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China Releases U.S. Detainees

Aired April 11, 2001 - 21:00   ET

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


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm pleased to be able to tell the American people that plans are under way to bring home our 24 American servicemen and -women from Hainan Island.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, destination freedom: The deal that got two dozen Americans released, and the state of U.S.-Chinese relations after their 11-day detention.

Joining us from Little Rock, Republican Senator Tim Hutchinson, member of the Armed Services Committee; from Wilmington, Delaware, Democratic Senator Joe Biden, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee; in Washington, the man who served as United States ambassador to China during the first Bush administration, James Lilley, and with him is Norm Ornstein, resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute.

We will also talk with the parents of Lt. John Comerford, one of the now-released crew members.

Plus, the man who put the tick-tick-tick in CBS's "60 Minutes," executive producer Don Hewitt, and boy, has this legend got some stories to tell.

They're all next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Before the events of today, Don Hewitt was scheduled to be our guest for the full hour. He will participate in the panel in the first half-hour of the show and then we'll have our sole interview with Don and get to those stories in the second half-hour of tonight's edition of LARRY KING LIVE.

Senator Hutchinson in Little Rock, what do you make of this release today?

SEN. TIM HUTCHINSON (R), ARKANSAS: Well, it is a little easier to smile now than it was 48 hours ago on the LARRY KING SHOW. This is a happy day, and we are rejoicing with this good news, and, certainly, the president deserves great credit with his team for the job they did in containing a situation that was very explosive and bringing it to a happy resolution. KING: Senator Biden, are you happy with what might be called the deal?

SEN. JOSEPH BIDEN (D), DELAWARE: I am, and my congratulations to the parents you have on, Larry. They must be heck of a lot more excited about this than any of us. The answer is yes, I think the president handled it well. I think the State Department did a first- rate job, our ambassador did a fine job in tamping down the emotions, not letting this get out of control, containing it. I know Ambassador Lilley knows a great deal about China. I'd be interested in what he has to said, but I think they did a fine job.

KING: Ambassador, I'm going to read you a quote from the letter now, apparently the letter that did this. This letter was delivered to the Chinese Foreign Ministry by our ambassador, and part of it said: "Both President Bush and Secretary of State Powell have expressed their sincere regret over your missing pilot and aircraft. Please convey to Chinese people and to the family of pilot Wang Wei that we are very sorry for their loss."

Ambassador Lilley, you were ambassador in the first Bush administration, in '89 to '91. What do you make of the wording of that? What -- did that do it?

JAMES LILLEY, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: Oh, yes, I think it showed lot of skill and craftsmanship. That word "sincere" really is a buzzword in China. They're always claiming insincerity this, insincerity that. We upstaged them. We put the word sincere in there, and then we added a very.

This didn't give away anything: Very sorry, fine; very, very sorry; very, very sorry. If this does the job, do it. But you preserve your honor didn't you go into that business of apology, and I think Secretary Powell out it very well. Apology signifies guilt and we were not guilty.

KING: But did it give, ambassador, the Chinese an out to say they did say they are sorry?

LILLEY: Well, the Chinese wording, and I have it right here in front of me in Chinese, uses exactly the same word in Chinese of regret. It says ...

(SPEAKING IN CHINESE)

... which means, in effect, sincere regret. And, sorry, is...

(SPEAKING IN CHINESE)

... and that's the same word. So, I mean the translations, they didn't play any games this time. They didn't put apology in there. They used regret and they use sorry. So, they played it straight.

KING: Another part of the letter said: "We are very sorry the entering of China's airspace and the landing did not have verbal clearance, but are very pleased the crew landed safely. We appreciate China's efforts to see to the well-being of our crew."

Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute, apparently that worked, too.

NORM ORNSTEIN, AMERICAN ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE: Certainly, we did everything, I think, that kept us from admitting any culpability. The only thing I'm surprised wasn't in there is that we are very sorry that you took the plane and examined all the equipment. But other than that, we gave them what they need and they gave us what we needed.

KING: Don Hewitt, we're going to bring you into this discussion, not only as a participant, but could you ask questions, as well. As executive producers of "60 Minutes," I guess you hold more experience than anybody around this table. You have cover stories like this before. What do you make of all this?

DON HEWITT, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "60 MINUTES": I don't understand what the 11-day delay was. If we did it today, what were we waiting for? You know, I remember, when the most damaging thing you could about an American statesman was he was soft on Communism. Joe McCarthy said about it Dwight Eisenhower, John Foster, Dulles; everybody in the world, and now, what you've got is you've got the Joe McCarthys of China claiming Jiang Zemin is soft on capitalism. Why are we playing into their hands? Didn't we realize...

KING: You think we should have what?

HEWITT: Think we should have done this right off the bat.

KING: Senator Hutchinson, does he got a point?

