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Ranking American First Ladies' Legacies; Was Christin Cooper's Interview Too Pushy?; Still Wary Of The Water; The Lincoln Memorial, 100 Years Later

Aired February 17, 2014 - 16:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In politics, whether you know them best for their platforms, their passion, their parties or their politics, many of America's first ladies have a legacy that lasts well beyond their years in the White House and in many cases, they have approval ratings that their presidential hubbies can only dream of.

But of all of the first ladies to have occupied the East Wing, who takes top honors?

Well, our own Erin McPike takes a look at the contenders.


ERIN MCPIKE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This weekend, a definitive ranking of Americans was announced to the world. The competition was fierce with new contenders vying for spots held by long-time favorites, while one star outshone them all. Yes, C-SPAN and Sienna College released their expert survey of American first ladies. Thirty-nine first ladies were judged by historians and scholars in 10 categories, including public image --


MCPIKE: -- value to the president, being her own woman --

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: I've done the best I can to lead my life.

MCPIKE: And, of course, value to the country.

(on camera): For the fifth time since the survey began in 1982, Eleanor Roosevelt clinched the top spot solo. And with husband Franklin Delano as part of the survey's top ranked couple.

Here at the Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., the highest-ranked first lady looms large. She's the only first lady to be included in her husband's monument, and there's even an acknowledgement of one of her own accomplishments: her membership in the first American delegation to the United Nations.

(voice-over): Roosevelt famously advised wives on the campaign trail to lean back in the parade car so everybody could see the president. But after 12 years in the White House, she was as much a star as her husband.

JEREMY MAYER, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: Eleanor Roosevelt really took the first lady position and made it politically and socially relevant in a way that no one had ever done before, and we still remember her for that reason.

MCPIKE: The current first lady, Michelle Obama, is already ranking high on the list, placing fifth overall. She swept the competition in her ability to manage family life while in office.

MICHELLE OBAMA, CURRENT FIRST LADY: My most important title is still mom in chief.

MAYER: Though it is not at all unusual for a current first lady to be very, very popular, and this helps explain why the role has grown so much in the twentieth and twenty-first century, presidents are increasing polarized. First ladies rise above politics.

MCPIKE: But fashion's favorite first lady is, of course, Jackie O., received top votes for public image and being a steward of the White House, whose treasured art and furniture she famously took pains to preserve.

JACKIE KENNEDY: Thank you so much.

MCPIKE: The sixth place finisher may soon run to be a category of her own. The former secretary of state and senator Hillary Clinton was deemed the easiest to imagine as president.

MAYER: She isn't benefiting from what every other first lady in this poll is benefiting from. And that is the loss of partisan polarization. She just finished up as secretary of state in a very polarized environment.

MCPIKE: The unfortunate title of last place first lady was given to Jane Means Appleton Pierce. She was noticeably depressed from the death of her son. The author Nathaniel Hawthorne even referred to her as "that death's head in the White House," which may have contributed to keeping her from the head of the list.


MCPIKE: So this may be a little unfortunately and sad, but Jane Pierce was married to our 14th president, Franklin Pierce, and historians often deem him the worst president of all time.

TAPPER: The poor Pierces. Very sad. Poor Jane Pierce -- death's head?

MCPIKE: I know. You may have noticed that Laura Bush was not in that story. And she was ranked 12th and that's because historians say she didn't do that much while in the White House.

TAPPER: Those historians are tough. Erin McPike, thank you so much.

Coming up on THE LEAD, Bode Miller takes the bronze medal. But it's his emotional interview that's getting the attention. Did the interviewer go too far? Our sports lead is next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

It's time now for our Sports Lead. And with all due respect to the NBA All-Star game, we really have to talk about something that happened at the Olympics over the weekend. At 36 years old, Olympic alpine skier Bode Miller winning bronze at yesterday's super-g event was an emotional victory for a lot of reasons. One of them was that his younger snowboarding brother, nicknamed Chilly, died last year at the age of 29. Bode thought they'd be at the games together.

So after the event, NBC Sports Christin Cooper, an Olympic medalist and alpine skier herself, asked Miller repeatedly about the emotional ride. And some say in her repeated questioning about his brother's death, she went too far.


CHRISTIN COOPER, NBC SPORTS: I know you wanted to be here with Chilly, really experiencing these games. And how much does it mean to you to come up with a great performance for him, and was it for him?

BODE MILLER, OLYMPIC BRONZE MEDALIST: Um, I mean, I don't know if it's really for him, but I wanted to come here and -- I don't know, I guess make myself proud but --

COOPER: When you're looking up at the sky at the start, we see you there, and it just looks like you're talking to somebody. What's going on there?


TAPPER: The big debate that continued online and in the newspaper and on cable and news stations today: did Cooper push Bode Miller too far?

