of the Senators complaining about coming back to work. There are Americans who are saying, shut up, we have to go to work. I mean seriously.

(CROSSTALK)

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know what? I think they're complaining about have to come back not to go to work because nothing has been happening. VELSHI: At least we're coming back to work. At least we'll be working, yes.

BROWNSTEIN: Most of the Senators are sitting in the gallery, just like we are.

VELSHI: I hear you.

All right. Well, this morning a different story -- he's being remembered as the hero of Desert Storm. Tributes from around the world are pouring in for Stormin' Norman Schwarzkopf.

He is the commander of coalition forces -- you probably don't need to hear this from me, you know it -- that steamrolled the Iraqi military in the 1991 Gulf War. He drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. Schwarzkopf may have been the front man for the first war that fully played out in your living room TV.

CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon this morning.

Norman Schwarzkopf, quite a legend, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Oh, absolutely, Ali. You know, I was thinking -- I remember landing in Saudi Arabia in late 1990, starting to cover that war and I think we all had a sense something very different was about to happen. He was the general that succeeded in pushing the Iraqi invasion out of Kuwait, six-week air war, 100-hour ground war. He got the job done that he was ordered to do.

Few generals can really claim that. He is being remembered as an American original, and Norman Schwarzkopf in his own words is a classic, key general in American history.

I want you to listen to what he thought about war when he spoke to Larry King back in 1992.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. NORMAN SCHWARZOKPF, U.S. ARMY: I hate war. Absolutely I hate war. Those of us who have been to war hate it. Those of who have been to war and know that you might have to go to war, but I got to tell you what, good generalship is a realization that you got to try and figure out how to accomplish your mission, but you got to try and figure out how to accomplish your mission with a minimum loss of human life.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

STARR: I think many people would tell you that's not just good generalship, that is great generalship. Really key leaders in American history have been those who are against war, anyone will tell you.

His close colleague during that time, General Colin Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, also issued a statement, saying in part, "His leadership not only inspired his troops, but also inspired the nation. He was a good friend of mine, a close buddy. I will miss him."

General Schwarzkopf, of course, setting the standard with those well- remembered televised news briefings, bringing the war right into homes around the world, standing up there, telling people what his plans were, what he was up to -- Ali.

VELSHI: All right. Barbara Starr, thanks very much for that. Barbara Starr -- Roland, you got something you want to say to Barbara?

MARTIN: You know, Barbara, when he retired he was one of the leading voices who marshaled military support when they had affirmative action case to the Supreme Court, the University of Michigan case. And so, he made the case why it was important to the military.

So he did lots of things like that after he retired as well in terms of civic life.

STARR: Absolutely. He remained active as long as his health was good. He suffered from cancer at some point, beat that. This is a man who is absolutely revered in Army and American military history.

VELSHI: All right. Barbara, thank you for that. We'll be talking about General Norman Schwarzkopf in the course of the next few days.

Let's get to Alina. She's got the rest of today's top stories.

ALINA CHO, CNN ANCHOR: Hey there, Ali. Good morning. Good morning, everybody.

Former President George H.W. Bush may be battling a fever at a Houston ICU unit, but he is not planning on going anywhere. In a message to supporters, Mr. Bush's chief of staff Jean Becker said the 41 president's condition is not dire. She says Mr. Bush has every intention of staying put. And my favorite part, "that we can put the harps back in the closet."

At 88 years old, George H.W. Bush is the oldest living former president.

Police in New York City are searching for a woman who pushed a man off a subway platform right into an oncoming train. The victim died last night after being struck by the number seven train as it pulled into a stop in Queens. NYPD surveillance video shows the suspect running away from the station.

Now, before the incident the woman was apparently seen walking back and forth on the platform and even talking to herself.

