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CNN NEWSROOM

Jena, Louisiana, Protest; Youssif's Surgery Begins; Beirut Blast; Help From the Federal Government?; President Bush Press Conference

Aired September 20, 2007 - 10:00   ET

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


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Darker beard. It was his first new appearance in a video in three years. His message is viewed as part after propaganda campaign by al Qaeda around the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning again, everyone. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Tony Harris, live in Jena, Louisiana.

Thousands jam the streets right now for a civil rights protest. A small town down south puts race and the American legal system front and center this morning.

COLLINS: Hi, everybody. I'm Heidi Collins in the CNN NEWSROOM. O.J. Simpson out of his Las Vegas jail cell. Back home this morning in south Florida.

And shoppers to the rescue when a small plane crashes on top of cars. Look at that.

It's Thursday, September 20th. Are you in the NEWSROOM.

HARRIS: Unfolding this hour, racial divisions and demonstrations in Jena, Louisiana. Take a look at these live pictures. Thousands -- that's right, thousands of protestors have descended on this town. It is a show of support for the so-called Jena six. The black students charged with beating a white classmate. Demonstrators say the charges against the black teens were too harsh. Some local residents say it's all been blown out of proportion.

Live pictures again of what has turned into a massive turnout here in Jena, Louisiana. No other way to put it.

We were here in the wee small hours of the morning when people were starting to arrive on buses, in personal vehicles, carrying signs, full of hope and optimism that today there would be an opportunity to reverse what many who are here today feel is racial injustice. What is this march about? Well, it is about trying to get the charges against the six young men thrown out. Absolutely thrown out. Dropped. And this these kids be allowed to go on with their lives.

It must be said that it is a far different story for this town of Jena, Louisiana, 85 percent white, 15 percent black. Many of the white residents feel that this town has been descended upon, it has been portrayed in an unfair light. They remind us again -- they remind us again that there was a victim. There was a victim in that December 4th attack, is how they term it, an attack in that school, Jena High School, where the march is ultimately going to lead and end up.

I want to, if I could, take a moment -- we were fortunate enough to talk to Tina Jones. She is the mother of one of the kids who have come to be known as the Jena six. Her son, Brian Purvis. I want to share a bit of that conversation with you right now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TINA JONES, DEFENDANT'S MOTHER: Well, I'm excited about the large amount of people that came in, in support of our kids. Because we wanting to let the D.A. and the judge know that they're doing wrong to these kids. And with so many people that's standing behind us and, you know, standing up for the same cause, it means a lot.

HARRIS: Tina, what do you hope to accomplish today?

JONES: I hope that the D.A. will wake up and realize that he's doing the wrong thing and to release these kids and let them go.

HARRIS: I want you to explain in your own words to us what the racial environment is here in Jena. How would you describe it?

JONES: It's not equal. You know, the black people are -- get the harsher extent of the law, whereas the white people will get, you know, a slap on the wrist per say. So it's not equal here.

HARRIS: Do you believe that the prosecutor prosecuted this case out of malicious intent, out of racist intent?

JONES: I don't know, but it seems to me that he has a personal interest in the case.

HARRIS: Why do you say that?

JONES: Because he's so adamant about destroying these kids' lives. You know, he threatened them at the school and he also, you know, he's very adamant in the courtroom about a tennis shoe being a deadly weapon. He's just trying to ruin these kids' lives.

HARRIS: I know that your son can't talk about the facts of the case, but I know that you know much about this case. To the extent you can, what can you tell us about this fight on December 4th, coming up on a year now and what role your son played, did not play, in the attack on Justin Barker?

JONES: Brian wasn't involved in the fight at all. He wasn't even in the area that the fight took place. He was named in the fight by one of the students. Have one statement says Brian kicked Justin.

HARRIS: Not involved at all.

JONES: At all.

HARRIS: Was he there?

JONES: He was at school that . . .

HARRIS: Was he a part of the crowd that was watching the fight?

JONES: Yes. He seen the fight. He stood up on the railing and looked over to see after he heard a lick. And he stood up on the railing and seen Justin laying on the ground. And immediately the teacher sent the kids back to class. And several of the kids were arrested that day, but Brian wasn't arrested.

HARRIS: Who identified Brian as being involved in the actual fight? Because these are serious charges attached to the actual fight, the attack?

JONES: Right. Right. One of the students that goes to the high school. But I don't -- forgot what . . .

HARRIS: White student? Black student?

JONES: He's a white student. He said Brian kicked Justin. And then there was a teacher that made a statement saying Brian was in the area but she didn't see him do anything.

HARRIS: Do you have anything that you would like to convey to Justin Barker, to his family? After all, our understanding is that he took some serious punishment and he was badly injured. There were two sides to every story. There may be 10 to this story. Is there anything that you would like to say to Justin's parents as a way of perhaps healing?

JONES: I'll just say that Brian didn't have anything to do with the fight. And with the Barkers, I can understand, you know, that their son was, you know, was in a fight. But Brian had absolutely nothing to do with that, you know. And I mean, you know, that's all I can say about it, he had nothing to do with it.

HARRIS: Where does this go from here in your mind?

JONES: We've got a long fight ahead of us and we're going to continue to fight until justice prevails in Jena.

HARRIS: Do you have any concerns that a rally of this size today might do more to harden attitudes in this community and make it more difficult for people like you or your son who call Jena home?

JONES: I hope not. I hope that it wouldn't because we're going to continue to have these types of rallies and we hope everybody still will come -- continue to come out and support us because until the charges are dropped, we will continue to do the same thing.

HARRIS: Brian, I know you can't talk much about this, but I am curious, I have to ask you, how are you doing? How are you holding up? And what are your hopes for this day?

BRIAN PURVIS, DEFENDANT: I'm doing pretty good. I hope there's a pretty good outcome of what's taking place today.

HARRIS: What is it that you hope comes out of this, this day, this moment?

PURVIS: That he drops the charges.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARRIS: And, once again, I just want to make the point, again and again and again, we have tried diligently to get the other view of this story from Reed Walters, tried to get him here today. We tried to get him on the program yesterday. We also tried to get Murphy McMillan, who is the mayor of Jena, to join us to talk about this case and the impact on his community. And we've been unsuccessful. We will continue to make those calls and try to get them on the program with us from Jena. Joined now by Tyler Perry. Tyler Perry, writer, producer, actor. The man's building a media conglomerate.

Tyler, great to see you here in Jena, Louisiana.

TYLER PERRY, FILMMAKER: And you as well. You as well.

HARRIS: Out of the box, tell me why you're here?

PERRY: Well, Louisiana's my home state, number one. And any time this kind of injustice is going on anywhere in the world, it speaks to everyone who is dealing with things. And I wanted to be here today to speak, to use everything I've been given to support these six young men and their families and just let everyone in the world know that justices cannot be tolerated.

HARRIS: Explain this. As you have come to know this story, explain to me what you believe the injustice to be here?