HUTCHINSON: Well, I respectfully disagree. I think it was handled beautifully. The Chinese heard what they wanted to hear, and it took them a while to hear it. They wanted a way out, and the president, while preserving his principles and preserving the stand that we had rightly taken, allowed them to hear what they wanted to hear, which was the way they interpreted it, and I think that was fine. That was diplomatic ambiguity that allowed us to maintain our principles while allowing them a way out.

KING: Senator Biden, could they -- could we have done what Don suggests sooner?

BIDEN: I think Mr. Hewitt makes a good point. I think we could have done it earlier, but it'd be second-guessing a little bit to say that -- I don't know the Chinese had enough time to sort of run the traps on this. It seems to me, Mr. Hewitt, that the Chinese leadership was trying to figure out how it would make its deal, not with us, but with the Chinese military as well as with students. And, so, I think they needed a little bit of time.

Granted, it may have worked earlier, but I'm not sure that it would have. I think there is a need for a little bit of time here for Zemin to get himself -- to get his ducks in order at home, and I think, notwithstanding the fact the ambassador said they're playing it straight in the communique, several reports I've heard on the evening news tonight were that it -- it's being characterized, not the reading of the letter, but it's being characterized as an apology on some of the state-run news media.

KING: Ambassador -- good point, Joe. Ambassador Lilley, will the Chinese leadership be criticized by some in China?

LILLEY: Oh, yes, of course. But this could not have been done earlier. The Chinese were hoisted on their own petard. The military fed information to the top bureaucracy, which in effect said our plane turned deliberately on their plane, crashed into it and killed the pilot.

This was fed up the system. What is the political leadership going to do when they get this? They're going to demand an apology, and that's exactly what they did on April 3rd, and they insisted on it because they had this bad information. They realized over time that they were being fed false information, but they can't back down because the emperor, who is infallible, gave an edict which said we were guilty, and it's very hard to change that in China, and you have to be very clever in crafting language to get them off the hook that they hoisted themselves on.

BIDEN: I think they were embarrassed as the devil, Larry. I think their pride was shattered. They lost a pilot who is, I think will show as the facts come out, was being a little bit more of a jet jockey and a hot dog than he was menacing.

It was clearly an accident. They were the losers. Their military looked inept. Their pilot looked inept, and I think the ambassador is correct. That's why theoretically, it could have been done earlier, but I'm not sure that the leadership could have worked its way through this in China any sooner.

KING: Before a we get a Norm comment -- Don?

HEWITT: I'd be interested in knowing, Mr. Ambassador, do you think that Jiang Zemin comes out of this stronger, weaker or no different than he was when he went in?

LILLEY: I think he probably comes out a little bit stronger, but I'm hesitant to say that because I don't have the inside look at China. But over time, the Chinese have a way of sorting things out, and they have a sense of the long view and Jiang Zemin figured out that they'd gotten everything they could get out of this short-term tactical attack on the united states. He looked at the long-term, he saw the Olympics, he saw PNTR, he saw the World Trade Organization, he saw Taiwan arms sales. He saw all these things on the horizon. He said, let's get off this wicket and let's get moving on the real issues we have to deal with...

KING: Let me get a break. I'm sorry. We'll get a break and we'll get right back to you, ambassador. They are watching in Beijing tonight, so I will ask Norm Ornstein and the others how they may view our reaction to all of this. We're also going to hear from John and Kathy Comerford, the parents of Lieutenant John Comerford, on of the 24 EP-3 crew members detained by the Chinese, on their way to Guam and Hawaii and then back to their own homes for Easter.

This is LARRY KING LIVE. We'll also talk later just with Don Hewitt about his book. That's all ahead, don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: The American people, their families, and I are proud of our crew, and we look forward to welcoming them home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: There is the plane, taking off from Hainan Island, heading for Guam. That's a -- flight's going to take about 5 1/2 hours, and they're all on that plane. And they will land in Guam at approximately midnight tonight, Eastern time, and of course, CNN cameras will be there.

Norm Ornstein there, watching this program in Beijing tonight. What do you think they make of a discussion like this?

ORNSTEIN: Well, remember one thing, Larry, that there has been a significant amount of nationalism rising in China, and anti- Americanism. It certainly flared after our accidental bombing of their embassy in Belgrade. And, so it's simmering just beneath the surface. That's one of the things that the Chinese leadership, I'm sure, was responding to. We have some reason to believe that the wording that we have in this letter was pretty close to what we offered them several days ago.

My guess is that they're going to be looking at us as we're looking at them, to make sure there isn't too much gloating. But, we've dodged a bullet and they dodged a bullet here, in a sense, in terms of the overall relationship here. If this had gone on another week, it would have been tougher on both sides.

KING: Are you saying this is a win-win?

ORNSTEIN: I think it is, and that's what you hope for in diplomacy. And it is a win for United States. It's a win for George W. Bush, his first foreign policy crisis. It's turned out to have been handled very deftly, and well. But let me say again, if this had gone on for another week, if it had gone on until Congress itself came back, then a lot of other things, including permanent normal trade relations with China, might be in jeopardy, and we might have a relationship spiraling downward. As it is, I think we can both get through this and resume some normality in the relationship.

