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THE SITUATION ROOM

Honeymoon Over For President Obama?; Infighting Over Afghanistan

Aired October 5, 2009 - 18:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: And broken government forces a couple to the brink of bankruptcy. They say they're being gouged by a credit card company trying to get around Congress and a new law to protect consumers.

And the president skewered as a do-nothing leader, not by conservatives, but by the comics at "Saturday Night Live." Can the White House just laugh it off? This hour, a reality check.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Fierce fighting is taking a toll right now in the president's struggle to plow forward in Afghanistan. On the battlefield, we have seen the deadliest attack on U.S. forces in more than a year near the Pakistan border.

On the political front, we're following some truly remarkable public lashes between some of the president's top guns.

Our senior White House correspondent, Ed Henry, is joining us now with more.

Ed, administration officials would like to see all of this debate behind closed doors.

ED HENRY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The last thing they want is for an already difficult debate to get more complicated by a public spat with a general. But that's exactly what's starting to spill out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY (voice-over): While the president publicly continued to try and break the deadlock over health reform, in private, tensions seem to be growing over what to do about Afghanistan, as top advisers to the president hint they would prefer to hear less public campaigning from General Stanley McChrystal.

ROBERT GATES, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It is imperative that all of us taking part in these deliberations, civilians and military alike, provide our best advice to the president candidly, but privately.

HENRY: A top adviser to the president confided to CNN the president has privately instructed aides to be -- quote -- "as vocal as you can in private and as mum as you can in public."

But General McChrystal is taking a much different approach. He gave a speech in London late last week that appeared to pressure the president to back his plan for up to 40,000 more U.S. troops to be sent to Afghanistan.

GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. COMMANDER IN AFGHANISTAN: Waiting does not prolong a favorable outcome. This effort will not remain winnable indefinitely.

HENRY: Irritating the president's national security adviser, retired General Jim Jones.

GEN. JIM JONES (RET), NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER-DESIGNATE: Ideally, it's better for military advice to come up through the chain of command.

HENRY: But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs repeatedly says there's no tension.

(on camera): Why is one person out there campaigning for just one plan?

ROBERT GIBBS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Because the general made an assessment and we're going through a series of decisions, including that assessment.

HENRY (voice-over): Tension is building with anti-war protesters like Cindy Sheehan, who chained themselves to the White House gates to protest the war in Afghanistan.

CINDY SHEEHAN, MOTHER OF KILLED U.S. SOLDIER: He's been in office long enough to start making positive changes and in the direction that his supporters want him to make those changes.

HENRY: But Gibbs revealed that in his private meetings, the president has already shot down the possibility of the U.S. pulling out of the war.

GIBBS: The president was exceedingly clear that no part of the conversation involved was leaving Afghanistan.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HENRY: Now, I'm also hearing that some people here at the White House have been getting heat from members of Congress wondering why General McChrystal has not had the time yet to testify on Capitol Hill.

And, yet, he's done an interview with CBS' "60 Minutes." He's given this speech in London. The president likely to get an earful tomorrow when he gets leaders from both parties here at the White House to tell them where he is in this decision-making process. A lot of anxious people on Capitol Hill and both parties wondering when they're going to get some answers about whether there will be U.S. troops will be sent to Afghanistan -- Wolf. BLITZER: And the stakes, as you say, Ed, are simply enormous.

Let's assess what's going on with our senior political analyst, Gloria Berger, CNN's Joe Johns, our own CNN contributor Paul Begala, and retired U.S. Army Four-Star General George Joulwan, the former NATO supreme allied commander.

General, how extraordinary is this, that we have -- we're seeing this public debate between the generals and some political leaders, including the vice president?

RETIRED GENERAL GEORGE JOULWAN, U.S. ARMY: I wouldn't say it's extraordinary. I believe this give and take does go on. Unfortunately, it's being done in public, which I would not recommend.

But I think it's very important that the commander you're going to have to execute your strategy really feels ownership of that strategy. So, how you do that is the president's challenge, how he does that, how he brings them into the inner circle and listens to what he has to say.

On McChrystal's part, he has got to recognize how he gives advice is up through Mullen and through the chain of command to the president.

BLITZER: Because if the president now rejects what Stanley McChrystal, the general, the four-star general, in Afghanistan, has recommended, sending another 40,000 troops or so to Afghanistan and the president says, I hate that idea, I'm going to use a less robust presence, does he have to resign?

JOULWAN: No. I think what we're in here -- if you read his assessment, which I have done, McChrystal's, he's laying out what he thought he was given in March. He said, this is my assessment. It's worse than I thought. I'm recommending a counterinsurgency strategy. If you agree with that, then this is going to require more assets, more troops.

What he's looking for, my favorite word, is clarity. I think he wants clarity in the mission, and that's what the debate ought to be on, before you get into what troops are needed.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: But he's gotten himself in the middle of a huge political situation. He's gotten apparently reprimanded by the president. He has said publicly in a Q&A that the vice president's position would lead to chaos in Afghanistan. Isn't that getting a little too political for a general?

