Return to Transcripts main page


Former Colombian Hostages Speak Out; Jesse Jackson Under Fire

Aired July 10, 2008 - 20:00   ET


CAMPBELL BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Hey there, everybody.
Tonight, a story that is growing even bigger at this hour, the debate sparked by the criticism of Barack Obama. It's gone way beyond the actual critical words that Jackson used. The larger point he was making struck a nerve across the nation -- voters debating now whether Obama is intentionally pulling away from the black community to better appeal to the white suburban voters who will decide this election.

Live in the ELECTION CENTER tonight, we're going to go to the heart of that question, no bias, no bull.

Also tonight, a CNN exclusive, the freed U.S. hostages. For the very first time, they sit down and tell their incredible story, new details of their five-year ordeal in the Colombian jungle and what kept them sane.

Listen to this.


KEITH STANSELL, FORMER FARC HOSTAGE: This lock, with 5 meters of chain thick, one-inch links, went to his neck. So, this was locked around my neck like this. The other one was locked around Marc's neck. We slept like that. Tom had the exactly same thing. He slept with a Colombian captain the same way.

You're sleeping with 10 pounds of chain and this lock around your neck. Now, imagine, you go bed. Somebody comes up to you. They take your shoes, so you can't move. And they say...

ROBIN MEADE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They take your shoes so you can't run?

STANSELL: You can't run. You're not going to want to. And they say, excuse me, Robin. The government, they're real bad people. But we're going to chain you up. It's not our fault. It's the government that is forcing us to do this. So, I'm going chain you around the neck every night like a dog.


BROWN: I got to tell you, this was one of those interviews all of us here in the newsroom simply stopped what we were doing and watched as it was coming in today. Their stories are just that extraordinary. But first tonight, the debate Jesse Jackson did not intend to start. What is expected of the first African-American to have a serious chance of being elected president? Barack Obama owes much of his meteoric rise to African-American voters.

They turned out for him. They stood by him, first in Illinois, when he ran for the Senate, then across the country in the Democratic primaries. So, what does he owe them? Does Obama campaign differently as he reaches out to more white voters?

We already know Jesse Jackson's answer to that question. On Sunday, an open microphone on FOX News caught his crude, scathing criticism.


REVEREND JESSE JACKSON, FOUNDER, RAINBOW/PUSH COALITION: See, Barack been talking down to black people on this faith based -- I want cut his (EXPLETIVE DELETED) off. Barack, he's talking down to black people.


BROWN: Now, Jackson has been all over TV for more than 24 hours now apologizing for his choice of words.

But the debate has moved on. Jackson's words tore the scab of America's racial divisions. And does Obama or does any black candidate need to talk down to black voters in order to succeed with white voters?

We want to talk to go right now to our panel of top political and social experts to talk about that.

In Washington is Tara Wall, deputy editorial page editor for "The Washington Times" and a former senior adviser to the Republican National Committee. In Atlanta is Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor at Georgetown University and a columnist for "TIME" magazine. He's also the author of "April 4, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Death and How It Changed America." And in Los Angeles, screenwriter John Ridley. He's also a contributor to National Public Radio.

Hey, guys.

John, I'm going start with you, because you told our producer earlier -- and this is your quote -- that guys like Jesse Jackson have made a lot of money by flogging the victim stick.

What did you mean by that?

JOHN RIDLEY, FILM DIRECTOR/ACTOR/WRITER: Well, look, I think that the idea that Barack Obama is talking down to black America is once that is getting traction.

But you had a Pew Research poll earlier this year that said that, basically, a majority of black Americans feel that a lot of the problems facing black Americans are self-inflicted.

Now, I think it's naive to think that there aren't systemic problems that still all of us face as black Americans. But I really -- I reject the idea that talking about self-reliance, talking about looking at a situation and what we are doing to improve ourselves is somehow talking down to us. It's not talking down. It's talking to us.

BROWN: And, Michael, do you think his comments, do you agree, are an example of playing the victim card?


I respect Mr. Ridley greatly, but I think that Jesse Jackson has spoken about self-reliance and personal responsibility when Mr. Ridley and I were in our short pants. Jesse Jackson has consistently and vigorously talked about the necessity for black people to take their destinies into their own hands.

He had a PUSH-Excel program that talked about parents taking time to turn off the television for their children and to be better parents and to look after their school books. He was famously shown on "60 Minutes" talking about not playing the guilty, reeling the guilties, as he called them.

So, there's no way that anybody can read Jesse Jackson as not being emphatic about personal responsibility. But he wants to fly the plane of black progress with two wings.

Personal responsibility is a critical one, but it is not an exclusive one. You must also have social responsibility. And I think what he's trying to talk about is personal and social responsibility together.

