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Pope Attacked During Mass; David Goldman and Son Return to the U.S.; Jet Accident Investigation; Most Religious State: Mississippi; Midwest Whiteout Christmas; Down South Wet Christmas; Grandma to the Troops; Christmas at the Movies; Santa Psychology; Virgin Mega Mogul

Aired December 25, 2009 - 06:00   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Are you up? Are you ready? Are you opening your gifts?

ROB MARCIANO, CNN ANCORS: Yes, did Santa show up?

COSTELLO: I bet he -- you know, Santa's waiting until AMERICAN MORNING is over.

MARCIANO: Of course he is. He wants to get the latest breaking news and wants to makes sure the weather's OK to land the sleigh.

Good morning and Merry Christmas, everybody. I hope you're having a good start to this holiday. I am Rob Marciano in today for John Roberts.

COSTELLO: And I'm Carol Costello in for Kiran Chetry. Good morning, and Merry Christmas.

MARCIANO: All right, we'll be playing you favorite Christmas tunes throughout the morning, and get you in the sprit a little bit. And of course, we are covering the top stories. Let's check them out.

Pope Benedict attacked, actually. Don't worry, he is okay. He was knocked down just before the traditional Christmas Eve mass at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. The Vatican says she's the same woman that tried a similar attack last year. So, how did it happen again? The pope was not hurt and he continued the service. We will have a live report just ahead.

COSTELLO: After a five-year custody battle that made headlines around the world David Goldman is spending Christmas with his 9-year- old son Shawn. The nine-hour trip to the United States, all of the tense and chaotic reunion in Rio De Janeiro. We'll look at how the long custody fight ended in Brazil and what is ahead. >

MARCIANO: He is the guy behind everything virgin, for airplanes at least, for mobile phones and to sending tourist into space. Richard Branson is also a mega-philanthropist. We will look at how he is giving back in our special series "Big stars, Big giving."

COSTELLO: But first of that, Christmas eve attack at the Vatican. A video shows a woman jumping a barricade, run into towards Pope Benedict XVI and then grabbing his robe, and pulling him to the ground as he walk down the main isle of Saint Peters Basilica. You can hear people in the church screaming. You could if we had audio on the tape, but you can't.

And what's even more incredible, this is not the first time this woman has gotten past the pope's security. Our Morgan Neill joins us now live from London with more. How did this happen, Morgan?

MORGAN NEILL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's just incredible, isn't it, Carol? Particularly considering, as you say, that the same woman tried to do this last year, but was prevented from doing so. This happened last night as the pope was making his way in to deliver the Christmas eve mass.


NEILL (voice-over): As you say, the woman bolted the barrier, managed to grab hold of the pope's clothing and dragged him down essentially with her. In the chaos that ensued a cardinal managed to break his leg. The security, of course, immediately detained the woman and the pope was, as you mentioned there in the lead, fine and went on to resume the service.

We are finding out a bit more about this woman now. She is 25- year-old. She's a dual Swiss-Italian citizen and the Vatican is describing her as mentally unstable. Now, she's been questioned and she's now being held in a mental institution. But of course, this is going to have the Vatican reassessing security, no doubt about it.


NEILL: The Vatican say they were sure that there was no weapons involved that there could be none because they have everyone go through a metal detector, but at the same time, we see this clearly. It's shocking to see someone get this close and do this to the pope.

Now the problem they have got is that they have faithful, who come from around the world in many cases, hoping to just catch a glimpse of the pope. They want to preserve that access while at the same time, keeping the pope safe -- Carol.

COSTELLO: You know what happened inside of the church, which makes it even more shocking, what exactly can they do? I mean, they can -- I guess not allow the pope to walk down the aisle to the alter. But how else -- I mean they had a barricade. The woman jumped a four- foot barricade, which was pretty amazing in the first place. I mean, what more could they do to protect the pope if he wants people to have access to him?

NEILL: Well, those are very difficult questions that they're going to be grabbling with now and I think you've pinpointed it exactly. It's because the access is so important in this case because he is such a revered figure, and there is only so much you really can do. You cannot have people lining both the aisles as he is walking by very well, can you? So this is something it's not going to be easy for them to do and we have seen people try to carry out this kind of attack in the past. Now the Vatican says they tend to be people who really just want to get close to the pope, but certainly you don't want to run that risk.

COSTELLO: No, you don't. Morgan Neill live from London. We'll have more from you later. Thank you.

MARCIANO: Now to the emotional father and child reunion this Christmas. David Goldman and his 9-year-old son, Shawn, spending their first Christmas together in five years. They arrived back in the U.S. from Brazil last night, landing in Orlando, Florida where they will spend time at Disney World before heading home to Jersey.

The five-year tag of war over custody ended with Shawn Goldman's Brazilian stepfamily marching him through a mass of photographers to finally meeting his father. Ines Ferre is following his developments this morning, quite a story ending back here in the U.S.

INES FERRE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, quite a story, quite a few emotional moments. David and Shawn spent Christmas eve in Orlando, Florida. A family friend says, the father and son are expected to have some fun for the next few days, perhaps seeing Mickey Mouse and some roller coasters at Disney World. A nice distraction after some emotionally-filled moments.