KING: Senator Hutchinson, what do you think brought the Chinese around? HUTCHINSON: Well, I think that there was a delay in the information that Jiang Zemin received, that the leadership received. And as the facts became apparent, they looked for a way out. And we, with some very deft handling -- linguistic handling -- gave them that way out.

And there's going to be a lot of second-guessing, and looking back and saying: "What if we would have done this, could it have been resolved earlier?" But any diminishing of the accomplishment, I think, is really a high compliment to George W. Bush, because this was defused. It was contained. And it had a happy ending. And the first test ended very successfully for this administration.

So you know, I think China wanted a way out and we gave them that way out.

KING: We gave it to them.

Senator Biden, would you say this was a big night, Senator Biden, for Colin Powell?

BIDEN: Well, I think it's a big night for Colin Powell. And I think, if you check with the administration, they thought from the very outset that Jiang Zemin wanted a way out. I think, unlike Ambassador Lilley -- although I'm not sure either -- I think we realized that Jiang Zemin is weaker than most Americans thought.

Here's a fellow who knew darn well that if he moved too quickly to release those forces, our troops, our crew, that he might have had a serious problem with students. He may have had serious problems in the street. And he may have serious problems in military. This is not a man who is -- has an iron-fisted control. There is already a lot of rumbling about succession.

And so I think this demonstrates that this deal that's essentially been made with "geriatocracy," which is: "You let us continue to be your dictators and we'll provide economic growth, whether we call it communism or not," is a fairly fragile arrangement in China as well.

And I compliment Powell, Secretary Powell, in understanding that and responding in the way that he did. Things got toned down after the first day or so, and we got on course. And I think Powell deserves a great deal of credit.

KING: Don? ?

HEWITT: Ambassador, do you think that Jiang Zemin is going to survive this thing? I keep thinking if you're going to have an adversary in the world, he's not a bad one to have, considering what we could have in his place.

KING: You regard him as weak?

HEWITT: No, I think he's good. LILLEY: I think he will survive. Again, I'll be proved wrong, perhaps. But I think you've got to be very careful in playing this game, of the Americans can weigh in, and have a leader in China survive. He'll survive not on how he treats the United States, but how he handles internal problems in China. It that huge problem of the state-owned enterprises, the corruption that's beyond belief. The whole business of a financial system that's almost on the rocks. Great growth, great push, but it's very fragile, and he is weighed against internal problems.

They use the external problems to bash the other side, but essentially it's who wins inside. If you look at the history of Chinese leaders, of Mao, and Liu Shaoqi, and then Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, it's all on internal issues where they fall. Yes, the foreign policy issues are used, but the essence is in internal China.

HEWITT: Are you rooting for him to survive?

LILLEY: Am I?

HEWITT: Is that a good thing for us?

LILLEY: It's very hard to say. Jiang Zemin is a nationalist. He is a dedicated communist. He is a man that goes into economic reform with some caution. But he's made the very wise decision of getting the best Chinese in the business of economics, working with him, Zhu Rongji, the premier. And they didn't get along very well in Shanghai, but this man is absolutely essential. And he says, "I'm out of there in 2002, and 2003. I'll never come back." But he's been there. He's essential to Jiang Zemin, and he's the man that takes an awful lot of credit for keeping the internal -- turmoil tamped down.

KING: Let me get a break and we'll pick right up with the panel. John and Kathy Comerford are on the way here. They're about -- they're an hour away, and they started out about 50 minutes ago. Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: We entered their airspace without permission because we were unable to get permission, but that young pilot was faced with a crisis. His plane had been badly damaged. He had to get it on the ground. He had 23 lives plus his own to save, and niceties and formalities were not available to him at that moment. And he did a marvelous job of putting the plane on the ground. But he did enter airspace without permission, and landed without permission, and for that, we are very sorry, but glad he did it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, 41ST PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... very happy that people, about to be released. It is a great relief for everybody, including the president of the United States, who's handled this very, very well. But he doesn't need any advice from me. A lot of love and affection from his father and that is what he needs when things get tough.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Former President George Prescott (sic) Bush. Norm Ornstein, in history, is this a blip or a big story?

ORNSTEIN: This is probably a blip, Larry. But you have to say one thing, for every president -- new president, there are a few early defining moments that set an image in place. It's an image that can be changed later on, but if you are fortunate, that image is a positive one.

You know, when Bill Clinton came in, the first foreign policy crises were really Somalia and Haiti, and the image was not a good one. It took him a long time to dig himself out of the hole in terms of his image as commander in chief who floundered.

For Bush, this is a good moment. It is going to set an image that he has got his act together, he has his people together, and that will serve him well for at least a period of time in foreign policy. There are some tough moments ahead, including, clearing a lot of rocky moments with China, other headaches around the world. But when you can start out with a sense that you handled the first one well, that will be a big positive for him.