North Korea likely deceived the U.S. and its Asian allies deliberately, catching them off guard before the launch of its long range rocket earlier this morning. According to an official with direct knowledge of a military and intelligence analysis, the likely scenario is that North Korea was lying about reported technical problems days before the launch. Another conclusion is this, that North Korea just knows how to counter U.S. intel on what it's up.

And it's the end of the line for a beloved superhero -- or is it? Marvel Comics 700th issue of "The Amazing Spider-Man" just hit store yards. After a 50-year run, Peter Parker is killed off by his mentor- turned-archenemy, Dr. Otto Octavius.

Oh, what a tangled web it is. But stay tuned. It might not be over yet. Peter Parker's demise after a 50-year run sets the stage for a new series Marvel plans to debut next month and it will be called "Superior Spider-Man."

BROWNSTEIN: No, that's a sad moment. You got a comic book wonk here, but Stan Lee was the writer, Steve Ditko is the artist. They changed the world with Peter Parker, because before then, superheroes were square jawed perfect Green Lantern, Superman.

VELSHI: Right.

BROWNSTEIN: Spider-Man was the kind of Marvel deviation, superheroes with a problem. I mean, he was a teenager all screwed up like everybody else. Kind of a feet of clay -- a moment of silence for Peter Parker.

CHO: They say his permanence remains and he casts a long shadow, so he will be back.

WILL CAIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I feel superheroes are like soap opera stars. You can't trust they're really dead.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, you're probably right.

MARTIN: Ron, how many comic books did you collect as a kid?

VELSHI: Don't go there.

BROWNSTEIN: A lot of Marvel. A lot of Marvel, man. Roland?

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: The jury will strike that last comment.

VELSHI: He was really passionate. Not that I want to move on to anything serious or anything, but back to our STARTING POINT with the fiscal cliff, who is not a superhero, who saves the world from economic disaster.

With the fiscal cliff now four days away, President Obama is holding a meeting at the White House with four congressional leaders, Boehner, Pelosi, Reid and McConnell -- it would help perhaps to have a superhero in there.

Let's bring in Senator Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican from Maine. This is one of her final days as a Senator. She decided not to run for re-election, in large part because of what she called the atmosphere of polarization in Washington. Senator Snowe, thank you for joining us. That atmosphere of polarization is perhaps clearer today than it has been at any other time. The very reason you stated that you decided not to run for Congress.

Have you hoped that we will be able to get past it to fix this problem?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), MAINE: Oh, absolutely. Even under the worst case scenarios, I could not imagine that we would be in the position that we're in today during the Christmas holiday, still struggling to reach a resolution to this consequential question. It does raise I think the issue as to what is it going to require for our leadership and for members of Congress and the president to get together during these very serious times for this country.

VELSHI: You know, Speaker Boehner -- Harry Reid mentioned that they had put a bill forward, the Senate put a bill forward in July, the House put a bill forward in August, but the bill in July voted to extend the Bush tax cuts to households making under $250,000 -- in other words to increase taxes for those making above $250,000.

You didn't vote in favor of that bill. No Republicans did. But now, with a couple of days left to go, what happens? I mean, at some point, we're going to have a number, right? There are going to be a lot of other things, but there's going to be a number. It's going to be $250,000 or it's going to be $400,000 or it's going to be $1 million.

How do you get a deal done?

SNOWE: Well, I think, first of all, it's got to start, you know, with the leaders and the president at the White House this afternoon. Hopefully, they'll agree to a framework.

Secondly, it's going to begin in the Senate, in my estimation, to address this and to modify maybe that legislation to go to the $400,000 the president suggested. My concern was carving out for small businesses in the vote in July. This is what the Senate was designed to do by our Founding Fathers, and that is to bring -- you know, to develop a consensus and we have to start now.

And I think it has to begin in the Senate, and if we can get it past passed in the Senate, send it to the House, and hopefully, the speaker will be able to garner the support from within his caucus and with Democrats to get this job done before the end of this year and not defer it to next year.

