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Inside Politics

Elian Gonzalez Custody Case: Federal Appeals Court Rules Elian Can Stay in U.S. Until Appeal of Miami Relatives is Resolved

Aired April 19, 2000 - 5:00 p.m. ET


BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: Elian Gonzalez and his supporters celebrate now that a federal court order keeping him in the United States has been extended. We will consider what may happen next, legally and politically.



SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary. So I chose to compromise my principles, I broke my promise to always tell the truth.


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Belated straight talk in the South Carolina flag flap. John McCain takes a stand and offers a mea culpa.

ANNOUNCER: From Washington, this is INSIDE POLITICS, with Judy Woodruff and Bernard Shaw.

WOODRUFF: Thank you for joining us.

We begin with today's court ruling in the Elian Gonzalez case and the continued uncertainty about whether the boy will be reunited with his father and, eventually, returned to Cuba. Less than two-and-a- half hours ago, the 11th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that 6-year-old Elian may not leave the United States until an appeal filed by his Miami relatives is resolved. The court did not rule on the U.S. government's efforts to transfer the boy to his father, who has been in the Washington area for the past two weeks hoping to take custody of his son.

SHAW: To better understand the ruling and what may happen next, we turn now to CNN legal analyst Greta Van Susteren.

Greta, what did the court not say and not do?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: What the court didn't do is tell the attorney general of the United States what she can do. They have only clarified that the child cannot leave the country, but what they have done is they have not told the attorney general what she should do and how to make matters work better. SHAW: How long could this appeals process last?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, we expect that there will be a hearing in May, and then the judges will make a bigger decision on whether or not the trial court judge was correct, when the trial court judge said in late March that the attorney general could make the determination whether there would be an asylum hearing or not.

They then have -- as long as they want to make a decision -- the one thing I always complain about judges, that unlike lawyers, lawyers have deadlines, judges don't have deadlines, they can take as long as they want to decide it, they can take two weeks, three months, four months. I suspect they'll take a couple months to decide, then this issue of whether the losing party will seek relief in the United States Supreme Court, which will add more time to it. So it's unpredictable, Bernie.

SHAW: In the meantime, what happens to father, what happens to son?

VAN SUSTEREN: Father stays probably in Bethesda -- that's my best guess -- where he has been staying since he came into the United States. And the son stays with his great-uncle in Miami unless someone shows up at his doorstep who has lawful authority to take custody of him, which could be the attorney general of the United States or any of her agents, or even the father.

You know, the interesting thing about this is that the -- right now, the family in Miami has physical custody, but they have no right to physical custody because the parole has been revoked. Technically, the physical custody belongs to the attorney general of the United States. The problem is, though, is that the family is unwilling to act almost like the bus transit service for the government and deliver the child to the federal government. If the federal government shows up to get that child, the family has to turn him over.

SHAW: Greta Van Susteren, thanks very much -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, well, now we get updates from Little Havana, in Miami, and from the Cuban capital.

Our Mark Potter is outside the home of Elian's Miami relatives and our Martin Savidge is in Havana.

First to Mark Potter -- Mark.


We have a development here just at this moment. It appears -- I'm going to look off to my side -- that the lawyers for the family are getting ready to speak. This is clearly a victory celebration here in Little Havana. Everyone was so worried about what the judges would do in this case. And the ruling here is seen as nothing but good news even though, as Greta said, there are some very serious questions about what's next in terms of what the government is going to do. As soon as we -- the ruling came down, the crowd began to cheer. The cheering spread throughout the crowd as the words spread and now several hours later, there are several hundred people here, supporters, political officials, political activists, all kinds of people who have been involved in this case are here to celebrate this event.

We are waiting for the attorneys to speak and we are looking now at Kendall Coffey, one of the prominent attorneys in this case, a former U.S. attorney here in Miami. The entire legal team is being assembled. We are told by a family spokesman that the Gonzalez family is extremely happy about this development. The spokesman, Armando Gutierrez, said that when he called the family to tell them of the ruling, that he -- that the family began crying.

Right now, we're looking at pictures of Elian in the yard with Marisleysis Gonzalez, the young woman who is his cousin and who has been his caretaker for the many months that he has been staying here with his family in Little Havana.