PERRY: Well any time six children, or even one, a schoolyard fight has turned into a attempted murder case, then something is wrong. So I just thought by me being here and I think by everybody else being here is just -- all we want to do is make sure that these young men get a fair shake. That's all I'm here for is to make sure they get a fair shake.

HARRIS: And what would constitute a fair shake? Because for many people what I'm hearing is they want the charges dismissed. That doesn't seem likely given the fact that there was this beating and there is a victim.

PERRY: Yes.

HARRIS: So what is fair and equitable here?

PERRY: What's difficult about this, there's so many rumors you don't know what to believe. You don't know what's true.

HARRIS: Absolutely.

PERRY: So I don't know what is true. I think what I would love to see happen is that our justice system do an amazing job, give them a fair shake, weigh the evidence on both sides. And that's why we're here. I think that's why all of us are here to level the playing field for these six young men.

HARRIS: So what is the opportunity that presents itself with thousands of people here in Jena, the world listening at this moment, what is the opportunity, not only to rectify what you see as an injustice here, but to move forward with -- out of a sense of healing?

PERRY: Yes, absolutely. I think there's a huge opportunity here. And I think this . . .

HARRIS: Why don't we capitalize on that, Tyler?

PERRY: Well, I think that . . .

HARRIS: I believe that there is an opportunity here. How do we capitalize on that?

PERRY: In this day and age of this "get rich and die trying" generation, I'm just very happy to see all of these African-American people here for a cause. So the way to capitalizing on it I think it sends a clearer message to everybody, letting us all know, that if we continue to have this kind of injustice in our country and throughout the world, that there are people who will stand up. So I think it sends a clear message. And that is what -- that is capitalizing on the situation.

HARRIS: And you are sensitive to the fact that there are people here in this community who will hear you say that injustice has been perpetrated here and say, you know what, there is another example of an outsider, among all of these outsiders, coming into this community who don't understand Jena, Louisiana, and speaking from a knowledge base that they don't have outside perceptions shaping their reality, and that there was a victim here and there was no injustice, there was a crime and the system, in their view, worked. There was a trial and there was one young man who was convicted.

PERRY: Yes. Well, I just want to make sure. Again, my presence here is to make sure that the playing field is even and there is a fair trial. And I think with this kind of attention, he will -- not only Mychal Bell who is still in jail, who should be out, because his charges have been reduced, from what I understand, so why is he still in prison? So I think that my -- all of us being here, all we're doing is leveling the playing field saying, listen, if it's Jena, Louisiana or if it's New York City, if there is a trial, we want to make sure that justice is done.

HARRIS: What about tomorrow?

PERRY: What about tomorrow?

HARRIS: What about tomorrow when everyone leaves?

PERRY: Yes.

HARRIS: When you're back producing "House of Pain."

PERRY: Yes.

HARRIS: When all these people are back to their lives. What happens for the folks who call Jena, Louisiana, home? What about the possibility that attitudes might be hardened in this town once the buses leave?

PERRY: I don't know about that. Because if you look at the -- if you understand the entire spirit, I wish the world could be here -- and they are through CNN to see this -- the spirit of everybody here, it's peaceful. It's a peaceful demonstration. It's about empowering rather than tearing down. We're not here to tear down anybody. I know that's not my purpose. My -- again, to level the playing field and make sure that everybody is getting a fair shake at the evidence. So, yes.

HARRIS: Tyler Perry with us here in Jena, Louisiana.

Tyler, great to see you.

PERRY: And you as well.

HARRIS: And thanks for your time.

PERRY: Absolutely.

HARRIS: Heidi, just so many stories here and so many opportunities for us to talk to people who have come to Jena and hopefully for us to get an opportunity at some point during the course of this morning to talk to some of the locals here as well about what is going on here in Jena, Louisiana. But for now, let me send it back to you in Atlanta.

COLLINS: OK, Tony, thanks so much.

We want to get to some of the other stories that we're following as well, including what's happening in Minnesota. Our Reynolds Wolf is watching a situation for us there. Pretty interesting and you had mentioned how strong this possible tornado or do we have word of a definite tornado there now?

(WEATHER REPORT)

COLLINS: Coming up this hour, President Bush will be holding a news conference on health care. It's now scheduled at the White House for 10:45 Eastern, 7:45 Pacific. We're going to be carrying it live right here on CNN.

And surgery begins for the little Iraqi boy burned by masked men. It's the operation made possible in large part by you, our CNN viewers.

A fascination in Lebanon impacting the U.S. Our guests will explain the connection coming up.

And a spectacular plane crash and dramatic rescue near a Tennessee shopping center.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The guys were flipped upside down, confused, and not sure where the exit was. So me and some other nice gentleman started pulling the guys from the plane.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Unbelievable. Shoppers to the rescue. We're live today in Chattanooga.

And protestors say they're marching for justice in Jena. A Louisiana town at the center of demonstrations and racial division. The latest live from Jena.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: Panic on a Las Vegas Strip. A car runs up on to a sidewalk and crashes into pedestrians. What police are saying about the driver.

O.J. Simpson out on bail. In Florida now. Still on the docket in Las Vegas. The latest on his criminal case.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: A burned Iraqi boy undergoing his first reconstructive facial surgery. Paid for by many of you, our CNN viewers. We want to go live to CNN's Arwa Damon now. She's at Sherman Oaks Hospital in Los Angeles.

This is not going to be an easy operation. But still, Arwa, there are so many people who are really, really pulling for Youssif.

ARWA DAMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Heidi.

In fact, we keep running into them out in the streets. People that have seen Youssif's story on television, well-wishers that just want to come forward and express their support for Youssif and his family. Yesterday we had an 11-year-old girl show up here at the hospital with toys that she had bought for him.

Youssif is right now undergoing his first surgery. This is the main operation that's going to be taking place. It began about an hour ago. And what has happened and what is going to be happening is that the doctors are injecting steroids into the thick scar tissue on his forehead and around his chin and in his ears. The aim of that is to try to soften and flatten that tissue.

What they're also doing is inserting the skin expanders, which is essentially a balloon that's going in, into his right cheek where the good skin meets the scar tissue and also underneath his chin, there as well where the good skin meets the scar tissue. Those balloons are going to be inflated over the period of about three months. That will then allow the doctors to operate once again, removing the scar tissue and then pulling that good skin on top of it.

Also today they're going to be doing work on his nose. They're going to remove that thick scarring that he has right around here and then putting a temporary cadaver skin on top of that.

So this is a very complex process. It is going to last quite a while. It is the main operation. But he is in very good hands here. His parents, obviously, very emotional.

Heidi.

COLLINS: No question about that, I'm sure.

Quickly, Arwa, how long did you say? Are they giving you any idea how long the procedure, the operation may take?

DAMON: Well, it began about an hour ago and they're guessing it's going to last for another two and a half hours. And then he'll go into the recovery room for about an hour. An then finally he'll be able to be re-united with his family, which I'm sure is going to be a relief for everybody.

As Youssif was being wheeled in the O.R., he was screaming for his parents and continued to do so until he was put to sleep. So these are very difficult times, but hopefully everyone here praying for a speedy recovery.