BROWN: But, Michael, here's where I'm a little confused, because I know you're an Obama supporter.

DYSON: Absolutely.

BROWN: But you wrote this pretty harsh review of his Father's Day speech, where he urged black fathers to step up.

And, first, let's listen to tiny bit of that speech, and then we will talk about it.


OBAMA: Too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities. They're acting like boys, instead of men.


BROWN: And, Michael, you came down pretty hard on Obama. And you wrote that he was seen in a black church not railing against racism, but rebuking his own race.

DYSON: Well, I don't think I was harsh. I simply took a different tack than Mr. Obama.

I vigorously support him. I think he's the most brilliant candidate we have had in years. But I was suggesting there is that there was also -- we have to be honest -- I thought it was belittling of black men to call them boys and not men, and to suggest that somehow any fool can have a baby.

If Mr. Obama says that to black audiences, he has to says that to white audiences as well. My point simply is this, that if you do the research, an empirical verification of black men's commitment to their children has been proved last year.

There was a study done that suggested that non-resident black fathers pay more attention and spend more time with their children than any other men of any other ethnic group. All I'm suggesting then is that let's get rid of the stereotypes and supplant that with serious reason and science, not passion.

I agree with Barack Obama that black men should step up to the plate and think care of their responsibilities. But we must also have a society. As Dorothy Day, the great Catholic social worker said, let's move toward a world in which it's possible for people to behave decently.

BROWN: All right, Tara, this comes back to one question, which is, what are the black community's expectations of Barack Obama, and are those expectations fair?

TARA WALL, DEPUTY EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON TIMES": First of all, when you have 70 percent of black children headed by a single-family home, I think it's, quite frankly right on time.

You always hear folks talk about blacks being conservative. They just vote Democrat. His message is resonating. And the reason is -- the reason there's frustration with Jesse Jackson, I think, is because the old message is over. The message that of big government and victimization has evolved in the black community with people like Barack Obama and a Kendrick Meek and a Jesse Jackson Jr., who understands that self-responsibility is critical to the black community.

I think the black community is very forgiving. And that they quite frankly understand, if you listen to black radio today, understand where Barack Obama is coming from. I don't think they disagree with anything Barack Obama has said.

And I think it is right on target. There is just the frustration with Jesse Jackson because he understands that his time and message is well and way overdue and it's not working in the black community.

BROWN: OK, guys, stand by.

Tara, I know we're going to see you a little bit later in the show.

Michael and John, stay with me, as we turn to another aspect of this debate.

Is Jesse Jackson really struggling now to remain relevant, especially to young black voters?

And, then, later, we have got an exclusive that you have got to hear.


THOMAS HOWES, FORMER FARC HOSTAGE: And he got to the point where he said he was going kill me one day. He took out his gun and made a cocking sound. He didn't quite -- half-cocked it and he said, I'm going kill you.


BROWN: Americans who spent five years together as prisoners in the jungle.

Coming up, the stories they're telling for the very first time.


BROWN: Barack Obama was born in 1961, so he not a part of the marches, the sit-ins, and the struggles that liberated African- Americans from a century of Jim Crow and legal discrimination.

Jesse Jackson was a leader in that struggle. And he broke new ground and opened up a new dialogue when he ran for president twice in 1980s. But now it's 2008. And Jesse Jackson has been eclipsed.

And we asked Randi Kaye to take a look across the generational divide.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Call it a changing of the guard.

REV. MARKEL HUTCHINS, COMMUNITY ACTIVIST: We are tired of the politics of the past and looking forward to a better and brighter future that is -- that is not divided by generation, but that merges generations together.

KAYE: Atlanta Reverend Markel Hutchins, who like Jesse Jackson is a community activist, calls him one of his mentors, but says it's time for Jackson to step aside.

HUTCHINS: I think genuine leadership understands when your time has come and when you have reached the pinnacle of your career. And I believe real leaders know when to get out of the way.

KAYE (on camera): Tension between the black leaders who emerged 40 years ago, like Jackson and those emerging today, says Hutchins, is growing, the result of how the two generations view America.

(voice-over): Democratic strategist Donna Brazile also sees a generational shift. She says the old guard was more divisive and focused on breaking down barriers. The new guard stands for hope and unity.

DONNA BRAZILE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: When Reverend Jackson announced his historic candidacy in 1984, he said, our time has come. And now today, Barack Obama's time has clearly come, and not a moment too soon.

KAYE: Brazile says the old guard deserves respect. After all, they made it possible for the new guard to have a seat at the table. But don't expect today's leaders to speak in the same voice.

