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The Absurdities That Accompany Government Shutdown; "Concussion Crisis" For The NFL?; Can't Resist "Gravity's" Pull

Aired October 7, 2013 - 16:30   ET




There are some very real, very painful consequences of a government shutdown, but there's also a lot of closures that feel, well, perhaps a little gratuitous. Like fencing off the Lincoln Memorial? Or chaining off children's playgrounds in Washington, D.C.? A closure that young Ingrid here responded to with some good old-fashioned civil disobedience.

What about Joy Spencer of Nevada? She was told by a park ranger that she and her 80-year-old husband were now barred from entering their Lake Mead cabin because it sits on federal land.


JOY SPENCER, BANNED FROM CABIN: What if somebody told them they'd have to move out of their place?


TAPPER: Also today, the Amber Alert Web site that helps find abducted children finally came back online after going dark ostensibly due to the shutdown. We should point out the program itself was never affected. That's done on the state and local level, but the federal government had a Web site that provided information. That has now been reinstated.

So, is this all just about optics? What's going on here? Let's bring in our panel. CNN political contributor Paul Begala, CNN chief congressional correspondent Dana Bash, and senior editor for "National Review," Ramesh Ponnuru.

Paul, I want to start with you. There is starting to be out there a certain meme among conservatives that some of this stuff is just being done to send a message what a government shutdown looks like as opposed to an actual government shutdown requiring barricades to be put up, for example.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: But it looks like a government shutdown because it is one. They are following the law. It's an uncommonly stupid law, but we're in this uncommonly stupid spot because Congress won't fund. And some of these are optically problematic, like locking children out of parks, which is crazy. The stuff we don't see is much more frightening. When the National Intelligence director tells us that he is very worried that 70 percent of the intelligence personnel are not working, we don't see that. These are people protecting us. Hundreds of food inspections, on and on and on. It's the stuff we don't see that worries me a lot more.

TAPPER: Ramesh, there are a lot of conservatives, as you know, who think the White House -- they paint this picture of President Obama sitting behind his desk -- close down that park, take down Amber Alert.

RAMESH PONNURU, SENIOR EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Maybe not the president personally, but some of these closures clearly take more resources than keeping them open would. And when that happens, and when you have this sort of arbitrary pattern where Michelle Obama's Let's Move Web site stays up even when the Amber Alert Web site goes down, you do have to wonder whether political games are being played.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Political games in Washington? I just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to fall off my chair.


TAPPER: Dana, I want to get your response to what Speaker Boehner said today in response to Gene Sperling. We played it earlier. But here is what Speaker Boehner said.


REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH), HOUSE SPEAKER: This morning, a senior White House official said that the president would rather default than to sit down and negotiate.


TAPPER: Fact check.

BASH: There was no exact quote that Speaker Boehner just used. The president's advisors, Gene Sperling and Jason Furman, were at an event this morning where they talked about the fact, just like the president has said, he's not going to negotiate. But they didn't say point blank, sure, let's default rather than negotiate.

But the speaker has taken what he heard and used it to his political benefit, which is not unlike what we're seeing from the president today.

I mean, it is really remarkable, Jake. We are six days, seven days in from the shutdown, 10 days out from America defaulting. And these two guys are just talking at each other through us. It is absolutely remarkable. I was saying in the green room that I'm so lucky now that I have a two-year-old because I now understand better how to cover Congress. (LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: It's true. Ramesh, I have to say -- assuming you're a Republican, I know you're conservative, I assume you're Republican. Your party is taking quite a beating in the polls. I mean, they don't seem to like anybody right now, but they really don't like Republicans. Is this a bad strategy politically?

PONNURU: I have never thought this strategy made any sense. Congressional Republicans, a lot of them seem to think this isn't hurting too much. Some of them even think things are going their way. I don't think either side is feeling enough pain that this is going to be brought to an end any time in the next couple days.

TAPPER: Is that because their districts are so gerrymandered that it's all these conservatives in their district, and they don't have a sense of where the mass public is? In other words, this is a good strategy to keep the House but not to win a presidential election?

