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THE SITUATION ROOM

Broken Promise on Gitmo?; Reinforcements to Afghanistan?

Aired September 28, 2009 - 18:00   ET

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


SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: You can see more of Larry King's interview with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and his thoughts on Osama bin Laden, as well as the hero's welcome his country gave the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. That is "LARRY KING LIVE" tonight at 9:00 Eastern on CNN, the worldwide leader in news.

Happening now: one of President Obama's first promises in jeopardy, a new acknowledgment that closing the Guantanamo Bay prison camp is slow and complicated -- why the president's timing may have been off.

Plus, a new level of danger in Afghanistan, a dire situation on the ground, as the White House considers sending reinforcements. The commander of the war speaks out, and we are talking to the troops.

And Bill Clinton says that the right-wing conspiracy that attacked him now is trying to bring down President Obama. The best political team on television joins us throughout this hour to talk about all of that and much, much more.

Wolf Blitzer's off today. I'm Suzanne Malveaux. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Right now, one of the very first promises that President Obama made to the American people is threatening to become an embarrassment. There is growing evidence that the Guantanamo Bay prison camp probably is not going to be closed within a year after he took office. And that threatens to create all sorts of legal and political complications for this administration.

The best political team on television is standing by to talk about that. But first I want to bring in our Brian Todd -- Brian.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Suzanne, there's been a lot of back and forth over this over the past few days. Right now, White House officials are being somewhat cagey about that deadline. And experts say that just illustrates how difficult closing Guantanamo really is.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Just days after taking office, a confident pledge from the president.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Guantanamo will be closed no later than one year from now. TODD: Now, after a special task force has taken months to work out legal and logistical challenges, it's not clear that the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay will be closed by that January 2 deadline. On Friday, two senior administration officials tell CNN it's unlikely the deadline will be met. On Sunday, CNN's John King presses Defense Secretary Robert Gates about it.

ROBERT GATES, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I think it has proven more complicated than anticipated. TODD: Today, White House officials say they are doing everything possible to meet the deadline, but they are also hedging.

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We're not focused on whether or not the deadline will or won't be met on a particular day. We're focused on ensuring that the facility is closed, and doing all that has to be done between now and the 22nd of January to make the most progress that we can that's possible.

TODD: What's the biggest challenge?

SCOTT SILLIMAN, DUKE UNIVERSITY LAW SCHOOL: The biggest problem in closing Guantanamo Bay by January of next year is finding an acceptable place to send those people.

TODD: Experts say about a quarter of the more than 200 detainees left at Guantanamo will likely be tried by a federal or military court. A White House official tells us U.S. allies have agreed to take more than 30 others who can't be sent to their home countries. But for the rest, those who cannot be prosecuted or are too dangerous to be sent elsewhere, the White House official says the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security are locating a facility somewhere in the U.S. that doesn't threaten the community.

Still, that could run into heavy political resistance in Congress.

Another challenge, changing the mind-set of some detainees. We asked Dr. Tawfik Hamid, a former militant who once knew al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, how that could be done.

TAWFIK HAMID, AUTHOR, "INSIDE JIHAD": If you can deliver for them some sort of peaceful message of interpretation for Islam, through some selected scholars who can teach them in a peaceful way, if you can guarantee something like that as well, this would be great to at least de-radicalize them as well.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: That involves gathering as much as intelligence as possible on the detainees still held. But a White House official tells us the previous administration did not do a good job of organizing intelligence and evidence on those detainees. We tried to get response from the offices of former President Bush and former Vice President Cheney. We have not heard back yet -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Brian, in speaking with people at the White House, they say, you know, a lot of times, what happens is, Washington is so stagnant. They can't get anything done without setting a deadline.

MURPHY: Right.

MALVEAUX: The people you talk to, is there a sense of regret now?

TODD: They don't seem to regret setting the deadline.

Robert Gates said on Sunday that he had argued for setting the deadline back in December of last year. He sticks to that now. He says, look, at least with a deadline, even if you don't meet it, you're at least showing progress toward closing the facility even if you have to extend that deadline. Now, that's the question now. Are they going to extend it? They could be laying the groundwork for that right now.

MALVEAUX: OK. Thank you very much, Brian.

TODD: Well, high-level discussions about Guantanamo Bay, they're among many of the tough decisions that are confronting President Obama. And right now, Afghanistan is one of them. It boils with violence. There are American troops unfortunately who are continuing to die.

Extremists, they appear to be improving their deadly tactics. Even the president's top military point person in Afghanistan, he says that the situation is dire.