COLLINS: Yes, I bet they are. You know, he's only a little boy. He's six.

All right, Arwa Damon live for us this morning on the latest with Youssif.

And just want to remind everybody, thousands of people, including you, the viewer, have responded to Youssif's story through CNN's "Impact Your World" initiative. If you're looking for a way to make a difference for Youssif, you can just log on to cnn.com/impact and click on "Iraq burn victim." Learn how you can become part of the solution. Impacting your world, just a click away at cnn.com/impact.

Lebanese leaders vowing an assassin's bomb will not derail crucial presidential elections. The powerful car bomb in Beirut killed a anti-Syrian parliament member. His party is calling for a two-day strike to protest the attack. At least four other people died in that blast, at least 70 were wounded. Lebanon's prime minister says the hand of terror will not win.

Joining me now live from Washington this morning, David Schenker. He's a senior fellow in Arab politics at the Washington Institute.

David, thanks for being with us.

Really want to try to understand this situation an the importance for America in all this. Why should U.S. citizens care about Lebanon?

DAVID SCHENKER, THE WASHINGTON INSTITUTE: Well, Lebanon's one of many battlegrounds in the Middle East for influence, for ideas, for direction. It's really a place where the pro-western government is fighting for its life against Iranian-supported and Syrian-supported Hezbollah and anti-west forces. So this is of critical importance for the direction of the Middle East, of the future of Lebanon certainly.

COLLINS: But it's such a complicated story. Really a lot to understand here. So much history. In fact, when you think about Syria and how Syria plays in all of this, I want you to listen with me, if you would, to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino for just a moment.

SCHENKER: Sure.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DANA PERINO, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Since October 2004, there has been a pattern of political assassinations and attempted assassinations designed to intimidate those working courageously toward a sovereign and democratic Lebanon. The victims of these cowardly attacks have consistently been those who publicly sought to end Syria's interference in Lebanon's internal affairs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: She does stop short, David, of blaming Syria. Was that a very calculated move? Or, if so, I mean, who's behind it all?

SCHNEIDER:: Well, it definitely appears to be Syria. Certainly Syria has a strong role in Lebanon and has interests. And they've articulated those interests. They want to determine who the president will be. They currently have chosen the president, the current president is a Syrian appointee.

But there is an investigation ongoing into all the political assassinations in Lebanon since 2004. The U.N., which is the lead in these investigations, has already fingered Syria. They've implicated them in draft report. But the jury -- you know, the investigation is not complete. So the White House is stopping short.

COLLINS: Yes.

Let's talk about Hezbollah for just a moment. Gained incredible popularity, of course, after last summer's conflict with Israel. What is their role now in the political situation? And how's it changed?

SCHNEIDER:: Sure. Hezbollah is a leading opposition group, along with the free patriotic movement led by General Allen (ph). This group wants to choose or basically have a hand in determining who the next president of Lebanon will be. They want to roll back the pro-western government lead by Fouad Siniora. They want influence. And, of course, they're doing the bidding of their Iranian patron and of their ally, Syria.

It's a very difficult situation. It's unclear what their role has been in these political assassinations. But certainly they are not shedding any tears about the shrinking of the majority in the parliament.

COLLINS: Also there was this overnight. The former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, acknowledged the Israeli air strikes, that they had actually taken place against Syria. How does that change things? I mean, what do you make of it?

SCHNEIDER:: Well, it's a really interesting development. We know that Syria has really been a very unhelpful actor in the Middle East for decades, but particularly under Bashar al-Asad, the current president. You know, now it turns out that Syria is working on WAD programs with North Korea, potentially nuclear weapons. This is what Israel allegedly destroyed.

We just read in "James (ph) Defense Weekly" that there was a chemical weapons accident where VX (ph) and Sarin (ph) gas was released, killing dozens of Iranian technical assistants. You know, meanwhile, Syria appears to be assassinating one by one the anti- Syrian parliamentarians in Lebanon. They play a very unhelpful role and it's going to be increasingly important if we want to salvage this pro-western government, the Lebanon that Washington and the international community take a stand against Syria.

COLLINS: And that is why people in the United States should care. Thank you very much.

SCHENKER: My pleasure.

COLLINS: David Schenker, appreciate your time this morning, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thanks.

SCHENKER: Thank you.

COLLINS: An explosion and an awful alarm clock. An early morning blast and fire chases people out of bed in a south Florida apartment building. We'll have the very latest coming up.

ALI VELSHI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And I'm Ali Velshi "Minding Your Business" on Capitol Hill.

Chairman Ben Bernanke tells the U.S. Congress Americans can expect more rules to help them hang on to their homes. I'll tell you more about that in the NEWSROOM.

HARRIS: I'm Tony Harris, live in Jena, Louisiana.

Gil (ph) is going to give you a look at the podium here. Our all-access look at the rally in the park here in Jena continues. You're in the CNN NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COLLINS: Good morning, everybody. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Heidi Collins.

HARRIS: And good morning, everyone. I'm Tony Harris of the CNN NEWSROOM live from Jena, Louisiana this morning. I want to give you a look at a kind of behind-the-scenes all- access look at what we have here. Take a closer look at the podium here. We've been able to get great access to everything that's going on here in Jena, Louisiana. We've been able to get this position courtesy of the Louisiana state police, and we thank them for helping us navigate this huge rally and march today.

We're going to also give a look today (ph) at come of the people who are actually, literally, hanging from trees here to participate. Just a moment ago, we heard representatives from the Santo (ph) Christian Leadership (INAUDIBLE) conference to people who are here. We want to take you about a mile and a half away from our location to a softball field here in Jena. The Reverend Jesse Jackson is speaking.

REV. JESSE JACKSON, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: ...march. We'll (ph) do this in order and discipline, and do not react to provocateurs that may exist. Like the (ph) King's last march in Memphis, while we were marching up front of the garment (ph) workers. There's some place and pain (ph) provocateurs in the back throwing rocks as a way of distracting attention from the garment workers, you stand (ph) by the king, no longer have the power to lead, people wasn't organized, distractions.

Today with so much unity and so much resonance of so much power, we'll put the past for today, and we will rise above it. Accept our petition to God. We thank you so much for the suffering mothers (ph) on whose shoulders we stand. We thank you for bringing us across the country by bus, by plane or by car, inspiring us to wrecks (ph), and hurt and harm and danger.

Lord, we need you so much today. We're (INAUDIBLE) that we're here. We know we'll use your methods and use your way that you still can open red seas, you unstick a locked lion's jaws and you can make enemies behave and leave us alone. We pray, dear God, that Mychal Bell and Justin Barker, these two young men, black and white, will sit together one day as brothers and talk it over. We hope that one day the black and white church will find common ground in your bosom and solve these crises without the madness of confrontation.

Today, we pray for reconciliation over retaliation. We pray for hope over hurt, and (INAUDIBLE). Though my (INAUDIBLE), the good news is nothing is too hard for you.