PONNURU: I think there's two things. One, it's not just gerrymandering, it's just that -- segregation of people by politics in this country, even if you drew the lines fairly, Republicans live with other Republicans and so on. And the other thing is, a lot of the country at large, the shutdown is not affecting their day-to-day lives.

BEGALA: Right, but -

PONNURU: I mean, maybe (INAUDIBLE) behind the scenes, but that's the problem.

BEGALA: But the pain here, both politically and more importantly substantively, I believe is geometric in its expansion, not arithmetic. In other words, every day that goes by, someone in a conservative district is not going to be able to get the FHA loan, even though they saved for years to buy their first home. Or Agriculture Department loan to help with harvesting the crops. Or sign up for Social Security; new enrollees are not being allowed in. This stuff will explode like this.

Now, the problem is, once we hit October 17th, if God forbid we go through that debt ceiling, it's not even geometric. It's exponential damage.

TAPPER: Paul, how tenable is it for President Obama to say he's not going to negotiate when it comes to either the shutdown or the debt ceiling, especially now that they seem to be morphing into one thing?

BEGALA: He can't! Unless he wants to be John Boehner, president in name but not authority. They have negotiated. It's simply true they have. We know this now. Harry Reid told Dana that in September, he sat down with Congressman Boehner, the speaker --

BASH: On funding, not on the debt ceiling. BEGALA: Right. Not on the debt ceiling. That's because the president said that from the start. It's not a negotiable thing. We have to pay our bills.

TAPPER: But Dana - and this is going to have to be only about 30 seconds. This is going to have to be, at this point, one big thing where you raise the debt ceiling and fund the government and maybe -- you don't think so?

PONNURU: I think you could continue the shutdown after you raise the debt ceiling --

BASH: Exactly. Just going to say that. It's entirely possible at this point. Nothing would be -- we are in such extraordinary times, nothing would be --

TAPPER: Cats and dogs living together. All right, Dana Bash, Ramesh Ponnuru, Paul Begala, thank you so much.

Still ahead, tackling the problem of concussions head on. What did the NFL know about any link between brain rattling hits and head injuries? The reporters behind a new book and documentary join us next.

And in pop culture, the government shutdown has closed parks and monuments and the final frontier. But we will ask a man who helped fix the Hubble telescope how the stalemate is impacting NASA.


TAPPER: Football has become America's new favorite pastime, but a new investigation threatens to sack the NFL over what the league really knew about brain injuries. That story, straight ahead.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. The sports lead: tonight's NFL match-up is seen as a potential comeback moment for the 1-3 Atlanta Falcons as they take on the 2-2 New York Jets. But PBS' Frontline will be paying special attention to the game, looking for concussions. They have a 2013 Concussion Watch Web site. Thirty-six so far this season. It's all part of their latest project, what they call the NFL's concussion crisis. It's a two-hour special report they did with brothers and ESPN investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru.

But one unwilling partner, according to the brothers and Frontline was the NFL. Take a look.


ANNOUNCER: The NFL would not cooperate with the brothers, nor would it talk to Frontline.

MARK FAINARU, ESPN INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: We went to New York to meet with them and say look, this what is we're doing. We would like you to participate, we would like you to make available these various people. And the NFL's message was sorry, we're not going to help you.


TAPPER: Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada join me now from New York to talk about the documentary, which premieres tomorrow night on PBS "Frontline" and their book "League of Denial, The NFL Concussions and the Battle for Truth." It hits bookstores tomorrow. It's a great book. Congratulations to both of you.

Gentlemen, I will start with you, Steve. As we played in your introduction, you said the NFL did not cooperate in your investigation. I can understand why, given that they are not exactly painted as behaving heroically when it comes to acknowledging the damage that football can cause to the human brain. Did the NFL purposely throw up roadblocks to your reporting?