FERRE (voice-over): The plane carrying David Goldman and his son, Shawn touches down in Orlando on Christmas eve. Moments later a motorcade whisk the father and son away. The stop over in Florida was shouted in secrecy unlike the hand over that took place earlier Thursday morning in Brazil.

Clutching his stepfather, the 9-year-old made his way through the swarm of cameras to meet his father. The scene marks the end of a five-year international custody battle. The Chief Justice of the Brazilian Supreme Court ordered Tuesday that Shawn be returned to his biological father who had been battling the family of the boy's deceased mother.

After the ruling, the Brazilian family said it would not file any new appeals to keep Shawn. The reunion between father and son took place privately inside the U.S. Consulate in Rio De Janeiro. Shortly after, they were homeward bound. Goldman flashing a thumbs up as they boarded the charted a flight.

REP. CHRIS SMITH (R), NEW JERSEY: They got on the plane and it was a very -- I mean, it was in arm and arm, shoulders (inaudible). It was a father and son. It was a picture of a close relationship.

FERRE: New Jersey Congressman, Chris Smith was in Brazil to support Goldman's efforts. He told CNN, Shawn appeared comfortable as he spoke to his father about basketball, snowfall and the new life that awaits him.

There is a bond there and it's unmistakable, and it is strong.

FERRE: The legal battle maybe over, but for Shawn who just lost his mother last year, another traumatic turn. For the Goldman's, the emotional journey maybe just beginning.


FERRE: And once the two finished up in the Orlando area, well, presumably it's back to New Jersey, that's where David Goldman lives, and he left Shawn's room, you know, the way it was set up in 2004 when Shawn left for Brazil.

MARCIANO: Did you see the throng photographers that he had to go through? I mean, it gets you wondering, how much of this media occurrence event was planned?

FERRE: Yes, well, you know, the Goldman's were really upset about that because they said that they actually had given the Brazilian family various options as far as delivering the boy very discreetly through the back or something that wouldn't be and where you wouldn't see these reporters and they took him through that mass of media right there.

COSTELLO: Although for Mr. Goldman, NBC paid for this chartered plane to get them out of Brazil, but today's show has exclusive rights to their story. So he is using the media as well.

FERRE: Yes, that's certainly true. They say that they gave them really discreet ways to do this, you know, to bring the boy into the consulate, and that's what you got.

COSTELLO: So the Brazilian stepfather is using the Brazilian press, and David Goldman is using the American press in his own way.


COSTELLO: So his little boy is still stuck in the middle of all these stuff.

FERRE: Yes, and right now what they want is kind of a cocoon- like, you know, moment. They really want to just not have a lot of press around. They want to just spend time together.

MARCIANO: He is in Disney World, which is owned by ABC. Why didn't they go to six flags? All right, thanks, Ines.

FERRE: Yes, you are welcome.

COSTELLO: Check out our stories this Christmas morning. A team of investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board is in Jamaica trying to figure out what happened with American Airlines Flight 331.

On Tuesday, the Boeing 737 carrying 156 people over ran a runway near Kingston and slammed into a fence sending nearly 100 people to the hospital. Investigators are trying to retrieve it's second recorder with the pilots' voices.

MARCIANO: Well, Mississippi is the most religious state in the nation. The southern state tops a brand-new list compiled by a research center. The list ranks states in four areas, importance of religion, and attending church services, how often you pray, and your belief in God. Mississippi finished number one in all four categories. Vermont finished last making it the least religious state.

COSTELLO: Across the midwest, it's not just a white Christmas, it's a white out Christmas. The deadly snowstorm with heavy winds, icy conditions killed 18 people since Tuesday. Blizzard warnings are in effect across the central united states from the Dakotas down to northern Texas. Blowing snow also making it difficult for drivers to see leaving dozen stranded on the road in snarling traffic.

MARCIANO: And down south, it's a wet Christmas. Several tornado watches have been lifted in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, but heavy rainfall and thunderstorms are still a threat there with no doubt some flood watches out. Bonnie Snyder is monitoring all of this in the CNN Severe Weather Center. Bonnie, good morning. Kind of a mess out there, isn't it?

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Absolutely, Rob and Carol, we are looking at a big storm that's only ramped up in size and strength as it works its way to the east. And watch out for changing conditions for those of you travelling on this Christmas day. Down in Kansas City, we still have a blizzard warning that will go straight into the evening hours.

And you can see on the map that there is snow all the way up into the northern plains, and then rain ahead hitting Chicago right now, but as temperatures cool, it will definitely change it over to freezing rain and sleet.

Georgia getting socked with heavy rain at this hour. We're seeing some very strong thunderstorms working their way into south Carolina at this hour. Also a wind stream mix for the Carolinas and we are watching for a lot of snow on the ground. Let's look at some totals. I'll have more on that plus your travel weather coming up. Back to you.

MARCIANO: Thanks, Bonnie. We will check with you in about 30 minutes.

COSTELLO: Coming up, it's a tradition. She started way back during World War II running thousands of letter to our troops. Now more than a half century later, she's still doing it. Meet the grandma to the troops on this Christmas edition of "American Morning."