CNN Pentagon correspondent Chris Lawrence joining us to kind of lay out the lay of the land here on the ground -- Chris.

CHRIS LAWRENCE, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Suzanne, up to 40,000 military families could be affected by the president's decision to send more troops. Here's an idea of what they could be facing.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE (voice-over): The top U.S. commander says the situation in Afghanistan is not getting better.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. COMMANDER IN AFGHANISTAN: They are probably a little worse.

LAWRENCE: What's that mean? Compared to just two years ago, the number of American troops killed by roadside bombs is up 400 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) Oh. Never mind!

LAWRENCE: And a senior Defense official tells CNN the insurgents are getting better faster.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Found a land mine west of your location.

LAWRENCE: When U.S. forces designed a way to disrupt more sophisticated bombs, the insurgents went back to using simple devices that go undetected along the rocky unpaved roads.

SPECIALIST ADAM BRYANT, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA: It always single isolated attacks.

LAWRENCE: Army Reserve Specialist Adam Bryant deployed into nearly a dozen villages, remote areas with one way in and out.

BRYANT: Even in Kabul, you stray from the main path and you run into an absolutely terrible dirt road.

LAWRENCE: An analyst who monitors the Afghan election says there's not enough NATO forces to cover southern and eastern Afghanistan. So, even though troops control one city:

MICHAEL O'HANLON, SENIOR FELLOW IN FOREIGN POLICY STUDIES, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: But the next city over, the Taliban is in charge or operates without any particular constraint. And they can use that second city as a sanctuary from which to attack the first city.

LAWRENCE: Senator Lindsey Graham says it's harder to get off base when visiting Afghanistan, even under heavy protection.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: You can't travel like you once could.

LAWRENCE: American troops are now operating under new orders: Protect Afghan civilians at all costs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is that a kid? Damn it!

LAWRENCE: Even if it means holding back from a clear shot at insurgents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My only concern is that child right now. Once he can get away (INAUDIBLE)

LAWRENCE: General McChrystal has ordered troops out of their forward operating bases and out of their armored vehicles.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where you from?

LAWRENCE: But mixing with Afghans and building trust means soldiers and Marines assume more risk.

BRYANT: Because the Taliban, the enemy, dresses just as the civilians do on a daily basis. They don't wear any type of uniform that you can recognize. So, the question have you to ask yourself every single day is, am I surrounded by enemies?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

LAWRENCE: Now, despite that uncertainty, General McChrystal's new strategy seems to be paying off when it comes to protecting Afghan civilians. In a two-month stretch last year, coalition forces were responsible for more than 150 civilian deaths. In that same stretch this summer, they were only responsible for 19 deaths -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Thank you, Chris.

I want to bring in our CNN senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, and CNN senior political analyst David Gergen to talk about this.

And the first thing during the campaign covering President Obama, he talked about Afghanistan as the forgotten war and that essentially that it was Bush who dropped the ball for eight years. The people that you're talking to, is there a concern that, if Afghanistan unravels, that the rest of his agenda as well?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I don't think they look at it the rest of his agenda. But it is a huge problem for him for a couple reasons, first of all, because, as you mentioned, during the campaign, President Obama said, that's where we should be putting the troops, that's the war, that's where we go get al Qaeda.

You have that political problem. But I have never seen a politician yet that couldn't dial that back with a new mission. You're hearing all this talk about a new mission. But I think the other problem is, here is this new president, who's going to get a recommendation from the top man, military man, on the ground, McChrystal, in Afghanistan, saying, we need 40,000 more troops.

And for the president to go, no, I'm not going to give them, I think is just very, very tough. So, he's got to come up with a mission and a number of troops that match.

MALVEAUX: David, how does he do that?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm not sure.

He's in something of a box. And it's partly his own creation, it's partly the facts on the ground have gone south on him. But he said during the campaign -- he made it -- I think most people understood Afghanistan, the forgotten war, the one we must win.

And he has said as president, it's a war of necessity, all of which suggests that you have to put more troops in there if you're a commander on the ground. McChrystal has said, as he has, that if you don't put more troops in, you're going to have a failure on your hands and we will lose Afghanistan, in effect.

On the other hand, to go in, I think Candy would agree that there are Democrats who do worry there's a Vietnam analogy here. They worry that he will be sucked in to having bigger commitments, and, like Lyndon Johnson, he will find that his domestic program will stall out, and that -- and he will be remembered more and his presidency might go down, Democrats might go down on that.

So, there is a -- and he himself has indicated not only an ambivalence, but an uncertainty. And if the United States president is uncertain, you can imagine then what European nations will say. Well, if he's not in, all in, if he really doesn't believe in this, we're getting out.