BRAZILE: Obama represents a new generation of leaders in this country, including Jesse Jackson Jr., who are prepared to look at new ideas and new solutions to solve old chronic problems, but do it in a way that brings us together and brings the country together, not picking at old wounds, but rather healing those wounds and healing those divides so that we can all make progress together.

KAYE: Brazile was disappointed when Reverend Jackson, unaware he was being recorded, said this.

JACKSON; See, Barack been talking down to black people on this faith based -- I want cut his (EXPLETIVE DELETED) off.

KAYE: Jackson was referring to comments like this.

OBAMA: Too many fathers are also missing. Too many fathers are MIA. Too many fathers are AWOL, missing from too many lives and too many homes. They have abandoned their responsibilities. They're acting like boys, instead of men.

KAYE: Reverend Hutchins says Obama is not talking down.

HUTCHINS: And what I think that Obama is doing is talking up to African-Americans, not talking down. Leadership really understands. Leadership, like Obama's, really understands that, in order to talk up to people, you have got to lift them up.

KAYE: He blames Jackson's comments on ego.

HUTCHINS: We cannot deny the fact that ego certainly does play a role in these kinds of situations. Many in the generation of leadership that emerged during the 1950s and '60s feel offended and threatened that perhaps a Barack Obama or a Markel Hutchins did not have to come through the ranks the way that they did.

KAYE: Threatened or not, Hutchins says they must no longer stand in the way of the new guard building on their foundation.

Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BROWN: Joining me from Los Angeles for this part of the discussion, special correspondent Soledad O'Brien, who is host of CNN's powerful "Black in America" series, which premieres later this month. And back with me again, Michael Eric Dyson and John Ridley.

And, John, do you believe that leaders like Jesse Jackson are still relevant?

RIDLEY: I think they have to make themselves relevant. I think they're holding on to the politics of the '60s. Look, it's 2008. When Jesse Jackson came around, we didn't have advocates in the system for us. Now we are the system. So, the idea of being relevant isn't simply talking about the past. It's talking about today and tomorrow. And that is what Barack Obama is doing.

BROWN: Michael, this morning on Jesse Jackson's apology tour, if you can call it that, he was asked if his comments were rooted in jealousy.

And listen to his answer.


JACKSON: That's kind of ridiculous. Really, he's running the last lap of a 54-year marathon. He is running that race. And I was a part -- am a part of that race.


BROWN: It still seems to a certain extent that he's not really letting Obama have his moment in the sun. Do you agree with that?

DYSON: Well, no, I think that, look, Jesse Jackson is an extraordinary leader. Barack Obama is an ingenious and extraordinary leader.

What Jesse Jackson is suggesting is that if we're looking at it as marathon, then the baton has been passed on to Barack Obama. It doesn't mean that there's no role for Jesse Jackson. If Barack Obama becomes the president, Jesse Jackson is not out of a job.


BROWN: But what is his role? How do you see his role moving forward?

DYSON: Well, look, I will tell you what.

When Jesse Jackson talks about subprime mortgages, that's not in the 1960s. That's right now. When Jesse Jackson talks about the disproportionate low-birthrate babies who are born in ghettos, that's not 60 years ago. That is now.

So, he's dealing with issues that are right on the cutting edge. It is true that he's had a legendary career of 40, 45 years of speaking -- quote -- "truth to power," but also articulating from within the political system, as well as outside of it. So, I think that his role continues to be one that is necessary.

And Barack Obama is playing a role that's significant and ingenious. And he has to work within the system as a politician. Those two roles are not mutually exclusive, though they may be brought into tension.

BROWN: Soledad...

RIDLEY: Very quickly.

BROWN: Yes, go ahead.

RIDLEY: I think we're being a little polite here. Jesse Jackson is talking about emasculating Barack Obama. Look, if a white person said that, we wouldn't be having this discussion. They would not be in any job anywhere at any time. It's -- quite frankly, it's offensive. It's one thing to have an ideological problem with him. It's another thing to say, look, I want to emasculate this guy because I don't want him to have the job.

DYSON: Well, there's no question that Jesse Jackson has admitted that was street talk. It was street rhetoric that was not only offensive. It was, as he said, dumb.

But, at the same time, I think what we have to acknowledge here, if you're talking about Jesse Jackson, to apply to Barack Obama, who is my candidate, if you're going to call black men boys, if you're going to say that any fool can have a baby, don't just say that to black men. Say that to all of America. Don't be race neutral when it comes to speaking to white America, and race specific when it comes to black people. Let's be balanced. And I think that Barack Obama has done a brilliant job of moving forward from that place.