COSTELLO: Merry Christmas and welcome back to the most news in the morning. You're looking at pictures of U.S. forces in Iraq. Several hundred troops in Baghdad held a Christmas eve candlelight service. Some (INAUDIBLE) get together and they sang Christmas carols, and of course, Merry Christmas guys and gals.

MARCIANO: Playing hoops as well on this Christmas. Well, one way for you to let the troops know that you are keeping them in your thoughts is to write a letter.

COSTELLO: There is one lady out there who's putting all of us to shame. She has written literally thousands of letters. Kara Finnstrom went to meet the grandma of the troops.


KARA FINNSTROM, CNN CORRESPONDENT(voice-over): Sitting at her kitchen table, she writes the letters just like she did more than half a century ago.

ALLEENE COOPER, WRITES TO TROOPS: Lance Corporal, he is in an army hospital.

FINNSTROM: One is headed for a soldier so badly burned, he's receiving prosthetic ears. Another to a marine soon deploying to Afghanistan.

COOPER: In a letter he says, oh, God, how I love my daughters and I just miss them.

FINNSTROM: 92-year-old, Alleene Cooper first wrote letters of support to America's troops during World War II, long before her own life taught her the costs of war. Two years ago, the widow living on her own decided America's troops still need her.

COOPER: There are honor really because they volunteer. Isn't that something?

FINNSTROM: Alleene's letters includes snippets (ph) of comics and headlines, and slices of home.

What do you put in your letters?

COOPER: I tell a lot of stuff, just weather and things.

FINNSTROM: They quickly became like comfort food for the troops. Who began forwarding her more and more names of fellow marines and soldiers.

COOPER: You know that some of those don't even get mail from their family and some of them don't have a family.

FINNSTROM: How many letters altogether have you written so far?

COOPER: 2,139 in a little over two years.

FINNSTROM: 2,139 letters with no two alike and each four pages long. Alene thinks that's the right length, and the troops do too. They've written her back and sending teddy bears and roses, even a flag from their base.

COOPER: This is such an elegant thing to me.

FINNSTROM: And this Christmas, a thank you that couldn't be mailed.

COOPER: I know it's him.

FINNSTROM: That for a sergeant soon heading to Afghanistan.


COOPER: Yes, I am. You are David.

FINNSTROM: Has come to finally meet her.

COOPER: I'm so glad.

ADAMS: Nice to meet you.

COOPER: I wrote to him all the time that he was in Iraq.

ADAMS: She just starts off just writing, you know, just like I have known her for 20 years. And I am like, who is this lady?

FINNSTROM: For Sergeant David Adams led 300 marines.

ADAMS: Sometimes they just need somebody to talk to.

FINNSTROM: Alleen was there for many of them.

Today, Alleen's son, Bob, is here, supporting her. His brother Larry, Alleen's youngest son, was drafted during the Vietnam War.

BOB COOPER, ALLEEN'S SON: He's just so proud of what mom's done on this.

FINNSTROM: Alleen wrote Larry every day of his service.

A. COOPER: I was devastated.

FINNSTROM: He survived the war, but he's battled post traumatic stress disorder and health problems ever since.

B. COOPER: America was kind of divided, and when the men came back, they weren't really treated as really heroes. I think this is really a big thing for her, to make sure that somebody really starts caring.

A. COOPER: I know they need these - these letters.

ADAMS: She is just a, you know, a wonderful lady. I mean, she's very near and dear to my heart, and she reminds me of my grandmother.

FINNSTROM: A connection that keeps drawing her back to that kitchen table. A. COOPER: When I get so that I can't write and I can't think good and so forth, well, then I will quit, of course. But, so far, I'm not. I don't have any plans.

FINNSTROM: Kara Finnstrom for CNN, Lakewood, California.


COSTELLO: What a sweetie. Alleene Cooper is a great example of how everyone can give back. But what about giving back on a grand scale? For that, you sometimes need star power.

Richard Branson certainly has it.

MARCIANO: He is the man. He says his motto is. "Screw it! Let's do it!" He said it.

COSTELLO: It's still Christmas day!

MARCIANO: It is! Get in the giving spirit.

We are (ph). Philanthropy in our "Big Stars, Big - series (ph) segment. It's coming up next.

It's 16 minutes after the hour.


MARCIANO: You know, I was perusing through Dad's LPs last night, and he's got Tony Bennett's Greatest Hits. Well, that...

COSTELLO: From what year?

MARCIANO: It was pretty beat up, but...

COSTELLO: From 1963?

MARCIANO: If not earlier than that. But Tony had it going on for sure.

COSTELLO: And he still does.

MARCIANO: Yes, he do (ph).

COSTELLO: Yes. Merry Christmas everyone, and welcome back to the Most News in the Morning.

There may be something for everyone at the movies this Christmas weekend - at least Hollywood is hoping that's true. Sherlock Holmes debuts this weekend, and trust me, you have never seen Holmes quite like this.

Robert Downey Jr. is as much an action hero as the super sleuth, playing the lead role, and Jude Law plays Holmes' wingman, Dr. Watson. He's never been that attractive.

MARCIANO: It all certainly looks good in the trailer. We'll have more on that.

Plus, "It's Complicated." The romantic comedy stars Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, and Alec Baldwin, and it's all on the critics' "Must-do List" to see. It's also worth noting that Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin will appear together again in a couple of months when they co-host the Oscar ceremony.