The attorneys now we understand are going to speak, so we'll hear from them.


KENDALL COFFEY, ATTORNEY FOR MIAMI RELATIVES: ... as part of that process, very extensive submissions were made to the appeals court late last week, and two essential issues were defined through those very extensive written submissions. First of all, was the appeal of sufficient merit to require that it proceed in May and that Elian remain in this country throughout that process? The government very aggressively challenged the strength of the appeal in their very long written papers.

Secondly, the INS requested that the appeals court require that Lazaro Gonzalez turn over Elian to the father. On both of those significant issues, the appeals court determined that the government's position was not founded. First they held, and this is a preliminary ruling, and I emphasize no one should make any predictions about the outcome of the appeal.

Nevertheless, the appeals court stated that based on the many papers before them, and in a very detailed opinion, that the issues of the appeal were serious, they raised substantial questions about any contention that any alien does not include a child. They raised very substantial questions about the premise that a child does not have asylum rights, and indeed, if I may quote from just one portion of the order, they stated that "although the INS determined that plaintiff was incompetent to make immigration decisions, it bears repeating" -- and I'm using the court's words, not ours -- "that the INS made this determination without having met with plaintiff or having any evaluations done on his capacity."

And thus, the appellate court emphasizing that Elian had never had his day in a court of law concluded that he should have that day; that the appeals should proceed; and that he should remain in this country undisturbed by any action of the INS. With respect to the second contention of the INS that Lazaro should be required to turn over Elian, the appellate court stated that it was declining to do that and it was not going to be ruling favorably or ruling on the issue of custody at this point in juncture.

As a result of this ruling, we think it is plain that this is, in fact, a very serious appeal and at the same time no one should make predictions on the ultimate outcome based on this order. It was an extensive order, the family is very grateful for the obviously serious concern and study that is being received, but this is a preliminary order. It is not a final decision. And the final decision in this court will follow the May 11th hearing.

But we know that the court has insisted that Elian remain here, and we call upon the INS to take no precipitous actions between now and the time this appeal is heard, because we think that it is so clear that the rights of a child have to be heard without further disruption, without further dislocation, without further trauma of any sort, and so we ask all parties to respect the rule of law.

We've heard a lot about the importance of the rule of law, and we think now that we have a determination from this court that the appeal will proceed and that the issues are serious, we call upon the INS to respect that rule of law and to do nothing further to interfere or disrupt or distract the process that this court has now committed very deliberately and thoughtfully to moving forward upon.

The family accepted the news today tearfully, with prayer. Recent days have been very difficult, days and hours of unrelenting pressure from every source, but they stood courageously and they are grateful to the court for the seriousness with which this court is examining the cause of a fragile child.

At this point, before entertaining any questions, I'd like to ask Lazaro to come to the podium to say just a few comments in his own words.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to act as your translator for free.

LAZARO GONZALEZ, ELIAN'S GREAT UNCLE (through translator): As you can see, the Gonzalez family continues to believe in the laws of the United States. And we will continue to pray so that all of this may come true for Elian and that he may be able to remain where his mother wanted him to be in a country of freedom. The Gonzalez family's doors are still open to the family and to all the friends who may wish the best for Elian. Thank you very much.

WOODRUFF: We've been listening, Mark Potter there, too, as you said, the attorney Kendall Coffey for the relatives of Elian Gonzalez. In essence saying, we're asking the government not to take any precipitous action while we wait for this appeal to be heard.

Greta Van Susteren our legal analyst is still with us. Greta, I was struck by the point that Mr. Coffey made about the rights of Elian as a child, and whether as a child he has asylum rights and so forth. Expand for us, if you will, on what Mr. Coffey is talking about there. VAN SUSTEREN: What he is talking about is this, Judy. The law says any alien may apply for asylum. And what it doesn't say is any alien over the age of 18 and anyone under 18 must have a guardian or a parent to do it. And what's so interesting about this decision is the court says Elian is that any alien.

And number two is the footnote, in one footnote, the court sort of takes a slap at Congress and says, but this court does not make immigration policy and we can not review the wisdom of statutes duly enacted by Congress. In other words, it's saying to Congress, if you meant someone under the age of 18 had to have a guardian or a parent, you should have written it. You didn't. We only read the statutes and it says any alien, it doesn't say under the age of 18 or over 18.