JOULWAN: Well, I think it's probably he didn't use the best judgment here in what he was saying. Sometimes, we want candor in our generals. But it ought to be done in private.

BORGER: Do you think it means that the higher-ups agree with them and that they gave him clearance to do this?

JOULWAN: I don't think so. I think the debate is still going on. What that outcome will be is yet to be determined.

And I think General McChrystal needs to understand that, how he gives that advice.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: How rare is it, really? How rare is it for a general to go out publicly and say what he thinks, even if it's in contradiction to what the president thinks?

And the other thing a lot of people are wondering, we hear generals talking about coming up through the chain of command. Could you just explain to our viewers what you mean by bringing the information up through the chain of command?

JOULWAN: Well, in this case, McChrystal's plan will be vetted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He comes back, presents his plan to the chiefs and the chairman. They go through a whole dialogue here before they give their OK to his plan. And it has to be approved normally by the Joint Chiefs, who then sends the secretary of defense and to the president.

So, we're in that process now. I think what McChrystal has done is got himself a little bit out in front of his headlights here and I think is being told to come back.

BLITZER: So, you're saying it is rare?

JOULWAN: It's rare...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Did it ever happen to you when you were...

(CROSSTALK)

JOHNS: Did you ever do that?

BORGER: Did you ever do that?

(LAUGHTER)

JOULWAN: I think the Bosnian issue is a case in point. There was very little support back here in Washington in the Congress, in the military, in elsewhere. NATO was taking this on. I had to come back and really explain what I thought...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But you did it privately. You didn't do it publicly.

JOULWAN: I did it privately. But I was on a lot of different interviews that we discussed it. But I thought it was very important not to preempt the president's decision.

BLITZER: Of course.

Go ahead, Paul. PAUL BEGALA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So, what's interesting is, you had direct access to the president of the United States and his national security team all in one room. And he said, you're my commander; you have the right...

(CROSSTALK)

JOULWAN: He said, agreed, and then I left the room.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Here's the situation where General McChrystal has one- on-one time with the president of the United States, not with the rest of the team, but at least direct access to his commander in chief, and then apparently still went rogue.

BLITZER: No, no, no.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: The 25 minutes he had on Air Force One was in Copenhagen after his speech.

BEGALA: OK.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Could it be his lack of access to the president is perhaps why he's maybe freelancing a little in the media?

JOULWAN: I would always advise a president to call in the commander that's going to execute the strategy. You have to develop this trust and confidence in your commanders at the political level. And I think that it always behooves a president to do that. At least I would recommend it.

BORGER: So, was it surprising to you that General McChrystal said he had only spoken to the president once in 70 days?

JOULWAN: It's a new president. He's got a lot to do. But, yes, I was surprised, given the enormity of what we're facing.

BLITZER: Because the president does speak to his boss, General Petraeus, who runs the Central command. He speaks to Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But he hadn't spoken a lot as we all now know with General McChrystal, which was a problem, I think.

JOULWAN: I think we made it -- it's a problem because of what has been said. But I think the assessment is what's important here. And that clarity needs to come out. BLITZER: General, hold on, guys, because we're going to have to take a move to Jack Cafferty and take a break.

But I want to thank General Joulwan.

Always good to have you back here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

JOULWAN: Thank you.

BLITZER: Good insight, as usual.

Guys, don't go away. We have got a lot more that is coming up.

But let's check in with Jack. He's got "The Cafferty File" -- Jack.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: He's terrific, that guy.

BLITZER: General Joulwan is the best.

CAFFERTY: Yes.

BLITZER: Yes.

CAFFERTY: He's terrific.

BLITZER: Yes, we have got to bring him out of retirement and get him in charge over there, right?

CAFFERTY: Absolutely.

BLITZER: Yes.

BLITZER: Put him on the panel as a regular.

(LAUGHTER)

JOULWAN: Thanks, Jack.

CAFFERTY: As the United States continues to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems like a sharp military mind in the Oval Office might come in handy.

"The New York Times" did a piece this morning on growing speculation that General David Petraeus, who oversees those two wars, might run for president in 2012. Petraeus' people deny it, but some say the White House is still suspicious. Aides to General Petraeus says he hasn't voted for more than five years in order to preserve a sense of military impartiality.

And although he's been described as a Republican, one top military official close to the general says he couldn't confirm his political party one way or the other.

In any case, "The Times" points out how Petraeus, who was a favorite of President George W. Bush, you will recall, has taken on a much more muted tone in the debate over Afghanistan. He still has a seat at the table as the Obama administration wrestles with sending as many as 40,000 additional troops into the fight.

There was time when military service was a political asset. Eisenhower became one of the most popular presidents this country ever had following his service to the nation during World War II. JFK, Nixon, Carter also got to the White House via the military.

But, in recent elections, the attitude toward men in uniform has changed. The voters rejected John McCain, John Kerry and Bob Dole, all veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

Here's the question, then. Would you vote for a military commander for president in 2012? Go to CNN.com/caffertyfile and post a comment on my blog -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It was a fascinating piece in the paper today. Good point, Jack. Thank you.