KING: Senator Hutchinson, I think -- do you think everyone handled themselves well, the loyal opposition as well?

HUTCHINSON: I do. And I want to commend my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. They supported the president, they were there, they spoke with a unified voice and supporting the president. I do want to say, Larry, on this day when we are all very happy, and we should be. It is a day of elation. I don't want to inflame passions in any way at all.

But it is appropriate that we are reminded that China is still a repressive country, that the ambassador called it tapping down internal dissent, and it is that. It is repression. All of our foreign policy on the long term needs to be aimed at moving China into real democratic reforms, and I think we saw a taste in this experience of the repression that is very real in China today.

KING: Senator Biden, do you agree.

BIDEN: Larry, no, I don't. Let me be clear. I hope -- I think the president got off to a very shaky start in the way he blew the North Korean thing, I think he didn't do well in the unilateral action with regard to the treaty, but on this, he did do well and the world saw this. This is good, it is good for him, it is good for the country, it is good for all of us.

But I hope we keep one thing in perspective: what we saw in the short glimpse we had inside China's problems here -- internal problems -- is they are not 10 feet tall, they need not be our implacable foe. There is not an inevitability that we are going to have a conflict with them that is military in nature. We ought to be clear-eyed and level-headed about this, like we were at this moment.

And I am really pleased, quite frankly, it happened with a Republican president, otherwise my conservative friends would have eaten alive Bill Clinton had he done this.

KING: That's the...

BIDEN: No, I sincerely mean this.

KING: As many on the right were attacking him.

BIDEN: And I really hope we keep this in focus. We don't make the same kind of mistake we made them -- some great evil empire. There's inevitability -- it may be conflict, but there is nothing inevitable about it. It can be managed.

KING: Ambassador Lilley, do you agree?

LILLEY: Let me take just two points to finish off with, Larry. First of all, I think we come out of this, with a sense that we have to switch to economic priorities and work on WTO and PNTR, and expand the commercial relationship with China. This will help us with Taiwan, China; this will help the Chinese gain stability in internal economic reforms. It is very important that we move our attention away from this military confrontation, and work on the economic aspect, though we have to take the military aspect -- starting 18 April, when we start our talks, to get a control of this potential confrontation we have with China in the military, because we are the status quo power for deployed. They are expanding outward, inevitable frictions. You've got to get confidence-building measures, rules of engagement, notification of hot lines, and that has to be done. We are on that track.

Finally, I would just say, the one thing that gives us insight into the Chinese is the way they handled this landing by our crippled plane in Lingshui Airport. They are demanding -- apologizing getting a crippled plane to land with 24 people who were almost killed in an airport. They make this a sovereign issue -- this is a human issue.

International law says, when a plane is a mayday, it lands. They are saying you've got say you are sorry. It is incredible, how bizarre their approach to this is.

KING: Ambassador, I thank you. We thank the panel very much. We are running close on time. We thank you all. We will call on all of you again.

We will take a break and when we come back, John and Kathy Comerford, parents of Lt. John Comerford on his way home; they spoke to him today. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: That's the Empire State Building, live tonight. They got the lights all lit up, saluting the boys coming home;, the red and yellow colors saluting the agreement. Always do things right in Gotham, don't they?

Joining Don Hewitt and I here in the studios in Los Angeles, John and Kathy Comerford, the parents of JG John Comerford, one of the 24 EP-3 crew members detained by the Chinese on their way home.

Stupid to say, how do you feel? I guess you feel OK.

KATHY COMERFORD, SON RELEASED BY CHINESE: Elated.

KING: You spoke to him this morning.

K. COMERFORD: We did.

KING: What did he say?

K. COMERFORD: Just real briefly. He said, hi, I'm fine, I'm coming home, you know, everything is fine. So just to say...

KING: He called you, or you got to him.

JOHN COMERFORD, SON RELEASED BY CHINESE: He called us.

KING: John, had the Navy kept in touch with you throughout this?

J. COMERFORD: Oh, yes. Four, five times a day.

KING: How did you first hear about it?

J. COMERFORD: Actually we were in Spain, and Kathy had to pick up a newspaper, an English newspaper, and she was looking at Sophie, and, I -- happened to see the other side of the front page, and it had the accident on there.

KING: Were you worried about his safety once they were down?

J. COMERFORD: Certainly. You know, they are trained to go through situations like this. But it is definitely a concern, considering the countries that they do this same type of surveillance on, China's probably the best...

KING: He's got a ticklish job. Your boy. When do you expect him home?

K. COMERFORD: They'll be up in Whidbey Island on Sunday and he has a house up there, so we will go up there and visit for a while. Then, he will come home, because all our family wants to see him down here too.

KING: I want to spend a couple more minutes with you and then the rest of time with Don. We'll take a quick break here, and come right back with the Comerfords and then Don Hewitt all the rest of the way. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KING: There are the boys and ladies boarding the Continental jet that will take them to Guam. That was earlier, leaving Hainan. Of course, from this spot, you can't recognize John, can you?