Let me make several basic statements before we take our march down the road today. Friends, this struggle is not just another chapter. I want to level (ph) standing in with me and (INAUDIBLE) ministers because it is about a kind of unity that transcends personal sin. Don't forget in 1955, we rallied together to end the public accommodations violations. And so we marched. The union state rykers (ph) locked us in the back of the bus for (INAUDIBLE).

This year in 1957, 50 years ago, Brother King founded death CLC (ph) in this state in New Orleans, Louisiana. This year, this week, (INAUDIBLE) marched in Little Rock trying to use a school. It was -- (INAUDIBLE). Here we are today, looking back on Selma. We marched on a righteous cause and God saw us through. So just as the sun sets, Montgomery found (ph) public accommodations. It was mitigations because we had the back of the bus issue everywhere. And just as Little Rock defined desegregation, which was an issue everywhere, and just as Selma was an issue -- it was an issue everywhere, then we marched fighting for criminal justice equality. And friends, it is an issue everywhere.

Today, the local officials of Birmingham, they're saying what pebbles (ph) fear and gain votes. That's kind of Democratic tyranny. The government's been overly silent except to say they'll have enough police here today. The lieutenant general has been silent. It's like powers of principalities and corruption in high places. And then, the Department of Justice in Washington's gone silent and gone back.

We need federal intervention, call upon Congress for -- done Congress (ph) in the House and the Senate to have hearings on the matter of criminal justice in Jena because probably (ph) there's a Jena in every town, there's a Jena in every state. More blacks in jail than college in every state. There is a Jena everywhere. Use of the crack cocaine sentencing, 5 grams of crack, mandatory. 500 grams of powder, probation, 100 to one ratio. There is a Jena everywhere.

We cry (INAUDIBLE) of protection on the law everywhere. In Louisiana, Jena's just a biopsy of the cancer. It's much deeper than Jena. It is just a biopsy, Tony Brown, of this cancer. In the state today, there is 35 percent African-American, prison 75 percent. Children on the juvenile detention in this state, 80 percent. Most of those kids are not from New Orleans or from Baton Rouge, they're from rural Louisiana, where they all (INAUDIBLE). (INAUDIBLE) and you have (INAUDIBLE), our children are in jail.

But don't stop there because now in this state, they use inmates as prison workers. They are cutting grass along the highway. They rip prisoners out to friends in private business. In this state, today, there is something called the Angola Presence. With Angola, the inmates they raise vegetables and they grow hogs and cows and they process meat, and they make products. It's something on the marketplace. It's called pillage or slave labor.

In some sense that's everywhere. In Texas ...

HARRIS: And Heidi, just a quick wrap on this, the Reverend Jesse Jackson as you see there speaking to the crowd assembled. He leading one of two huge groups and we're thinking that at some point, there may be an opportunity for these two groups to merge. It's not something I can tell you that the local authorities and the state police would like to see happen because we're talking about two massive groups and it would totally overwhelm this small city of Jena.

But we will continue, obviously, to continue to follow developments here and to find you some different story lines here in Jena, Louisiana throughout the morning here in the CNN NEWSROOM.

But Heidi, right now, let's send it back to you in Atlanta. COLLINS: Yes, quickly Tony, I know that you've been there for a while and trying to really get a good sense of all these different perspectives because it is so important in a story like this. Have you been able to ...

HARRIS: Yes.

COLLINS: ...talk with anybody who does live in Jena, any of the locals there and what they were thinking just hours before all of these people arrived in their tiny town?

HARRIS: I'm sorry. One more time, Heidi. I'm sorry, I've just got a lot of noise.

COLLINS: No problem ...

HARRIS: I'm sure I have an answer for you.

COLLINS: ...I know -- I know how loud it is. I know we actually had to move you because it was so loud just a few minutes ago.

HARRIS: Yes, yes.

COLLINS: I'm just wondering about local Jena residents. Have you had a chance to speak with ...

HARRIS: Yes.

COLLINS: ...any of them about what was planned and what all of a sudden descended on their small town?

HARRIS: Well, look. When we arrived last night, what we wanted to do was to come right to Jena and not go straight to our hotel. We wanted to spend some time in the city and talk to as many people as we could about what is happening in their city.

And as I think I mentioned to you earlier, they voiced a lot of frustration. They certainly did not want to see this rally take place. They understand that people have a right to absolutely exercise their constitutional rights to protest and demonstrate, but they were concerned about the size and what is being actualized right now, the size of this rally and this march. They were concerned about it.

They were concerned about the kind of impact it would have on the city and what kind of a lasting impression it might leave here. And there was always the possibility -- and we talked about this -- that attitudes at the end of the day could be hardened. But we also are hopeful that there are people working behind the scenes, mediating between the residents here so that the end of the day, both of these communities, 85 percent white, 15 percent black, can find some common ground.

But, if you look around Jena today, what is a little disappointing but totally understandable, is that most of the businesses have shut down. Most of the locals have decided to be somewhere else today, as this rally and march plays out -- Heidi.

COLLINS: It's just absolutely fascinating what's going on behind you, too. Because as we have been reporting here, and as we have heard from the Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson as well, that this is not about race, yet behind you we have a gentleman ...

HARRIS: Yes.

COLLINS: ...making a symbol for black power, and then behind him, we have a white man.

HARRIS: Oh.

COLLINS: So, it just goes in so many different directions.

HARRIS: Look, we have -- you want to talk about extremes here? We have representatives from the Nation of Islam. We have representatives from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, long-standing civil rights organization. I talked to an attorney, an older white gentleman, who is representing a group of skinheads here. And looked me in my face during the course of the conversation, called me colored.

So, you have all spectrums represented here today. It's an amazing thing to be on the ground and see it and feel it for yourself, Heidi.

COLLINS: All right, we appreciate it, Tony. Of course, we're going to come back to you very shortly here. Have a couple of other things quickly to handle.

Meanwhile, if you are away from your TV today, you can still see streaming video from the march and rally in Jena, Louisiana. It'll be happening throughout the day on our Web site, just go to CNN.com/video for live pictures.

In fact, one of the things that we are watching today as well are the numbers, as always. One look at the Dow Jones industrial average is now opening up to the negative, right now, down about 19 points resting at 13,798 or so. We'll be watching those numbers especially closely today because, from the mortgage mess to the overall jobs picture, Americans looking for answers are certainly turning to Capitol Hill today.

Our Ali Velshi is there, and he is following some key testimony. Ali, also, we are following the president who could be making an announcement shortly here in about four minutes or so. We just want to point that out as we talk more about Ben Bernanke today.

VELSHI: Heidi, I'll make sure I'm off before the president comes out. It's not as exciting as the stuff that Tony's at right now. Certainly not that sort of electricity in the air here on Capitol Hill, but Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulison are testifying before the House Banking Committee, Ben Bernanke speaking, that's the chairman, Barney Frank there, talking about a bunch of things. As you said, that Americans are concerned about, the economy and the housing market. Ben Bernanke has been saying to this committee that we are going to see more of these foreclosures and that the No. 1 way to prevent more foreclosures is to have the borrower, the homeowner and the bank talk to each other early. They are trying to encourage banks to say before you foreclose because someone can't meet the terms of their obligation, make sure you talk to them, see if they can fit into a different type of mortgage or a different type of payment plan.