BROWN: Soledad, when you look at the new generation of black leaders, Barack Obama, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, none of them have really cast themselves as civil rights leaders.


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Part of that is an age issue. Part of that is the fact that our leadership is not necessarily coming out of the civil rights movement anymore.

When we do our documentary on "Black in America," one of the things we saw, that the leadership is coming all over the place, not just from the church, as it was in the old days. You have got radio hosts who are able to lead politically. Michael Baisden is really the reason a lot of people showed up to protest against the Jena Six -- in support of the Jena Six, because he got on the radio.

He had a voice. He had an audience. Tom Joyner, who raises tons of money for historically black colleges. And then you have these young men, like Dr. Steve Perry and Jabali Sawicki. They're both running these academies for young men to succeed. These are people who are in the trenches.

They are leaders today. They are not from the civil rights movement. They're not politicians. They say there's an opportunity here for black people to help themselves. But many people have told me -- and I agree with this -- it's not an either/or issue. It's not, oh, is it self-reliance or is it going to be working on policy. It goes hand in hand.

I think Professor Dyson, who we also have in our documentary, I must say, has said this many times, and says that, well, it's not an either/or proposition. It's a combination of the two, people working across numerous fronts, as they have, frankly, in civil rights days to get accomplished some of the things that have not been accomplished heretofore.

BROWN: All right, guys, we have to end it there.

But, to Michael, to John, to Soledad, many, many thanks to all of you.

And, other our viewers, be sure to join Soledad on Wednesday and Thursday July 23 and 24 for "CNN PRESENTS: Black in America," a television event that's going to look closely at the successes and struggles of black men, women and families in America.

Coming up next, a CNN exclusive. It is the interview with the American hostages, their stories of courage and how they survived, so riveting. It's what everybody here has been talking about.

Remember, they hadn't seen their homes or their families for more than five years.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We were sitting on a -- having lunch as a prisoner, eating out of the same pot that I have used for, what, three-and-a-half, four years. And, an hour later, I'm looking at the top military general on ex-presidential jet flying across Colombia.


BROWN: Their stories are coming up next.


BROWN: Only a week ago, the stunning news broke: 15 hostages rescued from their terrorist captors who held them for years in the jungles of Colombia, among them, former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors.

In a CNN exclusive, Headline News anchor Robin Meade sat down with the three Americans today. And they told her things they haven't told anyone else

Robin is at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, where the hostages are still recuperating -- Robin. MEADE: Campbell, the new bit of information that we have is that they could possibly go back to their homes as soon as Saturday. We're waiting for confirmation on that.

Today, they detailed their harsh conditions, everything from not being allowed to talk for eight months, so much so, that they lost their voices, to harsher things like being chained to each other or chained to trees with 10-pound chains.

And when I asked them, they talked, like Marc Gonsalves, one of the hostages, talked about their despair. He said it was especially hard for him at the beginning.


MARC GONSALVES, FORMER FARC HOSTAGE: In the first months of our captivity, we were at that point locked in boxes at night. And they would unlock the boxes to let us out. And that night I dreamt about my daughter, who was my little girl, and still is. And I had this dream about her that was so real. She was sitting on my lap and I was -- she had little braids in her hair.

And it was a wonderful dream, with all of my family. But the problem was, I woke up. And being freshly taken, abducted, it hurt. It was very, very painful. It was very painful. And I couldn't lift my chin. My head got so heavy, I was just like this.

And we weren't allowed to speak to each other, the three of us at that time. But Keith saw from the other corner of the camp from his box that I was in a very hard, difficult moment. And these two guys, they came over, and they put their arms around me. When they did that, I just started balling. I cried a lot.

But something happened that day, at night, the evening, before the sun went down. Again, we came close to each other, the three of us and we were looking up. And there was a rainbow -- this is a true story -- there was a rainbow up there. And the three of us, we had our arms around each other and we were looking at it. Tom said, I wonder if it's a sign. Well, I believe in God. And I looked at that rainbow, and I will never forget it. And I held that rainbow. I took it as something...

STANSELL: I remember that.

GONSALVES: As something for me, and for us that we're going to live. And we're going to go home. No logic told me that. Nothing that I saw happening told me that we were going to live. But something moved my spirit, and I always believed that we were going to live, and that we were going to come home one day. I just never knew when.

STANSELL: I have two little boys, 5-year-old twins.

I'm sorry. No, it's a happy -- this is happy. This is a good thing for me.

HOWES: When the camp boss told us about the fact that they just thought he had one little boy.

STANSELL: Thought one had died.

HOWES: He didn't even think about getting the photo. He said he saw the photo.


STANSELL: They bring a picture out, got two boys I have never seen.