K. COMERFORD: No.

KING: You know he is going up those stairs?

K. COMERFORD: Yes.

KING: We are with John and Kathy Comerford, the parents of Lieutenant J.G. John Comerford, and Don Hewitt, the author of "Tell Me a Story: 50 Years and "60 Minutes" in Television." Your family likes danger, obviously. John, you were a battalion chief with the Los Angeles Fire Department, right?

J. COMERFORD: Right.

K. COMERFORD: Our youngest son is a Police Officer.

J. COMERFORD: In San Jose.

KING: And John volunteers to do spy work, right?

K. COMERFORD: Right. Where's the librarian in here?

KING: What do you call what he does?

J. COMERFORD: Well, spying has somewhat of a synonymous ring with clandestine activities, and they were out there in open.

KING: Are you happy he's the career he has got, your son?

K. COMERFORD: Yes, because he loves it. He's happy with what he's doing and he's with a really great group of people up there.

KING: Don asked you something when you sat down, did you expect this to happen? Did you expect him out this soon? Did you hear any advance word?

K. COMERFORD: No, we got no advance word. We were hoping, you know, that it would happen soon, but as each day goes by, you get a little more nervous, you know, why are they still there. But, we're glad they're home now.

KING: How did you learn he was coming home?

K. COMERFORD: We got the phone call from our Navy contact, who is also his good friend.

KING: Oh, a friend of his called.

K. COMERFORD: Yes, his roommate.

J. COMERFORD: His roommate, actually.

KING: Who answered the phone?

J. COMERFORD: I did. Closest to my side.

KING: He said hello and what did he say?

J. COMERFORD: He said, Mr. Comerford, I have a good news for you. We just heard that through Navy channels that there is going to be a news conference in China, and I believe it was one of the Chinese ambassadors that was speaking, and they are going to announce the release of the 24 crew members.

KING: I gather you watched that.

K. COMERFORD: Yes, and then he said turn on CNN. And we did. We did we got all the news

KING: And you saw it happen as it happened.

K. COMERFORD: Yes.

KING: There's no way to describe that feeling, is there?

K. COMERFORD: There isn't really. It's just so wonderful. It was a very, very tense few days. We were really...

KING: What do you think of the way the President and Secretary Powell the rest handled it?

K. COMERFORD: We are very proud of our country, and the way it was handled, and the diplomats did a fabulous job, and it was great. I mean that's -- if China moves slowly, they say this was warp speed for them, well, OK. Ten days isn't so bad.

KING: You didn't expect an apology then?

K. COMERFORD: An apology?

KING: You didn't expect the United States to apologize.

K. COMERFORD: No I don't think we should apologize. We didn't do anything wrong. We were in international airspace whole thing, and...

KING: Is John married?

J. COMERFORD: No, he's single, 26 years old.

KING: He'll be home for a while now, I guess?

J. COMERFORD: I think they're going to give him a month to recuperate.

KING: Is he lifetime Navy?

K. COMERFORD: Navy. He's not sure. You know, they have to reassess after his commitment. KING: We thank you for coming over on such short notice. We want to congratulate you. When John gets here, you'll all come over together, It'll be wonderful to see him with you again.

J. COMERFORD: If I might say one thing, all the Navy people out there, beat Army.

KING: Never stops. Everything, right: basketball, baseball, football, it don't matter to you people, right?

K. COMERFORD: He's a fanatic.

KING: When it comes down to it, it still comes down to that. John and Kathy Comerford, the parents of Lieutenant J.G. John Comerford, on his way home. Don Hewitt the rest of the way next. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE WALLACE, CBS'S "60 MINUTES: I'm Mike Wallace.

MORLEY SAFER, CBS'S "60 MINUTES": I'm Morley Safer.

ED BRADLEY, CBS'S "60 MINUTES": I'm Ed Bradley.

STEVE KROFT, CBS'S "60 MINUTES": I'm Steve Croft.

LESLEY STAHL, CBS'S "60 MINUTES": I'm Lesley Stahl. Those stories, Molly Ivins, P.J. O'Rourke and of course, Andy Rooney, tonight on "60 Minutes."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We can safely say the most familiar opening in television history, and the man who made it all possible is Don Hewitt. He is the author of the new book "Tell Me a Story: 50 years and "60 Minutes" in Television." There you see its front cover. Finally, what got to you write this? I've been asking you for years when you were going to write a book.

HEWITT: Because one of the best journalists I ever knew in my life, Peter Osnos who was part of Ben Bradlee's all-star team at "The Washington Post," is now a publisher. Peter came to me and said, I think you've got a book luring inside you. And I said, I don't think so, and he went to work on me, and he finally convinced me and I did it.

KING: Are you glad you did it?

HEWITT: Yes. I wasn't in the beginning, but I am now.

KING: Is this the story of the program or is it just anecdotal...

HEWITT: Well....

KING: ... or both.

