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CNN LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER

Interview With Former Presidents Bush and Clinton; Interview With Adnan Pachachi; Interview With Jalal Talabani

Aired February 20, 2005 - 12:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, HOST: It's noon in Washington, 9 a.m. in Los Angeles, 8 p.m. in Baghdad, 11:30 p.m. in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us for "LATE EDITION." We'll get to my interview with former presidents Bush and Clinton in just a moment. First, though, let's get a quick check of what's in the news right now.
(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Andrea.

Now to former U.S. presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. They're on a humanitarian mission touring the tsunami ravaged areas of South Asia. The two men were tapped by the current president of the United States to head up America's relief efforts.

Just a short while ago, I caught up with the former presidents in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: President Bush, President Clinton, thanks very much for joining us on your mission.

Let me begin with you, President Bush. Give us your thoughts. What you have seen now in the tsunami affected areas, is it what you expected?

GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's worse. It's worse than I expected. The devastation is greater. Of course, we come in now. Most of the bodies have been accounted for or at least have been picked up and put into these refrigerated vaults, so we didn't see any of that.

But the devastation on the ground is worse than I expected. Just leveled where there were schools and houses, it's just flat, flat land. It was -- I've never seen anything like it, ever.

BLITZER: What about you, President Clinton?

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wolf, we were in Thailand this morning and yesterday. And then we went to Aceh in Indonesia and flew up and down the coast. They have only buried 110,000 people, only. That sounds staggering. They think at least another 130,000 are dead that they haven't even recovered yet. We visited one little village where 6,500 people had lived and only 1,000 survived. There are orphans everywhere. Nobody's got a home. Nobody's got a way to make a living. It's unbelievable.

But the USAID office is there. All these wonderful NGOS are there. The U.N. agencies are there. They seem to be working together well.

And the people are very brave. I mean in this village, all the elderly people were killed because they couldn't get away from the wave. And new leaders have tried to step in and get the job done.

It's like nothing I'd ever seen, but it's heartbreaking and heartening at the same time.

BLITZER: President Bush, how is the recovery effort, based on what you can tell, coming along?

BUSH: Well, the recovery effort really is just starting, in cleaning up until now and trying to account for the bodies. But the recovery effort is just starting. In Aceh, there's not a lot of evidence that is there.

In talking to the people that are on the ground, they're all quite optimistic that the houses will start being built again and schools being put up.

So I'd say it's got a long way to go. But it's not because of negligence or because of inefficiency. It's just because of the enormity of the devastation.

BLITZER: President Clinton, what has surprised you the most? You saw a lot of this on television. You read about it. But now, being on the ground, what was the most eye-opening moment, let's say, for you?

CLINTON: Seeing the orphans in their school uniforms yesterday in Thailand; and standing in the street of a town where nothing, nothing was left except the mosque; flying over the town and seeing the rice fields flooded with salt water from the ocean, and having the farmer say it would be three years before they could grow a crop again.

Just the magnitude of it -- you guys have done a wonderful job covering this, but no distant picture can convey the enormity of the human tragedy and the environmental destruction until you see it.

BLITZER: President Clinton, what do they need most right now? Do they still need money? Do they need expertise? Do they need volunteers, manpower? What do you sense that they need most in the coming weeks and months?

CLINTON: Well, I think, first of all, every country needs a really good plan for what to do, and then they need real coordination among the international agencies, the national agencies like USAID, and the nongovernmental organizations. There are a lot of people there. I think that we'll need more people as time goes on, as the ones who are here become exhausted or have to go back to their lives.

And we'll need to keep a steady stream of cash up. The American people have been uncommonly generous. The president has sent an aid package of $950 million up to Congress. Other countries have committed. The total is about $7 billion.

And we'll -- people will need to keep their commitments, and then we'll probably need to raise a little more after that. But it will have to be given out in a disciplined fashion over, I would say, at least a three-year period.

BLITZER: President Bush, is that money being spent wisely? Are there audits? Because there can be, as you well know, corruption, there can be a misuse of those funds if given to the wrong people.

BUSH: Well, I think it's very early to say what systems are set up now, because we're just beginning to get into the reconstruction phase.

Most of the money that President Clinton and I have, you know, helped raise has not been spent. It's not out in the field yet. And most of it will go into reconstruction.

But when -- you're right, when that starts, we want to be able to assure the donors that the money is being spent wisely, that there's not a lot of overhead between what they give and how it gets to the recipient, and that there's no corruption out there.

And the embassies are interested in this. The governments that we talked to. For example, the Indonesians are interested in it. And everybody, I think, is concerned that it not happen, they want to guarantee that it not happen.

But in terms of one mechanism, there's no such one central mechanism on that.

CLINTON: Wolf, I think the biggest problem we had with that was, early on, when people all over the world, Americans and others, were sending massive amounts of supplies into areas that were not equipped to deliver them all at the same -- simultaneously, and didn't have a good inventory system.

The president of Indonesia told us today that he planned to set up a separate monitoring operation out there to make sure that the money was not wasted, squandered or stolen.

The White House, on its Web site, usafreedomcorps.gov, has given us a list of about three dozen charities that are completely reliable. The president gave us a list of a dozen that can handle bigger contributions.

And these NGOs are pretty trustworthy. And the U.N., for example, UNICEF gave up its normal administrative percentage to put all the money here, into the areas affected.

So I think we'll have to monitor, and we have to have good auditing systems as we go along, but I do believe the donors can be assured that these organizations to which they give their donations are not wasting money and, if you pick one off the reputable list, you know they're all honest and that they're going to be out here trying to help people.

BLITZER: President Bush, there was a lot of concern expressed early on, in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, that children might be kidnapped, sold for slave or sex-trade purposes. What, if anything, have you learned about those fears? Are they real?

BUSH: Well, I didn't -- to be very honest with you, that subject, at least when I was present at meetings, never came up. And had it been of enormous concern to these governments, I expect it would have.

I've read in the papers there have been some indications of that. But it's not -- at least the NGOs out there in Aceh and the government leaders we've met with, none of them have presented that as a major problem, at this point.

Now, maybe you've heard something different.

CLINTON: No. I will say this: I think that it's going to be much more difficult to do, Wolf, as long as we have the kind of nongovernmental organizations' presence we've got there.

We met a young American today in this remote village, in his twenties, who's been in Indonesia for five years. He spoke the language wonderfully.

You know, there are people like that that are physically present, from a lot of the religious groups, like Worldvision and other groups like CARE.

It's going to be hard for people to get away with that without getting caught, as long as the people of the world are contributing, and these NGOs can afford to maintain a presence there and do something.

I can't say that none of it's happened, but I can tell you this, that it's something that next month, when I start working for the U.N., I'm going to monitor very closely. But I think that the NGOs, just their pure physical presence there is going to make it more difficult for that to be done on any kind of scale.

BLITZER: President Bush, have you sensed that, in the aftermath of the tsunami these past few weeks, there's been an improved American image in that part of the world, given the enormous amount of help that America, American private citizens, as well as the U.S. government, have provided?

BUSH: Well, I don't think there's a question, but the answer to that is, yes, and we've heard it over and over again since we've been here, gratitude for, not just the money going through these NGOs, and the money that's been given from out of the pockets of children and men and women in our country, but for the military.

There were some early stories that the military might be resented. And everything we've heard is that they came in there, done their job properly, that they were sensitive to the local cultures. And I'm very proud of the job that the military has done, and I think a lot of that stems from the orders they got from General Blackman out in Guam -- we met in Guam -- who's in charge of this area for the Marines.