These two guys helped me through it. I opened the door. Now, imagine, you have got these two children, to me, which is -- and they just -- I here, papa, papa, papa. And they just hit me. It was like I had never been gone.


BROWN: In just a moment, we're going have more from Robin's exclusive interview with the American hostages, including their emotional reunions with their families and a look that culture shock they feel after five years of isolation. We're coming right back.


BROWN: More now of our CNN exclusive interview with the three American hostages rescued last week after years of captivity in the Colombian jungle.

Headline News anchor Robin Meade spoke with them about the pain of being separated from their families and their emotional return to the United States.


HOWES: I just developed a severe dislike for this commander. And I would lose control, as my friends would tell me and try to bring me back, and just start -- I would get him in front of his troops and I would try to make him look as bad as he could.

And he was a mean guy. And he got to the point where he said he was going kill me one day. He took out his gun and made -- made a cocking sound. He didn't quite -- half-cocked it, and he said, "I'm going kill you."

And I made a comment back. And he lowered the gun. And he said, "Well, I'm not going kill you, but I'm going ruin your day. Then he went down to my feet and he said "I'm going shoot you in the foot." I said, "it's going to be tough to march." "Well, I'll shoot you in the arm."

Finally, he just gave up and he double-chained me that day. He took a keychain and so I had 18 pounds of chain and lock, and off we went through the jungles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As a punishment because you spoke up. HOWES: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically a form of torture.

HOWES: And when he took him down in the helicopter, I wanted his pistol and he said he'd probably go to a museum in Colombia. So I wanted just a memory of my friend, Enrique, who is now in a jail, I assume, in Bogota, and possibly on his way to States.

MARC GONSALVES, FREED AMERICAN HOSTAGE: The way I looked at what has happened to us is that I don't hate them but I hate what they do. And somebody has to stop them from terrorizing the whole country of Colombia, from victimizing innocent people.

The individuals that are committing these things, I don't hate them because there's always a hope that they can be rehabilitated and stop their crimes. Those things that they do, yes, I hate those things. They -- nobody should do that to other people. Never.

HOWES: And what I had is five and a half years that I see now of reflections. And I've re-examined every part of my life. They say as you get old at my age you start doing that anyway, but I had a lot of time to reflect on my failures, my successes and beat up everything I've done.

In a lot of ways that's positive because going back to my marriage, you know, I've got -- with the help of my friend's lists of marriage hints, everything that I have done I've kind of get another game plan on how I look at things. I like to say that's, you know, in a way a bit of maturity.


BROWN: Robin is with me now. And Robin, I understand that you saw the hostages, the former hostages a few minutes ago. What did they say to you?

MEADE: They just drove by our live location here. They wanted to thank us for the coverage for getting their story out there. But they also wanted to impress to the world that they haven't forgotten the other hostages. And they said please mention these other hostages. They're hoping that maybe there is some chance they might see this broadcast, or hear word of it and know that they're still thinking about hundreds of others who are still in captivity. I think a testament to the character of these men.

BROWN: Certainly. And Robin, these guys missed a chunk of their lives back home. What struck them most coming back after such a long absence?

MEADE: They kind of characterize themselves as tech heads so to speak, so they were fascinated. And can you imagine, Campbell, after five years how much has changed as we really look at it. They were fascinated at how technology has advanced.

So they had cell phones when they left and were kidnapped in 2003. But now, cell phones can send pictures and videos and, you know, there are iPods. They were amazed at technology at that. And they were also amazed at what feels to them the blurry speed of life. It's just going by us at a blur. You can imagine after five years in captivity, how the pace of life in the United States would be certainly be a big difference from what you experience before.

BROWN: Absolutely. Well, it's riveting to hear from them and to watch that interview. Robin Meade for us tonight. Robin, thanks.

And you can see much more of Robin's exclusive interview with the former hostages tomorrow morning. Their emotional stories in their own words only on "Morning Express." That's at 6:00 a.m. Eastern time on Headline News.

And stay with me for one more extraordinary story from these brave men. The ingenious way they managed to keep themselves sane as the weeks turned into years.

But coming up next, mixed messages about Iran's military power. Missile test fudged photos and a big question about what exactly did happen over there this week.

And later, another off message moment for John McCain. One of his top economic advisers says Americans are just whining about the economy, creating quite the uproar, as you can imagine.

Plus, the McCain campaign's Viagra problem. You won't want to miss that. It's not really what you think. We'll be right back.


BROWN: Alarm bells went off again today when Iran claimed it had conducted a second round of missile tests, missiles that could hit Israel. But as the day wore on that claim started to look exaggerated and then possibly bogus.

