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Social Security Sales Trip; Pope's Health; Honored Soldier

Aired February 3, 2005 - 07:00   ET


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The system, however, on its current path is headed for bankruptcy. And so we must join together to strengthen and save Social Security.


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. The president taking the lead on changing Social Security. And today, he hits the road to try and sell that plan.

In the last hour, an update now on the pope's condition. Live to Rome for the latest on what's happening there in Vatican City.

And the high school rivalry that turned uglier than anyone wanted. Police now getting ready to arrest students and parents on this AMERICAN MORNING.

ANNOUNCER: This is AMERICAN MORNING with Bill Hemmer in New York and Soledad O'Brien reporting today from Washington.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning. Welcome from Washington, D.C.

President Bush took a strong stand in last night's State of the Union address. We're going to take a look this morning at the president's address. Senior political analyst Bill Schneider is going to join us, says it's the first time that he's actually heard booing at a State of the Union speech.

Also this morning, we'll talk with Reverend Franklin Graham, ask him what an important constituency for the president the evangelicals took away from last night's address.

Good morning, Bill.

HEMMER: Hey, Soledad. Good morning to you down there in D.C.

Back here in New York, we're also watching this story that will hit in three days. Post-9/11 reality hitting Jacksonville, Florida. A hundred thousand said to invade that town for Super Bowl Sunday. We'll talk to the mayor about the extraordinary security measures that city is taking.

They have a river that goes right through the city. So it's giving them some issues down there in Jacksonville. Also, Jack Cafferty with me here.

What's on your mind? Good morning.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: A couple of things. What's with the booing at the State of the Union address? I mea, this isn't some NBA games you guys are at. If those are Democrats, it's not helping your cause, whoever was doing it.

It's just rude, don't you think? Rude. I mean, we don't boo when you're here doing your -- you know, we treat you with respect.

HEMMER: Most days.

CAFFERTY: And you're not the president yet. Maybe one day.

The battle over Social Security, this is -- this is political blood sport. This is Washington, D.C.'s version of a demolition derby, this battle that's about to get under way. And I can't wait. It's going to be a lot of fun to watch. We'll talk about it more in a moment.

HEMMER: And you and I will spend quiet time together here in New York.

CAFFERTY: A chance for us to, yes, commune.

HEMMER: Thank you, Jack.

Carol Costello right across town. The headlines this morning, starting us off this hour.

Hey, Carol. Good morning.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: You know, Chad boos "DAYBREAK" all the time. I've got issues with him this morning.

HEMMER: Only when the mug's not delivered, Carol.

COSTELLO: Exactly. All right. Let's get right to the headlines now.

"Now in the News," two U.S. Marines have been killed in action in Iraq's Al Anbar province. Military sources say the troops were conducting security and stability operations in the region.

In the meantime, a dozen Iraqi army recruits were killed when their bus was ambushed south of Kirkuk. An Iraqi army spokesman said most of the recruits were less than 25 years old and unarmed.

Here in the United States, federal officials are reviewing a cockpit voice recorder for clues about why a small plane crashed in Teterboro, New Jersey. The jet failed to take off yesterday, smashing into two cars and a warehouse. More than 20 people were taken to hospitals for medical treatment after the crash. At least one of the injured is listed in critical condition this morning. In Washington, Alberto Gonzales is expected to be confirmed today as the first Hispanic attorney general, even though as many as 30 Democrats may vote against him. Critics say Gonzales played a role in providing the legal grounds for the use of torture on terror detainees. The Senate session is set to begin in just about four hours.

And CBS has found a temporary replacement for the outgoing Dan Rather. Bob Schieffer, the host of "Face the Nation," will serve as the transition anchor for the "CBS Evening News" until the new format for the broadcast is launched. Dan Rather steps down March 9.

Oh, I bet they're on pins and needles at CBS -- Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Yes, one would have to imagine. All right, Carol. Thanks.

