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CNN LARRY KING WEEKEND

Whidbey 24 Returns Home After Detention in China

Aired April 14, 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.
LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight -- welcome home the Widby 24 reunites with family and friends after Chinese detention and U.S. military debriefings. We'll get firsthand accounts from members of the surveillance plane's crew.

Plus, former Air Force pilot Scott O'Grady recalls his homecoming after a life-and-death ordeal in Yugoslav territory.

Former U.S. Embassador with China James Lilley will join us from Washington, and with him, Hugh Sidey, contributing editor and columnist for Time Magazine.

And in Seattle, presidential historian Richard Shenkman.

They're all next on this live edition of Larry King Weekend.

We'll be getting to the panel in a little while.

But let's meet the three members of the -- two members of the crew back, and one of them who is in charge of things, are all gathered there in Washington.

And they are, from left to right, Lieutenant John Comerford, member of the EP-3 crew. He's 26 years old. His parents were with us the other night. He graduated Anapolis in '97. David Cecka is in the middle. He's an Aviation Electronic Technician Second Class. He's 28 years old and been in the Navy six years. And on the right is Captain William "Bill" Marriott, Commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing 10 at Widby. He oversees the EP-3 squadron at Widby.

We'll start with Captain Marriott.

Are they trained at all for this kind of thing, Captain?

CAPTAIN WILLIAM MARRIOTT, COMMANDER. PATROL AND RECONNAISSANCE WING 10: Well sir, first, good evening.

KING: Hi.

MARRIOTT: Good evening to the audience. It's nice to have you here at Widby.

Yes, sir, they have extensive training, in terms of flight training as well as some ground training, to do the best that they can if they're put in any kind of trying circumstance.

KING: Lieutenant Comerford -- by the way, your parents were here the other night, Lieutenant, and they were terrific. And I know you were happy to see them again. What were your -- what was your duty on the plane, what were you doing when it was struck?

LIEUTENANT JOHN COMERFORD, U.S. NAVY EP-3E CREW: At the time of the -- of the collision, I was -- I was actually taking notes on a clipboard, and I was -- and I was kneeling in front of the port side, or the left side, over-wing exit, looking out the window, and noting all the various characteristics about the -- about the fighters that we -- that we always report on.

At the time of the collision then, I was thrown backwards and down. And I was pretty much pinned to the -- to the ground while the plane rolled, inverted, and went into a nose-low dive.

The pilots were able to recover, and at that time, we were able to stand up. And based on the condition of the plane, Lieutenant Osborn called for us to bail out -- or, excuse me -- to prepare to bail out.

So my duty as the senior evaluator on the plane was to ensure that the crew was prepared properly to bail out, assemble back at the main cabin door, and basically to prepare everyone if the call to bail out was made.

KING: You said there -- so you see these jets up -- these fighter jets up and around you all the time on these missions, right?

COMERFORD: I wouldn't say all the time, sir. It's -- I would say it's almost routine; probably, you know -- I've seen it several times, but definitely not every flight.

KING: Did you know that this one fellow was coming kind of close?

COMERFORD: Absolutely. I was actually seated -- and there's no window at my position -- taking some notes based on what people were telling me. And I could tell from the urgency of people's voices on the -- on the communications system onboard the plane that this was -- this was not a typical intercept; that this fighter -- the lead fighter -- was being extremely aggressive. He was gesturing, and I could tell from crew members' voices -- from the observers -- that this was out of the -- out of the norm.

KING: When it was going down, frankly were you scared, Lieutenant?

COMERFORD: I was scared. Honestly, based on how things felt -- I didn't have a whole lot of visual reference -- but based on how things felt, and the shaking of the plane, yeah, there was a time there that I really thought to myself, "Wow, this guy -- this guy just killed us." And...

KING: Yeah. COMERFORD: ... that was a -- that was a pretty intense feeling; I'm sure you can imagine.

KING: Dave Cecka, who's in the middle, Aviation Electronic Technician Second Class. We spoke to your Dad, Mike.

David, where were you in the plane?

TECHNICIAN DAVID CECKA, U.S. NAVY EP-3E CREW: I was sitting just up from Lieutenant Comerford. And they had heard -- I had heard that the plane was coming pretty close, and so I'd gotten up to take a look. And I just took one look at the plane off our wingtip, and I'd seen enough. I went back and sat down, strapped in.

And shortly after that, the plane began to bump us. And originally, I thought possibly he was just playing, and maybe bumping the tip of our wing, trying to do whatever he was trying to do. And next thing I know, it was -- it was a real hard, hard bang, and then a second, and then a very loud bang. And we went nose down, and kind of went into automatic pilot after that.

Heard command to bail out, and our training took over after that.