COSTELLO: And as for family for you, you know, something you can take the kids to, "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel."


COSTELLO: It's so wrong!

MARCIANO: Say it isn't so.

COSTELLO: Well, there's the usual mayhem involving Alvin, Simon and Theodore, but hey may have met their match in this film because, you know, they have that group, the female Chipettes.

MARCIANO: Dueling chipmunk singing groups!

COSTELLO: Would it be the dueling chip - chimp - how to say that (ph)? Chimpettes (ph).

MARCIANO: Well, it might be a cute. (INAUDIBLE). So we're going to discuss that, coming up at 8:30.

COSTELLO: Yes, we are. Tom O'Neil from "In Touch Weekly" will tell us what's worth seeing this weekend and what you should not spend your money on.

MARCIANO: All right. Well, Santa, for some folks, have - has finally delivered, and kids all over are digging out their presidents (ph) from under the tree this morning.

COSTELLO: They are. With that in mind, we're asking the question, what do kids really want for Christmas?

Kiran Chetry recently spoke to psychology professor Carol Slotterback about her new book, "The Psychology of Santa." Kiran started by asking why she decided to study letter that children write each year to St. Nick.


CAROLE SLOTTERBACK, AUTHOR, "THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SANTA": I had at a conference someone do a presentation of their research on children's letters to Santa, and I thought what a cool idea it would be for the research methods class to - to do. And it was by far their favorite activity. Lots of giggles.

KIRAN CHETRY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I'm sure, because, you know, it's just so pure. You know, kids writing what they want to Santa. And the thing that you found out was very interesting.


CHETRY: It wasn't just I want, you know, material items. There were so many wishes and dreams and hopes that were in these letters.

What surprised you the most about the letters?

SLOTTERBACK: One of the things that they asked for - for example, there's one, "Dear Santa, if there are any angels up there, have one watch over my grandma. She's having cancer surgery on Thursday. Thank you."

And, you know, everything from angels to a bag of lettuce to world peace. You just never knew what you were going to find when you open the letters.

CHETRY: How do different years differ in terms of what kids are concerned about? I mean, I think back to, you know, the year after the 9/11 attacks and how, you know, a lot of us, a lot of our thinking and a lot of what we prioritized changed so drastically. Is that reflected in these letters?

SLOTTERBACK: Oh, definitely. There was much more patriotism in the letters that year. So they were drawing flags everywhere. Santa had flags hanging off the back of his sleigh. They're drawing him putting flags on children's stocking.

And one of the letters, "Dear Santa, Santa, it must be hard being you. First I want to ask you to tell God to take care of the people that died from the September 11th attacks. One thing I want is a ping pong table. Thank you for reading this note. PS, I believe in you."

CHETRY: So adorable. What does it tell us about kids when they have the opportunity to ask for anything in the world that they want to and then they ask for things like the help of others or the well- being of the world?

SLOTTERBACK: I just think it tells us that kids know more than we give them credit for. I think that they are just - you know, they're kids. They're not stupid. And they - they're aware of more than - than we give them credit for.

CHETRY: Absolutely. So can we broaden this out beyond children? I mean, can we learn from these letters something broader about our American culture?

SLOTTERBACK: Some of the kids, it was just pure greed. There's just no other way to characterize it. We had one little gal asked for 99 things. Why she stopped at 99? I do not know.

CHETRY: Long letter.

SLOTTERBACK: Long letter. Very long letter. And, you know, and then others don't ask for anything except for, you know, an angel, or they want their mom and dad to stop fighting for once. And, you know, I just think that our kids are great and knowing that - that our kids are great and that this is the next generation coming up, you know, I just think it's all the more important to help nurture them, and I think they're just going to help our society in a number of ways.

CHETRY: Well, it's a great book. It's very touching to read all of the different letters and to see some of the history behind it.

It's called, "The Psychology of Santa." Carole Slotterback, thanks so much for joining us.

SLOTTERBACK: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.


MARCIANO: Stop being so greedy kids. Ninety-nine gifts!

COSTELLO: Ninety-nine! Gee.

MARCIANO: Well, I - we were all guilty of it, for sure. You think Santa just has an unlimited supply.

COSTELLO: He does.

MARCIANO: He certainly does.

COSTELLO: That's why you have to ask. You never know.

MARCIANO: All right.

Listen, every week, you know, we do this "Wingnuts of the Week" segment. John - John Avlon from "The Daily Beast" picks who calls - he calls "the nuttiest people on the Left and the Right." So today, as a Christmas gift, we're counting down the "Wingnuts of the Year" - the most polarizing partisans, unhinged activists, dividers - not uniters.

Who makes that list? Stick around to see.

It's 25 minutes after the hour.


COSTELLO: Now an "AM Original," something you'll only see on AMERICAN MORNING.

All this week, we've been profiling celebrities who give back, not just during the holiday season, but all season long - all year long.

MARCIANO: Yes. And this morning, we focus on the man behind the Virgin brand, Sir Richard Branson. Alina Cho is here with her final installment of "Big Stars, Big Giving."

You know, if he grew his beard out, he could - maybe gain a little weight, he could look like Santa Claus.