So, he's got a -- this is a tough set of decisions that he's got, not only to make the right decisions, but then to persuade the country and to persuade the world that they're the right decisions.

MALVEAUX: OK. I want you guys to stand by. We are going to continue this conversation.

Is President Obama under political attack? Bill Clinton says a shadowy vast right-wing conspiracy is back on the attack now against President Obama. And Florida Governor Charlie Crist says that President Obama may suffer the same political fate as President Jimmy Carter.

And it's a phone call hardly any of us will ever get -- the president calling with an offer to sit on the Supreme Court. New Justice Sonia Sotomayor reveals the emotional moment President Obama picked her.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Bill Clinton says the so-called right-wing conspiracy is alive and well and going after President Obama. The former president was asked yesterday about the conservative critics who attacked him and his administration and what it could mean for the Democrats going forward.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GREGORY, MODERATOR, "MEET THE PRESS": Do you worry about a repeat of '94 politically?

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There's no way they can make it that bad, for several reasons. Number one, the country is more diverse and more interested in positive action.

Number two, they have seen this movie before because they had eight years under President Bush, when the Republicans finally had the whole government, and they know the results were bad. And, number three, the Democrats haven't taken on the gun lobby like I did, and they took 15 of our members out. So, I don't think -- it will be -- whatever happens, it will be manageable for the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Some Republicans also hear echoes of the past in the current attacks on the president.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist suggests that Mr. Obama could be a one-term president, like Jimmy Carter.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. CHARLIE CRIST (R), FLORIDA: I think the people wanted a change. I think it was that simple. They wanted a change back in 1976. You remember? Richard Nixon had been president. That ended. Gerald Ford took over. The people decided they want they wanted a change.

They got one, Jimmy Carter. Four years later, they took care of business, Ronald Reagan. It may happen again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: All right, we're going to bring back our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley, our senior political analyst, David Gergen. And also joining us now, we have CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Paul Begala and "Fortune" magazine columnist and conservative humorist Ben Stein.

Ben, I want to start off with you. Do you think President Clinton is right?

BEN STEIN, FORMER NIXON SPEECHWRITER: Well, he said a great many things. I'm not sure what you're referring to about whether he's right.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: Right-wing conspiracy, let's start with that one.

STEIN: There's no vast right-wing conspiracy. There was no vast right-wing conspiracy when Hillary Clinton said there was a long time ago. There's no vast right-wing conspiracy now.

Unfortunately, there's no vast right-wing. There's certainly -- if there is a right-wing, it's not really clever enough to have a conspiracy. The problem is that Mr. Obama is bringing up a lot of issues that upset people. And it's set in motion (INAUDIBLE) opposition, such as the health care, such as the enormous budget deficits.

That's not a conspiracy to oppose that. That's free speech. The idea of calling any kind of opposition to the president a conspiracy is -- it's kind of silly. I mean, it's kind of childish.

MALVEAUX: And, Paul, Governor Crist says, hey, this is a one- term president. It's eight months in.

PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, exactly. I don't think Charlie Crist is going to replace Candy Crowley as a senior political reporter for this network.

(LAUGHTER)

BEGALA: But he's -- you have got to cut him some lack. He's a politician. He's running for the Senate. What's he supposed to say? Gee, Obama's unbeatable; we can't take him on.

That's well within the accepted bounds of political hyperbole. Come on. Give him a break. To pick up on Ben's point, our CNN colleague Jeff Toobin wrote a book about those years called "A Vast Conspiracy." Obviously, there was a concerted effort by the moneyed interests on the far right to try to undermine President Clinton, as there is under President Obama. But I think President Clinton is right. It's less now. We have a different country. It's a I think more progressive country. So, maybe it's a half-vast -- half-vast right- wing conspiracy.

I said it very carefully, Ben, so I don't get in trouble with the censors.

(CROSSTALK)

MALVEAUX: David, you and I were around when President Clinton and the whole Monica Lewinsky scandal, the investigation. And that's when we heard President Clinton talk about this right-wing -- that -- the right-wing conspiracy. What's different now between the President Clinton era and President Obama?

GERGEN: Yes. Well, Suzanne, I think it was Hillary Clinton who actually invented the phrase.

MALVEAUX: She did, yes.

GERGEN: And there are people on the left who believe it.

I -- whatever you call it, there's certainly a conservative chorus out there that is as tough on President Obama as it was on Bill Clinton. And it made a difference in the '94 elections. It helped the Republicans regain the House and the Senate.