STEVE FAINARU, AUTHOR, "LEAGUE OF DENIAL": No, I wouldn't say they did. I mean, the roadblocks that they threw up were basically not making anybody from the NFL available to us. I mean, we traveled to New York to meet with them as Mark mentions in the film. We told them what we were doing really because we wanted to be transparent and inclusive, and let them know what we were doing and they politely declined and then they declined every subsequent request that we made along the way while trying to report this book and this film.

TAPPER: That's really too bad. Mark, you tell a lot of tragic stories in this book, but obviously, the most vivid one is the one of Pittsburgh Steeler Center, Mike Webster. Tell our viewers, what happened to Webster and why was studying his brain such a pivotal moment to this issue of the realization nationally of this issue of brain damage and football?

MARK FAINARU-WADA, AUTHOR, "LEAGUE OF DENIAL": Well, Webster really is sort of patient zero. We lay out his story extensively in the book and in the film. He's a heroic figure in Pittsburgh, the center for four Super Bowl championship teams as the dynasty of the Steelers builds. They called him Iron Mike because he was such a rock, playing in many consecutive games.

But upon his retirement, he effectively went mad and Mike began to realize as he was losing his mind over that time that he believed that football was what had caused his brain damage. In fact, he even eventually had five doctors who agreed with him.

But it's not until he dies and ends up on an autopsy table and a young junior pathologist examined Mike's brain and then discovers he has this neurological, neurodegenerative disease, the first in a football player. That is really the launching point for the concussion crisis in the NFL.

TAPPER: Of course, the NFL is putting out the opposite information at the time. You write in your book, this moment in the book made me mad, in the early 2000s, the NFL, rolling out numerous scientific studies all getting printed in this medical journal, the head of the Traumatic Brain Injury Committee, this physician named Eliot Pelman, who wrote in this journal "Neurosurgery" regarding brain injuries, quote, "This injury has not been observed in professional football." How could Pelman write that and how could that medical journal publish it?

FAINARU: Well, I think what's so striking is that you have parallel narratives going on at the time. You have on the one hand a growing body of as many as a dozen neuroscientists, many of whom were affiliated with the NFL or loved professional football, who are trying to warn the league that this was a growing problem.

While at the same time, you had the NFL's own research arm denying that in fact, it could possibly be true and putting out papers that were essentially saying that NFL players were superhuman, that they were impervious to brain damage. Of course, the editor-in-chief of the journal that published those papers was himself a neurological consultant to the New York Giants.

And so there was this dynamic going on where everyone around the league who was involved in this research was affiliated with the league and was associated with this systematic effort to basically deny that this was a real thing.

TAPPER: I will read this response to your reporting by the NFL. We obviously reached out for comment. The NFL senior VP of Health and Safety Policy sent this statement. I will read part of it. Quote, "For more than two decades, the NFL has been a leader in addressing the issue of head injuries in a serious way. Important steps have included major investments in independent medical research, improved medical protocols and benefits, innovative partnerships to accelerate progress.

The NFL just this year reached a $765 million concussion settlement that would provide money for medical exams, concussion related compensation for NFL retirees, their families, et cetera, $10 million toward medical research. But you say you found some caveats with that, Steve?

WADA: Well, this is Mark. You know, among the things are Mike Webster, who is patient zero as we talked about in this, he's not eligible in this. Nobody who died during that period of time and prior to I believe it is 2006 is eligible. As well, there's a real question about whether there's enough money to go around in the settlement. There are some serious questions.

We found over 300 players at this point have qualified for monies based on neurocognitive issues and there are some real questions of whether that $765 million in the end are going to be enough for all these players who are suffering.

TAPPER: All right, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada, thank you so much, really powerful book. The "Frontline" special airs tomorrow night at 9:00 p.m. on PBS. Thanks for joining us

Movie goers can't resist the pull of "Gravity," but it turns the most far-fetched aspect of the movie's plot is not that there are astronauts who look like George Clooney. Stay with us.


TAPPER: The movie "Gravity's" big open. It is helping to save the Box Office. Could it do the same for our space program? An astronaut will weigh in on how at NASA could get an unexpected boost from the blockbuster film?