WOODRUFF: So in other words, they're saying that it's possible that this -- that the ruling down the road could come down in favor of these relatives in Miami?

VAN SUSTEREN: Not only that, but the court is a little craftier, because the court says, look, this is no surprise to you, INS, because you have your own guidelines where you are very deferential to what children want to do. This is not the first time. So this is not -- the court is saying to the INS, look, you do this in other cases, or in other instances you let children speak. So here the statute says any alien, we are going to read it literally, we're not going to discriminate in terms of age.

WOODRUFF: Greta, how does this square with what we've been hearing from the Justice Department, namely that their -- they believe at this point that they have every right to go and take the child and put him with his father?

VAN SUSTEREN: I think they do have any right. And this court of appeals in the decision, in another footnote -- this decision is full of footnotes -- but in another footnote, the last footnote says, look, you know, we're not going to even reach the decision about where the child should be, we're only saying he can't leave the United States.

So it really does leave the attorney general in a tough spot, because technically she can go or send an agent to go get that child and reunite the child with the parent. No one can remove the child from the country and that's why this is still a stalemate. This is still a stand-off. We're no farther than we were last week other than that we can say for certainty the child isn't leaving the country until some time after the week of May 8th when the court will hear the appeal in the case.

WOODRUFF: So by bringing up -- just to wrap this up, Greta -- by brining up these points about Elian being a minor, being under the age of 18, which the statute, the federal statute refers to, are they introducing an entirely new element of this case, or what?

VAN SUSTEREN: I must tell you that most people -- I'm surprised by the decision, because children cannot typically in the courts speak for themselves, and you know, that's why we have guardians, that's why parents speak on behalf of them. But if you look at the literal words of this statute, Congress had an opportunity to distinguish between adults and children, chose not to.

And the fact that the INS does have guidelines where they let children make their own decisions doesn't make this decision by the court, you know, such a surprise. I just never looked at -- by that viewpoint, and the court very literally interpreted the statute. Any alien, it didn't say any alien, but someone under the age of 18 must have a guardian. So Congress is the one that sort of comes up looking a little bit bad in this for not being more specific and giving us more guidance.

WOODRUFF: All right, once again, we've been listening to comments from the attorney for the relatives, the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez. Family obviously pleased with the rulings today by federal circuit court in Atlanta, rulings which among other things say that this little boy cannot be removed from the United States pending the outcome of these appeals, which will take place during the month of May, and as Greta has been saying, may go on beyond that period.

VAN SUSTEREN: Very easily could.

WOODRUFF: All right, we're looking at live pictures outside the home of the Gonzalez family in Little Havana in the Miami area. We heard a little while ago -- even as the attorney was talking and even as his great uncle was speaking we saw pictures of little Elian playing with his cousin, Marisleysis Gonzalez.

And we are waiting, we're told, for comments from the attorney for Elian's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, who has been waiting in Washington now for about a week and a half. And it may be that Greg Craig is available to talk any time now. We're waiting for that word.

All right, as we speak, this is Greg Craig, the attorney representing Juan Miguel Gonzalez, here to talk to reporters in Washington.


The real issue in this case has never been whether this child leaves the United States. The real issue has always been whether this child would be returned to his father.

Over a month ago, Juan Miguel Gonzalez volunteered to remain in the United States during the pendency of any appeal if he had custody of his son. Since then, he has repeated that commitment, personally and in writing, to the attorney general of the United States and the commissioner of INS. He stands by that commitment.

Nothing in the order issued today by the 11th Circuit undermines or weakens this father's legal and moral claim that he be given immediate custody of his son. In fact, the 11th Circuit's opinion places the obligation to act squarely on the shoulders of the attorney general.

Juan Miguel Gonzalez came to the United States two weeks ago in reliance upon the expressed representation of the United States government that it would enforce the law and return his son to him.

When the attorney general met with Juan Miguel Gonzalez on Friday, April 7, she promised him that he would soon be reunited with his son. Since then, not only has Elian remained in the custody and control of his Miami relatives, his situation has deteriorated.

On April 17, the government's medical expert stated that Elian is, quote, "in a state of imminent danger, in a home that I consider to be psychologically abusive." That same expert urged the attorney general, quote, "to immediately remove Elian Gonzalez from the custody of Lazaro Gonzalez."