KING: Did you think you were going to bail out?

CECKA: I thought so. We -- after we gained somewhat control of the aircraft, we were all in our parachutes and lined up. And they were moving the ladder back and preparing to open the main cabin door. And it was just second by second. And there was a good opportunity that we would have possibly gone out.

KING: John said there were moments he was scared. Were you?

CECKA: I was terrified when we first were struck, to be perfectly honest. And when the nose went down, it was -- it was terrifying. But like I said earlier, that lasted three seconds. And I kind of distanced myself, and our training took over and got us through the ordeal.

KING: Captain Marriott, did these boys and the rest -- and the ladies, too -- do everything by the book? Did they do everything right?

MARRIOTT: Absolutely, sir.

In my book, as I said before -- and as Admiral Holmes has said, and as Admiral Blair, Secretary Rumsfeld, all the way up to the President, said -- these folks are heroes. They have done what no other aircrew in a P3 has ever done to my knowledge, and I've been flying these for 21 years, sir.

KING: We have no other frame of reference here. But Scott O'Grady, who was hit by a missile and shot down, ejected from a plane -- I guess you can only imagine what they were going through.

SCOTT O'GRADY, FORMER. U.S. AIR FORCE PILOT: Oh, I can imagine that there was a lot of tense moments there.

KING: Do you have any questions for these boys?

O'GRADY: Oh, I -- the question I was going to ask them was about their training. But they've already mentioned that they instinctively took over -- their training kicked in, and they maintained professionalism. And my hat's off to all the crew members. You guys did a great job. I'm proud of you.

KING: I imagine Scott O'Grady's a hero to the men there as well.

We're going to take a break -- keep our men with us. We'll come right back.

Our panel will be joining us in awhile as well. This is Larry King Live Weekend -- hyphen Weekend. We'll be right back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LIEUTENANT SHANE OSBORN, U.S. NAVY EP-3E PILOT: This welcome- home's -- this welcome-home's overwhelming for all of us. But we do appreciate it. We do appreciate it a lot. We didn't know for awhile whether or not anyone knew besides the top officials. And we're glad that you're all here. And it just confirms what we all believe: that spirit is still strong in the United States of America. Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: These were the dramatic and emotional reunion scenes which took place a couple of hours ago, on a beautiful day in the Northwest United States.

John Comerford, were you surprised at how well you were treated?

COMERFORD: By the Chinese?

KING: Yeah.

COMERFORD: No -- to be honest, there was a -- there was a question, I think in all of our minds, exactly how we would be treated.

But I think -- you know, and we discussed this on the ground, as a crew -- you know, China being a member of the UN Security Council -- obviously, the United States and China -- it's definitely in both of our interests to treat each other's military members as well as we can. There was no hostility, really, in -- anywhere in this whole situation. It was an accident. So I would have been very surprised if we had been mistreated, to be honest. China's human rights record, you know, is something they're very concerned about. So...

KING: Yeah.

COMERFORD: I think they were -- they were extremely conscious of that.

KING: And David Cecka, once you were down, and safely down, did you ever fear for your safety, once down?

CECKA: It was just a continuing change of events. And when we set down, immediately, you think about, you know, what's going to happen next.

Originally, we were concerned for our safety, of course, and the safety of the rest of our crew members. And so we tried to take care of each other. And we quickly bonded and became really tight, and helped each other out through the whole thing.

KING: We kept hearing back here how good the food was. Was it that good that they brought you?

CECKA: The food was not bad. The first couple meals were really good. Then they started to introduce us to some of their more traditional cuisine. And it ranged from boiled fish heads to chicken feet, to, you know...

KING: Pass. Pass.

CECKA: ... four-foot tentacles, and...

KING: Scott O'Grady, the former Air Force pilot, wanted to ask you guys something. Scott?

O'GRADY: Yes, I just wanted to ask, after going through a situation like you went through, and now to be able to return home -- one, how does it feel to come home? And do you have a fonder appreciation of being in America now?

KING: You want to take that first, David?

CECKA: Yes. I am -- I don't think I ever fully appreciated what a wonderful country we come from, and the people that live here and that supported us.

I just -- I want to take this opportunity to thank all the people of the nation, all the people overseas that supported us, and the people here that took care of our families for us while we were gone. I mean, those people are the real heroes here. They came together as a nation and supported us. And that's what got us through this event. KING: And Lieutenant Comerford, what was it like for you to come back, and Scott's question about whether you had a new appreciation for the United States?

COMERFORD: I tend to agree more with Petty Officer Cecka. I echo all of his sentiments.