CNN is there as a couple fights their credit card company.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHUCK LANE, CREDIT CARD CUSTOMER: You're putting us into bankruptcy. I mean, I don't see how that helps me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What happened to them, could it happen to you? What the government did to stop so-called abuse by credit card companies may have made actually things worse.

And live in New York, it was Saturday night, but the White House may not be laughing. "SNL" spoofed the leader of the free world as a sort of do-nothing president. Will that hurt him politically?

And from a powerful perch in government to a powerless in prison -- James Traficant, the former congressman, he is here to describe what it's like for a former congressman to be a prisoner.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Check your credit cards. Will your rates stay the same in a short time from now, as it's been? The credit card companies are engaging in some new tactics that many see as abusive.

And while Congress acted to stop it, what they did may actually be making things worse. It's a sign of broken government.

Our national political correspondent, Jessica Yellin, has been investigating. And she's joining us now.

Jessica, what are you finding out?

JESSICA YELLIN, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the story I'm about to tell is the kind of credit card nightmare that is happening to millions of Americans, as card companies rush to change their policies before a new credit card law goes into effect.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

C. LANE: It's an injustice.

YELLIN: Chuck and Jeanne Lane are outraged. They have excellent credit, never been late. Still, Chase credit cards jacked up their monthly payment from $370 to $911. So, Chuck Lane called the bank to complain.

(on camera): What did you tell them?

C. LANE: I told them this was the worst economic times in history practically. I work for a small company. We have laid off 30 percent of our work force. I just took a 10 percent pay cut this morning. And this is what you're going to do to us?

YELLIN (voice-over): He says he learned his credit card payments skyrocketed when he checked his online bank account.

C. LANE: And I went to my checking account so I could write down the amount that was coming out. And, lo and behold, it was $911.

YELLIN (on camera): Was that a surprise?

C. LANE: I was shocked. I was stunned.

YELLIN (voice-over): Now he feels abused.

(on camera): You thought you had a deal.

C. LANE: I did. I thought I had a really good deal.

YELLIN (voice-over): The card was sold as a low-interest way to pay down big bills. The Lanes have paid off half what have they owe, but still have more than $18,000 to go. They can't afford the new monthly payment, so Chuck Lane called to ask Chase for help. And guess what he was told?

C. LANE: You want me to pay five percent more in interest...

YELLIN: He can go back to his old payment, but only if he agrees to a higher interest rate. Under the new credit card law, the Lanes will have options. But for now, they are stuck.

C. LANE: So, you're putting us into bankruptcy. I mean, I don't see how that helps me.

YELLIN: The Lanes aren't alone. In a statement to CNN, Chase says they doubled the minimum payments for a million cardholders because, "While tens of millions of Chase loans have been paid back in less than 24 months, there have been a small percentage of customers that have not made as much progress. Our desire is to have these balances paid back in a reasonable period of time."

JOE RIDOUT, CONSUMER ACTION: Truly, this is the single-most abusive credit card change in terms that I have ever seen.

YELLIN: The credit card industry insists companies are not trying to skirt the new law.

SCOTT TALBOTT, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS, FINANCIAL SERVICES ROUNDTABLE: It's their desire to provide the best products to consumers always, every day, to ensure that customers have the credit they need.

YELLIN: Ensuring that Americans have affordable credit, that was one reason banks like Chase got billions in taxpayer bailout money.

(on camera): Do you think they're showing proper respect to what Americans are going through?

JEANNE LANE, CREDIT CARD CUSTOMER: No, they're not. They have no respect for the American people. All they think about is the almighty dollar for themselves.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

YELLIN: Now, Wolf, two members of Congress are trying to help. Barney Frank and Carolyn Maloney have introduced a bill that would make the new credit card bills go in effect on December 1, instead of in late February. But even if that passes, it would still give the credit card companies two months to keep raising interest rates and doubling payments. And that's little solace for the Lanes -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica, is Chase the only company doing this?

YELLIN: Oh, no, far from it. Other companies are raising interest rates, doubling minimum payments, too. And members of Congress are aware of it. That's why they're trying to move up this deadline.

But one person joked, hey, credit card companies only give us 15 days when they notify us of our rate change. Maybe Congress should have done the same to the credit card companies -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jessica Yellin investigating for us.

Good report, Jessica. Thank you.

Pitching health care reform to doctors, dozens of them making a house call over at the White House today.

Also, an alleged terror plot targeting a Dallas skyscraper -- now a critical ruling in the case against a Jordanian teenager.

And swine flu vaccinations now under way. Who is getting them first and when will they be coming to your town?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(NEWS BREAK) BLITZER: We're just getting in some details on David Letterman. He just wrapped up taping his show that will air later tonight. And despite his early pronouncement that he was basically finished talking about the allegations, he is apologizing. We have details. Stand by. We will share with you what he just told the audience.