And, clearly, now, the drumbeat against the president over the last few months, particularly this summer, was successful in bringing down his numbers and driving up the Republican prospects. That said, it's hard for me to see -- there are a few people, like Michael Barone, who believe the Republicans can take over the House next year. I don't see those numbers right now.

I do think there's a good chance the Republicans will pick up significant seats, but I don't think they will very far in the Senate. So, in that sense, in '94, the Republicans took over the House and Senate. I don't see either of those in prospect. Maybe one of the other panelists does.

MALVEAUX: Well, Candy, I want to talk about -- Governor Crist, it was not long ago when he was with President Obama. I think we have a picture of two of them together. He was helping push for that economic stimulus package which was so controversial.

What do you think has happened now that we're hearing this kind of language?

(LAUGHTER)

CROWLEY: I think Governor Crist got his money, and he's happy to have it and he's happy to be spending it in Florida. He is not -- he does have a primary challenge and that's one of the things that his primary opponent is keying on, who is a more conservative Republican, talking about that stimulus money. But we all believe, whether or not any of us have been inside his head, that Governor Crist has national aspirations.

And he's a Republican. That's what Republicans say and you take the money. The federal government is going to send you money, you say, I will take it.

MALVEAUX: What do you think, Ben, about Governor Crist's aspirations?

STEIN: Let me just say, I feel embarrassed that you called me the humorist. I think for Paul to say that because Mr. Toobin wrote a book about something, that makes it true. That's the real joke.

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: Oh. Oh.

STEIN: I mean, Mr. Toobin is a fine writer. He's a superb writer and he's a fine lawyer.

He's a very smart guy. But there are a million different people writing books on a million different subjects. The fact that a person writes a book on something doesn't make it true.

Look, the Republicans have found rich red meat in the health care program. People are terrified of Mr. Obama coming between them and their doctor. They have found rich red meat in the stimulus package. A lot of very smart people say it didn't work and it was just a boondoggle for Democratic special interest groups. There's rich red meat in the huge budget deficits. There's rich red meat in the proposed tax increases.

Mr. Obama is putting a lot of red meat on the table. That's the story.

MALVEAUX: All right, we're going to have much more of this on the other side of the break. So, just hang with us. Hang tight. This is getting a little hot here.

Well, you might say that President Obama is trying out for the Olympics. Will he help his hometown of Chicago beat out the competition? What President Obama is doing that no other American president has done before.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: We're going to have more with our panel.

(NEWS BREAK)

MALVEAUX: The president is putting his prestige on the line to help Chicago become an Olympic city. But is he wasting his political capital? Crowley, Gergen, Begala, and Stein, all of them tackle that question up ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Right now, President Obama is set to jump feet-first to get a jump toward a daunting Olympic hurdle. We learned today that he's personally going to try to persuade the International Olympic Committee to choose Chicago to host the 2016 Summer Games.

Now, the first lady, she spoke to reporters today about the trip at the White House. I know that our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry was there.

And, Ed, you and I talked about this. It sounds like she is saying, bring it, especially to the Brazilians, because they want it in Chicago this go-round.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Suzanne. She was jumping through hoops herself as well, Mrs. Obama clearly saying that the first couple will be involved in a massive last-minute lobbying effort here.

The first lady actually at one point comparing it to the 2008 presidential campaign, saying, look, these International Olympic Committee members, they are going to be deciding at the last minute, just like voters in the 2008 campaign. So, that's why they're pulling out all the stops. The president going to be on the ground in Copenhagen a very short time, leaving Thursday night, sleeping on Air Force One, and then doing a series of meetings on Friday.

The first lady saying she's been working the phones, reaching out to Olympic Committee members, as has Vice President Joe Biden, also Valerie Jarrett, a top aide here, telling me the president has been on the phone last couple of days as well.

So, this is an intense lobbying effort. And Valerie Jarrett basically also told me that the first couple being involved will be an important one-two punch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VALERIE JARRETT, SENIOR PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: What a dynamic duo they will be. I think it will be high impact. I think their presentation will be both very personal, given that they know and love Chicago so well, and I also think it will talk about the Olympic spirit and the Olympic movement, and why we think that Chicago really is the perfect place to host the Olympics and Paralympic Games.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HENRY: Now, I asked the first lady, though, whether she fears that she and the president are raising expectations too high, getting all these top officials involved. If they don't get it, could be seen as a political blow to the president. She insisted otherwise, basically saying, look, you're darned if you do, darned if you don't. If they didn't push hard enough for Chicago, there would be people asking questions. So they're all in and they're also trying to stress, as the first lady told me, this is not just the president's bid, this is America's bid and that's why they're pushing so hard, Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: And, Ed, I understand you have a kind of a funny story about the fact that Michelle Obama was kind of doing a little bit of arm-twisting last week to some other first ladies.