I really wish that more people could maybe have this type of experience -- not -- obviously, not being detained, but to feel as much genuine support and love that all 24 of us are feeling right now. It's unfortunate that it sometimes takes -- it takes events like these to kind of get us out of our shell, and really tell people how we feel. But it's a wonderful feeling for all of us.

KING: Lieutenant, are you glad you were debriefed before meeting the press? Because Scott O'Grady was not debriefed. He came right out of -- out of six days in jungles to meeting the press. Are you glad you were debriefed?

COMERFORD: Absolutely. I think it's the right call.

We -- you know, we've learned a lot about how to handle these situations as a country. And I feel that the way we have been handled has been completely appropriate. It did give us a chance to really unload everything that happened in the appropriate environment, to the appropriate people.

We could speak freely about all the national security issues that were involved based on the material that we carry when we fly. And we got some guidance on things that we...

KING: Had a little problem there with our satellite. We'll try to redeem it back.

You were not -- you were not debriefed, right? You went right into the media horde.

O'GRADY: Oh, I was pretty much thrown right into it. And I think that we've learned a lot from that experience. And the way that these members were treated was very professional and appropriate. They should have had time, as they did, to go through debriefings, to decompress, to get the information to the debriefers that was necessary.

KING: Captain Marriott -- we understand we got the picture back -- will these patrol and reconnaissance continue?

MARRIOTT: Well, sir, that's not my call. Certainly, we as a military will be ready, based on what the President and National Command Authority Petty Com. Admiral Blair would like to do. These folks will continue their training, get back in the air as soon as we can get them back in the air. And they'll be ready to go for whatever the national wants us to do, sir.

KING: By the way, are you related to the Marriott of the Marriott Hotels?

MARRIOTT: No, sir. No, sir. But I try to get in free...

KING: It's an unusual name; I had to ask it. Yeah, they ought to get you in free every time you get there. Just say...

MARRIOTT: I'll try it...

KING: ... "Hey, I'm cousin Bill!"

MARRIOTT: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

KING: Lieutenant, finally, how much time are you going to get off?

COMERFORD: We've been hearing in the press that -- there have been rumors of 30 days of convalescent leave, if we choose to take that much time off. Of course, that's up to our commanding officer, and whatever he wants to do -- no pressure, sir. So we'll leave the ball in Commander Lessard's court.

KING: David Cecka, do you expect 30 days? You have a right, David, expect it.

CECKA: I expect to take some time and spend with my family and friends and loved ones. And as much time as I can be with them right now, the better, so...

KING: All right.

John, if you'd hang for a couple moments. David, thank you. And Captain Marriott, thank you.

We'll take a break, come back with Scott O'Grady and Ambassador Lilley and Hugh Sidey and Richard Shenkman.

We're devoting our full special hour to all of this tonight. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Once again, more scenes from the welcome home today. And there is the Comerfords.

That's John, who's with us now, and his parents, who were with us a couple of nights ago. And now they're all assembled together. What a great scene this is. Look at them -- there they are!

Lieutenant John Comerford and his parents, John and Kathy Comerford. John is a -- with the fire department, right?

Can you hear me all right, John?

COMERFORD: Yes.

JOHN COMERFORD, FATHER OF LIEUTENANT COMERFORD: I have no feed.

KING: And you're with the fire -- oh, you don't have a feed.

Kathy, do you hear me?

KATHY COMERFORD, MOTHER OF LIEUTENANT COMERFORD: Yes, I do.

KING: OK.

John's with the fire department. You two were in Spain when you heard about this, right?

K. COMERFORD: That's right. We were vacationing in Spain, and we happened to see a newspaper that said an EP3 was down in the China Sea. And we thought, "That could be Johnny."

KING: What was it like today? How did you first spot him today, Kathy?

K. COMERFORD: We saw him coming down the stairs on the tarmac. We were just thrilled. All the -- so many people there, so much love and support; it was just great.

KING: What do you plan to do now?

K. COMERFORD: We're going to enjoy ourselves up here until Thursday at John's place. And then we're going to take him down there hopefully with us, and see our family and loved ones down there, in Los Angeles.

KING: I guess your husband can't hear us -- is that it?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah.

KING: His earpiece is not in?

UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah.

K. COMERFORD: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED: OK.

KING: OK, I'm sorry about that.

K. COMERFORD: Maybe I can give him mine.

KING: OK. No, it's just good to see him looking so happy. What's that hat he's wearing, John? Lieutenant, what's he wearing?

COMERFORD: That's our squadron hat, BQ1 World Watchers is what it says.

KING: You got a brother that's a cop, Lieutenant, your father's a fireman, you grew up in danger.

COMERFORD: Yes, sir. Yeah, especially vacationing with my parents. There was -- there were moments of danger, definitely.

KING: What do they do -- they like to go bobsledding? What do they do?