Let's bring in CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter. Brian, good to see you. I want to read some of the harsh reviews that NBC and Christin Cooper got from that interview. "The New York Times" said that "Cooper and NBC lacked the sensitivity to know when enough was enough." The Associated Press called it "tone deaf and cruel." I won't even bother going into what Twitter had to say. What did you think?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: I don't think viewers gained anything from all of her probing, and that should be the standard that is used. We were only able to play a portion of the clip because NBC has all of these rules about what you can show from their broadcast. But there were a couple of other questions before that one where he started to bring up his brother in vague terms. Then she followed up, as it's understandable that she would follow up like that.

But to go to that last question, talking about him looking up in the sky beforehand, when he had already been tearing up, that seemed too far to me. And I think it goes back to the standard of did interviewers gain much from that questioning? I don't think they did.

TAPPER: Two things as somebody who works in television. One, it did seem to me -- and I'm not judging this -- but it did seem to me that she was trying to get him to be emotional. And, two --

STELTER: Trying to get him to cry, right.

TAPPER: And, two, I think there are a lot of people in our world, television news, who probably said she did exactly what she should have done because those emotional moments are what viewers want to see. I'm not saying that I agree with that, but there are people in our business who think that.

STELTER: People on Twitter were calling the reporter heartless. I don't think the reporter is ultimately that responsible here. And I kind of agree with what I think Bode Miller was trying to say afterwards. He retweeted someone who wrote this. "It wasn't her fault. It was the fault of the NBC Olympic producers. She was being told what to ask."

Now listen, in television, you know better than I do, anchors, reporters, they like to blame the producers behind the scenes. But in this case, I think that person is right. It has a lot to do with what the producers were trying to do: creating a storyline unless with what the reporter was specifically asking. She was -- she was told to probe in that way.

TAPPER: NBC released a statement defending the interview, saying, quote, "Our intent was to convey the emotion that Bode Miller was feeling after he won his bronze medal. We understand how some viewers thought the line of questioning went too far, but it was our judgment that the answers were a necessary part of the story. We're gratified that Bode has been publicly supportive of Christin Cooper and the overall interview."

But one of the things that you and I were talking about earlier: this is part and parcel of Olympic coverage and NBC's Olympic coverage specifically. This isn't the first time that they brought up a sensitive topic to provoke an emotional response from an athlete.

STELTER: No, it sounds silly to say this. But death is almost a theme of ever Olympic Games when they are on NBC. It's brought up repeatedly as are other personal stories. But I think the Olympics are dramatic enough without conjuring up dead. The Games themselves, the action themselves. And in this case, this year - oh, the poor performance of some U.S. athletes is dramatic enough. And there's already enough story lines about that. I don't think you always have to probe further the way we saw last night.

TAPPER: I think it's clear that there was a desire to make him cry, and it worked, and that's what people are reacting to. Brian Stelter, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

STELTER: Thanks.

TAPPER: Coming up on THE LEAD, more than a month after a chemical spilled on the river. How can water that is too nauseating to smell be safe enough to drink? We'll pose that to the question of the mayor of Charleston, West Virginia.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. The "National Lead" now, it was half today for students at Grand View Elementary School in North Charleston, West Virginia. And it was not because of George Washington's birthday. Teachers at the school reported today smelling that infamous licorice-like odor this morning, the one we've heard so much about since last month's chemical spill in the nearby Elk River.

That smell was enough to send students home for the day today after complaints of headaches. The chemical spill left 300,000 people without access to clean water. Last month, government authorities have been arguing that the water is safe for drinking despite real fear in the community. The National Guard is now retesting the water at that school.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones joins me from Charleston, West Virginia. Mr. Mayor, good to see you.

You say you're drinking out of the tap at your house, but Senator Rockefeller, Democratic senator from West Virginia, said I wouldn't drink that water if you paid me. The county health official, Dr. Raul Gupta, he is not drinking it. Are you the only official that trusts the taps?

DANNY JONES (R), MAYOR, CHARLESTON WEST VIRGINIA: No. I think that most people drink bottled water because that's what they drink. My refrigerator is full of it. But I drink fountain drinks and I make my coffee with tap party and when I'm out in the restaurant I drink fountain drinks for coffee that I'm sure is made with tap water. I think in most places the water is OK. But it seems like in the past couple of weeks it's been schools that this -- that it is manifested that smell that has surfaced again and --

TAPPER: Is there a reason for that, Mr. Mayor? Is there a supply to the schools that would mean it's going to the schools and not other houses or businesses?

JONES: Not that I know of. And it's -- it's very odd because if there's been -- if there had been reports in the neighborhood up Woodward Drive where Grandview Elementary is, I haven't heard about them. I'm not saying they are not there. We keep hoping this will end but maybe it hasn't.

TAPPER: Mr. Mayor, I just have to say --

JONES: We hope it does some time.

TAPPER: It's terrifying as a parent I can't even believe that I'm hearing this days after health officials have said and environmental officials have said, it's OK to drink. We think it's OK to drink. The CDC says the chemical is in trace amounts. The licorice smell keeps coming back in the places where we send our most vulnerable, our children, doesn't this make you angry?

JONES: It -- I'm a little perplexed about it and I have a 5-year-old and 7-year-old in those schools myself. So I am obviously very concerned about it. I think this is under the state jurisdiction. I think it falls under the state to make sure this situation because it spreads to nine counties makes it go away. And the state is doing some testing. I don't think it's enough.