We got to demonstrate we have some capacity left to make decisions in Washington on these very significant issues for the country.

VELSHI: Let me ask you this, though. You know, we keep seeing pictures. Everybody's meeting today which is great, but we keep seeing these pictures of John Boehner and Barack Obama, and many people who know these two men feel perhaps they could have a deal. I mean, we think to the budget debacle, the debt ceiling debacle. They can agree to things.

But neither John Boehner and to some degree Mitch McConnell have the ability, it seems, to go back to their caucuses and get them to rally behind a deal they make.

Has that changed in your opinion, or does this change as we get closer to the deadline?

SNOWE: I think it will change closer to the deadline. But then, again, it's going to require the leaders to talk to their caucuses and talk to these individual members of the Senate and the House of Representatives and understanding and underscoring the peril we place in the country at this moment in time and that we have to resolve these issues.

American people should not count on a stalemate and this gridlock. We're here to do our jobs here in Washington and we're seeing this failure demonstrated time and again because of ideological and political and philosophical stubbornness.

What about the entire country? What about the good of the country? That's what's at stake for America, and I think that members of Congress individually and collectively are responsible and the leadership has to impart that.

VELSHI: Talk to me about this. I certainly don't want to demonize people who ideologically believe taxes shouldn't go up on anyone or who don't want taxes to go up because they think it's damaging to the economy.

But I think there are a lot of Americans who are quite prepared to demonize people who will not change their view or cast a vote because it offends Grover Norquist.

What role does that type of force -- these pledges, what role they do play in our inability to compromise?

SNOW: Well, I'm certain it does play a role. I've never signed these pledges because my obligation to the people who elected me, and that's the way it should be for each member of Congress, because times change, the circumstances change, you have to address the issue at hand.

It is important, you know, to have extending the tax cuts for especially the middle income but, secondly, to put spending cuts on the table. We have a large debt problem. And I understand as far as the Republican position is concerned. So, that, you know, does have credibility, and we have to come to the table on both of those issues.

But I think more than anything else, what is deeply troubling is that you can't get Congress and the president to reach any accord on anything. We can't even do routine business, let alone the matters that could affect the future of this country.

VELSHI: Olympia Snowe, you and what you represent will be missed in the Senate. SNOWE: Thank you.

VELSHI: We wish that those who shared your view that we should get routine business and important business would stick around. But we'll miss you.

Senator Olympia Snowe, a Republican from Maine, who will not be in the next Congress.

Up ahead on STARTING POINT, they're known as the Central Park Five, the group convicted, sent to prison, and years later exonerated for the brutal assault on the Central Park jogger. The story is the subject of a riveting new documentary. The director and one of the Central Park Five join us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VELSHI: It was a crime that made headlines across the country in 1989. It was all the rage in New York City. The 28-year-old White Wall Street investment banker jogging through Central Park when she was brutally assaulted, raped, left for dead. She was in a coma. Five Black and Latino teenagers were arrested and convicted. They became known as the Central Park Five.

They spent between six and 13 years in prison until a serial rapist confessed to the crime, and they were exonerated. Their story is now the subject of a new documentary.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Five youths were arrested at 96th Street all between 14 and 15 years of age.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They got them!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can only imagine the pressure to have this crime solved and solved quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First, we were all together, then they start to put us in different rooms separately.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What did you do? Who were you with? Who did you come with?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The tone was scary. I felt like they might take us to the back of the precinct and kill us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VELSHI: One of the directors, Sarah Burns, is here along with Raymond Santana, who was one of the Central Park Five. I know Sarah you don't mind being associated with Ken Burns, the other director, very well- known Ken Burns. This opens in theaters when?

SARAH BURNS, DIRECTOR/FILMMAKER: It's open right now.

VELSHI: OK.

BURNS: It's playing at the IFC Center in New York and a number of other cities around the country.

VELSHI: Raymond, let's just talk about this for a second. You and the other guys were brought in for questioning, and you guys confessed.