COMERFORD: Oh, my father's a private pilot, you know, so we grew up flying as a family around the country. I was just, you know -- great experiences as a kid and, you know, learned to ski, and just was real active with my parents from an early age. And they included my brother Patrick and I in all their vacations. So...

KING: Yeah. They're great people.

COMERFORD: Got great memories.

KING: You're very fortunate...

COMERFORD: Thank you.

KING: ... Lieutenant. You have great parents.

COMERFORD: Thank you.

KING: Kathy, I would -- I would imagine that you want to get off with your son. We want to just thank you very much for your cooperation, for helping get John to come on, for coming over here the other night under extreme circumstances. We sent a car down to pick you up, it took an hour to drive here. We really appreciate seeing you looking so happy, and happy to be part of this get-together for you.

And one other thing, Kathy -- when you've learned about what was really happening on that plane, golly, you must feel fortunate.

K. COMERFORD: Oh, we are so blessed. It was truly a miracle that they were able to land and all be safe, all 24. We really thank God for that.

KING: Thank you very much -- all of you very much.

John, good luck. And to the...

COMERFORD: Thank you.

KING: ... to the Comerfords, best of good luck.

We'll come back, we'll meet a former U.S. Ambassador to China, James Lilley; Hugh Sidey of Time Magazine, Richard Shenkman -- Scott O'Grady remains with us. And more crewmen coming, too. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK):

KING: We'll meet some more attorneys and families later on. Right now, let's say hello to our panel and get some thoughts.

Scott O'Grady is the former U.S. Air Force pilot, now in the Reserves, shot down in Bosnia.

James Lilley is the former U.S. Ambassador to China in the earlier Bush administration, the father of the current President.

Hugh Sidey is the famed journalist with Time Magazine. He's been contributing editor and author of "The Presidency Column."

And in Seattle, the famed presidential historian, Richard Shenkman.

Richard, stay right with you -- were you surprised that President Bush did not go to this today?

RICHARD SHENKMAN, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: You know, it's astonishing. Presidents love to come to these events. It's a way for them to shape public opinion. You couldn't imagine Bill Clinton or Ronald Reagan staying away from this.

I'm reminded of a comment that was always made about Teddy Roosevelt. When there was a wedding going on, he wanted to be the groom. If there was a funeral, he wanted to be the corpse. Where is Bush?

KING: Well, Hugh Sidey, I think he said he wanted to leave this that this was their day, and he didn't want to take away from it. Were you surprised?

HUGH SIDEY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Not that much, because of the nature of the man. And he also sets really the tone of his presidency. The fact of the matter is, it's a low-key presidency. This was handled basically by the diplomatic core, which is the way he's going to work, at least so far. And so he left it to the families and to those other officials who were involved. It was really quite a dignified, wonderful moment for the country.

KING: Ambassador Lilley, this homecoming seemed today not a surprise to you. You expected this, didn't you?

JAMES LILLEY, FORMER. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: Well, there was one aspect I liked particularly. I liked the presence of Norm Dix (ph) there, who was co-chairman of the committee that produced the Cox Report on Chinese espionage in the United States. And there he was, the extensive Chinese espionage network. I mean, spy, spy -- it's espionage, espionage.

The second was I thought it was very important that Governor Garry Locke be there. He's an American of Chinese descent. He's...

KING: Wow.

LILLEY: ... four-square patriotic for the United States. This message goes out. I think that's very important that he be there.

KING: Scott, what was it like for you to go right back, and into the media? I mean, you had no debriefing.

O'GRADY: No, it's a hard adjustment. And I think that the days that they had to debrief this mission for the 24 members of this crew was actually a very good call.

KING: Here was you. What do you remember about this?

O'GRADY: Oh, I was just so happy. All I wanted to do was come back, see my family, be with them. To be able to come back to the United States of America was the greatest thrill in my life. I gained a very fond appreciation for what it is to be a citizen of this country, to realize that there are nations around the world that don't afford its citizens rights, privileges, conveniences and freedoms, as we have here as Americans.

KING: You were six days all by yourself, right? O'GRADY: Six days by myself, yes.

KING: And communication -- what did you have, a little communication thing? You were talking to somebody, right?

O'GRADY: Yeah, I had a little radio, and I had a little difficulty for six days talking to somebody. And when I was finally able to reach anyone, I was immediately rescued thereafter.

KING: Huge Sidey, historically, how big is this going to -- is this a blip, or a big story?

SIDEY: Well, I think you have to look at it in two ways, Larry. If you put it on the scale of reality crisis one to 10, it's probably a three or four, something like that, in the long term. If you put it on the scale of the media, it was a steady seven, with gusts up to nine. But that has passed.