HEWITT: It's both. It's with some suggestions about how I think we may be able to preserve an American institution that is in danger of going the way of other American institutions, which is the network evening news broadcast, and, I -- it covers the waterfront. It's the whole bit.

KING: Are you worried about the survival of the network?

HEWITT: Yes.

KING: You think it is dinosaurs?

HEWITT: You know why, because I think what's going to happen is because of you guys, when CNN.

KING: It's always us.

HEWITT: It's always you. When CNN began, the networks thought they have to feed all their stuff to their own local stations to stay competitive with you. Now, they've got all the stuff all day long. There's no longer waiting for a Walter Cronkite or Huntley and Brinkley. The stuff on Rather, Jennings and Brokaw are fed out during the day.

So, some station's going to came along one of these days and say, what do we need these guys for? We got all this stuff. We'll do our own national news. We will keep the 6:30 to 7:00 time. We'll make a lot of money. It's very fragile.

KING: Why, Don, has "60 Minutes" survived?

HEWITT: Well, it's a mystery to me. I mean, I was ready to go off the air after 13 weeks. I don't know.

KING: You were not a hit at the start, except one city where I was, Miami.

HEWITT: Miami, big in Miami.

KING: I was on the air on your station, Channel 4.

HEWITT: It was you. I don't know. It struck a responsive chord and sort of became American institution, and just lives on and on and on. Like this week, we're the twelfth highest-rated show in television. We've been on the air for 33 years. Now, why that happens, I don't know.

KING: Well, obviously, many think you are the best executive producer in the game. So, I know it's difficult to praise yourself. What is the what is the role, your role on that show? Do you decide everything that goes on?

HEWITT: More or less, but I found out a long time ago, every guy that works with me is smarter than I am, is better read than I am, is better educated than I am. I've got maybe the best fingertips and maybe the best nose, but these guys -- I don't hire anybody I don't think is smarter than I am, because if they're not smarter than I am, why do I need them? And...

KING: So they have the idea?

HEWITT: They are so good. I leave them alone. They come in with an idea and I say, "Sounds great, how do you do it?" They tell me, I say, "Do it." It -- I think what's wrong with a lot of these other broadcasts, they are being second-guessed by so-called associate producers, second-guessed by their own network executives, second- guessed by the hierarchy of their news divisions. They don't leave them alone because -- you know this bit about, you get a minute-by- minute Nielsen readout, how you did, where you peaked?

KING: Uh-huh.

HEWITT: I have never seen one of those in my life. I've never seen a minute-by-minute, I never been in a focus group. I have no idea why they do that. And it doesn't work for me.

KING: You've been seat of the pants all your life.

HEWITT: Seat of the pants, fingertips.

KING: How have kept the suits from controlling you?

HEWITT: Make money for them. We made two billion dollar profit. Now, I don't kid myself.

KING: You've gone through ownership changes.

HEWITT: If we didn't make that money -- all over me, but they figure hey, we've got a good thing going here. This thing makes money, it does a lot for our image, it does for us what Ed Murrow and Walter Cronkite once did for CBS, and why do we want to play with it? Leave it alone.

KING: Is hardest thing finding the right person for the right story or does it all engender from them.

HEWITT: They're like a repertory company. They are all good at any job. I mean, Leslie can do what Mike does, Mike can do what Morley does, Morley can do what Croft does, Croft can do what Bradley does, and they are just -- this team is so good, they are so professional. I'm awed by them and I'm awed by the by the producers on this broadcast.

KING: Who do the segments, right?

HEWITT: Oh, God they are good. Really good.

KING: We did a great night one night when we had all of you on together in New York.

HEWITT: That is right.

KING: That was some night.

HEWITT: Yeah.

KING: There is a lot of arguing that goes on among you, though.

HEWITT: Well, yes but out of that maelstrom, out of that hurricane comes a pretty good broadcast.

KING: And in this book are lots of stories about your broadcast career and things that occurred on "60 Minutes", right?

HEWITT: Yes.

KING: Because you did a lot of -- you paved a lot of ground on that show.

HEWITT: Well, you know, I have been 53 years. If you don't pave a lot of ground in 53 years there's something wrong with you.

KING: Frankly, have you skirted tabloidism?

HEWITT: I'm not sure I know exactly what tabloidism is. Let me tell you how this show got born. The great Edward R. Murrow did a show called "See It Now".

KING: I remember it well.

HEWITT: Which was one of the really class broadcasts.

KING: Originally a radio show. I can hear it now.

HEWITT: I can hear it now, see it now. I directed that show. I always got more credit for it than I deserved because I was always shown sitting next to Ed. One day he decided he wanted to make more money. He wasn't leaving enough money for his wife and kids.

So he went off and did a show called "Person-To-Person," which you remember was visiting people at home, celebrities. And a guy in the Herald Tribune coined the phrase, "High Murrow and Low Murrow" for the two broadcasts. I looked at him and I said, "That is the answer." You put high Murrow and low Murrow in same broadcast, you have Life magazine. That is what "Life" did. "Life" would do atomic energy and Marilyn Monroe.