ALINA CHO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He could! And I'm glad you didn't forget the "Sir." That's an important part of the name.

MARCIANO: If I was a knight, I would insist on it.

CHO: Right. Good morning, guys.

You know, there is no question that Richard Branson is a mogul. Of course, he's the man behind the Virgin brand, a megabusiness that sells everything from plane rides to gym memberships.

Brandon - Branson, rather, has a ton of money. He could easily just write a check and be done with it, but he's actually out there doing the hard work. And his philosophy is simple. Treat philanthropy like a business.


CHO: How are you? Good to see you.

CHO (voice-over): Spend a day with Richard Branson and you quickly learn it's hard to keep up.


CHO: This adventure capitalists never sits still, and it shows. Virgin, the mega brand he created 39 years ago, includes more than 200 companies, a $17 billion empire.

Business pays the bills, but philanthropy rocks his world.

BRANSON: One of my faults in life is that I can never say no. And so, you know, people are always coming to us with, you know, wonderful projects and...

CHO (on camera): How do you choose?

BRANSON: Yes, choosing is difficult.

CHO: Then the next question is how do you manage it all?

BRANSON: And how you manage it is find wonderful people. And they're running them in exactly the same way that we'd run a business.

CHO (voice-over): Branson's style - visionary.

BRANSON: For instance, there are lots of organization in Africa that are trying to tackle diseases, but there is no center for disease control to try and coordinate that attack. So we're setting up a center for disease control.

CHO: Disease, conflict, global warming - just some of the causes Branson's philanthropic arm, Virgin Unite, supports.

And because he's a business rock star, he's able to wrangle the help of real ones. He called on Grammy award-winning singer Estelle to travel with him to South Africa to see the Richard Branson School of Entrepreneurship.

ESTELLE, GRAMMY AWARD WINNING SINGER: I thought -- I was kind of like Richard Branson knows who I am? You know, this guy?

CHO (on camera): You know, you talked about changing the world. He's really out there trying to do it.

ESTELLE: He is physically doing it. That's the difference.

CHO (voice-over): Branson's passion, nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs. So here in Florida, he is multitasking. As he launched his new service on Virgin America, he is also meeting right on the tarmac with teens who need and want his help.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's awesome just to meet someone like him. And it's like, it teaches me, that if he started where I started, then I can do what he is doing now.

CHO: Not bad for a high school dropout who still scribbles notes on his hands, can barely work a computer and has never held a board meeting.

RICHARD BRANSON: When you're on your death bed, you know, having created 500 businesses instead of 300 businesses, OK, that's an achievement. But having, you know, really trying to make a difference in other peoples' lives is a bigger achievement.

CHO: Pushing the boundaries of business and philanthropy with this motto, "You can do it."

BRANSON: Give it ago. Just try things.

CHO: No risks, no reward?

BRANSON: No risk, no reward. Screw it. Let's do it. Whatever.


CHO: Vintage Richard Branson. Now Part of the reason Branson is so successful both in business and philanthropy is that he sees no boundaries. And we see that a lot, of course, with really, really successful people. It really is a can-do attitude.

You know, you heard him say, you know, there are lots of organizations in Africa tackling diseases, but there's no one centers for disease control, so we are building one, you know. He also says, you know, if you look at global warming as a third world war, where is the war room. We're building one. So, you know, it really is one of those things where he identifies a problem. He really gets a great team behind it, the best people, and tries to solve it, little by little. And it's working.

ROB MARCIANO, CNN ANCHOR: Very impressive.

All from a high school drop out and a man that scribbles things on his hand. CHO: That's right. You know, I have actually taken to doing that because of Richard Branson, and it works.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Writing pieces on your hand?

CHO: Yes.

COSTELLO: I've done that since I was a child. That's the only thing I have in common with Richard Branson. I wish I had more in common with him.

MARCIANO: Great segment. Thanks, Alina.

CHO: Thanks.

MARCIANO: Well, here's a look at this morning's top stories.

Police in Pakistan say they are pursuing terrorism charges against five Americans in custody there. U.S. officials have been trying to get them transferred back here, but it's unclear now if that will happen. All five men are Muslim and from the D.C. area. They're suspected of traveling to Pakistan to join with terrorists forces.

COSTELLO: The Taliban releasing a video they say shows a U.S. soldier who was captured in eastern Afghanistan over five months ago. The identification of the man in the video has not been confirmed. But he calls himself Private First Class Bo Bergdahl. He also says he has been treated humanely. The Taliban says they want to trade the soldier for several of their own prisoners.

MARCIANO: Another blizzard this time dumping snow across the Midwest this morning. Officials say so far the storm that's being blame for 18 deaths since Tuesday from the Dakotas to north Texas. There's dangerously strong winds and near whiteout snowfall conditions. Storm pushes east. It's expected to drop freezing rain across parts of the eastern segment of the country.

COSTELLO: A new president, a recession, and a debate over health care. It has been a busy year in D.C. And in every step, we had author and Daily Beast columnists, John Avlon, with us.

He's been our independent analyst turning the screws on politicians who stretch the truth. John calls them Wingnuts. And with the year coming to an end, he is here counting down to the biggest wingnut of the year.

This is exciting.