No, this is -- this is a fairly, in the world, a minor thing, but not in the lives of those people, and not in the moment of our national life. This is a great heroic effort.

But in terms of international matters, I think probably, at this moment, not that -- not that vital. We'll see what happens when the parties get together here in the next week.

KING: We're going to take a break and come back.

When we come back, the panel will come back with us. But we're going to spend some moments with Technician Rodney Young, of the United States Navy. There he is in the middle. We had the honor of talking to Fretitia and Tilda, his parents, sitting on either side of him.

Right back with the Youngs, then more of our panel on this edition of Larry King Weekend. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: We're back. And now you see the reunion of the Youngs -- there is had a happy group of people. And three of the four are now joining us, and they are technician Rodney Young of the United States Navy, of course, he's in the middle; and his parents on either side are Fretitia and Tilda, they were with us during this terrible 14 days, and finally all of it now comes out happy.

Can you tell us, Rodney Young, what you were doing on the plane -- what was happening at the time it was struck?

TECHNICIAN RODNEY YOUNG, U.S. NAVY EP-3E CREW: At the time it was struck, sir, it's just -- everything is running through your head. You can't believe that this is happening. And the plane goes into a dive and pretty much -- we didn't think we were going get out of it. The way the plane was diving, you just -- you pretty much knew that it was over. But somehow, I mean, I don't know if too many people believe in God, but that day God was helping Lieutenant Osborn and there were definitely angels underneath those wings to straighten out the plane.

KING: So it is safe to say that technician Young was scared?

R. YOUNG: Yes it is safe to say that.

(LAUGHTER)

R. YOUNG: I'll admit that I was scared.

KING: Where were you on the plane?

R. YOUNG: Actually I was aft of the plane, sir.

KING: So you were in the back?

R. YOUNG: In the back, sir.

KING: Could you see outside?

R. YOUNG: No, sir; no, sir.

KING: That probably made it worse.

R. YOUNG: Yes, it did; yes, it did.

KING: OK, what was it like -- let's go to the parents -- Fretitia, what was it like today for you?

FRETITIA YOUNG, RODNEY YOUNG'S FATHER: Today it was probably one of the best days of my life -- to see my son walk down that ramp.

KING: Boy; did you always have faith he'd be back Fretitia?

F. YOUNG: Yes; Rodney's been a strong-willed young man for as long as I've known him, which is all of his life, and he always makes it out of situations like this.

KING: So he's had scrapes before, are you telling us?

F. YOUNG: No, he's just strong willed and he does what he's supposed to don't. He's a good man.

KING: Tilda -- are you glad, Tilda, that your son is in the Navy?

TILDA YOUNG, RODNEY YOUNG'S MOTHER: Yes; yes I am. That's where he wants to be, so I'm happy for him.

KING: So despite this incident and the like, you don't have qualms about him going back on these kind of missions? Or do you?

T. YOUNG: No; no I don't. No, I certainly don't. I do not. If he wants to go, I am behind him 100 percent.

KING: Rodney, would you go back?

R. YOUNG: Yes, sir, I would; it's my job.

KING: Are you lifetime Navy, Rodney?

R. YOUNG: Can you say that again, sir?

KING: Are you going to stay in the Navy?

R. YOUNG: Yes, sir; yes, I am.

KING: Why did you choose that service, by the way?

R. YOUNG: I chose that service because I've heard a lot about the tradition with the Navy. You do get to travel; I love to travel. And it just seemed like the right place for me, and it definitely is. I fit right in with all of my shipmates. We all get along and there's no other place I'd want to be.

KING: And who knows -- you got to see China.

(LAUGHTER)

R. YOUNG: Yes, I did.

KING: Unique way to look at it.

Well, you're going to get some time off now. What are you going to do Fretitia? What's the family going to do?

F. YOUNG: We're going to go back home and do whatever Rodney wants to do, which -- he has good, strong family ties and we're going to get with the family and enjoy a little time together.

KING: Where is home?

F. YOUNG: It's Katy, Texas.

KING: Katy, Texas. Getting a little warm there now.

Well you're going to get -- I think you're going to get a month off, Rodney. Have a great time; we salute you and we're so happy to see you all together again.

T. YOUNG: Thank you.

R. YOUNG: Thank you.

KING: Rodney Young and his parents Fretitia and Tilda.

When we come back our panel will discuss the ramifications of all this and what goes from here, the upcoming meeting between China and the United States, and where do we go from here? That's the essence of what we talk about now, as Scott O'Grady reflects on what happens to him as well. Don't go away.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Scott O'Grady, do we need heroes?