And he made them go in there, wanted them to go in, ordered them to go in, almost as partners in the recovery, and not, "We're the U.S. Marines and we're going to do this." It a wonderful thing, the way they've handled it.

CLINTON: They've been great, Wolf. They went in without full battle gear into a troubled area in Aceh, where there's been a lot of violence, because they wanted to symbolize hope and help. They coordinated 11 other countries that were actively involved militarily and 22 others that made contributions and refused to establish America as the head of the group. They just tried to facilitate.

They never took any credit for anything. They said they were just there to help and do what the local people wanted, and as a result, the feeling about them and about our country has just soared.

And, of course, people are hearing -- I think other countries, they find it hard to believe that one-third of American households would actually give money, and over half of them gave it over the Internet in small amounts. And these things have, I think, really touched the hearts of people in all these countries affected.

BUSH: Wolf, I'm not trying to take credit for something, but I think the fact that Bill Clinton and I have different political persuasions in the past are doing this -- I know last night at a dinner with the Thais, they were very, very appreciative of it and they said, "Well, this couldn't happen in our country."

And I think, I think what we're trying to do is say, this is bigger than politics. This is about saving lives. This is about children who have lost their families. And I must say, I'm getting a huge kick out of it.

BLITZER: Quick final question to both of you.

President Clinton, first to you. How are you feeling? I know this must be a difficult kind of trip, given the surgery that you had not all that long ago.

CLINTON: I feel great. I confess, you know, it was tiring. We made the trip all the way over with two stops, one in Hawaii and one in Guam.

But we both got a good night's sleep last night. We had a long day today, and we feel good, and we're going out to meet the Sir Lankan leaders tonight. We'll have a good day here tomorrow.

So I feel good. I think whatever exhaustion we might have felt was totally overcome by seeing the suffering that these people have gone through and the courage they're demonstrating in trying to put their lives back together.

You just don't have much time for personal fatigue or personal feeling. It's just so, it's overwhelming. I only wish every American who contributed to this effort could personally see the faces and the problems and the courage that we have seen.

BLITZER: What about you, President Bush?

BUSH: Well, I've got a little age on President Clinton. I've got a little age going.

But he said it perfectly, and I don't feel like an old guy out there. I feel privileged to be part of this and exhilarated by the courage of these people, that have been -- their lives have been devastated.

And I guess for me -- and I know it's probably true for President Clinton, because I've heard him say this -- that the toughest thing is the children, when you see them knowing that their mother and dad have been missing or they lost three brothers. And one father standing there said, "My wife and other children are killed, but this guy is still with me."

And it kills you. It tears you up. But it certainly gets the focus away from one's own self on to something bigger and far more important.

BLITZER: President Clinton, President Bush, we are all out of time, but if you have a second, President Bush, there's a front-page story in the New York Times today. A former aide of yours, Doug Wead, secretly recorded conversations years ago with your son, the president of the United States.

I don't know if you've seen the story. I don't know if you want to react to it. But if you do, this is a moment, this is an opportunity to do so.

BUSH: No, I haven't seen it, and I couldn't therefore react to it, and I don't know anything about it, never heard anything about this.

BLITZER: All right, we'll leave it at then.

President Bush, President Clinton, thanks so much, not only for being on this program, but thanks for your work as well. We really appreciate it.

CLINTON: Thanks, Wolf.

BUSH: Thank you. BLITZER: And just ahead, tracking terror in Iraq and beyond. We'll talk with two U.S. senators about that country's post-election violence. And later:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Grant Hill is an awesome player.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joey's great.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shaq is good, only because of his height.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The spotlight on the NBA's all-stars. We'll talk with three of pro basketball's hottest players. They're live in Denver, over at the convention center. We'll go there.

That's coming up on "LATE EDITION." And we'll continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have differences sometimes, but we don't differ on values, that we share this great love and respect for freedom.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: President Bush saying the U.S.-European alliance is strong despite strains over Iraq. The president due to arrive in Belgium later today.

Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." Joining us now, two leading members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: here in Washington, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- he also serves on the Intelligence Committee -- and in San Francisco, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

Senators, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

And I'll begin with a little news. In "Time" magazine, Senator Hagel, there is a story now saying there has been, in recent weeks, a secret back channel established between U.S. officials and Iraqi insurgents, through intermediaries, to try to stop the violence there. Is this a good idea, bad idea?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: First, Wolf, we really do not have a good handle on the insurgency in Iraq. You'll recall a year ago, Secretary Rumsfeld referenced the insurgents as dead-enders. We don't really understand completely who they are or how many, where their financing comes from.

BLITZER: Secretary Rumsfeld even this week said he didn't know how many there were. He couldn't put any numbers on it.

HAGEL: No, that's right. And it complicates the dynamic over there in an already very complicated situation.

So I think our intelligence networks need to be extended and certainly deepened in that area. And I think we're going to have to be a lot more creative than we have been in order to understand...

BLITZER: But is it your sense, Senator Hagel, that these are reasonable people that you can deal with and try to convince them to go into a cease-fire or stop their insurgency?

HAGEL: I don't think anyone is approaching this, Wolf, with some kind of Pollyanna-ish ideas of these are reasonable or not reasonable people.

The reality is that we've got a very complicated dangerous situation over there. And you are going to have to reach out. You are going to have to develop some relationships and networks. And this is one of those ways.

But I don't think anyone believes that you've got a new set of Jeffersonian democrats out there that you can talk to. You've got some elements of this insurgency that want to see Iraq in constant turmoil and revolution.

BLITZER: And then, Senator Boxer, over the past few days, we've seen an escalation in violence, mostly against Iraqi Shiites, celebrating one of their religious holidays right now. It looks like they're going on the offensive even more so despite some of the optimism that immediately resulted in the aftermath of the election on January 30th.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), CALIFORNIA: I don't think anyone was saying when that after the election everything would just be roses. We knew that this was going to go back to where it was before. And as Hillary Clinton said -- she is, as you know, over there with John McCain and others -- it just shows how desperate they are to destroy any hopes for Iraq. When they kill people as they're praying, nothing could be more tragic than that.

So we have a tough situation.

I agree with Chuck Hagel, my friend and colleague on the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, that we don't know enough yet about this insurgency. And it's so critical for us to get a better grip on it, because our exit is definitely linked to whether or not we can wrap our arms around it and weaken it.

So it is essential that we have that information.

And one good thing about getting Mr. Negroponte as the head of the intelligence apparatus is, because he has been in Iraq as the ambassador, and he knows that we just are not doing enough.

Iraqi intelligence tells us there are as many as 200,000 sympathizers. If this is true, we've got a major problem on our hands.

BLITZER: Senator Boxer, despite your criticism of Condoleezza Rice and the entire Bush administration's approach toward Iraq, you're not among those -- and correct me if I'm wrong -- who are saying the U.S. should set an exit date right now and simply announce that date and get out.

BOXER: I believe we should set a goal.

Chuck Hagel and I had the privilege of sitting through a hearing where we had a retired Marine general, Gregory Newbold, who said, "It's time we set a goal for when we could leave." His suggestion was two years. It's not a hard-and-fast date, but it is giving a signal to the region that we're not occupiers.

So I do believe we should set a goal.

BLITZER: A goal meaning an exit date.

BOXER: Not a timetable. I think we should.