We call upon the United States government to take immediate action. It is unconscionable to wait one day longer. To do so will only cause more harm to Elian. This child's welfare is in the hands of the United States government, and we believe that any further delay puts that welfare in jeopardy.

If the government does not act immediately to remove Elian from the care of Lazaro Gonzalez and return him to his father, it will bear responsibility for the harm that continues to be inflicted upon Juan Miguel's beloved son.

Thank you very much.

SHAW: Attorney Greg Craig speaking for the father of Elian Gonzalez.

Now we're going back to Miami, where the mayor, Joe Carollo has spoken out about the Gonzalez case and how it has stirred the city's Cuban-American community. Mayor Carollo joins us now on INSIDE POLITICS.

Mr. Mayor, your reaction to what has been happening this afternoon?

MAYOR JOE CAROLLO (R), MIAMI, FLORIDA: Well, first of all, we're very grateful to the 11th District Court of Appeals for following the rule of law of our country. At the same time, here in Miami, we're very grateful to God that in this day of Passover, again, God has protected this little boy that came to our country on Thanksgiving Day.

I strongly disagree with the statements that Mr. Craig has made. I know that he's very disappointed because the deal that he brokered between Castro and his friends in our administration seems to be falling apart, because we are a country of law and the federal appellate court has said that the law has to be followed.

If the attorney for the Cuban government, Mr. Craig, truly wants to see the father reunited with his son and truly wants to do what's in the best interests of the son in making the son be reunited with the father, then he should have said yes to the attorney general last week when she gave him an offer of reuniting the father with the son in one home, having the Miami family and the other under the full protection of security of the United States government, except that the Cuban government was not going to be able to control Juan Miguel, and Juan Miguel was going to be able to breathe liberty for the first time in America...

SHAW: Mr. Mayor...

CAROLLO: ... but Mr. Craig said no. Yes.

SHAW: Mayor Carollo, I want to share with you some late information that CNN has just received.

Attorney General Janet Reno has arrived at Oklahoma City for a different development. And she says that she will abide by the ruling of the court, but she also says this does not preclude her putting Elian in the custody of his father. What does that tell you?

CAROLLO: Well, what it tells me is that the attorney general is not reading between the lines, that is not carefully reading the message that the appellate court has sent. I would agree with her that we should begin the transition that all objective, impartial psychologists, psychiatrists have said that is needed: where both families will be together for several weeks and Elian can go between one family and the other. But simply being, that is what I think that the attorney general should do if she truly wants to do what is fair and deal with this in fair play and fairness.

The last sentence of the ruling states that there is nothing that precludes both parties to be able to come together. In fact, it seems that the court is encouraging that. Well, I encourage the attorney general to do just that, to bring back, again, the plan that she told me last Tuesday that she wanted to implement, where these families can come together in a compound under the protection of our government, where this boy can begin the rightful reunification with his father. But Mr. Craig has not wanted that. We would...

SHAW: OK, Mr. Mayor?.


SHAW: I'm sorry to interrupt you, sir. We have the essence of how you feel, and we appreciate you joining us, but this story is moving along very rapidly and we have to move along.

CAROLLO: Thank you.

SHAW: You're quite welcome.

CAROLLO: Good afternoon, thank you.

SHAW: Good afternoon to you -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Well, Bernie, now we're joined by CNN's justice correspondent Pierre Thomas to give us some more of the details on what the attorney general did have to say this afternoon. She, of course, has gone to Oklahoma City for the memorial of the federal -- the bombing of the federal building there.

Pierre, and she addressed this Elian issue?

PIERRE THOMAS, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: She did, the most critical thing that the attorney general said was that she retains the right to move the boy to the father, and now the pressure is clearly on the Justice Department. You have a court ruling saying that while the boy is in the United States he must remain in the United States. Now the question is, will she take that action? There is more pressure on the attorney general. She had sought a court order to force Lazaro Gonzalez to turn over the boy to his father. She didn't get it today. So now any authority to take that action has to come from the attorney general.