Also, to hear the comics at "Saturday Night Live" tell it, President Obama has accomplished nada during nine months in the White House. How much truth is behind all the laughs? Stand by for our reality check.

And later, ex-convict and expelled Congressman James Traficant, does he have a second chance at politics? The Ohio Democrat is now out of prison. He's in our hot seat, still proclaiming his innocence after all these years.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, JULY 24, 2002)

REP. JAMES TRAFICANT (D), OHIO: Am I scared to death? No. I will go to jail before I will resign and admit to something I didn't do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: David Letterman has just apologized to his audience, just wrapped up taping his show.

Let's go to Mary Snow. She's got some details.

All right, Mary, what's the latest?

MARY SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we have a transcript of some of the comments that David Letterman made in that taping.

And he starts by saying -- quote -- "I'm terribly sorry that I put the staff in that position. Inadvertently, I just wasn't thinking ahead."

And then he goes on to say: "Now the other thing is my wife, Regina. She has been horribly hurt by my behavior. And when something happens like that, if you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it. And, at that point, there's only two things that can happen. Either you're going to make some progress and get it fixed, or you're going to fall short and perhaps not get it fixed. So, let me tell you folks, I got my work cut out for me."

These comments made at this afternoon's taping of his show. This is the first time that David Letterman has had a taping since Thursday, when he announced that he was the victim of this alleged extortion plot, someone asking for $2 million to keep their silence about relationships that Letterman had with staff members.

And, Wolf, if you remember, on Thursday, he said he didn't think he was going to be saying much more than that. But, obviously, he did today at today's taping.

BLITZER: All right. We will stay on top of this part of the story as well.

Mary, thank you.

It seems no politician is safe from "Saturday Night Live." While many people think "SNL" has mostly spared President Obama, what they're doing now is not necessarily all that kind. They essentially cast the leader of the free world as a do-nothing president, at least so far. even though "SNL" deals in comedy, what they said about the president rings true for a lot of you, apparently.

So, did the show accurately capture a mood, or did it go off track for comedic effect?

Let's bring in CNN's Kareen Wynter. She's checking the facts for us.

All right, Kareen, what are you finding out?

KAREEN WYNTER, CNN ENTERTAINMENT CORRESPONDENT: Hi there, Wolf.

Well, some observers say, sure, we are just talking comedy here, but that, on many points, well, "SNL" couldn't have been more off the mark.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WYNTER (voice-over): A cold open for the country's commander in chief.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

FRED ARMISEN, ACTOR: Because, when you look at my record, it's very clear what I have done so far.

And that is nothing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WYNTER: Obama on Obama -- well, not really.

"Saturday Night Live" comedian Fred Armisen's opening sketch stirred up big laughs with a scathing report card on the president, which lampooned him as having accomplished nothing since he took office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ARMISEN: Almost one year and nothing to show for it. You don't believe me? You think I'm making it up? Take a look at this checklist.

WYNTER: A checklist of promises "SNL" says Obama failed to deliver. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ARMISEN: On my first day in office I said I would close Guantanamo Bay. Is it closed yet? No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WYNTER: And on Afghanistan?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

ARMISEN: I said I would make improvements in the war in Afghanistan. Is it better? No, I think it's actually worse.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WYNTER: But is there any truth to this?

BILL ADAIR, EDITOR, POLITIFACT.COM: They got some things wrong.

WYNTER: Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact.com, a non-partisan fact checking Web site that rates the statements of elected officials, says "SNL" missed the mark on some of its claims.

For instance, Afghanistan.

ADAIR: I think "SNL" tended to kind of gloss over what is a -- a fair amount of progress by this administration, about sending two additional brigades to Afghanistan. We rated that had a promise kept. On Iraq, "Saturday Night Live" said not done and, of course, that's true, they're not done. But they hadn't promised to be done by now.

WYNTER: As for health care, Adair says "SNL" also got it wrong, since that legislation is still stalled in Congress. But Adair says the sketch did get some things right, like Guantanamo Bay. PolitiFact says the president has fallen short on that promise.

So is this harmless humor or damage done?

ADAIR: "Saturday Night Live" is a very important factor in how people get information about American politics.

WYNTER: Still, Adair says the sketch won't resonate with the audience as much as this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," COURTESY WORLDWIDE PANTS INC.)

TINA FEY, ACTRESS/COMEDIAN: Are we not doing the talent portion?

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP) WYNTER: Comic Tina Fey's dead-on impersonation of former GOP vice presidential candidate, Sarah Palin. Some credit it with reinforcing an impression of Palin as ill-equipped for the job. But this type of stinging satire is something Adair says Obama may see more of as he faces increasing opposition to some ambitious promises made on the campaign trail.

ADAIR: This is not a fair portrayal of -- of how Obama's done. But it's comedy, it doesn't have to be fair.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE," COURTESY SNL/BROADWAY VIDEO)

ARMISEN: If I see any more of this hateful rhetoric, I'm going to have to take drastic action. No, not really.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEO TAPE)

WYNTER: Wolf, we reached out to the White House for their reaction on this. They wouldn't comment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kareen Wynter, thanks very much.