I think that Marine General Newbold, who actually planned the war in Iraq -- he was one of the planners; I have great respect for him -- says if we were to set a goal of two years for us to leave -- it doesn't mean you have to stick to it. You don't have a specific timetable -- it just sends an important signal that we are not there forever.

BLITZER: But it also sends a message to the insurgents or the terrorists that, if they hold on for two years, they can just then take the offensive and that that would work to their advantage.

BOXER: I just don't agree with that, because I don't look at a goal as a hard-and-fast date.

It's just making a point because, as General Newbold says, right now we are the ones who are creating a circumstance where our folks are the targets there. It's very, very dangerous. And the fact is, if we were to say, "Look, we're not here to stay. We want you people to run your own country and get the replacements trained."

Otherwise, I just don't see any end in sight. An open checkbook for Iraq at a time when we're cutting our domestic programs to the bone. It's just awful. Debt as far as the eye can see, deficits -- hundreds of billions of dollars here with no end in sight.

BLITZER: Senator...

BOXER: I just don't see that as a policy.

BLITZER: Senator Hagel, two years, is that a good goal?

HAGEL: Well, I don't think you ever define victory by time frames.

I don't know what the goal is. I think it is dangerous, as you noted, to try and frame any effort up with a prescribed time frame. Maybe a year, maybe two, maybe three.

The fact is, yes, goals are important, and, yes, we do need to help move the Iraqis to a point where they can govern themselves, defend themselves and support themselves. And how long that's going to be, I don't know.

Now, in the process, it may well be that we'll see this come unwound. I don't know. I think there are hopeful signs over there. Obviously, the elections were hopeful. But we have a long way to go.

BLITZER: Well, one of the concerns that many have expressed is the shape of this new Iraqi government that will emerge in the next few days. I want you to listen to what the outgoing prime minister, Iyad Allawi, said in the aftermath of the election. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

IYAD ALLAWI, IRAQI PRIME MINISTER (through translator): Fifty percent of the Iraqi people decided that they want to see an Islamic government in Iraq and we must respect that.

Of course, it's going to be Islamic. The United Alliance are Islamists. Sure, some are liberal, but they tend to be more Islamist. This is the decision of the Iraqi people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Senator Hagel, is this what U.S. troops went over there for, to help create an Islamist government in Baghdad?

HAGEL: Well, this is a result of democracy. If we support democracy, if we support the sovereignty of Iraq, the people of Iraq, then we must accept the results of that democracy. And to do otherwise would be complete folly. It would mean that we stand for nothing.

And so, therefore, going into this, we must understand that what the Iraqi people ultimately want, and what they ultimately decide, is what we will have to accept.

BLITZER: Do you accept that, Senator Boxer?

BOXER: Well, we didn't go in there to see an Islamist government. We went in there, because we wanted to get rid of the weapons of mass destruction. We have to go back and remember that.

But I agree with Chuck Hagel. We are where we are, and the Iraqi people chose their leaders, and that's it. We can only hope that they will not join in a type of alliance with Iran, which could prove very dangerous.

We don't know the future. Right now I'm focused on a goal, a goal of when it's safe enough for us to leave, and an immediate goal of letting the Iraqi people know that we are not occupiers. And I think we need to move away from that image that we have right now. Let's face it, even Porter Goss has said -- the head of the CIA -- that Iraq has become, essentially, a boot camp for the terrorists. This is a very bad circumstance, and we've got to change the dynamic.

BLITZER: All right, Senators, we're going to take a quick break, but have a lot more to talk about, including the latest developments in Syria, Lebanon, Iran -- much more coming up with our two senators.

We'll take a quick break. More with Senators Hagel and Boxer right after this short message.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

You're taking a look at some live pictures now from the NBA Jam Session, the fan festival in Denver leading up to tonight's all-star game.

We'll talk with NBA players, Commissioner David Stern in the next hour of "LATE EDITION." We'll go live to Denver for that.

We're continuing our conversation, in the meantime, with two key members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer of California.

Senator Boxer, do you have any advice for the president? He's on his way to Belgium, the first stop on his trip to Europe. There's been a strained relationship with some of the so-called old European allies as opposed to the new Europe. What advice, if any, do you have for the president as he embarks on this European adventure?

BOXER: First, let me be very honest. I don't know that the president is looking to me for advice. But since you asked me, this is what I would tell him: He said when he left that he wanted to repair the relationship and that is very crucial. And I think there's so many areas where we can.

We need their help in Iraq. We know they didn't agree with us, but they certainly have to agree now that we've got to get stability there. And the more we can entice others to join us and help us, I think the less of a target our people will be, and perhaps the Iraqis can begin to look more toward the future.

I also think, when it comes to Lebanon, this is an area, particularly with France, where I can see us really working together much more with Europe.

I think there is still sticky issues with Iran. I feel that we're still standing outside the talks, different than North Korea where we're part of the six-party talks.

So I think we have more work to do in Iran. But clearly we want to get past the arguments we've had over Iraq.

BLITZER: Senator Hagel, this is an opportunity for the president to strengthen the traditional north Atlantic alliance.

HAGEL: It's a significant opportunity. And I think most of us are very pleased the president chose to make this trip to Europe his first international trip in his second term.

It is very, very important that we reconnect with our allies, our alliances, we strengthen those, we deepen those alliances. Every major issue out there, Wolf, for the short term, long term, is going to require our alliances working together.

BLITZER: Well, let's talk of, specifically, one issue that's certainly going to come up: the assassination this past week of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. There's mounting pressure on Syria to pull its 15,000 or so troops out of Lebanon. How far should the U.S. and its Europeans allies, others in the region, the Lebanese themselves, go in trying to get the Syrians out of Lebanon?

HAGEL: As far as we need to go, working through the alliance of the United Nations. As you know, the United Nations Security Council already has passed a resolution demanding that Syria remove its troops from Lebanon.

BLITZER: But they're showing no inclination to so, the Syrians.

HAGEL: That's right. And that's why I go back to the point -- which I think the president understands, certainly Secretary Rice, in her trip here recently, which was very successful. She understands -- that we're going to be have been together on this dealing with, not only the Syrians, but the Iranians.

I would make a couple suggestions. One, we ought to get the Syrians to agree to -- and all of us agree to -- international monitors in Lebanon for the spring elections. We should get the Europeans to agree.

I hope the president will talk about this -- to get the Europeans to agree on pulling back their E.U. association agreement, essentially their trade agreement, with Syria, just as we have done. We have sanctioned Syria.

Until we start putting some pressure, meaningful pressure, on Syria, they won't respond.

But it's critically important for all of us to see Syria start to take some constructive steps backward.

The other part of that problem is, the fact that Syria is allowing that border with Iraq to be porous and we think allowing some things to go on in their own country they shouldn't.

BLITZER: You want the president to go further in imposing economic sanctions and other forms of sanctions, Senator Boxer, on the Syrians?

BOXER: I was co-author of the Syria Accountability Act. And there we have given the president a number of tools, and, happily, he's used some of them. There's escalating economic sanctions.

And, yes, I believe that he can continue to go down that list of sanctions, put pressure on Syria, work with our European allies and the United Nations.

I think Chuck is right to remind us all that there was a U.N. resolution -- had no negative votes at all, a few abstentions -- that said Syria's got to get out. And I think we need to use this tragedy, of this assassination -- and tragic it was -- to call the world's attention to the fact that Syria is an occupier of a country that very much wants them to leave.