Bernanke also says that the Fed is working to get new rules in place to deal with the issue of dishonest or misinformed advertising in terms of mortgages, and that they would really like to be a very clear schedule of payments and how your payments might change over the course of your mortgage if you take an adjustable rate mortgage.

The other thing to think about, Heidi, is let's take a look at the price of houses. We have a two-part problem here. One is this credit issue, people's mortgage rates changing. Look at the price of houses. The median price on an existing home is down about $3,700 in the course of a year, and that's on almost $220,000. So, while this seems like a major crisis, the actual home price drop across the country has not been as serious.

The problem of course, Heidi, that you and I have talked about before is that average or median home prices don't mean anything to you if you happen to be in Phoenix or Detroit or one of those places where the prices have really, really dropped. It's not a crisis if you don't have to sell your house at the moment. It's a crisis if your mortgage is bigger than the value of your house and your mortgage payment has gone up.

And that's what they're talking about on Capitol Hill, what can be done, what can the government do to help out people who have lost their homes or are in danger of losing their homes.

COLLINS: Yes, and really, if you're kind of just depending on yourself, which is oftentimes the best thing to do ...

VELSHI: Yes.

COLLINS: ...you're really just squatting right now. If you had any plans to move, any plans to sell, just not the time.

VELSHI: Yes, and if you're moving within the same market, there could be some advantages because you might be moving into a bigger house and you'll take advantage of somebody else's loss. The biggest problems are if you're moving from one of these place where there's been a loss to a market that is up.

Take a look at mortgage rates though, I want to show you this. If you're looking at a 30-year fixed mortgage right now, today, if you have good credit, it's actually going to be cheaper than a one-year adjustable rate mortgage. Though, for people who are getting into the market, who can, in fact, get these mortgages, the ability to budget, the ability to know what your monthly payments are going to be for 10, 15, 30 years is going to be a much bigger advantage than the gamble.

That's not to say that adjustable rate mortgages won't adjust lower, but for those people who have found themselves in a pickle because they didn't know how expensive it can be, it's really worth thinking about locking in to a rate. It could be a lot easier in the long run.

But it's all about knowledge and that's what Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulison are saying, if you give the -- arm the consumer with more knowledge and it's mandated that they have to have that much more knowledge, you might find people making better decisions.

COLLINS: Yes, boy, nobody wants a surprise like that. It can end up being a surprise of a lifetime, certainly.

VELSHI: That's right.

COLLINS: Ali, I know that you're going to be following this for us. And maybe you can come back tomorrow ...

VELSHI: I will.

COLLINS: ...and tell us exactly what was said in that meeting in those hearings and we will learn more about it then.

Ali Velshi, Minding Your Business this morning. Thanks, Ali.

VELSHI: OK.

COLLINS: Also, any minute now, we are understanding about 30 seconds or so from now, so I'm going to talk quickly, President Bush will discuss health care. He's actually going to be coming to us from the Brady Briefing Room. You see the live shot there in just a few seconds. Going to be talking more about the nation's health care system and in specific, we are understanding that he will be talking about the state children's health insurance programs. So, some interesting information to share with us as well.

Earlier today, he's already done some public business, if you will, made that personnel announcement from the Rose Garden of the White House where he did announce that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is resigning. Let's go ahead and listen to the president now on health care.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRES. OF THE UNITED STATES: Good morning.

In just 10 days, the State Children's Health Insurance Program, known as SCHIP, is set to expire. This important program helps children whose families cannot afford private health insurance, but do not qualify for Medicaid, to get coverage they need.

I have strongly supported SCHIP as a governor and I have done so as president. My 2008 budget proposed to increase SCHIP funding by $5 billion over five years. It's a 20 percent increase over current levels of funding. Unfortunately, instead of working with the administration to enact this funding increase for children's health, Democrats in Congress have decided to pass a bill they know that will be vetoed.

One of their leaders has even said such a veto would be, quote, "a political victory."

As if this weren't irresponsible enough, Congress is waiting until the SCHIP program is just about to expire until getting a final bill passed.

In other words, members of Congress are putting health coverage for poor children at risk so they can score political points in Washington.

The legislation would raise taxes on working people and would raise spending between $35 million to $50 million.

Their proposal would result in taking a program meant to help poor children and turning it into one that covers children in households with incomes of up to $83,000 a year.

The proposal would move millions of American children who now have private health insurance into government-run health care. Our goal should be for children who have no health insurance to be able to get private coverage, not for children who already have private health insurance to be able to get government coverage.

What I'm describing here is a philosophical divide that exists in Washington over the best approach for health care.

Democratic leaders in Congress want to put more power in the hands of government by expanding federal health care programs. Their SCHIP plan is an incremental step toward the goal of government- run health care for every American.

I have a different view. I believe the best approach is to put more power in the hands of individuals by empowering people and their doctors to make health-care decisions that are right for them.

Instead of expanding SCHIP beyond its original purpose, we should return it to its original focus, and that is helping poor children, those who are most in need.

And instead of encouraging people to drop private coverage in favor of government plans, we should work to make basic private health insurance affordable and accessible for all Americans.

My administration will continue working with Congress to pass a responsible SCHIP bill. In the meantime, Congress has an obligation to make sure health insurance for poor children does not lapse. If they fail to do so, more than a million children could lose health coverage. Health coverage for these children should not be held hostage while political ads are being made and new polls are being taken. Congress must pass a clean temporary extension of the current SCHIP program that I can sign by September the 30th. And that's the date when the program expires.

I've instructed Secretary of Health and Human Services Mike Leavitt, who has joined us today, to work with states on ways to mitigate the damage that would result if Congress allows this program to lapse.

Our goal in passing legislation should be getting something done for those in need, not getting nothing done so politicians in Washington can claim a political victory.

Mike Leavitt's going to answer questions, if you have any, after my press conference.

You looked a little concerned as to whether or not I'd answer any questions.

And now I'm happy to take any questions you have.

QUESTION: Mr. President, economists say that the nation is at increasing risk of recession. What do you say?

BUSH: I say that the fundamentals of our nation's economy are strong. Inflation is down. Job markets are steady and strong. The national unemployment rate is 4.6 percent. Corporate profits appear to be strong. Exports are up.

There is no question that there is some unsettling times in the housing market and credits associated with the housing market. And that's why I look forward to working with Congress to modernize the FHA loans so that people can refinance their homes, and to change the tax code so that if somebody renegotiates a loan, they don't have to pay a penalty -- a tax penalty in so doing.

I'm optimistic about our economy. I would be pessimistic, however, if the Congress has its way and raises taxes.

I believe the worst thing that could happen now is to allow the Congress to do that which they have said they want to do, which is to raise the taxes on people. And -- because I think taking money out the hands of investors and consumers and small-business owners would weakened the economy.