WOODRUFF: But as Greta has pointed out, as I'm sure you've seen in this ruling, Pierre, part of the language in this 11th Circuit ruling has to do with questioning the INS and its handling of this matter in not talking to the boy, not determining his own wishes about whether he wants to stay in the United States or go back to Cuba with his father. In other words, the whole underpinnings, it seems to me, of the Justice Department's assumptions here have been somewhat undercut by the appeals court ruling.

THOMAS: Well, there are a number of Justice Department officials who will be somewhat surprised by the ruling in the sense that a number of people I talked to throughout this felt that it was a slam dunk case on the government side; that it was clearly in the U.S. interests to have, you know, children not speaking for themselves, but to have their parents speak for them. The court raised a question that this is not a frivolous, you know, motion by the family in Miami.

The court said that, look, this is -- these -- there are serious questions, as Greta pointed out a moment ago, the notion that the law says any alien can apply for asylum. That is a question, of course, that we need to look at that, we need to resolve that issue. So, the Justice Department in addition to deciding whether they will go in and forcibly remove the boy will also have to consider what is the court perhaps forecasting.

WOODRUFF: That's right, and meanwhile we have the attorney for the father just saying a few moments ago that the government needs to act immediately to get Elian Gonzalez back with his father.

All right, Pierre Thomas, thanks very much.

And still ahead on INSIDE POLITICS, Bill Schneider with the political side of this custody battle.

Plus, the attorney general's position. More on that. We'll talk with Elaine Shannon of "Time" magazine about the happenings at the Justice Department.


SHAW: Attorney General Janet Reno defended her actions in the Elian Gonzalez case at a news conference earlier today. For more on her position let's turn to Elaine Shannon, who covers the Justice Department for "Time" magazine. What's her biggest dilemma? ELAINE SHANNON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I thought that Janet Reno said it herself best today when she said law enforcement has a very difficult dilemma, you want to enforce the law, but you also want to do it in a way that's acceptable to the public and doesn't look "authoritarian" needlessly. She wants a decision, what she's saying, is acceptable to people, and that comes close to politicizing the case, but she also wants to uphold the credibility of the Justice Department. That's why she doesn't want to go in the middle of the night, even though she can, and get this boy.

SHAW: Whatever is right for the child, that has been her watch word.

SHANNON: Yes, if you take her words at face value she's always said, I'm not going to respond to pressure, I'm going to respond to what's right for this child and I want to do it with a minimum of scarring for him, a minimum of disturbance. I don't know how anybody could manage that, but that's what she keeps saying she's going to try.

SHAW: And yet we have Greg Craig, the attorney for Juan Miguel Gonzalez, saying just a short while ago, live up to your word, live up to your promise, when are you going to get my client his son.

SHANNON: Yes, and she's in just absolutely the worst situation, because she is the nation's chief law enforcement officer. When she says rule of law, when the president says rule of law, when the deputy attorney general says the rule of law must be supreme, that has to mean something, it can't be just words. It can't be ruled by a crowd of loud people.

SHAW: And, Elaine, I want to ask you a question as we look at Lazaro Gonzalez, Elian's great-uncle in Miami having reacted to the court's ruling earlier today, he said at one point that the family continues to live under the laws and by the laws of the United States of America.

We had the family's attorney, Kendall Coffey, former U.S. attorney, in effect publicly pressuring the Justice Department and the INS by saying, we call upon the INS to do nothing to interfere, disrupt or distract. Will that be effective?

SHANNON: Well, that's the $64 question, and people who are closest to Reno, as has been reported in "Time" and elsewhere, don't really know what's going on in her head as she listens to people but she doesn't respond. She doesn't sit there and say, OK, fellows, we're going to do A, B, C, and if D happens, we're going to do E. So, everybody is trying to figure out if she sees this window, will -- she can go through it. Will she, and will she to it tomorrow? Will she do it next week? Will she wait until after the hearing on May 11th for this child?

SHAW: One last question, I wanted to ask you this, ever since she did it -- you cover the Justice Department, you cover this attorney general -- how much did she put on the line when she went down to Miami and walked in to try to talk with that side of the story?

SHANNON: Well, she's -- well, read the press, she's getting trashed by a lot of very prominent columnists and other people. There are a few people sticking up for her, and she herself stuck up for herself today by quoting Lincoln and saying, well, I just have to do what I think is right. But she put her whole reputation on the line and this is going to -- I just don't know how she's going to come out of this one.