Let's get back to our panel, our senior political analyst, Gloria Borger; CNN's Joe Johns; former Bush speechwriter, David Frum, of NewMajority.com; and our CNN political contributor, the Democratic strategist, Paul Begala.

What did you think of that?

As I said earlier -- at least someone said earlier here at CNN -- if you've lost "SNL," if you're the president of the United States, have you lost the country?

PAUL BEGALA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: No. Come on. It's comedy. They -- I -- I thought it was amusing that we actually went to people to fact check a comedy sketch. It's comedy. It's supposed to be silly and funny.

It wouldn't have been a very funny sketch if they said he cut taxes for 95 percent of Americans, which he did; or extended health care to 11 million children, which he did; or he signed the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act for Women, which he did, right; or that he's killed 11 -- we, as a country, have killed 11 of the top 20 leaders of Al Qaeda, which we have; or interrupted all these terrorists.

He's done an awful lot of good for our country, too. But this is all fair game. I mean, come on. Doesn't it -- I mean they were rougher on your boss than they've ever been on Obama, don't you think?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER BUSH SPEECHWRITER: You haven't lost the country, but what you have done is you've begun to lose the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. That's the real warning bell here. Because, obviously, the president's done a lot of things. He's passed this gigantic stimulus. He's run up debts to unprecedented levels.

(LAUGHTER)

FRUM: That said, he's a very expensive president. You have to give him credit for that.

But what it is, it is a warning that on the -- the checklist of those litmus issues that are so important to the people who won him the nomination, he is beginning to disappoint them and they're being to grumble.

BLITZER: Although his job approval numbers, Joe, are still pretty good -- in the 50s. Not too shabby.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's true. He -- this is no -- this is satire. It's not ridicule yet.

On the other hand, when you watch programs like this and they come from a completely different angle that they normally do -- for example, Hollywood and entertainment is sort of known for being a little bit on the left...

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Really?

JOHNS: Yes. And they move to the center or move to the right, it shows that they're sort of equal opportunity abusers. So I think there was some of that in there, as well.

BORGER: You know, the honeymoon is over. They've finally found a way to make fun of Barack Obama. They've had a difficult time doing that. And, you know, the political lesson from this is you can't over promise and under deliver. And so there is a narrative that's being established -- whether true or not, we'll see -- that this is a president who may be overreaching...

BEGALA: That's the risk. These guys as comedy writers...

BORGER: That...

BEGALA: ...guys and gals who write this comedy, they get a take on someone. That's the phrase they use.

BORGER: Yes.

BEGALA: And I have a friend who writes -- I won't say for which one, for one of the last night comics. When Bill Clinton first took office, they were still making fun of him for being fat. And, frankly, the president was sensitive about his weight. I was close to him, I traveled with him...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: He was trying to lose weight.

BORGER: Who wouldn't be?

BEGALA: So I called this comedy writer and I said, hey, you know, he doesn't go to McDonald's anymore, he's working hard.

You know what the guy said?

He said, we will have two jokes for as long as your man is president -- eating and cheating. You'd better get him back to McDonald's.

BORGER: Right.

BEGALA: And that was in 1993.

BORGER: So the narrative is...

BEGALA: That was their take on him.

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: It wasn't (INAUDIBLE).

FRUM: But you're also saying, by the way, we've just revealed to you where we're vulnerable and this is the place. Please...

(CROSSTALK)

FRUM: Please don't hit him on this spot anymore. And...

(CROSSTALK)

FRUM: Comedy writers are sadists.

JOHNS: Right.

FRUM: I mean that's -- that was...

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: It was so dumb of me to have called. David is right. I should never have placed that had call.

BLITZER: You -- because you take a real risk when you -- when you do that kind of thing.

BEGALA: Oh, yes.

BLITZER: How should this White House deal with a "Saturday Night" -- a "Saturday Night Live" skit like this?

Do they just ignore it or do they deal with it...

BORGER: Yes.

BLITZER: What do you -- what do you think?

(CROSSTALK)

BEGALA: Laugh it off, because I -- I don't think yet there is that central nugget of truth that can become a take from the American people. I don't think people look at Barack Obama and say there's a failed president. I just don't (INAUDIBLE)...

BORGER: No. But...

(CROSSTALK)

BORGER: ...the checklist shows you all the kinds of things he's doing. You know, he is in danger of becoming Zelig, to a certain degree -- showing up everywhere at everything. And so the American public is looking at him and saying, well, he can't do everything...

BLITZER: Here's...

BORGER: ...all at once.

BLITZER: Here's what will turn -- Joe, here's what will turn things around for the president and his image, if it is an image out there. If -- if there's a health care bill that seems pretty decent; if there seems to be some improvement in Afghanistan; and if jobs are created, as opposed to being lost.