TAPPER: Now it's time for the "Pop Culture Lead." The much anticipated sci-fi thriller "Gravity" made its Box Office debut and the response was, shall we say, out of this world. The movie scored more than $56 million for Warner Brothers, a corporate cousin of CNN, making it the biggest October opening in history.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: "Explorer" has been hit. Do you read? "Explorer" over. "Explorer." Astronaut --


TAPPER: "Gravity" is about astronauts who get stuck floating through space and thanks to amazing special effects, movie goers get to tag along for their frightening and lonely journey above the earth. Astronauts and space buffs alike no doubt watch some parts of the movie with smirks and sighs, because in typical Hollywood fashion, "Gravity" at times has all the scientific integrity of "space balls."

Joining us now live is NASA Astronaut Michael Massimino, also visiting professor at Columbia University. This is obviously just a movie. We would expect Hollywood to take creative liberties. You say some parts of "Gravity" weren't just unlikely, but impossible. Which parts?

MICHAEL MASSIMINO, NASA ASTRONAUT: Well, when I first started watching the movie, what I was amazed at was the detail, the accuracy of things like the Hubble space telescope, the space shuttle, our payload bay, I saw some of my tools floating behind Sandra Bullock's head. I was wondering where those tools went. I guess they used them for the movie.

There's a lot of accuracy in that way. It does depict some of the dangers of going into space. So I think -- I was kind of surprised at all the detail and accuracy, the detail of the set they created in the movie.

TAPPER: What about the part they got wrong? What parts did you watch and think that's just completely insane?

MASSIMINO: Well, I think what I'm happy about is they included not just the space shuttle and -- although we don't fly the space shuttle any longer. That's one thing. I'm glad they included it because it's still part of our consciousness and our space program at least the history of our space program. They also showed different places in space, I don't want to give away the movie, and in order to include all those things, which I was very happy that they included. You have to take some poetic license, I guess, on how you can easily get around these places. Again, I don't want to give away too much, but I was pretty -- I was pretty impressed with the way that they showed the space environment and our tools, but the things that they did, the way they were able to go from place to place would not be as easy as they showed.

TAPPER: Let's move on to the public policy dimension of this. We're at a time where NASA is facing major cuts. Obviously there is also the furlough of NASA workers. I think 97 percent of NASA workers are furloughed. Space work in general being underfunded and the space shuttle is no more. Do you think there is any part of the hype of this movie that could end up drumming up renewed support for NASA or making a whole generation, new generation interested in space travel?

MASSIMINO: Jake, I sure hope so. That's really my greatest hope out of this. We do have people in space. We have two Americans right now, three Russian cosmonauts. It's a great space program. A movie like this really increases people's awareness. After you see the movie, go find out what we're really doing in space because that's exciting, too.

It's hard for NASA sometimes to get those positive messages out because we are so busy doing our regular jobs, maybe a movie like this, even though it's somewhat fictional, will increase awareness of what is actually going on in space. Hopefully inspire kids. I was inspired by space movies when I was a younger person. I think it will inspire a lot of young people as well.

TAPPER: You're not a film critic, obviously, by training. Give us your thumbs up or thumbs down on "Gravity."

MASSIMINO: I'm not a film critic. There are probably a lot of films I like people would raise their eyebrows about but I like this one. I enjoyed watching it because I could see a lot of the detail, brought back a lot of memory of my space flights. I enjoyed it. I think that it's hopefully going to be a good thing for the space program.

TAPPER: That's a ringing endorsement from an astronaut. I know people in this town, any time there's a Washington, D.C. movie we just, you know, because they get this wrong and presidents don't introduce legislation, et cetera. But you are an astronaut saying you enjoy it. That's good enough for me. Michael Massimino, thank you so much for joining us.

That is it for THE LEAD. I am Jake Tapper. I will be back tonight. Be sure to tune in at 11:00 p.m. Eastern, 8:00 p.m. Pacific for a CNN special "Shutdown Showdown." I will turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is in "THE SITUATION ROOM."