Well, tonight there all sorts of questions about whether Iran is trying to scare the world with doctored photographs. And CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour is in London looking for answers for us.

And Christiane, a lot of people saw this photograph. We're going to show people right now this AFP photo on the front pages of newspapers across the country today, and it shows Iran launching four missiles. It turns out that this photo may have been bogus, right?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, those two photos look very, very different. But the real crux of the issue is not whether those two photos were different, but did Iran launch missiles and why.

And if indeed it has doctored those photos, it was done apparently by the Separk (ph) press agency, which is the press arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which conducted these exercises. And Iran over the years, many, many analysts say, has exaggerated its military capability, not just in the missile area but also even in the nuclear area in terms of its readiness, its stage of advancement on its nuclear program.

And this comes, this sort of exaggeration certainly according to these pictures, at a time when Iran is trying to flex its muscles and basically say that if it is attacked by Israel or the United States, it can and will respond. But again, many people believe that Iran's claims about its own missile ability are exaggerated.

BROWN: But Christiane, the underlying fact is, even if these photographs were doctored, as you say, they were still launching long- range missiles?

AMANPOUR: That's exactly right. According to all the intelligence and according to what's been picked up on radar and other surveillance methods and also shown on Iranian state television, there does appear to have been some tests yesterday. And I know that there was a discrepancy about one today, which apparently was perhaps not a new test but one that failed to go off yesterday was ignited today.

The fact of the matter is Iran is saying, look, there are these tensions. Israel, in the form of its transport minister, has said that it might attack the nuclear facility. Israel conducted war games. The United States has been very clear about Iran's nuclear program.

Right now, Iran and the West are trying to negotiate over the nuclear program. Tensions are very, very high. And Iran is basically saying, flexing its muscles and saying if we're attacked, we will respond.

BROWN: And sending a very strong message on that front. Christiane Amanpour in London for us tonight. Christiane, thanks.

Our pocketbooks, our pinched gas prices are out of control, thousands of jobs lost, but a top John McCain adviser thinks people are just whining about the economy. We'll explain that coming up next.


BROWN: Just as John McCain is struggling to connect with voters worried about the economy, he's been thrown off message by one of the last people you'd expect, his top economic adviser, Phil Gramm. Yes, that Phil Gramm, the former U.S. senator, bank executive and economics professor, who fought for lower taxes and balanced budgets during his 20 years in Congress.

Well, in today's "Washington Times," that Phil Gramm downplays our economic problems. He said, "That this is a mental recession." "We have sort of become a nation of whiners."

Well, campaigning in Virginia today, Barack Obama had a lot of fun with that at McCain's expense. Take a listen.


SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Today, one of his top economic advisers, former Senator Phil Gramm, said that we're merely in a mental recession. That's what he said. Senator Gramm then deemed the United States and I quote, "a nation of whiners." Whoa.

America already has one Dr. Phil. We don't need another one when it comes to the economy.


BROWN: Now campaigning in Michigan, Senator McCain not at all amused.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I don't agree with Senator Gramm. I believe that the person here in Michigan that just lost his job isn't suffering from a mental recession. I believe the mother here in Michigan around America, who is trying to get enough money to educate their children isn't whining.

Phil Gramm does not speak for me. I speak for me. So I strongly disagree.


BROWN: McCain wasn't done, though. A reporter asked whether Phil Gramm would be up for treasury secretary or another top economic post in a McCain administration?

MCCAIN: I think Senator Gramm would be in serious consideration for ambassador to Belarus. Although I'm not sure the citizens of Minsk would welcome that.


BROWN: We should call the embassy there and see what they think. Anyway, Senator Gramm tells CNN's Dana Bash that he stands by his comments that the country is in a mental recession. But he adds he was speaking for himself and not the McCain campaign.

Gramm also told Dana that he meant to say that the country's leaders, especially Congress, are a bunch of whiners, not the American people. We're no whiners.

So, how much damage has Phil Gramm actually caused John McCain? We've got opinions from across the political spectrum. No bias here, no bull.

We've got Steve Kornacki, a columnist for the "New York Observer," Errol Louis, a columnist for the New York "Daily News," and once again, Tara Wall, deputy editorial page editor for the "Washington Times" and former senior adviser to the Republican National Committee.

And Tara, you say, I know that in fact Phil Gramm's views on the economy are simply what a lot of conservative economists believe. McCain prides himself on straight talk, but not in this case or not from one of his economic advisers, huh?

TARA WALL, FMR. SR. ADVISER, REPUB. NATL. CMTE: Yes, and you know, we actually at times have a lot of -- of late, we've had a lot of Republicans coming through. They say a lot of things on or off the record in these editorial board meetings. And they don't necessarily represent McCain or McCain's positions, even though they support McCain.