O'GRADY: Well, I think that you have to define what a hero is. And for me, I believe it's somebody that helps somebody. I don't believe it's somebody with notoriety or fame, I don't believe it's a sports star or movie star or rock star.

KING: Do you believe you were a hero?

O'GRADY: I think that we need to look at individuals that are serving others...

KING: Doing something out of the ordinary is heroic?

O'GRADY: Sure, definitely.

KING: Richard, do you think, historically, we as a country need our heroes?

SHENKMAN: Oh, sure we need our heroes; and we need our presidents to celebrate our heroes...

KING: You thing he should have gone?

SHENKMAN: Well, I think he should have. Presidents -- you know, this is the 100th anniversary of the first media presidency -- Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to come on the scene and really grasp the modern media and say, OK, this is how you communicate with the public. It's a democracy; it's part of their symbolic duties. And the presidents like Calvin Coolidge or Gerry Ford who weren't very good at this, history is not too kind on them -- kind toward them.

I think he missed a big opportunity. In this way, though, he is being very much like his father. His presidency has been so unlike his father's, but in this he's been very Bush-like.

KING: And Scott, you went right to the White House, didn't you?

O'GRADY: Almost immediately, yes. There was a lunch there for myself and 17 of my family and friends.

KING: Ambassador don't you thing there will be a dinner or some sort of ceremony at the White House for this group of after the 30 days?

LILLEY: Yes, I think there will.

But let me just take a little issue here: George Bush worked very, very hard to get these people out. He was on top of this operation from the beginning. He was managing it, he was pushing it. And it seems to me good old honor and decency takes over because he gives credit to somebody else. He steps back from the limelight. Now, we may love this stuff and we may want to eat it up, but this is a man of dignity. He scores well, he succeeds and then he steps back. I like that.

KING: Both sides are presented well here tonight, so we we'll let Hugh Sidey decide it. Do we as a country want to see our president at this event, or do you think it came off better with him not going?

SIDEY: I think it came offer better with him not going, indeed because -- I think of the size of it and the fact that these people came back, their families were there -- let them celebrate it. I think we're too far into this trendy business, the Hollywood idea of what the presidency ought to be; and I think we need to decompress it a little bit.

KING: Richard, you're outvoted.

SHENKMAN: OK; it's a democracy.

KING: Scott, had you come back there today, you would have said better off the president not there?

O'GRADY: Oh, I agree.

KING: Yes?

O'GRADY: I think that President Bush gave the moment to the individuals who were coming home and it was their moment.

KING: All right, how well do you think he's going to do in upcoming summit meetings, Richard, based on performance so far?

SHENKMAN: Well, this is a real problem coming out of this -- the last 12, 14 days which is he was a little bit missing in action. I know that he likes to delegate, but...

KING: Ambassador Lilley said he was on top of it...

LILLEY: Yes, what is this missing in action? He was inside the White House, he was working on it. For heaven's sakes, he couldn't have been more involved.

SHENKMAN: I guess I think of his father; if his father had been in there, he would have been on the phone talking to the Chinese leaders. My guess is it probably wouldn't have gone along as long as it did. But at the very least we're never going to know whether or not this had to blow up into the kind of international crisis that it wound up being, because he didn't pick up that phone. He didn't have that confidence. He was reading off index cards during the last 10 days. I don't want to take anything...

LILLEY: Look, look -- no...

SHENKMAN: He settled this, but it's not a good, strong indication of future performance.

LILLEY: Look, I've worked with Chinese for a long time. The last time people picked up a phone, they got nobody at the other end of the line. And one of them was William Jefferson Clinton, the other one was George W. Bush Senior. The Chinese don't answer the phone when they have a crisis, they crawl into the cave and they don't come out.

He did exactly the right thing; he got Colin Powell involved, he got his ambassador involved, he got these guys out in record time with American dignity intact. I think this was one big performance.

SIDEY: May I just add a footnote to that? Dean Rusk, the former secretary of state, used to talk to me all the time about how they underuse the diplomatic corps -- this is Ambassador Lilley. And he said the thing about it is, let them do their work. Keep the principal people from coming eyeball to eyeball and doing dumb things when they talk to each other. And I think this is a wonderful example in which Colin Powell and the ambassador and all the others did their job.

LILLEY: Let me add one more thing...

(CROSSTALK)

LILLEY: Larry, can I add just one thing?

KING: Sure.

LILLEY: When you move into the future -- George Bush made a very important statement, our president. He has laid out the road map for the future and he gave it to Colin Powell. And he said to the Chinese, we're going to move along on three tracks: No 1, we're going to deal with you economically; we're going to work towards World Trade Organization, permanent normal trading relation with you. He didn't say this, but this is all implicit -- it's going to move on this track, this is our No. 1 priority.