And so this is a moment perhaps where we can work with the world community and the United Nations and use those sanctions, get others to also impose those sanctions and bring about some positive change.

BLITZER: On the eve of his departure Friday, he gave interviews to TV stations in Europe, Senator Hagel. And on the issue of Iran and its suspected efforts to develop a nuclear bomb, the president said this. I want you to listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH: You never want a president to say never, but military action is the -- certainly not -- you know, it's never the president's first choice. Diplomacy is always the president's first -- at least my first choice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: In your opinion, Senator Hagel, and you've studied this carefully as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Intelligence Committee, can the Iranians be convinced, if they are moving forward towards developing a nuclear bomb, to stop and come clean?

HAGEL: I think it's going to require, again, our alliances, our friends working together on this, and this includes Russia.

Russia is very key to this. Russia is helping the Iranians build a nuclear power plant in southern Iran. They have a relationship that's very close and very important. I am sure the president will talk with President Putin about this.

I think we can make some progress here with the Iranians.

BLITZER: Because the Russians say they're not building a bomb and they have no concerns about that.

HAGEL: Well, the Russians and the United States and, I think, most of the Europeans disagree on this.

But, again, the critical nature here is all of us being together. There's a common purpose here. And I think also something else that's going to be very important as we look at the landscape of the Middle East. We're making significant progress with the Israeli-Palestinian situation. We got some hope in Iraq with the elections.

One of the things that, it seems to me, the United States has to be careful about is not giving others in that area, and China and Russia in particular, a sense of the United States has got hegemonic designs in Central Asia, building bases in Afghanistan and in the Middle East and we do not.

That is going to require some delicate diplomacy, here. Finding some common denominator interests with our allies, and certainly Iran, is as key a part of that as any.

BLITZER: Senator Boxer, are you going to vote to confirm John Negroponte as the national intelligence director?

BOXER: As of this moment, absolutely, I will. And I was one of a few people who was very concerned, when he was nominated for the United Nations post, because of his past work in Honduras, and we believed overlooking, at that time, human-rights abuses.

But I have to say, working with him in his two posts, as the United Nations ambassador and then also as the Iraqi ambassador, he has been a very straight shooter with us. He's been very direct with us.

Unlike others in the administration, I think he has a respect for the Congress, so at this stage, I think he's a good person for this particular work.

But I just wanted to mention one quick point about the Iranian situation. Our European allies are asking us to get more involved, and I hope as George Bush goes around Europe, that he will make that leap.

Because, you know, as Madeleine Albright says, she says, you know, engagement doesn't mean endorsement. We don't have to endorse everything that's going on there, but we need to get a little bit into the talks there, because I think there's so much at stake.

And I hope when Putin and our president meet -- they seem to like each other a lot -- perhaps our president can open Putin's eyes a little bit more to the Iranians' use of nuclear materials, because clearly Putin is out of step with most of the world on this.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens at the end of this European trip when they meet.

Barbara Boxer, thanks very much.

Chuck Hagel, thanks to you, as well.

Coming up in the next hour of "LATE EDITION," all-star madness. We talk with three NBA favorites as they prepare for tonight's all- star game. But up next, in case you missed it, the highlights from some of the Sunday morning talk shows right here on "LATE EDITION, " the last word in Sunday talk.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. Here on "LATE EDITION," we're glad to bring you the last word in Sunday talk, every week. So in case you missed it, we'll also be recapping some of the highlights from the other Sunday morning talk shows in our Sunday play-by-play.

On NBC's "Meet the Press" earlier today, two U.S. senators mentioned as possible presidential contenders in 2008, Republican John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton, both said they would work -- that the other one would work nicely in the Oval Office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ): I am sure that Senator Clinton would make a good president. I happen to be a Republican and would support, obviously, a Republican nominee. But I have no doubt that Senator Clinton would make a good president.

TIM RUSSERT, NBC HOST: Equal time, Senator Clinton, to the gentleman to your left.

U.S. SENATOR HILLARY CLINTON (D-NY): Absolutely.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Politics was also a key topic on ABC's "This Week," where former vice presidential candidate John Edwards reflected on the 2004 race. He rejected the notion that Democrats need to change strategies and talk more about faith on the campaign trail.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN EDWARDS, FORMER VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do not believe the right answer to this is to figure out how we should strategically maneuver our way through the landscape.

I think that is just dead wrong. And those who believe that, I think they're dead wrong.

My faith is an enormous part of my life and that is part of who I am. But I don't believe the answer for us going forward is to invoke the Lord's name 55 times in a speech. I don't.

I don't think -- first of all, I think it looks political. It looks like you're just moving around for politics' sake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Iraq was the main focus on CBS' "Face the Nation," where South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Americans shouldn't leave on U.S. troops leaving Iraq any time soon. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): We're far from a rule-of-law nation in Iraq. We're far from an economy that can sustain itself. The Iraqi people want to be free, but they're nowhere near having the capacity to be free.

So on my third visit, I can tell you this: We need to be patient in America, because our footprint here will be large for a long time. We're years away from leaving with honor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: On "FOX News Sunday," President Bush's appointment of John Negroponte to be the new national intelligence director drew praise from both the chairman and the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Republican Pat Roberts and Democrat Jay Rockefeller said the president is going to have to stand by Negroponte as the final authority on intelligence matters.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

U.S. SENATOR JAY ROCKEFELLER (D-WV): What's going to be important is that when he comes to his first few tests with Rumsfeld over a decision, that he back -- the president -- back up Negroponte. That's going to be the real key. Will the president, not just announce and praise him and say that he has the authority to determine budgets and all the authority he needs, but will he back him up when he's challenged?

U.S. SENATOR ROBERTS (R-KS): The president made the announcement. He said he is going to be the doorkeeper of intelligence. He's going to be the one that he really relies on in regards to saying, "OK, what's a good idea? What's a bad idea? If John says it's a good idea, I'll listen to it. If it's a bad idea, I won't."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And that's our Sunday play-by-play of the morning talk shows.

Don't forget our web question of the week: Should NBA players be role models? You can vote. Go to cnn.com/lateedition. We'll have the results.

That's coming up in the next hour.

Also ahead, he's back at the top of the NBA. We'll talk with basketball all-star Grant Hill about his setbacks and his successes. Plus, two other basketball greats, Shaquille O'Neal, Manu Ginobili -- they'll join us, as well as the commissioner of the NBA, David Stern and the players' representative, Billy Hunter.

A special "LATE EDITION" in the next hour. The NBA all-star weekend: We'll go there live. We'll take a quick break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: There's much more ahead on "LATE EDITION." We'll get a quick check of what's in the news right now, including an update on secretly recorded conversations between President Bush and a friend.

Then, Iraq's next leaders, we'll talk with one of the men who could be the country's next prime minister -- of not the next prime minister, the next president -- to be precise -- of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, about Iraq's future.

And later, inside the NBA: as I've done in years past, I'll go one on one with some of basketball's superstars about the state of the game. This NBA All Star weekend, we'll go live to Denver, where the players and the fans have gathered.

"LATE EDITION" continues right at the top of the hour.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK)

BLITZER: Despite the heavy post-election violence, plans are moving forward to put a new Iraqi government in place this week. One leader who will be serving in the new parliament is the former Iraqi governing council president, Adnan Pachachi.

I spoke with him in Baghdad just a short while ago.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Adnan Pachachi, welcome back to "LATE EDITION." Thanks very much for joining us.