JOHNS: Absolutely. He needs some wins. And there's also that issue -- I talked to one Democratic strategist today who said the concern about the president is the appearance of weakness, the appearance of indecisiveness. Afghanistan is one example. And -- and if you look like that and you look like you're not able to make a decision without bringing the entire community in and you take too long, then -- then that's the potential kernel of truth in the whole skit (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: All right, guys, hold your thought, because we've got a special guest coming up. We've got a lot more to talk about.

He was famous for his rhetorical flourishes on the House of Representatives floor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM MAY 16, 2001)

REP. JAMES TRAFICANT (D), OHIO: What really frosts my pumpkin, experts around the country say to solve the problem, Congress should give them more money. Beam me up. Schools do not need more money. Schools can use God.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Former Congressman James Traficant -- he's now out of jail. He's here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Stand by.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: A lot of people remember James Traficant as the U.S. Congressman with a flamboyant air, the colorful language. He once signed off the floor by saying -- and I'm quoting him now -- "Beam me up."

Others remember the Ohio Democrat as the guy who got expelled from Congress after being convicted of bribery and racketeering charges -- charges he still denies. Traficant served seven years behind bars. He's been out of prison now for about a month and he's joining us now live from Boardman, Ohio, along with the best political team on television.

Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

How are you doing, first of all?

TRAFICANT: Real good, but don't call me names. I'm doing fine.

BLITZER: But what...

TRAFICANT: I wanted to say hello to some of my friends at Rochester, Drae Maddox (ph), Cold Cut and Fred McKnight and all the guys up there and...

BLITZER: In Rochester, Minnesota, the prison...

TRAFICANT: ...I want to say this (INAUDIBLE)...

BLITZER: ...where you served, right?

TRAFICANT: Yes. I -- I think that Congress should reintroduce and initiate the parole board for many of our young people in there. It's ridiculous. I think their good time should be increased. I've never seen anything quite like it. You know, Nelson Mandela said, if you want to know the true character and nature of a country, you've got to go through their prisons. And how true it is.

BLITZER: Well, how was it -- how -- I mean I hear it got...

TRAFICANT: And I think I've seen that (INAUDIBLE).

BLITZER: I hear a friend of yours by the name of Cold Cut -- I don't know what that means -- but how was it, seven years behind bars?

TRAFICANT: Well, it was like any other inmate. In fact, I was treated probably a little bit worse. But I expected that, being a top target of the Justice Department since '83 and the only American in history to ever defeat the Justice Department in a "Rico" trial pro se without being an attorney -- a full jury verdict. And they've been after me since '83.

And they're going to answer some questions before this is over, that you'll be covering, just like the Letterman business.

BLITZER: All right. We'll be watching.

Here's a quote, Congressman, what you said about your time in jail: "I went to the hole. But anyway, they said it caused a riot. They shackled me and took me in front of the whole body into some room over there and they put me in the hole." What does that mean?

TRAFICANT: That's solitary individual confinement, although you're usually -- it's overcrowded.

You're in with another person -- maybe two other persons. But you really don't get out but one hour a day and you get a shower every couple of days. And they were quite upset with me because I didn't maintain any contact with anybody. I never even acknowledged the presence of any warden.

I knew exactly what I was doing in prison. I did my time. In fact, right now, I don't prefer to even talk about it, Wolf. I have 12,000 Delphi pension -- pensioners that have lost their pension, salaried workers and hourly workers -- a $160 million loss to this community. And if we can give $98 million to North Korea, $60 million to Russia, I think we can take care of our Delphi pension problem here.

So I -- I'm not real crazy about talking about prison.

BLITZER: All right...

TRAFICANT: I've been through it. I think the government will pay for that when it's all over.

BLITZER: It sounds like maybe you've got a political future ahead of you. We'll get to that shortly.

But let me bring in some of the members of our panel. They've got some questions for you, Congressman, as well.

Joe Johns covered Congress for a long time and you covered Congressman Traficant.

JOHNS: Absolutely, Congressman. And as a reporter who covered you, I have to say, welcome back. And there are a lot of people out there who missed you because you were a very colorful individual to cover from year to year to year.

My question for you is this. Number one, we're told you may be running again. And -- and I'd sort of like to dovetail that with, would you have done anything differently, if you had the opportunity to, to sort of set yourself up for a new political career?

TRAFICANT: No. I don't think I'd have done anything differently. And everybody talks about how colorful I was. But the truth of the matter was, that color brought $1.6 billion over and above formula money to my deprived district -- depraved district. And right now, we're hurting once again. So I used the only tool that I had, which was my voice and my rhetoric. But I brought attention to the plight of our people and we were successful.

Now, if I do run -- and I'm thinking seriously about running, even though the fact remain that no one has ever been through a prison system like this and come back to win a seat in Congress. It would be an historical first.

But the only reason I will run is to help a deprived area, number one. And number two, to get the IRS and the Justice Department right by the short hairs. That's telling it exactly the way it is.

JOHNS: You -- you -- you spent, what, seven years in prison, though. At this point, after all that time locked up, is there anything -- anything that you can tell us that you did wrong?

Is there anything you admit to?