BURNS: Yes.

VELSHI: How did that happen? How did you confess?

RAYMOND SANTANA, ONE OF THE "CENTRAL PARK FIVE": Basically, being 14 years old, being naive, not knowing the system, and you know, a lot of pressure. You know, that's the number one ingredient, you know, when a 14-year-old kid is put under a tremendous amount of pressure, and it's unknown.

You don't know what's going to happen and when is it going to end. You know, after a while, when you get to the point of breaking down, you know, you'd be able to really much tell the cops whatever, whatever they want to hear.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: -- like John Burge (ph) in Chicago, were you kept awake, denied food, water?

SANTANA: Yes, all that. No food, no water, you know, no sleep, lack of supervision, parents in and out the room, never really fully there. My grandmother didn't really comprehend what was going on at the time. And so, that's just part of the tactics they used on us besides, you know, the constant yelling in the face and the different officers, you know, lunging like they're going to attack you.

And so, you know, for a 14-year-old kid, that's very overwhelming, you know, especially when you never dealt with that before.

VELSHI: Sarah, this is, you know, this is the thing you often see play out in movies where it's a horrible crime, everybody is thinking about it. You have to think back to what New York was back in those days. It was a city, you know, on fire almost.

BROWNSTEIN: The murder rate was extremely high.

VELSHI: So, they needed to arrest somebody and even the media that's usually critical of the police or often critical of the police weren't in this case. Everybody needed these guys arrested.

BURNS: Right. I mean, the story was -- it made sense to people and a lot of that had to do with exactly, as you said, what was going on in New York at the time. The crime rates were extremely high. It was about the peak of the murder rate you're dealing with the crack epidemic, and people were afraid.

They were afraid walking down the street. They expected to get mugged on a daily basis. I mean, it was just a different city than it is now. And I think that that really contributed to people's fear and their desire to have this solved and solved quickly. There's a lot of pressure on everyone.

BROWNSTEIN: Did you get a sense of how soon after the convictions that doubts began to emerge within the system? How early did -- was there a sense that something was wrong?

BURNS: You know, there were always people who were saying not many, but there are always a few people sort of saying, wait a second, there are some problems here. These confessions, these statements don't fit the facts. It doesn't quite hold together, but, it really was not until the actual perpetrator came forward that anyone seriously reinvestigated this. And if he hadn't come forward, none of us would be --

BROWNSTEIN: How many years later was that?

BURNS: That was 13 years later.

MARTIN: But there's one issue here that dealing with this case we cannot avoid, and that is, you had a White female executive, you have Black and Latino boys. This was a modern day Scottsboro boys where you had Black man and Hispanic man who were targeted in terms of this role here. Race played a critical role in the story.

BURNS: There's no question. I think that -- I mean, the language that you would see in the press that's been covering this case, the animal references, the term "wild" came out of this case. They were called a wolf pack. They were called savage beasts. I mean, this kind of language that you see in this (INAUDIBLE) case coverage.

You see it in -- it's the language of lynching and there's no question that the way that people respond to this case, the way the media covered it had everything to do with race.

CAIN: Raymond, you spent I don't know how many years in jail now. What are you most afraid of?

SANTANA: You know, not being able to provide for my daughter properly is number one. You know, also having -- always having that label, you know, of being looked at negative, you know, when comes into a room and the person looks at you too long, do they recognize me, you know, as one of the Central Park Five, and if so, is it negative or is it positive?

CAIN: You know, I told you, I'd seen the movie. I watched it on demand. It's a great movie. You route for Raymond throughout the entire movie. He has absolutely the most warm smile. You just want this guy to work out, but what I fear, I think, most and I bring to this job consistently is what happened to your story, and that is a mob mentality.

A mob decided something was true, which was not true, and no one stood up to go, wait a minute, let's check this from the beginning.