I'll begin with a very simple question: Who do you want to be the next prime minister of Iraq?

ADNAN PACHACHI, FORMER PRESIDENT, IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL: Well, you know, the three contenders I've known very well. We had worked together in the Governing Council. And I would think that the next prime minister should be the one who would have the greatest support from other -- other factions, other forces, besides those they belong to now.

BLITZER: Because all three of those candidates are Shiites. You want somebody who could work well with Kurds and Sunnis, including yourself, you being a Sunni. So which of these three candidates, in your assessment, would be the best qualified?

PACHACHI: Well, I think, you know, each one has his own qualifications. For example, Mr. Jaafari is mild-mannered and easy- going and quite moderate person. And I think he would go out of his way not to create problems. But I don't know that he has enough government experience.

Mr. Adel Abdel-Mehdi, of course, has had some government experience, has been finance minister for some time. And he also has had some diplomatic experience, and he's very capable.

Mr. Chalabi is obviously a capable man, but I think he would of the three would be more controversial than the other two.

BLITZER: So basically, you think that Mr. Chalabi would not necessarily be the best person to emerge as prime minister?

PACHACHI: Well, I think there would be problems, problems arising with relations with the other countries, neighboring countries. And I'm not sure whether he has enough support in the country itself, among other political parties.

BLITZER: Jalal Talabani wants to be president of Iraq, the Kurdish leader. Would he be a good president?

PACHACHI: Well, you know, I supported his candidacy, because I think we don't want to have a fixed pattern of certain communities being given certain jobs. We don't want to be like Lebanon. So it's a good idea to have a Kurd now for the presidency. And anyway, I think every Iraqi citizen should have the right to take any post, no matter what -- what his ethnic origin is. We can't say to the Kurds, everything is OK except the presidency. No, I think it's a good idea. So at least they can rotate, you know, later on.

BLITZER: What about you, what about you, Mr. Pachachi? What position would you like to have in the new government?

PACHACHI: Well, I haven't really thought about it. I was very disappointed, naturally, and I think I must have misjudged the public mood. I was hoping to get a lot of support from the secular, educated, professional people, but a lot of them apparently have voted according to their religious or sectarian affiliation.

BLITZER: There's been an enormous amount of violence -- go ahead, finish your thought. Finish your thought.

PACHACHI: No, no, I said that because more than three million citizens did not really vote this time, we hope that the next elections, for the end of the year, would be more inclusive and would therefore be far more acceptable than the election we just had. Although I do not in any way, you know, have any doubt that the election was a good thing. It was proper. It was legitimate. But obviously, unfortunately, a large number of people did not vote, for one reason or another.

And we have to make sure that next time, the elections will be far more inclusive, and everyone, from all parts of Iraq, will take part in the voting. And this seems to be the general mood, even among those who have boycotted the elections last time.

BLITZER: Most of those people being Sunnis, like yourself. Should the Sunni leadership be doing more to speak to the insurgents, to go behind the scenes, if you will, to stop this violence, which has escalated dramatically in the past couple of days?

PACHACHI: I've been urging them, I've been urging a lot of, you know, groups that may have some kind of connections with the insurgency that it is in their interests to have the constitutional process move smoothly so that it will pave the way to an election that will be acceptable to all of the people of Iraq, and then we can have a constitution approved by the people and elections which are inclusive. And we'll start a new era in the history of Iraq, I hope.

BLITZER: "Time" magazine is reporting in the new issue that there is a secret dialogue, a back channel, if you will, between the United States and some of the insurgent groups in Iraq, to try to stop this. Do you know anything about this?

PACHACHI: I don't know anything about it, but I think this will be the right thing to do. If they can end the insurgency peacefully, then I think that would be in the interests of all concerned.

I asked our American friends to do two things: One, to really try to improve their relations with the -- even with those who boycotted the election and those who are disaffected or have grievances, and also to urge the new government to exercise a measure a restraint, and not to be moved by their electoral victory to do things that will antagonize people and will make a rapprochement between all sections of society impossible.

BLITZER: Adnan Pachachi, good luck to you. Good luck to the people of Iraq. Thanks very much for joining us.

PACHACHI: Thank you very much, Wolf. It's great pleasure to be with you again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Iraq's Kurdish alliance is poised to have significant influence in the new Iraqi government, with a strong second-place finish in the voting on January 30th.

Joining us now by phone from Sulemaniyah in northern Iraq is the Kurdish leader, the former Iraqi Governing Council member, Jalal Talabani.

Mr. Talabani, welcome back to "LATE EDITION."

Everybody seems to think you're going to be the next president of Iraq. Are you going to be the next president of Iraq?

JALAL TALABANI, FORMER IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL MEMBER: Well, this was a proposal of the Kurdish leadership and I, until now we have support of many people, many groups and many parties from Sunni side and Shiites -- from that I think next parliament will decide, finally.

BLITZER: When will we know officially who is going to be the president and the two vice presidents of this new Iraqi government?

TALABANI: Well, when the parliament will be opened in the beginning of the next month, then there will be a kind of succession and a kind of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) among different groups and lists about the president and the two vice presidents. BLITZER: Who do you want to be the prime minister? There are three candidates, as we just heard from Mr. Pachachi. Who's your favorite candidate for prime minister?

TALABANI: We want to see a prime minister who is able to form a new government, which must be a transparent government, a government which will defend democracy, human rights, and understand the relation between government and religion. We'll want a government, coalition government, and the prime minister who is ready to accept this policy, we'll vote for him.

BLITZER: Well, is that Mr. Jaafari, Mr. Chalabi, or Mr. Mahdi?

TALABANI: Well, there are three candidates. All of them are our friends, and they are our colleagues in the opposition against the dictatorship. But we are going to ask them, who will be ready to decide the correct policy, which will be adopted with the TAL agreement, when we will choose one of them.

BLITZER: So you're not ready to vote for one of them right now?

TALABANI: Because we don't have their program for the government, we will see what they have in mind for new government.

BLITZER: All right.

TALABANI: Then who is the man who is a democrat and secular, will not work for an Islamic state. He will be our cabinet.

BLITZER: One final question: There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on Friday suggesting that younger Kurds, Kurds who basically came of age over the last ten or 15 years, when Kurdistan had a lot of autonomy, younger Kurds want to see an independent Kurdistan emerge, whereas older Kurds like yourself are ready to work within the framework of this new Iraq. Is there such a split, based on what you know?

TALABANI: Well, no. No, this is not a correct -- the question was, for Kurds, do you want independence? Of course, everyone will say, yes, I want. But is it possible to be independent? That is a question. For that, I think the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the Kurds are -- who voted, for the list, Kurdistan list, voted for democratic, federated, united and independent Iraq.

BLITZER: Jalal Talabani, thanks very much for joining us. And, as I said to Mr. Pachachi, good luck to you as well.

Just ahead, they've got game, they'll be showcasing it tonight at the NBA All-Star game. We'll go to Denver live, talk with three key all-stars.

We'll also hear from the league's leaders, the NBA Players Association executive director Billy Hunter and NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Our "LATE EDITION" goes to the Denver Convention Center, the site of the festivities for the NBA All-Star Game, the preliminary activities. We'll go there live right after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're looking at a live picture from the Jam Session, the NBA fan festival in Denver, Colorado. It's the site of the 54th annual NBA All-Star game. Pregame festivities have been under way since Thursday.