HENRY: This is pretty funny. She told us a little behind the scenes tidbit about, you know, we never get to hear too much about the chatter at these G20 summits -- the big dinner that she and the president were hosting in Pittsburgh last Thursday night. She actually sat down and was seated next to the first lady of Brazil. Brazil also has a competing bid. And basically Marisa Lula da Silva, the first lady of Brazil, bottom line is that the first lady told her, look, I'll hug you now, but next week in Copenhagen, I'm going after you. And that's what Mrs. Obama said. She said it with a smile, but, nevertheless, a little bit of trash talking, perhaps, before the Games -- Suzanne.

MALVEAUX: Diplomatic, but trash talking, nevertheless.

HENRY: That's right.

MALVEAUX: OK. We'll see how all of this goes.

We are back with our senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley; senior political analyst, David Gergen; CNN contributor and Democratic strategist Paul Begala; and "Fortune" magazine columnist and conservative humorist, Ben Stein.

A lot to chew over here -- but, Candy, I'll throw it out at you first. You know, he's -- this is another thing that he's got on his plate.

CROWLEY: He does and I think he would have been better off had he not said two weeks ago that he couldn't go because he was so busy with health care and that was the most important thing, forcing his spokesman, Robert Gibbs to come out today to say...

(CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: -- well, health care is moving along now, so he's going.

But nonetheless, fine. Just sleep on the plane. I mean, you know, as far as political capital is concerned, you know, I don't know if you have political capital with the Olympic Committee. And I don't think he's wasting any on Capitol Hill.

MALVEAUX: Well, is it popularity, Paul?

I mean what if he doesn't get it?

What if Chicago doesn't -- it doesn't happen for him?

BEGALA: You know, if he doesn't get it, he looks bad. I -- I have to say, this is a great idea for Barack Obama to go to Copenhagen, if he had lost the election to John McCain. If he was a senator from Illinois, go for it, Senator.

But he's the president of the United States. And, you know, he does have a full plate. I mean Iran is launching shots -- missiles; Afghanistan, the general is asking for more troops; health care is at a critical juncture. I understand, you know, President Lula from Brazil is -- has been there. President Putin helped bring the Games -- the Winter Games to Russia by showing up in person. Tony Blair, when he was British prime minister, helped London win. So there's a bit of a precedence.

But I'd say, if I was working for him, I'd say, sir, don't go. You've got enough -- you've got a full-time job right now.

MALVEAUX: David, do you agree?

GERGEN: No, go for it. Listen, the four -- it's down to four countries. The heads of -- the heads of all three other countries are going to be there. We're in a sit -- it's a political situation that's fluid. Brazil is thought to be ahead among the 100 members who are going to vote. If President Obama shows up, he's got a reasonable chance to sway it the other way. And if he gets the Olympics, think about this, it will be in 2016. In Chicago in that summer, he may still be president. It would be a crowning moment to be there in his hometown, to have a great, big stadium built right there in the South Side of Chicago right close to where he and Michelle live. And if he doesn't get it, listen, he's been -- he's been loyal to his friends. I think to go over on a Thursday night -- I don't think that's a big deal.

MALVEAUX: Ben, what do you think...

GERGEN: And I think to have the other three go and not go would have been a real mistake.

MALVEAUX: Ben?

STEIN: I think it's a -- I think it's amazing that this administration is cracking down on business meetings, is slamming the hospitality workers all over this country, citing (ph) north of 500,000 hospitality workers, hotel maids and butlers and valets have lost their job because this administration is trashing business meetings and here he goes on another business meeting. He's been on something like 30 meetings on planes -- on jet planes since he's been president.

How come everybody else can't have meetings?

But, by the way, having the Olympics in your town is a lot of fun.

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: All right. We're going to get back to you guys in just a moment. The legendary journalist, William Safire, as you know, died yesterday. Ben Stein and David Gergen are going to share their personal memories next.

Also, it is a phone call that few people, well, of course, are ever going to get -- a call from the president of the United States with an offer to become a Supreme Court justice. Sonia Sotomayor reveals what that felt like and more.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM C-SPAN)

JUDGE SONIA SOTOMAYOR, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: And I had the -- my cell phone in my right hand and I had my left hand over my chest, trying to calm my beating heart, literally.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Journalist William Safire is being remembered today as one of the finest writers of his generation. He died yesterday at age 79. Safire was a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for columnist for "The New York Times. And before that, he was a speechwriter for President Richard Nixon.