SHAW: Elaine Shannon, Justice Department correspondent for "Time" magazine.

And our extended coverage of this developing story will continue in a moment.


WOODRUFF: Live pictures outside the home of Lazaro Gonzalez, great uncle of Elian Gonzalez in Miami.

Less than 30 minutes from now, President Clinton is scheduled to take part in the dedication of a memorial for the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing. Our Major Garrett is traveling with the president and he joins us now with how the White House is reacting to the latest developments in the Elian Gonzalez case -- Major.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Judy, well, White House reaction right now very muted. The White House does not want to jump into the fray on Elian Gonzalez right now. It hasn't from the very start. They've said two thing primarily about this case, that the rule of law should be enforced and that father and son should be reunited. I can tell you privately White House officials were anticipating a favorable court ruling, one that would have expedited the reunification process. That doesn't appear to be the case now. That process is stalled.

So now the two messages from the White House, reunification and upholding the rule of law are a little bit in conflict at this moment. White House officials pulled together a senior staff meeting right after the court ruling was handed down. They met together in the White House for a good long while. All the White House reaction today will be to support the Justice Department and leave the public reaction to Attorney General Janet Reno.

I can also tell you, Judy, that in conversations CNN has had with senior House and Senate Republican aides, the court ruling in no way changes the political dynamic behind moves to grant Elian citizenship. Senior House and Republican Senate aides tell CNN that with the court ruling it now appears that Elian will receive his day in court, which is one of the things they had hoped to accomplish by granting him citizenship -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, CNN's Major Garrett there in Oklahoma City to cover the observance of the Oklahoma City bombing.

Well, joining us now, our senior political analyst Bill Schneider with more on this Elian Gonzalez ruling.

Bill, political implications to this, clearly this is one decision in what may be a string of decisions, but are there political implications here?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Judy, I think the public is certainly exasperated. I think today's decision intensifies the public's exasperation. We found that the public agrees with the government's goal of reuniting the child with his father, but people have been highly critical of the way the government has handled this case. Why is it taking so long? Why has it become so political? Why has it become a media circus? The government looks impotent. It can't resolve the issue. Whenever the government looks impotent, there are bound to be political repercussions.

WOODRUFF: All right, so do you think that this could hurt Vice President Gore given what he said?

SCHNEIDER: Anything that makes the government look powerless and ineffectual hurts Gore, even though he tried to distance himself from the administration's position. Notice how both Gore and President Clinton seem to be hiding on this issue. Gore won't talk to the press, and the president seems to be passing the buck to Janet Reno. That just increases the impression that the government is powerless.

WOODRUFF: And how do people feel -- what are you finding out about how the attorney general is handling this?

SCHNEIDER: Well, you know, a CBS News poll taken over the weekend shows the public mixed in their view of how the attorney general has handled this case, 40 percent approve, 43 percent disapprove. The Justice Department seems immobilized and that just raises the impression that the administration is impotent. People wonder, is she afraid of another Waco? In Waco, the government may have blundered, but it acted, and the attorney general scored points by taking responsibility. In Miami, she is taking responsibility, but she is not acting.

WOODRUFF: So what can she do?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I think the people want the government to turn the boy over to his father as quickly as possible. In a way, today's court decision makes that easier, because the father is prohibited from taking the boy to Cuba, at least for now. Once the boy is in the father's custody, people will be satisfied then to let the courts resolve the issue without political interference.

WOODRUFF: All right, Bill Schneider, thanks very much.

And more INSIDE POLITICS in just a moment.


SHAW: Of course, we will keep you updated on the latest developments in the case involving Elian Gonzalez. But in other news today, we switch to another subject, a former Republican presidential candidate John McCain of Arizona, and Candy Crowley, our correspondent who is covering Vice President Al Gore. Here is her report.


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A mea culpa from John McCain. The Straight Talk Express was not always.

MCCAIN: I want to tell the people of South Carolina and all Americans that I sincerely regret breaking my promise to always tell you the truth.

CROWLEY: Two months to the day of his defeat in South Carolina, John McCain returned to the state to change his answer to a question asked repeatedly along the campaign trail: How do you personally feel about the Confederate flag flying over the capital building in South Carolina? Though McCain had called the flag a symbol of racism, as the South Carolina primary loomed, his answer grew convoluted. The issue was so politically loaded, the free-wheeling McCain took to a script.