And so, as I say, I'm optimistic. But I would be pessimistic if I thought Congress was going to get they're way, and they're not. We're not going to raise taxes.

QUESTION: Do you think there's a risk of a recession? How do you rate that?

BUSH: You know, you need to talk to economists. I think I got a B in Econ 101.

I got an A, however, in keeping taxes low... (LAUGHTER)

... and being fiscally responsible with the people's money.

We've submitted a plan that will enable this budget to become balanced by 2012 so long as Congress learns to set priorities. And we can balance the budget without raising taxes.

QUESTION: The French foreign minister has raised the possibility of war with Iran. Is there a risk that the escalating rhetoric over Iran (inaudible) the chances of war? And what would be your message to the U.N. next week regarding Iran?

BUSH: I have consistently stated that I am hopeful that we can convince the Iranian regime to give up any ambitions it has in developing a weapons program, and do so peacefully. That ought to be the objective of any diplomacy.

And to this end, we are working with allies and friends to send a consistent message to the Iranians that there is a better way forward for them than isolation -- financial isolation and/or economic sanctions.

I believe it's imperative that we continue to work in a multilateral fashion to send that message. And one place to do so is at the United Nations.

We're also talking to different finance ministers about how we can send a message to the Iranian government that the free world is just not going to tolerate the development of know-how in how to build a weapon -- or at least gain the ability to make a weapon.

And the reason why is, is because it's very important for us to take the threats coming out of the mouth of the president of Iran very seriously. This is a person that is -- you know, constantly talks about the use of force to -- on Israel, for example. And Israel is our very firm and strong ally.

I also -- it's very important for the Iranian people to know that our -- the United States recognizes the grand tradition and history of Iran and that we respect the people of Iran. We just believe that their government has made choices that make it difficult for them to realize their dreams, to realize their full potential.

The Iranian economy is suffering, some of it through mismanagement, some of it is the result of international pressures.

And the people of Iran have got to know that some of the suffering that they are having inside their country is caused by their government's inability to work with the world in a responsible way regarding, you know, their desire to enrich uranium.

So we'll keep the pressure on them and the objective, of course, is to solve this peacefully.

David, welcome back. QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President.

BUSH: Where have you been?

QUESTION: I've been around. I've been around.

BUSH: You've been doing those shows.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Sir, Israeli opposition leader Netanyahu has now spoken openly about Israel's bombing raid on a target in Syria earlier in the month.

I wonder if you could tell us what the target was, whether you supported this bombing raid? And what do you think it does to change the dynamic in an already hot region, in terms of Syria and Iran and the dispute with Israel, and whether the U.S. could be drawn into any of this?

BUSH: I'm not going to comment on the matter.

Would you like another question?

QUESTION: Did you support it?

BUSH: I'm not going to comment on the matter.

QUESTION: Can you comment about your concerns that come out of it at all, for the region?

BUSH: No. Saying "I'm not going to comment on the matter" means I'm not going to comment on the matter. You're welcome to ask another question if you'd like to...

(CROSSTALK)

BUSH: ... on a different subject.

QUESTION: I'll ask you about Iraq.

Efforts to curtail the deployment of troops is an ongoing debate right now. One of the things you spoke about in your address last week had to do with impatience with the Iraqi government, and you spoke about that but not in much detail.

How is that dynamic changing your level of frustration with the lack of political progress? And how long can Americans reasonably expect you to wait before you take some kind of action that really forces the Iraqi government's hand to reach the goals of reconciliation that you've set for them?

BUSH: In my speech, I made it clear that there has to be a change in security for there to be reconciliation. And I also said that progress will yield fewer troops. In other words, return on success is what I said. There are two types of reconciliation. One is the reconciliation that -- very visible reconciliation that happens with the passage of law. In other words, it's reconciliation that shows the Iraqi people that people from different backgrounds can get along and at the same time that government can function.

Clearly, there needs to be work there. In other words, there needs to be the passage of law.

For example, we strongly believe that an oil revenue sharing law will send a message to Sunni, Shia and Kurd alike that there is an effort at the national level to achieve reconciliation.

Having said that, however, there is a functioning government. And the reason I bring -- I guess my point is this: that in spite of the fact they haven't passed a law, there is the sharing of oil revenues on a relatively equitable basis.

The other -- and we'll continue to work with the government to insist and impress upon them the need for there to be the passage of law, whether it be provincial election laws or de-Baathification law or the oil law.

There is local reconciliation taking place. I had a fascinating conversation in the Roosevelt Room earlier this week with members of provincial reconstruction teams from around Iraq, who talked about how, you know, people are sick and tired of murder and violence, and that they expect their local governments and their central government to be more responsive to their needs.

And local governments are beginning to respond.

You know, part of the reason why there is not this instant democracy in Iraq is because people are still recovering from Saddam Hussein's brutal rule.

I thought an interesting comment was made -- somebody said to me, "I heard somebody say, 'Now, where's Mandela?'" Well, Mandela's dead because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas. He was a brutal tyrant that divided people up and split families.

And people are recovering from this. So there's the psychological recovery that is taking place.

And it's hard work for them. And I understand it's hard work for them.

And he said that, "I'm not going to give them a pass when it comes to the central government's reconciliation efforts."

I also said in my speech, "Local politics will drive national politics." And I believe that. I believe as more reconciliation takes place at the local level, you'll see a more responsive central government.

QUESTION: Thank you, Mr. President. Your defense secretary, Robert Gates, was recently asked by New York Times columnist David Brooks if, knowing what he knows now, invading Iraq was a good idea. And I believe your defense secretary answered, "I don't know."

Does that represent daylight with you? Is that second-guessing? Have you spoken to the defense secretary? And has that changed your mind at all?

BUSH: I think he made it pretty clear the removal of Saddam -- I don't know about this column, but I know in previous statements he said getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the right decision.

But I haven't talked to him about the column.

If I had to ask everybody in my government to respond to columns and news stories, that's all I'd be doing is talking to people in my government.

I am absolutely convinced Secretary Gates knows that removing Saddam was the right thing, and I'm absolutely convinced he believes we will succeed in Iraq. And so, I've got a lot of trust in the man. He's doing a fine job as the secretary.

QUESTION: You won't comment on what the Israelis may or may not have done...

BUSH: That's an accurate statement. I hope you got that.

(LAUGHTER)

That's my answer.

(CROSSTALK)

Of course, now Gregory's worried I'm actually going to comment, see?

QUESTION: That's what I'm hoping.

BUSH: Well, I'm not going to so you might want to go to another subject.

QUESTION: I know you won't comment on that but let's talk about whether or not you believe that North Korea is aiding Syria with a nuclear program.

BUSH: We have made it clear, and we'll continue to make it clear, to the North Koreans through the six-party talks that we expect them to honor their commitment to give up weapons and weapons programs and, to the extent that they are proliferating, we expect them to stop their proliferation if they want the six-party talks to be successful.

In other words, whether it be the exportation of information and/or materials is an important part. It doesn't matter to us whether they do, in terms of the six- party talks, because they're both equally important, I guess is the best way to say it.