KING: So you do chase people down the street, you have chased people down the street?

HEWITT: We have chased people down the street.

KING: That is tabloidism.

HEWITT: Sure. We don't do that much anymore, because it got be a cliche, but sure. And I always loved -- somebody once asked Morley why someone who's obviously a crook, decides to go on "60 Minutes." And Morley said the crook doesn't believe he made it as a crook until he has been on "60 Minutes".

KING: Is "60 minutes" a show with a point of view?

HEWITT: No. No point of view.

KING: So those who criticize it that you're liberal or you're conservative...

HEWITT: We are not liberal. I'm not liberal. First of all, I finally decided to get of those two words, "liberal" and "conservative." I don't know what they mean anymore. I mean, I've come down to "sense" and "nonsense." It makes sense to me -- it's got nothing to about with conservative or liberal -- it makes sense to me that hunters be allowed to have rifles. It makes no sense to me that there are 200 million handguns in American cities. I have always believed that if you get the NRA out of the way, decent reasonable Americans would figure out way to respect the Second Amendment, and get guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them.

KING: You changed television. You write about it, you talk about it. One night changed television: Kennedy-Nixon debate, 1960.

HEWITT: Yeah.

Larry: I heard it on the radio, I thought it was a draw. Everyone told me Kennedy ripped him.

HEWITT: No, that's right, it was a, it was -- we pick the president like we pick a Miss America: Who is the better looking of the two. Jack Kennedy was this handsome, Harvard well tailored...

KING: There we see Don Hewitt setting up the crew for that night.

HEWITT: OK, but that is the night that ruined American politics.

KING: Ruined.

HEWITT: That's the night that television and politics realized, for the first time, how much they had to offer each other. And we got married. We got engaged that night. A year later we got married. They married us for love, we married them for money, and today, because of what happened that night, the number one qualification to hold office in the United States of America, is an ability to raise money, only because of television commercials. You don't need that money for campaign buttons and bunting, and bumper stickers.

KING: You win and lose on television today?

HEWITT: Yes.

KING: And that started it.

HEWITT: And it became a money game, and now the guys who go around claiming that there is a First Amendment right to buy television time -- the founding fathers would turn over in their graves if they knew how we were interpreting the First Amendment.

KING: The book is "Tell Me A Story: 50 Years 60 Minutes In Television." The author is Don Hewitt, what a niche he has in this business. We will be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HEWITT: Now, can I see camera one, please, on a close up. Whoever is by the monitor would you step forward.

Thirty seconds, and the cut, please.

RICHARD M. NIXON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What does the cut -- the cut means that's it?

HEWITT: Get out gracefully.

NIXON: Five seconds?

HEWITT: Well we figure when you see 30 seconds...

NIXON: Then try to bring it -- all right.

HEWITT: And then the cut is that's it, and then Howard will give you a few seconds over the cut and then bang, bang.

NIXON: Yes, I understand. Sure, sure.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "60 MINUTES")

HARRY REASONER: Good evening. This is "60 Minutes." It's a kind of a magazine for television, which means it has the flexibility and diversity of a magazine, adapted to broadcast journalism. And our first cover story is about cops, by the top cop.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HEWITT: Our guest is Don Hewitt. The book is, "Tell Me Story: 50 Years And 60 Minutes In Television." Would you say one of the big highlights, among highlights, was Gennifer Flowers?

HEWITT: Sure. I got a call -- I was on an airplane and I was talking to my office and he said, "There's a guy named George Stephanopoulos wants you call him." I said, "Who the hell is he?" He said he's running -- the governor of Arkansas -- is trying to get the Democratic nomination, and he's been smeared of an accusation of an affair with some -- I guess "Playboy" had the story, Gennifer Flowers.

So I called this guy and he said, "We'd like to come on, put the -- set the record straight." Well they came on and they set the record crooked. And that night -- they haven't talked to me since that night. You know, the right wing has decided that I made this guy president. The Clintons don't talk to me. I was invited to every White House going back to Harry Truman. And they -- we were persona non grata in the Clinton White House. Hillary took a dislike to us that night and...

KING: Never did it again?

HEWITT: You know what I think? I threw Carville the hell out. Carville was sitting in the control room sobbing while this is going on -- what you're looking at right now -- crying to himself, "I love them. I love them. They're such wonderful people." And I turned to a cop and I said, "Will you get this guy the hell out of here? Who is this guy?" And it turns out it was James Carville, and I have a feeling that he put me on report when Hillary -- and I never got off report. I'm persona non grata with them.

KING: But that's generally viewed as (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the night they did well.

HEWITT: He -- that afternoon he was Gary Hart. He was...

KING: Dead.

HEWITT: If he wasn't on "60 Minutes" that night he would still be up in the snow in New Hampshire looking for votes. That man -- it made no difference. They had a thing about that night. I think she was shell-shocked. I think, maybe she learned things that night that she didn't know.