No. 2, we're going to sit down with you and we're going to try to work out our military differences. It's going to be tough -- you have your version, we have our version. We're going to talk with you, but this is life and death stuff and we're going to sort it out.

And No. 3, we have got deep difference with you on human rights, on weapons of mass destruction proliferation. We're going to work with these things, we're going to be at loggerheads; but we've got a complicated relationship and we're going to move forward with you. We know it's going to be contentious, but let's make it work.

KING: Scott, were you aware that -- how many people were thinking about you? Did you have a feeling that the country was behind you.

O'GRADY: Oh, when I was spending six days in out in Bosnia trying to survive out there I had no idea that it was being covered on the news at all.

KING: You had no sense of...

O'GRADY: No sense of that, but I felt a lot of support around the world, that people were there for me. I never doubted that the United States of America wasn't (sic) going to do whatever it took to get me back home. KING: What's the effect, Hugh Sidey, of this event on the upcoming talks between the two countries?

SIDEY: Well, I agree with Ambassador Lilley. I think that, indeed, it's going contentious and we'll have our troubles.

I would hope that America goes in there -- we're the 800-pound gorilla in this universe. We have to realize that every time we exhale or inhale it affects somebody. So that I hope we go in there with some tenderness towards the Chinese history and their feelings -- maybe that's the wrong word -- but some understanding, and that we're prepared here and there to give a little and to listen to them and to understand. I would hope that there would be that attitude, but I don't want us to not present the truth on -- absolutely, the facts, we lay it out and then we listen, and then we be patient, patient, patient.

KING: Richard, what do you expect?

SHENKMAN: Well, I think that here I can agree with what Hugh Sidey just said. We've got to understand the Chinese side a little bit and we've got to make them understand our side. Really, the big channel -- the big challenge for George Bush now isn't these little negotiations that are going to take place. My guess is not much is going to come from them except maybe, we will hopefully get our plane back.

But the larger question of, can he mobilize American public opinion around a consensus China policy? That consensus has now evaporated, with the right wing attacking their own president over this. He's got to somehow re-form a consensus so that we can go forward.

KING: Think we'll get the plane back, Scott?

O'GRADY: Oh, I think I would be very surprised if we get it back, at least for a long time.

KING: You're a pilot; what do you think of what that pilot did?

O'GRADY: Oh, he did a phenomenal job, my hat's off to him. I'm really proud of the entire, and specifically the pilot.

KING: You ejected from your plane, right?

O'GRADY: Yes, I didn't...

KING: It was burning behind you, right?

O'GRADY: Yes, I didn't have a choice. The plane blew up around me in my instance and I had an ejection seat that was able to get me free from the burning wreckage.

KING: And when you go out, the plane's going how fast?

O'GRADY: I hit the air, well, over 300 miles per hour. So it's a pretty heavy wind blast when you eject out of the aircraft.

KING: You remember that, I guess.

O'GRADY: Oh, yes; I didn't pass out, I remember the whole thing.

KING: We'll be back with more. We'll also include some phone calls. Don't go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OSBORN: I'd like to thank God for allowing my crew and myself to be here today because it was definitely him flying that plane. And I'd also like to thank my 23 other crewmates who, without them I wouldn't be standing here right now.

They performed far and above and beyond the call of duty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Ambassador Lilley, what did you make of the charge made by "The Standard" magazine, a certainly conservative magazine, that the American business community has a hammer lock on American policy toward China -- they run the show?

LILLEY: Well, I think it's a little bit simplistic. I think there's a lot of factors in American foreign policy. Business, of course, is important, we're a businessman's country. But there are many other factors -- there's the labor unions, there's the military, there's the academics, there's the intellectuals, there's the media people. It's a very complex business and anybody who's tried to do foreign policy and look back and look at this very complex country we have, you cannot put it on one group. But I always think that the article that Bill Kristol and Bob Kagan wrote doesn't represent the right.

(CROSSTALK)

KING: You're a conservative and it doesn't represent your feelings, right?

SIDEY: I'm a conservative, Larry?

KING: No, I said ambassador Lilley is a conservative and it didn't represent his feelings.

SIDEY: Oh, I see.

KING: Hugh Sidey, you are every man.

SIDEY: You know, I'm all over the place, Larry. You know that. You've known me forever -- that's right.

But I read Kristol's article; he's from Mars. I don't know where he's been living recently; that's not him. He's quite a reasonable voice on the right, and suddenly there is this -- almost frothing at the mouth over this thing. This is not that much of a departure, and this -- you know, we go on. It's one of those blips.

Somebody -- I think it was Tom Friedman in "The New York Times" put it -- said, let's face it, China's China. It's not Australia, it's not France, it's not someplace else. It's got all these wonderful contradictions and difficulties. As the ambassador says, we're going to have to live with that. Let's get on with it now.