TRAFICANT: Well, number one, I committed no crimes. And I think now everybody understands that. I just got an affidavit today from one of the jurors that is citing some revelations that will be part of a motion placed before the court. Four of the seven people that testified have already been proven to have lied and perjured themselves. There's a young man named Okolo, a black man in Nigeria, whose life was ruined because he said he wouldn't perjure himself for the Justice Department against Jim Traficant.

No physical evidence, just the voices of seven people who were all going to prison who said they did some form of bribing Jim Traficant.

Now, I think we're going to really have a real shootout before it's over.

BORGER: So you want to go back to Congress, right?

That's what you want to run for, a Congressional seat or...

TRAFICANT: I'm not sure at this particular point. I'm not sure at this particular point. I have an awful lot of offers. I'm doing a lot of speaking with the Tea Party, by the way. And I think it's a good opposition voice, not necessarily for anyone targeted specifically, but they're upset with the government, upset with the country's direction. And I think if they start advocating some proposals here, it makes some sense.

BORGER: So why would you want to get back into politics and rejoin a Congress that you don't approve of, that's got a 28 percent approval rating, for example?

TRAFICANT: Well, before I left, I referred to them as political prostitutes and then later told a news station that made national news that I wanted to apologize to all the hookers in America for having associated them with the United States House of Representatives.

Yes, I heard you talking about President Obama. I feel for him. His heart's in the right place and he's working with the worst Democratic leadership in history.

BORGER: Nancy Pelosi?

TRAFICANT: He has his work cut out for him.

BORGER: Nancy Pelosi?

TRAFICANT: Well, I'm not talking about anybody specifically. I'm talking about the overall leadership. I think it's very poor...

BLITZER: All right...

TRAFICANT: ...the worst I've seen in -- in the 50 years I've evaluated it.

BLITZER: Congressman, we're out of time.

But can we just get a flat yes or no, will you be running as a Democrat if, in fact, you decide to run for Congress?

TRAFICANT: Number one, you can't get any direct answers from me yet, Wolf. You'll have to call me back.

But thank you for having me.

I appreciate it.

BLITZER: Well, but you still are a Democrat, right?

TRAFICANT: I'm an American. I don't know if I will run and when I do run, how I'll run. I supported Democrat and Republican initiatives. I vote -- and always did vote -- what was best for the country, not what party promoted it.

BLITZER: Congressman, thanks very much for coming in.

TRAFICANT: Don't call me names.

Thanks.

Glad to be here.

BLITZER: We'll call you Con...

TRAFICANT: Glad to be in here.

BLITZER: Mr. Traficant, let me say that.

TRAFICANT: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much.

The tables are turned -- David Letterman himself becomes the butt of some late night jokes.

Jeanne Moos shares some of them with you.

Stand by for that.

And Levi Johnston, the father of Sarah Palin's grandchild -- he's back on television, as well, this time in a tawdry ad campaign. We'll explain what's going on. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Let's check in with Lou to see what's coming up at the top of the hour -- Lou, what are you working on?

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": Wolf, thank you very much.

Pulling out of Afghanistan not an option, according to the White House, which says President Obama isn't even considering it.

But when we hear from the president, what will we hear?

Will there be a troop surge?

Should there be?

Can we win without it?

We'll be examining all of those questions here tonight.

And a group of doctors headlining a big White House summit today. All of those doctors want government-run health care. You may not be surprised to learn the group used to call itself Doctors for Obama.

Also tonight, allowing illegal immigration isn't just bad policy, it is, according to a retired Catholic priest who's written an important new book, "absolutely immoral." Breaking with many of the bishops of the Catholic Church, he says we need to rethink the issue of illegal immigration.

We'll have all of that and a great deal more, including all of the day's top news, at the top of the hour -- Wolf, back to you.

BLITZER: Thanks, Lou.

We'll see you then.

Let's check in with Jack Cafferty, though, right now.

He has The Cafferty File -- Jack.

CAFFERTY: The question this hour is, would you vote for a military commander for president in 2012?

The question comes off a story in "The New York Times" this morning speculating on possible political ambitions on the part of General David Petraeus.

Beth in Massachusetts writes: "No. Military men don't make good presidents. Eisenhower was elected to two terms because there weren't any adults in this country who hadn't had some connection to him during the war. If they didn't serve with him, they had a relative, neighbor or friend who did."

Vickie writes: "I'd vote for a military man for the White House any year. I'm a military brat and I feel some of our best presidents have been former military men. I'd vote for Colin Powell in a heartbeat and Petraeus is a possibility. But it also depends on where they stand on other important issues."

Doug writes: "Today's war with terrorists is more about political and economic strategy than it is about military strategy. In this war, victory is not defeating an enemy, but defeating a cause. The military has its place. It's not in the White House."

Mark in New York writes: "Absolutely. Military experience at any level should be a Constitutional requirement for a U.S. president. As a veteran, I've gained valuable strategic and critical thinking skills that have served me well both professionally and personally. Although there have been some great military leaders who were substandard presidents -- Taylor and Grant, for example -- many more led the nation to greatness -- Washington, Jackson, Eisenhower, to name a few."