Wolf Blitzer spoke with Safire in January of 2005, when he wrote his last opinion column for the times.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM JANUARY 2005)

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: As you know, a lot of liberals -- and some conservatives -- are blasting the so-called neo-cons, the neo- conservatives.

Are you in that category?

WILLIAM SAFIRE, "NEW YORK TIMES" COLUMNIST: I'm in no particular category because I usually bite the hand that feeds me. And -- but I'm a hard-liner on -- on the fence and on -- and on getting on the ideological offense against tyranny.

BLITZER: But you align yourself, more or less, with a lot of the views of the Wolfowitzs, the Rumsfelds.

SAFIRE: Oh, sure. Right. Yes. No doubt about it.

BLITZER: So you don't walk away from that?

SAFIRE: Quite the contrary. I was walking ahead of it 10 years ago.

BLITZER: A lot of our viewers and your readers and millions of people disappointed you're giving up that column. You made a conscientious decision. But you've got a second career you're about to begin. SAFIRE: Right. I think after 30 years or so, you ought to change your career and try something new. And I've been active with the Dana Foundation for brain science research for about 10 years. And now they've made me chairman. I told "The Times" a couple of years ago, this is going to be my last campaign. And the brain scientists all tell you, you -- you've got to keep those synapses snapping. And the way to do it is to change things and try something new.

And so that's what I'm going to do. And that's what I will urge everybody else to do -- to get into the -- the world that you don't know too much about yet.

BLITZER: Is there one quick little piece of recommendation you want to give young columnists just starting out right now?

SAFIRE: Number one, never retire. That's -- that's when you're starting out, think, where am I going to go next?

And if you're starting out, always kick them when they're up, not when they're down. And go against the grain whenever you can. Be a contrarian and don't worry about what -- what you say in terms of stepping on people's corns. Politicians are in this -- you saw Ted Kennedy take a strong view against what the public policy and the public opinion is. And good for him. And so I'll take a pop at him if I write in a column.

BLITZER: All right. We're -- we're going to still see you in Washington. We hope you'll be a frequent guest on our program, even though you're not writing that column anymore. We're going to miss the column, though.

SAFIRE: I'll still read "The Times".

BLITZER: I'll still read it, too.

Thanks very much, William Safire, retiring at least from one part of his life, the op-ed page of "The New York Times."

Thanks very much.

SAFIRE: Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Miss the columnist, as well.

I want to bring in David Gergen and Ben Stein on this. You both worked with William Safire.

Ben, you were good friends with him. Tell us about him.

STEIN: He was a wonderful man. I really can hardly talk about him without crying. He was a pallbearer at both of my parents' funerals. He was incredibly kind to both of my parents. His wife, Helene, God bless her soul, was my mother's best friend. He was just an incredibly wonderful human being -- kindly, supportive, loyal. He stood up for Richard Nixon in the worst moments. He stood up for what he believed in in the worst moments. This was a man of unshakable courage, brilliance, phenomenal literacy, phenomenal ability to write the English language. We will not see his like again. He was really one-of-a-kind -- a great, great man and a great, great friend.

MALVEAUX: David, what are your thoughts?

GERGEN: Well, I can guarantee you that -- that Ben Stein would not have come away from Yom Kippur were it not for how genuinely he feels and passionately he feels about Will -- Bill Safire. And I think all of us who had the privilege to work with Bill Safire have very, very warm memories of him.

Ben and I both worked in the White House back in the early '70s, when I arrived there on the speechwriting team. We had -- there were three big -- big hitters there. It was Bill Safire, Pat Buchanan and Ray Price. And Peggy Noonan has compared them to the Yankees of 1927- 28. It was a -- it was an All Star lineup. And Bill Safire brought something very special -- a sense of what a speech should be. I think he elevated the whole idea of -- of oratory, of rhetoric. If something has not been well understood -- it wasn't just about a word maven. He understood that he had the power of ideas.

And he was a -- he was just fun to be around. I -- one of the things that I always carried away from that -- and Ben will remember -- he had what he called, Suzanne, he called the -- the 17 minute rule. And that is when he went to a meeting -- and endless meetings in the White House -- he would always stay for 17 minutes and then he would get up and leave because he said, you know, if it wasn't going to be said in the 17 -- the first 17 minutes, it wasn't important and he didn't need to stay around for it. I've always thought that was a great rule.

MALVEAUX: Ben, what did you learn from him if it was -- politically, ideologically?