JOHN AVLON, INDEPENDENT POLITICAL ANALYST: This is big stuff. Wingnut of the Year Countdown 2009.

COSTELLO: Unbelievable. So we're going to start with, what, 10 through 6 this Friday.

AVLON: That's right.

COSTELLO: And then next Friday, we're going to get to have the big number one.

AVLON: Don't want to give too much wingnut love at once. We got it really, you know...

COSTELLO: Spread it out.

AVLON: Spread it out.

So this week we are starting at 10. We've got Democratic former Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, ladies and gentleman. He really set up the whole year for us. Begin the Obama administration on a shaky foot with his sort of gruffly, trying to sell the Senate seat allegedly. And along the way, just sort of did all sorts of odd things, including singing -- doing an Elvis impersonation, which I believe we've got the clip of briefly.

COSTELLO: Fantastic.


AVLON: Very odd behavior for the wingnut, former governor of Illinois.

COSTELLO: I think it's making the best of a bad situation. You have to admit, he turned this into something for himself. I don't know what, but something.

AVLON: Yes. That is the glass half full analysis of a former governor doing an Elvis impersonation. That's correct.

COSTELLO: Number nine?

AVLON: Former presidential candidate on the Republican side, sort of patient number one when it comes to Obama Derangement Syndrome, Alan Keyes. Spent most of the year pushing the Birther theory, but also ended up really jumping the shark with a particularly early communist accusation against the president.

Let's take a listen.


ALAN KEYES (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Obama is a radical communists, and I think it's becoming clear. That's what I told people in Illinois, and now everybody realizes it's true. He is going to destroy this country. We're either going to stop him or the United States of America is going to cease to exist.


AVLON: A lot of apocalypse in that statement. And what's really troubling about it, in all seriousness is that you started to hear that kind of talk and anxiety seep through the whole body politics. And in all seriousness it's not funny. It's disturbing stuff. But Alan Keyes, he's sort of generator. Obama Derangement Syndrome patient zero. COSTELLO: Number eight?

AVLON: We've got an Obama administration alumni Van Jones. A brief feature on the scene, but notable for this fact. He ended up reaffirming a lot of the worst stereotypes the Obama administration for folks on the far right. He became a prime example. He had signed the 9/11 "truther" petition. I had at one point called himself a communist, and had referred to Republicans as something we can't mention on television. So we ended up reaffirming a lot of those were stereotypes of Van Jones.

COSTELLO: OK. Number seven?

AVLON: Number seven, we've got Rush Baugh. Rush Limbaugh. Beginning the year --

COSTELLO: He comes in at number seven?

AVLON: You know, I think in some ways, Rush is so far ahead of the curb here. He's created the whole climate. He's not the worse defender oddly and disturbingly enough.

But he began the year by actually saying, "I hope he fails," to the president. And since then has been pumping up all sorts of hysteria. We're heading to Marxism. And the inevitable, unfortunately ubiquitous comparison of Barack Obama to Hitler.

Let's take a listen.


RUSH LIMBAUGH, HOST, "THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW": Ms. Pelosi you asked for this, here you go. Adolf Hitler, like Barack Obama, also ruled by dictate. His cabinet only met once, one day, that was it. So a lot of Hitler, a lot of Marxist, a lot of where America is going to held in the hand back. So Merry Christmas, Rush.

COSTELLO: A lot of entertainment for his listeners. You got to admit, he is a great entertainer.

AVLON: He is a great entertainer. He's a political leader without political responsibility. Lot of trouble comes from that.

And then finally...

COSTELLO: Number six?

AVLON: Number six, for this week, finally, Joe Wilson redefining the culture of incivility in Washington with this infamous scream during a joint session of Congress.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The reforms -- the reforms I'm proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally.


OBAMA: That's not true.


AVLON: That symbolized the crazy train talk this year, screaming at the president in Congress.

COSTELLO: Well, I can barely wait for next week to see who number one is, because that was a pretty good 10 through six.

AVLON: So the best/worst is yet to come.

COSTELLO: John Avlon, thanks for being with us this morning.

AVLON: Thank you very much.

COSTELLO: And Merry Christmas.

AVLON: And Merry Christmas to you.

MARCIANO: Second half of that list coming up next week, before the first of the year.

Well, President Obama and his family in Hawaii for Christmas this morning. Not exactly huge news. But maybe more entertaining, Ed Henry's assignment to go cover the trip from the beach eating sushi, in board shorts. Is it good TV? We'll let you decide. Back after the break.

It's 38 minutes after the hour.


COSTELLO: Forty-one minutes past the hour. Time now for an "A.M. Original."

Charities are having a hard time in this rough economy. And the Marine Corps Toys for Tots Program is no exception. But as CNN photo journalists found a group of volunteers in Boston working extra hard this Christmas season. It's the first report in our special series "Giving in Focus."


SGT. CLINT SCHRIBNER, BOSTON TOYS FOR TOTS: The Marine Corps mission for Toys for Tots is to collect and distribute toys for needy children in our local areas.

We have approximately 700 total campaigns.

We are fighting battles but in a different way. We're fighting the poverty battle here in the United States.