Henry writes: "Just what we need, another gun toting cowboy in the White House. The U.S. is a country, not a military enterprise. Making Rachael Ray the head of the CIA would work, too. She's great at organization, good teamwork and communication skills and she's at ease in front of the camera."

And Gary writes: "Remember that while Eisenhower was a military man, he warned against the influence of the military industrial complex in political life. Dick Cheney aside, I'd prefer a civilian candidate."

If you didn't see your e-mail here, you can go to my blog at CNN.com/caffertyfile -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jack.

See you tomorrow.

Thank you.

From the head jokester to the butt of jokes -- what was last night -- his late night counterparts are saying about David Letterman's sex scandal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fighting the wars of network television. And now, all of a sudden...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Usually he's the one cracking jokes about other people, but in the wake of a sex scandal, David Letterman is finding himself the butt of some jokes by his late night peers.

CNN's Jeanne Moos takes a Moost Unusual look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: (voice-over): No wonder Jay Leno's smiling down at "The Late Show." It's comedy cannibalism -- eating your own.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE JAY LENO SHOW," COURTESY NBC)

JAY LENO, HOST: If you came here tonight for sex with a talk show host, you've got the wrong studio. I'm sorry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Letterman is giving everyone material.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "LATE NIGHT WITH JIMMY FALLON," COURTESY NBC)

JIMMY FALLON, HOST: There's a new book out called, "Why Women Have Sex," that has a list of 237 reasons why women have sex and Letterman knows the top 10.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: Jeff Danziger captioned a recent cartoon, "Tonight's Top 10" and drew 10 female assistants waiting outside Letterman's office.

"Saturday Night Live" couldn't resist.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE," COURTESY SNL/BROADWAY VIDEO)

FRED ARMISEN, ACTOR: The blackmailer, Joe Halderman, was threatening to reveal embarrassing details of Letterman's personal life. For example, after sex, he would always say, "Stay tuned for Craig Ferguson."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: And if you were tuned to Bill Maher?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER," COURTESY HBO)

BILL MAHER, HOST: So, you know here, I have never had sex with anyone on my staff. The guests, of course, yes. I mean that's...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: When the story first broke, Conan broke with the ranks and bit his tongue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH CONAN O'BRIEN," COURTESY NBC)

CONAN O'BRIEN, HOST: Yes, how are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Man, I would hate to be opposite Letterman tonight with all that sex stuff going on.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's got to be tough.

O'BRIEN: No comment.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS (on camera): Now, we're pretty sure Letterman would understand being the butt of jokes. After all, look at all the jokes he's told about guys getting caught with their pants down...

(voice-over): Politicians like former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who had to resign for using prostitutes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," COURTESY WORLDWIDE PANTS INC.)

DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: But it's sad. Spitzer said there's so much left undone -- Amber, Ashleigh (ph), Rhonda.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MOOS: And South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM "THE LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN," COURTESY WORLDWIDE PANTS INC.)

LETTERMAN: Just come clean on it. Don't -- don't say, well, I'll be on the Appalachian Trail.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If you can dish it out, you'd better take it.

MOOS: Fellow comedian Lewis black said the press should lay off Letterman.

LEWIS BLACK, COMEDIAN: Hee, hee, hee, I mean he slept with somebody. It's like 9-year-olds. Whether you think he is right or wrong, what are you?

Are you a priest?

MOOS: Not a priest. But this guy did show up outside "The Late Show".

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: David Letterman needs to be forgiven.

BLACK: He had sex. Oh, God. You know, he didn't have sex on TV.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Repent.

MOOS: It's never too late.

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

BLITZER: On our Political Ticker, President Obama will address the nation's largest gay and lesbian rights group on Saturday. Bill Clinton the only other sitting president who ever appeared before the Human Rights Campaign. Mr. Obama, who will speak to the group here in Washington on the eve of a march demanding equality for homosexuals, faced criticism from gay activists for not taking a stronger stand on overturning the military's don't ask/don't tell policy.

Embattled New York Governor David Paterson is putting potential challengers on notice. He says if they have any courage, they should come forward and make their intentions known. In a TV interview, the Democrat said he wasn't referring to anyone in particular. The democratic state attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, and former Republican mayor, Rudy Giuliani, are seen as possible rivals. Paterson's campaign to keep his job has been in question after a report that President Obama urged him to step aside.

The father of Sarah Palin's grandchild is seeking more publicity. Now Levi Johnston is appearing in a risque TV ad campaign for pistachios. The spots show how various people open their pistachios, including a dominatrix who cracks hers open with a whip.

Here's Johnston's commercial.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP FROM YOUTUBE.COM)

LEVI JOHNSTON: Now Levi Johnston does it with protection. Wonderful pistachios. Get cracking.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The people behind the ad say they wanted to get some sizzle to sell their product.

That's it for us.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Don't forget, I'm also on Twitter now -- Wolfblitzercnn, all one word.

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

DOBBS: Twitter is one word.

OK, Wolf.

Thank you very much.

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