Tipoff tonight 8 p.m. Eastern. You can see the game on our sister network, TNT.

Welcome back to "LATE EDITION." And joining us now from Denver, a panel of special guests.

On the right side of your screen, David Stern is the commissioner of the NBA, and on your left, Billy Hunter; he's the executive director of the NBA players association.

Also with us, three of tonight's all-stars. From the left to the right, no political orientation meant, Shaquille O'Neal is a center with the Miami Heat, Grant Hill is a forward with the Orlando Magic, and Manu Ginobili is a guard with the San Antonio Spurs. Good to have all of you on "LATE EDITION."

Commissioner Stern, let me begin with you. July 4th is the the deadline for a new agreement with the players, between the owners and players, to come up with all sorts of new ideas to make sure the NBA doesn't follow in the footsteps of the NHL and have to have the season collapse. Now, how close are you to a deal?

DAVID STERN, NBA COMMISSIONER: Well, we've made a lot of progress in a relatively long negotiation period, but we have a lot more to go.

But the important thing is that we have committed, owners and players alike, to spend the next month in as intense an attempt as we can to make sure that we make a deal before being up against the deadline, because if you let it go that long, anything can happen.

BLITZER: What's the biggest issue in front of you, Commissioner?

STERN: It's is a long list. It wouldn't be fair to say any one.

But there are a wide range of issues that separate us. But they don't separate us as much as they did some months ago. We're still apart but we're going to work it out, I think.

BLITZER: Let's go through some of the issues. I'm going to bring Billy Hunter in as well.

But Commissioner, first to you. Twenty years old, you want a minimum of 20 years age in order for a player to be drafted in the NBA. Is that right?

STERN: That is correct. We currently have an 18-year entry age limit. And we would like to raise it. We've put on the table raising it to 20.

BLITZER: What is wrong with that, Billy Hunter?

BILLY HUNTER, EXEC. DIRECTOR, NBA PLAYERS ASSOCIATION: Well, from my perspective, if you look at what happened on Friday night, the game between the sophomores and the rookies, I think it demonstrates that the skill level and athleticism of players in the NBA is at an all-time high.

Even looking at the cast of players who have been selected for the all-star game, we have the youngest group of all-stars in NBA history. At least seven of the players are below the age of 25. And I sometimes wonder whether or not the issue of age is a red herring, although I clearly understand David's position and perspective.

BLITZER: So you're going to split the difference and accept 19? If your position now is 18, the commissioner's is 20. Usually, in these negotiations, Billy Hunter, you split the difference.

HUNTER: Well, that's not always the case. It is never an issue of splitting the difference. Negotiations tend not to go that way. What we're looking for is a global agreement between the players and the owners.

We understand there's going to be a give and take process. And I guess I'm strongly of the opinion that both sides will have to compromise in order to reaching an agreement.

BLITZER: Shaquille O'Neal, how do you feel about this issue?

SHAQUILLE O'NEAL, MIAMI HEAT: Excuse me, I can't hear you.

BLITZER: How do you feel about this issue? Should NBA players be at least 20 years old when they're drafted?

O'NEAL: I think Billy Hunter made a good point. The guys are coming in very athletic. I know they're playing well. They're representing the league well.

You know, if you look at the young stars that we have now in LeBron and Carmelo, I think they're doing a very good job of representing the league.

I think, you know, David has some concerns about, you know, the young guys not being ready, but there are some guys 25, 26 in this league who still aren't mentally ready.

So, you know, I think right now the league is at a high state, and I'm glad to be part of this game right now. And everybody's doing well from the young stars to the old veterans like myself and Grant Hill. And it's a fun game to be involved in.

BLITZER: All right. We'll get back to that in a moment. Let me bring in the other two all-stars.

Grant Hill, what do you think? Twenty years old, 19 years old, 18 years old, how old is enough?

GRANT HILL, ORLANDO MAGIC: I don't know if I'm really qualified to answer that. I do know both Commissioner Stern and Billy Hunter have some very valid points.

I just think, for me, I mean, you got a lot of great talented players. And I look at guys 19, 20, who've come in and represented themselves and been on the all-star team and done a great job. I don't know if I could have been ready emotionally, mentally or physically to do that at that age.

But I've been impressed. I met LeBron this weekend. Physically, the way he has played all season, he's a great, talent.

So I'm sure it's one of the issues that will be dealt with. And I'm confident in both the leadership of the union and the league that whatever the decision, it will be a good decision for the league overall.

BLITZER: All right. Manu Ginobili, you bring an international perspective to this. You're an all-star from Argentina. What do you think?

MANU GINOBILI, SAN ANTONIO SPURS: Well, I agree with Grant. It's a fine line between 18 and 20. There are some kids in this league that are so developed, as being 18. When I was 18, I couldn't even dribble the ball almost.

So if you see LeBron, Carmelo or some of these guys, they are unbelievable and very, very ready. So you never know who's going to be ready.

And as Shaq said, there are some guys, 23, 25 years old that are not. So I bet that whatever they decide, it's going to be a good decision, and it's going to be the best for the league.

BLITZER: All right.

I want everybody to stand by, because we're only getting started. A lot more to talk about, much more with our NBA panel.

First though, some things you might not know about these NBA all- stars. Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill and Manu Ginobili.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're looking at live pictures from the Jam Session, the NBA All-Star weekend in Denver, Colorado, the big game coming up tonight, 8:00 p.m. Eastern. You can see it on our sister network, TNT.

Let's get some background, though, first, on the three all-stars who are joining us now on "LATE EDITION."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(APPLAUSE)

BLITZER (voiceover): In Arabic, his name means "Little Warrior."

(APPLAUSE)

BLITZER (voiceover): And on the court this all-star is a force to be reckoned with.

Shaquille O'Neal, or simply "Shaq," is 7-foot-1, 325 pounds and wears a size 22 shoe.

But this Miami Heat center says some day he hopes to switch from doing layups to lockups. Shaq has completed police academy training.

O'NEAL: When I'm done playing, I'm either going to be chief of police or sheriff somewhere.

BLITZER (voiceover): Off the court, Shaq has appeared in three movies, including starring roles in "Kazaam"...

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O'NEAL: I am Kazaam.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER (voiceover): ... and "Blue Chips".

And he's made five rap albums.

O'NEAL: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) rap and calling yourself a team. Shaquille's the real deal, can't you see?

BLITZER (voiceover): After four ankle surgeries, years of rehab, and almost dying of a staph infection, Grant Hill has bounced back onto the court and is ready to play.

This year he's an all-star on and off the court. He makes a difference, volunteering with the Special Olympics and Habitat for Humanity. He's also launched an exhibit of African-American art.

As a boy, he was called "Narigon," or "Big Nose" in Spanish. But on the court, there is no language barrier and Manu Ginobili is considered Argentina's finest basketball player. One of six international players in the All-Star Game, he led his country's team to a gold medal in the 2004 summer Olympics. This rising star learned how to dribble without looking at the ball when he was three years old.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And we're continuing our conversation with the NBA league commissioner, David Stern, the NBA Players Association executive director, Billy Hunter, the all-star players Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill, Manu Ginobili. Ten years ago or so, 94 percent of the players in the NBA were U.S.-born. That's gone down to 83 percent in the 2003-2004 season. This year, as you know, there are six international all-stars among the 24 all-stars who will be playing tonight.