I think though certainly, you don't want your surrogate, he is a surrogate out on the day that you're making an economic pitch in Michigan to rile the feathers of folks when talking about economic policy that he hasn't necessarily embraced. It is though with the exception of equating mental illness with the mental recession.

Short of that, what he is saying is what a lot of economist, conservative economists have said essentially that this is -- you know, there's ebbs and pause in the economy. Some say we are not technically in a recession. That can be argued and that we're just on a down point in the economy. And there have been upswings at least for the past 36 months.

BROWN: So --

WALL: I think that was the point he was trying to make in a broader context.

BROWN: But here's the question, is that, in fact, do you think what John McCain believes and he's just unwilling to say it because of the political ramifications? He's a politician running for president and people want to know that you feel their pain.

WALL: Well, again, you know, John McCain has sided with the president on some issues and has bucked the administration and the conservative policies on some issues. Tax cuts being among them. But the reason he voted against the initial tax cuts actually was because of his conservative ideals about out of control spending.

I think that essentially, up to the bottom line is, you're talking about the economy in a state that is suffering. You want to feel people's pain. You don't want someone to make flippant remarks and use language that necessarily isn't yours to, you know, downplay what's actually going on.

BROWN: Right. Got it. OK.

Steve, is it fair though for Barack Obama to sort of jump all over Gramm's comments as he did today because he has certainly had his supporters go off the reservation too?

STEVE KORNACKI, N.Y. OBSERVER COLUMNIST: Sure. That's the way the game is played, though. You know, this is the McCain campaign's blunder because they should have realized a long time ago of the tactical usefulness of Phil Gramm as a public surrogate expired with the Republican primary season. His currency, his credentials are good with the Republican base, with some Republican activists who John McCain had struggled to connect with. So you find out Phil Gramm in the primaries when you're being challenged on the right by Mitt Romney.

BROWN: What? Many put him in the closet?

KORNACKI: You're going to fall. They're going to put out Phil Gramm. Oh, yes, he's a former senator. He talks kind of funny. He sticks his foot in his mouth.

BROWN: All right.

KORNACKI: He doesn't mean anything to average people. You don't put him out there on the floor. They were asking for trouble.

BROWN: How much is this going to hurt John McCain? I mean, we've had Phil Gramm as we mentioned earlier, it's a backing away from these comments.

ERROL LOUIS, NY DAILY NEWS COLUMNIST: I think it would do a lot of damage to him. Among the places that McCain used him as a surrogate was when he went to the editorial board of the "Wall Street Journal" to try and, you know, talk about economic issues. He has attached to this man, and this is somebody who not just made a gaffe today but is deeply implicated in some of these most serious problems in the economy today. I mean, he was chair of the Senate Banking Committee throughout the 1990s. He passed much of the deregulation...

BROWN: Right.

LOUIS: ... that people believe led to the housing crisis that we have today.

BROWN: And part of the problem may well be that McCain has struggled from the very beginning on trying to convey his understanding of the economy.


LOUIS: But you know, it's a mistake to think that it's just --

WALL: He condemns it right away.

LOUIS: It's a mistake to think that it's just a lack of knowledge.

WALL: Well, he condemned it.

LOUIS: Phil Gramm is the author -- wait, excuse me. Phil Gramm is the author of the Enron loophole, you know. And his wife served on the Board of Enron after she left government service.

WALL: Hey, come on.


BROWN: But this is not about Phil Gramm, it's about McCain.

LOUIS: But McCain -- BROWN: McCain has had plenty of problems conveying to people that the economy is his strength.

WALL: Well, and he has made -- I think he's made up a lot of ground with Carly Fiorina. This is one gaffe among many. I mean, if that's the case, then Barack Obama can throw his advisers who talk about NAFTA and Iraq under the bus as well.

BROWN: Hold -- hold that thought, hold that thought.

WALL: That's a mistake and he condemned it right away.

BROWN: Because you mentioned Carly Fiorina. Stay with me, guys. Another one of John McCain's top supporters, yes, that's her, got way off message and that left John McCain with a Viagra problem. Yes, you heard me. That's coming up next. Stay there, Tara.


BROWN: So, hey there, Senator McCain. How's that campaign makeover going?

We've been hearing that you're all about staying on message. But as we know, Phil Gramm, one of your top economic guys, came out today and called us all a "nation of whiners." And then there's Carly Fiorina, another of your top advisers, what she said about Viagra, well, it left you speechless.

And our Joe Johns has the story.


JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Straight Talk Express started sputtering a little when a reporter asked John McCain whether it was fair that many insurance companies that don't cover birth control pills for women do cover Viagra for me.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I certainly do not want to discuss that issue.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But I think you voted against.

MCCAIN: I don't know what I --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You voted against the coverage of purposeful forcing of the drug companies to cover birth control in the past. Is that still your position?

MCCAIN: I'll look at my voting record on it. But I have -- I don't recall the vote right now. But I'll be glad to look at it.

JOHNS: What triggered that uncomfortable exchange? Comments from McCain's campaign co-chairwoman Carly Fiorina, the high profile CEO who is helping McCain win over women voters.

Earlier this week, Fiorina blasted insurance companies saying, "There are many health insurance plans that will cover Viagra but won't cover birth control medication. Those women would like a choice."

McCain later faced a grilling about Fiorina's charge.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Her statement was that it was unfair that health insurance companies cover Viagra but not on birth control. Do you have an opinion on that?

MCCAIN: I don't know enough about it to give you an informed answer because I don't recall the vote. I have cast thousands of votes. I will respond to that -- it's a --

JOHNS: For the record in 2003, McCain voted "no" on legislation requiring insurance coverage of birth control. His campaign says contraception is a personal matter, best left up to individuals not government.

Joe Johns, CNN, Washington.


BROWN: So Viagra isn't a personal matter? Anyway, Carly Fiorina, Phil Gramm -- John McCain has got to be wondering how to keep advisers on the program.

No bias, no bull. Here again with me, Steve Kornacki, Errol Louis and Tara Wall.

Tara, I got to ask you, what do you think was going through John McCain's head when he got the Viagra question?

WALL: He was thinking about the ads that we're going to be running in the fall, with the DNC, and him saying Viagra over and over and over again. Look, it was a fair question.

You know, Carly Fiorina needs -- she's a great, dynamic surrogate. She needs to stay on message, economics. And John McCain was right not to answer the question.

BROWN: Steve?

KORNACKI: It's interesting. There are two different kinds of surrogates in these things. One is like Phil Gramm who just comes out and pitches for the candidate. The other is Carly Fiorina. She was actually a dark horse candidate for vice president. He's sort of an outside the box that she didn't --

BROWN: Any more?

KORNACKI: You think John McCain wants to answer another question like that in the fall? It's over.

BROWN: I think he's going to need to answer the question frankly.

LOUIS: Not only does he need to answer the question. He needs to figure out what he thinks about these things. I mean, the problem is not with the surrogate, it's with the candidate. He's not sure where he stands on this issue.

BROWN: All right.

LOUIS: And that's true of other issues too.

BROWN: Guys, we got to end it there. When we come back, one more extraordinary story we're going to have from those freed American hostages. Thanks guys.


BROWN: We now have more on CNN Headline News anchor Robin Meade's exclusive interview with the three American hostages rescued from their Colombian captors last week. And this is amazing. They told Robin that a game carved out of wood kept them so focused they never lost hope.


MARC GONSALVES, FREED AMERICAN HOSTAGE: This is the chess board, and here are the pieces that --

ROBIN MEADE, CNN HEADLINES NEWS ANCHOR: How did you make the pieces?

GONSALVES: I was able to carve with a broken piece of a machete.

MEADE: Do you carve chess pieces with a broken piece of machete?

KEITH STANSELL, FREED AMERICAN HOSTAGE: He just (INAUDIBLE) what they had did. He's a guy -- I'm going to make a chess set -- had a broken piece -- he just started.

He says, I'm going to make a chess set. I'm tired of this.

MEADE: And your captors allowed you to do it? Or did you hide it?

GONSALVES: No, they allowed me to do it. Some of the lower ranking guards actually took an interest to see if I was going to be able to finish it. And --

STANSELL: Because they want it themselves.

MEADE: They wanted you to carve for them?

GONSALVES: Yes. Then later they wanted me to carve some for them.

MEADE: So how often did this keep your mind sharp and pass the days?

GONSALVES: So this -- that's the point that I wanted to make was that this chess set here must have gotten -- won't you just say, hundreds of hours of use between...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It goes thousands of hours.

GONSALVES: ... all the hostages it was a way for us to stop thinking about the cruel situation that we were in.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that one incredible?

GONSALVES: And thinking about something else and exercise our minds.


BROWN: Amazing stuff. Well Larry King has a new permanent address. We're going to show you next.


BROWN: Before we go to "LARRY KING LIVE," take a look at this. Today, in honor of Larry's 50 years in broadcast journalism, the city of Los Angeles dedicated King Square.

Congratulations, Larry. That is it for me in the ELECTION CENTER. "LARRY KING LIVE" starts right now.