KAY CARPENTER, TOYS FOR TOTS VOLUNTEER: We have a lot of toys. We use them up rapidly. We are filling orders like crazy. They are delivering on the 18th of December. They will be here between 10:00 and 11:00 in the morning.

They go out as fast as we have come in. We've run out of some toys, but overall, we are doing better than last year.

BETTY WHALEN, TOYS FOR TOTS VOLUNTEER: Can you leave that one there?

As soon as we sort this, we'll start making up orders and it will be gone.

We'll empty this. And he can pull this out first.

Ideally, they would be full of toys that we would just pick from to fill the orders. But they're not. They're not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a problem every year, running out of toys at this time of the year. But, eventually, we get the orders out.

WHALEN: Yes, down to the wire, usually.


WHALEN: It's been tough the last couple years. It's tough for everybody with the economic climate the way it is, you know, home losses, job losses, lack of funds.

CARPETER: It's very important to keep boxes full because we can't get orders out to people and organizations who need them in time for Christmas. You can keep donating. Even one small toy is wonderful. But everybody needs to get involved in doing it so our boxes are not empty.


COSTELLO: That story shot by photo journalists Bob Crowley.

Some last-minute donations helped Toys for Tots in Boston fill their orders this Christmas. A lot of generous people out there. But in Boston and across the nation, Toys for Tots always needs all the help they can get. Not just with Christmas, but all year long. To find out how you can help, just log on to

We're back in a minute.


COSTELLO: The "American Morning" staff warming themselves by the fire and starting relationships they never knew they would start on Christmas day at work.

MARCIANO: Away from family, cuddling close to one another. Guys, don't burn yourself. That's a big fire.

COSTELLO: Joe, your Christmas sweater my catch fire.

JOE JOHNS: Oh, no!

MARCIANO: That's a Christmas sweater. By the way, we have been criticized, there it is, you know, sporting it -- a gift from the family?


MARCIANO: Making somebody happy right now.

COSTELLO: Your family gave you that for Christmas?

JOHNS: I'm not going to tell you who.

COSTELLO: Thank goodness for -

MARCIANO: Give a little more love and it looks fantastic. We have been criticized actually for not wearing anything red or festive like Joe's sweater vest. You know, we don't live here so we have a limited wardrobe. I wore red yesterday but apparently we should be wearing red again today. So Michelle Myrtug dug this out of the John Robert's closet, and we will be changing -- doing a costume change, here during one of the breaks.

COSTELLO: That is much more festive, and thank you Michelle, you have brightened everybody's Christmas morning.

MARCIANO: Melekeliki muka, or mula or lam - whatever it's that Hawaiin thing that says Merry Christmas, and so the first family they're saying that for sure. They arrived on Oahu on Christmas Eve, they're going to be there for ten days. White House spokesman says there are no public events scheduled during this trip. It's vacation all the way.

COSTELLO: Oh but where the President goes, so does our own Ed Henry. You know it's a rough life being the White House correspondent on Christmas. Let's see how he is holding up.


ED HENRY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Rob, Carol, Merry Christmas from Honululu. I have to tell you, the water is a little chilly. I don't mean to rub it in. I'm sure it's a lot colder there in New York City. I have to spend two whole weeks here covering the President on Waiki beach. And the way I like to tell it to people is that I never pick sides between Democrats and Republicans. But after spending many holidays and vacations in Crawford, Texas, Honolulu is change I can believe in.

And so before he left D.C., the President hailed his health care victory in the Senate, but he was also very clear on how there's a lot more work to be done in 2010. Aides say he will be working the phones in January trying to push this through the conference committee as the House and Senate work out their differences.

But for now the President is on the north side of Oahu, very remote area with his family, planning a very quiet Christmas. I'm going to do the same with the board shorts and the surf shoes. I've got some suntan lotion here and my towel, going to put some on and then I've even got this local delicacies spammed sushi, the people have here. I'm going to have some of this for breakfast. A little bit salty, but I have a Christmas cap, so from Waikiki Beach, Merry Christmas, Rob and Carol.


COSTELLO: He's got to lose those shoes man. What is he afraid of, he's going to step on glass on that beautiful Oahu beach?

MARCIANO: Listen, some of us have tender toes.

COSTELLO: You know, I think we need to go back and get a second look of some of Ed Henry's fellow beach bums.

MARCIANO: Yes this is not just your ordinary look live. Obviously he is wearing all red. An old man wearing short shorts there.

COSTELLO: No watch this guy that's going to go past him. See him?

MARCIANO: He just cruise past him. Now they could retake this at anytime. There is another one, and do it again-- but they probably had a beach bar to get to. The next shot or events that happened during this 1:07 was this - I don't know, what do you think is ten twelve, it's definitely a hand, he's definitely posing for Mr. Olympia.

COSTELLO: Usually people give obscene gestures, so I think that was nice of the kid just flex behind Ed Henry. And Henry, again, really nice shorts and take off those beach shoes.

MARCIANO: We are all jealous though, we kid because we are extremely jealous you are enjoying your holiday in paradise.

COSTELLO: Yes. Well let's get a little more paradise in Atlanta, Georgia, Bonnie Schneider.

MARCIANO: Bonnie Schneider who I've known since I first market in Lake Charles Louisiana.