In other words, we want -- it doesn't matter -- let me rephrase that -- it matters whether they are. But the concept of proliferation is equally important as getting rid of programs and weapons.

QUESTION: So you believe they are aiding Syria?

BUSH: Just -- it's a general statement that we expect them not to be proliferating.

QUESTION: Mr. President, thousands of people are marching today in Jena, Louisiana, in a racially charged case involving some black students -- the beating of a white student. Also not far from the White House recently there was a noose that was found hanging from a tree at a college campus.

You have worked very hard to bring blacks and Hispanics into your party, but the fallout from the immigration debate, and even some Republican presidential candidates' refusal to go to debates at Univision as well as Morgan State, calls into question whether or not the state of race relations is deteriorating in this country, and specifically in your party.

Your thoughts?

BUSH: My advice to whoever will be our nominee is to reach out to the African-American community, as well as other communities. Because I believe that we've got a very strong record when it comes to empowerment, when it comes to education or homeownership or small- business formation.

The events in Louisiana have saddened me. And I understand the emotions. The Justice Department and the FBI are monitoring the situation down there. And all of us in America want there to be, you know, fairness when it comes to justice.

We've got a good record to run on. And my advice to our candidate would be to run on it.

QUESTION: Do you think this is a defining moment in race relations?

QUESTION: Mr. President, Iran's president, Ahmadinejad, says he wants to go to ground zero and place a wreath there. There is some objection to that in New York. What are your thoughts?

BUSH: My thoughts are that the local police will make the proper decision, and that if they decide for him not to go, like it looks like they have, I can understand why they would not want somebody that's running a country who's a state sponsor of terror down there at the site.

QUESTION: Mr. President, back to the economy for a moment: The Fed took its half-point rate cut the other day. Do you think that was enough to stave off recession? And if not, are there other steps you're prepared to do to make sure?

BUSH: I do not comment on the decisions made by the Fed. I will comment on Ben Bernanke.

I think he's doing a fine job.

The White House and the Congress are responsible for fiscal policy.

The worst decision that Congress could make would be to raise taxes during this period. We don't need to raise taxes in order to fund budget priorities.

We have submitted a budget that shows we can get to balance by 2012 without raising taxes. And it's one of the reasons I feel so strongly about -- that's why I'm not going to let the taxes be raised.

QUESTION: What do you say to those who criticize you for not speaking out on the situation in Louisiana, particularly given your passionate remarks after Hurricane Katrina about (INAUDIBLE)?

BUSH: As you know, this is an ongoing trial. There's litigation taking place. I feel strongly that there ought to be fair justice.

And I just spoke out on it.

QUESTION: Mr. President, former Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was recently asked if he missed you. He said no.

(LAUGHTER)

BUSH: Oh, wait a minute. I miss him.

QUESTION: Alan Greenspan has come out with a book -- a recent book criticizing you for being fiscally irresponsible. And they're not the first former government officials to come out and be critical of you.

And I'm wondering two things.

First, do you feel you betrayed by some of these people who have served you and then have come out and criticized you?

And then, more particularly, can you respond to Greenspan's criticism?

BUSH: My feelings are not hurt.

You might have been a little selective in quoting Donald Rumsfeld, which I know you didn't mean to be, you know.

I respect Secretary Rumsfeld. I believe he did a fine job.

And I respect Alan Greenspan. I respectfully disagree with Alan Greenspan when it comes to saying that this administration didn't handle the fiscal -- fiscal issues we faced in a good fashion. As a matter of fact, we did.

The deficit, as a percent of GDP, is low; it's lower than the 30- year average. We have submitted a plan to balance the budget. We dealt with a recession, a terrorist attack and corporate scandals. And we did it by cutting taxes. The tax cuts worked. The economy recovered. People are working. Interest rates are low.

The -- and I'm a supply-sider. I believe supply-side economics, when properly instituted, enables us to achieve certain objectives: one, people finding work and there's hope in the economy; two, that supply-side economics yields additional tax revenues. And if we're smart about how we manage the fiscal budget, it leads to balance. And that's what we have done.

We are fighting a war at the same time that we're headed toward balance. In other words, we're making sure our troops get the money they need and veterans get the benefits they need.

Former Chairman Greenspan and I spent a lot of time talking about the unfunded liabilities inherent in Social Security and Medicare. And he's concerned about those unfunded liabilities, as am I.

And that's why I went in front of the Congress on more than one occasion talking about how to reform Social Security so that young people who are working aren't paying payroll taxes into a system that's going broke.

I'm not going to give up on entitlement reform. But it can -- require members of both parties to recognize we have a problem that ought to be solved now.

It's time to -- I thought it was time to come together a couple of years ago and there wasn't the political will in Congress. And I'm not so sure we're going to find it now. But I'm going to keep trying because, like the chairman, I understand that the biggest issue we got with the deficit are those deficits inherent in these entitlement programs.

QUESTION: Mr. President, there's a deal taking place this morning where the government of Dubai would buy a share of -- a stake in the NASDAQ stock market.

And there is some concern being expressed on Capitol Hill about this; it's another deal involving people overseas that we might not trust.

What's your reaction to it? And also, what's your level of concern about protectionism in general?

BUSH: My reaction is is that we have a reform process in place that will be able to deal with this issue. In other words, we're going to take a good look at it, as to whether or not it has any national security implications involved in the transaction. And I'm comfortable with the process to go forward.

I'm also -- I am concerned about protectionism. I'm concerned about it because if the United States loses its confidence when it comes to trading, it'll make it less likely our economy will grow. And I just told you, one of the underpinnings of our support is the fact that exports -- for economic vitality is the fact that exports are up. And workers benefit when we're selling products overseas.

And I believe these free trade agreements will be an interesting test of protectionism -- whether protectionism is real.

Got four trade agreements that we've negotiated that we want to get passed. And there's going to be some crucial votes coming up here pretty soon in the Congress. And we'll work hard to get all four trade agreements through. And if they don't get through, it is a sign that the protectionists are beginning to, you know, be on the ascendancy here in Washington, D.C., and that'd be a mistake.

And for people who are deeply concerned about poverty around the world like I am, the best way to help people -- lift people out of poverty is through free trade agreements. And that's why we're dedicated to the Doha round that Secretary Schwab is so actively engaged in -- not Secretary Schwab, trade negotiator Schwab.

And we're committed to reaching accord with these nations so that -- because, you know, trade helps poor people realize a better life. And it's a proven fact.

I'm also worried about isolationism. Isolationism tends to run hand-in-hand with protectionism.

You'll find isolationists are those who say it's not our business what happens overseas, it doesn't matter if there's a free society in the heart of the Middle East as far as our long-term security and peace.

I just strongly reject that. I think it does matter a lot that the United States is working with other nations to promote liberty and freedom.

I believe liberty is a change agent. Liberty can help hostile parts of the world become peaceful parts of the world.

You know, our strategy in dealing with these extremists who still want to attack us is, on the one hand, chase them and find them and bring them to justice and, on the other hand, help change the conditions that caused 19 kids to get on airplanes and come and kill nearly 3,000 citizens on our soil.