STEIN: I learned from him the value of writing a clear sentence, the value of standing up for your friends, the value of not caving into popular opinion, the value of sticking up for what you know is right and, also, the incredible value of humor. You know, you kindly called me a humorist. I'm really more of an economist than a humorist. But he put in my head the idea that whatever you're doing, put some humor in it.

He told me a story once that he was sitting on a sidewalk and Greta Garbo came up behind him and started to talk to him and he said to her, "I want to be alone," to Greta Garbo. And I will never forget that.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIN: Greta Garbo, who had not given an interview in something like 40 years, wanted to talk to him and he pushed her away. And that was how modest he was. He was a modest man and a great man.

MALVEAUX: Is there -- is there any story that comes to mind from either one of you that -- that really speaks to what he was like?

STEIN: I'll -- I'll tell you a great story, since it's Yom Kippur, if I may. He used to have a party every year to break the Yom Kippur fast for all the Jewish movers and shakers in Washington, which was quite a lot. And he -- and my parents were always invited and he would kindly let me tag along. And he used to send out a note to people saying, you don't have to fast, but the food will taste better if you do.

GERGEN: Yes. And -- and I will say this, Suzanne, he -- he formed something called the Judson Welliver Society, which was a collection of former White House speechwriters. And every year, he would gather with them, with -- Jack Pawlenty often co-hosted that with him. And, you know, Ted Sorenson, Bill Safire, Peggy Noonan, Ben Stein -- there were just a -- a galaxy of people whose -- whose names were familiar. And I think he told us one year, you know, the greatest distinction of this group of former White House speechwriters is not one single one of us has ever been indicted.

(LAUGHTER)

MALVEAUX: We're going to have the leave it there.

And thank you so much for your reflections, David Gergen, Ben Stein, Paul Begala, Candy Crowley.

Thanks again.

Now to -- to Lou Dobbs for "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.

LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: Suzanne, thank you very much.

At the top of the hour, Iran thumbing its nose at the world, setting off missiles in a show of force and defiance just days before talks on its nuclear program.

Can Iran be persuaded to stand-down?

All options being considered?

Two wars, Iran, health care, the economy -- the president's plate could not be any more full.

Can he handle it all?

Could he possibly?

Could anyone?

And fugitive filmmaker Roman Polanski in custody after 30 years. Authorities want him sent back to the United States. He pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old more than 30 years ago. Some in Hollywood sticking up for him. So are some in Poland and France.

Join us for all of that, all the latest news and more, coming up on CNN at the top of the hour -- Suzanne, back to you. MALVEAUX: Thanks, Lou.

Tears and a wrong turn on the way to the White House -- Sonia Sotomayor tells us what it was like to be tapped by President Obama for the Supreme Court.

Plus, did you hear the one about the pope and the spider?

CNN's Jeanne Moos takes a "Moost Unusual" look.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: OK. So what was it like for Sonia Sotomayor waiting for President Obama's call to offer her the job as the Supreme Court's first Hispanic justice and what did the president ask her to promise?

Well, she's recounting all of this in a newly released interview with C-SPAN.

I wanted you to take a listen to what she told Susan Swain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM C-SPAN)

SUSAN SWAIN, HOST: I believe this might be the first time that you've sat down with television since you -- your appointment was announced. I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind, for history, telling us the story of when you got the telephone call.

SOTOMAYOR: I was told that one day that the president would -- I had been told all weekend that the president would be making up his mind -- making his decision sometime on Monday. And I had been sitting in my office from 8:00 that morning waiting for a phone call. The phone calls I got instead were from my family, telling me or asking me what was happening. And I was getting the calls almost hourly. And almost -- not -- and every hour I would say, I don't know.

It's now nearly 7:00 in the evening and I called the White House and say, well, you're getting my family to Washington, have any of you given any thought about how I'm going to get there?

And they stopped and said oh, I guess we should figure that out, shouldn't we?

Literally, that was the response.

What I was told was that the president had gotten distracted with some important other business that was going on at the time and that he would call me at about 8:00, but that I should go home and pack to come to Washington and that they would prefer that I didn't take a plane. At 8:10, I received the call at my -- on my cell phone. And the White House operator tells you that the president is on the line.

SWAIN: And you were somewhere on the road at this point?

SOTOMAYOR: Nope, I was in... SWAIN: Still at home?

SOTOMAYOR: Still at home. Still packing. I actually stood by my balcony doors. And I had my cell phone in my right hand. And I had my left hand over my chest trying to calm my beating heart, literally. And the president got on the phone and said to me, "Judge, I would like to announce you as my selection to be the next associate justice of the United States Supreme Court." And I said to him -- I caught my breath and started to cry and said, "Thank you, Mr. President."