Well, after the speech, of course, comes the sell. President Bush takes his Social Security reform plan on the road today, traveling to five Republican red states with Democratic senators. Last night, in the first State of the Union address of his second term, the president made a bipartisan pitch for the most important item on his domestic agenda.


BUSH: We must join together to strengthen and save Social Security.

O'BRIEN (voice-over): Using the high-profile platform of the State of the Union address, President Bush called on Congress to help fix a system he says is going bust.

BUSH: For younger workers, the Social Security system has serious problems that will grow worse with time.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Bush said time is running out and called for reforms, including private retirement accounts for younger workers.

BUSH: But we have to move ahead with courage and honesty because our children's retirement security is more important than partisan politics.

O'BRIEN: On the international front, the president hailed the successful election in Iraq. Some members of Congress had symbolically dipped their fingers in ink, a show of solidarity with Iraqi voters who went to the polls despite the threats of attack.

BUSH: In any nation, casting your vote is an act of civic responsibility. For millions of Iraqis, it was also an act of personal courage. And they have earned the respect of us all.

O'BRIEN: The president made it clear he will not bow to demands for a deadline to leave the country.

BUSH: We will not set an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq because that would embolden the terrorists and make them believe they can wait us out.

O'BRIEN: The evening's most memorable moment was unscripted. Janet Norwood, the mother of a Marine killed in Iraq who was invited to sit with the first lady, hugging an Iraqi woman, Safia al-Suhal (ph), who voted on Sunday and whose father was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's regime. The emotional moment brought the crowd to its feet and a hint of tears to the commander in chief.


O'BRIEN: So what do Democrats have to say about the president's Social Security plan? Many say it is no good, including Minority Leader Senator Harry Reid.


SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: There's a lot we can do to improve America's retirement security. But it's wrong to replace the guaranteed benefit that Americans have earned with a guaranteed benefit cut of up to 40 percent. Make no mistake, that's exactly what President Bush is proposing.


O'BRIEN: CNN senior political analyst Bill Schneider is joining us this morning.

Nice to see you. Good morning to you.


O'BRIEN: Overall, tick off for me the big, the big headlines from the speech.

SCHNEIDER: Social Security, the president says he wants to change it for workers under 55. A wholly different Social Security system in which there will be cuts in guaranteed benefits if this plan passes.

Plus, big warnings to a lot of countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, U.S. allies. He says we know you're pro U.S., but you've got to get with the democracy program. And I think the axis of evil may have expanded to include Syria.

O'BRIEN: It certainly sounded that way from last night's speech.


O'BRIEN: If you look at poll numbers -- and, you know, we can debate polls till the cows come home, as they say -- but the question was Bush policies move the country in either the right direction or the wrong direction. Before the speech, 67 percent said the right direction. After the speech, up 10 percentage points to 77 percent.

The situation for U.S. in Iraq, before the speech, good, 60 percent. But after the speech, that number went to 70 percent. What's your takeaway from that.

SCHNEIDER: That the speech was effective to the audience who was watching the president, but there's something to remember. Most of the people who were watching the president last night said that they were Republicans. A lot of Democrats, who the president might have tried to reach on that Social Security message, they chose not to watch President Bush. This country is still divided.

O'BRIEN: I thought maybe Jack Cafferty put it best when he said, "What's with the booing?" That was pretty unusual to hear.

SCHNEIDER: It was unusual. I had never heard it at least at that level before. The Democrats clearly were booing, heckling, saying no when the president talked about the crisis in Social Security.

O'BRIEN: Let me stop you there so we can play a little bit of it.



BUSH: By the year 2042, the entire system would be exhausted and bankrupt if steps are not taken to avert that outcome. The only solutions would be dramatically higher taxes, massive new borrowing, or sudden and severe cuts in Social Security benefits or other government programs.


O'BRIEN: Were you surprised by that?

SCHNEIDER: I was, although I know how strongly Democrats feel. And they're taking a chance here, because if all they really have to say is no, there is no crisis, then Americans are going to say, well, of course, there are serious problems in Social Security, even Bill Clinton talked about those problems. Democrats have got to say more than no. They've got to say here's our alternative plan.