BURNS: Exactly. People really bought into the story, It made sense to them, right? In this time when people were so afraid it was really easy to blame that on a particular demographic and that was -- you know, and minority teenaged boys were seen as a source of all of these problems. And so, it was very easy for people to buy this story that the police gave to the press and they just ran with it.

And even when there's huge problem -- I mean, there was DNA testing in those days. They tested the DNA. There was a single sample. It didn't match any of the kids, and they plowed ahead anyway.

MARTIN: (INAUDIBLE) real quick. NYPD, they're coming after your film for some reason. What's to do with that?

BURNS: So, there's an ongoing civil suit in this case. Raymond and the others are suing the city of New York and the NYPD for their wrongful convictions. And we've been drawn into that case. The city of New York has subpoenaed our outtakes from the film in hopes of bolstering their case somehow.

And, we have refused to turn those things over. We believe we're protected by the journalist's privilege. And, so, we filed the motion to quash and we'll wait for a judge to decide.

VELSHI: Good to have you both here. Thanks very much. It's great film. Sarah Burns and Raymond Santana. Raymond continued good luck with your life. Keep that smile. It's unbelievable. You don't look like a guy who has spent a lot of years in jail for something you didn't do.

STARTING POINT will be back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHO: Welcome back. Twenty-eight minutes after the hour. Some top stories now.

It's not clear yet who will replace Lisa Jackson as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson announced yesterday she will step down in January, just after the president's State of the Union address.

The EPA created new standards for air pollution from coal power plants on her watch. Jackson has said that her deputy is well-qualified to take her place.

Goodbye Godzilla. Slugger, Hideki Matsui, has announced he's retiring from baseball. Say it isn't so. You know, it's rare that an athlete retiring is international news, but Matsui is pretty special. He came to the U.S. to play for the New York Yankees back in 2003 and hit a grand slam in his very first game at Yankee stadium.

He was also the 2009 World Series MVP. Even before he came to the U.S., he was already the biggest star on Japan's biggest team.

And behold the most annoying words or phrases of 2012. Listen up, guys. There's full rank some (ph). The classic time honored "whatever" is the big winner here, third year as coming at the top annoying pick. Those on the lists are like, you know, and just sayin'. (CROSSTALK)

CHO: Like, you know, just sayin', whatever.

MARTIN: I cannot stand it when my nieces -- I mean, I literally stop them and say no.

CHO: What if they say like?

MARTIN: Absolutely. I mean, it is forbidden in the house, unless, you use it properly.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BROWNSTEIN: Can I just point out about Hideki Matsui when I spent time in Japan that he was actually a much more popular star there than Ichiro even though Ichiro was, by no question, a greater baseball player. The reason was Ichiro was viewed as remote and distant kind of --

VELSHI: Right.

BROWNSTEIN: Somebody told me a zen priest of baseball. Well, Hideki was kind of like the guy next door you could go have a beer with. He's kind of the slugger next door.

CHO: I remember when he came to the U.S. --

(CROSSTALK)

CHO: Maybe this is a sign I'm getting older, 2003 doesn't seem like that long ago.

(CROSSTALK)

VELSHI: He's retiring? It's like, really, didn't he just get here?

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: Were you collecting baseball cards --

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

BROWNSTEIN: No. I was not.

MARTIN: Are you sure?

VELSHI: All right.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK) BROWNSTEIN: When Alina started, I was aware that Godzilla was being written out.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

VELSHI: All right. All right. We got to --

CHO: Bring it back. Bring it back.

VELSHI: Coming up on STARTING POINT like you know, a high level meeting today to find a fiscal cliff deal. Our next guest says the whole thing is going nuclear. We'll talk to Harvard economics professor, Ken Rogoff. He's one of the smartest guys around on the economy.

Plus, amazing terrifying video when a 33-ton shark tank explodes. You do not want to be near the shark who'd be pretty annoyed. We'll show you the rest of this when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)