David DuPris (ph), the sports columnist, wrote in USA Today, January 25th, "Fans want to see all-stars born in the U.S.A. play against a team of international all-stars. The All-Star Game could use a jump start. And this would truly make it a more competitive and meaningful game, as opposed to simply being an exhibition.

Shaquille O'Neal, is that a good idea?

O'NEAL: I think it'd be a good idea for something to be done after the season, but not during the season. I think the way it's been set up now, it's been done like this for a long time, and we wouldn't want to break it up, because, like I said earlier, the league is doing beautiful right now, the young guys are representing me and Grant Hill, as the old guys, are representing and it's beautiful.

But I think it could be something that we could entertain, like during the summer. I would love to be in that competition.

BLITZER: All right.

What about you, Grant? Would you like to be in a competition of the U.S.-born players versus the international-born players?

HILL: Well, speaking as a older veteran, I think there's something to be said about tradition, like Shaq said, and the tradition of the All-Star Game, you're talking, over the years since the All-Star Game's ever started, this is the way it's been done, and it's the way I think it should continue to be done.

But I wouldn't mind having something like that in the off season, maybe something for good will, to help promote the game throughout the world, much like the Olympics, much like what the NBA's doing right now.

And much to the credit of the international players, I think you can do that, because there are a lot of great players from all over the world who would make it a competitive game.

BLITZER: Well, Manu, you were one of the great international players, playing for your home country of Argentina. You beat the U.S. in the Olympic Games. Would you like to see this kind of competition emerge?

GINOBILI: I think it would be fun, but, as he said, this West- East All-Star Game has been going on for a long time. It represents the whole NBA movement a lot, and it's been doing great for long years.

So I think we shouldn't change that.

And, by the way, I don't know why is this thing of making such a big difference between international and American players. We're all players. We all care about our teams. We work as hard as anybody else.

So we all probably are the same, same players. So I'm not into this differentiation.

STERN: I think, Wolf, that the Olympics and the World Championship of Basketball take care of that.

It is possible that some day, as Shaq suggested, during the summer or as an exhibition, some Ryder Cup type of competition, but right now, because you have the Olympics, because you have the World Championship of Basketball, where national teams compete, it's not an idea whose time has come yet. Let's consider that.

BLITZER: All right. Now, let me bring Billy Hunter back in.

And I'm going to read to you a quote from Larry Bird, the former NBA great. He was quoted June 9th, 2004, in the newspaper, "USA Today." He was very blunt. He said this:

"Well, I think the NBA lacks white superstars. It's good for a fan base, because, as we all know, the majority of the fans are white America. And if you just had a couple of white guys in there, you might get them a little excited, but it is a black man's game and it will be forever."

I want your comment on that, Billy, because it's a sensitive subject: the number of white players versus the number of black players in the NBA right now.

HUNTER: Well, I think that the whole parameter of the NBA has been one in which we have always sought best players, irrespective of who they are. It's always been a system based upon merit.

So we're talking about the best players and whether the best players are black, white, yellow, what have you. In essence, we shouldn't be looking at their ethnicity.

I think that what Larry is alluding to is the fact that, historically, many blacks saw the only way out of the circumstances in which they live was by way of athletics. It's just been a long tradition of that, and so there is a tendency on the part of a lot of young black Americans to sort of look to athletics as a way to earn a living or to do well.

But I would rather see some of that energy kind of directed somewhere else, specifically in the area of education. We need more doctors and lawyers, et cetera. But the reality is, for the time being, black players may continue to dominate in the NBA. And I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

BLITZER: We've done a little research, commissioner. And among our research and, what about 420 players in the NBA, among that, we estimate 50 or 60 are white U.S.-born players, about 67, maybe 70 are international players. The rest are black players, maybe 300 or so from the United States and around the world. Are those numbers accurate, based on what you know?

STERN: I have no idea. I never count, Wolf.

But thank you, if you've done the work, it's OK with me.

And I guess what I would say about that is, the number of international players is rapidly growing and a tribute to the American players who have captured the imagination of the world.

On that particular point, I think that Larry and I don't see eye to eye, because the reality is in fashion and music and sports, it is about who you follow, not the color of their skin.

I think it is a nonissue. Business is great. And our fans really love our players if they perform. And they perform on and off the court. That's the only thing that counts.

BLITZER: Well, one thing we did see was a brawl.

And let me bring the players in to discuss this. Because we all know, we all saw the brawl: the Indiana-Detroit game, a few months ago. It was ugly, as all of us know.

Was there -- I'll begin with Grant. Was there -- you weren't there, obviously. But is there a racial issue here in what you can -- in the NBA beneath the surface that we're not necessarily privy to?

HILL: I think the brawl was an unfortunate situation for everybody. And, you know, I played in Detroit for six years. I know the fans there are great fans. They love the game.

I think there was just, I don't know, something in the air that night. I think it was a once -- something that will only happen one time.

In terms of the racial aspect, the fans in Detroit are passionate. It was something that got a little out of control. It was something that, hopefully, we all can learn from going forward. And I think we have. And it's something that we don't want to see repeated again, ever again in the future.

O'NEAL: I think race didn't have anything to do with it. You know, it's just two competitive teams going at it and one of the fans got involved.

And of course, it put a black eye on the league. What you have to understand about a black eye is that a black eye will always go away with a lot of love and a lot of nurturing.

So right now, we're back on top. Everything is going good. And like Grant said, it's something that happened once in a lifetime, and it will never happen again.

STERN: I want to step in here and turn it around, Wolf. You're using the word race here but really is, you just had to phrase a question so you could get the opportunity to run that footage not once, but twice.

That's the kind of thing that we have to deal with, but it's okay. All of your viewers will have the opportunity to see that that was an out-of-control situation that had zero to do with race.

But if you'd like to run the tape again, have your producer run it, because we want to provide the right amount of programming for you to demonstrate to your global audience what went on here.

BLITZER: Everybody has seen that tape a lot of times, Commissioner, as you well know.

STERN: Hundreds of thousands of times.

BLITZER: Let me just point out, though, that a week or so after that incident, the Sports Business Journal did a survey -- which I'm sure you're familiar with -- November 24th through November 28th, and asked about major league pro sports in the United States: Which athletes have the best image? Major league baseball came in with 41 percent; NFL, 39 percent; NHL, 9.8 percent; NBA, 9.6 percent.

Commissioner, it looks, based on those numbers, that the NBA has a problem.

STERN: The NBA has an issue. Our players are much, much better than their current reputations, because of incidents like that...

BLITZER: Why is there a reputation problem?

Look, I'm a huge basketball fan. I love the NBA. I'm a Wizards season ticket holder. But there is a problem that the image out there doesn't necessarily coincide with most of the players.

STERN: It is simply too appealing when something happens like that that we are -- it's not our proudest moment. You tend to be defined by a weak moment. That's always the case.

And clearly you understand that, and your producers do, because you run it and run it. That's fair.

And we discussed that with our players, and Billy and I talk about it a lot. And it gives the occasion for people to say and use code words so race could be some part of an issue in defining a problem when you come out of that, but it's not at the core. At the core is something bad happened, and unfortunately, that gets used to paint 450 NBA players, when, in fact, a half a dozen were involved in that particular instance.

We deal with it. Business is great. I mean, the reputations of our players are not quite what our players are. But overall, our fans are tuning in in record numbers and coming to our games in record numbers, and we will work with our players to take care of the reputation issue.