That was what the moment was like.

SWAIN: And then what?

SOTOMAYOR: He asked me to make him two promises. The first was to remain the person I was and the second was to stay connected to my community. And I said to him that those were two easy promises to make, because those two things I could not change. And he then said we would see each other in the morning, which -- which we obviously did.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: The justice also reveals, though, that she got lost on her drive to Washington to be announced as President Obama's first Supreme Court nominee.

I want you to listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM C-SPAN)

SOTOMAYOR: A torrential rain started on the drive and it knocked out our GPS and so we got lost. And all of a sudden, I'm in Virginia and looking out, because I had been scrambling on the piece of paper or scribbling on the piece of paper and making changes. And all of a sudden, I look up and I look at my friend and say, Tom, we're not going into Washington, we're going away from Washington. We'd better stop.

So we pulled over on a road and I started calling up a friend and saying please get on the computer and figure out how we get back to where we have to go. And I had a law clerk who was also -- my law clerks and my staff and my assistant and everybody had been driving down in separate cars. And he was from Washington. And he actually talked us back onto the road and to the hotel. So it was a very busy five-and-a-half, close to six hours, between the rain and getting lost. It was a very eventful -- eventful night.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: To say -- to say the least.

The Justice's comments are from C-SPAN's exclusive interviews with every current and retired justice. It will air during Supreme Court week. That is starting on October 4th. Well, take a close look at the video that we're going to show you now of the pope. Now, once you see it, it's hard to take your eyes off that wayward spider. It caused a "Moost Unusual" stir recently.

And moonrise over Afghanistan -- just one of the many compelling images that you'll want to see in today's Hot Shots. That's coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MALVEAUX: Here's a look at today's Hot Shots.

In China, paramilitary police march in Tiananmen Square to prepare for an upcoming national day parade. In France, a customs officer throws counterfeit luggage into a garbage truck.

In Afghanistan, a boy walks down a road as the moon rises in the background.

And in Thailand, a giant panda celebrates its eighth birthday with a basket of fruit.

Hot Shots -- pictures worth a thousand words.

Well, sometimes it's the small things that get our attention. At a recent speaking engagement in Prague by the pope, it was one of God's little creatures, rather than the pontiff, that got the lion's share of attention.

CNN's Jeanne Moos followed the path of this "Moost Unusual" itsy- bitsy distraction.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: (voice-over): Substitute pope for waterspout and you'll pretty much have the picture.

(MUSIC)

MOOS: Only in this case, no rain washed him out.

POPE BENEDICT XVI: But there's no simple answer as a Christian.

MOOS: As the pope spoke in a medieval Prague Castle, the spider kept reappearing.

(MUSIC)

MOOS: Going down the pontiff's arm...

(MUSIC)

MOOS: ...and then back up again.

(MUSIC)

MOOS: Who could pay attention to the pope's words...

POPE BENEDICT XVI: (INAUDIBLE) dimensions.

MOOS: ...when the spider's dimensions were so mesmerizing?

Whether you call it itsy bitsy, incy wincy (ph) or ensey weensey, when it finally crawled on the Pontiff's face, heading for his ear, he swatted at it, though the camera cut away and missed the swat. It's probably a good thing for the pope's image not to have pulled an Obama.

(VIDEO CLIP).

MOOS: Of course, the spider that made a papal visit was endlessly revisited on YouTube, with folks adding the music from "Jaws"...

(MUSIC)

MOOS: ...or some misspelled commentary.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE.COM)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Arachnophobia.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: ...gave way to arachnophobia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE.COM)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Eight legs, two fangs and an attitude.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Not since an arachnid stole the show waiting for the Space Shuttle Atlantis to launch two years ago has a spider caused such a stir.

(on camera): And this just in -- we kid you not, the Vatican has actually issued an itsy bitsy statement on the spider.

In the words of Father Lombardi, Vatican spokesperson: "The pope had no problem that the spider wanted to take a walk on him." Actually, it even walked out with him.

(VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: And whether you find spiders scary...

(MUSIC)

MOOS: ...or cute.

(MUSIC)

MOOS: ...at least the pontiff didn't spout this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, COURTESY CNBC)

OBAMA: And I got the sucker.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Amen.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MALVEAUX: I'm Suzanne Malveaux.

Tomorrow, Wolf Blitzer returns to THE SITUATION ROOM.

Up next, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT" -- Lou.

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