MARCIANO: Always been kind enough to at least volunteer to work for Christmas, and celebrating Hanukkah on other days. Thank you again Bonnie for leaving --

BONNIE SCHNEIDER, AMS METEOROLOGIST: I did not know you would be working also, Rob?

MARCIANO: Yes, I did not know that either, but you know it works out.

SCHNEIDER: Yes, it does, it does. Well you know gorgeous in Hawaii, unfortunately, the rest of the country is dealing with a huge winter storm.

And it's not over yet despite the fact that it's Christmas. We are still dealing with the threat of a blizzard that's actually happening right now as far south as Kansas City, getting hammered with very very heavy snow. And also strong winds that blow about the snow. From Minneapolis, we are expecting just a light accumulation for today. But notice the plain states. This isn't going to shut off until sometime this weekend. So 8 to 12 inches across the Northern sections of Dakotas and certainly down through Nebraska.

I want to show what you is happening in Omaha. We had a whiteout situation there with wintering weather creating just a blinding situation where you really cannot see very well. The trucks are moving on the roads, but most people had a real tough time with it yesterday. Some of the snowfall totals we have seen in the region has been as much as a foot of snow.

And since it's still snowing now, we are not over yet. You can see that we did get a slot of snow to the North in Duluth, Minnesota. That's another place that also experienced a blizzard conditions. We are talking about a blizzard, that means the strong winds, 50 miles per hour blowing the snow about.

Here is the storm. You can see we still have that wrap around affect affecting areas into Kansas and even Southern Missouri ahead of the system, very strong thunderstorms. A lot of rain. We have rain right now in Chicago that will change over to snow and the accumulations continue to be high going into the next 48 hours. This is affecting travel, I'll have more on that coming up that.

MARCIANO: Bonnie Schneider, thank you and shalom. Good to see you.

SCHNEIDER: Merry Christmas Rob.

MARCIANO: Merry Christmas.

COSTELLO: It's 51 minutes past the hour. We'll be back.



MARCIANO: Nothing makes Carol Costello more happy on Christmas morning than to hear the favorite Christmas tune.

COSTELLO: Good Kings (INAUDIBLE), and God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman.

MARCIANO: It's a very eclectic choice, but very sophisticated, nonetheless.

COSTELLO: Of course.

MARCIANO: Welcome back to the Most News In The Morning. It's 55 minutes after the hour. That means it's time for the Most - the Most News in the Morning. Not every child relishes sitting on the lap of Santa during Christmas. As a matter of fact, for many, it's downright scary.

COSTELLO: It was scary for me.

MARCIANO: Yes, it was for me.

COSTELLO: But I did get the gifts, so that's all that mattered, I guess. That's so wrong.

Anyway, Old Saint Nick in the shopping mall isn't always so jolly, which is why I was scared sometimes. But there is a new Web site devoted to some of the sketchiest Santa photo ops. Here is Jeanne Moos.



JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When the first dog, Bo, was barking at him...

OBAMA: He hasn't seen Santa before.

MOOS: When bank robbers are dressing up like him...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He took his little red sock and pulled out a gun and told everybody to be still.

MOOS: It makes you wonder -- yes, but how do you know if he has been bad or good, naughty or nice or maybe just sketchy, the kind to end of a new Sketchy Santas Web site.

WILL ZWEIGART, CREATOR, SKETCHYSANTAS.COM: On the site We really like to celebrate a lot of the more retro Santa photos because those are really the funniest. And part of the reason why is I think the standard for who can be a Santa was lower back then.

MOOS: Would Santas like this make it into a modern mall in this age of background checks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can we both sit with Santa Claus?

MOOS: How would she have react to a one-eyed Santa or a masked Santa?

ZWEIGART: Pretty scary right?

MOOS: And why, someone wondered, is Santa wearing a woman's watch.

ZWEIGART: Everyone can relate to that first time being pushed on to a scary stranger's lab in the mall.

MOOS: Will Zweigart started sketchy Santas and encourages photo submissions. ZWEIGART: By far the most popular picture on the site is actually a grown man sitting on Santa's lap wearing a Speedo and a saxophone.

MOOS: Santa's not the sketchy one in this picture.

Movies like "Bad Santa" in which he smokes, drinks and carouses don't help St. Nick's image. And forget visions of sugar plums when your Santa comes from the crypt.

The guy who robbed a Nashville bank Tuesday was definitely naughty.

But even this Santa gone bad managed to stay in character.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And he explained that he was robbing the bank because Santa had to pay his elves.

MOOS: And it's not just Santa. Police in Florida arrested Merry Christmas earlier this month. Merry allegedly got belligerent and the arresting office that had to put her in a bent arm take down.

And what's your take on this sketchy Santa posted one wit, "so that's how elves are made?" No wonder Bo was barking.

OBAMA: His eyes how they twinkle. His dimples how merry.

MOOS: Did she say Merry or scary?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Don't drink and drive. You might spill it.

MOOS: Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


COSTELLO: "Don't drink and drive, you might spill it?"

MARCIANO: Yes, that's a good word of advice. I never knew where that elves came from. But now I know.

COSTELLO: Now you know. Your innocence is shattered.

MARCIANO: Forever.


COSTELLO: Top stories coming your way in 90 seconds.