KING: Richard Shenkman, what did you make of the article?

SHENKMAN: Well, I thought that Bill Kristol was actually being consistent. I didn't approve of it. I don't happen to share his views, but he was critical of Bill Clinton throughout Clinton's presidency on these same grounds. He's been trying to recreate conservatism as the voice of nationalism and national respect and national honor. So for him, I think, to be consistent he had to take this stand. I think he also went way out on a limb and I, gosh, I just can't agree with what he said.

KING: Atlanta, Georgia, we'll get a call in, hello.

CALLER: Hi, Larry...

KING: Hi.

CALLER: I'm wondering -- my question is for Scott O'Grady: Why do you think they didn't eject and knock the plane into the sea instead of enemy hands and we'd pick up their signal and pick them up immediately?

O'GRADY: Well, the EP-3 doesn't have ejection seats, so...

KING: They could have parachuted, right?

O'GRADY: Yes, you can bail out of the aircraft or you can ditch the aircraft in the ocean or you can land. And the pilot took the decision to land the aircraft. It was an emergency aircraft and had all the right to land there at that airport, and I think it was a great call.

KING: By the way, Mayday -- if a Libyan plane is flying into La Guardia and has a Mayday, it lands, right?

O'GRADY: Sure; you bet.

KING: Twin Peaks, California, hello.

CALLER: Hello, Larry; hello Scott. My boys are both Boy Scouts and we talk about you very often in our home, and I wonder what you are doing now and if you miss flying your F-16.

O'GRADY: Yes, I flew the F-16 as a fighter pilot for three years after my experience in Bosnia. I personally took a decision three years later to leave that behind to follow other pursuits in my life. And currently I'm out giving a lot of motivational talks around the country and just trying to enjoy my life.

KING: You don't fly -- do you have your own plane? Do you fly...

O'GRADY: Oh, I fly personally. I love aviation. I'll always fly for as long as I live.

KING: We'll be back with our remaining moments.

Tomorrow night on LARRY KING WEEKEND on a Sunday night edition: a retrospective of interviews with Tiger Woods. And guests coming next week include first lady Laura Bush and Barbara Walters and Suzanne Somers.

We'll be right back with some final thoughts from our panelists after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Ambassador Lilley, what will be the effect of this on the future relations between the two countries?

LILLEY: You're talking to me, Larry?

KING: Yes.

LILLEY: OK. Well, I told you I thought this was going to go down three basic tracks. We've got problems with China; we always have. Arthur Hummel, who -- went to his funeral today -- was in China and we had a problem then. I had a problem at Tiananmen. Jim Sasser had at the bombing of -- accidental bombing of Belgrade. Now Joe Prueher gets it. Stape Roy, who replaced me, got it on the Lee Teng- hui trip and the air carriers going in.

It's part of the act. And what I think right now is we've hit bottom. Usually after one of these occasions, you pick up. It's like the stock market: You've gone down, people begin to buy in. The Chinese know it, we know we've gone to the brink. Let's get on and let's make the thing work, and let's make a few compromises and let's focus on the positive elements in the relationship. And I hope that's what happens now.

KING: Hugh Sidey, what do you think will happen?

SIDEY: Well, Ambassador Lilley -- he rode No. 1 tonight with me because he said last week, even before I came, he said let's get a commission going, a study commission, let's review all of this, let's give them a right to blow off some steam and they can make their points out in public and then let us go, say, for six months or whatever it is and let's examine it, and let's let the pressure come out of it. And I think we'll work our way through. But I'm just like him. China -- like Tom Friedman said, China is China, it's always going to be difficult.

KING: Richard Shenkman, will diplomacy run things for a while? SHENKMAN: Oh, sure. We've had enough military confrontation over this. It is in the hands of the diplomats now; that's really where it ought to be at this point. And I think over the long haul, if President Bush hews to the middle-ground course that he has taken over the last 14 days that we'll do pretty well. If he gets really aggressive -- makes our cases, arguments the way that he did the first few days, then we could have a rough patch.

KING: And finally, Scott O'Grady, if your country called on you, would you go back?

O'GRADY: Oh, definitely. You know, I think that, on a side note, this homecoming is a moment where we as Americans should sit back and appreciate the freedoms and the rights that we have here in this country. And it's a moment where we just need to welcome these people that have been serving our country and realize that they are sacrificing a lot to be able to maintain our freedoms.

KING: Thank you, Scott and thank you James and Hugh and Richard; and thanks to all our returnees and their families for being with us.

Tiger Woods tomorrow night. Stay tuned for "CNN TONIGHT." I'm Larry King; good night.

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