O'BRIEN: I thought one of the nicest moments and maybe the nicest moment in the whole speech was the hugging between the mother of a soldier who was killed in Iraq and a woman, an Iraqi woman who voted on Sunday. Give me a sense of what you took away from this.

SCHNEIDER: That was the memorable moment from the speech. More effective than any of the words from the president. It was a picture worth the president's thousands of words.

This communicated what we were doing in Iraq. The hug between Janet Norwood, the mother who lost her son, and the Iraqi human rights activist, that moment, that picture was worth the whole speech.

O'BRIEN: And the president seemed very, very moved by that, as well as everyone else who gave her a standing ovation. SCHNEIDER: And I think everyone in the audience watching this speech was moved by it because, to a lot of Americans, this what the Iraq war really was about, sacrifice, suffering.

O'BRIEN: For some kind of end for some kind of point.

SCHNEIDER: For some kind of a point.

O'BRIEN: Bill Schneider, as always, thank you for your analysis. Appreciate it.

Let's go back to Bill in New York -- Bill.

HEMMER: All right, Soledad. Watching the news from the Vatican today. And the good word from the Vatican this morning is just that, it is good.

Alessio Vinci is our Rome bureau chief. He's live outside the hospital. The latest now on the pope's condition.

Alessio, hello there.


Well, the latest from the Vatican is that the pope's condition is "registering a positive evolution." That's what the Vatican spokesman told reporters just a few minutes ago. This means, according to the Vatican, that the infection is in a phase of regression and the pope did not any longer have anymore throat spasms, which is the first -- which is why the pope was brought here in the first place on Tuesday night.

The chief Vatican spokesman, who's a doctor himself, met reporters here earlier today. He also said that the pope had a good night of sleep. We pressed him a little bit on the issue of how long the pope had to stay here at the hospital.

He said, "Well, when I had the flu," he said, "I spent -- it took me about seven days to recover." Of course, the spokesman is younger and far healthier than the pope himself. So he did not want to speculate for how long the pope will have to remain here at the hospital.

What we do know, however, is that the Vatican is making plans for the pope to deliver, as he does every Sunday, his prayer to the pilgrims in St. Peter's Square from the hospital bed here at the Gemelli Hospital. How that will be done is probably through a television link, or the Vatican television will record a tape which will be then played to the hundreds, if not thousands of people who expected to flock St. Peter's Square on Sunday morning.

Back to you, Bill.

HEMMER: Wow, remarkable. Alessio, thanks for that report there in Rome. Check of the weather back in this country now. It looks like a pretty decent day here in the Northeast. Here's Chad Myers, first check this morning.

Good morning. Am I right or not?

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: You are right. Good morning, Bill.


HEMMER: Thank you, Chad.

MYERS: You're welcome.

HEMMER: From Alabama now, more arrests are expected after a flat-out ugly brawl during a girl's high school basketball game. A hundred spectators involved in this fight at Prattville High School on Tuesday night.

Four police officers had to use tasers to subdue the crowd. Police say the brawl may have been linked to an argument between two rival groups from a week ago. There are reports of at least nine arrests so far, and other indications that more may be coming today.

That is just ugly from Alabama.

Back to Soledad now in Washington.

O'BRIEN: Those pictures are ridiculous. All right, Bill. Thanks.

Well, President Bush saluted the sacrifice of America's armed forces last night. One soldier who nearly gave his life in Iraq was there. How did he respond to the president's word? We'll tell you.

Also, by land and sea, Super Bowl security, why this year's game poses a unique challenge.

And accused of sleeping at the wheel of a packed school bus. The 911 call that may have saved many lives just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.

Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: Special guests from each of the U.S. military branches were invited to last night's State of the Union address by President Bush. Staff Sergeant Norberto Lara received the Purple Heart after he was seriously wounded last year in Iraq. He represented the Army during the speech, and we asked him just how it felt to be there.