BLITZER: Which obviously is a problem out there. I want to go to a break. But I want Manu to come in because I want him to respond to what Antawn Jamison was quoted -- one of the all-stars from the Washington Wizards -- at the end of December, in The Washington Post. This is before he was selected as an all-star.

He said this. He said, "There was one point during a time when I thought I should have made the all-star team. I was like, `Maybe I gotta be somebody different, beat a girl up, or something to get ratings.' And it actually crossed my mind. How am I not getting recognized? Maybe I need to come out and get a technical foul or something." Blunt words from Antawn Jamison.

How much pressure is on the players, Manu, to do the right thing instead of going out there and being a jerk?

GINOBILI: It kind of shocked me, what I just read on the screen. I never got -- I think I got one technical in my life. Grant didn't get many. I didn't beat anybody and I'm here too. I really work hard.

I don't think that you need to do that. What the guys I were talking for about that brawl, it's a very unfortunate thing, but it's not going to happen again. It happened once in 50 years of NBA and ABA basketball and that was it.

I think there are so many great things that many of the players do every single day, but, you know, all the time you talking about that brawl and showing those images while, for instance, Grant is always doing great things for the community, and many of us are too.

That's how things go. And I don't think you need to do something wrong to be on stage.

BLITZER: I totally agree.

And I think it is fair to say -- and I've studied this pretty closely, because I'm a big basketball fan -- 90 or 95 percent of the players do the right thing. It is always that tiny minority who give a black eye to everybody else.

We'll take another quick break. But we'll have more of our special NBA coverage. Our guests are standing by, and we'll take a quick break; more on the NBA when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: NBA all-star weekend: Tipoff for the big game, just a few hours away, 8 p.m. Eastern. You can see it on our sister network, TNT. We're continuing our conversation with our panel of NBA guests.

Billy Hunter, I'll begin with you this time. I'm sure you read last Sunday's "New York Times Magazine." Michael Sokolove, a writer, suggesting there's a lot of problems in the NBA. Among other things he wrote this:

"You can make millions in today's NBA without having even one semi-reliable way to put the ball in the basket: no jump shot, no hook shot, no little 12-foot bank shot. In fact, the entire area between dunking range and the three-point line, what used to be prime real estate for scoring, is now a virtual dead zone." Is Michael Sokolove on to something or is that baloney?

HUNTER: You know, I think Michael Sokolove was smoking something when he wrote that article.

The reality is that scoring is up in the NBA. We have the most athletic players in the world. We have the best players in the world.

And I think this whole issue of dunking and whatever is just a red herring.

There is no question that this is the best game. Everybody is a professional basketball player, anyone aspires to be one, their ambition is to play in the NBA, and there is no question about it. And I think, as David indicated, it is reflected in the level at which the game is currently being viewed by fans. Everything is...

BLITZER: When you say, Billy Hunter, that scoring is up, it's up from last year. But ten years ago, scoring was higher than it is now.

HUNTER: But I think we go through cycles. The reality is I don't think there is anything wrong at all with the players' skill levels.

I think that we got a bad rap coming out of the Olympics. What you've seen since then is an intense effort being made by our players to demonstrate they are, in fact, the best.

That's not to say that players shouldn't spend time honing their skills, which I think most players do. Any player who is committed to his game, any player who is committed to excellence, when you look at people like Manu, Grant, Shaq, you can't question the level of their game and/or their skill.

BLITZER: You want to weigh in, Shaquille O'Neal? What do you think of that, the criticism that nowadays there is too many slam dunks and not enough finesse in the game?

O'NEAL: I will never accept criticism from a guy that can't play the sport and has never played the sport.

One, it is a beautiful game. There's a lot of different guys that have a lot of different skills.

The dunk shot is a beautiful shot. You have to understand, the dunk shot is so beautiful, that's why during the All-Star Game, the dunk contest is the last event we have, because the fans like that the most.

Did you see what Josh Smith did? You tell me that Josh Smith is not a great athlete, that he doesn't have skills?

Billy Hunter was right. The guy that wrote the article, he's been smoking something. He...

BLITZER: I saw Josh Smith.

O'NEAL: ... needs to stop. He needs to get rehab.

BLITZER: I saw that dunk contest last night. Josh Smith was incredible, from Atlanta, from the Atlanta Hawks.

Let me bring in Grant Hill. And you have a lot of finesse. You're one of the best players. The criticism that was leveled, is it fair?

HILL: Well, I get offended because I can't dunk anymore. And I don't shoot three-pointers. That's pretty much my game, the midrange area. But you know, I get offended.

Like Shaq said, and Billy said, I mean, there is a lot of great players in this league.

You feel like there's all this nitpicking, you know, always trying to find something wrong. I don't see anything wrong. I'm a fan. I've been a fan all my life. I'm a fan now. I've watched these guys for four years while I've been hurt. And I'm a fan now that I'm back.

And I see nothing but great players. Of course, the big fellow, I know he's been great for a long time, but watching Manu develop and grow into a great player, and looking forward to trying to stop him, and realizing he is a great player, going against him one on one, I don't see any problems.

I mean, I think the game is great. The skill level is great. The guys are committed. You got a lot of great young players. And the future of this league is in good hands.

BLITZER: Manu, give me your thoughts.

GINOBILI: I read the article, and I couldn't believe what I was reading. It was kind of shocking.

I think that every player got to develop where they can do better. If some guys is very good defending, a team's going to hire him. He's going to be the best. If Grant is the best one shooting 18-footers or 17, he will, and the same with Shaq. If he dominates the paint, what do you want him to shoot 3s or what?

No. Everybody's got their dominating skills. And I think there is nothing wrong with the NBA game. It's getting better every day.

BLITZER: Commissioner, we're almost out of time.

I was in Denver earlier in the weekend, and I saw some of the work that the NBA is doing in the community out there. We get a lot of bad news for the NBA out there. Tell our viewers -- and just wrap it up because we don't have a lot of time -- some of the things the NBA has done in Denver and all over the country for that purpose. STERN: Billy Hunter and I and half a dozen players had the honor of dedicating the 100th NBA reading and learning center: books and computers, with our partners at Scholastic and Dell, 100 across the country. Our players went out and visited hospitals, refurbished courts, went to schools, NBA and WNBA players alike.

I guess you don't have footage to run while I say that, but there is a lot of footage, Wolf, I promise that.

And I just want to add one more thing. Young players can play the game. But as a matter of business and social policy, we think it would be a good idea to get NBA scouts out of junior high gymnasiums. That's it.

But when you listen to these young men here, you know what very good shape this game is in.

BLITZER: And I'll repeat what I said earlier: No one knows how to appreciates the skill level as much as I do, who's been a lifelong fan and not a player, so I guess I can't criticize anybody since I've never played the game all that well. In fact, I played it terribly.

Let me thank Billy Hunter, David Stern, Shaquille O'Neal, Grant Hill, Manu Ginobili, an excellent discussion, a serious subject.

Good luck tonight. Good luck to all the players, the coaches, the fans. Tonight's game, 8 p.m. Eastern on our sister network, TNT.

We'll take a quick break. We'll have the results of our web question of the week -- Should NBA players be role models? -- right after this short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Our "LATE EDITION" web question asks: Should NBA players be role models? Take a look at this: 48 percent of you said, yes; 52 percent of you said no. Remember, though, this is not a scientific poll.

And that's your "LATE EDITION" for Sunday, February 20th. Please be sure to join me again next Sunday and every Sunday at noon Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

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