MCCAIN: I understand both sides. Some view it as a symbol of slavery; others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage.

CROWLEY: That's what he said January 12th; this, he said today, is how he really feels.

MCCAIN: I believe the flag should be removed from your capital.

CROWLEY: It was a subdued but remarkable performance by McCain, who seemed to want to make his own harsh judgments before anyone else did it for him.

MCCAIN: I should have done this earlier, when an honest answer could have affected me personally. I did not do so for one reason alone: I feared that if I answered honestly, I could not win the South Carolina primary, so I chose to compromise my principles.

CROWLEY: That's what he said today; this is what he said January 17th.

MCCAIN: I don't believe that this issue is going to -- of the flag -- is going to resonate to the determinant of my campaign or anyone else's because I think most people understand that this issue should be decided by the people of South Carolina.

CROWLEY: Aides say McCain has been thinking about making this speech for weeks. "It's just something that ate at him," said one. Still, the timing of it runs counter to the Bush spring agenda.

McCain returns the Confederate flag to national headlines just as Bush is trying to re-establish his credentials as a compassionate conservative. Did McCain factor in the impact of this on his former rival? Of course not, says McCain.

MCCAIN: This was a personal statement of mine that needed to be made, and I don't think it would or should effect anyone else's campaign.

CROWLEY: Still, McCain put the question out there again, and Bush was forced to answer it again Tuesday, just as he was wrapping up a Michigan swing which focused on helping low-income Americans buy homes.

During the same news conference, Bush volunteered that even though John McCain says he doesn't want to be considered as vice presidential material, Bush wants to look him in the eye and see if he means it. He means it, says McCain, but would the senator serve if asked? You decide.

MCCAIN: I would categorically state to Governor Bush before he asked me, as I have consistently, that I do not wish to be asked. I don't want to place him or me in that kind of difficult position.

CROWLEY: Certainly the last thing this pair needs is another difficult position.

(on camera): McCain, by the way, says he has no intention of bringing up the Confederate flag issue when he meets with George Bush in Pittsburgh on May 9th. Still, it adds a new element to a dynamic that already promises a very interesting meeting.

Candy Crowley, CNN, Columbia, South Carolina.


WOODRUFF: And up next, Margaret Carlson and Tucker Carlson on Elian Gonzalez and more.


SHAW: Here now a tape recorded statement made by Attorney General Janet Reno in Oklahoma City responding to that federal appeals panel's decision affecting Elian Gonzalez.


JANET RENO, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: For the past four months the case of Elian Gonzalez has touched the hearts of virtually every American. It is a case about a 6-year-old boy and the sacred bond that exists between he and his father. It is that simple. Juan Miguel, his father, is in this country and wants his son back.

I believe Elian should be reunited with his father and I've said that all along. The order today from the Court of Appeals says that Elian should not be removed from the country and we're going to abide by that court order. But it does not disagree with my determination, it does not say that the boy cannot be reunited with his father in this country. In fact, the court said we need not decide where or in whose custody the plaintiff should remain while this appeal is pending.

There are two issues here that must be kept separate. One is whether an asylum application can be brought by distant relatives over the objection of a father who is the sole surviving parent. The other issue is who cares for the child while he is in the United States.

The appeal addresses only the asylum issue, not the care issue. The court's order does not preclude me from placing Elian in his father's care while he is in the United States.

The immigration laws clearly call for a child to be placed in the care of a parent in preference to a more distant relative while the child's immigration status is being resolved. The 11th Circuit's order, as I say, prevents him from leaving the country while the appeal is pending. We will abide by that.

We are still reviewing the court's decision, for I have just had the chance to look at it as I have come off the plane. We are going to take and consider all our options and take the course of action that we deem appropriate under the circumstances.

Thank you.


WOODRUFF: Those were the comments today of Attorney General Janet Reno responding to the ruling by -- handed down by the 11th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals.

Joining us now, two frequent faces on this program we're happy to say: Margaret Carlson of "Time" magazine and Tucker Carlson of "The Weekly Standard."