STAFF SGT. NORBERTO LARA, U.S. ARMY: It was an honor just to be selected as the Army representative. I was representing the whole United States Army, and that was incredible. That was just incredible.

O'BRIEN: What did you think of the speech?

LARA: I thought it was uplifting. I thought he had some pretty good points as far as what we're doing in Iraq and stuff like that. It was pretty -- it was pretty much justified why we're there.

O'BRIEN: As you well know, certainly lots of Democrats have been calling for a timetable when soldiers would be out of Iraq. Do you agree with that in any way, shape or form? And obviously the president was pretty clear on his response in the speech.

LARA: I really don't think there should be a timetable on it. I mean, basically we're there to do a mission, and there until it's accomplished. So...

O'BRIEN: You lost your arm, obviously.

LARA: Yes, ma'am.

O'BRIEN: You were serving in Iraq. I guess you were involved in the attack on Falluja.

LARA: No, ma'am, I was in Baquba.

O'BRIEN: Oh, you were in Baquba. Tell me -- explain to me the circumstances of what happened.

LARA: Our Humvee was attacked with a rocket-propelled grenade, and the grenade penetrated the firewall of the vehicle and took my arm and took the arm of my lieutenant who was sitting right behind me.

O'BRIEN: When did you come back to Walter Reed?

LARA: I stayed about a couple weeks in Germany. When I was stable enough to go back to the states, I ended up back on July 7, I believe.

O'BRIEN: Did your injury in any way change how you were feelinging about being in Iraq and serving in Iraq and the overall mission of the troops in Iraq?

LARA: No, ma'am. I've always believed in everything that the armed forces does. I believe in all the ideals that we -- for honor. And I really just always just wanted to do a good job, no matter what the threat was. So...

O'BRIEN: Elections just a handful of days ago. Did you watch it?

LARA: Yes, ma'am I did. I actually stayed up to watch it. And...

O'BRIEN: And what was your reaction? LARA: My wife and I -- she served in the military over there, as well. And she and I both feel that it was justified, our time there, everything I went through.

O'BRIEN: So you felt just by watching the election, that...

LARA: We were part of their freedom now. So -- we were part of history.

O'BRIEN: How are you feeling about the situation in Iraq as it stands right now with the successful elections and after hearing what the president has sort of put forth?

LARA: I just feel honored that I was even able to take -- take part of it, and just have a part in history. Just be -- you know, I had my opportunity to serve my country in a foreign land and actually fight for their freedom.

O'BRIEN: You are the recipient of a Purple Heart.

LARA: Yes, ma'am.

O'BRIEN: What do you do now?

LARA: Right now I'm just recovering, going through treatment, going through therapy to try and get myself better. I've gone all the way from being able to sit up in bed to now I can run.


O'BRIEN: That was Sergeant Lara. He and his wife were stationed in Bosnia five years ago when they re-enlisted on their anniversary. His wife was also deployed to Iraq. She's beens restationed now in Washington, D.C.

Bill, obviously the sun rising right over my shoulder here with a spectacular view of the Capitol that we have. That interview was taped a little bit earlier which is why it was a little bit dark before.

Back to you, Bill.

HEMMER: Great looking picture. OK, Soledad. Thanks.

From North Carolina this morning, a school bus driver there facing charges after he allegedly dozed off behind the wheel. A 16- year-old student on board that bus called 911 from a cell phone.

This was in Charlotte. And for 30 minutes, the boy tried to lead police to the bus that carried about 30 students.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm on a school bus and our bus driver has fallen asleep and he is driving.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is the bus moving?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, it is, but it's like he is dozing off.


HEMMER: Well, police eventually caught up with the bus, arrested Vernon Wallace, accusing him of having alcohol in his system, later released on $1,000 bond. That story out of North Carolina.

One of the best bets on Wall Street running into trouble. We'll mind your business in a moment. Back with that and Jack right after this.


HEMMER: Welcome back, everybody.