And tomorrow night when our council meeting -- when we go into -- when my council meets in the city of Charleston, I'm going to ask them to fund some testing in the city of Charleston with our own funds from the city of Charleston. We're going to go into hotels and into some people's homes and it's going to be significant because our brand has been damaged by this and we need to get to the bottom of it.

TAPPER: All right, Mr. Mayor, thank you so much. We appreciate it and best of luck to your kids in those schools. We appreciate it. Wolf Blitzer is here with a preview of "THE SITUATION ROOM." Wolf, you were at the NBA All-Star Weekend. I heard you were just narrowly beat out for the slam dunk contest by John Wall.

WOLF BLITZER, HOST, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": Just a little bit. John Wall, he won the slam. It was very impressive. I had a great time.

TAPPER: What did he have that you didn't?

BLITZER: He had the ability to do that kind of --

TAPPER: The skill.

BLITZER: I have no skill whatsoever, but he did a great job. He made us all --

TAPPER: Who do you have on the show?

BLITZER: We have Charles Barkley, he was at the White House. He sat down for a one-on-one with the president of the United States. Saw him there at the NBA All-Star game. There we are. We're going to ask Charles, what was it like inside the White House with the president?

TAPPER: He was one of my heroes growing up in Philadelphia, very exciting.

Coming up on THE LEAD, whoever thought the "Barry Give Talk Show" was Jimmy Fallon's audition to take over Johnny Carson's talk show. A new era for "The Tonight Show" starts tonight. That's next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD, now, it's time for the "Buried Lead." That's what we call stories flying under the radar and what could be more fitting an occasion than president's day to reflect upon one of the greatest American presidents there ever was and how his legacy came to loom over our nation's capital in more ways than one.

CNN's Dana Bash shares the story of the Lincoln Memorial, 100 years after construction on the massive monument began.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He presided over some of the most transformative events of the last century.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am happy to join with you today.

BASH: Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech. Vietnam war protests, so it's hard to believe that this 19-feet high, 175 ton Abraham Lincoln, one of the most recognizable memorials in all of the world never almost existed and for a familiar reason, congressional gridlock over government spending.

(on camera): When you hear about people talk about Washington as a swamp, it's not just a metaphor. Over a century ago, right where I'm standing it was actually a swamp. It was a place for vagrance and as legend has it even a place to dump dead bodies.

Now, to build this would cost $3 million. It doesn't sound like a lot in today's terms but back then it was the most expensive in history.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe Cannon who was the speaker of House, he called it a swamp and he didn't understand how he could have a presidential memorial out here.

BASH (voice-over): It took almost a decade, five failed votes in Congress to approve the site.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The designer, who was Henry Bacon, came up with this idea of putting this thing on an elevated kind of hill on pile- ons 60 feet in the air and that's when the temple of the memorial actually begins.

BASH: Finally, in February 1914, 100 years ago this month, construction began and took eight years to complete.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's an epic memorial in that it is not only speaks to this huge American experience that is -- that was so important in our history.

BASH (on camera): But the Lincoln Memorial is not just iconic because it commemorates history. It's a place where history is made, the place for political protests.

(voice-over): That all started in 1939 with a concert by opera singer, Marian Anderson.

LUCY BARBER, AUTHOR, "MARCHING ON WASHINGTON": She had been scheduled to sing at the daughters of the American Revolution, but when it was warned that the audience who be segregated, she refused to do so. It was a concert, but it was a protest and people knew it. Prayer pilgrimage was organized by Martin Luther King. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The latest in this chapter was actually at the Obama, the first Obama inaugural, the day before they had a huge event here, which was very celebratory but actually draws on the very same tradition.

BASH (voice-over): So while the memorial itself is a tribute to Lincoln from his famous speeches to his hands, one clenched for strength and the other open for compassion, it's legacy for the last century is the perch Lincoln provides to Americans to protest and celebrate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This has become the place that American people really feel attached to it.


TAPPER: There is a certain symbolism tied to nearly every aspect of the Lincoln Memorial. For example, the 36 fluted columns represent each of the 36 states in the union as the time of Lincoln's death.

In the "Pop Culture Lead," slip on your chinos and Nike air pumps and join me for a brief walk back in time to 1998.

After watching that sketch on SNL 15 years ago, how many of you thought I bet that guy would go on to host "The Tonight Show" one day? Well, following what seemed like eons of hype and anticipation, Jimmy Fallon officially takes over as host of the legendary program tonight on NBC and he's pulling out the big guns.

The debut lineup includes actor, Will Smith and a performance by U2. Conan O'Brien, the last guy to get the tonight show gig, before being booted in less than a year, sent out this supportive tweet "as the only man alive who's hosted "The Tonight Show" and "Late Night," I want to congratulate Jimmy Fallon and Seth Meyers, who both do great. Meyers makes his debut as host of "Late Night On NBC" next Monday.

That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer. He is right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM" -- Mr. Blitzer.