The best way to do that is to be active with foreign policy. It's not to lose faith in values but to actively promote universal values.

An isolationist would say, "It's not worth it. It doesn't matter to the United States of America." Well, I think it does matter. I think it matters a lot.

Herman, have you got a question?

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Thank you.

BUSH: You're welcome.

QUESTION: Mr. President, for Republicans seeking election next year are you an asset or a liability?

BUSH: Strong asset.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Can I follow?

BUSH: No.

(LAUGHTER)

I knew I made a mistake calling on you in the first place.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: He's known you a long time.

BUSH: Yes, he has.

And the problem is I called on him and I've known him for a long time.

QUESTION: You knew what you were getting into.

BUSH: Yes.

Look, candidates who go out and say that the United States is vulnerable to attack and we're going to make sure our professionals have the tools necessary to protect us are going to do well.

Candidates who go out and say that helping these Iraqis realize the benefits of democracy are going to do well. Candidates who go out and say that it's very important for the United States to have clear principles when it comes to foreign policy, they'll do well. Candidates who say we're not going to raise your taxes will do well.

QUESTION: Quick follow up on that.

BUSH: Ann?

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Quick follow if I may, Mr. President?

BUSH: No, you may not.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: Mr. President, back to your grade point average on holding the line on taxes.

BUSH: I thought you were going to talk about the actual grade point average.

(LAUGHTER)

I remind people that, like when I'm with, Condi, I say she's the Ph.D. and I'm the C student and just look at who's the president and who's the adviser.

But go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: If there is a tax increase on cigarettes to fund the SCHIP program, is that a tax increase you oppose?

BUSH: It does. They don't need to raise taxes.

What I want is the Congress to be focused on making sure poor children get the health insurance they were promised.

Instead, Congress has made a decision to expand the eligibility up to $80,000. That's not the intent of the program. The program was find poor children and help them with health insurance. Their vision is expand the eligibility so that people making up to $80,000 will be eligible for this program.

I believe this is a step toward federalization of health care. I know that their proposal is beyond the scope of the program and that's why I'm going to veto the bill.

QUESTION: Mr. President, in January, when you announced your troop surge, you said that its goal was to get all 18 Iraqi provinces -- the security for those provinces into Iraqi's hands by November of this year. The Pentagon is now telling Congress that's not going to happen until July, at the earliest.

Have the goalposts shifted once more?

BUSH: No, the goals are the same. Achieving those goals have been slower than we thought. And the question is, one, whether or not it's worth it to try to achieve the goals.

I believe it's worth it for the security of the country.

And the reason why I believe it's for the security of the country is that if we were to leave before the job is done, extremist groups like Al Qaeda would be able to gain safe haven. That's what they've said they want. They believe we won't have the will to hang in there and help this Iraqi government succeed. And they want us out.

And so the goals of helping the Iraqis provide their own security remain the same. And the goals are important toward achieving our objective, and our objective is important for the security of the country. I also believe that a democracy in the heart of the Middle East will be a major blow to extremists or radicals wherever they live in the Middle East.

And just yesterday, we saw an attack on an anti-Syrian, pro- Lebanese democracy advocate. Now, I don't know who did that. But I do know it is typical of this war we're fighting in when extremists kill innocent people in order to undermine democracies.

And one of the things I feel passionately about is for the United States to recognize what a Middle East would be like if terrorists and extremists were to have safe haven and were emboldened by a U.S. defeat.

And that's why, one, I believe we can succeed; and, two, I know we got to succeed. And, therefore, have listened carefully to our commanders and our diplomats as to whether or not they think we can succeed and, if so, what do they need to do it. And that's what I talked to the country about.

And so, yes, the goals are the same. And have we achieved them as fast? No, we haven't.

But, however, having not achieved them doesn't mean we ought to quit. It means we ought to work hard to achieve the goals because the end result is the same whether the goal is done in November or in July, and that is a country that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself, and is an ally against these extremists and radicals; a country which will deny safe haven to the folks who have sworn allegiance to the crowd that attacked us on September the 11th.

A couple more, and then we'll let Leavitt come up here.

QUESTION: You said earlier that people in Iraq are sick and tired of the violence. To what extent has the recent Blackwater incident frayed your relations with Prime Minister Maliki and his government? And why are outfits like Blackwater above the law in Iraq?

BUSH: First of all, I have yet to speak to the prime minister about this subject. I'll see him in New York next week at the U.N. I'm confident he'll being it up.

I also appreciate the fact that he's wiling to work with the U.S. government to set up a commission to find out what actually happened.

The folks like Blackwater who provide security for the State Department are under rules of engagement. In other words, they have certain rules. And this commission will determine whether or not they violated those rules.

And I'm looking forward to finding out what the results are.

QUESTION: Any regrets about the incident...

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: ... and the fact that...

(CROSSTALK)

BUSH: Well, let's find out what the facts are first.

Obviously, to the extent innocent life was lost, you know, I'm saddened. Our objective is to protect innocent life. And we've got a lot of brave souls in the theater working hard to protect innocent life.

And evidently some innocent life -- lives were lost. And my thoughts and prayers go out to the families.

But I want to find out the facts about exactly what took place there in the theater. And that's exactly what we're about to find out.

A couple more here.

QUESTION: Thank you, sir.

BUSH: You looked asleep back there. That's why I was calling on you.

QUESTION: You recently spoke just earlier about the importance of oil revenue sharing in Iraq.

Recently, a company called Hunt Oil, run by one of your long-time supporters, Ray Hunt, signed a deal with the Kurdish regional government to drill for oil up there.

That deal has come under intense criticism from the national government in Baghdad. They say it undermines the discussions about oil legislation.

What's your opinion of that kind of deal and how it impacts this long-stalled legislation?

BUSH: Our embassy also expressed concern about it.

I knew nothing about the deal. I need to know exactly how it happened.

To the extent that it does undermine the ability for the government to come up with an oil-revenue sharing plan that unifies the country, obviously I'm -- if it undermines that, I'm concerned.

QUESTION: Mr. President, thank you.

BUSH: Big Stretch. He's back.

QUESTION: What is your reaction to the MoveOn.org ad that mocked General Petraeus as "General Betray-Us," and said that he cooked the books on Iraq?

And secondly, would you like to see Democrats, including presidential candidates, repudiate that ad?

BUSH: I thought that the ad was disgusting. I felt like the ad was an attack, not only on General Petraeus, but on the U.S. military. And I was disappointed that not more leaders in the Democrat Party spoke out strongly against that kind of ad.

That leads me to come to this conclusion: that most Democrats are afraid of irritating a left-wing group like MoveOn.org -- are more afraid of irritating them than they are of irritating the United States military.

That was a sorry deal. And it's one thing to attack me. It's another thing to attack somebody like General Petraeus.

All right. Leavitt, is going to answer some questions, if you have any for him. Make sure they're -- tone them down a little bit. It's his first time in here.

Martha, you and Gregory be polite on him.

Thank you for your time.

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