The Fed changes interest rates the first time this year. And online giant a bit of a stumble. Gerri Willis is working for Andy Serwer this morning. First check of "Minding Your Business."

Good morning to you.

GERRI WILLIS: Hey there, Bill. Good to see you.

A good day for Wall Street yesterday. Stocks were actually up. And here's what was going on.

The Federal Reserve raising rates, actually sent stocks higher because people were glad to see that the Fed has taken its own good time in doing it and not doing it too quickly. We got a quarter point rate hike.

Also, we talked yesterday about Google having great earnings. That helped, as well. And, of course, Boeing was higher as well because it reported a good fourth quarter earnings period, as well.

Today, we're looking at Amazon. Tech stocks not looking so good the day after...

HEMMER: Going the other way than Google is, right?


HEMMER: Because Google is on absolute fire. What's happened with Amazon?

WILLIS: You know, Amazon reporting earnings not so exciting, I've got to tell you. Their fourth quarter, four times higher. But Wall Street wanted more. Wall Street always wants more.

And Amazon just couldn't come across. They had higher-than- expected expenses, despite a great holiday season.

HEMMER: Wow, yes. They're selling just about everything at Amazon right now.

WILLIS: It's a big company, a big shopping site. Probably the biggest in the country. And we'll wait and see how the market thinks about that.

HEMMER: That we shall. Good to have you with us. OK?

WILLIS: Thank you.

HEMMER: Here's Jack now, "Question of the Day," looking back on last night.

CAFFERTY: Yes, I can't wait, because this -- I'm excited. The game is on, and before it's over, it could make the Super Bowl look like child's play.

Social Security is going broke. It's just a matter of when. President Bush wants to change the program so it won't go broke. He wants to create individual investment accounts, take some money out of the government's hands, give it back to the taxpayers.

Guys like Senator Harry Reid from Nevada are howling already. Can't do it, won't do it, terrible idea.

The president does have one advantage. It's this: he's not up for reelection. Watching the politicians scramble around with this thing over the next few months ought to be a pay per view television event. I can't wait.

You've got to remember, when you watch Washington, the governing mantra of American politicians is, "What do I have to tell the poor dumb voters so they'll reelect me? How do I pander to the electorate so I can keep my job?"

Not what's right, what's moral, what's proper, let's make the tough decisions. How can I hold on to my little thiefdom here and keep a better retirement plan than any of the people on Social Security and better health benefits than any of the people on Social Security? That's what drives Washington, D.C., not any sort of great moral compass.

So get a box of popcorn and a six-pack and pull up a chair. Because this ought to make the gladiators in Rome look like little sissies.


HEMMER: Just a six pack?


HEMMER: Just a six?

CAFFERTY: Well, maybe take more.

HEMMER: Game on. That was a moment last night. I also thought, too, how poignant it was when this Iraqi woman who just voted turned around to embrace...

CAFFERTY: Wasn't that something?

HEMMER: ... the mother of her son that was killed -- who was killed in Falluja. It was so -- her dog tags from her son got tangled in the woman's shirt.

CAFFERTY: Do you believe in divine intervention?

HEMMER: I tell you, I was sitting there. I was like, this is a metaphor for everything that's happening between the United States and Iraq right now. And boy, that moment held, and the applause held. I don't know many folks who have seen something like that before.

CAFFERTY: As opposed to the morons who were booing during the address, which was totally classless.

HEMMER: Well, that's your topic. This is my topic.

CAFFERTY: I understand.

HEMMER: See you, Jack.

CAFFERTY: Soledad's not here. I have to fill in.

HEMMER: That's right. Here's Soledad.

O'BRIEN: Oh, I heard that, mister.

HEMMER: Bet you did.

O'BRIEN: Well, as you guys well know, evangelical voters were crucial to President Bush's reelection. But did he say enough last night to satisfy that important base? The Reverend Franklin Graham is our guest just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING, where we're coming live to you from Capitol Hill. We're back in a moment.



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