KING: Do you know what was most watched "60 Minutes" in history?

HEWITT: No, but that one -- everybody says that was because if followed the Super Bowl. Well, what they forget is, it didn't. It follows all the postgame shows. By time they've been in the locker room 12 times, there's nobody left.

KING: Sixty-three thousand thank-you's and congratulations.

HEWITT: That's right, because if you went on at the end of the game, that's great but you go on after...

KING: Do you have a favorite "60 Minutes?"

HEWITT: If there was a moment that I melted, George Burns, at 99, took Ed Bradley up the Forest Lawn Cemetery, walked up to the tomb where Gracie Allen is, went, "Googy, this Ed Bradley. He is going to put us on '60 Minutes' this week. Honey, you and I are going to be working together again" I tell you, wow.

KING: We'll be back with our remaining moments with Don Hewitt a wonderful book, "Tell Me A Story." Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "60 MINUTES")

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you prepared tonight to say that you have never had an extramarital fair? BILL CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm not prepared tonight to say that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves. I'm not prepared to say that about anything.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE INSIDER")

AL PACINO, ACTOR: Are we going to air it? Of course not. Why? Because he is not telling the truth? No -- because he is telling the truth That is why we are not going to air it, and the more truth he tells the worse it gets.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You are a fanatic -- an anarchist. You know that? If we can't have a whole show, then I want half a show rather than no show. But oh, no, not you. You won't be satisfied unless you are putting the company in (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Al Pacino in "The Insider." True?

HEWITT: No. The movie -- movies have a right to do anything they want to do, but they used our names. I never called anybody an anarchist in my life. I don't use that term.

I was speaking in Barcelona -- "World News" thing -- the question came to me, "What did you think of 'The Insider'?" I said, "How many people here saw it?" Lot of hands. I said, "How many people here know the name of the reporter who quit "60 Minutes" over the tobacco story? They all said, "Lowell Bergman." I said, "No, no. His name was Al Pacino. Al Pacino quit. Lowell Bergman worked for me for seven more months after the Movie, and two years for CBS after that. He never quit.

KING: Were you angry at him for selling...

HEWITT: No. The only thing I got angry about, he wrote a lot of bologna for the Columbia Journal. What they put in the movie was -- I tell the truth, if they had gotten Paul Newman or Robert Redford to play me, I don't think it would have (UNINTELLIGIBLE). They got a guy named Philip Baker Hall, that's dormitory.

KING: Everyone else had big stars...

(CROSSTALK)

HEWITT: That's right.

KING: Did you kill a story you should have run?

HEWITT: I never killed the story. The legal department -- I could have put that on the air if I went out and hired a bunch gorillas and took the transmitter at gunpoint. We didn't spike anything. The legal department put a hold on that story. And Mike went on the air and told the story on the air of what the CBS legal department had done to us.

When is the last time you -- or even first time -- you ever heard of a reporter holding his own company feet to the fire, publicly?

KING: Are you autonomous?

HEWITT: No. Autonomous.

KING: The legal department can prevent something?

HEWITT: Of course, of course. Everything gets shown to lawyers. But this had this nothing to do with libel. This was something called tortuous interference. I didn't even know what the term meant, and when Mike said, you know, "We've got to fight them on this." I said, "Mike, I'm not a lawyer. I don't even know what tortuous interference is."

KING: Was it queasy to watch the film?.

HEWITT: No, it was funny. It was funny because I knew it was -- it was -- I mean, Mike never said the things that -- who was it played Mike? Christopher Plummer.

KING: He was great.

HEWITT: He was terrific.

KING: Unbelievable.

HEWITT: Listen...

KING: Mike said he was unbelievable.

HEWITT: Yes. I said, "You get Christopher Plummer, I get a guy named Philip Baker Hall who's a dormitory.

KING: And Bergman gets Pacino.

HEWITT: Pacino.

KING: And the other guy wins an Academy award.

HEWITT: Didn't win an Academy award.

KING: No, but he won it this year, basically, for that year, I think. Might have. He was great, that was a great performance.

HEWITT: Who was? Philippe Baker Hall?

KING: No, Philippe Baker Hall was good. OK -- Russell Crowe was great in that movie.

HEWITT: Oh yes, Russell Crow was... KING: Quickly, how long you going to stay on?

HEWITT: Forever. You know, the guys at NBC and ABC, they say, "Hewitt Wallace can't live forever." I say, "You want to bet?"

KING: Don, thank you.

HEWITT: Hey, Larry, it was terrific. Thank you.

KING: The book is "Tell Me A Story: 50 Years And 60 Minutes In Television." Tomorrow night, Thursday, we will be joined by former Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger, and Senator Joseph Lieberman. For more on China, by the way, just log on to my Web site, cnn.com/larryking.

Stay tuned now, for CNN tonight and more coverage, and don't forget coming: The landing in Guam. Thanks for joining us and good night.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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