Where does this ruling handed down by the 11th Circuit today lead the government's plan to return the 6-year-old boy to his father, Margaret?

MARGARET CARLSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: In the same place, which is -- the pressure on the attorney general grows to find a way to get Elian to his father without looking as if it's Waco Two or something else that turns into a violent confrontation.

WOODRUFF: Does this make it harder, though, Tucker, given the language in this ruling?

TUCKER CARLSON, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I'm not sure it makes her -- actually, I think it could make it easier, I mean, because the attorney general could say, look, we're, you know, taking him from Miami, bringing him back to Bethesda, but -- to be with his father, but, you know, it doesn't mean he's going to get on a flight to Cuba immediately. It still leaves the question, though. I mean, is the attorney general -- you know, who's running the Justice Department exactly? I mean, if you call over there, you'll hear people -- if you talk to people who work there, complaint after complaint about how this one, in general terms, very small issue is obsessing the attorney general. She is missing -- apparently missing meetings in order to spend time working on this. It's way out of proportion. I mean, there are lots of other things going on that the attorney general ought to be focused on.

M. CARLSON: It's very hard -- I mean, the country is obsessing, CNN is obsessing -- to pull back from it. You know, perhaps she can, but I think the pressure on her to resolve this peacefully is very, very high and it's a symbolic issue in which she has to perform well.

T. CARLSON: And I think it -- I haven't heard anybody suggest, credibly, that it would get anything but peaceful. I've been down there a couple of times, spent a lot of time in front of the house. You know, it's mostly older people, respectable looking people. Nobody is throwing bottles or setting fires. I mean, it's just not good. This is a crowd that's going to erupt into violence if the boy is removed.

M. CARLSON: Well, at one time, they had seemed to be threatening it. I don't know whether they're -- you know, it's just a threat, but -- and the mayor and others were saying, we can't guarantee your safety.

WOODRUFF: All right, I'm going to turn you both quickly to the one other political issue that we have any time to talk about today.

John McCain goes to South Carolina and says, what I really wanted to say all along is that I think the Confederate flag should have come down from the top of the state capital. Tucker, does this put pressure on George Bush to follow suit, or what?

T. CARLSON: Well, I mean, McCain is never happier than when he's admitting one of his own mistakes. He just loves to self-flagellate and you could see it in the speech today: You know, what I did was dishonorable.

M. CARLSON: He should be a Catholic, because of the confessions.

T. CARLSON: He really ought to be. I mean, he may be secretly. I think it does. I mean, I think Bush probably instinctively wanted to call for pulling it down, but keep in mind that a group was formed in South Carolina that sent thousands of mailings on Bush's behalf during the primary, "Keep It Flying," PAC. And Bush would have to sort of turn his back on all his pro-flag supporters. I don't know if he would do it, I bet he wants to.

M. CARLSON: Yes, it's nice to have McCain back to kick around or not. And he does like to do this. And it must have weighed on him because he is one of those politicians who loves himself for his straight talk, so it must have been really a hard pill to swallow given that he had to do that, or felt he had to in South Carolina. In some ways, Bush benefits because on May 19th he gets to embrace McCain publicly in Pittsburgh at their summit, their detente. And so...

WOODRUFF: May 9th, or whatever.

M. CARLSON: Is it May 9th?

WOODRUFF: Whatever.

M CARLSON: Yes, it's got a nine in it.

WOODRUFF: May. It's got a nine in it, yes.

M. CARLSON: In the merry month of May. And like, Tom Ridge, who's going to be there as well, Tom Ridge is more liberal than Bush and whatever. I think he benefits from the association without having to take the positions himself.

WOODRUFF: Or ask either one of them to be his running mate.


WOODRUFF: All right, Tucker Carlson, Margaret Carlson, thank you both.

And INSIDE POLITICS, right after this.


SHAW: There he is, the young boy, the center of all the attention. Elian Gonzalez, this afternoon in Miami, in little Havana. CNN will continue to update you on developments involving this young boy.

Also, we'll have coverage of Bill Clinton's appearance out in Oklahoma City, commemorating the victims who died five years ago in that terrible Oklahoma City bombing.

All on CNN as the evening unfolds -- Judy.


I'm Judy Woodruff, he's Bernard Shaw, and we'll both be right back with "WORLDVIEW."



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